Music

Making Out with Portishead

Thirteen Writers on the '90s' Most Ubiquitous Mood Music

Making Out with Portishead

Nat Damm

Let's think about this. Why the need to make out to Portishead? What is it about the trio's music that makes it the ideal background for the experience of eyes meeting eyes, lips meeting lips, organs meeting organs? We have been there, you and I. That moment of desire. We need it to be perfect. The city lights, the booze in the blood, the smell of flesh. What shall we play on the stereo? Whatever it is, it must enhance the mood. If the music is too angry, too happy, or too heavy, it will ruin the moment. Let's not expose, dampen, or evaporate our desire. We need this madness of lust to be complicated by greater obscurity, more mystery. And Portishead's music does just this.

There's a girl in my past. She was strange. She was short. She would not let me touch her unless we were alone. No public affection from her. And if I wanted to go beyond touching her when we were alone, I needed to play the right music. The right music was Portishead. I remember her belly button: a ring attached to it. I remember her wrist: a bracelet around it. And we would kiss and kiss. And the voice of Beth Gibbons would sing and sing. And it was not what she was saying but how she was saying it. Beth was about one thing: longing. Lovers, even if they are together, even if they are locked in a kiss, still want this feeling of longing. Why? Because, after this kissing, touching, fucking—this experience shall pass. When your lover is there, you know they will in time be gone. And the music of Portishead speaks to this understanding, this passing from being there to not being there. "Please could you stay awhile to share my grief/It's such a lovely day to have to feel this way." How I loved the ring in your belly button, Tammy.

I wrote this while listening to Portishead's new CD, Third, which is growing on me. CHARLES MUDEDE

There was a time when we were at it like bunnies. The "modern rock" station played Portishead nonstop. It was the time of roommates and thin walls, and radios turned up to mask. And Portishead were more to mood than the Sundays (too cute) or My Bloody Valentine (too noisy) or Blur (charming beat and accents become annoying during sex, like someone playing with your nipple post orgasm). Portishead were a good indicator that I was knocked up. Suddenly I could not bear that repeating dunda-dah dun-dun. Morning sickness and Portishead were one. Trying to quickly twist the radio knob away from the sound was like trying to scratch an itch while hang gliding. My arm was stretched out as if in petition, my fingers grazing the globular button, when something came shooting out of me, an ooze of warm spittle that bubbled over my swollen belly as the song played on. Now they are back and my son is a 10-year-old drummer. Long may they both play on. LAURA ALBERT

I never made out to Portishead, but I once used Portishead, on a Walkman with the volume up, to block out the sounds of my ex- girlfriend and ex–best friend having loud, weird sex in the apartment next to mine. I always imagined there was a rattan cane involved. MIRANDA JULY

After dropping out of college, I embarked on a cross-country Greyhound bus trip and found myself eating Thanksgiving dinner at a mansion in Southern California. My aunt had recently married and we were spending the holiday with her husband's wealthy relatives. It was never clear to me who exactly these people were, what shape their family tree took, who had raised or divorced whom, but I was pretty certain that the sexy 19-year-old seated across from me was, one way or another, now a cousin of mine. The next night, this cousin and I went out driving in an SUV. Pretty as she was, I didn't much like talking to her, so I blasted Portishead's Live NYC album as we drove the coast, the sea breeze blowing in my face. Then we pulled into a parking lot and we just sat there. I asked to kiss her. She said okay. CHRIS WEEG

Carrie (not her real name) was beautiful and her hair was short and brown. Everything she said was understated and subtle and I acted like a hyperactive monkey around her; she drove me fucking nuts with her quiet dignity. One night, at a party, we got really drunk and made out. I remember "Glory Box" was playing. Actually, now I can't recall whether Portishead were playing or my brain superimposed the song onto the memory. Something about the plaintive horniness of "Glory Box" speaks to the kind of raw-nerve longing that's only felt by the very young or the profoundly creepy. If it was really playing, that was a moment as epic and alive as any I've ever experienced. If my mind inserted the song, then it's another in a series of maudlin memories I've learned from the movies. I'll never know for sure. Carrie left town and Google can't find her. PAUL CONSTANT

October 1997. West Philadelphia. We climbed out my window to balance on the tiny roof over the entrance to Cafe Trio, the coffee shop on the first floor. It smelled like real Northeast autumn, coffee grounds, and our half-empty forties of OE. Portishead's Dummy was playing from the stereo in the living room. We totally made out. It was a little cold. And messy. Lots of things to balance—bottles, cigarettes, lighters. The cinders from the roof tiles stuck to the palms of our hands. Later we had a spitting contest. I won. MARYA SEA KAMINSKI

I do have a drunken memory of having sex with someone for the first time and Portishead coming on and feeling a little weird about it, like I should probably pull out and go turn it off, just not wanting that energy anywhere near my booty call. But I know that I didn't, even though the girl (boy? don't think so) is lost to memory. I do recall 10 years ago when I was the doorman for the winter in the brand-new Baltic Room, and Portishead played at the Paramount just down the street. Cover was $7, I think, and these British folks kept showing up without money or ID, and one after another, as if the hipness cred of it were enough, would flatly say in a woofy London accent, "We're wif PortisHEAD." Portishead were the shizznatch at the time and the bar hoped they would show up there, so I let them in. For years afterward, my best friend and I (we grew up together in London), when we would witness ourselves make some slightly overbearing demand without really justifying it, would say in that accent as if at last resort, "We're wif PortisHEAD," and crack up. GRANT COGSWELL

Who the fuck is porridgehead? GARY SHTEYNGART

During my clichéd '90s college makeout sessions, the problem with Portishead, or rather, playing all the music in my "Portishead" folder from Napster, was that while the mood would be set, I was invariably left thwarted by my own Pokémonesque "download 'em all" mentality. Gathering every single, B-side, cover, and remix known to man left me with dozens of copies of tracks, turning them from aural Spanish fly into a distracting annoyance, even when played on "random." Trust me when I say that neither willfully ignoring the music nor repeated interruptions to skip tracks helps to make an already awkward situation less so. Damn you, "Glory Box." DONTE PARKS

I've definitely done S&M with Portishead playing. It's kind of a standard dungeon track. Either Portishead or Dead Can Dance. Usually, when you meet with a dominatrix, she'll ask you to get undressed and leave you in the room with music playing. This is often true even if the dominatrix is your girlfriend, or wife. But if you're in an actual dungeon, the music is more important because there are other rooms so it's considerate to cover the screams. Some dungeons have thinner walls than others and my apartment has particularly thin walls. It seems obvious that Portishead would be a common soundtrack in this situation—the slow, mysterious groove; one foot in front of the next; the steady tap of the boots approaching the door; the drawn-out synthesizer peaking then fading with anticipation; the knob turning. You can't see the door open; you're always facing away when she walks in. You relax when she strokes your neck, and the lyrics, if you're listening—"Inside your pretending/Crimes have been swept aside/Somewhere where they can forget." Her grip on your neck tightens as she reaches for the volume. STEPHEN ELLIOTT

A certain mood overtakes me when I think about Portishead. I know exactly which apartment I lived in when I was listening to their self-titled album over and over: crappy duplex in Fremont, raccoons coming through the window all the time, Peeping Tom regularly lurking in the neighboring parking lot. Also: I had been dating a stoner who lived in his VW bus and I was finally—no really this time!—determined to extricate myself from the relationship. So there was plenty of Portishead-toned drama around. The soft burbling of his ever-present bong nicely complemented all those scratchy moans. Since he wasn't "into monogamy," I never knew exactly when his van would cough him out onto my stoop. Sure, I may have spent some late evenings alone but for Portishead, my ears pricked for the rumbling arrival of the VW. I may have stared at myself in the mirror and felt the lyrics urging me toward—then away!—then back toward the entanglement. I don't know. But I do know that after the night he leapt up from the futon, shouted, "Dude! What the fuck!" and chased the Peeping Tom away, I couldn't break up with him. Not yet. BRANGIEN DAVIS

I couldn't know whether Eugenia asked me to the prom because she couldn't bear not to have a date or whether it was some kind of dare. I was just a fidgety sophomore and Eugenia was a gloomy, elegant, dark-haired senior—like a porcelain doll wrapped in black velvet—I barely knew and could barely talk to. I think we were both relieved when I finally got too tipsy and tired at the afterparty to do anything but fall asleep on the living-room couch. I woke up in the dark to the sound of people fucking just behind the couch. I'd never heard anybody fucking before. I wondered if we were all supposed to be fucking, wondered if I was supposed to go upstairs and try to lose my virginity to Eugenia, but was too ashamed to let Phil and whoever-it-was know I could hear them. So I lay on the couch, wakeful and worrying, listening to Phil and whoever-it-was and the music—gloomy, elegant, and dark. Then the CD player switched from Portishead to Enya, carrying the three of us from the streets to the sea. BRENDAN KILEY

My wife doesn't like music at such times. So I have not made out to anything since Guns N' Roses. SHERMAN ALEXIE


Laura Albert has published two books of fiction—Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things—as JT LeRoy. Miranda July is a filmmaker, an artist, and the author of the short-story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. Chris Weeg is a person. Marya Sea Kaminski makes theater in Seattle. Grant Cogswell is in Mexico. Gary Shteyngart is the author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan. Donte Parks is The Stranger's electronic-music columnist. Stephen Elliott has written half a dozen books, including the novel Happy Baby and the story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. Brangien Davis is the editor of the journal Swivel. Sherman Alexie still puts Hall & Oates's "Sara Smile" on every mix CD and playlist he makes. Portishead are a band; their new album is out April 28.

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"Dummy," after all, has gotten substantially more attention in the United States than might be expected of an album of leisurely British post-hip-hop torch songs. "It's gotten a bit silly really," says Geoff Barrow of the reaction. "It's been a major surprise to us."
Posted by Knight Arrant http://knightarrant.com on August 28, 2009 at 10:35 PM · Report this

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