by Charles Reed
The opening lines, from the second track “Prophecy” begin, “Consider this a sign. This is a train in the night. And now it’s time for you to go. You know you’ve had a healthy life, boy.” What a start. The velocity in that lyric is incredible. I was hooked.
My best friend Rich and I discovered Remy Zero, the Birmingham, Alabama-based alternative rock band, when their second studio album Villa Elaine, named after a Hollywood apartment building in which they were living, was released in 1998. Influenced by David Bowie and Brian Eno, Remy Zero are from the South, but they are not a Southern band. The lead singer Cinjun Tate was once quoted as saying, “There’s no real music scene [in Birmingham], unless you’re playing Lynyrd Skynyrd covers . . . We came together because we were all freaks, really.”
Double hooked. Whom among us didn’t feel that way at some point in our lives? Our youthful exuberance and discovery for all things give us something to wake up for, something that can be beautifully summarized through music, and Remy Zero woke me up.
As we both began learning more about Remy Zero, we found their intriguing biography. I scoured internet archives website, Wayback Machine, to find a portion of this original biography:
Remy Zero was born Remy Boligee in Chelsea, Alabama about 1950. At around 16 he left home for Birmingham and found a job unloading trains outside the city. By 1969 he was living in a shack in a railroad worker’s shantytown and had begun writing the first of hundreds of highly idiosyncratic songs.
The band and record company made numerous attempts to locate Remy Zero and his relatives but have so far been unsuccessful. It is hoped by using his name, Zero will come to hear of the band and perhaps establish contact.
According to the biography, Remy’s tapes were given to 12-year-old Shelby Tate (Cinjun’s brother) by one of Remy’s friends. The tapes contained nearly 30 hours of music, conversation, ramblings, and train yard sounds. Those recordings formed the basis for the Remy Zero sound.
I imagined the scenes of Remy recording his thoughts, feet dangling from the side of a boxcar, and Shelby first listening to the tapes and being inspired. I know the story is probably fiction. In a 2019 interview with Seattle-based radio station KEXP, Cinjun said, “Shelby ‘invented’ the band.” Regardless, what a great story it is. That is what made albums and bands from my youth interesting— they were truly creative arts with more than just hooks and earworms. These albums were a complete work of art from the liner notes, song titles, and accompanying stories. Back when albums were still meant to be listened-to from beginning to end.
Some songs from Villa Elaine made it into movie or TV soundtracks. That was always a sore spot with Rich and me in that we felt Remy Zero was ours, and not for a thirty-second TV show introduction. However, I’ve grown to appreciate some of those decisions, such as the inclusion of the song “Fair” in the soundtrack for the 2004 movie Garden State.
Villa Elaine was released in the era before digital music was the standard, and when we diligently hunted for hidden tracks, it did include one hidden instrumental. The track was not anything spectacular, but it felt like I accomplished something special by finding it. Knowing those nuances, such as which albums contained hidden tracks, or where a song was recorded, and with what instrument, really helped us connect with the band, and it gave them music credibility.
I will always cherish this album and band, which broke up shortly after their third album Golden Hum in 2002. We may not know the true Southern influence the band members drew upon when making their music. But for me, one thing is sure— their music and style awakened in me a love of weird and emotional music. I began consuming their back catalog, as well as listening to their influences.
To me, the ending of the song “Fair” is a great example of the dark and stormy space Remy Zero often created in their music, a space in which I wanted to exist:
“When I was sure you’d follow through
My world was turned to blue (so thin)
When you’d hide, your songs would die
So, I’d hide yours with mine
And all my words were bound to fail
I know you won’t fail”
Charles Reed was born in Florida and lived there most of his life, and after marrying a girl from Alabama, he calls Montgomery home. He works in the computer software industry and recently decided to start writing things down.
*You can also read his review of the book “Family Matters” here on level:deepsouth.