Only Happy When It Rains
I do know. We're sitting in the "organized chaos and decaying splendor" of Caffeine's small South Austin home, amidst the loosely arranged litter of books, records, and Mexican folk art. Overseeing it all is an impressive portrait of Loretta Lynn, which looks to be the work of the Rev. Howard Finster. What's spilling out of her hi-fi's speakers is a recently-recorded, almost Patti Smithish take on Marianne Faithful's "Guilt" with considerably more powerchord ballast than the original.
"Jon Dee Graham heard `Guilt,'" boasts Caffeine, "and he said, `Jean, that sounds like good old punk rock!'"
Hard to believe anyone could add more venom to one of Broken English's more snakejuiced tracks, but Jean Caffeine has, and it has as much to do with the instrumental muscle as the vocalist's mindset. It's true: Jean Caffeine has assembled her finest unit in 19 years of music-making, fine enough to make this writer regret pursuing health and rest rather than another night on the tiles.
The track also brings to light another truth: As we go to press celebrating the release of a new Jean Caffeine album that abandons her old yuk-filled, pre-y'alternative twang rock for a moodier, angrier, and more sombre tone, she's switched directions yet once more. Jean Caffeine wants to rock again.
"Something's changed," Caffeine shrugs on her back porch, banging her shoe nervously against the iron patio table as crickets chirp away in the dusk. "Lots of things changed. So, I changed."
"Who I was playing with, who I was living with, what I do for a living. I think I needed that harder release, because I was doing something straighter in my life [i.e.: she teaches art in a local elementary school]. Then there's that Riot Grrl thing, and that Angry Old Chick trend. Hearing Alanis Morrisette and Liz Phair definitely motivated me. I wouldn't say they got me into it, because I already had these songs. But they definitely motivated me, in that they opened the floodgates for women to say some things that they might have been less comfortable with."
"These songs." She's talking about Knocked Down 7 Times Got Up 8, Caffeine's first domestic CD release and one that almost feels like a well-kept secret. Perhaps it's due to the fact that, like her previous cassette-only works with Jean Caffeine's All-Night Truck Stop, the local musician had to put out the new album herself -- on her own Joe Records imprint. ("It's named for my grandfather. He died and left me some money, which I put into this. I figured the name was only fitting.") Although a handful of tracks comprise the final recordings of the All-Night Truck Stop, and some elements of the old sound remain -- chiefly the eerie slide guitars -- Knocked Down 7 Times... is a transitional album.
For starters, the tongue-in-cheek nature that's marked every one of Caffeine's musical phases, from her stints drumming with kitschy San Francisco punk rockers The Urge to Pulsalama's disjointed rhythms clean through to the All-Night Truck Stop, is gone. In its place is the most naked, pain-racked music she's made, chronicling the death of a romantic relationship, the concurrent death of her old band, and (not expressly, but by implication) an uneasy shift from what she terms "slacker/collegiate/local rock star life" into the straight world. It's Caffeine's non-12-bar blues record, her version of Johnny Thunders' So Alone, a disc that sits comfortably alongside previous angst-riddled standards like Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers.
Caffeine admits to missing the whimsy, too. "I like the funny songs!" she says. "But I try to keep the whimsy onstage. When I first started to play some of this stuff out and I didn't have a band, these songs were so depressing that people were telling me they were leaving, getting very depressed. This one girl told me she went home and cried. She was depressed because of the lyrics, and she hadn't known me when I was playing before, and here I was playing these coffee houses. I had to inject this huge dose of levity, because the music was such a bummer."
There's a shaft of sunlight peeking through the grey and black, though, on Knocked Down's final track, "Watching The Clouds," which aches as much as the 11 tunes that precede it, yet somehow, with its enthralling, Phil Spectorish orchestration, the song gives the album a cleansing air. The hidden final track, the title tune as it is, is just Caffeine and her acoustic guitar, caught in her living room on a boombox, adding a note that's no less tense than what's come before. Nevertheless, Knocked Down has an air that there's a light at the end of the tunnel -- and it ain't just Satan waving his lantern. What's casting off that light? More anger.
"You know that Garbage record where she says, `I'm only happy when it rains?'" asks Caffeine, singing the hookline. "I laughed at that record. I really like it, and I think it rocks. But it sorta makes me cringe, makes me a little uncomfortable, because I'm sure I'm of the ilk of the misery-motivated creator. Because if you write it, you feel better. I've said this a lot of times in interviews, but certainly at no time has it been more true than with this new material. It's sorta like the angrier I got, the more I left it behind.
"And now I'm not writing these songs that are personally vitriolic. They're more like a general anger and kinda dark, but they're trying to be less guy-obsessed, even though they still are. Like someone made me really mad this summer, this fall. A guy. What really made me mad was how souped-up I got by this whole litany of words. So, instead of writing a total hate song, I wrote a song about how addicted to words I am, how ridiculous that is. Then within that, I had this underlying subtext of...." she trails off, laughing knowingly. "I took these little quotes from e-mail and put them into my rant, or diatribe. There's still some of that stuff, but I'm trying to get a little... less... I dunno! Fingerpointing?"
She may have succeeded. She plays the track, and it has the elliptical, poetic air of vintage Patti Smith, an artist Caffeine speaks of frequently in admiration; Smith's Gone Again release of last summer even numbers amongst Caffeine's prodigious Desert Island Discs list, alongside large doses of the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner's "Funkier Than a Skeeter's Tweeter," a dollop of vintage disco, and everything from Bad Company to Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville with Garbage and Fastball in between. This return to her roots may have a lot to do with the influence of Caffeine's longtime friend and fellow Frisco punk pioneer Penelope Houston, who revisited the crash 'n' burn pogo fury of her Avengers days in a recent four-song session with members of Green Day and Screeching Weasel.
"I know!" says Caffeine excitedly. "She sent me a copy of that! And the reason I have the Garbage record and the Sheryl Crow record is she sent them to me. She's at that same place I'm at, too. All of a sudden, it's not enough just to be wimpy -- even though I'll probably go back to being wimpy. But right now, I'm kinda in rock mode, and she is, too! She also has some other new tracks that are really boss, and also more naked, more funky yet still more hard. And that's kinda what I'm going for, too. I really liked it in that one song [on Knocked Down], `The Last Hurrah,' the party part where it gets super-funky. I could never sing like Aretha or Tina Turner, and I don't like those white bands that try to sound funky. But I kinda like rock with a groove, and a lotta these giant bands like Garbage and Ani DiFranco are doing the same thing. I like the way these people are mixing it up where there's this groove, yet there's also something that's hard and dissonant."
Caffeine laughs, ready to drive the writer home, blasting the latest Joan Jett album on her tape deck. Yep, another "old chick" who's rediscovered her anger. "I didn't really get this dissonance and I didn't really get all this young anger until I kinda got a dose of my old anger!"