Coming Late to the Party (Item #3): Radiohead and OK Computer (part 1)

Part of a regular series here at PostConsumer Reports wherein I reflect on something that I either totally missed or completely disliked the first time I heard, watched, and/or read it. In a sense, the party’s been going on for quite some time and I have arrived but significantly late. If you will, it is the AfterParty or the PostParty Party.

Sometime during 1997 or 1998 Drew Slevin, a high school friend, handed me a copy of Radiohead's OK Computer saying, "You should listen to this, I think you'll like it."  It was not a casual recommend but neither was it too forceful, it was just enough that I took it seriously.  This was a friend who I respected and he was giving me his music to listen to, therefore I should listen closely and with careful attention.  I took the CD home, listened to it a few times, and gave it a resounding indifferent shoulder shrug.  It was just...OK.  There was one song that I liked more than others ("Let Down") but the melody of that song seemed to come close to another song I was more familiar with (oddly enough it was this song, which we can all safely assume Radiohead had never even heard [but listen carefully to the melody line in the chorus of each song and see if you hear the similarity]).  I gave the disc back to him and said thanks (which I really meant) but I just did not get it.  Oh well, back to listening to Rich Mullins, Switchfoot, and Deliriou5? I guess.

A few years later during the summer of 2001 I attended the Agape music festival at Greenville College where I opted for staying with my friend Robbie Augspurger rather than camping at the fairgrounds.  In between going to various concerts we watched a Beatles documentary (I am pretty sure it was this one), ate pizza, and listened to a bunch of music, most of which I had never heard before (Although I do not see Robbie much anymore I am still very much grateful for all the music he introduced me to that I never would have heard otherwise like Wilco, Harry Nilsson, and Pedro the Lion).  One of the distinct memories I have from that weekend is sitting there in his apartment waiting for these strange little videos to load on Robbie's computer; short little animated vignettes that were supposedly a marketing strategy for Radiohead's Kid A album but which to me were way too cryptic and creepy for my tastes.  I remember them making me feel very cold and lonely, and then I remember thinking "that's not what I'm looking for in music."  Radiohead had gotten another chance with me and again they had failed to connect.

Fast-forward to a year or so later and I was in Matt Matheney's blue Jeep Cherokee when I again saw a copy OK Computer sitting amongst his other CD's in the center console.  Matt and I were both doing an internship at our church youth group and we would run various errands together throughout the week.  I decided to give Radiohead another try.  I asked Matt to borrow the album, he said yes, and after years of developing a new set of ears, something finally clicked into place when I listened to it.  I had a lot of trouble giving the CD back to Matt; in fact, I did not give it back to him until I made sure I had secured my own copy.  I needed to listen to that album.  I had to figure it out.  Cryptic and creepy was finally starting to become appealing to me.

Over the course of the next year I bought every Radiohead album, from Amnesiac, to Kid A, to Pablo Honey, to The Bends, (in that order) to desperately waiting for Hail to the Thief to come out.  I became a Radiohead evangelist.  I made the kids who played in my youth group worship band listen to them constantly in the car and I downloaded every live Radiohead performance I could find on Kazaa when I was at their houses so I could burn them onto a CD-rom.  

Radiohead's music was a revelation to me.  They changed the way I listened to music.  On the surface this story might seem like it is about my own musical journey, but really it is just as much about the friends who accompanied me on this journey.  I never would have liked Radiohead were it not for a consistent stream of good friends who had their music around and kindly recommended it to me.  I came late to loving Radiohead, but my friends had gotten there long before I did.

The greatest things in life are best enjoyed in community, in relationship with others, in an exchange of heart, mind, body, and spirit. The community can be large (a public gathering) or small (the intimacy of two), but the exchange, whether it be food, art, worship, conversation, sex, sports, a celebration etc., must take place between people or from one person to another.  Of course, all the items in previously mentioned list can all be experienced alone, but if pressed, we would all admit something about the solitary experience rings hollow.  This is especially true of my experience with music.  Most of the time I listen to or play music I am by myself, but the most meaningful musical experiences have come when I have been with others.  There is something about being able to connect with other people as a melody takes hold of us that automatically transcends and renders second rate those times I have been sent to musical ecstasy whilst in solitude.

Music becomes communal not just in the very moments when it is being partaken of through listening or actual music making, but also when a friend bursts forth and enthusiastically is compelled to share their music.  Perhaps this means less now when basically all music is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, but in a time when a disc or a tape had to be handed from one person to the next, the sharing of one's music was a meaning-filled not to be taken lightly gesture.  It was a gesture such as this--several gestures, actually--that eventually led me to liking the music of Radiohead.

Recently, I went to my first Radiohead concert with my friend Greg, who was generous enough to buy my ticket.  I met Greg in 2010, which meant that I and he had many years of Radiohead listening under our belts without having known each other.  But there we stood in the middle of a hill within a massive corporately owned outdoor amphitheater surrounded by obnoxiously stoned hipsters who talked over the music (they provided the "fridge buzz" for the evening), and we were able to connect through a shared experience. We knew every song they played and despite the distance between us and the stage we were able to soak in the greatness of this band who has shaped and challenged how we hear music for over a decade.

I owed my experience of Radiohead to a persistent stream of faithful friends, and over the years Radiohead became a continual source to bond with an ever widening group of friends who were impacted by their music. Radiohead make music for an increasingly isolated and anxious age, and strangely enough, for those of us captured by their sound and ideas, we were able to gather around their music and find a common bond.

Other entries in the "Coming late to the party" series:
Coming late to the party #4: The World is Abundant and I'm Entirely Overwhelmed
Coming late to the party #2: The Art of Surprise (Simon & Garfunkel, Tuneyards, and St. Vincent)
Coming late to the party #1: Fernando Ortega

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