Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World, the second album by Carrboro's Spider Bags, is a glorious mess. Each of its 10 tracks feels as if it fights from beneath a haze of distortion or gasps for air underneath a tide of tape hiss.
On "Long White Desert Rose," frontman Dan McGee slurs his syllables, howling "Baby, baby, what's wrong with me?" as grimy guitars and madcap drums chase from behind. On the closer, "Here Now," the acoustic guitar is so loud it sounds electric, the tape groaning with the same resolute desolation as McGee. "We'll never get out of here now," he manages, singing as if he's watched the sun set and rise for three days straight.
Spider Bags have been in these tangles before. In fact, across two LPs and one 7" single, it's where they've always lived. The band's name references packages of heroin because, as McGee puts it with a hesitant laugh, he'd wanted to "reclaim something that had been so bad. We thought it was funny." Dogs named Ike Turner, devils on the run and hearts full of darkness stocked the Bags' debut, A Celebration of Hunger. Their greatest hit must be "Waking Up Drink," an ode to the hair of the dog with a hook that's as catchy and cantankerous as anything any Jersey Shore boy ever put to tape: "Waking up drunk makes me happy/ lately you just bring me down."
This album's stunner, the sprawling Crazy Horse monument "Trouble," opens with only McGee, singing "That's how I get in trouble," staggering the words so that when he lands on that last and most important one, the song is a strange mix of self-flagellation and self-congratulation. The seven-minute version included on Crueler World rolls through the track twice, the second iteration loaded with vortexes of feedback, lashes of cymbals and shots of spacey synthesizers. Again, a glorious mess.
McGee's Carrboro apartment is cozy and tidy, however, its white walls sparsely decorated with framed posters, its floors covered in well-appointed rugs and furniture. Cordon, his wife since August, makes hot tea in the kitchen and occasionally offers a joke or a story about Gogo, her curious orange cat.
McGee doesn't sound or look like the miscreant and misanthrope he's played on those Spider Bags records, either. He's an eager conversationalist with a bright smile who doesn't mind sharing most of the stories he knows. He sits calmly on a mauve couch, leaning forward, his hands clasped between his legs. Every 20 minutes or so, he walks briskly across a vacuumed area rug to a turntable, placing the needle at the beginning of a groove and adjusting the volume on some African guitar or French psychedelic record. His dark brown beard and hair are neatly trimmed. His thin fingers, capped by callouses from guitar strings, tremble slightly.
"A lot of people that knew me four years ago could never picture me living in a place like this," he says, stopping to play with Gogo as the cat sniffs at a paper coffee cup sitting by the couch. "I've been able to be introspective and feel this space that's mine alone. It's done wonders. I'm one hundred times healthier than I ever was living up there."
McGee grew up as a middle-class, music-loving boy in New Jersey. He'd been obsessed with the most desperate acoustic blues as a kid before growing into Hendrix and weed, he says. A few years later, he met Gregg Levy, another middle-class Jersey boy who had traced his preteen love for Jimi Hendrix back to the blues. They lived three towns apart and attended different high schools. Levy played guitar in a new trio that needed a singer. The vocalist Levy recruited brought along McGee, who, like Levy, also played guitar. The five-piece played one show. McGee thought it was horrible. Levy immediately asked when the next gig was, but, before it could happen, the band met a quick, bitter end. One member's girlfriend said he'd been abusing her.
"Rumors fly in high school, but I think he had hit her," says Levy, sitting on the placid back patio of Acme, the Carrboro restaurant where he works as the sous-chef. His pale blue button-down looks neatly pressed, and he sweeps his long brown hair behind black sunglasses. In the afternoon sun, sweat pools beneath his eyes and runs down his cheeks. "I called him up and told him that I never wanted to see him again. If I ever did, I would probably try to hurt him."
That incident seems like one of what must be hundreds during a period Levy reduces to "a lot of wasted years." Levy and McGee avoid specifics about the trouble they experienced as teenagers, but the drugs and death they mention recall a rock 'n' roll-centered The Basketball Diaries (whose author, Jim Carroll, died Friday).
"I don't know what it was about the place that I grew up in or the time I grew up," says McGee, 33. "We were all middle-class people. We were taught to consume on a constant basis. You thought you can have two beers and a couple of pills and do some hard drugs and wake up in the morning. When you start drinking a fifth of vodka and taking a handful of pills, you might not wake up. There were two years there where there was a funeral all the time."
But, as both Levy and McGee are quick to point out, Spider Bags are more than drug-imbibing drunks, even if they've lived as much. Those are the stories they're not eager to share. Rather, these songs handle those memories and narratives with humor and grit, heartache and silliness. Oh, and hooks, really great ones.
"Everyone's got that kind of stuff in their life, memories and things that form them and shape them," says Levy, also 33. "It doesn't matter what it was. It matters what you did with it."
And, for a while, Levy wasn't doing right by his past. After college, he rushed into middle-class domesticity. He found a high-paying job at a pharmaceutical company, got married and had a kid. He was playing in two bands with similar blokes who were just looking to blow off steam after work and on weekends.
McGee was writing with the band DC Snipers in Brooklyn, and Levy played with him for a bit. But his other responsibilities wouldn't let him commit. McGee was writing his own songs, too, which encouraged Levy. He understood that was McGee's way of wading through their difficult past, of dealing with those ghosts and moving forward with his life.
"There were a couple of years where Dan retreated into his living room," he says. "We both had a lot of stuff to work out, and that's the way he worked it out. When I would go over there and I would see the four-track out, I would be really happy. It's one thing to make up songs in your head and play them. It's another to start recording them. It means the song has a life, and you're giving it that life."
Levy knew this was the chance he hadn't taken the first time. These songs about bad guys and hard living resonated with him. "The life I had there was never very satisfying. I loved coming home to my daughter and my wife, but I didn't like what I was doing with the majority of my life," says Levy, who visited North Carolina with McGee to record the first Spider Bags album with friends in two days. They hadn't planned on staying. Levy got divorced a year after his family moved to Chapel Hill. "But my personal space, as much as I miss my daughter and as much as that's a hole I can't seem to fill, I'm always creating in my job and my music. That makes me one of the luckiest dudes you'll ever meet."
And so, more than talk of drunks and drugs, there's a steely resilience connecting the Spider Bags output. Those guitars in "Trouble" keep clawing away in spite of the turmoil or maybe because of it. The exhaustion of "Here Now" is an existential proclamation, a shrug of "So what?"
Or, as McGee says in a sobering deadpan, "There were times when I could have been the guy who drowned or did too many drugs. Easy. Those were the moments when I should have been happy, celebrating the fact that I'm alive, and that I've moved on."
Spider Bags release Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World at Nightlight Friday, Sept. 18, at 10 p.m. Gross Ghost and Order open the $5 show.