Teenage Spaceship

In the year 1999, the singer, songwriter, and guitar player Bill Callahan had released six full-length albums and a number of cassettes and EPs under the name Smog. Smog was not an actual band, but rather Callahan with an as-needed rotating cast of musicians. Smog’s earliest releases were abrasive and jarring, mixing noise experiments with Callahan’s wry and sardonic writing. As he released more albums, Callahan’s musical vision strengthened as it shifted away from the distortion and emphasized his writing and singing. As Callahan would say later, the late 90s Smog albums have “the specter of death” as his songs explored the loss of life directly and indirectly as a way to fight off an internal darkness. An exception was the standout track of Smog’s 1999 album Knock Knock called “Teenage Spaceship”:

The song begins with a tentative piano repeatedly sounding two notes before an acoustic guitar starts the proper beginning of the song. In the background, synthesizers and/or distorted guitars provide a wash of sound. In this ambience of stillness, Callahan starts to sing: “Flying around.” He pauses as the music continues behind him before continuing with “The houses at night.” As he sings the next line — “Flying alone” — his voice almost cracks as he attempts to reach a higher note. He then introduces the title and main concept of the song: “A teenage spaceship.” In case there’s any doubt, Callahan repeats the phrase and makes plain who the spaceship is: “I was a teenage spaceship.” The acoustic guitar continues in the foreground and a delicate note or a chord from the piano responds as Callahan fuses the setting with the song’s mood in the next line: “Landing at night.” In this moment, the music in of “Teenage Spaceship” has the same gentleness as “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake:

Both “Pink Moon” and “Teenage Spaceship” provide a warm embrace for their listeners. While Drake’s writing often reflects a lonely and painful point of view, “Pink Moon” is a quiet exaltation for the essential beauty that Drake feels is alive in the world. “Teenage Spaceship” reaches for the same musical conditions created by “Pink Moon.”

When asked about “Teenage Spaceship” later, Callahan provided autobiographical context for the song:

“I was living with my parents in their basement in Maryland and I used to have bad sleeping habits, and I wouldn’t really get going until midnight. That was when I started my day. So I’d go for a walk around midnight every night. I’d go for an hour, hour and a half, and I probably saw another person only once. Everyone’s in bed, everyone’s in their house. It’s just you and the stars and moon and an abandoned sleeping town. But I was very awake, contrary to everything else that I could see around me. So I was very much like an alien being—that’s probably where the spaceship thing came from— walking through a strange land that was going through something very different. They’re all sleeping, and I’m awake.”

Callahan’s quote speaks to a specific point in his own life, while the song itself addresses the universal yet unique feeling of being a teenager: not quite an adult, not quite a child, being alone and apart, terrified in some instances while also feeling overwhelming confidence at other times. These contradictions are felt by all teenagers at some point, but each feels as though these feelings are exclusive to them alone. It’s no wonder that this unique singularity makes teenagers feel like aliens. In “Teenage Spaceship,” Callahan is able to convey these teenage feelings by not describing the narrator as an alien but as the spaceship itself. It speaks to the common teenage desire to break free of one’s circumstances. This grab for freedom could mean jumping into a car with friends with no particular destination in mind, running away from home by joining the circus, following the Grateful Dead, or just leaving for college. Callahan captures that sensation, but instead of the song’s narrator wanting a spaceship to take him away like the main character of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the boy on the cover of the Yo La Tengo album, the narrator actualizes himself as the spaceship. The song is not only about the alien feeling of being a teenager but also about becoming the vehicle of teenage escape itself. Callahan explores that phenomenon in greater detail as the song continues:

I was beautiful with all my lights
Loomed so large on the horizon
So large
People thought my windows
Were stars
So large on the horizon
People thought my windows
Were stars.

Here, Callahan embraces the beauty of being a teenager. In these lines he not only understands the inherent teenage awkwardness, but revels in the weirdness of what it means to be alive in this larval stage. Callahan recognizes the creation of self that happens during the teenage years, upholding the wonder of the new person emerging over the skyline. 

For the last verse of the song, the tap-tapping of the drums blend with the piano and guitar so that the music moves away from a floating feeling and coalesces into a groove of sorts. Callahan’s vocals lock into this groove as he sings: 

And I swore I’d never lay like a log
Bark like a dog
I was a teenage smog
Sewn to the sky.

Callahan invokes Smog, the name that he has given to his musical venture, and fuses it into the song itself. No longer is the narrator a spaceship, but rather a teenage Smog as Callahan removes the mask of the storyteller and identifies himself as the teenager depicted in the song. The last line — “Sewn to the sky” — describes the action of teenager Callahan’s departure from the home that he knew. It’s also a nod to teenage Callahan’s future as Sewn to the Sky is the title of Smog’s first official album. These lines map out the destiny for the teenager within the song, showing a Kafka-like metaphorical transformation. The spaceship represents his future life as a musician and writer whose visionary talents will one day be known as the band Smog.

As mentioned earlier, “Teenage Spaceship” is a departure from Smog’s earlier music. Smog’s song “Bathysphere” was not exactly a hit, but one that received a certain amount of attention and acclaim for Callahan:

From Smog’s 1995 album Wild Love, the song details a story about a seven year old boy obsessed with living his life in the sea inside a bathysphere. Callahan sings:

And if the water should cut my line
Set me free, I don’t mind
I’ll be the lost sailor, my home is the sea.

He envisions a life in the ocean which would be a release from the regular life provided by his mother. In this sense, the song shares some of the same themes of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak in which a young boy escapes to a dream world as a way to cope with the frustrations of regular life. Unlike Sendak’s story in which the boy protagonist learns about coping and responsibility, “Bathysphere” ends with more of a pessimistic tone. Callahan sings, “My father said to me / ‘But you can’t swim’ / And I’ve never dreamed of the sea again.” The practicality of the father’s insight ruins the narrator’s vision of an existence outside his regular life. His father’s comment destroys the potential of a life of freedom and possible artistic creation. 

The overriding sense of hopelessness in “Bathysphere” is supported by the musical accompaniment which is deeply spooky, laden with loud electric guitars and haunting background vocals. The mood of the music aligns well with the story of a boy whose dreams are destroyed forever. (note: Be sure to check out the powerful cover of “Bathysphere” by Cat Power.)

“Bathysphere” is a good representation of the tone and point of view of Smog’s early work. With “Teenage Spaceship,” Callahan begins to imagine a different mode for his songwriting, both in lyrical content and musical expression. Both songs explore dream states, but the music and words in “Teenage Spaceship” act as an inverse of “Bathysphere” as the vision is ultimately more hopeful. While Callahan would work within places of darkness after “Teenage Spaceship,” he learns how to temper that perspective with humor, irony, imagination, and even lightness. “Teenage Spaceship” provides him with a direction for his work through an acceptance of his youth as he identifies the beginning of his artistic self in those teenage years. The song allows Callahan to answer his artistic calling and reshape his life into something beautiful and magnificent. 

Photo by Scott Bunn

5 thoughts on “Teenage Spaceship

  1. Merci beaucoup Scott – this is great. I wasn’t aware of Callahan’s Smog-oeuvre, so this is all new to me. And any essay incorporating a Nick Drake song must be a good read, obviously. Keep on keepin’ on, and Groeten uit Utrecht, Jochen ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

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