Friday, December 2, 2011

Whatever Happened To Quindon Tarver?

For all the discussion surrounding the way iTunes has forever changed, perhaps fractured, the common listening experience for better or worse; there is one unparalleled activity it has pioneered: that of shuffling one’s music library. The unique thrill of hearing a random curio that has lain unheard in your digital collection for an age, or even discovering something you weren’t even sure was there. There’s obviously a correlation between the size of a music library (some 107 days and 200GB of it, if you’re asking) and what of that amount is entirely skippable, but on those moments when the right song comes bursting through the speakers at the right time, it feels like serendipity... albeit encouraged serendipity.

I had just one such moment recently when performing an extensive clear-out of my room and the darkest recesses of my closet, with its shameful evidence of my romanticised hoarding. It was at the precise moment I was tossing up whether to dispose of some long-forgotten birthday cards or old love letters that Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) began playing. 

To say that it was the right song at the right time was a bit of an understatement, without going too deeply into the murky waters of personal problems, I’d  been going through some shit lately and its ‘personal advice as mellow song’ resonated hugely with me. There was of course, that funny nostalgic feeling one gets from hearing a song you haven’t heard in an age, that intangible feeling of dusting off the contours of something that surprisingly still fits so perfectly. I recall hearing it on triple j, then later on repeat on the fifth volume of their  Hottest 100 compilations (the year No Aphrodisiac topped the poll). Despite the various versions available, this particular one is the seven minute plus version, distinguished by its opening “Ladies and gentleman of the class of ’97.” There on my bedroom floor, amongst a pile of junk and debris, hearing those numbers sounded out struck me instantly. I would have been merely a ripe thirteen years old, and despite my steady sonic diet of skate punk, slacker rock and compilations just like this one; I remember how the song stuck out to me in its own odd way. Jump to fourteen years on, and its sentimental advice struck a chord in a way that the adolescent me almost fobbed off as not being possible.

But before our deeper probing, some context. Everybody’s Free or The Sunscreen Song as it is colloquially known, is credited to Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann; but its constitute parts are in fact an amalgamation of resources. Firstly the choral parts featuring the titular Quindon Tarver (we’ll get to that) are from a remix that Luhrmann originally did of one-hit wonder Rozalla’s dance hit Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good). While the key part of the song – the spoken monologue read by voice actor Lee Perry– has its own controversial history. It was originally an essay done by one Mary Schmich for a newspaper column, but through a combination of cyberspace hearsay and sloppy journalism, it was credited as a sort-of symposium by the legendary Kurt Vonnegut. Short of regurgitating an entire Wikipedia entry’s worth of bizarre facts (There’s a German version called Sonnencreme?!), it’s worth noting that there hasn’t really been a popular song quite like it, before or since.
The song was originally taken from the album Something For Everybody, Baz Luhrmann’s collection of music that, like the film soundtracks it is chronologically sandwiched by, is a hodgepodge of genres and collaborations. A method that Luhrmann first struck upon with the accompanying album for Romeo + Juliet in 1996, then later popularised to an epic scale with Moulin Rouge! five years later. Among the ‘modern’ updates and reworked interpretations of older tracks, Sunscreen doesn’t really stand out. Even its length, double that of textbook radio-friendly, harmed its chances of finding a popular audience. There was of course a radio edit made later, but it lopped off the choruses featuring choral prodigy Tarver, which is an important part of its charm. There’s something inherently mawkish about taking a nineties dance hit and pretending it's a soul-rousing gospel standard led by a then-fifteen year old boy; and even more-so when its juxtaposed with the equivalent of a wisened mentor spouting advice over glossy keyboard beats and cooing harmonica.

Nevertheless it became a hit, and the resulting musical product matches the original tone of the essay and its mix of wry humour with sagely counsel. There’s partial credit due to Perry’s reading of the text too, delivering it in the style of a headmaster at a graduation ceremony, but with the aid of the music loping his phrasing around the beats. Just have a listen to the congo/guitar jive of “maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t/maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t.”

Even as a monologue with backing, it carries an emotional resonance that elevates it above the printed word, or even the simply spoken; further tweaked by Tarver’s voice, his pure, melismatic tenor abetted by a choir of older voices. It’s alchemy is markedly strange and yet all its loose threads, at least personally, come together in a remarkable way. I'm sure the song has its detractors, it’d be foolish to ignore its intentional sentimentality and I wouldn’t be surprised if some would rank it as their most hated, but I’d instead like to make an appeal for it as one of the most interesting songs ever recorded.

Particularly in that moment, when I was spring cleaning the detritus of my young existence, to the tune of ‘Keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements.’ Feeling the sting of understanding in ‘don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours’ against the gentle hum of an impending choir. The anxious downward guitars that soundtrack the lines about friends, that they ‘come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geometry and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.' It’s a little rewarding to know that the way those particular thoughts ring like a knowing nod now, might mean that the sections about growing older will have a deeper appreciation as I too get older. Woah, epiphany dude.
And yes, as I turfed the needless ticket stubs and proudly sequestered back my old photos, I had a vague tear in my eye, even if that tear may have been forcibly jerked; encouraged by my own sense of nostalgia as well as the soul singing of a pre-teen Tarver. And yes, at the heart of it, this song is about making you feel good, it’s a feel-good song. Perhaps in the same way you’d flippantly dismiss a ‘feel-good movie,’ because its borderline smug or trite, but its words and intent – syrupy or no – have a tangible effect. They mean a lot more to me now, listening back with the baggage of experience weighing on me, than it did with the inquisitive but naive ears of my youth. Invigorated by a song who’s form of melodic guidance is over a decade old, and yet still so relevant.

It’s the kind of track you’d never hear on the radio today, and maybe it is a bit of a time-capsule. Characterised as it is by clunky synth bass and an outdated drum loop, but it is ultimately very good advice delivered in a unique way. And advice, as the song’s own kiss-off goes, ‘is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Which is maybe precisely what I’m doing with this little write-up, but I’d encourage you to dig it out, give it another spin and see whether it doesn’t deliver a similarly tingling sensation.

So what of Quindon Tarver? Well, you can’t believe everything you read, but supposedly he gave up auditioning for American Idol and is now studying law in Texas. A  pretty cursory finish to an otherwise interesting story, but he – and us – will always have Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).



  2. New album being released in August , my cousin Quindon Tarver. He's better than ever so keep your eyes and ears open !!