Salvation Songs, part 2: Arms Can’t Stretch.

13 Dec


I’ve had two reliable sources of great mix tapes: Jeff Butler and Tommy Heffernan. Jeff had superior equipment, Tommy had a vast knowledge of musical esoterica. Jeff leaned towards guitar rock. Tommy favored new wave. Jeff gave me a greatest hits of Queen. Tommy juxtaposed The Talking Heads with The Smiths.

I still have the tapes they made me, all of them[1].

My cousin Keith has emerged as the mix tape source in my adult life. More about him later.

But once, just once, I was given a mixtape from a friend kind of out of nowhere, and on that tape was a song that changed my life.

Christian Bauer was and is a music maven. He loved, breathed, lived for music, and found a way to collapse conversations into his comfort zone. I met him through soccer, we were both into punk—we both liked Screeching Weasel, Blink 182 and Lagwagon—but he had much more adventurous[2] tastes. He had a wide palate, dipping into all manner of musical subcultures.

We went to different high schools, and I was a year older but we were friends. He was smart and into ideas. I was interested in the world and read a lot. I remember he asked me once, when he was 17, how someone could pray all the time, constantly. “What would it look like?” (He was referring to Frannie and Zooey.) I said I didn’t know. He pondered. My attention drifted.

It’s hard to know how others view you, but I think he saw me as decent and generous with my emotional space.

Anyway, he made me a tape. I still have it. It’s titled “Something to fall back on.” He drew a picture of a smiling guy on the front. Some of the music was what we at the time called Emo Screamo, which has no real contemporary equivalent. Some of it was indie rock. Some of it was punk. And then, the first song on the second side, was a track by Hot Water Music: “Arms Can’t Stretch.”


I used to go to punk shows at the Nite Owl, a shitty little rundown bar at the edge of a busted out shopping mall. Along with Sluggo’s—and later a tiny place called Section Eight—it was Pensacola’s only punk rock venue. (The mall has since converted into a Lowe’s. Or might be boarded up by now.) The Nite Owl had a stage, a reliable sound system, some pool tables and ratty gutter punk furniture. It drew huge all-ages shows. I saw Good Riddance, Face to Face, and Less than Jake there, among dozens of others. I loved it.

One of the perennial favorites was a band named Avail. They were amazing live, just stunning. They were a forerunner to the hardcore sound—a type of music, no longer around, that saw its heyday with Earth Crisis and The Henry Rollins Band and Hatebreed and, to a lesser extent, Pantera, and then dismantled into emo and death metal. I bought their cds. The music was okay but the magic wasn’t there. Avail’s magic was on the stage. I saw them a number of times.

Opening for Avail, when I was 19, was the band Hot Water Music.


They’re a great band. The music is at times simple and comforting, but they have two singers and use them in tandem to great emotional effect. They also have a dynamite live show, but I was distracted and didn’t pay close attention.

I was in a difficult, unhappy period. I had a crushing avalanche of introspection. I essentially switched from an extroverted happy guy into a brooding, self-directed dude[3]. It felt like a malignant presence had invaded my thoughts. Placed into the new context of college, in a new city, I was unsure of who I was. I didn’t feel like I belonged with the soccer players on the team, and I didn’t have outlets to make new friends. I drank too much. I lost weight. I listened to whiny punk and power pop. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t enjoy my own company. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. There’s more[4]. My buddy Jeff was in Georgetown, living a life I wanted. Robert and Chris stayed in Pensacola. I felt alone and isolated and lonely. It sounds silly and quaint at this telescoped distance, but at the time I missed my friends, and I missed them terribly. I missed my family too, although I wouldn’t have admitted the sickly ache to anyone, including myself.

A second level of dislocation. I didn’t like Montgomery. More provincial than Pensacola, which seemed impossible. No live music. No punk anywhere. Thick-accented people who belonged to a Deep South culture I had somehow averted.

I was all over the place politically, a hybrid of libertarianism and old-school republicanism, as well as a mish mash of religion. I suffered from a collision of Southern Baptist, old school religion and burgeoning Gnostic notions trickling down to me through the eons via literature. The mystery religions of the ancient world were alive, and I was electrified by their contact[5].

I felt alone, alone, alone, alien in my own body, disconnected from my own thoughts and the miserable surroundings. But I had that tape. Something to fall back on.


Yes, back to Christian’s mix tape. The first song on the second side. A song by the band I had seen back at the Nite Owl.

“Arms Can’t Stretch” is a love song, but I interpreted it at the time as a paean to life itself. It’s a soaring, rapturous song. It sounds of its time, there’s a touch of the 1990s to it, but it also sounds cosmic and timeless. There’s a spiritual strand in the lyrics.

I listened to this song constantly. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Along with “Modern Love” by David Bowie and, strangely, “Whipping Boy” by Lagwagon, I had a precise soundtrack of three songs.

One night I drove up to Athens to visit my cousin, Keith, at the University of Georgia.

We bopped around the campus, then around downtown, talking, talking, talking. We ate pizza. We walked. It was a calm night. We saw one of Keith’s friends witnessing to undergraduates. We passed the bars and the buskers. We made our way back to his dorm around 2 in the morning. He had a corner room. We were wiped out. I was happy, emptied out of negative feelings and at peace in a way that only the best of friends and the closest of companions can bring.

“I’ve got a song for you to hear,” he said.

And he put this on.!/search/song?q=Hot+Water+Music+Arms+Can’t+Stretch

[1] Although many of Tommy’s tapes are now playing through the speakers of my brother-in-law’s car.

[2] and at times more sophisticated.

[3] I’ve always been an uncomfortable mixture of both.

[4] But I won’t go into it; haven’t you learned by now that writers lie by omission?

[5] There’s a story here, and it’s a good one, but I’m sticking to the topic as much as possible.

One Response to “Salvation Songs, part 2: Arms Can’t Stretch.”


  1. Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 14, 2013

    […] (They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 1 and 2.) […]

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