Friday, June 26, 2009

It's a Suicide to Choose

Another band that should've been huge.

If you lived in Boston (or almost anywhere in New England) in the mid-to-late 1980s, you couldn't escape from O Positive.

Their sound was laid back but insistent, desparate but hopeful, grounded but oddly ethereal (like a harder-rocking Death Cab for Cutie). The band -- led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Herlihy and guitarist Alan Petitti -- performed up and down the East Coast, building buzz wherever they went. They signed with Throbbing Lobster (a Boston-based garage-oriented indie label) and released an EP in 1985 called Only Breathing, which was played a lot on cool local radio station WBCN, constantly on cooler station WFNX, and occasionally even on Boston's uncool stations. And while a lot of people compared O Positive to REM, it was clear that there was something entirely different going on.

The first track, "With You," was a tale of a relationship that seemed doomed from the start. I'd get lost in the song every time I heard it (and not just because the captivating intro lasts for over 40 seconds before the vocals kick in). At the time, I never could quite figure out if the singer was berating himself or his girlfriend with lines like "It's your five-week anniversary/Put a rope around my neck" or "Smoke a cigarette/Think it'll get you through it" and best of all: "I could love you/It's a suicide to choose." I bought the EP at the Newbury Comics upstairs in the Garage in Harvard Square in Cambridge (and picked up the great Don Dixon-produced Dumptruck album at the same time). And then I went downstairs and bought a tabouli and feta cheese stroller (a pita wrap that you could eat while walking around) from a place called Stuff-Its. (The Garage and Newbury Comics are still there, but Stuff-Its and O Positive are both long gone.) (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

O Positive switched to Link records for the 1987 EP Cloud Factory (and Link later released the two EPs together on one CD). I've always thought the highlight of Cloud Factory was the great song "Up, Up, Up" (which struck me as a sequel of sorts to "With You," with the same singer looking back fondly at the doomed relationship he tried to escape from in the earlier song). Epic signed the band soon after, eager to capitalize on their growing fanbase (and hoping to find a group that would be as influential as REM). But their 1990 album ToyboatToyboatToyboat sounded a bit too slick and watered-down and the band parted ways with Epic after disagreeing about their future direction. Another indie release and a live album and the band was done. Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Years later, I thought back on a woman I knew who loudly and violently denounced anyone who smoked as weak and pitiful. While I don't like smoking (and have never smoked myself), the virulence of her attacks was shocking. When I learned she'd been a heavy smoker herself, the attacks seemed even stranger. Millions of years after the fact, I remembered how much she'd scared me. And wondered if I was just to weak to love her. Suddenly, in a moment of crystal clarity, I understood what "With You" mean (at least to me) and why it stayed with me after all those years.

When it's a suicide to choose, a little part of you dies no matter what you do.

Unrelated Postscript: Dave Herlihy, who is a huge star in the alternate universe with the best music, is now an entertainment lawyer in this universe. But you can tell he's still cool because his photo on his website shows him posed in front of a shelf of law books with his guitar.

1 comment:

asiangrrl said...

This is a great post, Alex. I've never heard of O Positive, but I really like the two songs you posted.

As for the woman who was an ex-smoker, yeah, they tend to demonize their past vices in order to further distance themselves from it.

As for doomed relationships, I am the queen of them--no wonder I really liked With You