Fitter Happier. Electioneering. Climbing Up the Walls. No Surprises.
OK Computer is not technically a concept album, but it’s an album – a work meant to be heard all together, in a row. What happens when it’s split into different movements, not even the standard two but four sides of a record, with three songs maximum fitting on each side? Turns out, despite the weight and sensory glee of the physical medium, this is an album born to be on CD: vinyl separates “Karma Police” from “Fitter Happier,” which is wrong.
Getting along better with your associate employee contemporaries has its moments.
This computer-voiced checklist “song” now annoys me as a beginning. As a subset of Karma Police–fading up from the rush-hour drudgery of that catchy little number in which cool kids with Hitler Hairdos still denote what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, absorb us and then decimate us from inside the circle—it’s good. But now? Just get me through your fake computer voice to Electioneering, the song of guitar-loving madness that pulls no punches. Don’t even listen to the words.
“How can so many assholes like this album?” asks Jeannie, as we’re hiding underneath the counter in one of the big cubbyholes reserved for stacks of scratched vinyl rejects. It’s early in the shift, so it’s empty. She loves it, this record, she rolls around in it beneath starry nights and I am learning to do the same. We like to drive her truck to the coast or to closer but equally exotic spots like bridges and forest-thick parks, and normally in her truck we listen to old skate punk, Descendents, Superchunk. Sometimes it’s Journey for the fun of singing out loud. But also we both really, really love Radiohead right now. And we aren’t sure why everybody else loves it, too. All day long we answer inquiries from men who look like they’d rather slap us than listen to us, rich guys with convertible cars, drunk herds of boys in pastel collared shirts, housewives who probably haven’t paid their maids in months but are excited to drop $20 on a brand new compact disc they heard about on NPR and get one extra, for the kids.
“I don’t think they listen to the words,” I venture, burrowing deeper beneath the sightline of the growing line at the register.
“Yeah. Well. Nobody likes surprises,” she says.
Climbing up the Walls
The downright-mean-est thing about having a retail job is the double insult of Monday holidays. There you are, you’re at work, it’s Monday, a nice slow rainy only-middle-aged-men-who-buy-bargain-classical-records-come-in-today Monday. But it happens to be a holiday — perhaps the ironically named Labor Day, on which retail clerks battle it out behind the dusty counter, sleepily suggesting bestselling titles to office workers who are our age and here, set free for one glorious weekday of their lives, inexplicably in shorts in the 50 degree morning, inexplicably drawn to buy things at 10am. On Monday holidays, not only do you have to work: you’re slammed.
With three phone lines blinking and a post-it note already swimming in penciled titles to run out and check for, plus a line of at least 10 in-the-flesh music fans waiting to pay, I answer: “GoodmorningeverydaymusichowcanIhelpyou?”
“Oh, hello there,” Her voice is old. “Is this the recording store?”
“Yes, how can I help you?” Chop-chop, lady. I’m a machine here.
“I was wondering, you see, I was sitting here, and I’m trying to remember—I was wondering whether you know the name”—
“Are you looking for a certain album?” Chop-chop, spit it out already. Beep.
“Well I don’t know whether you know the name of that machine…”
“I’m sorry? Are you looking for a record?” Eyes roll, debit cards are being pawed as paying customer-feet shuffle.
“Well; ah, no. But I was wondering whether you might tell me the name of this device— it’s connected to the telephone.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m really busy right now, so if you’re not looking for a record I can’t help you. Did you try the library?”
This usually works. Older people still use the library. Pawn it off on someone else, someone not slammed.
“Yes well you see the library’s closed today. It’s Labor Day, you see.”
As I know all too well, and labor to find the last grain of servicing politesse left in me. “OK… well I’m not sure what you’re asking me here but I’m really busy so―”
“I can’t remember the name of…. it records messages.”
“What? Look, lady…”
”It answers the telephone when I can’t. What do they call that, I know it has a precise name…”
“Are you talking about voicemail? I’m sorry, I don’t understand…”
“Yes, well I just can’t seem to re—”
“OK, I’m sorry, I have to hang up now―”
More people now in line, in a hurry although they don’t have anywhere to go, lattes in hand and shorts freshly ironed and they don’t know why the rude tattooed girl at the counter keeps talking on the phone. Probably gossiping with some slacker friend. Eyes roll, chop-chop. Machines these days.
Somewhere, something goes forward and something goes backward and voices meet.
“It’s a machine, you see, and it answers your phone for you….?”
“An answering machine? Look, I have to hang up now, Goodbye, thanks for calling.”
“Yes, thank you, but are you sure―”
I am saved from the line by the same labor laws that refuse to honor this day with a fucking paid day off for hourly workers: the Ten Minute Break.
Outside sitting on the doorstep by the back entrance I can stop for a breath and see her as she really is: alone, in a cheap rent-controlled studio apartment with the blinds closed, and she can’t call her daughters because they’re away at the river vacationing or something, and she can’t leave the house because she’s afraid she won’t remember where it is when she comes back, and perhaps her kitchen smells because she can’t clean it up, and perhaps she is unable to understand why she can’t remember what this little black box on her end-table is, she knows why it’s there and what it does, why it’s connected to her rotary phone by its grey thin cable that stretches delicately beneath the paper taped to the side of the device bearing emergency phone numbers written in the hand of her eldest child. And she knows that the nice lady at the library would know, and address her by name as Mrs. ______, but they don’t answer down there for some reason, even though it’s a Monday— oh it’s a holiday says the non-human voice who answers, and she’ll never understand why they don’t work on a day named for work—
When she was years ago, she went to marches on this day, yelling and flourishing and brandishing her mind, bringing down the reign of rules and those who hold them over us with every step.
She then remembers, because she does remember a lot of things, that they were always so helpful down at that little store on that street downtown when her and her husband used to shop there for vocal albums, and she calls them just wanting to know the name of the machine that answers.
And they answer. She is surprised.
But then the young lady is awfully rude, almost automatic, but Mrs. ______ doesn’t know why. Mrs. ____ only hopes the girl will know things she doesn’t anymore. As an answer she receives only confusing feelings: a shadow sense-memory of what it was once like to know these words, and a great tiredness at the intense effort involved in trying to recreate how she came to know things, like how does she know the way from the kitchen to the bedroom in the dark?
These senses, plus the feeling that someone is annoyed with her, someone doesn’t have time.
You don’t have to understand the words to feel them.