The Anniversary

Guitar Romantic Turns 20

Dirtnap/Screaming Apple
Dirtnap/Screaming Apple

Most stories about the Exploding Hearts start at the end. I suppose this one isn’t any different.

It was 2003 and the Portland punk band was on the rise. Their debut album, Guitar Romantic, garnered word-of-mouth buzz and rave reviews from critics at Maximumrocknroll and Pitchfork. While driving back home on I-5 from a gig in San Francisco, the band’s van crashed near Eugene, Oregon. Lead vocalist and guitarist Adam Cox, drummer Jeremy Gage, and bassist Matt Fitzgerald were all killed. The only survivors were guitarist Terry Six and manager Rachell Ramos. King Louie Bankston, who co-wrote much of the band’s music, had left the band before the tour.

It feels necessary to get that out upfront. The tragedy has come to define the band’s story – great promise cut short too soon, leaving fans wondering what could have been. It’s a story we’ve heard with the likes of Jeff Buckley and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, great artists who passed away after releasing one classic album. With the Exploding Hearts, it’s easy to imagine where they might have ended up with the boom of artists like the White Stripes and the Strokes bringing back a certain leather-jacket-clad rock ‘n’ roll coolness. But we’ll never know. It’s an unanswerable question that can only be prompted by death. Death eludes us, maybe even scares us. But it’s also compelling in its mystery.

I was a teenager living in the Pacific Northwest when I first heard about the Exploding Hearts, two years after their end. I’d stumbled onto an article about the band’s accident on a stretch of highway my family had driven on countless times. That proximity made it feel even more real to me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, already grieving for a band that I hadn’t even heard yet. I mean, my god, their name was even the Exploding Hearts. It felt Shakespearean. I imagined their music must’ve reflected the devastation I felt reading their story. And then I actually listened.

The Exploding Hearts had the power-pop heart of Big Star and the Buzzcocks mixed with the glue-sniffing aesthetics of the Ramones – the song “Jailbird” even ended with the band sniffing their noses against the mics. They were loud, occasionally crass, and never put out a song that didn’t have an insanely catchy hook. The artwork for Guitar Romantic practically glows with its hyper-saturated pink and yellow photo of the band standing in front of a spray-painted wall marked with the album’s title.

Guitar Romantic is impeccably named. In just two words it conveys the central ethos of the album, as if to say, “I may be lost in the ways of love, but watch me pour my heart into this ripping solo.” For all their merits, the Exploding Hearts were not subtle. Of course, this is all part of their charm. Kicking off with an all-time great album opener, “Modern Kicks,” the band put all their cards on the table. A lone, fuzzed-out guitar is quickly followed by a cacophony of joyous noise with the band coming in together. Vocalist and guitarist Adam Cox shortly jumps in with a sneer, singing, “Hearts are breaking now, she says ‘I don’t care.'”

Every time this song kicks off, I want to cry. Not because I’m thinking of someone who kicked me to the curb or even because I’m thinking about what happened to the band (though sometimes it’s that too). Rather, an overwhelming feeling of joy sets in upon hearing what I feel is a perfect song. The beautiful, deceptively meticulous melodies married with the reckless abandon with youth and punk spirit — it’s euphoric. While time constantly threatens to make me jaded and cynical, the eruption of emotion from just this song alone makes me wholeheartedly believe in the promise of rock ‘n’ roll. An abstract philosophy that even when things are shit, the right jams will make everything alright. It’s a feeling I’m always chasing as a music fan. And with Guitar Romantic, these types of moments just keep coming.

Most of the songs on Guitar Romantic are about heartbreak, one way or the other. And while lots of the songs find Cox scoffing at partners who left him feeling dejected, there seems to be some self-awareness that he may be part of the problem. Just a few lines later on “Modern Kicks” he laments his girlfriend’s indifference to their relationship falling apart, only to find himself alone, stoned, and staring into space. Cox is even blunter on another standout track, “I’m A Pretender,” declaring, “I’m a pretender at the game of love, I need somebody to shatter my heart.” The upbeat, jangling guitar riffs on the song sway like they’re soundtracking an anarchist sock-hop. It’s maybe the quintessential Exploding Hearts song: It doesn’t just describe heartbreak, it’s practically begging for it. Anything to escape the boredom of being 21, loveless, and feeling like your life is passing you by.

The Exploding Hearts weren’t the first band to contrast their wounded feelings with bright melodies and punchy instrumentation. But it’s hard to find another band having so much fun while breaking down all the ways their love lives suck. Again, the Hearts seemed to be aware that they could be shitheads. They embraced their debauchery and obliviousness. Even on “Sleeping Aides And Razorblades” when Cox actually seems to lament losing his lover, he quickly turns around to say he’s fine, actually, and he’s partying, hanging out with all sorts of girls, and even his dog doesn’t remember his ex (talk about salt in the wound).

Knowing all the members were in their early 20s, it all checks out. Who among us hasn’t been an idiot in relationships at that age? That’s part of the album’s enduring appeal and timelessness. But the album is also sincere, even tender at times. “Throwaway Style” finds Cox pleading for his girlfriend to come back to him, something he’s done a few times at this point on the album. But this time there’s a bit of hopelessness as he describes running into her sister and finding out secondhand that his girlfriend’s back in town and didn’t tell him. “I know our love is over,” he sings, “Unless you come over, make it right, baby come over.” Sung over a jaunty, old-school rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, it’s pure punk poetry.

For years we heard very little from the surviving members. There was the excellent 2006 compilation Shattered that packaged together B-sides and unreleased Hearts material, but beyond that, it seemed like the music would stay in the past. Then, in 2013, Terry Six and King Louie Bankston got back together. Six called up his former bandmate with the guise of getting Bankston to help him finish a song they were supposed to finish a decade before. “(I’m) Looking For A Heart” would be the lead single for the duo’s new aptly named project Terry & Louie. Soon the project moved from the studio and the band began performing again – including Exploding Hearts songs.

In 2016 I talked with Six in the days leading up to the duo’s first performance in Portland since 2003. Six confided that “I was a little nervous playing those songs again,” but resolved that really “It’s just me and Louie playing songs that we wrote together years ago without the stigma of the tragedy. They were just songs that we used to play.” Serendipitously, the performance landed on the day before the anniversary of the fateful crash. To be able to hear these songs live was transcendent. And Six was right. When he and Bankston ripped through the songs, my thoughts weren’t turning toward the tragedy. It was pure glee to hear these beautiful, snotty, funny, and ripping songs live. Hearing these classics played alongside new songs gave me a sense of hope for a band that’s been so mired by an untimely ending.

Last year Bankston passed away. He was 49. It was another upsetting loss that still felt too soon — not that there is ever a time that feels right for loss. Bankston may have left the band after making Guitar Romantic, but he co-wrote many of the songs on that album – he’d joined the band when Cox heard him playing “I’m A Pretender” over the phone. When the news of Bankston’s death broke, my thoughts kept turning to Six and the unimaginable grief of continuous loss. Despite how joyous and uplifting the Exploding Hearts’ music makes us feel, death continues to loom over their story.

Back when I first heard Guitar Romantic, I looked at it as a cautionary tale and a reminder to live life to its fullest because you never know when it might end. I think that general idea still resonates, but some 20 years on I start to wonder how well that actually captures the album. To relegate a band’s legacy toward its untimely end feels like a disservice to what they accomplished. Making records isn’t an aspiration to become some factoid or legend. It’s an act of creating something to reflect your soul. Guitar Romantic captures a beautiful, reckless time in these young men’s lives. It’s messy in attitude and pristine in its craft. I’d have loved to have seen where they’d have gone next, whether that meant achieving the greatness many of us hoped for them or not. We’ll never know. But we have one beautiful record to keep coming back to and keep honoring their lives.

What happened to the Exploding Hearts is tragic. But the tragedy is not Guitar Romantic’s legacy. It’s an album that celebrates life and all of the fuck-ups that come with it.

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