Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Farewell, Rose-Tinted Past: Howie Day Is Not, And Perhaps Never Was, Good

howie I think I have pretty okay taste in music. Bands like Okkervil River, Sun Kil Moon and Fleet Foxes all get high marks from indie tastemakers/pompous assholes I will voice, out loud and otherwise, my admiration of said bands. In public.

That said, I listened to some pretty shitty music when I was a sixteen.

I suppose that’s true for everyone. Even Andrew, who recently stoked his love for an adolescent classic (Live’s Throwing Copper) admitted that the rest of their discography was rubbish. We were young, overwhelmed by chemicals we could barely pronounce and vulnerable to such sing-alongy stuff as Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.”

But I’ll defend “Semi-Charmed Life.” I love that song. And I love that album, one of my first.

I have no defense for Howie Day.

Maybe because Day himself is indefensible – he’s a lout and an addict. He dated Brittney Spears, which allegedly ended in a drug-strewn hotel room. And his music sucks. His last two albums, Stop All The World Now (2003) and Sound The Alarm (2009) are…Jesus, why am I even typing this? It’s like writing a straight-faced assessment of the Big-Mac you (guiltily) ate for lunch. His music is terrible. Of course it’s terrible. It’s a consortium of sounds and words maximized for whatever meager profit it can achieve. It’s some suit at Epic records crunching numbers and concluding that the jackass who wrote “Collide” might be good for a few more bucks.

This is Day’s biggest betrayal. When he released Australia in 2000, he had integrity. Maybe even a little talent. He sold low, cashed in and crashed out, scattering anything redeemable to the winds.

But let’s go back to 2001 and give Day the benefit of the doubt, if only for a few paragraphs. I was 16, emotional, obsessed with Dune and (inexplicably) enraptured by Toto’s “Africa.”

Digression: my early interest in “Africa” probably says more than I’d like it to. Extrapolate at will.

Napster was in its prime, and I spent hours trolling the database for live and/or alternate versions of “Africa.” After I’d tapped a 10-minute Johannesburg rendition of all worth, I downloaded “Africa (cover)” by Howie Day.

It was the kind of live recording you scoop up from an artist’s early career, with plenty of disinterested bar talk filling the lulls, the constant chiming empty glasses and nervous stage banter. No confidence. No inspiration. Just a guy on a stage strumming out a cover. But his voice. Day sang beyond his range, making amps cringe with feedback. But he sang from the bottom of his lungs, dumping his soul into Toto’s perfectly idiotic ditty.

We can safely assume there was a soul. Day had just released Australia on Daze Records, a small imprint that presumably went extinct before Wikipedia rolled around. He had a cozy, intimate website on which he posted jokey missives from the road (which, come to think of it, was pretty precocious of him). He wrote songs like “She Says” that, while being kind of dunderheaded, were also kind of honest, cutting and fresh. The chorus goes: “And when she says she wants someone to love, I hope you know / that she doesn’t mean you.”

Not Petrarch, but almost smart. Elegant, even. And it was just Day with his guitar, strumming in a doubtlessly shabby studio.

Australia was good for heatbreak songs, and being an emotional 16-year-old, I was more than primed. Some, like “Morning After,” seem silly in retrospect (sample lyric: “You drive to Europe in the rain, your hair’s done up / no one’s gonna see it / well maybe you should drive me home”), but others, like “Ghost,” still have a hold on me. Try the song’s last verse:

standing in your shoes
i turn and now
you’re standing bare in my doorway
i only wish that i had been prepared
i’m gonna have to go along with your way
just take the plastic camera out
it’s the pants you borrowed in the driveway
alive from the first
now i’m denied by the ghost of you

Honestly? Not bad. It’s half-raw and half-contrived – the kind of thing you might hear at slam poetry night and nod approvingly. Again, it’s just Day and the guitar (and a drum machine, presumably added to squeak the song onto Adult Contemporary playlists. It was Australia’s second single, after “Sorry So Sorry.” It got a video. Neither song charted).

Like any indie troubadour, Day toured his ass off, promoting his album and hoping to snag some major-label attention. Along the way, he established a reputation for delivering the kind of quirky live act you’d see out of curiosity. While introducing his songs, Day constantly invented different inspirations and origin stories. He’d change lyrics on the fly. He’d lie to an audience with a straight face – but that face was more clownish than pretentious, an intense coffeehouse expression contrasting with a nuclear blowdry-job. The audience felt in on the joke, and laughed when Day explained a song like “Lick My Lips” by saying he’d fused his lips to a stop sign during the winter, and tried to coax a neighborhood dog into licking them unstuck.

He wasn’t bad with looping, either. Day spent his songs layering acoustic strumming upon guitar-thumping upon bass licks, impressing audiences (who perhaps didn’t know better, but let’s not be elitist).

So once upon a time, Howie Day was a human being. He cared about his music enough to risk his neck for it, just like any other jerk with a guitar and a dream. And then Stop All The World Now happened. Or more specifically, “Collide.”

Honestly, the less said about Stop All The World Now, the better. It’s exactly what you’d fear it would be: a singer-songwriter swallowed by the corporate music machine, ground up with fake strings, session musicians and single-ready tracks, and spit out for mass consumption. The album scored low with critics, who saw through Epic’s plasticy production and found something utterly without pulse. But then “Collide” snuck onto the soundtrack for an episode of “One Tree Hill.”

It peaked at 20 on Billboard’s Top 100 – a career best for Day. It got play on every schlock TV show from Gray’s Anatomy to Scrubs to Ghost Whisperer to ER. And it is a complete, unqualified piece of shit. Listen to it. Listen and tell me there’s a second of merit, artistic or otherwise, in the canned strings, the trite lyrics (also, face-clawingly boring) or the breezy do-do-do-do that stands instead of a chorus. And there’s the bridge, where the orchestra dwindles to a single guitar, and Day yawls:

Don't stop here

I've lost my place

I'm close behind

…before the strings strike up again, and we’re back to do-do-do-do. There’s schlock, and there’s this.

It made his career. Of course it did. I’m sure it was the soundtrack for a million drunken hookups, a million backseat make-out sessions and a million waiting rooms. Tragically, fame wrecked Howie Day. In 2005, Day was arrested for verbally abusing attendants aboard a flight to Boston. Apparently, the fame-flushed 24-year-old got a little rowdy after mixing a few cocktails with a sleeping pill. Instead of knocking him out, the combination turned Day into an antsy 5-year-old. He heckled the attendants, kicked the seat in front of him and smoked in the bathroom.

A year earlier, he had locked one woman in the bathroom of his tour bus and destroyed the cell phone of another. The reason? He came on to them and they said no. He was arrested for destroying the phone. This is how he explained himself to police, according to USA Today: “That was probably wrong of me. But I felt violated.”

And then Britney. He met her in rehab. Her mother reportedly disapproved of the relationship (how could she? Did she listen to “Collide?” Even the best fall down sometimes, dear). Britney’s bodyguard said he found the starlet sobbing in a room littered with drugs and half-eaten food. Day was asleep on the bed.

Imagine the scene once more. Now subtract Britney; and Howie Day is dead. Would you be surprised? Would anyone be shocked that a once-earnest troubadour sold out, got high and got dead in a hotel room?

I’m depressed just writing this. For Day’s sake, I hope he quits music, cleans up and lives quietly off his ill-earned “Collide” royalties. Sound The Alarm certainly doesn’t make a case for his career. It isn’t even good enough to merit description.

You’ve already sold out, Howie. Cash in and get out before you make someone write your obituary.