Matthew Sweet's 'Girlfriend' at 20: Power Pop Packs Nostalgic Punch
Even nearly 20 years later, I can still remember the day my college girlfriend gave me a copy of Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” on cassette.
Its cover was a gorgeous picture of then-young actress Tuesday Weld gazing into a camera, a vision of beauty that nonetheless appeared too perfect to last.
Indeed, both the cassette and the relationship wore out eventually, as I played its 15-song cycle of love prayed for, won and lost until it snapped in my stereo deck, and as Laura fell for another guy while spending the next semester in Spain. As Sweet ruefully sang in the closing song, nothing lasts.
That lesson and those memories came back to haunt me and a few hundred other people Jan. 13 when Sweet hit the stage of the Echoplex for the final stop of a special tour marking the 20th anniversary of his best-selling album, a record considered along with the likes of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as one of the seminal albums of the ‘90s.
Despite continuing to craft mostly sterling power-pop in the decades since, Sweet had fallen into relative obscurity before launching what could have been just another cash-in nostalgia tour. But for every band like Creed or Motley Crue that hops on a bus to milk the cash cow, there remain a few true artists whose initial passion still shines through. And even as Sweet has fattened considerably and grown a white-flecked beard which together make him look like the aging stoner uncle of his once young and clean-shaven self, he still delivered the album’s tunes, start to finish, with passion and the occasional surprising insight.
It’s admittedly unfair to single out Sweet’s bigger gut and aging jowls, as nearly everyone in line – including my own now-bloated self – looked like they were trying to recapture their college glory days, if only for an evening. And at least Sweet’s songs still carried the lyrical power and the hard-charging oomph that they were born with, back when he wrote the album as a go-for-broke final shot at success after a couple of prior albums had bombed.
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As I pulled my bike up on the sidewalk above on Sunset, outside the Echoplex’s sister club, The Echo, I was happy to see dozens of twentysomethings in line for what I thought was the same show.
“This the line for Matthew Sweet?” I asked.
“Who?” responded a young Latino Romeo, who was awaiting an entirely different show, his arm wrapped around his girlfriend in the exact same way I once held Laura on a cold night in Austin, waiting for Sweet’s initial “Girlfriend” tour back in 1991.
“Sorry, I guess he’s downstairs. Who are you seeing?”
“The Growlers,” he replied, to which I had to laugh right back with a “Who?” of my own.
It was a rare case in which I felt the generation gap slap me in the face, between my young, music-loving self at age 20 and the guy I am now at 40, who favors watching and performing comedy over exploring new bands in dark clubs. As I hustled down to the actual Sweet line below, I overheard several other guys my age and older laughing about their own interactions with the “kids” above.
What these ex-frat boys out for a night away from the kids didn’t seem to realize is that 20 years from now, those kids upstairs might be lining up themselves to see The Growlers relive their glory days, long after Sweet and the rest of us are parked full-time on the couch in a retirement center.
Loudest of all was a guy named Bob, a late-40s home contractor from Riverside who was loudly boasting of his college concert-going days and about the fact he wrote a letter of outrage to a Nevada sheriff who made national news for a pot bust against a ski trip-bound busload of college kids. Ironically, by the time I got a drink about 15 minutes into Sweet’s set, Bob was either passed out or asleep in a seat along the back wall of the Echoplex, as his wife chatted with another lady friend like they were hanging out at a church social.
At least Bob had found a wife and partner to settle in for the long haul. I and plenty of other people in the crowd were obviously still single, having endlessly repeated the cycle of longing, love and loss that Sweet had so expertly captured. As I played the CD endlessly in the week leading up to the show, I thought about Laura and the girlfriends who had come and gone through the years since, and I remembered that since she was “the one who got away” – a gorgeous and funny girl from Missouri whose voice dripped with Southern-tinged honey – I had tracked her down a couple years ago after finding her mom’s number in a college photo album.
I was surprised to find Laura at her mom’s house right at that moment, just as surprised as her mom sounded to hear me calling again, no doubt. And while I, of course, hadn’t wished Laura any serious sadness over the years, anyone who’s ever checked in with a love who broke their heart knows that you don’t exactly hope to find them ecstatically happy, either.
And Laura wasn’t. She had just moved home after a five-year live-in relationship had ended and told me that she had spent the 15 years since graduation with a “5-5-5” situation – five years of marriage to the guy from Spain, five years alone, and then five years of cohabitation hoping for another ring that never came. In return, I told her of my broken engagement several years before after finding my fiancé had severe and incurable bipolar disorder, and of my own health struggles in the years since (now healed, glad to say).
We spoke for an hour, in the kind of surface-happy yet actually-awkward conversation that exists especially between past loves. And then it was obvious that nothing more would come of this, ever, and it was time to say goodbye in a falsely sunny fashion. I threw the number away and put my scrapbook back on a high closet shelf, thinking I’d never think of her again.
And I rarely if ever have, until that week leading up to Sweet, that CD in perpetual play on my stereo half a country away from Laura. Watching Sweet that night, he joked about how some people actually had “Girlfriend” on cassette (“Can you imagine that? Wow, remember cassettes?”) Yeah, I can imagine, and remember. And as Sweet encored with songs like “Time Capsule” and “Baby We’re the Same” from other brilliant albums, I realized his CD and this concert formed a perfect capsule for about 500 of us, standing in a dark club the way we used to in our college days. And while we’d like to think we’re the same, it’s still even more sadly true that nothing lasts.