the work of an errant heel

When I was packing up for college lo those many years ago, my father sat me down and gave me this sage advice:

"You know, Mike, if the guys in your dorm are watching a football game, just watch the damn game."

I was not an athletic youth, nor was I particularly popular. I probably would've conformed in high school if only I could have figured out how. I didn't even fit in amongst the school nerds - I was hopeless at fantasy gaming, didn't know enough Monty Python to quote along, and didn't read enough sci-fi. My dad was not particularly a sports fan either. I don't remember him ever watching a game on TV, though he once took me to a Mets game. I think he was just, in his typically misguided way, trying to help me fit in for once.

Once at college, I actually tried to take my dad's advice. But despite my admittedly halfhearted efforts, I could not force myself to be interested in any of the varsity teams. When my dormmates gathered around the TV for Monday Night Football, they never invited me, knowing I wouldn't be interested. Once I got a show at the college radio station and started writing for the newspaper, I dropped the notion entirely.

But what if I'd made a real effort to be a jock? What if, say, I'd actually made the football team in high school, only to blow it entirely?

This is the scenario of the Decemberists' "The Sporting Life," from their latest album, Picaresque. It's one of the best songs I've heard this year. Usually I find Colin Meloy's voice and seafaring themes hard to take in large doses. However, "The Sporting Life" is an absolute gem, a Freaks and Geeks or Wes Anderson tragicomic story set to music.

"The Sporting Life" plays out from the perspective of a teenage footballer who's just been felled in front of the whole school. He'd managed to "avoid humiliation" up to now, which I interpret to mean he'd successfully dodged being called up to play. Now, lying on the field, possibly crippled, he thinks back to how he got here in the first place. He thinks of his father, who "had such hopes/for a son who would take the ropes/and fulfill his old athletic aspirations.../but apparently now there's some complications." That last line is delivered in a deliciously bitter tone. He looks around and sees his disappointed father, his mortified coach, and - uh oh - his girlfriend "arm in arm with the captain of the other team." The crowd is deafeningly silent.

Here we have the most embarrassing experience of this young man's life. He tried and he blew it. So how do the Decemberists tell his story? With a jaunty, carefree melody and acoustic shuffle falling somewhere between the Smiths' "This Charming Man" and the Jam's "Town Called Malice." The whole feel of the song suggests a bright, sunny morning and the promise of a new day. What could have been depressing instead sounds sweetly nostalgic, like thumbing through old yearbooks, laughing at your funny clothes and hair, and feeling grateful you've reached another place in life.


Blogger Phil said...

You know, this post makes me want to revisit "The Soldiering Life" of their album "Her Majesty..." to see whether there are similar themes there. I had never paid much attention to the lyrics, aside from enjoying the insertion (oh boy) of homoeroticism into a sort of ode to military camraderie.

2:44 PM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger d said...

tales of high school failure #12: I wound up joining the theater co. after not being picked for my pseudo-fancy prep school's field hockey team (interestingly only the 2 scholarship kids didn't make it into the team...hmmm) for lack of "team spirit". (snort) alas, the theater kids were equally bewildered by me. high school had its moments I'm sure & I missed them all. so there was a lot of morrissey listening & billy liar-esque fantasy sequences in my brain 24/7.

his voice is an acquired taste...true. mike, you should check out their kcrw session, I'll email you the link. he sounds infinitely freer which is what makes me want to see them live. that plus apparently petra haden (new addition) sings kate bush's wuthering heights & I have to hear that!

3:44 PM, July 06, 2005  

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