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Screw October

Justin Furstenfeld orders us to hate him. We obey.

For the past five years, I've resisted ragging on Blue October. They were our only local rock success story, and I was glad for the HSPVA grads when they signed with Universal, sad when they were subsequently dropped and happy again when they were picked up again.

And since every other band in town and every last white-belted hipster from the Proletariat to Onion Creek would invariably sneer when they mentioned Blue October, it suited my rebellious tendencies to take up the opposite position. While admittedly I never could work up much enthusiasm about it, I would tell people that the guys weren't that bad, you just had to be in the right frame of mind (read: high) when you heard them, or I would call 'em jealous haters or some such. And the band really was more interesting than most of the shitehawks the major labels were signing around 2001. Which is like saying rectal cancer is more interesting than arteriosclerosis, but still.

And this year, Blue October has started to approach world-domination levels. The band's new album, Foiled, has spawned the huge hit "Hate Me," and its already eager Hater Parade has obliged. I heard the usual hails of derisive laughter around town, and then the Dallas Observer, our sister paper to the north, ran a list of five reasons why Blue October sucked, taking special care to point out that they were a Houston band. (Which they are not, but more on that later.)

Fuck all that, I thought to myself. I resolved to attend a Blue October show, where I hoped the band would furnish me with enough critical ammo to silence some of the naysayers. Surely I would be able to find something about the band to enjoy, and failing that, I could at least ask some people what it was that they liked about them, and maybe, just maybe, some of those people would make sense.

Sadly, that scheme was rendered utterly moot by the band's appearance on Leno the week before. I caught it and was frankly horrified.

What was up with singer Justin Furstenfeld's face? Had someone punched his lights out? No, that was just two enormous dollops of eyeliner he had caked on. As general developments go, this one was ridiculous. Dude is 30 years old, and he wasn't sportin' that crap when I interviewed him four years ago. Unless you're Robert Smith and you started rockin' the heavy makeup when you were 13, 30 is way too late to start, even if you are insanely jealous of My Chemical Romance's sales figures.

And once I got past that, I had to come to terms with his cockeyed, bobble-headed stage manner, which reminded me of a woodpecker trying to dislodge water from its ear.

And then, lo, there was the song he was singing. "Hate Me" is yet another in a line seemingly without end of Buzz-friendly, post-rehab, downtuned mush-guitar wankfests, complete with the requisite too-hastily-arrived-at chorus and 12-steps lingo-ridden lyrics about losing yet another girl after yet another bout with an (unspecified) addiction. And oh, yeah, bleeding brains, cockroaches leaving babies in his bed, porn and ye gods, he even spliced in a phone message from his mom. Evidently, the old dear's worried about his fragile state. (Hmm, maybe the song isn't about a breakup with a lover -- maybe it's about his mom. To which all I can say is "Yuck.") The snippet of classical violin at the end of the song only adds a veneer of cheesy grandeur to the horrific proceedings, sort of like slapping a Greek temple facade on a strip-mall proctologist's office.

To make matters even worse, Furstenfeld is still singing in an array of fake accents, including his default Peter Gabriel-esque setting, and in a new wrinkle, inserting random R's in words like "accomplishment," which comes out as "accormplishment."

The whole thing is so goddamned awful it honestly gives me chills.

So, no, I couldn't conceive of going to see that show. I would enter my normal quasi-sane self, and to survive, I would have to ingest more drugs in two hours than Furstenfeld has shot, snorted, drunk or smoked in his debauched lifetime. And thus I would emerge utterly as icky and whiny as Furstenfeld, perhaps even with two enormous gobs of black goo under my eyes.

Out of the question. Whatever I was gonna write about Blue October was gonna have to be from a safe distance. Which was hardly far enough. I Googled up the band's MySpace page, where I found some of the most deranged publicity I've ever seen. "Hate Me" was not a premeditated welding of My Chemical Romance angst onto Nickleback sludge; no, instead it "recalls such aching rock anthems as Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' or Jane's Addiction's 'Jane Says' for songwriter Justin Furstenfeld's unflinching look at his own illness, which caused him to be committed to a mental hospital back on that fateful Blue October day back in 1997."

Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute! These people are gonna sit there and tell the world with a straight face that "Hate Me" compares favorably to "Jane Says" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart"? And use phrases like "fateful Blue October day" with a straight face, to boot?

Okay, then. Surely they would tamp down the hyperbole when it came time to describe the band as a whole, right? Wrong. According to the bio, Blue October's "wide screen sound" "evokes an array of eclectic influences such as fellow Texas psychedelic bands Tripping Daisy and 13th Floor Elevators as well as prog-rockers Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Flaming Lips, U2 and Coldplay, attracting a hardcore group of fans who not only relate, but ardently sing along with, the band's songs."

First off, Tripping Daisy and 13th Floor Elevators have about as much business in the same comparison as Townes Van Zandt and Dan Fogelberg or Scarface and Vanilla Ice, and all of them are about as comparable to Blue October as a jellyfish is to an eagle. And Blue October sounds nothing like Pink Floyd, Flaming Lips, U2 or Coldplay, but I have to admit they got the Peter Gabriel part right.

The bio went on to note that numerous fans had told the band that their music had checked their suicidal impulses. Quoth Furstenfeld: "If I have saved other people, I don't know what to say. But if I can do that for them, why the fuck can't I do that for myself?"

Well, you ain't dead yet, so something must be working, son.

Man, sometimes I wonder if this is all some huge parody. If Furstenfeld is half as crazy as he insists he is, no treatment center worth its warehouse full of meds would release him and tell him to go out and front a rock band. So surely it's all an act, or maybe just a partial one. Maybe Furstenfeld is crazy like a fox -- he knows this tortured-artist crap sells with the kiddies, so he plays it up, so much so that he actually now believes he's crazier than he, in fact, is.

But one thing I am certain about is this: While Furstenfeld might not be as crazy as he thinks, the world at large is much, much crazier than Ithink. How else to explain Blue October's runaway success? "Hate Me" was recently No. 2 on the modern rock chart, right up there with Tool, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters. Dude has 58,000 MySpace friends (57,600 more than I have; maybe I should start writing songs about going to see a shrink in eighth grade), and they have played "Hate Me" on the MySpace page more than 800,000 times.

But there was some good news on the MySpace front. Blue October has pretty much disavowed Houston as their hometown. In their infobox, they now claim to represent "The Great State of Texas" as opposed to Houston. Ordinarily, that would piss me off, but not in this case. And in all honesty, they really are more the Dallas type, anyway. They are ambitious to the point of crassly selling out and pretentious beyond belief. And they have a violin, as opposed to a fiddle, in the band, which positively shrieks of Dallas's high-art "We're not rednecks, we're really just like New York" airs. And the band seems to be more at home there anyway, as it was a Dallas indie label that took them in after Universal gave them the ax, it was in Dallas clubs that the band rebuilt their invincible aura, and it's a Dallas number listed as their official contact. (In the Texas Music Directory, they list San Marcos as their hometown.)

So there's what little damage control I could come up with. While in this case I cannot take up my customary anti- hipster, anti-hater stance, I can at least semi-officially sever Houston's ties with this increasingly wretched band. Dallas and San Marcos, you can have 'em.

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