As the saying goes: every blessing a curse, every curse a blessing.
From the sands of death and cigarette butts, he looks out into the encompassing blue of the Pacific Ocean, takes a drag from one hand and raises a 300ml Jack Daniels bottle from the other to his mouth, cocks his neck back and forth, then returns the bottle to his lap. He watches and listens to the splendidly pulsating waves as they crash upon the Southern California shore with untamable assertion, thinking how similar they are to the possible fate of his ship, or his bus, or his home, or his band, or his life, or his ineffable whatever-the-fuck you want to call it that is in constant peril of completely falling off the rails at any given moment and crashing with thunderous fury and fiery blaze.
Brooks Nielsen is the singer and, along with guitarist Matt Taylor, performs the bulk of the songwriting duties for The Growlers, a music group that for the past decade has seen steady growth in popularity along with consistent critical acclaim. Tantamount to the band’s musicianship are the lyrics by Nielsen, which are capable of a measure of sagacity that is harder to find in a singer these days than it is to find an American bar with a smoking license and without TV (if anybody knows of one, please tip me off).
It is common today that recordings have aurally undecipherable lyrics, and for the most part, they deserve to remain that way. Singers with the ability to awaken or to inspire such a thing as a jukebox epiphany are a dying breed. Nielsen stands out as a breath of fresh air in this regard and as something of a throwback in the best possible sense. One theme that pops up in his lyrics is a desire to escape a drab, stultifying existence. The ebb and flow of this endeavour can be followed in their songs. The journey begins in the cut ‘Swallowed Whole’ taken from their first album Are You In Or Are You Out?
I was in too but I got out
Some stood still and some laid down
I saw the forming of a frozen mind,
I got out in the nick of time.
My own friends are all in the deep,
Pulling in all of the wandering sheep.
The lyrics are ambiguous as to what exactly the song is escaping. Could it be the fate of a burned-out drug user? Living a life like the walking dead, as so many people do? Or being swallowed by a Moby Dick sized whale? Whatever it may be, it is something to break free from. Meanwhile, others are not so fortunate — they are stuck, trapped, and purposeless and like a herd of sheep are easily cajoled.
In The Growler’s third album, Hung At Heart (2013) things start off sunny enough in the opening track ‘Someday’: “Hang on for the ride; I think I feel a change of tide,” as the lyrics explain. But by the song ‘Burden Of The Captain’ quickly comes around and the journey has hit some rough waters: “How did it turn into more drinking, sinking, when all that I ever wanted was less thinking?” This lyric utilises the idea of a ship that is stated in the title. The main burden of a captain is to keep the ship from sinking. Not only is the ship in danger of going down, but the captain right along with it which recalls the opening line from the Mose Allison song ‘I Don’t Worry About A Thing’: “If this life is driving you to drink, you sit around wondering just what to think.”
The desire for “less thinking” in the song ‘Burden Of The Captain’ is comparable to the type of transcendence that Ch’an Buddhist master Niu-t’ou Fa-Yung spoke of centuries earlier when saying that “The Great Tao” was “free of thought” but somewhere along the way, as tends to happen, things got fucked up. The lyrics suggest that a possible reason for this lies in one’s growing ambitions.
Everything was fine and then I wanted more, more, more.
Now I can’t rewind to the way things were before.
Living life in a bluff and acting like I’m sure.
It’s all out of love; I don’t want to scare the herd.
This again calls to mind Mose Allison’s 1962 jazz number with strikingly similar lyrical structure:
Don’t waste your time trying to be a go getter,
Things’ll get worse before they get any better.
You know there’s always somebody,
Playin’ with dynamite.
‘Burden Of The Captain’ also returns to the notion of a herd, though this time the sentiment towards them is more explicitly compassionate than it was in ‘Swallowed Whole’.
In the song ‘Ego Of Man’ from the following album, Gilded Pleasures, the mission that hit rough waters in ‘Burden Of The Captain’ is now facing complete collapse.
So it’s a bust
But we don’t want to bail so stick with us
‘Cause even if we fail you can trust
That we’ll know for sure that our intentions
Were never anything but pure.
We only want to be free…
This reiterates the pure intentions of the journey and its travellers who wanted “less thinking” and now “only want to be free.” It is notable that the title of this song uses the word ‘ego’.
Another Ch’an Buddhism concept is to transcend the human ego, which is another way of saying to be free of ego. The song ‘Change Inside Your Veins’, also from the album Gilded Pleasures, examines “the herd” more closely.
I had a little bit of pity then I slapped myself,
Kinda sucks that they’ll never know.
I felt bad for my brothers,
Sleep walking going nowhere
‘Cause they’re so afraid to grow.
The song may feel bad for the wandering sheep but stops from caring too deeply for them. It urges them to “take a risk and feel some pain” and wants to “speed up the pulse” of the sleepwalkers, acknowledging that they are stupefied. The idea of changing and growing that is spoken of in ‘Change Inside Your Veins’ takes on added meaning when considering the music that was to follow this album. Both Chinese Fountain (2014) and City Club (2016) depart from the homespun sound of the group’s previous recordings.
Another undeniable theme in The Growler’s lyrics, it has to be said, is death. To paraphrase Nielsen, the band’s music was given the term ‘beach goth’ because they “were making surf music but the songs were all about death.” (Scholars please note that the band is from California and that the western lands were considered the land of death in ancient Egyptian mythology.)
In one of The Growler’s more intense songs, ‘What It Is’, taken from their second album Hot Tropics, considers the existence of life after death: “I can’t deny the dead don’t always die,” Nielsen sings. It is also says, with more than a tint of foreboding, that “you may never die, eternal life.” As much as one may fear death, to experience the pains of life for eternity is a fate equally if not more terrifying. Therefore, one should “make good with the living breath.”
Nielsen later admits in ‘What It Is’ that the spook he saw “was clear as all the drinks I drank,” and confuses the matter even further in the very next breath: “I swear I was dry.” Whether or not this vision was arrived at through sheer drunkenness, the notion that “life is a blessing” and to “make good with life” remains clear.
An afterlife is not guaranteed in the song ‘Nobody Owns You’ from the album Gilded Pleasures.
Think back about the things you used to care about
And now they’re so insignificant
Think how lame your fears seem now
And how you might not get to live again.
Worrying accomplishes nothing. So why die twice? The song also speaks to the idea of freedom and, in this instance, it is about being free from one’s own fear and the paralysis of action that fear can cause.
The subject of death appears in the song ‘Graveyard’s Full’ as it pertains to the planet’s deterioration at the hand’s of human beings, and earth’s subsequent inability to adequately provide for its destroyers. The strain of a growing human population on mother earth is exemplified by the notion of running out of room to bury bodies: “The graveyard’s full, we’re running out of earth,” Nielsen sings. In such times of hardship, religion can be a positive source, as it has always indubitable been: “But we can use the bones to build another church.” This lyric becomes all the more evocative and insightful when considering how religion is responsible for the mass murdering of people, and therefore what are churches if not the embodiments of and testaments to those dead souls?
The song continues with the notion that we are bleeding our earth dry: “What’s the magic number of how many men can live before our precious mother can no longer give?” and “How much we can take before they call it rape?” Drive south along the Atlantic Coast and take a look at the condominiums that completely obscure the coastline and you will realise that we should be imprisoning people, starting with certain real estate developers, for crimes against nature.
One of my favourite lines from Nielsen comes in the song ‘Dogheart II’ which was released in 2013:
Little girls don’t last forever
Enjoy them while you can
They’re made for little boys
And soon you’ll be a man
Take it from a dirty young man.
Maybe I have a soft spot for this because of my own sleazy brain. I also think it’s because it displays the type of insidiousness that’s rare to find in music anymore. It used to be that rock ‘n’ roll music was a home for dirty thoughts. No better example is the line “I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store” from Big Joe Turner’s 1954 hit record ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’. Jesse Stone wrote that record under the pseudonym Charles E. Calhoun, but Stone copped that particular line from the drummer in his band, Baby Lovett.
In ‘Standing On The Corner’, another beautifully nasty little song from yesteryear, Dean Martin sings: “Brother if you’ve got a rich imagination, give it a whirl, give it a try.” To give you an idea of how much things have changed, from the same song: “Brother, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking, or for the rude look in your eye.”
Through all these great musings on the mysteries of life, death, and girls’ undergarments, The Growlers seem to maintain the admirable quality of neither taking themselves nor the whole showbiz thing too seriously. It is, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll. Or whatever’s left of it. And as far as lyrics go, they don’t get any better than those immortal words of Richard Penniman that mean absolutely nothing whatsoever and are utterly brilliant: “A-WOP-BOP-A-LOO-BOP-A-WOP-BAM-BOOM!”