DESERT ISLAND DISC:
Game Theory's Lolita Nation
by William Ham
It's a ridiculous notion, of course, this whole desert-island hypothetical -- apart from the obvious concerns about lack of electricity, the effects of malnutrition and dehydration on one's ability to dance on sand, and the fact that sound carries further over water than land, making it highly likely that the sound waves created by the full-volume blasting of your favorite record or CD will either be picked up by a passing ocean liner or at the very least piss off the inhabitants of the neighboring desert islands, compromising their ability to enjoy the copies of Kind of Blue or The Best of the Hampton Grease Band that they, in their limited foresight, brought with them to while away the hours between fits of heat-crazed delirium and the occasional attack by savage island beasts both real and imagined, modern technology has rendered the whole one-disc-per-island thing utterly obsolete. I mean, I have only the most rudimentary electronics skills (my half-semester at ITT Technical Institute ended badly, that's all I can say), and even I should be able to fashion a crude laptop from the detritus around the isle, take advantage of the low long-distance rates in the South Pacific (where they have no phones) to sign up with a cheap ISP, and happily download hundreds of MP3s to my heart's content. Sure, the fidelity on my mango-skin speakers leaves something to be desired and it takes six to eight months to download a single Spice Girls outtake, but, heck, it's not like I don't have the time. And just let those disgruntled copyright holders try and track me down.
But no, until the small-patch-of-sandy-ground rules are changed to reflect the times, it behooves me to keep things old-school. And what could be more educationally antiquated than that artifact of a simpler, worse-complected time, the double album? Sure, I realize that a few enterprising hucksters have done their level best to keep the multi-disc tradition alive in the digital age, but the less-restrictive time limits on CDs have made that option appealing only to guys who either a) arrived on the scene with a dirigible-sized ego to begin with or b) somehow deluded themselves into believing that hiring Bob Ezrin to shape your tortured personal vision into comely bloat was ever a good idea. It's just not the same. (Besides, everyone knows it's impossible to hide drugs in a CD gatefold.)
Double albums have always smacked of statement, of something that a single foot-wide black circle cannot contain -- think Frank Zappa neatly dividing his nascent mid-sixties social satire into greasy pop parodies and hairy dada explosions on Freak Out!, or Captain Beefheart morphing from oddball R&B growler into singular free jazz/Delta blues poet-animal with Trout Mask Replica, or Lou Reed throwing up two calcium-deficient middle fingers at label, critics and audience alike with a sustained burst of formless feedback called Metal Machine Music, or Hüsker Dü emerging from a well-worn hardcore chrysalis as the world's loudest, most anguished and best psych-pop power trio on Zen Arcade, or Peter Frampton coming ali -- Okay, scratch that last one. Any of the above may have laid just claim to the title of Desert Island Disc at one time or another amidst the gullible travails of my youth, simply because each, in their own far-flung and self-indulgent way, contains all the elements of a full-bodied, self-sustaining worldview, where even their weak and tangled links serve to help reinvent the Great Chain of Being. But it's another, far more obscure disque de deux that has shone its twin beacons the brightest on me in the 13 years since its release, an album whose very insularity may be the key to its greatness, a record so rich in pop-culture cleverness, computer-geek savvy and English-major arcana that it practically has its own ecosystem fit to sustain a school district's worth of honors-society romantics all the way to grad school.
Lolita Nation, though egalitarian on the surface (every member of Game Theory gets at least one writing or co-writing credit on the album), owes its focused sprawl to the vision of one man, a walking chunk of northern californium named Scott Miller. Miller is one of those rarefied creatures, more prevalent in the 80s than any time before or since, who managed to survive with only the college-radio ecosystem to sustain him. It's a little hard to believe, now that all that atmosphere can support is the occasional malnourished, chain-clove-smoking miscreant who fancies himself a celebrity because you can almost hear his radio show (3 to 5 a.m., Monday mornings) in most of the dorms, but at one time, you could almost count on that underground network of 50-watt stations and 50¢ 'zines to give you some semblance of a career. And Game Theory was, in essence, the ultimate college band -- equal parts Paisley Underground helium, jangle-pop byrdsong, and hand-me-down Alex Chiltonia, with just enough synthesizer to make indie-rock Luddites nervous.
It was a fine sound, with sufficient appeal to convert a certain percentage of every proto-alt-rock clique to Miller's way of thinking; it follows that, while Game Theory may not have been destined for stardom, they never quite languished in obscurity. Not big enough to sherpa themselves up the charts, maybe, but big enough to get mentioned by name in the preface to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide in an apology for not being quite important enough to review. Big enough to have a verse in a Veruca Salt song dedicated to them. Big enough to be praised by the likes of Aimee Mann and could there be a more flattering way to have the lid on your commercial aspirations nailed shut forever than to be anointed by the doyenne of major-label mistreatment? Big enough to make the covers of all the major indieground publications -- never a cover photo, mind you, but never further than three lines down from the phrase "Also in this issue." Big enough to garner the coveted 20-minutes-of-two slot on 120 Minutes a couple of weeks in a row. In other words, not big at all, but not exactly a secret either -- the perfect setup for obsessive fandom; convinced that you're the only one in the world who knows about this wonderful treasure trove, but infinitely thrilled upon discovering that someone else has seen it too, as if a stranger had walked up to you and began speaking the private language you'd invented.
And Lolita Nation remains the favorite of many of those obsessives (including yours regretfully) by epitomizing that insular mindset in ways both intentional and incidental. The band name doesn't appear clearly on either the front or back cover; the songs are full of samples of and references to earlier Game Theory records; tracks blip by in seconds or dig in for six-plus minutes; and the track listing on the back looks like it was written by a schizophrenic, James Joyce-crazed computer programmer prone to speaking in binary tongues. Hell, it's not even a gatefold and the flimsy plastic sleeves each of the discs are swathed in tend to get all mangled up in each other when you try to return them to the cardboard -- what kind of sick, exclusionary game are they playing here?
The self-immolating chutzpah is crazily admirable, especially considering how seemingly easy it would have been for Miller at that moment to make a dash for the mainstream, sell his soul to the A&R man with the least pointy tail, and say hi to the big time. The two albums preceding LN, Real Nighttime (1985) and The Big Shot Chronicles (1986) were full of two- to four-minute pop gems, polished up real nice and given settings that made even their more obtuse facets catch all available light by producer and kindred spirit Mitch Easter. (Easter was himself at the peak of his game at the time, well-known in vinyl-dork circles for his co-production of R.E.M.'s earliest [and best] records, in addition to crafting some of the most sonically-adventurous and moody pop of the era with his band Let's Active. Not that anybody noticed, mind you; he'd made the tactical error of letting himself be seen crooning to a dachshund on a stool in the video for his sole semi-hit, "Every Word Means No," thus being typecast forever as a cutesy Southern popster even after his records got darker and louder and he began developing jowls. In other words, it took medium-low MTV rotation to do to Mitch what Steve Allen couldn't do to Elvis.)
The indie assimilation process had already begun, what with several of the scene's brightest lights being plucked from obscurity and hidden under bigger, brighter bushels than any of them could have imagined; indeed, Game Theory's label, Enigma, had just scored a hit record with the Smithereens' "Blood and Roses," an almost unheard-of feat for an independent label. Surely it must have crossed the Enigma execs' minds that Game Theory could be the next thoroughbred in their new stable of hitmakers -- if a mumble-mouthed muhfuh like Michael Stipe can snag a hit by yoking his trademark ambiguities to a big beat and a slicker presentation, then why couldn't Scott Miller beef up his translucent trills in post-production and take the Finnegans Wake references down a notch or two? Faced with the possibility of breakthrough, Miller reacted like any great (or greatly self-conscious) artist would -- with willful, full-blown perversity. He made the difficult, insular album he always knew he had in him.
As it turns out, however, the insularity is just a ruse -- beneath all the oddball sonic intrusions, cryptic spoken-word interpolations, and song structures completely puréed by the whirring blades of his peculiar Cuisinartistry, Miller covertly grapples with some of the universal concerns of our age -- "Can I keep sight of my ideals in the face of yet another disillusionment?," "How much longer can I protect the blush of youth from the gust of mortality?,"and "Can I get away with letting my girlfriend sing lead on a couple of songs?" Miller's lyrics, like those of vintage Elvis Costello, careen all over the place verbally yet somehow manage to plug directly into the emotions. (That they're in the service of an imperfect but wonderfully expressive voice doesn't hurt.) Here, the emotional palette has grown Lolita Nation isn't lacking in what Miller (with typical self-deprecation) calls "young-adult-hurt-feeling-athons," but they're offset by darker shades, by turns rueful, despairing, and even angry (you can tell because he uses the word "goddamn" a couple of times). You can hear it in "The World's Easiest Job" (which finds our hero "riding a frenzied ten-speed" over a sarcastic sung hook and a skittering jazz piano), "One More For Saint Michael" (surveying a sampling of human wreckage and managing more bitterness than a song with so many Star Trek references should handle), and especially in the agitated centerpiece of the album, "The Waist and the Knees" (about which more later). Even when he fashions a sympathetic setting for his higher register, like the ethereal-but-loud "Dripping With Looks," his trills hang over the carefully-articulated psychedelic guitar figures as if on frayed gossamer wings, upbraided and contradicted by the female backing vocals. Sweet, yes, but sweet like fruit just beginning to turn.
Which is not to say that Miller forsook the brighter pop moments with which he made his skinny bones. On the contrary; there are several songs that, in a better world, would have rung joyously from transistor radios worldwide. "The Real Sheila," in particular, is about as perfect a late-80s pop anthem as could be imagined, a seamless union of melody and muscle that rings with the ebullience of new romance. And "Chardonnay" goes even further, climbing from a tentative tremelo'd strum to an uptempo peak of drum-stomping vigor as intoxicating as the wine that gives it its title. (Yet even here Miller can't help but undercut his good vibes a touch; whatever he means by "the word must be head down and don't know a thing you're doing/and hear what the storefronts say" or "gonna recharge, cranio-mechanical/turning me right back into an animal," one can assume he's dealing with things that aren't dreamt of in Tommy James and the Shondells' philosophy.)
All of which is not quite adequate to explain why this of all albums has maintained a precarious perch above all others of its kind for as long as it has. It's probably not even Scott Miller's "best" album -- two of his post-GT combo The Loud Family's recordings, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993) and Interbabe Concern (1996), walk the ground Lolita broke with a more practiced stride. So why, then? Is it the imposition of moods and matters usually not found in pop music? The fact that he wrote the world's best lyric ever to namedrop Ernst, Dali, De Chirico and David Carradine? That he contrived a third side fit to throw even partisans into frothing despair, comprised of several instrumentals, a solo number from lead guitarist/galpal Donnette Thayer that's perfectly fine in a hard-Bangles way but guaranteed irregardless of quality to earn the eternal wrath of a fan base that's just as insanely possessive as any other by the mere dint of its existence (this is either the Yoko Ono Postulate or the Brix Smith Conundrum, I can't recall which), only two full-fledged Miller songs (only one of them top-drawer), and a two-minute spasm of the purest self-indulgence that consists of other Game Theory songs played three at once or chopped up into one-second fragments christened with a series of titles ("All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluids Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert -- In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants To Be So Full Of Sting -- Paul Simon in the Park With Canticle -- But You Can't Pick Your Friends -- Vacuum Genesis -- DEFMACROS -- HOWSOMETH -- INGDOTIME -- SALENGTHS -- OMETHINGL -- ETBFOLLOW -- AAFTERNOO -- NGETPRESE -- NTMOMENTI -- FTHINGSWO -- NTALWAYSB -- ETHISWAYT -- BCACAUSEA -- BWASTEAFT -- ERNOONWHE -- NEQBMERET -- URNFROMSH -- OWLITTLEG -- REENPLACE -- 27") that refers, in order, to the films of Kubrick and Lynch, a play on words that can only be appreciated by those who own the Three O'Clock's Arrive Without Travelling LP, the recurring female spoken-word bits laced through the album that attempt to turn the old "but you can't pick your friend's nose" pseudo-maxim into something profound, the briefly-heard recording of Miller hoovering his rug and singing Genesis' "Illegal Alien" (!?), and what reads like a LISP macro code that I'll leave to any crazed programmers out there to find out if it amounts to anything? Or is it because the album is long out-of-print, which forces anyone out there curious to hear it to either cozy up to a Game Theory fan (and we can all use more friends) or wind up paying upwards of $100 on eBay for a copy of the briefly-available Enigma CD (we Theorists love these cruel little games, which is probably why we can all use more friends)?
In a word, no.
Not just those things, anyway. Somehow, it seems right that, on an album full of tiny songs and fleeting digressions, it's the two longest (and most diametrically opposed) songs that clinch its classic status in these eyes. "Last Day That We're Young," in the middle of the three-song fourth side, comes in with a stately pace quite unlike the manic-depressive mood swings of all that preceded it, opening with a simple keyboard figure and gradually adding instruments every four bars (showing off the band -- who to this point has barely warranted a mention in all this blather but deserves all the credit they can get -- to prime effect), taking its sweet time building to Scott's eventual entrance, crooning an elegy to a youth not yet dead ("Time's going to be a luxury now/ In the responsibility empire'), struggling to forestall the inevitable, even if by illusory means ("Give me some false hope I can take seriously/ Set me some roadblocks I can't break through"), and cursing the knowledge that kills the joy in what remains before then ("I think too much, I always do"). You can babble all you want about the creepy, anti-social music favored by teens -- punk, metal, goth or whatever rag-woven hybrid is the preferred soundtrack for revenge fantasies and huffing nowadays -- but this was the song that chilled my 17-year-old marrow. What could be scarier than an intimation of mortality, or worse yet, of maturity? The foreknowledge that, in spite of our best intentions, the world as we know it will soon end, not with a bang but an evanescent falsetto simper? (By the final song, "Together Now, Very Minor," Miller even goes so far as to write his own obituary -- "He never ran out when the spirits were low/ A nice guy as minor celebrities go.") What does it mean when, no matter how far you've gotten in this life, you always end up looking back with perfect, painful hindsight ("What was it we were always wanting?/ Didn't we know we had it all")? What's a boy to do?
Well, when all else fails, he can always go back two-and-a-half sides and behold the jaw-dropping glory that is "The Waist and the Knees." Even now, after Miller's voice has deepened somewhat and he's dotted the Loud Family's records with moments of real, full-bore rock 'n' roll, these six minutes still retain the power to shock and invigorate. All the confusion, ill feelings and panic that always roiled under the surface of Miller's songs are brought to a head here: a tense, urgent guitar paces in near-silence, then bursts into driving, chattering full volume, Gil Ray's skittering drums pushing the clenched guitars into pained, elastic contortions, not unlike those of Miller's voice as he leaps into the fray, more agitated and enigmatic than ever before: "Cozify with the lip-tied mind/ Beckmanns by the enlistment line/ Got to be small when target times come/ Got to be smart while acting dumb," he sings as if dodging the synthesized shards of sound-shrapnel that rush by at the end of every line. And it only gets tenser and more claustrophobic from there, where even the 60s song references have an unhealthy tinge ("Feeling sicko hang on sloop john/ Ugliest trip I've ever been on") and modest aspirations seem too much to ask for ("We'll follow these dreams we're going to have each/ Small and literal, well within reach/ And not a sicker fantasy dreamed of/ No excuse for love"). The noisy intrusions turn into frenetic musique concrete and threaten to take over the song, which abruptly downshifts into a nervous vamp over which the multi-tracked Miller doubletalks his way through a vicious, absurd parody of a recording contract ("Company shall be referred to as 'special friend' and shall not be held liable for loss due to theft, misplacement, impulse buying, poor sportsmanship, birth of multi-headed infant, hubby red-faced after bizarre weight loss ritual") When the song proper resumes, all is lost: "Over the ceiling rain/ And no place left that I know to drain/ Cutting the signal flow/ You can dress as you like there's still no place you can go"Going to get hold and no one leaves/ Going to get cold and most will freeze/ Going to get folded into threes/ Until you break at the waist and the knees." And then it bursts, the horror contained in the singer's own head, the only place from which there's no escape: "Fire across the temple and out the rear, motor skill/ And low muscle stopped/ No one knows how to make it stop, I hope I can wake up." The whole thing collapses into chaos, our hero throwing himself against the walls like William Hurt in Altered States (or the guy from a-ha in the "Take On Me" video, take your pick), the guitar hydroplanes into a sparks-flying, end of the world skid, and it's all over.
Need I mention that it's one of the most exhilarating moments in rock I've ever heard? Well, it is; it's the sound of an artist harnessing one of the triumphantly contradictory aspects that makes this juvenile art form worthwhile -- the sound of desperation made over into affirmation. And that, my bleary-eyed friends, is why Lolita Nation will join me in my isolated outpost in the middle of the sea of largely-squandered possibilities; even if all known support systems fail me tomorrow, even if my karmic balance statement remains overstuffed in the debit column, even if Scott Miller makes good on the threat made after the release of his most recent album and never records a note of music for public consumption ever again, I can still spin these two pieces of plastic and know I'm not quite alone, that there's an overeducated, overthinking, despairingly romantic muse lingering somewhere overhead. And even if I am alone, I can still thrash about amid the palm fronds playing a truly manic air guitar.