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At Passover dinner in April 1990, our Seder came to the pivotal symbolic moment where we poured a cup of wine and opened the door for the Prophet Elijah. As if on cue, in walked a guy wearing ripped jeans and a black mask, holding a shotgun. It wasn’t exactly how I’d pictured him. I’d always thought skinny, long hair, a beard, maybe a robe…
“Sorry to barge in like this,” the guy said, “but we’re going to be taking some shit.” Then he whistled out the door and in walked an identical masked intruder with an equally menacing shotgun. The two of them tied my family up and then proceeded to ransack the house right in front of us, pulling out drawers, throwing around dishes, and kicking over plants as they searched for anything of value.
“This is the second worst Passover dinner I’ve ever had,” my grandfather said. Later, he told me the first, but because this was for sure my worst Passover ever, I’m going to focus on this one for now.
The thieves went upstairs and from where we sat all we could hear was a rolling and violent wave of beds being moved, dressers upended, closets pillaged. The home invasion went on for about an hour and they didn’t take some shit, they took a lot of it: jewelry, money, cameras, watches, stereos, and CDs. While the sounds of plundering and destroying things upstairs went on directly above our Seder table, my grandfather looked up at the ceiling and delivered a fulminating verbal assault in their general direction.
“Fucking motherfucking asshole fuckers,” he said. “If I had just one hand free I’d beat the shit out of both of them.” He wasn’t joking. Known as “The Hebrew Henchman,” my grandfather had been a boxer back in the 1930s and not only was he 14–0 with nine knockouts, one time he had broken his wrist mid-fight, but still sent his opponent to the floor with just one operative hand. But the Hebrew Henchman didn’t have one hand free and there was nothing he could do.
“Fucking motherfucking cocksuckers,” he said, as they left the house with our stuff. “Degenerate fucking asshole fuckers.”
Opening the door for the Prophet Elijah is supposed to be a gesture to show trust in God’s protection and I’m not sure how much my grandfather was into that before we were robbed, but he sure wasn’t into it anymore.
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“Fuck Passover,” he said, trying to wriggle free from the ropes they’d tied us up with. “Fuck the Haggadah, fuck Elijah, and fuck fucking gefilte fish.”
“Hey, I worked a long time on that,” my mom protested.
“You can work on gefilte fish as long as you want,” my grandfather said. “It’ll always taste like shit.”
A jogging neighbor wearing a Peter Gabriel shirt saw the predicament we were in and in minutes we were untied, the police had arrived, and the surveying of the damage had begun. Our house was a mess and even long after the thieves were gone it still vibrated with violation. Everything they had left us didn’t feel like ours anymore. My parents lost their class rings, a few thousand dollars in cash, a stereo and a camera, my sister had a bunch of jewelry taken, and I had lost a few stacks of CDs and my Sony Walkman.
All the violence they had in them seemed to have been really taken out on my room. They had emptied every drawer, overturned my bed, ripped the posters from the walls, and although they weren’t interested in taking my records, they were quite interested in destroying them. They took the albums from their sleeves and whipped them against the walls, where they shattered into pieces. My room was filled with shards of Surfer Rosa, remnants of Reckoning, fragments of Flip Your Wig, and halves of Hallowed Ground. Even the ones that remained whole had grooves no longer fit for a needle to find them.
The only album left alive was my copy of Del Amitri’s Waking Hours. A #6 album in the United Kingdom, it hadn’t been out in America for long, but because I was the Music Director at my university’s radio station, A&M Records had sent me an advance copy a few weeks earlier than its US March release date and it hadn’t left my stereo since.
“Put on some music and I’ll help you clean up,” my grandfather said. And so I did. And Waking Hours, which begins with the sheer pop gallop of “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” soundtracked out the reassembly of my room. Looking back at it now, it’s funny that we were putting things back together while listening to an album about how they fall apart.
As an album opener, I always thought nothing could top R.E.M.’s “Begin the Begin,” but the leaping “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” proved me wrong; it’s a stone-cold classic whose catchy right hook is backed by an equally potent left. It’s no wonder my pugilist grandfather liked it immediately. “I like this guy’s voice,” he said as singer Justin Currie’s vocals wrapped magically around guitarist Iain Harvie’s melodic slide opening. “Who doesn’t like a crooner with bite?”
Only the second album from the Glasgow band, Waking Hours is a monster of a record that positively surges from start to finish. For the purpose of time and space I’m going to focus on the way it opens and closes, but for the uninitiated, in-between there are wrenching ballads (“Move Away Jimmy Blue”), crunchy rueful pop (“When I Want You”), and winning, jangly folk (“This Side of the Morning”). Not only that, but it’s also got scorching rockers (“Opposite View”), rootsy stomp (“Hatful of Rain”) and, thanks to the prowling bassline of “Stone Cold Sober,” the cry of “We are the dead life / So come on / Come on” is both denunciatory and urging.
Produced in part by Mark Freegard, Gil Norton, and Hugh Jones, thirty years later Waking Hours still sounds as crisp, fresh, and urgent as ever — it’s one of those rare albums that will always keep obsolescence at bay. The album’s first single, “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” is about a relationship going sour, just about to jump the track completely and add to the wreckage in the romantic ravine. It’s as accusatory as it is retiring, and it finds Currie pleading not only for a mutual euthanasia, but also for someone to make the merciful first move. Not only that, but the realization that love is dead finds Currie seeing the world as a metaphorical conspiratorial pollutant. Looking out at the cars driving by his window, he sings: “Now I’m watching the fumes foul up the sunrise/I’m watching the light fade away.”
Currie has always been able to strike a perfect balance between the caustic and the poetic, the cynical and the hopeful, the darkness and the light. My grandfather was right—his bite is undeniable, but so is his ability to write with literary elegance and poetic finesse. Waking Hours’ world of struck matches, nervous laughs, scheming smiles, and jackpot philosophy demonstrates his philosophical dexterity, linguistic gymnastics, and unreasonable gift for metrical command.
Two months after the Passover disaster, I watched Del Amitri make their network debut on Letterman with “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” and it crackled with immediacy. Letterman seemed knocked out. Walking over to the band after their performance he gave Currie a long handshake and, as NBC cut to the commercials, he was clearly under the influence of an unexpected pop daze. Putting it in baseball terms, if Rickey Henderson is the greatest lead-off hitter of all time, then “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” is the Rickey Henderson of rock ‘n’ roll; it pounces on the first pitch and lines it right over the fence.
If “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” is exactly how an album should start, “Nothing Ever Happens” is exactly how one should end. With its padlocking janitors, standoffish postal clerks, and closing-time secretaries, it’s a Kafka-esque look at daily working life, sure, but on a deeper level it’s perhaps the most accurate depiction of our unwillingness to change our lives no matter how bleak or dire, for no other reason than the bleak and the dire are so familiar. The band’s biggest hit in the United Kingdom (#11), “Nothing Ever Happens” is a crushing collage of quotidian life; a battered anthem of heartbreaking beauty and loss whose wrenching roll call serves as a reminder that, while the world burns around us, we’ll just keep doing nothing about it over and over until our inaction tricks us into thinking it’s the opposite. Or, as Currie puts it: “The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before.”
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I’ve seen both Del Amitri and Justin Currie play live several times and the fact is fans are always positively thirsty for this song. It’s a thrilling thing to hear fans sing along to a cherished number in a band’s songbook — think Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” or Bowie’s “Heroes” — it’s a transcendent instant where the song floats above the crowd like an idea about the world or an accepted truth about ourselves that everyone agrees on for just under four minutes. I have to admit, to hear a crowd of people so enthusiastically singing the album’s last line — “We’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow” — is both oddly comforting and slightly disturbing.
But the song knows that from Sandy Hook to Charlottesville to the burning down of synagogues, all we ever do about disaster is pretty much nothing because we’re cowards and, if silence really is a form of approval, then that’s the worst kind of complicity I can think of. And what many tend to forget is that the punishment for this kind of behavior is we’re doomed to live alongside our cowardice for the rest of our lives. And cowardice, as we all know, is awful company. It may take years, but it will slowly destroy us, piece by piece, until all the blood is drained from our useless and hopeless hearts.
Waking Hours is an album that always holds me together when things are falling apart. It’s rousing, it’s painful, it’s stirring, and it’s rife with the kind of brutal beauty I love. It transports me back to my bedroom after getting robbed by the Prophet Elijah on Passover, but it constantly reminds me that you can always put things back together even after they have been ripped to pieces.
Because they will.
And you’ll have to.
The late novelist Robert Bolano once wrote: “So everything lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the voice, but cheer up, it’s fun in the end.” That may be so, but sometimes the end is just a retired boxer by himself plagued by the instinct to keep hitting things.
My grandfather boxed well into his eighties. He’d go late at night to the gym just before closing, and he always dressed in slacks and a long-sleeve button-down shirt. He looked like he was going to work at an accounting firm. He rejected the electric spandex that was in fashion at the time and favored a more low-key sartorial approach to fitness. When I asked him why he’d say: “I don’t need to dress up like a Vegas magician to hit a bag hanging from a ceiling.”
If I was the one who was supposed to pick him up, I’d stand outside the room without announcing myself and watch him peppering that bag with shot after shot, his Star of David necklace clicking against his chest not so much like it was keeping time as it was counting it down: how many minutes before closing, how many punches still in the hands of the Hebrew Henchman, how many hours left to live in this useless, stupid world.
Del Amitri’s Waking Hours is an album that had two jobs — end the 1980s and kick off the 1990s—an in-betweenness that renders it a B-side forever. Offering a prescient indictment of the consequences of living in a world run by infidels and popstars, Waking Hours is an underappreciated masterwork that left a decade crumbling in the rearview mirror and the band’s musical contemporaries gasping at the sound their tires made as they crunched over the glass.
Excerpted from The 33 1/3 B-Sides: New Essays by 33 1/3 Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums, edited by Will Stockton and D. Gilson. Copyright © 2019 by Alex Green. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury and Alex Green.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath