Daydreamer’s Holiday: The Clarks And The Sound Of Pittsburgh

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I grew up in a small town that could, on the surface, be mistaken for anyone else’s small town.  But just 30 minutes south down Rt. 28 is a city that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s city.  Pittsburgh is known nationally as a reformed industry city; a midwesterny town that has overcome its dirty steel mill past to become respectably nondescript.  You can see through the air and parts of the river now, and we have hospitals and universities to be proud of.  While all of that is true – and let it be said, the Pittsburgh renaissance is a great accomplishment – true Pittsburghers know that our grimy past is our greatest strength.  We are the whiskey rebellion and the rise of steel. We are second wave immigrants, perogies on fridays and fish on Christmas Eve.  We are the rust belt and we bleed black and gold.  We are wedged between three rivers, and our communities are tucked haphazardly into the carcasses of once coal-filled hillsides.  We even have our own language, which yinz can’t truly appreciate n’at.  And we have our own music.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Pittsburgher who came of age between 1991 and now who doesn’t know the Clarks.  In fact, I doubt you could find more than a handful who hadn’t been to at least one or two Clarks concerts.  The Clarks embody the essence of the unpretentious rock band.  They’ve been around for literally my entire life (they got together in 1986, the year I was born, and their first album I’ll Tell You What Man . . . came out in ‘88), but their sound has both never appreciably changed and never gotten old.  They remain wholly unconcerned with trends and just make the best sing-along, bust out your lighter, sit on the grass on a muddy summer evening rock music imaginable.

 

The Clarks are inextricably tied up in my memories of high school and college.  When I started high school, the band had already released five albums, and by the time I graduated they had released five others.  During my undergrad years, they released a greatest hits compilation, a live album, and just two years ago a new album Restless Days.  While I was in college, it was common for us to travel around the area to see the Clarks.  Their concerts were often cheap or free, and you always knew you were going to get a great show.  Between 2004 and 2010 when I moved to California, I saw the Clarks, or Scott Blasey (the lead singer), in concert 11 times.  All of my friends are Clarks fans.  Everyone I went to high school with and most of the people I went to college with are Clarks fans.  They are our band, the sound of growing up in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 21st century.

Blasey is largely responsible for the band’s sound, a solid, enthusiastic rock and roll, often with melancholy undertones.  Scott’s voice is pure Pittsburgh; he has the swallowing vocal patterns of a yinzer, all short vowels and smoker’s rasp.  The music itself is lively and eclectic, mimicking a city that has been around long enough to have kept building the new right on top of the old.  The songs can sound like sixties pop songs, mandolin-based singer songwriter ballads, or southern rock.  Without fail, though, there is a moment on every Clarks album, and in nearly every Clarks song, where that exuberance gives way to something darker, a weariness that runs deep.  Sometimes you can hear the rust on the guitar strings, a reminder that the mills are gone now, and maybe everyone’s bones hurt a little from walking up and down the hills of Lawrenceville in the rain.

The Clarks have a lot of great albums, and they receive pretty heavy play on my iPod, but they are best experienced live.  The band is always energetic and engaging.  One of their signature live songs is “Cigarette,” a weird existential meditation on “where you’re going when you’ve taken your last step.”  Blasey comes out, lights up a cigarette, and lets the band pound away at the fuzzy, bluesy riff, while he makes allusions to the Fayette County Fair and dilapidated houses that lead to hell, which may well be in Fayette County.  It’s traditional to throw a (unlit) cigarette on stage to show your approval, and, if you can get away with it, light up your own in solidarity.  “Do you know what you get?”  The band often follows with “Penny On The Floor,” which has been described as a “western Pennsylvania folk song,” and a request to please not throw pennies.  “Penny On The Floor” is a heartbreaking mandolin-based song about a dying relationship.

 

The Clarks have done a number of covers, but one of my favorites is their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” While Springsteen’s original is heartbreaking, slow and somber with a wailing harmonica, the Clark’s version blasts out of the gate with a drum and an assertive electric guitar.  The story remains the same – Mary still gets knocked up, the narrator is having a hard time finding work with the Johnstown company (something too familiar to a lot of blue collar Pittsburghers) – but gone is the sense of oppression.  While Springsteen focuses on the dying of a dream, the Clarks, in true ‘Burgh fashion, take the idea of driving out of the valley and diving into the river, and build the song around that.  Even when things are as good as they are going to get, and that isn’t so good, it’s still worth looking for a reason to be exuberant.

One of their biggest hits locally was “Shimmy Low” from their 2004 album Fast Moving Cars.  It’s an unhurried, optimistic song that dares you not to sing along: “Shimmy shimmy low, gotta free my soul, gonna walk on water, gonna lose control.” It may not be the most original lyric ever written, but standing in Station Square on a muggy August night, it can be the anthem of an entire city.  We can walk on the Allegheny and climb over Mount Washington and lose control by the chimneys that line the Waterfront.

So many Clarks songs have been hugely important to me in my life.  I remember dancing to “Snowman,” an up tempo song about a melting snowman, or a dying crack addict, at my senior prom, where the boy I was in love with ripped my dress (“Up all night/ Please don’t melt”).  The song drips slush and grey winter, the feeling of six months of the year in Pittsburgh.  I remember blasting “Born Too Late” at a crappy retreat center near the airport, where we thought we were shocking, with a song that threw Jesus in with John Lennon and Jerry Lewis.  The Clarks dominate the soundtrack of my formative years in a way that no other band even approaches.

The Clarks have occasionally flirted with national success.  Their song “Let It Go” from the album of the same name, was on the soundtrack for Summer Catch, and “Better Off Without You,” which is undoubtedly the best kiss off song ever written, was featured on the closing credits for, of all things, The Anna Nicole Show.  They made it onto Letterman in 2004, but they’ve never really caught on nationally, and it’s rare for someone outside of the Pittsburgh area or slightly beyond it to even have heard of The Clarks.  While it’s a shame that a band making such pure rock and roll music hasn’t found a bigger audience, we Pittsburghers are okay with keeping the Clarks to ourselves.

Maybe the rest of the country hasn’t quite learned to love the sound of resilience and rust, of college town diversity and blue-collar unity.

But that’s okay because we’re “having fun looking out for number one, and we’re doing all the things we like to do.”