Couldn’t You Wait? The Story of SILKWORM

I hate flying.

It’s a terribly irrational fear, I know, but it’s a real one. I usually hold my breath during take-off to stave off the growing tension in my head. Once in the air, my nerves succumb to a general discomfort, and I rectify this by drinking copious amounts of expensive stout bottles of brown liquor while listening to music. I can’t usually focus enough to read or write, so I just close my eyes and devote all my attention to each song as it unfolds, in order to calm myself. A couple years ago, I was in NYC during winter. It was a great trip, but my liver practically hurt to the touch. I was scraped out and diffuse, heading home. There was a long line of planes scheduled for take-off in front of mine, and I saw crews de-icing the wings of the 747 in front of us on the tarmac. We were sitting there for a long time. I imagined frozen turbines coming apart in flight and whether or not I could be trusted to help anyone with their oxygen mask. I started scanning through some songs I’d uploaded to my iPod before I’d left North Carolina.

This was the first time I heard “In the West.”

Silkworm is one of those bands that inspires fanaticism. That’s why I can’t say I’m surprised Seth Pomeroy’s “Couldn’t You Wait” exists. Every Silkworm fan has a distinct memory like the one above, involving some SKWM song or album. As I sat uncomfortably in my window seat, I felt at ease once these abrupt off-beat songs segued into one another with blasts of pop sense, inspired lyricism, atonal noise squalls…and I think I heard a Pavement solo in there. Hooked. It was everything I wanted in a band.

There’s a strain to Silkworm’s songs which suggests they shouldn’t work. It’s like a shaky wheel overwound on its rim, and that shuddering quality runs throughout their albums. The gentle pluck of Tim’s dense Wedge bass and (for a while) Joel’s uncertain yet steady voice, Andy’s wandering, acerbic guitar and Michael’s fuckall abandon…these elements somehow work to make songs that sound as if they are barely held together. Unique is a boring word, but it fits in this case. Whereas most bands, especially those that work together over many years, suffer the pratfall of finding a formula and sticking to it, Silkworm ignored indulging in such crowd-pleasing tumbles. That may be why they are so divisive. From album to album there is progress, even if it’s sideways and not necessarily forward.

If there’s one sentiment repeated throughout the film, it’s that “Silkworm isn’t for everyone, but how could you not fucking love Silkworm?” And Silkworm existed mostly before the advent of file-sharing via Internet, booking tours by email, and other conveniences bands take for granted now. Their fan base is almost cult-like in its dedication. Which is why, I reiterate, I’m not surprised this documentary exists.

But I am damn glad it does.

“Their music doesn’t try to reach out and grab you. It waits for you to come to it.”

The openness shown by the “mysterious” surviving members of the “impenetrable” Silkworm is refreshing. Enlightening, even. Tim and Andy (humble gents, both) speak frankly but carefully about their struggles and successes with the band, and also, personally about the deeply missed Michael Dahlquist. As many documentarians seem to use their lens and some incidental music choice to add a dramatic heft or emotional weight to their subject, Seth’s masterful editing and direction doesn’t get bogged down with telling you the story as much as it lets you experience the story. Bolstered by revealing fan, critic, and friend/family observations, this is a naked look at a group you don’t even necessarily have to like or be aware of prior to viewing. Every personal aside or anecdote works on two levels…they are both entertaining and indicative of just how well the three (or four, dependent on which period is being discussed) personalities came together and worked so perfectly as Silkworm.

“People that like Silkworm really like Silkworm, but they’re not like normal people, and there aren’t that many of them.”

There’s some brutal truth to the film. Silkworm was never very popular. Labels dropped them, despite loving them. Some of their records weren’t as good as others. They were a hard-working, touring band on flagship independent labels like Matador and Touch and Go but they still had to drive cabs and fight their way out of debt. This is when insight from the other bands that existed at the same time really becomes a hallmark of the documentary. If there’s a single image from the doc indicative of Silkworm’s whole existence, it’s on The American Music Hall marquee with PAVEMENT in gigantic letters and silkworm barely readable underneath (50:17 in, for those watching at home). Seth Pomeroy doesn’t try to frame justifications for missteps or allow anyone to make up elaborate, after-the-fact excuses. He only ignores or speeds over what isn’t essential to the story of Silkworm. I’ll use the “Blueblood” example. Silkworm did a record called “Blueblood.” It’s not a great or popular Silkworm record. It’s not mentioned in the documentary, really. Why? Because it doesn’t need to be. Alternately, I’m so glad there was time devoted to explaining “Developer,” because yeah, I don’t get that one.

“I don’t know how they did it…but they did it.”

And I think Seth should be praised for how well he handled Michael’s unfortunate, tragic death. There is not a sense of doom plaguing or pervading the film if you know how the story ends, and there is only a subtle wash of melancholy seeing Michael alive onscreen, because the film works hard to applaud the genuinely good person he was. It’s acknowledged in the film that there is sometimes a blurry nostalgia in speaking so highly about someone who died, but with regards to Michael, any hyperbole doesn’t even get close to encapsulating this titan of a guy. The doc works well in displaying Michael’s true character when he was alive via personal archival footage, which is a treat for those of us who never knew the guy but have survived this life a bit better given the work he was involved in creating. Hearing his friends and family talk about Michael is really striking, because, well…it sucks he’s not around.

“I’m going to miss that fucking band.”

It’s interesting to me how inviting this film turned out. The first wave of fans who will see this are the die-hards, the friends, the kids that got there too late. The second wave should be absolutely everyone else with even a passing interest in music. It’s a great story with a horribly disturbing, inevitable end. But it’s still a great story, and it deserves sharing.

Seriously. Or Adam Reach is going to kill you.

Salut, Seth.

R.I.P M.D.

Long live SKWM.

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