It happened in 1994, in Paris.
1994, fucking hell. 17 years ago already?!
I received a tape in the mail, a cassette with copied songs on it, from one of my contacts. I had a lot of contacts all over the country. We were all music junkies. Every week, if not every day, we all sent tapes and songs to each other.
Oh don’t give me that look: I know, it’s bad to copy stuff, whatever. It’s not that, as students, most of us did not have money to spend on CDs. We did. The little money I had, I blew it on CDs, buying cheap junk food for lunch just to afford that rare EP found at Jussieu Music, O’CD, Gibert Joseph, or any of the numerous music shops on my way to school. I visited those shops pretty much every day for three years, and certainly spent a significant amount of cash there.
But it was never enough. I had discovered indie music in general, and indie rock in particular just the year before. And it had blown my mind away. There is little I can report to faithfully explain the sad state of my musical education up to that point. Suffice to say that discovering that new, weird, outlaw, fascinating musical landscape was a milestone in my life. And thus, eager to get up to speed, I traded, listened, swapped, listened, copied, listened – nothing could quench my thirst.
Most of my contacts had been found thanks to the Minitel, which was this old, French, very slow ersatz to Internet, at a time when almost nobody had Internet in France. We were all conscientiously reading “Les Inrockuptibles“, and listening to Bernard Lenoir on the radio every evening (the French counterpart to John Peel). The lucky ones living in Paris attended his famous Black Sessions regularly. For the most part though, we had never met each other. But a shared love of alternative music made us all blood brothers. I spent countless hours creating carefully crafted compilations, noting down the lyrics in hand-written letters, along with annotations, remarks, questions, for people who were effectively total strangers.
One of those strangers had sent me a tape that morning, whose A-side was labeled “Juliana Hatfield - Become What You Are“. I had never heard of her. But then again, at the time I had never heard of many bands. Total rookie.
So I lied on my bed, closed my eyes, and played it once.
And then I played it again.
And once more.
And once more.
That’s how I am, can’t do things “a little bit”. At the time I had a room-mate, JC, who couldn’t listen to the same song just twice in a row, claiming he got “bored”. I was the opposite: each time a song caught my ears I would just stop the CD (even when listening to it for the very first time), and I would replay the same catchy song a good ten times in a row before listening to the next. At the end of the day, I had played that album for hours and hours, and JC was absolutely sick of it. Me, on the other hand, I was delighted. It was perfect. The catchy tunes had captured me. The melodies had grown on me. I loved the voice. I loved the lyrics. I was hooked.
In the following months, I became semi-obsessed with Juliana Hatfield. Oh, it happened all the time. I was equally obsessed with Jeff Buckley, Björk, PJ Harvey, or even Elastica. But Juliana had something that the others lacked: a connection with the audience, a proximity, a humanity that I didn’t feel, or not as much, in the others. Take Björk for example. I loved the music. Hell, I was part of “Etoile Polaire”, a magazine dedicated to Iceland & Björk. I sold Björk records at the Route du Rock in St Malo. I talked about Björk on a radio show. I was a huge fan. But as much as I enjoyed her music, I was rarely able to truly connect to Björk, to put myself in her shoes, to see the world like she did, to make her lyrics mine. Björk was simply too alien, too out there for me to fully understand her. On the other end of the spectrum, a band like Elastica rocked, was great fun, and easy to connect to. But their lyrics lacked depth: right, sure, “waking up and getting up has never been easy”, I get that, I know what you mean. But that’s a bit meh, isn’t it?
Juliana Hatfield however, a bit like Kristin Hersh, had lyrics that went right through your heart. “Ugly“, “Addicted“, “I got no idols“, and many others: those songs hit you like a punch in the guts, and they felt real. They felt like they were written by a real person, a flesh-and-blood human suffering, experiencing the same problems as the rest of us. In her book years later, she wrote that she never felt like a rock star. I think that’s exactly what made her stand out, why we loved her: we simply felt close to her. We fell for the flaws. It was very easy to feel empathy for the fragile girl who “sold her soul for rock and roll and never ever got a kiss“. It was a lot more difficult to feel anything for one more famous yet tedious rock star, like, I don’t know, David-fucking-Lee-Roth.
This all goes back to my favorite Buckley quote, really, from an interview in Les Inrockuptibles:
« Voilà l’héritage des punks: il n’existe plus de héros mais juste des êtres humains. »
That’s punk legacy, there are no more heroes, only humans. No more heroes, as the single from The Stranglers that Elastica (surprise?) so carelessly sampled. We’re running in circles here. Maybe Juliana tried too hard to become something we wouldn’t have cared about anyway. Maybe it’s better indeed, to just become what you are. To be yourself.
So what was she? What is she? Genuine rock star, or fraud? Or simple “music worker”? Nobody cares. Only uninspired journalists and academics care about labels. I hate people who put a sticker on others, reducing them to a single little concept they can easily manipulate and dismiss. I’m a coder. I’m a writer. On the ST I was drawing graphics. Now I do some 3DS Max for KP. Once again, we’re just builders. We create stuff to feel happy, doesn’t matter what it is or in what category the janitors want to put it. As far as Juliana was concerned, what I loved most is that she could also rock the house, with titles like “What a life“, “OK OK“, or even B-sides like “Rider“. Those weren’t from a shy bird in need of protection. Those were from the powerfrau, the huntress out of her lair to kick some male asses. And I loved that mix, that blend of strength and fragility. It felt honest. It felt… human.
Time passed. Over the years, I made mine many of her lyrics. Some of them, sometimes out-of-context, became my mottos. “I got no idol” has long been my answer, my weapon against a lot of so-called heroes, self-appointed experts or prima donnas I was confronted with. It was especially clear when making demos: there was no way I’d have bowed towards anybody. You can still find this quote in some of my old angry texts against the world, from that period. Others like “a heart that hurts is a heart that works” were used as a shield against failed, doomed relationships. But my most cherished line came from one of my favorite Juliana songs ever (a B-side?! What the fuck!): “You showed me it’s a crime to never even try.” How many times did I listen to that! I played that song, “Where would I be without you?“, countless times, always eagerly waiting for the last part when she utters that line. I used to be a pathologically shy boy, easily paralyzed by shyness in front of a benign-yet-scary-for-me situation. But then sometimes, out of the blue, “it’s a crime to never even try” would pop up in my head, repeated like a mantra, and it would push me over the edge, forcing me to “go for it”. The last time it happened, it made me kiss a girl, who is now the mother of my first child. Where would I be without you indeed?
It’s been 17 years since I first discovered Juliana Hatfield. To this date, “Become What You Are” is probably the record I played the most in my life after “Grace” from Jeff Buckley. That’s hundreds and hundreds of time, easily. It’s one of those rare albums where every song, one after the other, became at a time my favorite – no disk filler, nothing to leave out. My old tape died from exhaustion a long time ago, and got replaced by a brand new CD, then later by MP3s. I’m still playing them 17 years later, to create a wall of sound around me at work. It’s a cocoon I never got tired of. I have more than a thousand CDs in my collection; very few passed the test of time as well as this one.
It’s been a few weeks since I discovered Juliana’s new stuff, totally by accident. The book, the story behind God’s Foot, the latest albums. I bought “How To Walk Away”, and played “This Lonely Love” all day long. For a week. I heard “Fade Away” for the first time yesterday. And I can’t stop listening to it. I’m listening to it now, writing this post. This is insanity. Nothing changed. The old magic never vanished. I’m hooked again. I’m addicted again. Hopefully for 17 more years!