This American Life

When I was a teenager (and I was a right old gnarly teenager at that, with long hair and questionable fashion choices) I used to gig a lot. I even used to be in a band. I would go out every week – sometimes twice – and see a gig. Some of the bands were, at the time, established; but a lot of them were stupidly obscure. Most of the pleasure I got from seeing bands was the music (I was a massive Seattle Grunge fan) but the other, more subtle satisfaction, was seeing a band make it knowing that I had watched them with only 100 people in Kilburn on a rainy Tuesday night cradling half a pint of warm snakebite. Smugness, I believe is the dictionary definition.

I was lucky enough to see Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, Nirvana, The Pixies, The Wonderstuff, Primal Scream, The Stone Roses…most of them when they were supporting other bands, just trying to make a living. When I was younger I used to feel a bizarre kind of betrayal when one of ‘my’ bands started to achieve commercial success and it is only with the benefit of age and hindsight that I can see that commercial success enabled many bands to make some of their finest music (The Stone Roses notwithstanding), tour more frequently and spur on and make space for other bands for my listening pleasure.

Why am I piffling on about this nonsense? Well, now that I am a grown up and my stage diving days are over I enjoy reading a few select blogs (you know who you are) and listening to a very small number of podcasts. My favourite, all time, hall of fame podcast is This American Life  (by WBEZ Chicago). I didn’t discover it, it’s not obscure or unknown but I feel the same protective bond as I did with the obscure bands I followed as a lad.

TAL (as it shall now be known) is like an American version of Radio 4, but without The Archers, The Shipping Forcast and the boring bits. I love Radio 4, but then they air some show with a bunch of haw-hawing intellectuals swapping quotes from classical literature and I want to throw the radio at a wall…or they do a tedious radio documentary about the demise of fibreglass production in Maidenhead and I end up flipping to any other station…or they air a four hour radio play about two post mistresses in the ’40’s who think they may be gay, or spies, or both and it’s all staccato dialogue and breathless out of pocket RADA actors having a turn and I go fucking ape.

TAL is not like that.

TAL is a weekly, hour long podcast on a theme. Sometimes a theme takes a whole podcast to explain and sometimes they split it into acts. Sometimes it’s reportage and sometimes it is just good, old fashioned story telling. To illustrate, here are links to some of my favourites over the last few years that I have listened to (in no particular order):

  1. #223 – Classifieds The stories behind classified ads – the sellers, the buyers. But the best bit if this p’cast is when Jon Langford (of The Mekons) assembles a band from classified ads (i.e Bass player seeks drummer etc) and they record a song in a day…it is simply awesome.
  2. #199 – House on Loon Lake This is one for listening to alone, driving home in the rain. Part creepy fireside tale, part detective story this held me completely captivated and gasping to find out how it turned out.
  3. #375 – Bad Bank Using the board game Monopoly as a prop, This American Life explains the financial crisis in terms that non financial bods (i.e. Moi) can understand without making your head turn into cheese.
  4. #354 – Mistakes Were Made The true story about the cryonics industry. Mad, bizarre and somewhat disturbing.
  5. #399 – Contents Unknown Three stories about finding out about stuff. One is about self-storage treasure hunters. Another about marine archeology and the last about a guy who loses his memory. Every one a winner.
  6. #402 – Save the Day Three stories about people stepping up when no one else would, could or thought they should.

The thing is, is that there are so many good ones that it is almost impossible to stop posting links.

TAL gives me back my faith in America. America is a great, big, brave, creative country full of clever people trying to do good for their country and themselves. But this all too often gets lost in the cacophony of crap that comes out of the American media, their politicians and the internet – sometimes America and it’s people get drowned out in this innane hubbub and this leads the average European to believe that America is full of right wing, gun toting, moronic, irony free, fat, political moribunds.

This American Life is a lighthouse of America’s intellectual heart and shows that American’s can rise above the crass and show what it’s made of.

The only downer about This American Life is that it is public radio and so needs help from it’s advertisers and listeners to keep afloat. If you want to advertise with them. especially if you own a bizarre manufacturing company selling inflatable sheep or something then you can contact them here

What I suggest is that you listen to a select few shows via their excellent iPhone App here and then decide whether or not you like what you hear and then donate here. That’s all.


7 thoughts on “This American Life

  1. Oh Mrshev, thank you for the introduction to this. You say you didn’t discover this particular podcast, but you have made me discover it, for which I am grateful.

    Now, guess what? (tiny bit of smugness coming up). I’m off to see the Wonderstuff next spring. They’re supporting The Levellers and playing all over the UK. I’m seeing them at Brixton Academy. All of which means I might need to revisit my own gnarly hair days.

    1. My pleasure re: podcast – you will not be disappointed.

      You lucky thing, seeing The Wonderstuff. I used to totally love them. They had a happy-go-lucky charm that made any gig worth going to. Brixton Academy is a great venue as well. Saw Public Enemy there once – truly amazing…

  2. Wow – this is good! Will have check out the podcast – sounds great. I can also tick nearly all those band boxes too! Never managed Nirvana unfortunately – and, well, I’ve missed the boat there, haven’t I? Managed on the guest list for Primal Scream – and it’s the closest I’ll ever get to Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon (as I am now sporting the job title of ‘Civil Servant’, I think any further Babyloning is off limits just because they would slam the door in my face.) Seriously, though, Primal Scream back stage had some pretty mad stuff going on.

    1. MariaL, you cannot write the sentence: “Seriously, though, Primal Scream back stage had some pretty mad stuff going on.” and leave us hanging! What was going on? Felching? Animal porn? Knitting? Tell us.


      1. There was a blonde WAG of the band shooting up in the (very plush) toilets who asked me to tug her tourniquet tighter. (Wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette, so just blinked owlishly and then scrambled for the door.) In addition there was a fulltime ‘wrangler’ foran addicted and temperamental band member whose job was cleaning up various bodily fluids and providing emergency medical care/necessary substances. My boyfriend of the time was a session musician with them and claimed when I saw them they were being ‘spectacularly well behaved’, so I can only imagine what I missed.

  3. Not since the ‘Uses of a Dead Horse’ R4 documentary have I been so excited. Before I disappear entirely off the radar to listen to all this, though, best respond. Don’t expect to be around much for the next month if the above gems are anything to go by.

    So cheers for this, and mine was The Killers at Shepherds Bush Empire; before they got white suits and pink lights. It’s not particularly nostalgic but in the old days I just chose crap bands that never went anywhere (see ‘The River Detectives’).

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