Welcome to the Working Week
It was 2000 and I was twenty years old and I was in love with Pete Tunney.
OK, maybe “in love” is too strong, but not by much. In that indelible summer, when I interned at Knitting Factory Records and discovered the island of Manhattan, Pete was the sun: the main source of light and heat. He was the star around which I orbited. When I was with him, I was preternaturally attuned to his every utterance and expressed preference; I silently and invisibly took mental notes on how I might behave to gain his acceptance. I’m sure the other interns did the same—there was an unspoken but palpable competition among us for his approval—but I knew that he loved me best. I wanted nothing more than to enter the palace of pop-musical wisdom, and I knew, I just knew, that Pete was the one to take me there.
Pete turned me on to a lot of great records that summer—as well as the habit of calling albums “records”—but none made a greater impression on me than My Aim is True, Elvis Costello’s debut. I told myself it was the perfect midpoint, musically, between my two previous favorite albums—Big Star’s Radio City and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Or maybe I loved it because Costello’s self-inflicted outsiderhood neatly mirrored my own. But most of it was that Pete loved it, and that imbued the album with an electricity that I can still feel, sixteen goddamn years later.
A lot has changed over those sixteen years. I’ve changed countries three times, swapped continents twice. I piled up three degrees. Got married, had kids, two of them. In many ways, real ways, I’m a different person than the twenty-year-old who all but followed Pete Tunney around the office like a newly bought puppy. But one of the only things that have stayed the same is this stupid fact: at any point in the past sixteen years, if you asked me what my favorite album is, I would have told you: Elvis Costello, My Aim is True.
Why is that? Why did I fix that album as the center of my musical taste, even as the essence of that taste transformed over and over again? Whether I completely detested Steely Dan (1996-2008) or completely loved them (2008-present), My Aim is True was there. During periods when I listened to mainly hip hop, or mainly female singer-songwriters, or mainly jazz, My Aim is True remained there. Sure, some things are bound to stay the same, but why this album? Why do I continue to tie myself to the mast of this single album? Why did I make this the flag of the country of What-I-Like, that nation that it seems that every young man I once knew, and quite a few young women too, worked so hard to trailblaze?
Well, there are musical reasons, of course. My Aim is True is Costello’s ur-text, the defining document that declared to the world who this artist was and who he would be. That he would stray far afield from this definition in the years to come is no matter—we both expect great artists to change and act surprised when they do. The album is essentially a demo. Recorded in less than twenty-four hours on a shoestring budget with an unheralded but surprisingly effective backing band—Huey Lewis’s band Clover, without Huey Lewis—My Aim is True is the sound of a great bar band with a singer who’s secretly a songwriting genius. It is the purest distillation of Costello’s songs, before he discovered the complicating brilliance of the Attractions.
But I’m no music critic, and I’m skeptical that we can really explain why any music affects us the way it does simply by reference to the music itself. The voice of music criticism—even when it’s at its most subjective, it falls back on the objective voice of the journalist—is ill-suited to the task of explaining the private experience of a song changing your life. So I’ll refrain from telling you what a great album this is and instead go back to telling you about that summer with Pete.
Pete was from Georgia. He formed a band there called Violet, and then came to New York to make it as a musician, or not, after the band broke up. When I met him, he was working for this semi-respectable record label while continuing to play music sporadically. He once played me a demo of some of his songs. One of them quoted from Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song” (you can bet I pointed out that I got the reference).
The stereo in the office was a big deal. It was a small office, small enough that wearing headphones was considered rude. Sometimes the stereo was needed to play the records we were actually releasing, and once in a while someone put on one of the tapes from the demo pile, but most of the time it worked like in most offices: a soundtrack for the day’s work. Most days, Pete would put something on, and I would ask him what it was, and then hope that he would offer to burn it for me. After the first couple of times, I didn’t dare ask him to.
Most of my interactions with Pete that summer were, from my perspective, shot through with the intensity and emotional upheaval of the beginning of a romantic relationship. I was elated when Pete’s girlfriend Amber came to after-work drinks and the two of them invited me out to dinner at their favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown. But then the next morning I was crushed when Pete asked me to catalog the CDs in the stock room like I was just another intern. One day I’d be walking on air because Pete burned me a copy of 25 All-Time Greatest Bubblegum Hits, the next I’d be brought low after committing a mortifying faux pas (P: “I’ve been getting into early Nick Lowe lately.” D: “Oh, I love the Birthday Party!”).
Pete introduced me to so much great music that summer: besides Nick Lowe, there was Fela Kuti, E.S.G., the first Black Flag album, the D.I.Y. Teenage Kicks compilation, and more than you need to read about here. I think he got a kick out of my youthful enthusiasm. I hoped he got a kick out of my youthful enthusiasm. I took to Costello with real gusto, and as I discovered the untouchable run of classic albums at the beginning of his career, Pete revisited them along with me. My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, and Trust were five albums with enough hooks and rage and wicked wit to bear near-Talmudic levels of scrutiny and discussion and deliberation.
The first song on the first album of Elvis Costello’s career begins with a masturbation joke, and ends, less than ninety seconds later, with a chorus he couldn’t be bothered to finish. “Welcome to the Working Week” is one minute and twenty-three seconds of resentment, bile, and lacerations inflicted both outward and inward (Costello once told an interviewer that all of his songs were inspired by “revenge and guilt”). It fixates, like most Costello songs, on an unnamed “you” who the narrator eviscerates with the only weapons at his disposal: put-downs, vicious character sketches, self-deprecating barbs, and pop hooks. This person is the beneficiary of all the spoils of success that Costello himself lacked at the time; the singer seethes at the injustice of it, sputtering out couplets that are too angry to really hang together into any kind of sustained point. Instead of a point, there’s a feeling: desperate ambition and its b-side, self-loathing.
That ambition is all over this album; Costello was desperate for something—fame? recognition? respect? Whatever it was, he had quite audibly saved up years of resentment at all the people keeping him from attaining his dreams, and you can hear it in almost every song.
I was ambitious too, just not really the kind shared by my fellow interns. I liked being a part of the music industry, but I wasn’t exactly hustling to make connections for a full-time job after graduation. Most of my ambitions were more amorphous and Costello-like. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be like all of the cool and thoughtlessly confident twenty-somethings drinking at the downtown bars. I wanted to be like Pete, most of all, someone for whom deep musical knowledge could combine with curiosity and open-mindedness to make a sort of fountain of youth.
There’s a lot of downtime when you’re an intern. One day another intern and I were inveigled into helping some band load in their equipment to the club downstairs from the label office. After doing our bit of heavy lifting, we stood outside the club, leaning against the huge white columns that held up the building, delaying the moment when we needed to go back up and back to work. Someone walked by wearing a bright yellow Bjork t-shirt, and I made an approving comment. This other intern was quick with an opinion: “Bjork’s what mainstream people like when they want to seem indie.” I thought, and still do, that the intention behind the comment was idiotic and small-minded (for christ’s sake, her most recent album was Homogenic). But the thing, of course, is that the guy was right. And so what, I should have said.
Music in and of itself means so much to me. There’s something I get from listening to music that I wouldn’t trade for any other experience in the world. But we lie to ourselves when we pretend that music (and books, and movies, and TV shows) doesn’t also do work for us. What we like conveys something to the world about who we are, just as surely as what we wear, how we speak, how we vote. Liking Bjork in 2000 did say something about you that liking, say, Jewel did not. Why do we deny this? Why did I feel ashamed to admit that part of why I might listen to something was because it made me feel like a different person, like the person I wanted to be? That kind of ambition, that kind of self-fashioning, now seems to me the most natural human behavior (sorry) in the world. Especially when you’re twenty years old.
Instead, I walked around mortified that someone might catch me caring. That someone might have thought I was trying to be something I wasn’t. “If they knew how I felt,” Costello sings in that first song, “they’d bury me alive.” Get over yourself, Elvis; you’re not so different from the rest of us.
I never saw Pete Tunney again after that summer. Not one time. I emailed him a few months after going back to college. I remember telling him about a new song I wrote, and about Almost Blue (Costello’s sixth album), which I seriously hated. He never responded, and that was that. The following summer I moved to New York, but I don’t remember if I even tried to get in touch with him again.
As I read through what I’ve written here, I realize how little I knew Pete, how little I even remember of him. Given the briefness and superficiality of our relationship, I would not be surprised if he didn’t remember me at all. I’m ok with that. In the years since that summer, Pete Tunney has been more like an album to me than an old friend. He’s something that I can take out of its sleeve and listen to now and then to remind me of a feeling—maybe hazy and undefined but so real—I once had when it was 2000 and I was twenty years old and I was in love.
David Gooblar is a lecturer in the Rhetoric department at the University of Iowa. He writes the “Pedagogy Unbound” teaching column for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae site and edits Pedagogy Unbound, a website for college instructors to share teaching tips. He is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth (Continuum, 2011) and the co-editor of Roth After Eighty: Philip Roth and the American Literary Imagination (Lexington, forthcoming). Far too much of his writing has appeared on Twitter, where he reluctantly tweets as @dgooblar.