I stepped to the counter, at the specialty wine store, two wine bottles in hand. The tolerant wine steward who had helped me at length to select the wines ducked to the back, and from the far corner of the long counter, a woman blurted out the question:
"Is that a Slint shirt?"
She was also a wine merchant, noting her approval of my choice in Corsican wine as she glided over. Where had I obtained the shirt, she wondered.
Liking Slint involves a fair amount of determined stumbling down strange musical paths and I could appreciate her surprised delight. At the mention of the name, the full bellows of memory began to blast my ears with stark repeated chords, thrumming guitars and sparse, laconic attacks on the drums, like arrows shot into a field of fog at dusk. A man whispers darkly:
"His friends stare
With eyes like the heads of nails
The spoken, murmured, shouted lyrics swirled together as ever stranger short stories: the frantic vampire from Nosferatu Man riding the rollercoaster with the fortune teller girl in Breadcrump Trail, lonely Don (Aman)'s corpse appearing in a window to the (Good Morning,) Captain.
I bought the shirt, actually two of them, from the label website, I explained, around the time of the remastering of the album and the expansive box set, in 2014. I asked if she had seen the documentary that came out then, but no, still she was stuck smiling in her remembered enjoyment of Slint, trying to knit the thread of this shared strange affinity into more, as my girlfriend, who was beside me, was keen to point out later, but the detailed worship I had once assumed to be required for all Slint fans proved absent, the music clearly more of a recollection for her-something she had enjoyed for a time once, sufficiently compelling to store away the album cover but not an eternal interest, not the cherished corpse of a band that broke up before my birth, whose every fragment I have sought to collect, dissect, and reassemble into a body whose name is genius, perhaps the most influential and inimical album of experimental music of the last 30 years, mysteriously conceived by four teenagers in Louisville, whose gaunt faces, befuddlement in interviews about their own music, and complete lack of subsequent output, either separately or together, resembling anything like the gripping spirit of Spiderland suggest some kind of alien abduction or bargain with Mephistopheles in their Louisville basement practice room, because what else could explain the pure haunting beauty of this album, it is sorcery on black vinyl, to be played at 33 1/2 RPM, again and again and again.
All clothing broadcasts a signal, perhaps clouded in layers of referential meaning. Band shirts, for the most part, fall on the more transparent side of the spectrum with the clear message of "I like this music." And while pop groups may offer some opportunities for irony, a shirt from the more obscure corners can only be read as an earnest endorsement. But why broadcast my fandom? I have no commitment to the form; the Spiderland shirt is the only band clothing I own. I do remember deciding to purchase only once I had confirmed the shirt consisted only of the album cover, without any added label. Once a buff man brushed by me on the subway platform and muttered a compliment about the shirt. I was reading, and had to move the book to look at my shirt, by which time my question, "Oh, do you like Slint?" floated down the empty tunnel.
The wordless album cover, printed on a black t-shirt and slightly cropped by my unzipped jacket, requires some degree of familiarity to identify. Four heads float in a monochrome lake. The scuffed bluff of a quarry slopes down the flattened background of the photo, leaving an inverted, squat right triangle of light slicing across the band's perfect jumble of pure, peculiar, accidental poise. David Pajo's eyes are closed, or nearly so, under the screeching sun, which could explain his yawning gap on the far right from the other three, but also rather aptly matches his role as second guitarist, superb technician. Todd Brashear grins boyishly on the left edge of the triangle, looking more like a fullback than a bassist, his warm ease matching well his late addition to the group and future career as video store owner. At the center, naturally, are the two masterminds, Brian and Britt, friends since scrawny days in an arts elementary school, their supportive parents carrying amplifiers on stage for the kids to open for adult hardcore bands. But Brian the guitarist and vocalist is in the back, giving the one true smile in the group, a furtive diversion from his occult lyrical brilliance, the shy leader and jokester. Drummers rarely sit in front, but Britt is so obviously responsible for the instrumental core of Slint-writing most of the songs and even playing guitar on drumless Don Aman–that surely no one questioned his drift to the stark center, the light and playfulness swallowed abruptly in the black of Britt's severe stare.
I've worn the shirt to underground techno clubs, thinking it an appropriate gloomy uniform, and perhaps hoping at some level for a discrete acknowledgment of my cross-genre interest in avant-garde music, a beacon to some other soul wandering the dark rooms. I have also worn it many times to work; one coworker recently referenced it as the shirt with the guys on it. Those quiet hopes long vanquished, in large part by my lucky friendship with two musical obsessives, I wear the shirt because I like the cover, the music, and I like to remind myself of the weeks I spent digesting the album my senior year of high school, listening again and again in the bus to debate tournaments until the album in its holy spirit dawned as an ecstasy of eternity, at once and everything.
The second shirt I bought for Will, my debate partner, a year older and more aesthetically inclined, who introduced me to Spiderland. We discussed its morphing power, dissected the songs, traded nuggets (he discerned Britt's centrality), built a framework of friendship around winding all night visits ending often in a refinement of our Slint theory. I quickly bought the reissued box set and waited weeks for Will to arrive-we blasted through the album, the demos, the DVD, and attended a haunting and perplexing performance by languid middle-aged men under the name of Slint. A year later Will fell under the eviscerating weight of bipolar schizophrenia and killed himself.
"I swear, I'll make it up to you, promise I'll
I'll make it up to you, I'll make it up to you
I'll make it up to you
Let me go!
Let me go!
I miss you
I miss you"
(Good Morning, Captain)
The male wine steward returned from his errand in the back and tilted his head at me, "Is that a Slint shirt?"
WORDS, MUSIC - 03 March 2019