The other day I was trudging around the neighborhood and I just couldn’t find a song that interested me. I felt like a pitcher shaking off sign after sign. A song would pop up and I’d give the iPod a shake and try the next one. This happened time after time. And these are songs I’ve hand-picked, so I like them all. But on this day nothing worked for me.

Then the iPod came up with “You’ll Never Know” by the Primitons, and I knew I had found the right music to bring me back home.

Set the Wayback Machine for 1985, Sherman. That’s the year Boston’s Throbbing Lobster Records released the Primitons’ self-titled seven-song EP. The Primitons were a band from Birmingham, Alabama, with some strange names and a great sound. Mots Roden played guitar and sang, and Leif Bondarenko drummed and played, yes, accordion. I’ve read that Roden is Swedish, although his name sounds like something from a science-fiction novel. I’ve also read that the band evolved out of a Birmingham act called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits. Stephanie Truelove Wright wrote the lyrics. A guy named Brad Dorset was in the band too, although I don’t know if he played guitar or bass. [Note: See Brad Dorset’s comment on this post. He did play bass, and a mighty fine bass it was, too.] Mitch Easter produced. He had co-produced R.E.M.’s early albums (with Don Dixon), so it’s no surprise that the Primitons share some musical elements with Athens’ favorite sons, like a penchant for quasi-jangly pop music with interlocking vocals.

Most likely the Primitons would never have entered my musical horizons had I not written an article about Throbbing Lobster for a then-new music magazine called Spin. Its publisher and editor was Bob Guccione, Jr., the son of the man behind Penthouse magazine. At the time I was editing a tiny, obscure rock/entertainment magazine in Brighton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. The magazine must have received promotional materials about Spin for somehow I got in touch with them and they assigned me to do a story about Throbbing Lobster. The label was the baby of Chuck Warner, an enthusiastic and energetic young guy (actually three years older than I was at the time) who got his start selling mail-order records. Throbbing Lobster had some decent bands, and Warner had released some really good compilations called Let’s Breed and Nobody Gets on the Guest List.

I recently stumbled across my file for that article and stared in shock and horror at what I found. I wrote the thing on a typewriter, for one thing, and I made Frankenstein-like drafts by cutting up my old attempts into pieces and taping them back together in different order until I got things where I wanted. It’s the opposite of the way William S. Burroughs achieved chaos with his cut-and-paste technique. I struggled to find coherence. I don’t know how I ever managed to finish the thing, but eventually I sent it off to Spin and waited anxiously to see it in print.

By the time it did, I was living in Washington, D.C., and working near Capital Hill. On my lunch hour I would make my way through the jungle-humid DC heat, past the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, to a newsstand on Pennsylvania Avenue to see if the magazine had arrived. If it hadn’t, I trudged back to work, disappointed and sweaty. Finally the magazine arrived. Keith Richards was on the cover, and my article was near the back. It bore some resemblance to what I had written, although the editors had decided, on their own, that the Blackjacks song “(That’s Why I Always) Dress in Black” must have been Johnny Cash cover. It wasn’t, and I recall my mortification when I realized that everyone back in Boston would think the mistake was mine. I called Chuck Warner and left a message on his voicemail that it was not my fault.

Anyway. I survived, and I was still on the Throbbing Lobster mailing list later that summer when the mailman brought a cardboard box with two records—an EP by Boston band O Positive and Primitons.

[Note: After further reflection, I believe the second record in the box was Claws, the third Throbbing Lobster compilation. O Positive’s Only Breathing came out later. It is a wonderful record, though. I guess I’ll have to retrieve it from the record closet and give it a spin one of these days.]

I honestly can’t recall my first reactions to the Primitons record. I probably liked it fine. I know I liked the O Positive record and I’m sure I liked getting free records in the mail. I guess Primitons grew on me as I came to appreciate its perfect guitar-oriented pop, and its two achingly beautiful ballads (“City People,” with some strong R.E. M influences and terrific harmonies, and “She Sleeps”). It also had a small dose of dose of black humor in “You’ll Never Know.” (Sample lyric: “You’ll never know what to do/If Jesus or the atom bomb break through” Or is it “Jesus saw the atom bomb break through”?)

 “You’ll Never Know” is excellent, but it just sets things up for my favorite song of them all, “Stars.” It opens with a great, grinding guitar lick, and then the drums come in, and finally a propulsive bass line kicks grabs the song by the scruff of the neck and give it a boot. (You could almost say the bass makes the song, but it’s all great. Trust me.) The lyrics, I guess, are about how the transformative powers of love can lift you from the mire and disappointment that you’ve made of your life after the calendar pages spin by and you find you’re still stuck in a dead-end existence in your old home town.

 Nothing left to burn but the bridges that we’ve spanned.
24 years go by, no changes planned.
Nothing changes overnight, but I think I can
When I’m with you.

 It’s one of the few that songs that I can start all over again as soon as it’s finished.

Primitons never became available on CD—at least not until I handed my vinyl copy to my friend Bill, who had our friend Mike convert it to digital files. I loaded it on the iPod recently with a giddy sense of anticipation, and I swear that on the next morning walk “Stars” sounded so great and inspirational and inspired it brought tears to my eyes.

The Primitons released another album, Happy All the Time, in 1987. I remember the great delight I felt when I found it at a record store on Connecticut Avenue in Washington one day. (I later found the Reivers’ Pop Beloved at that same store. I don’t think I bought anything else there, but I owe the place a huge debt of gratitude.) Happy All the Time doesn’t quite reach the heights attained by the first EP, but it’s another superb album, especially “You Are Learning,” which almost achieves the same passionate pop transcendence of the earlier work.

So, is “Stars” the greatest song ever recorded? Right now it is.

[Note: I see that Chuck Warner still has vinyl copies of the Primitons ep available through his website.]

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