Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bombs and Us. A love story.

*Note. This has very little to do with my year living in America. I just thought I'd share a musical experience with you. The internet has let me relive one of my favourite concerts, and even if the words around it bore you, it really is too good not to share.

Seven years.

That's how long it took for my ears to hear a song my eyes read about it.

It was January 2003 when I first encountered Sparta. It was a blistering hot Sydney day and I was at the Big Day Out festival for the first and last time. I'd made my way to the smaller stage out of curiosity. I was at the tail-end of a heavy metal romance, and At The Drive-In were a band that bridged the gap between angry man music and the rest of the world.

Sparta came out with their five members and for 45 minutes their soundwaves broke through the heat and were the most amazing things my ears had ever encountered. As a band they were raw, they grafted their way through songs and they had an unmistakable ambition to step out from the shadows of ATDI. They were a new, young band, and there was a youthful exuberance that hid the 10 years experience and reputation that was shackled to them.

Jim Ward, the frontman, is one of the most remarkable people I've had the pleasure of seeing live. He is rakish to the point of frail. Seeing him live you wonder how he conceals such a huge voice in a tiny frame. That doesn't even factor in the size of this heart, as his transformation from At The Drive-In's utility man to the engine that drives Sparta exemplified artistic bravery. As a 16-year-old I could not have found a better musician in the world to look up to. An average guy, with extraordinary talent and determination.

On a Monday night a few weeks after the Big Day Out my sunburn had since settled Triple J's live at the wireless was playing the same set from the show. It was the first recording I'd found of a show I'd been to and better yet, it was one I was honoured to attend. I recorded it onto a translucent orange 90 minute TDK cassette tape and played it back twice that night.

The tape was what I listened to before bed until I bought their debut album, Wiretap Scars. I listened to the album so much that if it was a vinyl record, the needle would have ground it down to the point of nothingness. As for the tape, I still played it a lot, and when I eventually learned to drive it followed me into the car. Unfortunately, the Australian summer got the better of it. The greenhouse that is the Toyota Lexcen warped the tape to the point of inaudibility (I've since found downloads and videos from the show, phew).

A year or so after, murmurings of the follow-up album came around. I ascertained a leaked copy and loved it even more than the debut. The band had grown, Jim had learned to sing better and 'While Oceana Sleeps' became one of my favourite ever songs.

When Porcelain was eventually released I bought it on cd and vinyl. I already knew it inside out, but such was my regard for the band I felt they deserved the money I earned working at a discount store...twice. I bought the 7" inch single for Breaking The Broken and managed to track down an mp3 of the non album track "Farewell Ruins". However, there was one song of their's I couldn't find.

In interviews Jim had mentioned he'd written a song about Elliott Smith, a musician I was learning to love, and one who had taken his life a year earlier. The song 'Bombs and Us' was a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Porcelain, and with the 2004 exchange rate and my lack of funds, there was no way I could afford to pay so much for four minutes of music.

The internet couldn't provide an mp3 of the song, and seeing Sparta play in Wollongong and Sydney only made me want to track it down even more. By the time their next album came out I still couldn't find it, and was resigned to the fact that I'd probably miss out on hearing it. To use an exaggerated literary metaphor, I felt like Captain Ahab chasing a white whale.

I saw Sparta play one more time before they went on what is still, an uninterrupted break. It was in Indianapolis in 2007, and as much as I tried to deny it at the time, the band looked tired, and the enthusiasm that made them stand out to me 4.5 years earlier had seemingly passed them by. They played their final song, Jim dropped his telecaster on the stage and walked off. It wasn't the worst way I've seen a band finish a set, but it was the worst way I'd seen this band, one I'd grown to love, close out for the night.

Jim played a solo show in Sydney in late 2008, and again it was an amazing experience. Without a doubt, like his 2003 set with Sparta, it was one of the best shows I've ever been to, brimming with enthusiasm and the overbearing feeling that he was still  an ordinary guy, doing extraordinary things.

Now, after seven years of a life that's included mixed achievements and experiences, I can finally hear the song I was so desperate to get my ears to. Through coincidence YouTube was also formed in 2004,  and through user 1824Ayacucho,they provided the avenue for me to tick off a musical box that had lingered way too long for someone as impatient as me living in an age of instant gratification.

Now, that race is run, and the result is beautiful. It may have taken seven years for me to get here (late bloomer eh), but it makes things feel brand new again. Elliott Smith left the world, and it seems Sparta have too, but it's not all bad. As the song points out "we can hold on to what we have, and what you gave us".

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