How OK Computer became my Survival Soundtrack
This week is the 25th anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer. The album made the charts not only because of its innovative arrangements and memorable tunes, but also because it captured the zeitgeist of the Last Days of the 20th Century. Musically critics called it the Last Great Guitar Album. Lyrically it described a dystopian near-future. But for me, this record is much more than an iconic example of pop art. Like many fans, it’s personal.
On Good Friday, 1997, I’d just turned off David Letterman, annoyed that our meteorologist kept interrupting the show. I had seen tornado warnings my whole life in upper East Tennessee but they never materialized, so in this moment I was just dismissive and grumpy. My wife responded more reasonably, pondering how to stay vigilant at 1am. I drifted off to sleep only to be awakened in the next half hour by a dramatic change of light, rushing wind and my wife urgently calling me.
Our bed faced the window of our apartment and though the blinds were drawn we could see the strobing shadows of tree branches. I mumbled that the power had gone out and Ramona responded with a stern “No, the power went out earlier, that was the emergency power that just went out.” We sat there silently watching the tree; then perhaps due to the sound of the wind or God’s swift shove, we suddenly jumped out of bed toward the entry of the apartment. It’s hard to remember exactly what happened next. We tried to open the exterior door but it wouldn’t budge. We crouched to the floor and were enveloped by noise, a rushing wind…. Then just as suddenly it was calm and we could hear drips accompanied by a car alarm and faint cries.
Turning, we saw the broken panes of our sliding deck door behind us. The room came into focus revealing the plaster ceiling and insulation had plunged into the living area. The roof was gone. We were staring into a dark void of a cloud-filled night, rain still drizzling, air still. With nowhere to go in what was left of our apartment, we tried our exterior door again. This time it opened. Its aluminum cladding was smashed by ceiling joists which must have blown through the hallway as the roof was torn away. We got out without personal harm, but also without any of our belongings. Later we learned that three of the seven apartment buildings were destroyed that night.
It took time for me to realize how important this night was for us. I realized that up to that point I had lived with a fabricated sense of security. I had never truly considered the frailty of my own life, or that it could be ended abruptly. At first this realization manifested itself in fear. It took weeks to feel functional and years to not be panicked by the sound of thunder or a weather forecast.
But as the fear faded, a new perspective grew. I realized that there was no guarantee of security in my life. That making choices that most people consider safe, or risk averse, wasn’t really necessary. We believe that having a degree will get us a job. We think that once we have a job that we have security. Once we have a house we’ll have stability. That we need money or status before we have children. The majority opinion in our culture is to be risk averse, do things in their proper order. Don't take actions that might adversely affect your ability to be successful or stable. My mental model had been shattered. I no longer had to live my life by it.
Fast forward a few months. It was our wedding anniversary and we decided to drive to Nashville for a long weekend. While there we dropped into Tower Records to see what was new. Even though I was still an emotional wreck, or maybe because of it, I had the desire to crate dig—a longtime passion of mine. As I wandered I came upon an end cap freshly stocked with OK Computer. Though I had marginally enjoyed Radiohead’s first album, Pablo Honey, when I was in college, I had really fallen in love with their second, The Bends. The songs felt fresh with the bent melodies of the Pixies, the spaciousness and clarity of britpop, the falsetto of a Jeff Buckley-like front man. It also used the recording studio to cinematic effect, capturing sounds that set a mood instead of building a melody. New album? Yes! Purchased!
As soon as we got into our truck we inserted the cassette and pressed play. The first notes of “Airbag” began, a mirrored choreography of a distorted electric guitar and cello—“an airbag saved my life.” It was not The Bends. Instead of Thom Yorke’s comforting swoon and strumming guitar, it was filled with sounds of panic, ricocheting walls of reverb, and guitars in tango. Track 2, “Rain down on me…..” Our anxiety spiked! OK Computer wasn’t only channeling the mood of the end of the 20th century, it was mirroring our personal panic too.
We had to turn it off.
Today this is my most listened to record, and definitely my favorite band. I’ve owned copies in every format, some in duplicate and I find my fitter, happier, more productive self returning to the album year after year. It’s a lot of things for me. Yes, those critics were right. The robots are taking over. But as importantly to me,
A reminder to take risks. I feel my luck could change.
A reminder that I can heal. One day I am gonna grow wings.
A reminder that I survived. I’m back to save the universe.