Ode to Tool
If the playlists I used to host here and occasionally do now over at The Fantasy Hive didn’t clue you in yet, music plays a large part of my life and writing. So much so that, inspired by High Fidelity, I did once organize all 700+ albums of mine autobiographically. And with Tool finally breaking a 13-year hiatus that spanned more than a full American administration (thanks, Obama?), I thought I’d speak about how much their music has affected me over the decades.
So buckle up for a bit of a love letter here.
You see, Undertow was the very first CD I ever bought. Yes, I had the requisite cassettes of Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum all 90s kids were issued upon adolescence, but I did not yet possess a CD player in those early high school days. So I taped songs off the radio, including Sober, which I believe was number 2 on the Top Ten at Ten, with Pearl Jam’s Crazy Mary taking the top spot.
Because, yeah, the 90s.
So I had heard them before, but only their radio edit hit song. And I had seen the video. You know, the one with the meat in the pipes that somehow still haunts my dreams. Not because it’s scary, but because I still don’t know what it means all these years later. But regardless, I hadn’t really heard Tool.
Not until I went to church.
We attended a Methodist church at the time (my mother is a retired Methodist minister in case anyone cares), and my Sunday school teacher was feeling rather topical one week and asked us to bring in our favorite songs. I’m sure I brought in some Pearl Jam, but her daughter, who was far cooler than the rest of us, brought in Undertow and played the opening to Disgustipated. You know, the bit about the cries of the carrots and the harvest day apocalypse awaiting them.
And it was by far the funniest and most subversive thing I ever heard. Which made it absolutely mind blowing to a 15-year-old. So when the Sunday school teacher didn’t want to haul the stereo back to her car, I offered to buy it and found myself the proud owner of my first CD player.
We stopped by Best Buy on the way home from church, and since I had really heard Tool for the first time that day, I thought it fitting that they should be my first purchase. And thus my lifelong love began, Tool not quite my first musical kiss, but at least my first kiss with tongue. And probably also my first second base if I’m going to continue abusing this metaphor.
I’m not going to lie, the first time I heard both Sober and Prison Sex without the radio edits were a shock. I was no prude (at least I didn’t think I was), but hearing “shit blood and cum on my hands” when you aren’t expecting it will snap your head back a bit. But I also found such gems as “Locked up inside you, like the calm beneath castles, is a cavern of treasures, no one has been to. Let’s go digging.”
And, despite their fascination with darkness, Tool really does have a great sense of humor, as both Disgustipated and the hidden track on Opiate demonstrate. The hidden pic in the CD case of Undertow should also sort of clue you in, and I remember the bonding I felt with some random guy who told me about its existence. I was a nerd on the academic decathlon team and he was a stoner college dropout, but we both could agree on how awesome Tool was.
Which really goes to the heart of the strange dichotomy of Tool fans in Dallas circa mid-late 90s. The shows where this weird mishmash of metal/ Pantera fans with their tanktops and shaved head/ ponytail combo vs the college kids with their glasses and goatees. There was real, genuine love there for the band in the city, so much so that pretty much every song off of Aenima was played on 97.1, including the eponymous track, which doesn’t make much sense on the radio once you cut out all the cussing. But they still played it and I got a nice dopamine pop every time it came on the air.
Aenima really was a huge step forward for the band musically, and I still get chills whenever I hear the first few notes of Stinkfist. I was a college freshman then in a small Texas school where I was not the strangest kid there, but certainly was on my dorm room floor. So, of course, I decided to scrawl the phallic Tool monkey wrench on everyone’s white boards in the middle of the night to show my excitement for the upcoming album. And, needless to say, I was slightly shunned by the rest of the floor from then on out.
Which I can understand. Because as much as I love the band, its hardcore fans can be a little much. Particularly the ones who consider themselves musicians and want to explain to you exactly how technically amazing the band is. In truth, they’re worse than jazz fans, which I have a particular seething animosity towards, and I swear if I ever hear the term “polyrhythms” again in conjunction with Tool, I’m going to start throwing elbows.
Believe me, I understand how awesome they are, but it’s an emotional connection for me. Not one that really needs to be parsed out and explained on a granular level. They write great music, music that demonstrates the dissatisfaction and overstimulation our culture keeps heaping upon us. And while they certainly had the destructive desire to flush it all away, Lateralus and 10,000 Days showed they could grow beyond that as well. Yes, they were still certainly dissatisfied and overstimulated, but their anger felt more channeled in those albums, more harnessed and put to use for self-reflection so as to discover the internal source of that anger and exorcise it.
Or maybe I’m just projecting my own experiences upon the band.
No matter what, they kept growing in terms of sound and subject matter. Yes, they kept up the pretension that probably brought all those polyrhythm fans to orgasm with the Fibonacci sequence buried in the time signature for the song Lateralus, but unlike Radiohead, which have the same sort of diehard fans, Tool’s music continued to still be enjoyable to listen to. True, they challenged their fans with some difficult music, but it always rocked and never got its head stuck up its own ass showing how smart it was.
Anyways, my friend bought and dropped off 10,000 Days the day he helped me move into my first apartment in NYC, and so that album is still indelibly linked with that time and place in my head. They say smells are that way in that one whiff can unlock a long-buried memory. For me it’s music, and I still remember where I was when I heard most songs the first time. They transport me back to my past, and, despite the darkness of their music, all my memories of Tool make me smile. Including this most random of ones:
On Sunday nights 94.5 KDGE used to have The Adventure Club with Josh and Kevin, which was where all the actually alternative music was played for two hours each week. These guys helped break the Old 97s and were definitely the proto-hipsters of their time. So when Kevin left the show, they decided to throw him a party at a local bar. Being as I was 16 at the time and had access to a car, I was roped into going by a girl from my church who had a HUGE crush on Josh. We arrived and were the only two who were obviously not of drinking age surrounded by local rock stars and radio personalities. So she immediately disappears and I awkwardly sidle to a corner to try and become invisible. Little do I realize, but I end up next to Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond of the Old 97s, who kindly engage the terrified teenager in conversation.
Now you should know that although in about a year in the future the Old 97s will become my favorite band, such that I have seen dozens of their shows, am one of the screaming voices in the crowd on their live album, and have dedicated a drinking game to them, at that time I had absolutely no idea who they were, and had the audacity to say as much. Them being the consummate gentlemen they are, they asked me what bands I did listen to then. “Ugh… Tool?” I offered.
“You know, we were on tour with them on Lollapalooza,” Rhett said without missing a beat. “He’s got the voice of an opera star.”
Needless to say, they had my attention and we spent the next few minutes discussing Tool, Maynard’s height and tendency to do suspended situps. And I sensed absolutely no jealousy or snideness from them. These country rock boys from Dallas played a completely different musical style for a diametrically different audience, but even they could take a few minutes to recognize the cool of Tool.