You Come and Go Like a Pop Song
By Keith Harris
“My mom thinks I need religion,” croaks Bob Forrest. “I think I need a shower and something to eat.” That deadpan statement comes from “Boy at a Bus Stop,” a sparse, static song whose title distances it from autobiography even as its down-and-out detail drags it back again. Forrest is a denizen of Los Angeles, a 38-year-old indie rock hanger-on who hasn’t been heard from since his previous band, Thelonious Monster, breathed its last in 1992. “I don’t know that I have one single friend,” he laments, though his loneliness may simply be the price of mistaking selfishness for radical individualism. You Come and Go Like a Pop Song, the first release by his new band, the Bicycle Thief, wavers between unconcealed spite and blubbering apology for 12 tracks before that boy at the bus stop concludes, “I know nothing’s ever gonna be OK again nohow.” Reflexive nihilism–the last refuge of the scoundrel too stubborn to sink to prayer. Throughout his career, this flirtation with fatalism has both sharpened and sabotaged Forrest’s art.
If he’s few people’s idea of a friend, he’s no one’s idea of a hero. A professional fuckup, he was 86’d from the Replacements’ camp back in the 80s for tempting the tenuously sober Bob Stinson and was denied a job driving the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ truck a few years back because, according to Spin, they thought he was too talented. He embodies a genus familiar to bohemians–the gifted bottom feeder with enough resilience (biological and psychological) to tread water while assorted buddies sink, with too little initiative to make good on his promise while assorted schmoozers leapfrog past him to national prominence. Sharply observant but not necessarily brilliant, Forrest has enough charisma to glide by when his talent wanes and enough talent to keep your attention even when you’re sick of his shtick. He’s notorious enough to land a review in Spin, marginal enough for their fact checkers to flub the name of his label.
But after 38 years even the funniest running gag gets tiresome. Forrest found more humor in his hopelessness a decade ago; on “Lena Horne Still Sings Stormy Weather” he rhymes, “Things, they’re bad but they could get better,” and concludes, “I’m just waitin’ to see which way they go.” But he’s not waiting anymore; on “Aspirations,” from the new record, he snarls, “We’re goin’ down / So let’s get stoned and watch TV.” Like most naturalists, once he decides his despair is hardly unique, he can generalize about the world with hard-won cynicism. In the past he boasted of voting for Jesse Jackson with Sisyphean glee and lamented his parents’ participation in white flight, but here, succumbing to the knee-jerk solipsism of the jaded utopian, he blurts, “Kill all the dolphins / I don’t give a shit.”
Yet Forrest’s observation of his own misery is so unflinching you almost forgive him that choked sob on “Tennis Shoes” as he admits, “For most of my life, if there was a chance to fuck it up…well I did.” Is he bragging, complaining, or simply stating the facts? The ambiguity propels his songs past self-pity to pop out on the other side. To put the kindest spin on it, he’s desperate, and he refuses to get used to it. But how much empathy can you grant an album of self-inflicted tragedy? It helps that it’s harrowing enough to prevent you from identifying with him. But anyone who genuinely believes that pain is the only true emotion, that cheer is the delusory by-product of false consciousness, deserves some real problems.
“Music is my religion,” Forrest writes on a scrap of notepaper that’s reproduced, along with various lyric sheets, in the CD’s booklet. If that’s the case, it doesn’t seem to offer him much peace. Maybe he just needs some sort of workable humanism. On the giddy “Max, Jill Called,” Forrest surfaces on the other side of hopelessness, taking a message for his roommate and reminding himself, “Gotta learn to be considerate.” And in another small triumph, “Cereal Song,” about how drugs killed his friends and ruined his career, bids a bitter farewell to “Keith Richards and Lenny Bruce and all of them.” Since Forrest has the decency not to mythologize his pathos, we should have the decency not to do it either. At times he seems tired of posing as a beautiful loser. At times he seems tired of posing. And at times he even seems tired of losing.