1994: The Toadies - “Possum Kingdom”

Okay, I’d better cop: I’m not, nor have I ever been, the least bit of an actual Toadies fan. I basically know nothing about that band. I definitely never saw them live, and I certainly never owned, ripped, borrowed, burned, or even so much as lifted 1994’s Rubberneck by its enormous plastic handle (remember those?) at Sam Goody to contemplate its contents. I have no idea what its cover art is. I don’t know what the guys’ names in the band are. I don’t know the extent to which they’re still out there doing stuff. I don’t even care enough in this very moment to look it up on the internet. I literally CANNOT BE BOTHERED.

But the thing is, even though I’m sitting here determined to bash out a credible, confident, and enlightening article on the sole subject of one single song by this band, I don’t really feel the need to know any of those things about them. Because as far as I’m concerned, the word “Toadies” already functions exactly as it should in my musical lexicon: (a) as a reminder that it’s “important” to listen to Minutemen, and (b), like a lowly match whose only purpose is to ignite a dazzling, baroque boatload of birthday candles before humbly relinquishing its usefulness forever, as a rekindling of two much more exciting and useful subsequent words in my imagination: “Possum” and “Kingdom.”

In short, I’m pretty confident that I don’t need any of that extraneous stuff to explain the significance of this weird and brilliant little song on the 90s music scene and its impressionable inheritors. Taken completely on its own, “Possum Kingdom” is not only a complete, neat, and tidy metonym for The Toadies and many other forgotten acts of that era, but it also has the kind of weird, era-transcending coolness and staying power that the Nirvana-dominated radio hits from back then, pervasive and influential as they seemed at the time, just don’t seem to hold a candle to now.

So, okay, I get it. That’s a bold statement. Am I in over my head? I don’t know. But I’m just going to keep writing, and we’ll both find out together. Okay, then. First things first. I’d better figure out why in hell I even remember this song at all.

Let’s see. First of all, it’s definitely NOT that there weren’t a few other gnarly nuggets passing muster for “surprise hits” in 1994 (“Come Out and Play” was a pretty oddball little song to hit the mainstream, when you think about it, and “Loser” is just from another planet entirely). Nor would I really be quick to point to “Possum Kingdom” as a song that articulated some particularly unique aesthetic or “marked a turn away from such-and-such toward a new and exciting blah-blah-blah.” No, “Possum Kingdom” was not like that. It was way more unassuming and brooding and understated than all of that. In fact, it actually kind of… wanted you not to like it too much. And BINGO, therein lies the first reason it still makes for a kick-ass listening experience. At least for me.

Let’s take, for example, all those aggressively overwrought time-signature changes in the verses, which alternate methodically between 7/4 and 8/4. There’s really no reason for them, lyrical-cadence-wise (apart from maybe a little Pixies-worship), and the verses would probably go down quite a bit smoother if everything were just un-kinked to straight-up 4/4. But damned if that annoying hiccup doesn’t lend a touch of inscrutability and eerie intrigue to that guitar riff.

Or, speaking of that guitar riff, what’s up with that dinky guitar riff?! It’s an open E7 chord, which is basically an even easier version of the first chord you learn on that instrument, alternating with an A7, which is basically a still-easier version of that one. It really couldn’t be less ambitious. And yet, holy shit: listen to how much room it leaves for the amazingly hip bass line to walk around like that. Between that walking bass, the flatted 7s in those guitar chords, and the mixed-meter, the verses of “Possum Kingdom” could have comprised some idiot high school freshman’s alt-rock-contextualized idea of what “Jazz” or “College Radio” might sound like. And when you were young and dumb and desperate to be cooler than the kid next to you who dressed exactly the same way you did, just think of how enticingly sweet that whiff of elitism must have smelled. Personally, I can still smell that whiff today, even if it’s a little cloying for my aging taste buds.

Then, of course, there’s the incredible lyrical conceit of the song. So very unlike your Cobains and your Beck Hansens (or heck, probably unlike many other Toadies songs, for that matter; remember, I know NOTHING ABOUT THEM), the words to this song do NOT consist of torn-up strips of tortured private journal fragments pasted randomly together to make spontaneous meaning arise differently in the mind of each listener. No Exquisite Corpse collages or bedraggled high school poetry here. Actually, quite the contrary. “Possum Kingdom” seems to be telling a definitive, fiendish, x-rated story. It’s just that, when I was 13 years old, I had no idea what it was.

And sure, here in the good old 21st century, you can easily read a little bit about the actual lore of “Possum Kingdom Lake” and its spooky “Hell’s Gate” cliff formation that presumably inspired the lyric sheet on your next coffee break if you want to (again, I CANNOT BE BOTHERED; and I regret having learned EVEN THAT MUCH information about the song just now).

But truly, you probably shouldn’t even click that link. Because the allure of the song’s narrative rests in the fact that it’s still pretty damn impossible to tell what the fuck this guy is talking about. Instead, I preferred — and still prefer — to let my imagination run wild. To this day, this is my best stab at it: The narrator is some sort of undead vampire king, maybe? Or a zombie-rapist on the prowl? And he’s cornered some pretty college girl jogging alone at night around this lake? And is for some reason taking the time to rationally convince her that it’d be a fine idea to allow him to either poison her or bite her or kill her or rape her (“Give it up to me,” goes most of the bridge) so that she can live forever as his fellow undead bride and queen? Yeesh. What the fuck is that about?

And yet, once again, I’ll be goddamned if that story didn’t — and still doesn’t — somehow totally work in the song’s favor, cred-wise. See, as with most 90s alternative rock songs, my first memories of the experience of listening to “Possum Kingdom” take place in the car of a parent or guardian, undoubtedly while being schlepped around with some peers in some sort of extracurricular carpool scenario. And given both the fact of my aforementioned graphic, gory, and highly sexual (see also: “misogynist”) interpretation of the song’s plot and the fact that this plot was being advanced aloud in the car cabin right under the dull, distracted nose of my dad or best friend’s mom? Frankly, it made me feel super fucking cool. Like I was sneaking into a porno movie.

Or, even better, I can liken it to the first time I swiped and watched the Pulp Fiction VHS tape from my dad’s home office desk drawer: the experience felt illicit and thrilling because of the feeling that I just wasn’t supposed to be watching this. As with this Toadies tune, the drugs and senseless violence were just plain carnally appealing, but Tarantino’s story itself also made me have to THINK MY OWN STUFF ABOUT STUFF and make lots of little leaps to fill in lots of gaps with necessarily incomplete or inaccurate information, and all that exercise left a boy hungry. Hungry for more. Hungry to watch again. Hungry to hear the story again and try again to reconstruct it… only to fail again. But, as Beckett would later suggest: fail better. Yeah, there were several other horrible flash-in-the-pan 90s songs with bleak, vague storylines that left a lot to the imagination of the listener, but no other song of this era seemed to make these same kinds of demands on me. There was certainlyno one walking around placing those kids in Silverchair on the same artistic level as Tarantino, at the very least.

But maybe that’s due in large part to the original suggestion that I made at the outset regarding the whole “Possum Kingdom” = The Toadies” equation. It is my general and willful ignorance of this band and its ethos and its history and its catalog-at-large (and that catalog’s potential context in the alt-rock culture) that really puts this song over the top. There was no excuse that I can point to now for having not familiarized myself with The Toadies to a greater extent back then (i.e., I knew next-to-nothing about Sonic Youth either, but I had justified it easily because they seemed too far outside the realm of my taste and because I had default-dismissed them as being “from the 80s,” a decade whose records I had thought sounded uniformly terrible). All I can say is that I just never felt like digging into them more. And I’m pretty sure that that’s the best reason I can give for why any of us remember “Possum Kingdom” today, because I think it’s pretty unique in that respect. Its anonymity is its biggest hook.

In the circles in which I ran back in those days, everyone knew the amazing backstory of those ridiculously lucky kids in Silverchair. And everyone had stuff to say about Kurt Cobain and (by 1995) Dave Grohl. But this “Possom Kingdom” band? A lot of my friends didn’t even know the name of the band that made it at all (and probably still don’t). And that’s awesome. I guess this isn’t a very scholarly or proper way to conclude this article, but at the end of it all, I just love the fact that I had no idea who the heck The Toadies were or where they came from and, frankly, never felt any intimations from my suburban Chicago milieu that they were ever “expected” to have another cool radio song ever again beyond this one, singularly weird, mixed-meter jam about vampires and outdoor sex. And damn, but just look at how time has gone and justified me on this one. Because as far as I know (or, again: as far as I COULD POSSIBLY CARE TO DISCOVER), they never did.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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