Nervous Nights: A writer memorializes New Jersey rock innovators the Feelies on the occasion of CD reissues

Spring 1985. The Feelies are playing a small bar in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I've been in college for about a year, and during that time, I've gotten to know a local band who is near-evangelical about Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies' debut album from several years earlier. I've only heard a few of the Feelies' songs, but I trust the band's judgment enough to sneak my underage self into this show. There aren't many people here, maybe 30, tops; most of my friends are at another show across town. However, it's immediately clear that I've made the right decision. Two drummers, two guitarists, no clear "leader." Very much a rock band, but with a twist: The vocals are buried, the songs fade in and out at will, and there are moments of extended trancelike beauty not at all removed from the Velvet Underground albums I've been checking out at the college radio station.

For their encore, the Feelies play a song that I will later know as "Raised Eyebrows." It begins as a simple instrumental, with short, impossibly quick drum breaks that sound like amplified crickets. Halfway through, there are two clicks, and the mood suddenly changes: the tempo doubles, the singers are into another variation of the "whoa-oh-oh" choruses I've been hearing all night, and everyone's bobbing up and down. I am astonished. I've simply never seen or heard a band like this.

As I'd soon realize, the Feelies were beginning to come out of hibernation. The band would soon hook up with Peter Buck and record its second album. Over the next several years, I will see the Feelies at least two dozen times — often at Maxwell's, their Hoboken home base — and the band will be that great every time. I will start to make Feelies friends, people whom I only see at their shows. When the Feelies themselves are not available, I will go see related bands such as Speed the Plough and Wild Carnation. They are one of my favorite bands of the era and the single best live band I've ever seen.

The Feelies: Back into some crazy rhythms.
The Feelies: Back into some crazy rhythms.

I share these memories not to rub it in for those of you who weren't there, but to illustrate just how big of a deal this band was for those of us from a certain time and place. Then as now, to be a "bridge and tunnel" person was to be considered uncool, déclassé, by the New York hipsters. New Jersey mostly was considered the land of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Meanwhile, here was this band of collegiate-looking nerds from Haledon, New Jersey, who melded the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, early Modern Lovers, mid-period Beatles and even Neu! into a controlled, tightly wound ball. To those of us who grew up in the shadow of Manhattan and regularly took the PATH train across the Hudson, the Feelies were instantly relatable — a band clearly aware of what was going on in New York but creating their own version out of necessity.

This week, two unexpected chapters are being added to the Feelies' legacy. First of all, Bar/None Records is reissuing Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth with copious liner notes, unseen photos and bonus tracks. Secondly, the Feelies will perform Crazy Rhythms in its entirety at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in upstate New York. If this doesn't sound like a huge deal — another little-known band getting the reissue treatment — consider that, as recently as two years ago, the chances of ever seeing the Feelies' classic lineup seemed about as likely as a Ramones reunion with all original members.

Since the Feelies' breakup in 1991, lead singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer and percussionist Dave Weckerman never stopped working. But as far as any of us knew, guitarist and cowriter Bill Million had absconded to Florida with his family sometime in the early '90s. There he'd taken some sort of locksmith job at Walt Disney World and made a total break from his former bandmates. In 2007, however, Mercer released a solo album that included contributions from all the former Feelies — except Million. 

Finally, word leaked out: Million had resurfaced, and the band would reunite to play two shows: one at Maxwell's and one opening for Sonic Youth in Manhattan. Since then they've played another dozen or so shows (so far, no closer to St. Louis than Chicago) whenever everyone has the time or inclination to get together. This has raised interest in the initial two albums, which up until now had fallen in and out of print. You could say the Feelies' time is now, except they've always inhabited their own insular world and have been the better for it.

"I don't talk much because it gets in the way. Don't let it get in the way." 

That's from the title track of Crazy Rhythms. It's about as close a statement of intent as this famously reticent band ever made: a vow to avoid those who "talk and don't have much to say," instead choosing to "do a job and get things done/Work real hard and get things done." It hasn't exactly turned out that way — they released only four albums in fifteen years — but it's true that the Feelies have mostly preferred making music to talking much about it.

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