Heart Shaped World

Band/Artist: Chris Isaak
Album: Heart Shaped World
Best song: I’m here to talk about “Wicked Game.”
Worst song: “In the Heat of the Jungle” is not great.

I’m old and tired now, but when I was a young person, music was my first passion (my first and only passion now is my dog). As recently as the beginning of my thirties, I was writing about and thinking about music much of my time. I wanted new bands in my life and I really fucking wanted to write about them. I’m not 100% sure as to why. I’m sure my failings as a songwriter and musician – I am psychedelically lazy regarding things that don’t initially come easy to me and have to be forced to practice, so I never really took to repetition necessary for music – are the main reasons I went toward music criticism.

Nevertheless, from approximately 1994 until approximately 1999, I was in a ton of bands. I don’t have much in the way of talent and, as outlined above, I wasn’t much for practicing. I always fancied myself a drummer and still play the drums a little in my tiny apartment on one of those extremely-Flock of Seagulls electronic drum sets, but lost interest sometime in high school. I picked up the guitar around age 14 and was similarly lazily interested. I liked gear and have a dad who was interested in connecting with me by buying me dumb shit, so I even had several guitars growing up.

I never took music lessons outside of the school-supported violin and trombone (yes, really) for a year each in elementary school. I was a decent singer – I had a vocal solo in an elementary school choral performance – until puberty hit, but was about as interested in nurturing that talent as I was in everything else in my life: I just didn’t want to practice.

I used to write in these blogs about music once I became a working person a lot. I did an ambitious thing about some dumb album list that inspired kids to do the same and I tried to use music as a vehicle to write about my own problems to almost no success (I cringe when I read about my girlfriend breaking up with me when I was 28). I’ve moved to Twitter because I’m a tired middle-aged man and because social media is the venue by which my generation (old millennials) communicates. The people I admire most — Brandy Jensen, Amanda Mull, David Roth, Luke O’Neil, etc. — can do all of these things well in more forms, but I am as mediocre (and lazy) a writer (and thinker) as I am a musician, so I simply lost the energy to do any of it.

Last week, while second-screening YouTube during a baseball game, a live version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” was served to me by the algorithm. I don’t know why and I don’t care to think about it too much, lest I delve into everyone’s fears about the security state and the truth behind the FBI agent meme. But it came up and it roiled my emotions far too much because that song and I have history that I’ve not written down anywhere.

One of the bands I was in while at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Il. between 1995 and 1999 was called The Perfect Truck. We were one of a few projects spearheaded by my brilliant friend Western Homes (he even had a stage name back in high school), who (along with a few other friends who will remain nameless because they are not working musicians) introduced me to “indie rock” that wasn’t Sub Pop-based. Westie liked Pavement and Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, but also The Dirty Three, so he was endlessly fascinating to me. He, our bass player Andra (who was a fantastic viola player in our school’s orchestra and, I think, remains a professional musician), our drummer Jim (who I’ve sadly lost track of) and I were a four-piece band that sounded like a band influenced by Pavement, overly intellectual teen angst and upper-class Chicago suburbs. I don’t know that we wouldn’t have been GamerGaters, if that would’ve existed in 1998.

Jim, Andra and Westie were all a grade above me at New Trier, but even without the extra year, they were all exponentially smarter than I am or were. They were also considerably more talented; I couldn’t keep my guitar tuned, prompting band arguments more than I’d like to admit. I know it made Westie upset and I can’t imagine how much it annoyed Jim and Andra.

In fact, one of our biggest public performances was on WNTH, our high school’s low-watt radio station (yes, we had a radio station and yes I was heavily involved in running it). I don’t even remember who was hosting, but we played a short 20ish-minute set that included mostly originals and one cover, which was the single song I – the rhythm guitar player and backup vocalist – sang. That song was “Wicked Game.”

I don’t know if it was a goof on the song or not. It was an eight-plus-year-old song originally done by a bouffanted Californian bowling shirt-wearing baritone. The song was most famous for its conspicuously horny music video featuring a beach and a shirtless Helena Christensen. It looked like the Cool Water ads in Playboy smelled and, to a teenage ear, it didn’t sound markedly different.

My vocal range at age 17 wasn’t nearly what Chris Isaak’s was, is or even will be when he dies, but my bandmates humored me. For whatever reason, I’ve always loved arpeggio and arpeggio-adjacent guitar lines – “White Wedding” was one fo the first songs I learned on the guitar – and “Wicked Game” has one of the best. I was and am also clinically depressed and writing a forbidden love song in B-minor hit me right in the cockles. We played the song on the radio during our short set and I think we probably mangled it (a tape exists somewhere in my mom’s house, but I will never look for it), but that song will always be one that stays with me.

To say that “Wicked Game” is a perfect song is probably hyperbole, but I am prone to hyperbole when I’m talking music. I’ve called Metallica the perfect metal band, Chelsea Wolfe’s Ἀποκάλυψι a perfect album and, more recently, said that “Material Girl” has the perfect pop melody. I mangled “Wicked Game” because I can’t sing, but Isaak’s whole steez was summed up in the song: He was a sensitive lothario with an Ivan Drago chin and an extreme reverb guitar sound. The song – and the video, for which the song will never be decoupled – seemed like it just materialized on Laguna Beach in the late summer at 11:00 pm on a weeknight, after everyone went home because they had to get to work in the morning. “The world was on fire and no one could save me like you” is a hell of a way to open a song because of its gumption of it. It’s the kind of dumb guy line that my teenage brain thought was brilliant (I also thought Adam Carolla was a genius in 1998, so keep that in mind) and it makes a fair amount of sense that Isaak worked it so well. I was not a teenage men’s rights dude, but it was the 1990s and my white, male suburban mind was only digging into all manners of thoughtfulness with the smallest of strokes. In that period of time, I got heavily into Elliott Smith for the same reasons everyone gets into him: I was wildly depressed. I’d spent most of my early HS years in the downbeat post-rock world; Tortoise was (and is) the great tip of the musical pyramid, but being introduced to Smith’s lachrymosity fit in well with my worldview and “Say Yes,” in particular, fit in with my teenage romantic mind. While “Wicked Game” is far from the lyrical work that “Say Yes” is — few things are — it was certainly of the same vein.

Most of my favorite lyrics are those that dabble in simplicity and “Wicked Game” hits that sweet spot well. The high note he hits – falsetto, maybe? – in the chorus is the song’s calling card because the chorus’ single line is simple in its statement of purpose of forbidden love. “No, I don’t wanna fall in love” is a killer line in and of itself, but “with you” as a rejoinder? It’s pure and emotive in a way that can only be delivered by someone with a very large emotional void, just as the surf guitar reverb could only deliver a melody guitar line that can only be described as “basically, the b-minor scale, but in reverse.”

The backup vocal on the chorus as Isaak falsettos his way through the letter “I,” is “This girl is only going to break your heart.” This only added to my obsession. The notion of failed love to a teenager in the suburbs remains among the greatest of catnips, particularly within the structure of a sensitive man with a strong jaw and a pompadour. That the video was irreparably horny was just another thing to make me love it even more.

I am quite sure that I don’t I want to hear our band’s cover of “Wicked Game.” I know I can’t sing now and I can’t imagine how I sang in high school. The notion that our band was able to play on the radio for the dozens listening to a public high school station… is absurd on its face and a million things had to go right (wrong?) for it to happen. I had to grow up in a school district rich enough to operate a radio station where I’d met my bandmates, not to mention having parents rich enough to buy me guitars (yes, plural). I had to have lived during an era when someone of my limited ability could have — albeit through dial-up internet and/or early DSL-speed home internet — downloaded the guitar tablature and lyrics to the song. I had the gumption to convince three far more advanced musicians to go along with my dumb cover.

But the actual song remains. The greatest of “Wicked Game” is not just that an idiot teen covered it with his band, but that we did so eight and a half years after the song charted. Isaak is likely seen by the more pretentious of us as a one-hit wonder (not by me! “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” “Somebody’s Crying” and the rest of Heart Shaped World still totally rip). His tour schedule suggests he’s got a big enough following of cheesy-ass Gen Xers who will pony up decent money to see him at a summer amphitheater show where you can bring your own wine, sit on a lawn and catch up with some friends. There’s nothing really wrong with that.

Mostly, though, I think back to those lyrics. As I dip back into this blog, I think about how much I used to write and how much I wanted to be someone who wrote music or lyrics. I never could. I just spent years of my life describing music because I couldn’t play it. And through all of the words I’ve ever written, none will ever be as evocative as “Nobody loves no one,” the ending line of the song.

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