Radiohead: A Song to Keep Us Warm

On my left elbow, I have a very large, ugly scar. I got it when I was 17, and working for my grandfather’s caretaker, trimming an overgrown hedge at her house. I slipped on the fairly waxy leaves, and brought the hedge trimmer down to my elbow, slicing it open. I had to come back the next day and finish the job as a result, because of the time spent travelling to, and waiting in, an ER waiting room to get stitches and a tetanus shot. That day I learned a few things: I learned that I shouldn’t trim hedges, and that tetanus shots don’t hurt that much, and that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead is a very, very good song.

During that summer, I had made up my mind to listen to a CD player more than my iPod, because it made it more difficult to let my ADHD get the better of me when it came to album switching. For the most part, it worked: I would listen to albums on repeat for days on end, digging into them as much as possible. That was the summer that I listened to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible on single-song-repeat, listening to every single song 20 times in a row. That summer, more importantly, was the summer that I clicked with the bits of OK Computer that I had yet to click with. But, we’ll back up a bit. I was 16 when I bought the album based solely on reputation. I had sold all of my video game equipment, which I no longer used, and picked up the Violent Femmes self-titled, Bjork’s Telegram, System of a Down’s Mesmerize/Hypnotize, and OK Computer. It sat on my shelf for months and months, until one day, I decided to dust it off. It took me awhile to finally click with it, but I remember exactly where I was when I fell in love with the band. My father and I were on a motorcycle trip with a couple of family friends, and I put the album on to listen to. I listened a couple times through, and enjoyed it. Then, at one point, I began to doze off with my head on my father’s shoulder, in the fall Washington rain. “Exit Music (For A Film)” came on, and a switch flipped in my head. It was a mysterious feeling, one that I had experienced a couple times before that, but had never felt in a way like this. The moment and the music became inextricably linked, and I became a Radiohead devotee.

There will always be an ever-raging battle over the best Radiohead album with its fans, but if a gun were to my head I would choose OK Computer any day of the week, despite not being as poised as its beautiful follow-up Kid A. When I heard songs like “Paranoid Android,” and how incredibly it was written, it gave me hope as a teenager that art could be incredibly loud and incredibly well-written. I became mystified by the heart-on-sleeve beauty of “No Surprises” (to this day my favorite Radiohead song, who’s opening bars and refrain of “no alarms and no surprises please” I have tattooed on my forearm) and its resigned tone. This was not music for someone who wanted to die. This was the music of someone who had come to peace with the fact that he was going to die. I even loved “Fitter Happier,” and its robotic message of dependence on a live made of routine and habit.

The problem with “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is that it is situated between “Paranoid Android” and “Exit Music (For A Film),” two songs that are easily among the best in Radiohead’s catalog. As such, I found it hard to listen to the song, for no reason other than the fact that it stood in the way of me standing in my living room howling, “WE HOOOOOOPE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOKE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKE.” Keep in mind, this was when I was a bitter teenager who had just come to terms with past abuses; I was troubled, but I had the depth of a mud puddle. The words there spoke to me. OK Computer is an ode to disillusionment and alienation in a computerized world, and though I never connected with the latter part of that, I was well-versed in that feeling of feeling separate from the rest of the world. I’ve always felt like I was somehow out of place with the world, and Thom Yorke understood that, in his own way.

And then, I maimed myself doing a job I really probably wasn’t qualified to be doing. I got lost in the words of the song that I couldn’t get past, suddenly hearing Yorke’s words clearly for the first time:

I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane,
Late at night when I’m driving.
Take me on board their beautiful ship,
Show me the world as I’d love to see it.

I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me,
They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely.

I didn’t realize until the next evening how much of an impact this had on me. That evening, I spent a couple hours with my girlfriend, and I asked her to marry me (I was 17. Keep that in mind). She said yes, and the next day, called me to tell me that it was a crazy thing to do, and a crazy thing for me to ask. After hanging up, I realized that there was a distance between me and everyone else, and that I would never get to a point where I could be okay with that distance. In short, I felt like an alien. And I would never have the ability to explain that. I’m 22 now, and as of this writing, I still struggle with those feelings of alienation and confusion. I have wondered if it would be worth it, given the opportunity, to travel back and let 17-year-old Hollister know that feeling never goes away, but I worry that it would crush his spirit. I still believe in the lessons that Thom Yorke taught me at that age, even if a lot of them are hard to really understand at times.

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