by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)
When the story of Lost Boy ? is told right, it sounds apocryphal. Unlike most rock band mythologies, there’s no clear starting point, just a cluster of monikers, cartoons, songs and sounds. From this constellation of things, a loose narrative begins to take shape, mostly informed by the decade’s worth of cassettes, hand-packaged CD-Rs and digital downloads that trickled toward me through Long Island’s—and later Brooklyn’s—DIY music scenes. Before I lost my iPod on a train in 2010, I had at least five full-length collections of Lost Boy ? songs. Most of these collections were unofficial albums, tracked from the ground up by a tall dude named Davey Jones. With the exception of the wonky electronic and sample-based adornments of visual artist David Owen Beyers (also known as BOATZ), which added to the already alien atmosphere and character of Lost Boy ?’s world, Davey Jones worked alone. In those days, I’d occasionally find myself at a show at American Boner or Church, and someone I was talking to would mention yet another Lost Boy ? album that I hadn’t heard of before. They’d tell me, oh, yeah— Anarchy in the USA, Volumes 1 & 2? That’s the best Lost Boy ? record. That’s the one you really gotta check out.
I still haven’t tracked down Anarchy in the USA, if anyone wants to email it to me.
As fun as it would be (for me) to connect the dots from 2005’s acoustic album Glass to the forthcoming concept album Goose Wazoo, an analysis of all of Davey Jones’ recorded work would only tell one half of Lost Boy ?’s story. Because while the bedroom-meets-spaceship pop of Lost Boy ?’s lo-fi recordings has always struck the most powerful chord with me, I imagine that a majority of the people who love Lost Boy ? will tell you that they cultivated their love by sweating their asses off to LB all winter, spring, summer and fall, at The Silent Barn or Palisades, and that it’s Lost Boy ?’s live show that makes the band so great.
Lost Boy ? must know how well regarded their live show is because in July, “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium appeared on Lost Boy ?’s Bandcamp page. Listening to this album effectively demonstrates what makes Lost Boy ?’s live show so engaging and inspired me to examine Lost Boy ?’s first “official” LP, Canned—the first to receive the distinction of “official”—at greater length. A number of Lost Boy ?’s earlier works are thrilling collections of songs but the closer look that my immersion in the two versions of Canned afforded me, revealed that the songs on Canned are in step with the milieu of their time, place, and audience, in a way that seemingly few indie rock albums are.
The live lineup of Lost Boy ? has fluctuated over the years, although since at least 2010 it’s been centered around Davey Jones and guitarist Ryan Foster. The current iteration of Lost Boy ? performs with Davey Jones singing from behind the drum kit. The Canned band and the lineup that promoted 2011’s USA USA EP both positioned Jones front and center, slinging serrated riffs, while his band played a supporting role. Although on paper the two bands seemed very similar, the actual sounds of the USA and Canned quartets felt totally different. The USA USA-era rhythm section was sanded-down and tightly wound. The drumming resembled Jones’ playing on the Lost Boy ?’s recordings: pleasantly brittle and extremely precise, somehow evoking a wind-up monkey. Even Ryan Foster, who now contributes scores of quirky and wacky riffs to the proceedings, played it pretty close to the vest back then. The Canned band, which featured Baked’s R.J. Gordon and journeyman Matt Gaffney, felt like a different animal altogether. The band felt bigger. The individual notes of Gordon’s bass sounded larger and looser. You felt the chord changes. The drums really got beat on—snares that used to pop sounded like car bombs. Songs Lost Boy ? had been playing for years suddenly sounded like arena rock for DIY spaces.
The newfound heft of the Canned band made it easier for people to latch onto Lost Boy ?’s songs, but the band wouldn’t have inspired the excitement they did without Jones’ rare lyrical ability. Simply put, his songs make being an outsider feel inclusive, and as such two songs in the repertoire were particularly resonant with Brooklyn audiences. Both songs originated on USA USA and became enduring cornerstones of Lost Boy ?’s live shows from 2011-2015. The first song is “USA,” a song worth mentioning for the magnitude and immediacy of its bending-power-chords riff, alone. Its most quotable lyric comes from the end of its chorus: “When we drink, we drink to die. / Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink all night.” Audiences relished this irreverence. These words slashed through the crowds of Shea Stadium on many balmy summer nights, with as much cutting power as the ragged edge of a Bud can twisted in two.
Similarly, “Chew” cast Davey Jones as an inquisitive sad sack, aimlessly drifting (“searching for answers”), marveling at the mystery of the unknown (“where do you come from?” and, more obviously, “I ask myself questions that I may never know”). The repeated phrase “maybe you’ll give me a try,” delivered on USA USA in a coo of almost tissue-paper-like fragility, is perhaps the most poetic embodiment of the sensitive slackerism oft found in recent Brooklyn acts. While other members of Brooklyn’s DIY scene use the slacker signifier as a hyper-stylized affectation of irony, Lost Boy ?’s version is heartbreakingly earnest. “Chew” manages to make passivity feel like a tragic, incurable condition and validates a lonely person’s impulse to sit idle.
No matter how sad or weird Lost Boy ?’s lyrics may be, they never kill the vibe. 1991 centerpiece “Fast Burn,” released as a 7” in 2011, featured one of the most popular bits of shtick in the history of Lost Boy ?’s live shows and was profiled on now-defunct Pitchfork satellite site Altered Zones. After asking “what is this pain / I feel so hard,” Davey and USA-era bassist Kind Spirit or guitarist Ryan Foster would act out a sketch, back and forth. In the voice of what I imagine is supposed to be the little devil on your shoulder, a bandmate would ask Davey Jones, “Did she break your heart? Did you kill her? Did you let her get away?” After Jones replied in the affirmative, the negative and the affirmative again, the Lil Devil would ask him, “You think you’ll be together?” and Davey would sigh, with the childlike sadness of Charlie Brown, and say “maybe someday…”
Remarkably, the threat of violence being perpetrated against this fictional woman never seemed to weird anyone out. Instead, some warped form of alchemy, distilled the frustration and alienation built into the fibers of Lost Boy ?’s songs into a 100% fun. Indeed, “nobody’s perfect in the USA,” and Davey Jones’s ability to reflect and welcome imperfection, in a world of people aspiring to perfection, is another key to Lost Boy ?’s appeal. The people are pumped. They dance around, smiling widely. Every inhabitant of the room transforms into an “extraterrestrial on the run / looking for the key to paradise” when Lost Boy ? plays. No matter how weird things get, no matter the sourness of the sweat that jettisons, as if from a sprinkler, from another person’s back into your mouth, when Davey Jones sings “everything will be okay,” you take his word for it and don’t think twice.
Part of what makes Canned stand out from Lost Boy ?’s previous output seems to stem directly from his ability to read the room. Just as “USA” and “Chew” were remarkable for their ability to tap into the generational and geographic minutiae of the cultural contexts the band and its audience occupy, Canned spoke to specific trends and phenomena endemic to New York. “Hollywood” feels like a love letter penned directly to the legions of transplants who call Brooklyn home: people who got “sad in Hollywood” or whatever other American city they got jaded in, and came to New York to “find themselves in a different story.” This shift from the intimate and interpersonal relationships of 1991 allowed Lost Boy ? to speak more directly on the strangeness of current culture and community directly.
The relatively dissonant chord structure of “Revenge Song” mirrors the maddening frustration of being unfairly made the victim and seems to speak to the experience of surviving in a predatory culture, more broadly. Thanks to the subtle whimsy built into Jones’ cartoony vocal delivery, this song about a bullied child’s plot for vengeance retains a crucial lightness even as its guitars violently crash into each other. This trope of the righteous little guy fighting back against the morally corrupt big bully has been ubiquitous since the Old Testament (Davey and Goliath?). It’s a narrative that’s been trotted out in a lot of the post-Recession anti-Wall Street discourse; bandied about quite a bit in discourse surrounding the Bernie Sanders campaign (with Wasserman-Schultz, Clinton and Trump taking turns playing Goliath) and also, somewhat perplexingly, to describe the relationship between big old bullies like Jeb Bush and little guys like Donald Trump (what?). This same universal theme recurs throughout Canned, most notably on “Taste Butter” and “Bank.”
There are a few noteworthy differences between the studio version of Canned and the recently released “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium that is currently streaming. At a glance, the first thing I noticed was the omission of Canned’s closer: the cathartic and incandescent nightlife anthem “Hemorrhage,” which is, to date, the only song I’ve ever heard that perfectly captures what it felt like to shoot the shit in the haze of (now defunct) Big Snow Buffalo Lodge in the summer of 2012. While the absence of “Hemorrhage” reduces the eventual payoff of “Canned” Live, there is another difference between the two versions that complicates the album a bit, thematically. Davey Jones leapfrogs the Daniel Johnston cover “Big Business Monkey” over “Hollywood” in the tracklist. That particular Johnston cover has been in the Lost Boy ? repertoire for quite some time; in fact, “Big Business Monkey” erroneously opened the second side of the misprinted first run of the cassette version of Canned, released by Double Double Whammy in 2014. Although it is unlisted on the sleeve of the vinyl and cassette versions of the album, “Big Business Monkey” taps into the same David and Goliath motif that “Revenge Song” does, further complicating another thread that persists throughout Canned: the centrality of money to American culture. Because “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium opens with Johnston’s lyric: “Big business monkey / everything’s money,” attentive listeners find themselves thinking about greed off the bat. The violent staccato stabs of “Big Business Monkey” have replaced the sunnily chugging groove of “Hollywood.” “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium feels quite different from Canned.
Decidedly DIY in the way he makes and markets his art, Davey Jones has always seemed more or less in line with the anti-establishment bent endemic to most punk rock. The Lost Boy ? song that seems to embrace anarchic politics most directly first appeared in 2012, when Lost Boy ? released their first post-Occupy Movement record, the Big Snow EP. “Bank,” which reappeared on Canned a couple years later, at first seems akin to “Big Business Monkey.” It centers on a person “hanging out / in the Cadillac,” getting “ready” to rob a bank. Lyrics promising to take back “what we’re owed” felt particularly resonant only a few months after the Occupy Movement was ousted from Zuccotti Park. The evil of big banks was trending, and the robbers of “Bank” felt as justified as the kid fantasizing on “Revenge Song.” But set against one of the climactic lines of “Big Business Monkey,” the Live “Bank” doesn’t go down quite as easy. Where the robbery of the studio version of “Bank” seemed like a triumphant act of justice—a rare instance of the little guy taking back what he’s owed—the lingering weight of Johnston’s lyrics, “Take over the world / and you can have it now / but you can’t take it with you,” deflate the joyous redistribution of wealth that Jones describes.
The decision to place “Big Business Monkey” at the top of the order of “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium establishes an anti-materialist viewpoint that clashes with the philosophies of Jones’ bank robbers. Their sense of value is warped by their entrapment in capitalist hegemony. They cannot see past class and money, even while they seem hostile toward those constructs. While “Big Business Monkey” prevents the payday of “Bank” from feeling like a victory, it helps Jones’ characters feel more human. Even if they win the battle and get away from the crime scene scot free, Daniel Johnston (via Jones) has reminded us that the material rewards of their crimes are ultimately transient. On an album that is ostensibly named after the experience of losing one’s job (getting canned—right?) “Bank” and “Big Business Monkey” complicate the relationships between wealth, security and happiness. The restructuring of “Canned” Live Ⓐ Shea Stadium and “Big Business Monkey” prevent Canned’s thematic elements from fitting neatly together. But the added discord goes a long way to make this version of one of Lost Boy ?’s most significant works even richer and stranger. And if there’s one thing that every iteration of Lost Boy ?’s story has in common, it’s strange.