Exclusive to Collapse Board – Greil Marcus Ponders Better Than Ezra
We at Collapse Board are honored to feature a chapter from Greil Marcus’ forthcoming book The Fairly Recent, Normal America, scheduled for release sometime later this year.
Released the same month as the Oklahoma City bombing, Better Than Ezra’s 1995 hit ‘Good’ was all over the radio that year. It was inescapable, first conquering alternative rock radio and then crossing over to Top 40. It presented itself as a riddle to the country. The story was unclear, just a man — presumably a man — standing in an apartment he used to share with a loved one, though in this story the identity is vague enough that the other person might not be a lover at all, but instead might be a neglectful parent, a childhood friend, or perhaps something more otherworldly — say, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Regardless, this other person has — how long ago? For what reason? — vacated the apartment, but as he moves through the empty space, haunted by the silence, fragments from a letter fall from above. Picking them, up he reads that someone — presumably the you of the song has written, “It was good living with you”. This unexpected occurrence — a real-time response to what was an internal monologue, causes Kevin Griffin, the singer of Better Than Ezra, to erupt into a wordless howl — a “uh-waow-oh” each time he repeats what the note said, a howl that has far more in common with the glossolalia one finds in southern Pentacostal churches than in a pop song recorded in an expensive studio and released on a major label.
And why choose to have the note fall from the sky? Why not just set it on a countertop, or a broken table? In its slow descent from above, one can’t help but hear a parallel with Moses receiving the 10 Commandments. It’s a detail so odd, so unexpected, that it takes the song into a different place entirely. It allows Better Than Ezra, for a moment, to step outside the present day, to speak a truth that is larger than that which can be contained in a simple pop song.
In ‘Good’, one could hear echoes of an earlier time — specifically the 80s biblical rage of the Pixies. Founded in Boston, less than 50 miles from where the Pilgrims first set foot on a wild and untamed nation, Pixies music was every bit as feral, a Calvinist shriek against the horror of a fallen world. In the 90s, the Pixies functioned as a talisman for rock music, you could hear their influence in bands like Nirvana and Bush everywhere — their use of quiet/loud dynamics mirroring the American impulse to hold one’s tongue, to stifle one’s anger, but then to explode when pushed too far. There was something primal in the music; it functioned as a second mind for alternative rock’s more ambitious songwriter, a counterpart to the smooth, homogenized sounds coming out of other genres of the time. The Pixies were sitting there, waiting to be picked up and utilized by anyone seeking to make their mark on the world.
The same month that ‘Good’ began to climb the charts, another American attempted to make his mark on the world. And like Better Than Ezra, he also reached back into the distant, as well as the recent, American past in order to make his statement. Timothy McVeigh was a veteran of the first war in the Iraq. Outraged by the FBI’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1992, a siege that he saw as a blatant disregard for fundamental American liberties, he planned an act of protest. If Better Than Ezra would reach back into the expressive side of America’s spiritual forefathers, McVeigh would reach back into the bloodier, more violent side of his American inheritance — an America that soaked the land with the blood of its native population.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “Everyone’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness”. For McVeigh, his youth would create a nightmare. He planted a bomb in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 650 people. It was, at the time, the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil.
The #1 song on modern rock radio that day was ‘Lightning Crashes’ by a Pennsylvania band called Live.
The following week, as a nation attempted to make sense of the Oklahoma City tragedy, it would be replaced by Better Than Ezra.
In the song’s final verse, the singer, encouraged perhaps by the voice in the note, considers calling this person, or writing them a letter, and then — in a connection that is both singularly odd, and perfectly natural — suggests that he might see them on the 4th of July. But why this, of all holidays?
The 4th of July is a sacred prophecy in the heart of every American — a day of reckoning, a day of accountability, a religious holiday to take stock of this country’s promise, and to see how well — or how poorly — we have measured up, as individuals, or as a nation. In ‘Good’, the scraps of paper surrounding the singer could be a note from the nation’s spiritual history, John Winthrop’s letter to his shipmates, or it could be the charred embers of American flags drifting weightlessly through the dark Oklahoma City sky. The song existed in the present as a pop song, an assault on the marketplace; yet it resonates as prophecy. It was as if the song had been written for this moment, and — simultaneously — as if it had existed since the nation’s inception and Better Than Ezra merely had to reach backwards into the past and call it into being.