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Songbook

Lost in the City with the Feelies

Lost in the City with the Feelies

The Feelies never quite belonged to the “blank generation,” a term coined by punk rocker Richard Hell that describes the midseventies New York punk scene. They certainly played alongside the likes of Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Shirts, and other CBGB and Max’s Kansas City mainstays, but they never quite gelled with that crowd. Their sound was more angular and percussive than the shambolic style of their peers. They were the jangly alternative to the alternative culture, exemplifying a vibrant sonic quality that strongly influenced early R.E.M. and almost every other band that critics would eventually label “college rock.” Perhaps the twin rhythm guitar and percussion sections contributed to their outsider status. Or maybe they never quite belonged because Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, the founding members, hail from suburban New Jersey.

Wren (Susan Berman), the wayward, abrasive heroine of Susan Seidelman’s debut feature, Smithereens, also grew up in Jersey. But unlike the Feelies—who still regularly play Jersey City and frequently headlined Hoboken’s famed Maxwell’s before it shut down—she swears that she’ll never set foot there again. Seidelman mostly limits the film’s geographic scope to the East Village, but the Garden State is something of a structural absence in Smithereens. Like the hometowns of so many artistically inclined transplants in New York, Wren’s represents failure, a place where dreams go to rot. It’s easy to picture a brusque nonconformist like Wren chafing against the suburban mores of her youth, itching to escape and reinvent herself—Seidelman, too, grew up in the suburbs, and eventually fled her Pennsylvania hometown to develop her craft in New York. The threat of needing to return home, hat in hand, looms heavily over Wren’s urban misadventures.

Smithereens features three tracks from the Feelies’ debut record, Crazy Rhythms, all of which have a “kind of nervous energy,” per Seidelman, that epitomizes Wren’s scheming sensibility. “I met with Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, and they had an album [. . .] that just had this amazing rhythmic, kind of hyperactive feeling,” Seidelman explains in the commentary track on the Criterion edition of Smithereens, a perfect description of both the band’s music from that period and her film. The Feelies’ propulsive sound parallels Wren’s sharklike movements. She lives in a state of constant forward momentum absent concrete plans or prospects, a modus operandi that staves off her creeping loneliness.

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