Cameos: Paul Klein on Blockbuster, Time, and a Silence Broken by “Hum”

Cameos is a series of guest posts wherein guest comes along and either comments on a movie from the List or just happens to write something very good. I’m proud this week to showcase the work of Paul “Pavel” Klein, a member of the Florida Film Critic Circle, as well as a regular contributor to Jitney Books and Hudak on Hollywood. For a long time, he resisted the call to write a personal essay. He’s finally given in, after a couple years of heckling. The final product, down below, is terrific. I trust you’ll agree.

Saturday. 3 AM. Technically Sunday morning. I’m in bed, scanning Spotify, looking for new music. It’s 2020. A pandemic rages. What else is there to do? My eye snags on something interesting.

A new track from Hum?

The green- and blue-obsessed ‘90s alternative grunge shoegaze metallers beloved by Beavis and Butthead?

Authors of the 1995 hit “Stars”?

That Hum?

Because I love that Hum.

If you were a teen and/or a rock/alternative fan in those halcyon days when candy colors abutted muted neutral tones, you probably came across “Stars,” a song with that classic quiet/loud dynamic. It starts softly with, “She thinks she missed the train to Mars. She’s out back counting stars,” when suddenly *BRUMMMMMM!!!!!!!*, a loud distorted-ass chord erupts.

Still makes me jump.

Late ’98, after a long Saturday shift groveling to customers at the Blockbuster across from University of Miami, I unwound with some friends at my coworker and crush’s apartment. We drank, watched some bad movies, and as we were falling asleep on the couch, my crush lifted her head off my shoulder, sang that chorus from “Stars” to me, craned her head up a little and kissed me…on the neck. Totally G rated, but to emo ‘90s me? That meant everything.

To the early fortyish, heart-hardened, gravel chewing Clint Eastwood type I’ve crusted into now? Yeah. It still means everything.

Anyway: Hum. I thought, “Those guys had a new track? Didn’t they break up in the early aughts?”

You’re probably thinking, “Why’re you excited about new music from a one-hit-wonder?”

To which I’d reply, “Have you heard their fourth album, Downward is Heavenward?”

Actually, I would’ve started with “fuck you” and then gone on: it’s an underappreciated rock classic from the late ‘90s, the last gasp of grunge grit holding a sincere middle finger up to the onslaught of teen bop pap creeping down the pipeline.

(*Note: I like some of that pap. Don’t tell anyone.)

People in the know love that album and laud it to this day. Deftones cite them as a major influence, as do prog-metalers Deafheaven, whose Sunbather made more than a few Best Of lists in 2013. I never have been a “people in the know,” so I’m especially proud of sitting in the front seat of this particular bandwagon.

I played the fuck out of Downward is Heavenward back in the day. When my 10-disc CD changer broke in my angular two door, blue Mazda 323, I transferred the CD to tape and kept listening to it. When I went for long walks on the beach, I’d have the cassette spooling through my bright yellow Sony “Sport” Walkman, “Sport”y because its top had this cool plastic layer that folded neatly over the play buttons, clicked into place, and kept water, sand, and debris out. 

It was the perfect soundtrack for summer beach walks. Energetic and beefy guitars to keep you moving through the stifling heat. Dramatic and ominous mood matching the heavy dark clouds constantly brewing on the edge of Miami’s summer afternoons.

Do you know when it’s not a good idea to play the album though? When you’re working a late late shift at Blockbuster Video: the dreaded inventory shift; arrive after midnight, plug yourself into a scanner and go through the whole store, scanning every. fucking. barcode. in. the. building. The only way to get through the drudgery is to play some music. Obnoxious music snob that I was, I always lugged my boombox and all my CDs to these all-night affairs. I’d carefully clear the Angry Beavers candy display and the leftover War and Peace-sized double VHS copies of Titanic from the counter, heave my stereo onto that sturdy blue Formica (the foundation of all Blockbuster stores) and play only what I wanted to hear, thinking that if I loved it, so would everybody else.

For one inventory, I chose to play Downward. Saturday. 12:10AM. Technically Sunday morning. I had plenty of other things to do. Yet here I was, in a corporate behemoth video store, shambled after yet another crazy Saturday of desperate customers endlessly tearing through the aisles, trying to get that last copy of whatever shit movie just came out on video (will your evening really not be complete if you can’t watch I Spy tonight?). We finally ushered the last customer out the door ten minutes after we officially closed, and, ahhhhh, the calm after the storm. Tired, disheveled, I needed rest. Sadly, I still had 4 hours of work ahead of me. But I didn’t care. Hum was there.

That night it was Blockbuster that was Heavenward. I had the company of Matt Talbot’s disaffected vocals, Tim Lash’s chugging riffs, the tight rhythms of Jeff Dimpsey’s bass work and Bryan St. Pere’s enthusiastic drumming. I sang along while scanning:

“The morning image from the satellites is all blue and green. / And we’ve all got wounds to clean, here’s a rag, here’s some gasoline.… / It’s all green to meeeeeeeee”

You know who didn’t sign along? Everybody else working that night.

Much as I love Hum I have to admit that their music, with its droning shoegazey sound and lyrics obsessed with space, science, and death, is not the ideal background for late nights of mindless work. Not halfway through the hourlong album, the music abruptly stopped. Awkward seconds of silence passed when, suddenly, I was commanded to get “Jiggy wit it.” Worse yet, that directive was coming out of MY speakers.

Will Smith’s Big Willy Styles was sullying MY stereo.

My poor co-workers were so desperate to hear something (anything!) else that they snatched Mr. Styles’s CD off the sale shelf, tore off its wrapper, and shoved it into the player.

At least I have the benefit of aged wisdom now. They were right. Hum was the wrong choice for that night.

That was back in the day. And I still love Hum forward in the day. And I would still play them at inappropriate times if I had the chance. So much for aged wisdom.

The more things change the more they stay the same, I guess. A platitude for sure, but a hard won one. And really, while that saying usually has a negative connotation, it can be a good thing too. 22 years later and my love for Hum remains unchanged. 22 years later and Hum itself remains unchanged. All 4 original members have returned to record new material.

And here I am, iPad in hand, index finger nervously hovering over the link to their new song. Maybe, despite all of this nostalgia, the past should stay in the past? I took a deep breath and pressed play….

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