Timbuk 3 was so much a part of the soundtrack of my life growing up that it was a shocking letdown to find that they’re not actually well known or wildly popular. I thought everyone listened to this band! I grew up with their cassette tapes clacking around in the glove compartment, but I guess that was just my extended family and literally no one else. Well, obviously, I absorbed their music and appreciated their worldview. I love music with both weight and humor, and I love the balance the Timbuk 3 strikes with their social commentary – still relevant! – and general mistrust of major institutions like national holidays and organized religion, paired with a sweet romanticism and faith in humanity. The tattered heart may redeem itself in the arms of another tattered heart, and the rest of the world can continue its journey down to hell.
“Shame on you, you’re having too much fun”
Truly, a cautionary tale. This is from Timbuk 3’s debut album, when their future was, well, you know… One wonders what fun was had that prevented them from staying more aggressively in the spotlight in the following years though. It certainly wasn’t the lack of good material. Probably something to do with not having the personalities for stardom; they even wrote a song about that, called B-Side of Life. I like to think that Timbuk 3 was always just too clever and acerbic for the mainstream. Clearly, Barbara MacDonald’s flow could’ve given Debbie Harry a run for her money, but she didn’t have the hair and legs that sell a million records.
I never understood what this song was about until it came to me that it was simply about trying to record dog sounds. That’s meta, I guess, but it’s more silly than deep. Timbuk 3 has long been a fave of mine despite their obscurity and one of the reasons why is that their songs are always about something. Something clever or funny, or something socially relevant. Patriotism and homelessness and commodified religion and lowered expectations. Good, relevant, timeless writing that doesn’t lean on the same old lazy tropes. This song may not be the best example of that. But it’s a good tune.
“We’re all backseat drivers, and there’s nobody at the wheel”
Yeah, that a pretty good summation of the religious experience. (And a good example of Pat MacDonald’s observational songwriting.) Religion continues being an opiate for the masses because large numbers of people really need stringent rules for how to live their lives, but it’s just people telling people what to do, and that opens up the door for all kinds of abuse of power. When you’re in the business of telling people how to live, it’s awfully easy to benefit yourself. That happens on every level, of course, but it’s particularly sleazy when it happens with some street preacher in an Elvis suit who insists that Jesus wants you to write out a check. And people do, because people are fucking sad and gullible.
It’s a PSA! It’s educational, it’s a warning. It might be a satire of the particularly 80’s trend for cheesy PSA’s. It’s Timbuk 3 and it’s all of those things. Timbuk 3 is the cult 80’s band that everybody needs to know about, but nobody does. They might be remembered for having one popular hit song, which satirized the 80’s glaringly misguided sense of optimism. What makes their small output still relevant is their clever and sardonic writing. Some things are forever marked as products of their time, whether it’s bad production decisions or too-pointed cultural references, but big issues don’t change much, and the human condition changes not at all. Driving poorly, for example, is forever.
It’s been a while since I’ve promoted the long-defunct Timbuk 3. Although I have no illusions that my singlehanded efforts will help Blift them out of obscurity, I still have to do my part. But, on the other hand, for all the 80’s nostalgia going on and so many figures from the pre-grunge indie post-punk whatever scene getting lionized, why not them too? It seems that all six of Timbuk 3’s albums are now out of print, but they’re still available for download. If you’re not into that, I know someone with a full set of cassette tapes they’d gladly copy for you. Which would be just perfectly appropriate, because feeling nostalgic for 1993 is, like, everybody’s mood board right now. I think that Pat MacDonald’s brand of darkly humorous modern life malaise is never not relevant. When he said the future was bright, he was being ironic, and in fact, the future is a cornucopia of bleakness.
Not too up and up with the national holidays, I guess. Well, Pat MacDonald’s not the only one who finds ostentatious displays of nationalism during token holidays to be tacky. Parades, flag waving and 50% Off sales are just clutter on the calendar, commemorating holidays no one really cares about. Truly, I suspect most people don’t care about any holidays at all except Christmas and their own birthdays; everything else is just an excuse to get drunk. Timbuk 3 named their third album Edge of Allegiance, making it pretty clear that in their view, neither the present nor the future of life in America was bright at all. In fact, they took such a cynical view that they eventually, three albums later, had to write a song about their own cynicism. As it turned out, their Reagan-era angst towards a commercializing, dehumanizing, alienating, bureaucratic, poverty-stricken, evangelical, drug-and-alcohol addled, neverending asshole parade of a society has remained exactly as relevant as it was in the 80’s. The future never was bright, except for the handful of jerks who were dumb enough to see it that way, and it’s even muggier today.