Karl Hendricks is a singer and guitarist from Pittsburgh. He is most known for a string of records he released in the 1990s, combining heavy Les Paul riffing with some of the smartest, funniest, and saddest lyrics in rock. (Both tendencies are evident on the early single “Baseball Cards” and 1996′s “A Boy Who Plays with Dolls.”) The Karl Hendricks Trio (featuring Karl with a shifting combination of bassists and drummers, occasionally with a second guitarist to transform the Trio into the Karl Hendricks Rock Band) played shows with Silkworm and released albums on Superchunk’s label Merge. While those bands informed Karl’s music, judging his records by their covers — illustrated by the likes of Chris Ware and Wayno – gives more of a clue to Karl’s precise, bleak, and witty sensibility.
That sensibility fit the time and place where the Karl Hendricks Trio began. I came to Pittsburgh for graduate school two days before baseball owners locked players out in the late summer of 1994, prematurely ending the second of many terrible seasons by the Pirates after Barry Bonds left as a free agent. Western Pennsylvania was reeling from a decade of deindustrialization that closed factories, homes, and churches. One church on Liberty Avenue became a microbrewery. Discussions to turn another into an American Gladiators arena fell apart. Many buildings lay vacant. I took a project course in my first semester on what to do with the Lawrenceville neighborhood, which had seen all of its riverside steel mills close. Lawrenceville had lost its young and middle-aged people to cities that could offer jobs. Retirees shuffled through the streets. Soot covered buildings everywhere, remnants of over a century of coal use so prevalent that Anthony Trollope declared the city in 1860 “without exception the blackest place which I ever saw.”
The onetime steel-making capital of the world had become a great place for a graduate student to live. Rooms went for around $200 per month. One year, I paid that much to share a house on the Point Breeze block that was recreated in miniature for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers had moved to the Oakland neighborhood by that time, and it was not unusual to see the gracious, famous man on the street near the WQED studios.
You could eat cheaply in Pittsburgh, especially if you liked Indian food. Sree’s Foods sold $3 styrofoam boxes filled with chick peas, rice, and potatoes out of the back of a van parked on campus. Sree’s was something of an employment agency for the local music community. Sometimes the van was staffed by Karl’s wife Megan, or his onetime bassist Caulen, or his future drummer Jake. The Karl Hendricks Trio would play in a cramped tavern, and you might turn around and see Mr. Sree enjoying the show from the comfort of the bar. Each new Karl Hendricks Trio record was met with rapt enthusiasm at the campus radio station, making his music an important part of the community of young people living in an old city.
Karl’s shows and records became less frequent after 1998 as he raised his family, earned his M.F.A., taught, and worked at Paul’s CDs (the best store for new records in town), but the two records he released over the next decade were perhaps his finest. The youthful angst of his earlier work evolved into an evaluation of growing up and growing older, or as he put it on “California in October” (the epic Crazy Horse-influenced closer of 2007’s The World Says), “it’s not that I mind growing older/I just wish you’d stop showing me the decline.”
This month, Karl releases his first new album in five years. The Adult Section continues his lyrical and musical approaches with nine songs about uncomfortable situations, alcohol consumption, and the emotional minefields of memories as time passes. It joins 2003’s The Jerks Win Again and The World Says as examples of how to produce thoughtful, muscular rock. The Adult Section is not a rehash of what Karl Hendricks was doing at 25, but it is no softer or quieter than Some Girls Like Cigarettes or A Gesture of Kindness. Instead, The Adult Section is simply music that reflects a man taking stock of his life and his surroundings at middle age.
The album’s penultimate song “Dreams, Ha” is a meditation on memory and hoarding, as a man in his early forties associates times and relationships in his life with the physical detritus he has saved. Karl tosses a dozen references into the song (audible in a gorgeous solo performance at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum), allowing him to describe how images in the mind fuel the powerful urge to hoard:
Dreams, dreams, ha, ha, ha
Just a lock of your hair and a broken guitar
And a baby tooth and a Gretzky card
And a picture of you next to a Yoda doll
Why do I hold on to all this trash?
Hanging tight to the concrete
’Cause I lost all the abstract
The litany of objects the narrator of “Dreams, Ha” rattles off include mass-produced baubles of plastic and cardboard, commodities (even broken ones) that the narrator’s memory intertwines with intimately individual leavings of teeth and hair to produce deeply personal meanings. If the future turns out not to be just one long present, with relationships slipping away due to tragedy or circumstance, how tempting is it to clutch totems of good times past? Two decades after lamenting a time when all your best ideas have been bought and sold, Karl presents a narrator more worried about hanging on than selling out.
“Dreams, Ha” has both professional and personal significance to me because it raises ideas about consumption and waste. Karl Hendricks neatly articulates how an individual gives meaning to (or, as Walter Benjamin put it, fetishizes) objects designed, mass-produced, distributed, and sold by people with no personal connection to the consumer. That meaning goes well beyond the money paid for those objects, as the narrator makes the effort to preserve and protect these things over time even if they have no ostensible function or value to anyone else.
The Adult Section arrives as I decide whether to pack or trash the clothes, books, records, baseball cards, furniture, photographs, letters, and other possessions I have collected through several moves over the years. This move is more of a challenge as I go from a house to a smaller, furnished apartment. My desire to keep my stuff is tempered by reluctance to pay to store it somewhere in the most expensive city in the United States.
Urgency to curb my packrat tendencies is greater than ever. (It is possible that editing several encyclopedia entries on hoarding and acquisition since my last move help my resolve almost as much as the finite space that waits for me in Brooklyn.) Over and over this summer, I have sorted through my closets and boxes asking myself, why do I hold on to all this trash? Some of the things I have carted around the continent over the past quarter century are finally exiting my life via garage sales, Craigslist, Freecycle, the recycling bin, and the dumpster.
I am not getting rid of everything. Much will make the drive to New York, a drive that will involve a stopover for a few days in Pittsburgh. I will double back on my past, to a town that has changed since 1994. The Pirates are threatening to win more games than they lose. Lawrenceville’s dilapidated homes and storefronts have seen a renaissance (a word often used by local boosters) with artists’ enclaves popping up on Butler Street. Paul’s CDs closed a few months ago, and Karl now runs Sound Cat Records in its place. Lou Gehrig’s disease killed Mr. Sree last summer. Cancer took Mr. Rogers weeks before I left town nine years ago. Most of the soot on the buildings has been scrubbed away.
The Adult Section is available on vinyl LP that comes with a compact disc “for the sake of your convenience.” Shelf space awaits both the LP and CD in my new apartment.