Galaxie 500 parted ways in 1991 as I was first discovering their music. A few years later, when the release of a beautifully designed box set of their complete recordings coincided with end-of-semester textbook sales, I eagerly traded Biology for Astronomy.
Galaxie 500 taught me a lot about space. Not the cosmic, psychedelic moonscapes I had first imagined when staring at the purple and silver stars on the cover, but the amount of space a song could employ—space between instruments, between catharsis and calm, between thought and expression.
Rather than mimic the speed and sonics of their Boston peers, Galaxie 500 set its own languid, contemplative pace by focusing on the elemental: bass, drums, guitar, voice, reverb. Austerity and simplicity permeate their songs, but also intellect and intensity.
On “Flowers,” the first song on their debut LP, Today, a lone, unadorned guitar strums a simple two-chord sequence to a sparse, jazzy ride cymbal and snare shuffle, while the bass tiptoes around a simple melodic line, all held in a wash of reverb. But the haze is dispelled the moment they all hit the third chord, when the bass drives higher and the tension gathers. You sense that they can just as easily leap forward into an overdriven guitar solo as they can quietly recede. The stylistic consistency of their LP designs is as striking and singular as their sound, revealing a fully-formed cosmos.
While I don’t necessarily hold that a band should last indefinitely, Galaxie 500’s five short years left many fans speculating over the details of their bitter demise—what could have been, and if it might be again. Now, some 20 years later, the wonder of their rise and the heartbreak of their end is beautifully distilled by Mike McGonigal in Temperature’s Rising: An Oral and Visual History of Galaxie 500.
McGonigal’s multivocal oral narrative is comprised of interviews with people in and around the band. Little details, like the fact that drummer Damon Krukowski’s mother was a jazz singer, that bassist Naomi Yang interned with legendary designer Milton Glaser, or Dean Wareham’s favourite temp-job lunch break dessert, illustrate the individual characteristics and histories that shaped the band.
Their journey is enriched by Yang’s archive of visual ephemera, including contact sheets and artful photos, wry faux-press releases, postcards from Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, even the receipt for her signature Gibson EB-2 bass, purchased for $275.00 in 1987 along with a notoriously lousy Gorilla amp (I know because I had one, too), strap, and Mel Bay’s Electric Bass Method.
The story of their beginnings makes for a perfect Künstlerroman: three high school friends following each other to college, forming a band, recording their first 7in at Noise New York with the “pseudo-legendary” Kramer, protecting their ideals while navigating the shifty biz of the music world. And yet, the first signs of a bend sinister are evident in the recording of their debut LP, when guitarist and principal songwriter Wareham suggested songwriting credits be split rather than shared–a harbinger, no doubt. Absent the author’s voice, the reader is left to sift through testimony in search of meaning, and as the story turns from initial delight and excitement to frustration and turmoil, the multiple perspectives make for a tantalizing read.
Like most stories, there are heroes and villains. Rough Trade failed to accurately account for the band’s royalties, and Krukowski’s unease with Rough Trade USA’s office was palpable. After all, label rep Terry Tolkin’s offer for Wareham to leave Galaxie 500 for a taste of the majors essentially ended the band.
Some fans may seek a final sentencing. I doubt there’s enough here to either fully indict Krukowski and Yang for their uncompromising attitude or fully acquit Wareham of his selfishness. It’s hard to think of three intelligent, intense creative young people keeping it together for three amazing records. Thank heavens they did.
By Daniel PresnellBC, British Columbia