February 25, 2020
Released On September 21, 1999
Released By Goldenvoice Records
Four years and 180 issues ago, I gushed about the importance of John Frusciante on my musical life. I also talked about how much of a gateway artist Frusciante was, sending me on a lifelong journey through the musical spectrum after diving into bands Frusciante loved (The Germs, Frank Zappa), covered (The Shirelles, Fugazi), or collaborated with (Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Tricky, The Mars Volta, a million others). I remember the beginnings of that journey very well, finding and downloading every song I could and trying to line them up perfectly into a chronological playlist that’s made it onto every computer, iPod, and iPhone I’ve ever owned. Thinking back to that time, I still vividly remember the night when I came across one uniquely special track that would come to soundtrack almost half of my life. It’s a song called “Cereal Song,” though that wasn’t the title I knew it by at first.
This was the day of music download programs, Napster offshoots like Limewire or Kazaa, that were just as likely as to infect your computer with a trojan horse as to offer you the song you wanted. Back in this time, it wasn’t uncommon to come across mp3s with wrong artists and/or titles, sometimes done intentionally by smaller bands looking to get their music in front of a prospective audience. These songs went straight to the digital trashcan, which was what could have happened when I came across a file entitled “John Frusciante – Heroin.” I was aware from the get-go that no such song existed on his records, but I also knew there were B-Sides I was unaware of as well as some live recordings and demos that made it onto the web, like his “duet” with Milla Jovoich. So I clicked download and gave the song a listen.
A tepid, melodic guitar part opens the track, emotive and somber like you might expect from Frusciante. But then the voice came in… this strained voice singing from the very depth of his anguished soul. “Oh Heroin / Heroin / And Cocaine, I loved them both,” he admits in a confessional moan. The song title seemed appropriate but this was clearly not John Frusciante singing. I didn’t hit delete though. Instead, I kept listening. I was hooked, frozen in the stark beauty and brutal vulnerability of this viscerally affecting tune. It was clear in the opening moments that this was exceptionally special, something only confirmed as the song moved from a slow guitar strum to a swirling release of emotional resentment.
I had to know more and after a few internet searches, I came across an answer: The Bicycle Thief and their 1999 record You Come And Go Like A Pop Song. Looking into information about the band and record, I saw that Frusciante actually did play on the “Heroin” song, though its real title is “Cereal Song,” a reference to the central dismissive observation about addiction (“And what has it gotten me / Just some teeth I can’t chew / My favorite cereal with”). As I read on, I found out that The Bicycle Thief was a trio that featured two people I was already familiar with to a degree: Bob Forrest and Josh Klinghoffer. Klinghoffer was a regular presence on Frusciante’s solo records in the 2000s, including Shadows Collide With People, the album I discussed in Issue #15 back in 2016, so I was already somewhat familiar with his voice and style. Forrest was more of a mystery to me though, a name I had seen in articles and interviews about Frusciante and the Chili Peppers.
As I later came to learn, Bob Forrest was something of a punk journeyman in the Los Angeles area. He fronted Thelonious Monster, an irreverent post-punk band that was a popular underground act in the late ’80s and mid ’90s. Today, they’re probably best known for their “almost” story as Frusciante was about to join their band before the Chili Peppers caught wind and swooped in to lock him up. Judging by their catalog though, they should really be known as a peculiar example of punk music’s sprawling growth from gritty four chord barks into more mercurial art, still written from an impudent unrest but with more poignant observations and dynamic song structures.
Like the Chili Peppers and many other musicians at the time, Forrest struggled with drug addiction, as “Cereal Song” plainly states, but instead of getting clean like friends Flea and Anthony Kiedis, Forrest doubled down, enjoying heavy benders, which Frusciante later joined after he left the Chili Peppers in ’92 and became dependent on drugs to manage his depression. A year later, Forrest and Frusciante would lose a close friend, River Phoenix, to an overdose, but luckily, the two were able to rise out of his addiction and turn their lives around. Today, Forrest works as a drug counselor and recovery advocate, even partnering up with famed counselor Dr. Drew on shows like Celebrity Rehab and Sober House.
Released only a few years after he got clean, You Come And Go Like A Pop Song is Bob Forrest’s masterpiece that even towers over the rich discography of Thelonious Monster. (1992’s Beautiful Mess is a respectable but distant second in his career by my estimation.) Its sound is spread out across the pop music spectrum, informed as much by the then-current state of rock and roll as it was inspired by classic hallmarks of popular music, as evidenced by Forrest proudly referencing past greats like Irma Thomas and Richard Harris. Grunge opens up the record on the swirling rage “Hurt,” but instead of doubling-down on that sound, the band offers a breezy observation next on “Tennis Shoes,” setting up this catalog of styles bound together by a taut rock soul. There’s radio-ready tracks abound like “Max, Jill Called” and “It’s Alright,” while other songs, like the rootsy blues concession “L.A. County Hometown Blues,” serve as a well of deep-cut splendor for music lovers.
Lyrically, this album is a dense therapy session for Forrest who touches down on several complicated emotions and sentiments: shame (“Off Street Parking“), apathy (“Rainin’ (4 AM)“), lethargy (“Aspirations“), acceptance (“Tennis Shoes”), conviction (“Hurt”), and even hubris (“MacArthur Park Revisited“). The revelations are haunting and stirring, whether in soul-crushing regards like on “Cereal Song” or quick quips on “Off Street Parking” where he accepts his fate as a vapid asshole in the situation. What makes this compelling is Forrest’s signature deprecating wit, combining stray thoughts and random observations with his personal disclosures in a way that brings hope and joy to his complicated life. “Through the sham and horror and drudgery / Well, it is still a beautiful world” he declares in the upbeat jaunt “Max, Jill Called,” before finishing his thought with a pointed jab, “Well, that is what I read on the bathroom wall.”
Forrest is operating at the peak of his peculiar talent here, but he’s not the only star of this record. Klinghoffer is utterly sensational throughout this debut, sowing chaos at one point on the solo for “Hurt” while lamenting passionate sorrow later on “Off Street Parking.” Most of the guitar work here was written while Klinghoffer was still a teenager, putting him on a similar career path as Frusciante, another gifted guitar prodigy who was “discovered” by Bob Forrest. I’ve followed Klinghoffer through the years, enjoying his underappreciated stint with the Chili Peppers and his overlooked work with Dot Hacker (“Order/Disorder” is a hidden gem in the 2010s post-rock landscape), but he might just be at his best on this record, feeding off the emotional unrest of the songs to create truly intriguing compositions teeming with spectacular talent.
With the recent announcement that Frusciante is replacing Klinghoffer in the Chili Peppers (who in turn had replaced Frusciante), naturally my mind went to this record, hoping to prop up the fact that Klinghoffer is an undervalued musical talent in this world who had the difficult job of filling the shoes of a legendary guitarist in a classic band, and somehow managed to push them into some highly creative spaces, like the dystopian “Dark Necessities” or glitch-promenade “Monarchy Of Roses.”
In reality though, I’ve been itching to talk about this record for a long time, skipping over it every time because my attachment to this record might just be too personal to describe. And I do find it hard to describe the grip this record has on my soul. I talked a few issues back about learning to play guitar, which happened around the same time, and this record, probably more than any other, provided deep inspiration as I tried to master playing and singing at the same time. Later on, when I would start to play open mics around the Richmond area in the late 2000s, two songs from this record would frequent my short “sets:” a modified version of “Off Street Parking” (merged with the introduction and refrain of Frusciante’s “Regret“) and, you guessed it, “Cereal Song,” though my version adds an extra verse instead of the swirling guitar solo since nimble six-string skill was never in my cards.
To this day, “Cereal Song” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (see Issue #46) remain my absolute favorite songs to play on a guitar. I’m far from a drug addict myself, but the pensive reminiscence has always hit close to home for me. Procrastination. Apprehension. Reservation. These are the addictions of my life, and though they aren’t as crippling as the reality Forrest lived, they’re blemishes that have led to hellish depression in the past. Although that specter is clearly defined on this track, it’s really felt throughout the whole record, from the tumultuous opener “Hurt” to the touching closer “Boy At A Bus Stop,” which makes it an endlessly cathartic listen in good times and bad.
But just like Forrest being able to weave hope and joy into crestfallen remarks, my connection to this record extends beyond anguished emotion. In 2008, I came across a copy of Stoned + 2, an EP featuring “Aspirations” under a different name, at a completely random record store in the middle of the most influential and transformative weekend of my life. A day earlier, I had met my wife in a chance encounter, and somehow charmed her enough to earn her phone number… which I then proceeded to inundate with texts and calls for the next week or two. (The three day rule isn’t real, people.) A day later, on the car ride home with three of my closest friends, we blasted the EP and while I stayed glued to my phone waiting for another text, my friends around me kept yelling “Aspirations”‘ signature chorus of “Let’s just get stoned and watched TV.” It’s one of the most vivid memories of my life, brought on by one of the most affecting and arresting records I’ve ever heard.
Therapeutic rock rooted in ’90s aesthetic but defined by modern vulnerability and timeless skill.
What a valuable time capsule this is. You Come And Go Like A Pop Song was released near the end of the 1990s, and it plays like a crucial document of creative life during that decade. And while the project may have been connected to Red Hot Chili Peppers, looking back, it’s Radiohead that casts the longest sonic shadow here; the crunchy, layered sounds that made Radiohead a household name are everywhere here, from generous overdrive on the guitars and blanketing phaser effects to acoustic guitar chords that ring extra brightly thanks to multiple open strings. (“Everyone Asks” may provide the clearest window into this particular set of influences.) But the emotional tenor of the time is just as present and recognizable. Apathy became a hallmark of 1990s alternative music, and it’s hard to listen to these songs without affectionately flashing back to Alicia Silverstone’s line from Clueless about “complaint rock.” If the title of “Aspirations” didn’t give its mood away, just listen to the first verse: “I’ve got a twelve year old boy and he is always bored / And so are all his friends and so am I / The schools don’t teach you nothin’ you’ll ever need to know / So why even go, why even try?” It’s a bleak picture, as is the album’s conclusion, “Boy At A Bus Stop,” whose depiction of hopelessness strikes me as the song sequencing equivalent of ending a play with every single character dead onstage. “Max, Jill Called” is interesting in this light, because it contains that signature apathy (“So many things used to mean so much to me / But now I just can’t remember what they are”), but it goes on to filter that bleakness through a rejection of materialism. That pairing of pain and wisdom feels important right now. I’m curious as to how many of these 1990s hallmarks will become prevalent in the years to come, given the way certain economic and political conditions are cycling back through. I’m a firm believer that the past helps us weather the present, and for that reason, The Bicycle Thief is essential listening.
Not all art is supposed to make us feel good. The point of art is to make us feel something, whether good, bad, or downright depressing. The Bicycle Thief take us down a wormhole of darkness against the artificial backdrop of sunny Los Angeles. This record kind of reminds me of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in that it’s a rebuke of Hollywood and the seemingly endless trail of broken dreams leading in and out. Right away, “Aspirations” brought me right back to the overt apathy of ’90s rock: “let’s just get stoned and watch TV … We’re going down / No matter what you’ve heard, we’re going down.” The depressing narrative continues on “Max, Jill Called” where “it’s ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, and something ’round here just never adds up.” I suspect that Bicycle Thief are having fun with us on this track since they drastically swerve from the optimistic opening lines: “I woke up this morning feeling pretty good, and pretty good is really good for me.” In addition, there’s a feature for an awful breakup (“Off Street Parking“) and the negatively self-aware “Cereal Song” about an over-aged restaurant employee still stubbornly chasing his dream. But back to L.A. because that’s the most depressing part — the shattered dreams. There are many allusions to the city of angels throughout, like “”MacArthur Park Revisited” and “L.A. County Hometown Blues” where “they gobble you up, swallow you down, spit you out / well, there’s no place on Earth so deceiving and so self-possessed.” Perhaps the most moving is the closing number “Boy At A Bus Stop.” It’s a picture we see all too often of the voiceless. The homeless. The friendless. The track describes an anxious reality where “everything is closing in, but I don’t know if I have one single friend.” That’s as broken as broken gets.
I had this album pegged at 1998 from the first notes. The way the drums were tuned, the (very nice) blend of acoustic and electric guitars, the anguished, slightly trying-too-hard vocals of Bob Forrest, the overall post-Nirvana-ness of it all. I was close, too — turns out it came out in 1999. That got me thinking about how lesser known music may exemplify its time even more strongly than what blows up. For example, even though Nevermind is very distinctively of its time, it’s also of right now since we’ve brought it along with us through the years via classic rock radio and the wide consensus that it’s one of the greatest records of all time. The Bicycle Thief is obscure enough that it’s likely you’ve never heard it — unless you’re a deep fan of one or more of the following: John Frusciante (he plays on one track), Josh Klinghoffer (he’s all over the thing), Red Hot Chili Peppers (see last two names), or Thelonious Monster, the jokey indie supergroup Forrest was in prior to making this record. To me, that’s a large part of what defines the value of this record. If somebody says, “What did late-’90s rock sound like?” I will play them “Tennis Shoes” or “Cereal Song” and they will understand.
Kevin Fitzgerald, Bob Forrest, and Josh Klinghoffer — an unassuming underground power trio born from the heart of LA’s vibrant music scene.
Maybe it’s because it was released 20 years ago, but I can hear a lot of things in The Bicycle Thief’s debut and final record. I hear classic rock that never really had the chance to be classic since it was released during an era when there was a stark contrast between the classics (’70s) and modern alternative rock. It occurred to me that this would surely have been considered alternative rock in its day and that was confirmed by a quick google search. Of course now, with all of that genre silliness behind us, I am comfortable calling it just what it is — laid back rock and roll in a classic, easy style. As I sit here listening to “Off Street Parking” for the third time in a row, I am sipping a craft brew from my favourite local brewery and finding myself wishing I was at a dive bar, listening to the guitar solo studiously and beautifully picked out by Josh Klinghoffer. Here’s a song about a guy lamenting a break-up and celebrating(?) the fact that he can go play golf more now. It’s steeped in irony, I think. I hope it is. I want it to be the sort of record where we toast glasses over a basket of peanuts and make harmless fun of those we care about, knowing it will all eventually work out. “I’m Happy. / Yeah, I’m happy” go the lyrics of “Tennis Shoes,” another jangly anthem about small town living. The record is unabashed in its apparent self-deprecation and the songwriting approached with a working class sense of humour.
The thing is that the opener, “Hurt,” gives you the wrong impression. The album kicks off as though it’s trying to appeal to punk or hard rock fans — another grunge-era send-up to relationships. Honestly, if I’d heard this track accidentally, out in the world, without the sense of obligation tied to writing about it, I might have stopped there. But every subsequent song sounded like a different band than the first track — a betrayal of the brash roughage of the opener simply presented as an accessible series of anthems, patio lanterns and BBQ songs. Every other track is Americana-flavoured rock music that, in terms of production, falls somewhere between Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple and Echo & The Bunnymen’s The Fountain. In fact, the latter is so remarkably adjacent that I put the two records in the same playlist along with the latest from FIDLAR and now I’ve got one powerful beer-drinking motivator. So please, go grab a six pack from your favourite local brewer, crack one, and join me as we remember 1999, the angst and anger of metal that wasn’t quiet metal, rock that wasn’t quite rock, punk that was turning to pop, and the toxic swirl of genre classifications which pigeonholed bands into lifestyle choices. Ignore all that and revisit some straight-forward classic rock in the form of The Bicycle Thief’s You Come And Go Like A Pop Song.
A budding teenage guitar prodigy and grizzled middle-aged rock vet make an unlikely, but thrilling pair on this ingenious record.
I did a little research on this record before listening (honestly, I couldn’t find the email with the link and hoped it might be on Bandcamp) and saw the name ‘John Frusciante’ pop up a couple times. From there, all I could think while listening was ‘John Frusciante.’ “That sounds like Frusciante.” “How Frusciante-esque.” Come to find out, Josh Klinghoffer performs most of the guitar work and instrumentation, alongside Bob Forrest, the principal artist. Wait, but Frusciante wrote the songs? No. He just plays part of the solo on “Cereal Song.” There’s another band that had some musical arrangement similar to this, but I can’t remember their name. Oh well. In all seriousness though, I love the way this record sounds. Released in 1999, it sounds like the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the 2000s in the best way possible. The record sounds clean, but not sterile. There’s a definite DIY aesthetic, like the best record in town your friend down the street made in their bedroom. I sort of hope my album sounds like this when it’s done. The ’90s gave us alternative rock, one of the finest genres to ever grace this beautiful planet, and within that genre, there are lots of hidden gems. This record is one of them. With a title like You Come And Go Like A Pop Song, you really can’t lose. The music on this record is reminiscent of Built To Spill, RHCP, Jimmy Eat World, and a few other indie/alternative greats. I love all of these artists, and I loved this record. Today certainly won’t be the last time I listen to The Bicycle Thief, but it’s certainly been a better day for having found this wonderful record.
Maybe it’s just the head space I am in at the current moment, but I’ve never related to lyrics more. I’ve played two songs of this album so far and there have been lyrics that have just jumped out at me and completely related to what is going on in my head right now. I feel like I’m always talking about how the music I listen to can relate to the hard times I’m going through in my life, but I think what it comes down to is finding someone who has written the words that you feel and haven’t been quite able to articulate. I find that I tend to gravitate towards music as therapy, and I guess its because it’s a way of feeling like someone is listening to you without having to actually say what’s wrong. What this album has done for me is given me lyrics that tell me I’m not alone, and that is the power of a great lyricist; to be able to relate to someone they’ve never met, to be that invisible friend. It also helps that it reminds me of an epic ’90s indie movie soundtrack (in the best way possible!). Each track on this album has a note of hope. And maybe it’s because that is what I am looking for, but whether it’s the lyrics or the melody, there is hope that everything is where it is meant to be. I had never heard this album before and I am so happy I pressed play. Music has a way of coming to you when you need it most and this album was the help I didn’t know I needed.
The first thought I had occurred before I heard You Come And Go. I looked up the record (and the band) and discovered that there are two different Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarists involved in this album, but I decided that wasn’t interesting enough by itself. Then I heard “Tennis Shoes” and instantly connected with the line “If there was a chance to fuck it up, well I did,” but I figured that was a bit too cynical. (The same went for how Bob Forrest doesn’t lie but everyone lies to him.) Then I thought that “Aspirations” reminded me of Black Flag’s “TV Party,” but I couldn’t determine if the former was satire or not. Then I laughed at “Had some cigarettes and coffee and CNN,” but I didn’t want to bum everyone out with the exhausting nature of current events. Then I found the guitar solo of “Off Street Parking” to be one of the loneliest solos I’ve ever heard, but I didn’t want to be bleak. Then the final lines of “Off Street Parking” reminded me of “Dammit” by blink-182, but I didn’t want to bathe in nostalgia (again). Then I nodded in agreement to “It might look real pretty from real far away” because it sounded like many of the turned-out-to-be-bad ideas I’ve had over the years, but I didn’t want to wallow in my mistakes. Then I heard “Cereal Song” and I thought this is a painfully unflinching look at addiction, but I didn’t want to go that dark. Then I listened to the record a couple more times and considered writing about the overall isolationist nature of the album, but I didn’t want to get too inside-my-own-head. And then I got around to writing this and realized this is a vicious cycle.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Troubadour No. 1 by Richard Aufrichtig
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan