I have the day off today, and I hadn’t planned on spending half of it obsessing about Belle and Sebastian. However, I just watched the fantastic, hour-long documentary on the early years of the band, and I am here to spread the word.
If there is one band that I thought I understood pretty well, it would be Belle and Sebastian. I’ve been listening to them since 1999 or so, and have practically every song committed to memory. However, after I watched this documentary, I realized that I only had a surface understanding of Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and main songwriter of the band.
|A friend had Stuart Murdoch sign this
for me. It reads, “Dear Aaron: Fiona
says your [sic] nice, in fact….
Love, Stupot XXX only joking
My take on the band was that they wrote incredibly catchy melodies about misfits, rejects, and oversensitive art-school types. The music was beautiful and often funny (sample line: “So I gave myself to God; there was a pregnant pause before He said, ‘O.K.'”), but you had to admit that they were, well, effete. Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity called Belle and Sebastian “sad bastard music,” and it was hard to argue with that. It’s sad bastard music, but that’s why you like it.
Here’s what I learned from the documentary, which focuses on the band’s first two albums, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister. Stuart Murdoch, who was a long-distance runner and boxer as a young man, became ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), which more or less derailed his life. He was too weak to continue at school or hold a job, and he had to move back in with his mother. For years, the most he could do was tinker around on his mother’s piano, and even that was enough to exhaust him.
When Murdoch began to improve, he entered a sort of welfare program for out-of-work or unemployable musicians, where they would receive benefits to create music with other destitute artists. And this is where he began the band.
The members of Belle and Sebastian and the people that Stuart Murdoch writes about are not rejects from art school; they’re rejects from society at large. When he talks about his crippled friends, or girls who have gone blind, he’s not being ironic. So many of his songs mention riding on a city bus because that is literally the most strenuous thing he could do, and was the only chance he had of observing normal human life.
One reason I love Belle and Sebastian is because they have so many songs about athletes and sports. (I sometimes write obsessive songs about athletes myself.) Take “The Stars of Track and Field” on If You’re Feeling Sinister, which isn’t just a song about obsessing over a favorite athlete (in this case, Olympian Alan Wells), but is also a song about an athlete who is no longer well enough to get out on a track and run. When he sings, “The stars of track and field are beautiful people,” he absolutely means it.
So, I would end here by encouraging fans and detractors of the band to take an hour to watch the Pitchfork documentary. But there’s more to talk about! Sure, Stuart Murdoch and I both obsess about sports and music, but then again, so does half the world. But we also share a very specific article of clothing. In this photo, you will see Stuart Murdoch at one of Belle and Sebastian’s early shows, circa 1995, in which he appears to be wearing, of all things, a 1970s-era jersey of Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
|Stuart (left) in his Franco Harris Jersey|
Below is a photo of me, from approximately the same time, also playing guitar at an early gig, wearing the exact same Franco Harris jersey.