WORDS BY ELIZABETH BARKER, DRAWING BY JEN MAY
The album Star by Belly came out 20 years and 11 days ago, when I was 15-years-old. I bought it on cassette soon after I first heard "Feed The Tree" and I played that tape all the time, especially while half-asleep on the bus on the way to school at some hideous hour of the morning. Star was one of the first albums I ever identified as "one of my favorite albums," but at the same there was a fear that I'd outgrow it someday. When I was a teenager I was terrified of outgrowing all the beautiful things I loved -- I suppose I was worried I'd get older and sell out to Corporate America and my soul would slowly shrivel up and turn to dust. It's a pretty legit fear, at least in my mind. To quote half of a line from High Fidelity: only people of a certain disposition are frightened of no longer loving their favorite records as they get older. I am of that disposition.
Anyway, I never stopped loving Star. I still love so many of the records I loved when I was 15; a lot of them are still in my life all the time (Belly, Nirvana, Lemonheads, etc). In a way I want to go back and tell my teenage self, "Don't worry, man, you're totally gonna be weird forever," but then I also think it's good to be aware of the possibility of losing something you love. I think it's good to protect your weirdness and dreaminess and whatever else makes up the parts of you responsible for loving beautiful music. You should always be intensely, ridiculously vigilant about not letting anyone or anything rip the beautiful-music-loving parts out of you.
Every song on Star still belongs to me, but I think "White Belly" might be mine the most. When I was a teenager "White Belly" seemed so creepy and sexy, like some bad shit had happened but it was glamorous too. The chorus is about a dress, and in the first verse Tanya sings the cities San Francisco and L.A. When I first heard "White Belly," I'd never been to California. I'd been to Florida and that's about it. When she sang "Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco/Worked my way back in a hallway in L.A.," I pictured a hallway that was a little Less Than Zero-y but in a Belly sort of way -- which is a really cool concept, actually: the evil/fucked-up nowhereness of Less Than Zero but all dreamy and gorgeous and lovely, like if the italicized flashbacks of Less Than Zero were the entire book and told by a hypersensitive girl who worships Siouxsie and the Banshees or Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians or something and has definitely read Wuthering Heights like eight thousand times. God! That sounds so good. I wish Belly had stayed together and made their L.A. record, like how Uh Huh Her is PJ Harvey's L.A. record and Whip Smart is Liz Phair's L.A. record and Celebrity Skin is Hole's L.A. record even though Hole are actually from L.A.
But they didn't, they broke up, and if there's any L.A. Belly record I guess I'll have to make it myself. Maybe not in a story (I never feel like writing fiction set in Los Angeles, for some reason), but just walking around and living life as a neverending Belly record. When I think about it, there aren't many other albums I'd rather live inside. My favorite records are In Utero and Horses and Ritual De Lo Habitual and Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and By The Way by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Frusciante's first solo album and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Abbey Road and Exile On Main Street but -- for wildly varied reasons -- none of those makes sense for me as a way of life. There's something sustainable about living like a Belly album though -- there's a smallness to Star that I very much understand. The world of the album is small but it's full of so many strange things and they keep you charmed and turned on because there's this deep sense of wonder. The word wonderment doesn't exactly get me high but I think it's good to exist in a state of wonderment as often as you can, to not be fucking bored or fucking boring, to just do what you need to do to keep life gorgeous and exciting for you and for everyone else too.
Another thing that appeals to me about living like Star is its sweetness. The songwriter I relate to most is Mary Timony but I don't want to live inside any of her albums, which is interesting for me to realize. Mary Timony and Tanya Donelly both sing about witches and moons and trees, but Tanya also sings about beaches and dresses and dogs and frogs in a way that's sometimes cute but never cutesy. Mary Timony doesn't put too much sweetness into her songs, and I love that about her, but sweetness is so important to me: I'm hopelessly attracted to it and I like to create sweetness in my life, whether through songs or candy or books or pictures or perfume. For me, sweet can mean the opposite of ugly and nasty and even boring. I think it's boring to be nasty and ugly-hearted, I think it's unimaginative to not try to find a way to be sweet. And the older I get the more I value art that is unabashedly romantic and sweethearted in its own twisted way, and Star is so completely that. That's the kind of art I want to make, the kind of story I want to tell. I like to write about food and sex and dudes and streets and rock music, and I always want to do that in a way that's sweet and dreamy, so I guess I always will.
Looking back, I don't quite know what it was about Star that I was so scared of losing. The record's all these storybooky songs and there's an innocence to them so maybe I was worried about not being innocent anymore? The funny thing about that is, listening to the album now, I'm most struck by how dark and death-obsessed Tanya Donelly is in her lyrics: the songs are all about dying and dead people and dead animals and drugs that make you die; the name of the first single is an idiom about dying and the second single is about a woman walking around with a decomposing dog on her back and the third single has that line about the boy who murders all your dolls. It's all DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH but then songs are so, so bright -- not like sunniness, but like big blinding daylight coming through a cracked shard of glass in the shape of something pretty, like a Valentine heart, or maybe a star.
Lately it's so energizing for me to put everything in the context of death, even stuff that seems totally inconsequential. Like, for example, last week I got stuck watching an hour-and-a-half-long set by a band whose music entirely lacked sexiness or at least any kind of sexy tragedy/pain, and about 10 minutes in I started thinking, "This is deadening. This could all quite possibly deaden my very soul." So to keep that from happening I shut everything out and thought about the story I'm writing, and then I felt so much better. Being a writer is a reliable mechanism for protection against psychic death, and I bet that's true for any kind of art-making, or any sort of earnest but joyful dedication to something you love/give a fuck about.
I heard Star for the first time when I'd just started to get obsessive about writing stories, and I'm endlessly grateful to it for legitimizing my urge or need to invent strange and tiny worlds sweeter than real life, and for letting me know it's all right to slip into that made-up world whenever I want. Being a dreamy weirdo makes things sad and painful sometimes, but in the end I really can't be any other way. I'm going to just love everything I love forever, and never ever die.