Contents

First

January-August 2007: High school, “rock’n'roll,” & fake puns in Chinese

 

01: “The Unreasonable”
02: “Green and Garbage”
03: “Final Cuts”
04: “Something to Follow”
05: “Nights It Came Together”
06: “Better Than Aliens”
07: “Cake and ‘Cakes”
08: “The Vision” / “The Curse”
09: “Dried”
10: “Honey Water Flavor”
11: “Before the Movie, The Life”
12: “Here’s to Never”
13: “At Last”
14: “And Then ‘This’”
15: “The Summer of Backrooms”
16: “Right, Right, Right”
17: “Live Free Chicago”
18: “John F. Kennedy and the Internet Sadness”
19: One Summer Night, at Paterno-Era PSU…

“John F. Kennedy and the Internet Sadness”

Attempts to find a new male vocalist were proving pretty sad. Peter, a space cadet emo kid with a thick black pony mane, seemed an even less reliable prospect than Lupin had proven, and the alternatives were scarce and scant. Such was our plight that I began thinking of someone I had never met, and never thought I would: John F. Kennedy.

He wasn’t dead – I was sure of that. I’d met him on the internet, when I was on the earlier end of the adolescent spectrum. He’d been magnet-drawn by the same transcendentally good videogame to the same (now two-decade-long) online celebration thereof where Mixtape and I had also first spoke. The one videogame I’d call beautiful, whole, or pure, or use a weightily protracted German word to compliment the totality of its artfulness,1 was further distinguished by its knack for attracting in their childhoods the troubled teens of tomorrow. JFK was maybe the most doomed of the damned. But there was also Claud, the handsome, Romanian-looking Carolina boy who sometimes lured the prettiest classmate he could to the mulch beneath a recess play structure to present her with scissor halve and paper cup, soliciting a sip of blood. And Eli, still a teenager and entering the Navy and already married, “for tax purposes.” And then there was Mixtape, the eighth grade prodigy whose gifts (and internet connection) had already been cut short by an unsympathetic psych ward in Utah. Jeb assumed a figurehead role for his willingness to jumpstart various websites, which served as an outlet for morally bankrupt dreck from all but me. Perhaps least conspicuous was John F. Kennedy, disconsolate Cobain acolyte and former president of the United States of America.

It’s hard to understand, now, why this is the online company I kept for most of middle school and a bit beyond. I’m sure I didn’t much realize it at the time, but this ragtag crew was an ongoing case study in how the young, damaged, not yet dulled wits of America were starting to manifest in the internet generation. Kids born even just a few years prior who felt utterly unique and dead alone in their podunk wherevers were now able to stoke their parents’ flatlined landlines, conduct a search box biopsy of their interests, and congregate around a common cause or care in its designated online niche-node.2 And the intellect, curiosity and anger of some of these undirected talents were leaving strange, compelling transcripts of their compact development and long stagnation. Mixtape, in the last fireworks of his mind before institutional extinguishment, left a proud record of how he had blessed his school, in the span of one month, with a remarkable triptych of performances: a flawless recitation of The Raven; a spirited take on a forum friend-penned fanfic rap about this beloved videogame afflicting us all; and a theatrical adaptation of The Passion of the Christ that retained aspiring nazi Mel Gibson’s “Newest of Testaments” plotline but crucially replaced all characters with the McDonald’s Corporation’s intellectual property (Mixtape himself was Ronald McDonald, palms piked to the cross; a dozen-order of McNuggets were his Disciples; and buckets of free, locally sourced Mickey D ketchup packets spurted his precious blood). All three were greeted with uncomprehending, somewhat frightened awe3 — including that of his best friend Jack, in the crowd and two years yet removed from meeting me.45

Jeb’s sites, meanwhile, were always impressively designed, and bore a lot of promise (until they crumbled, every time, beneath the weight of various awful jokes and sub-gutter humor). And Claud’s 24/7 AIM patter was a piece of endurance art playing out endlessly, in all directions, for myriad audiences of one – odd conceptual bits that would leaven over the course of days and all too many messages.6 In light of the 2003 Tour de France, he became obsessed with “Le Tour,” venerating the pre-fall false idol Armstrong with sacramental piety (a favorite swatch of Scripture was an ad Claud recalled from years prior, when Lance was shown, hauling ass, drinking sport drink, and Setting The Record Straight: “people ask me what I’m on; I’m on my bike, busting my ass, seven days a week,” with steroids), and coaching all of us to acquire bikes, begin Training, and eventually become the first ever Nintendo-sponsored team at the races.7

These were some of the things smart, discouraged teens were up to in the mid-aughts suburbs and non-urbs. In the limin between witness and participant in this sad cadre, I put most of my idle energy toward trying to build things like the failed fansubbing team I started at 12 and the semi-“successful” record label I started at 14. For the most part, these rapidly expanding and collapsing minds before me channeled their intellects toward creative nihilism, staging culturally violent anti-plays, building pro-looking websites filled with eloquent filth,8 and campaigning for hugely ambitious athletic accomplishment with the underlying sincerity left equally ambiguous.9 Toward the end of the maybe-charade and our abstract camaraderie, when I began rowing in 9th grade, Claud told me to quit dallying with such an arms-centric sport when we had French time trials to win. I clarified that rowing is an almost entirely legs-propelled motion (“they’re the stronger set of muscles, after all”), and he replied with a deep and uncommon admiration.10

Keep in mind these were the years before social media remorselessly fucked and cynicized the young American mind forever. These kids were pioneers, the budding adolescent condition that prefigured the irreducible logic of an endlessly “social”-woven web that would soon entangle, map, and disorient a generation – and, mostly against their wills but with an inevitability like gravity, their extant predecessors.

Kennedy was, in the scheme of this study, a statistical insignificance. He contributed little to the group’s tangible output, though he partook in the posturing fine. All I remembered was that he liked to sing and play guitar, that he lived not terribly far from me, and that he hated to be reminded of his esteem as perhaps the most all-time iconic former God of America. By this point in time our online assembly had been several years dismantled, but in our desperation to play another show that summer Jack and I were casting a wide net. What little I knew of him is tidily synopsized in this late-night exchange:

soyrev: never met him
soyrev: but at this point i’m ready to do that
soyrev:
 he would be down
soyrev: it just depends
soyrev: 
his image/style/voice
jack: 
yeah he looks classic rock ish
soyrev: 
he wants to be kurt cobain
soyrev: 
which i guess i can respect
soyrev:
 but i don’t care so much about that
soyrev: he’d be in uniform
soyrev: and we can find him a blacker guitar to play
jack: 
truth
soyrev: 
this kid
soyrev: 
DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL
soyrev: 
he does NOTHING
soyrev: 
ALWAYS
jack:
 hahahaha
jack: 
thats sick
soyrev: he’s watching our videos from the show right now
soyrev: and he says he can match lupin
soyrev: i’m intrigued enough to go out and meet him
jack: wanna bring him to my place? or you wanna just go meet him
soyrev: i think i’ll meet him
soyrev: and if it’s down
soyrev: i’ll take him to you
jack: legit man.
soyrev: his house is 23 mins from you
soyrev: less than lupin
soyrev:
 he’s my age too
soyrev: i just know that if he’s good, or good enough
soyrev: he won’t be doing SHIT otherwise
soyrev: and he wants to play
soyrev: this could be big
soyrev: i just saw him online and was fuckin like, “JOHN”
soyrev: oh yeah get this
soyrev: his name?
soyrev: fucking John Kennedy
jack: hahahahahaha
soyrev: how ridiculous is that
jack: our new front man
jack: JOHN
jack: FUCKING
jack: KENENDY
soyrev: would be amazing
soyrev: it’s his god given name
jack: that would be such an amazing comeback

Perhaps the “F.”  in his name had been “Fucking” all along, come to think of it.

I wasn’t about to find out, but I sure would try. It was in those first few days of August that I fired up the Shitcopter once more and, landlocked as ever, burnt a route somewhere yet unseen.

As I reached John’s general vicinity my trip time estimate ballooned and then doubled, as my borrowed GPS’ nascent satellites got lost in the labyrinthine folds of Kennedy’s township. Haphazard expansion had made crowbar-beaten trapezoids where there might have been blocks, and the jumble of bent angles made for pretty dire address analysis. My grayscale dumbphone didn’t help, though I was still a year and one Steve Jobs magnum opus from knowing it. After a while I simply shunted my car down some memorable-looking hypotenuse and continued my search by foot.

I nearly missed the Kennedy abode for all its concrete-bleak grays, and the terra-cotta near-corpse who had staked his doorway as her final resting place. Unkempt weeds and freestyle chalk marred the façade, including a mislabeling that read “GABBY’S HOUSE.” With mute curiosity I rang the doorbell, and waited.

John soon greeted me, wearing the same nondescript anonymity beneath his unsoaped fringe I thought possible only in compressed Facebook photos. As he mumbled hello it seemed improbable that he could see any more of my face than I could his, though I could tell he was paler than a sick moon. Mother Kennedy, cloaked in darkness, seemed happy to see me. His father was a familiar statue beneath the shifting graffiti of the TV screen, which beyond two ailing lamps was the only light in the room. Curtains were drawn taut over what seemed unlikely to be windows. The staircase up was likewise shielded by a dense gauze for purposes unexposed. After raising a recycled cigarette to his lips and lighting it nervously, John parted the fabric and waved to his mom like he was going someplace else for a while.

The second floor was like a return to reality, far more logically continuous with the building’s raw exterior than the living room between. Perhaps downstairs, with its dense strata of rugs, blinds, and dim bulbs, was some attempt to make the home cozy despite what I was now realizing to be a ramshackle finish; John’s room was a spider ditch, barren and stained. In one corner were three mattresses stacked like deadwood – none of them wore sheets, and the top layer was burnt and black all over. The floor was plain cement, unadorned but for its patterned wear and tear, a few unfamiliar insects slowly improvising new designs upon it. The walls bore more deliberate ornament, with messages scribbled in alternating scripts. Something above had stained the ceilings. Next to the unhinged closet was the weathered machine on which he must’ve typed to me and the others all those days and nights, describing things like the razor blade feels his bath water assumed that one time he dropped acid in the tub.

Senses dilating, I mentally jump-cut back to my childhood, days my mom used to deposit me for a time in what would later seem an inscrutably seedy neighborhood with a trusted matriarch (Bertha) and her two sons (Kenny and Salim, one of whom claimed to remember what it was like living in Bertha’s womb). No, I thought, in the present: the house I’m in now is, definitely, the worst house I’ve ever been in. They were smart kids, too, Salim having read the dictionary like fiction every day to keep out of trouble. Growing up, John had mostly read AIM and the awful things people he’d never meet put inside it for him.

“Yeah, my roommate sleeps here a lot,” he said, disowning the mess a little. “So it’s not really just my bed. Sometimes I sleep on the couch downstairs.”

“Roommate? I thought this house was all yours.”

“Yeah, kid got kicked out of his house by his dad, so I let him crash here,” he gestured, to unseen company. “He hasn’t left in four months.”

Careful to miss his keyboards and drum fractions, John spat the uncremated end of his cigarette to the cemetery on the floor, and stamped it into its new plot. His acoustic guitar was clearly the best kept of his or his roommate’s possessions. As he retrieved it from its corner, I took a seat on a nearby seating implement, which looked like the central platter upon which waiters might place injera and cubed meat at a nearby Eritrean restaurant. He played me a song of his own invention. If it were to have later surfaced as an In Utero home demo on a Nirvana box set, he could’ve fooled anyone. If a photo of him playing it to me surfaced in its liner notes as an archival photo of Kurt Cobain at 18, we could’ve fooled Courtney Love. It was pretty good; I still remember part of its staccato riff and lyrics, and not entirely for my heightened state of consciousness at the time.

Once he concluded, we small-talked for maybe 40 minutes. After a while his girlfriend ambled in, a Latina who either knew little English or had her grasp of it tremble before strangers. As they shared increasing surface area, I spied an affluent cockroach evacuating its manor beneath the bed stack’s floormost mattress.  I could take a hint, and here were two.

I wish now, as I did then driving home, that John could have been the one. But like his idol, I couldn’t imagine him fronting someone else’s band, being amenable to someone else’s vision (especially when that vision, for the time being, involved “What Is Love?”). Besides, he was too far away, immobile, and from a world I was, in our band, maybe likeliest to understand, and yet so far removed from anything I could still recognize. I had plenty to think about on that simpler drive home, back to stones and gardens and a pest situation mostly under control. If this wasn’t the first time I realized I do some pretty strange shit for music, it could have been.

  1. Chrono Trigger comes close, but doesn’t quite make it, I don’t think. I might go back and check if time ever feels like it stops mattering again. []
  2. Again, in this case, a broad range of childhoods all indelibly marked by the same piece of Super Nintendo plastic. []
  3. One witness I tracked down a decade after the performance recalled, “It was the obvious culmination of this manic genius he had before he got too fucked up…He claimed he wrote [The Passion] in one night, staying up all night to do it. I think it was the drama teacher’s finest moment because his work offended and intrigued everyone; some parents called in furious, others said it was brilliant or hilarious. It got first place in some national competition that we had to enter it in…it was this super surreal moment.” []
  4. One sharp reader of soyrev could say their friendship ended, approximately, while Jack sat in his crowd, and our friendship began, approximately, while Jack sat in mine. []
  5. Even later, Jack’s dad would tell him privately that I was who Mixtape would’ve become had he not “fucked up.” []
  6. A concise example: one day all his conversations, at least with me, began with the rallying cry “FUCK THE RUBRIC,” and all correspondence with him was shaded by sweeping, undefined anti-Rubric invective; the next day he would urgently respond to my greeting with the revision, “WE MUST CONFORM TO THE RUBRIC,” each of yesterday’s statements carefully mirrored and inverted. []
  7. “I always thought he was pretty together,” Mixtape said years later of Claud, when I mentioned the last I’d heard was that he was failing out of college, suffering from alienation, and generally deteriorating. “He totally warped me.” This was just a few months after his return from Utah. He also told me he was “trying to get some acid soon and sit in front of my TV for 12 hours playing [that videogame] again…trippin’ face…killin’ Giygas.” []
  8. Typically bucking the trend in the group, I submitted not profanity-laden meta-screeds but a project in which I attempted to count down and individually essay my favorite 100 songs at that time in life, something I thought would be fun to do once per decade. []
  9. The expectation for proof of our individual Training was very real, if nothing else. []
  10. Around this time, Mixtape was in the last months of his pre-Utah freedom, and had been struggling through the death of a close friend who didn’t look left before crossing the street. “You know what else is interesting,” Claud wrote to him on a shared bulletin board one day, a non-sequitur. “Chris is dead, and he’s never coming back. Isn’t that funny?” I decided then and there to hate him indefinitely, and the tentative glue binding us all began to seam. []

“Live Free Chicago”

While things between Natalie and I slowly clarified, like iced coffee on a summer porch, Jack had been spending the two weeks after our show in D.C., where he  resumed his casual, summer camp inquiry into filmmaking. We kept in voluminous  touch over AIM in the pitch black a.m., talking about our respective days in throwaway shorthand and our musical aspirations in long-held breaths.

During one such chat he floated thoughts of going to the second summerly Pitchfork Festival. After all, Girl Talk and his still-recent Night Ripper album meant a lot to us,1 and he was set to headline the global music hegemon’s fast-sprouting party appendage. But Chicago was far, all weekend passes were long gone, and the days away were dwindling. The idea seemed little more than a shallow draught of helium, quick to pitch back down to ground level and diffuse.

Jack surprised me one night the week prior, then, with an instant-messenged gift: he had scalped a couple of Saturday tickets. His father would be in Chicago that weekend on business, and had dibbed us a dual-bed room at a Best Western or Westin. It was exciting stuff, though I did silently reflect on my sudden obligation to buy a last-minute roundtrip to Illinois, some three or four times what my festival pass had cost. High school  had been pretty miserly for me, having devoted whatever spare funds I had to my record label, which had just been robbed into bankruptcy some few thousand dollars by criminals abusive of a contract I’d spent the past couple years honoring. Outside of two business trips to Nashville, there had been no room in that ledger for budget airfare, let alone 24-hour concert larks. But that, I fast realized, was exactly right: ours was the friendship of unreason, and this was its first summer. I bought the ticket, feeling good about it.

We took an early flight the morning of, unsaddled our modest backpacks at the hotel, then made it to the Union Park gates not long after their midday cleft. With a single-mindedness (arguably) adorable in retrospect, we sought to optimize our Girl Talk experience at the expense of all else under the sun. Having carved our scarfing way down the food stand crescent of hip/local taco fusion slop, we darted to the near-vacant Balance Stage with missionary insistence. Gregg “Girl Talk” Gillis was due to arrive in eight hours, and a total eclipse of concertgoers could appear, hundreds wide, at any moment.

Still live music novices (and logic-agnostic in general), we staked our claim to the stage’s most proximal pavement without so much as a preemptive bathroom break, sunscreen rubdown, or bottle of water to fortify our convictions. And as dehydrated delirium came on strong and thick, so followed the corollary challenges of summer crowd downtime.  Shirtless millabouts  made cumulus the air with dense stench and clouded minds; one Brooklyn-looking manchild appeared with stumbling momentum and a large lapel button pinned infectant to his bare chest, vomiting a request for “beer money” in Jack’s dumbfounded direction.  I answered his question with a question (both lacking question mark), under whose weight he careened into a nearby fence, vomited actual vomit, then vanished into a porta-potty pall for maybe the weekend, maybe forever.2 Soundtracking these events were the cramping strains of a young and confused Beach House, who in their anonymity were playing the especially unfestive 3:10pm slot of the day. Their vocals, child-size keys, guitar, and analog metronome were frequently out of tune and time with themselves, like a multisensory magnifier held shakily between the sun and what I guessed might be my first sunstroke. I felt at first resentful, but later sympathetic when I dimly registered their girl singer’s grimace at the end of their set; it looked like she knew, and was ready to quit. But she and her boy bandmate talked it over, thought about it, kept on it. Three years from that grimace, they would return to Pitchfork; five years from that grimace, they would return to Pitchfork as two of the biggest stars in its galaxy, which had by then started looking like modern music’s Milky Way. Things take time.

Next were Fujiya & Miyagi, an in fact British trio3 whose DFA-clean  grooves projected rhythmic meaning onto the crowd’s peak heat mindmelt. A briefly unanonymous broggae outfit were next, who projected echoes of a junior high Sublime phase unrepented.4 Then came Oxford Collapse, an aggro-boring rock band of midwestern affect. Their bassist at one point tripped over a full Solo cup of brand-sponsored poison and, trying to redeem some intangible loss, kicked the red vessel toward the flatlined front row. Its plastic lip spit some remainder on my green Onitsukas before crumpling to the ground, and in return I treated him to an uninterrupted minute of my most semiotic finger. Our position in the crowd wouldn’t have been much different had we arrived as they were finishing up, but with heads full of UV and dry air, we probably couldn’t register regret even if our mistake had been explained to us.

Dan Deacon brought a mob, though, within which he demanded to perform, as though he were any other kid in the (tiny) mosh pit. I’d wind up seeing him three times in my youth, and with all the day’s mental condensation, this instance I recall the least. But I remember rolling eyes at how he was playing a pretty primetime chunk of a seven-figure festival like it was a basement gig; before a coagulating clot of thousands, he turned his attention to a few dozen teens near the front.  What a waste, I thought, before thinking again of water.

Finally, mercifully, came Gregg to close things out. I had been the sole acolyte by the rail to recognize and dap my fist to his when he passed by during Deacon’s set; now came our chance to reap the malarial day’s sunset remedy. We were relieved to see he had changed into proper attire, his commitment to wearing and wrecking a suit every night an underappreciated signature of his act. He’d soon come to accept in plainclothes the futility of traditional menswear in the context of a gig that would typically end with half of the audience grinding up on him (and at least as much of his outfit stripped and torn, anyway), which marked a subtle change in both mindset and music; we didn’t know it yet, but even then could intuit the importance of that suit.

Even if two of them belonged to you, I couldn’t tell you how many discerning ears then revered Girl Talk and his mashups. His name and his “genre’s” have become shit-rancid shorthand for the aesthetic naivety of the mid-aughts,5 but at the time he was critically acclaimed and a popular talking point among the burgeoning Free Culture movement and its politicos.6 Probably some of his biggest, we were still just two among his many fans – some 10,000 of whom were now congregating to watch him ring in the night.

I left that weekend with such a positive memory of what then transpired that I’m hesitant to search for a bootleg of it today. Instead, teenage me is happy to report that Girl Talk killed it. As the sky seared salmon pink, the foremost throng of the crowd was refreshed by the cross-breeze between summer day and night, our collective consciousness waking into sharp multidirection. To further stoke the sensory currents, Gregg even summoned a Grizzly Bear to the stage to live-sing his lines from Girl Talk’s most recent and perhaps still purest statement, the “Knife” remix. It was an interesting move, especially for Jack and me, however timid the results.

My dehydration reaching its lifetime apex, the rising tide of the audience washed over me. Sudden lurches lapped against my slow-fried nerves to breach new neural pathways, the fresh sensation of my outsize frame moving yards without a muscle. My innards arid beneath skin soaked in sweat, most of it not mine, levitating. My last coherent thought of the night was that my new $40 sneakers were very much fucked. Gregg, surrounded by a separate crest of rhythmic flesh altogether, edited his shifting matrix with gestures like checking his email inside the most intimate circle-sanctum of hell. Beyond the fence and across the highway an annex pool of Chicagoan passersby began to synchronize, soon writhing with the rest of us. Dimly monitoring his process, I recognized moments, forgot them, grinned. After a time that felt very long or not at all, I felt the sinews of one such smile contract as I heard “Aneurysm” meet “Pop, Lock & Drop It;” as Kurt Cobain’s tightly wound guitars built in anticipation, so followed my afferents and efferents. But all that red light then congesting behind the stage at last burst into bleeding hives of shiny yellowjackets, whose queen marshall had ordered an interruptive sting on the music, the motion, and the microwave heat beginning to modulate inside my skull. The fire department had arrived.

It didn’t take long to reconvene with Jack, synapses still steaming as we dizzily recollected highlight overlaps and parallel opinions. Pitchfork had cleverly co-opted the museum model in their placement of a giant, record store-shaped gift shop between festival grounds and their primary exit, where we savored a breather as our lungs osmosed generations of sweet vinyl nutrients, before sifting into the uncomplicated cool of Chicago at night. It was there that I presumably bought a water bottle.

We wound up at a nearby diner, where I methodically housed an orphanage of entrées. Present at this point was Jack’s dad, a powerful lawyer who seemed to be leveling up regularly, and who now couldn’t get enough of my appetite. For months subsequent he’d recount my order to powerful friends I’d never meet, always the punchline: “And he finished!”7

out of frame: more food.

Somehow we were yet conscious enough, after famine and feast, to catch a midnight movie. I’m not sure who chose, but it was definitely a tumbleweed showing of Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard. Not that I’m sure, either, what happened next (though I recall, by film’s end, most of the characters definitely not living free). Logic dictates a cab ride, a hotel room, and God willing a couple showers were all by that late hour very much necessary – but I remember nothing. That empty multiplex might as well have been the flight home, my foldout chair the tatami platform and futon I’d known in Philly for at least half a decade. But I was still there, near the top of the map, mind sleeping with eyes and all senses open, dreaming the future and smiling plenty.

  1. A lot of other people, too. []
  2. four walls and some plastic slats / for his hurl ♫ []
  3. The bassist was the “&,” explained either “Fujiya” or “Miyagi.” & smiled like he hadn’t heard it before. []
  4. Kidding! “Santeria” is great. []
  5. We’ll  get there. Maybe. []
  6. We won’t get into it now, but I will say, in contrast, that a friend of mine had to book Girl Talk against his will for a college gig in 2013, and even the most fraternal factions of a pretty unhip student body could tell they were getting the leftover protein. []
  7. He had already taken an added shine to me a few weeks prior, for my good humor when, a few days before our show, he backed his fancy sportscar into my shitty Volvo and made Xi’an face salad of its grill. []

“Right, Right, Right”

Not everything was perfect. One afternoon not long into our daily concurrence, she flipped open her phone and spoke into it while the TV and I shared a few minutes of pause. They sounded like routine lines, familiar and a little bored. I asked her who it had been once she hung up, and with the corrective nonchalance of an unimpressed teacher, she said, “Oh – my boyfriend.”

Right. The one from the concert. The one I’d used as a disclaimer while Natalie typed a few ideas to me later that night, that hapless lemon I said she’d need to toss before she and I were to try any of the things she apparently had in mind. When she invited me to a “film” a few days or week later, I hadn’t bothered to fact check. I don’t well enough remember myself then to know exactly how much of that was naivety, and how much was my own wishful fibbing. But it’d take another week, maybe, for this dull call to uncap fully the slightly twisted truth.

I played it cool; the situation was just cool enough, more or less, to play it so. Not talking about it further seemed not to clarity it further. I told a friendly acquaintance about it in neutral font over AIM one nearby night, and bowing obeisant to some unseen pickup artist god, he recited like a rosary:

if it ain’t a problem for her, it ain’t a problem for you.

Like trying on a fashion previously unconsidered, I returned his grin saying yes, he must be right. But it didn’t feel like it, looking in the mirror; it felt awkward, a touch heavy, and made me look  a bit of  a douche. I wasn’t used to being in deep, mutual like with someone whose liking rights ostensibly belonged to someone else.

Cautiously protracted, the situation began to make stranger and somehow better-feeling sense. Natalie and her now-named boy, Justin, had been dating for around two years. It began when she was a freshman, and he a senior – my first hindsight justification of my disdain for him. Now he was a rising sophomore in college, as Natalie was becoming a junior in high school. Everything was almost perfect, she said, until university; his was only a brief drive away, but once there, he became semi-remote, quasi-sexual, and wholly reluctant to acknowledge her as his Facebook Official girl. I ventured he might be seeing someone else, but Natalie insisted she knew what was going on, that Justin in his advanced age had become emotionally castrato. She volunteered, for whatever it might be worth to me, that in many months they hadn’t so much as kissed. (“Which is why it feels right seeing you in the first place.”) But they were still best friends, a keystone support for one another. So -friends boy and girl they remained.

A simple thing had grown interesting.

All the moreso when, after a week or two of repurposing a thick swatch of her rightful property, I finally met Natalie’s mother. We broke spoken bread at last in the living room-arranged foyer I had usually only glanced between long, hasty strides. I was struck, if anything, by her size and age. Natalie was a very median 5’7”, but her low weight scale scores and aspirational legs1 made her scan somehow petite; her mother, several obvious inches taller, was by no measure a small woman. Her crowning wool-white wool, which marked that height clearly upon most backdrops, had me guessing she was maybe a decade older than the mid-fortysomething I’d later learn her to be. That was after I found out she had spent most of her career as a nurse, but long before I’d scrubbed her name from my mental archive and relabeled her “the Big Nurse,” to be precise, in all future thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be avoiding you,” she quickly reconciled. “I know I seemed cold. I just didn’t understand what Natalie was doing with you, and Justin, and all of that.” I nodded sympathetically.

“But now, I understand – it’s fine, and I understand.”

I returned the Big Nurse’s smile and managed not to ask her to share. I was entering blindly a game the two of them had been playing wide-eyed for already some time, not sure where laid the stakes or how far the table stretched beyond me.

But as the silent scrabble between us quit and resumed over the days and weeks, I began to piece something together. Natalie still spoke fondly of Justin as her “best friend,” and the Big Nurse still spoke fondly of herself as “practically his mother”– he had lacked an adequate one of his own, she quickly elaborated, then quickly elaborated that Justin’s actual mother was nevertheless alive and real and entirely reliable. This seemed an inscrutably bizarre position in which to triangulate oneself, one’s teenage daughter, and her four-years-elder boyfriend. Natalie’s fear of reclassifying her bond with Justin made a now creepier kind of sense – such can be awkward and complicated even when your own mom isn’t also texting the guy “I love you too,” on occasion. And as a recent addition to Natalie’s life,2 in capacities inexact, I understood I had no place or say in that weirdness. It was one in which, despite what I seemed to be feeling, I knew better than to want a word.

Everything seemed to resist simplification, though, with Natalie and I fixing to see each other so much. One day, sick of the couch, we went to the combination playground-park by the woods down her street, which seemed like a silly thing to ignore. After some idle time on the swings she led me to a clearer clearing past the tree line and asked to inspect my car key, dropping it suddenly down her underwear and running away, giggling, as though from a just-tagged It. For a while I chased and reasoned with her, irked in the laughing way that comes moments before things get unfunny, until we interrupted to notice my silver-grey Volvo ‘96 sloping down the nearby hill toward her house. The giggles stopped, her smile constricting to a tight pause.

“…Is that Justin?”

My pause was a fraction of hers:

“…What.”

Her pause was a mixed fraction of mine:

“…He has the same car as you.”

My mind mimed the motion of a wishbone snapping unevenly. It was in fact not Justin but a third parallel universe Volvo, which was not a relief but rather a cosmic pirouette at least one twist more disorienting. I retrieved my key in the least interesting way possible, given their whereabouts, having invented some reason to leave.

There came a similar episode on an adjacent night, when after some DVD or another Natalie opened her cellular clamshell and pronounced its freshest contents.

“Mom’s driving home right now,” she said. “She’s bringing Justin.”

Here? Now? It was post-nightfall; I had been there longer than the day.

“He wanted to say hello before going back home from college. He’ll be gone again soon.”

Does he know I’m here? Does he know who I am?

“Not yet,” she said. “And yes.” I rose from the couch.

“This is too weird.” I shifted my head in a way that communicated thought, and a low decibel concession to spinal ligaments. “I don’t want to meet this guy.” I least of all wanted to pretend his girlfriend and I were like two opposing telephone poles. It felt newly obvious that I had been drafted to play a part in a teen romance novel easily read by its cover.

Natalie, still shirtless, angled her ankles against the folds of the couch and sprung herself in protest onto my back, giggling again as she latched her arms around my t-shirted chest.

“Seriously – I don’t.” I placed thumb and longest finger on either end of her wrists, picklocking them with a casual snap. She slumped back down to the leather behind us, where she looked pretty in her surprise when I turned to acknowledge her on my way to the door.

“I’ll see you later,” I said, key in palm as before.

  1. Not far short of the ones that upheld all 6’5” of me. []
  2. Though not her first non-platonic try-out in the time since Justin graduated into his slight remove at a college closeby, I also found out thereabouts. []

“The Summer of Backrooms”

We didn’t have much time. Soon she was sprinting through the spitshined backstreets of Wayne toward the mouth of the movie theater, pretending she had been there all along. Her next text winked in triumph, but as her mother drove her dotingly home, it was Natalie who had been fooled — by the quiet surveil of neighborly spies.1

A night or two later, she invited me to her house. Much of the subsequent daylight was spent alike, then much of the subsequent week. I would park my car most days with the emergency brake pulled against her sleepy street’s friendly incline, meet her just beyond the stone steps of her front yard and before the glass pane of her outer door, then follow her through the foyer and into the backroom. I made this trip many times without ever having seen her mother, who would sometimes summon Natalie upstairs with a shout. “Don’t worry, she’s not avoiding you or anything,” she’d return.

At first and then intermittently seated side by side, we soon got used to lying down, most of her thin 5’7” frame sprawled weightlessly upon mine. With her TV, she subjected me mostly to child’s play like SpongeBob SquarePants (which, as one of those “Disney girls,”2 she probably did like), maybe to help ensure my mind never wandered far from getting to know her little arms and lips. I didn’t get to know much more of her than that (and the things she said (because I was then so shy I had so far managed to blow all of even my easiest opportunities to get so much as a girl’s shirt off (only ever realizing as much in long hindsight))). Instead, I learned that in addition to Italian she was Irish by blood, looking more like the former and more beautiful than she had in any moonlight real, staged or projected. I learned she had a couple things in common with me, also being a recent ex-athlete (for her it had all ended with a pole vaulting incident, and her decision to run laps immediately afterward; her determination had done for her hips what mine had done for my lungs) and having divorced parents (hers had split just a year or two prior, much more recently than mine — but she lived mostly with her mom, like I always had). I learned of her many blossoming talents, and learned more about her modeling career, which I had first discovered the night we met, she being the type of model to use pictures of her primped and posing self for her Facebook defaults. I couldn’t blame her, having just become the type of aspiring rockstar to use pictures of myself aspiring to rockstar. Besides, one of hers — the one that appeared that night with her friend request — looked almost impossibly hot. When my former crewmates and other protein-drinking friends found out I was seeing someone, they each in turn demanded photos, and that was what I sent. Not one didn’t try calling bullshit.

She was as shocked as they had been, for the inverse reason, when she first learned of my inexperience. For a time she didn’t believe, either.

“When I met you you just seemed like, the, y’know…’I-fuck-who-I-wanna’ kind-of-guy.”

I ventured a guess. “A rapist?”

“No!” she shouted, the syllable distending with giggles. “Just, like…a player.”

“Well.” I used the V-word.

“That’s crazy,” she beamed again. I had already told her this fun factoid a few times before, but it was like a peek-a-boo trick for a child not yet wearied of repetition.

At this time, Natalie considered it a civil service to teach me things; to warn me of a teenage sybil’s vision of the adult world, the one I was about to enter at summer’s end.

“You know, in college, a lot of the older sorority girls band together to round up a list of all the virgin freshman boys, and basically attack them,” she once said.

“I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that’s true where I’m going.”

“Well, maybe not there,” she conceded. She paused. “Still.”

She tried a more hands-on approach, too. One day, bodies casually entwined again, her little head lifted suddenly from the cloth of my chest, full of strange grammar-speak.

“Hey: do you wanna see something cool about my bra.”

My mind felt like it was thinking but probably went blank. Maybe I smiled.

She leaned upright and set to work. Off went her tanktop, then that dense matrix of plastic latches I hadn’t yet learned or tried.

She held it for me in her palms, inside up.

“See? Hearts!”

I looked at the fabric glyph before me, sewn with secret patterns only its owner and her intimates would ever see. If a thought crossed my mental green screen about the wit implicit in this bra’s design, it was brief enough to register within the legal drinking limits of subliminality. Instead, I stole the glance that had been clearly given to me on an embroidery of pearls, trying to process this new test and what it meant, like being asked to kiss in a movie theater by a stranger. It took just a couple moments to fail; I was too stumped to respond physically, too self-unsure to take what asked to be taken.

Deterred but not defeated, Natalie resheathed herself. We kissed some more. Her beauty continued.

 •

Even having spent time almost exclusively with very forward girls, I still had never felt as good as I did around her. And I was then, not coincidentally, the type of boy who might actually say that to someone not long after meeting them. Some modesty of days into having her lie so comfortably atop me, I looked at her as the sun was setting through her blinds and the television’s enduring hum grew incandescent.

“I’ve never felt so good around a girl before,” I said.

She cradled her head toward mine, her eyes lighting with the same vivid width I had seen once before. I noticed now that the first time’s opaque hazel depth was in fact flecked with subtle faults, like the improbable piece of amber I once prized on a childhood shelf. I was surprised that someone on top of you could find a way to come closer.

My band, meanwhile, fell apart. Lupin had been a fine frontman at the show,3 but his Floridian truancy and some dozen other liabilities made him more trouble than he seemed worth.4 We had decided shortly after the gig that he would have to go, and it didn’t take long for word to get back to him. “I quit,” he jilt-texted me one preemptive afternoon, and that was all it took. Jack and I quickly set about seeking a replacement as we approached midsummer, still aiming to play another show before the leaves turned. Something bigger, better, meaningful.5

We figured getting a new singer would be simple. But a more substantial setback was soon to come, by way of Milkboy, the smallish local venue we had just given their highest-grossing night in business.

Shortly before the gig, they offered to produce a multi-track recording of our performance and mix it down for a $500 fee. With this Faustian email they included a link to an Original MySpace profile, which featured examples of previous live recordings they had done for their performers. The production sounded incredible. Eyes set on the longview, Jack and I figured posterity beat a paycheck.

Because we wound up selling that space to the brim, we did still make a little money, but the disc-shaped service Milkboy had rendered us soon proved a swindle. If they did any mixing of the raw stems as they were imported into ProTools, it had been an act of grinning, nihilist graffiti. My bass was thinner than a rubber band after necking with a watermelon raised by growth hormones. Summer’s voice sounded like she was being photoshopped into a class day picture. The Bawls energy drink bottle Lupin had gripped and rattled for moment-spur percussion was somehow louder than Dilan’s multi-miked drums. All fan-uploaded YouTube videos of the set sounded so much better that they were probably trying to prove a point.

Everyone in the band was irate, and all eyes turned to me for retributive guidance. Even Dilan, having long ago achieved a zen state of existential boredom, reacted with something resembling urgency. “Email Milkboy,” he said every time I saw him. I said I would. “Word, email them.”

What exactly I’d say, we hadn’t discussed. Left to my own devices, I wrote them an abstract art house documentary of my folie des grandeurs at that time. I sent it to Jack, for his take, live from his backroom, on AOL Instant Messenger, 2:05am 27 July 2007.

soyrev: tell me what you think
soyrev: i get pretty hostile with it
soyrev: i’m thinking of possible repercussions, but i can imagine none. i think it has to be done

{nine minute interlude}

jack: it’s a really sick and badass email
jack: all justified
jack: other than the threat of vandalism
jack: that could get us in trouble.
soyrev: vandalism?
jack: oh, nevermind. i thought you said
jack: flyering
jack: YOUR place
jack: on how you robbed a few high school bands
soyrev: haha, nahhh
jack: yeah
jack: no, it’s all good man
jack: i think the last paragraph gives it some balance too
soyrev: yeah
jack: mixing some reason with that vengeance.
soyrev: yeah
jack: the perfect concoction
jack: actually
jack: in retrospect
jack: its the FUCKIN shit
jack: save that fuckin email
jack: i want someone important to see it someday
soyrev: hahahaha
jack: “sincerely & severely”
jack: classic as hell.

Sent.

For our follow-up, we wanted to end the summer with a show on our own turf and terms. The obvious (unwieldy) idea was to organize an inaugural Swainiafest, a multi-band bill primed for the palatial grounds of the Dilan family province. In an ambitious teenager’s mind, it made a dangerous amount of sense: Dilan’s four-door garage would be the perfect homegrown stage, the adjunct lounge and shower was a professional-class backstage, and the wide and ample driveway would make a great standing room that could circumvent any wear or tear to Swainia’s neverending lawn. Plus the nearby trampoline, chlorine oasis, sloping vista and tennis court plateau would again make for a dream scene after-party. It was, I knew, the kind of thing we would remember lifelong in our high school reminiscences, an eternal “now that was awesome” for all.

The trick was to convince Dilan’s parents, which seemed a task surmountable. After the idea had been given a week or so to float buoyed in our collective imaginings, Jack one sunny afternoon texted Dilan, asking if now would be a good time.

“yeah”

Perched on the beanbag in our backroom headquarters, Jack stared into this lone word in his cell-phone. A moment later, his thumbs set to work.

“word…are you asking now?”

“yeah i’ll ask now”

Barely a minute passed. It was a casual maybe-minute in the backroom, probably spent joking over one incidental insight or another. Dilan replied.

“she said we can’t do the festival, we can’t practice in my garage anymore, and i can’t be in the band anymore”

There was a long pause in the air after Jack read those words aloud, tempered by a slow-settling comedy. After we had finished laughing at the comical terribleness and emotional monotone of Dilan’s summary, a thought occurred to me.

“Well, I guess he’ll have time now to fulfill his Life’s Ambition.” One of the last things Dilan had mentioned to me was his new Life’s Ambition: to watch the movie 300 at least three hundred times.

Apparently, Dilan’s mom had read the fiery missive I gifted Milkboy for viciously scamming us. Dilan had set up the show, and once the corporate vampires behind the counter had finished downing the bitter coldbrew of my emailed ire, they looked up the famous travel agency Dilan’s parents owned, and forwarded them my refund demand. Dilan’s mom didn’t want her son musicking with any Mainline drama magnet band, let alone to host them for practices, a festival, or tea.6 So went the events that led to the greatest-worst text I had ever known.

So, Dilan was out. With Lupin, that made three: Pete had evacuated the greater Philadelphia area to get an early start on college the very morning after our first show, not even having thought of packing by the time his hand socked its last tambourine.7 Short a practice space as well, our hopes of playing another show that summer fell thuddingly into question. But we had to — already our futures were all tied up in this funny, wondrous, aspirational thing.

It sure felt nice, finally, to have someone with whom I could think about all these wild and difficult things. Between either of the backrooms I spent all my days and nights that summer, in fact, it sure felt nice having two.

  1. Or maybe hers was simply a mother who liked to stake her daughter’s every move, sometimes pseudonymously “the neighbors.” []
  2. A Disney girl is one for whom, even in her adolescent/adult lives, Disney never stops being the best thing fathomable. Sometime later I would theorize there were certain traits common to all among this subset, standard phenotypes that could be inferred for anyone proud of an endless Disney affinity. []
  3. DJ’s improbably hot girlfriend thought he was great; DJ didn’t. This meant something good, I figured. []
  4. Perhaps worst of all was his pidgin-toed adaptation of Jack and my burgeoning slangua franca, which we felt undermined our slack lexicon and the way of life it casually described. []
  5. Shortly after the show, Jack disappeared to our nation’s capital, where he pursued filmmaking experience and the most desirable girl around at a two-week arts camp. She saw pictures of me from our show when they surfaced, and said she wouldn’t mind meeting me; I later saw pictures of her with this knowledge, and felt good about it. Jack, on his last night in DC, successfully cross-dressed his way into her dorm room and made out with her in a closet. Shortly thereafter a few basement idea exchanges occurred back at Jack’s in Pennsylvania, with third man Ace usually present to adlib commentate. I remember him getting very excited about a way I’d devised to “live cut” a favorite Spoon riff of ours with a favorite Nikka Costa lick of mine. I didn’t know what 6/4 meter was, but here it sounded surprisingly pop. []
  6. I’m not sure if they had tea. I’m fairly sure they had Capri Sun. []
  7. “Haven’t seen my parents all week either,” he said backstage before the gig. “Definitely fuckin’ hate me right now.” (“It’s alright, shit’s worth it,” he added.) []

“And Then ‘This’”

I resurfaced from the starlit deep of Swainia not some chlorine teen born again, but with clothes damp and spirit heavy. The night’s festivities would pass, and I would wake in a doldrum no less dim than what had hung over the recent fracturing of my high school identity. In fact, I was still in the sting of that slow, uneasy splint of meat from bone. My old boat, splintered as it had been by my absence, had just recently been broken into two smaller boats to salvage talent. One of them, a varsity double featuring my co-captain and future collegemate Ben, managed to take home a national title – but it didn’t carry quite the same prestige the quad had, the medal we’d been chasing to restore our ancient coach’s fading legend. My sudden ailment had dashed those hopes for all of us.1

The season ended, summer arrived, and Yale’s head coach cudgeled me with a battery of emails, each assaulting my character and the dossier of lab results that cushioned it. Over the course of what seemed a creative week, he penned scolding whodunit novellas about my suspiciously missing spine, fanfics about how I could have been an Olympic rower had I simply ignored the doctors and willed myself a new pair of lungs, perhaps just by pretending mine were fine.2 As I read, I felt nothing – I had by then numbed to any pain my lungs might cause me. I was depressed, instead, by my show.

It had been the biggest success possible. A lifelong non-musician, I had decided I wanted to articulate a vague and world-sized sonic idea, picked up an instrument and began practicing with a growing collection of mostly-strangers more talented than me, and just a couple months later had my recently unimaginary band play a headlining show to over 200 paying listeners who paid many dollars, from their parents’ wallets or boss’ under-tables, for the express purpose of listening to the earliest iteration of that idea. What’s more is that most of them liked what they heard, in the general spectrum between love-liking and not wanting a refund enough to embarrass anybody. Our nascent Facebook walls (still paginated, then, in their youth) soon expanded in adulatory increments; we were invited to more parties; we felt the windfall of a modest teenage victory.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t garbage. I knew what I had made was bad, even if nobody told me or a friend. Certainly nobody in the band had any sense that what we had just participated in might have sucked, as its reception argued otherwise. But I knew I had set out to make something special, and what I made instead was a cover band with the attention span of a radio dial — a 30-minute rendition of a hypothetical person’s hypothetical drive and SiriusXM subscription. I hadn’t expected to achieve more than base entertainment having spent all of a few months attempting music, but that didn’t make the reminder I was nowhere close any more uplifting.

***

A week after the show, still feeling low, I went to see Built to Spill play a gig in Philadelphia. I had stumbled into them in the spring, when we went to Borders after a practice and Jack announced that he’d buy one album for everyone. I don’t remember if I got anything, but Summer picked Perfect From Now On, which she, Pete and I listened to in the ‘Copter while I drove us all home. None of us had heard them before, and it was among my life’s most ideal first listens. I can still remember Pete air-drumming to the start of “I Would Hurt a Fly” from the shotgun seat, head nodding, face knotted. Everything introduced – the morass of guitar sadness that enveloped the car’s interior at 0:21, the 1:27 cellos that thickened the deeps but later led the way to what was then the most exquisite bridge I could fathom, the surprise maelstrom of the last two minutes – hit us with grins, shivers, convulsions, shouts. Disbelief.

Neither of them could come, but Lupin – already a longtime fan – met me there. We stood in line together, then made our way to the almost-front, where we swayed through a set by a very nice local band called Illinois. Between performances Lupin began texting into his brick phone, and soon a friend and classmate of his appeared. Her name was Natalie. I didn’t know it then, but Natalie had seen me in photographs from our show and had pinpointed me as someone she wanted to meet; she had bought tickets to this concert and got a couple of Built to Spill CDs for homework, maybe mostly just to meet me. When she floated her way to the front and clap-clasped my hand with a winking greet, I figured she was really cute. She was wearing a tight white tank-top that, on second and third glances, confirmed her to be in fact greater than cute. I thought maybe she had some Russia in her, with her pale skin and hair that matched the black walls when the lights went down — like she was maybe the one actually really hot girl you’d hope to see in a leather jacket and studs when you went to go see Mindless Self Indulgence or somebody.3 I was completely wrong, but didn’t know it by the time Built to Spill appeared.

They played a set that, minute by minute, proved they needed all three of those guitarists. One of them, Doug Martsch, also sang the songs he had written in preparation for that night and others like it. He didn’t play “I Would Hurt a Fly.” That was track two on the album Pete and I had loved, and loved Summer for finding; instead, at some point, they played “Randy Described Eternity,” its track one. Randy was a clever Christian who once told Doug that eternity was like whittling a metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter down to a metal pea strictly by brushing it with a feather once every thousand years. It made for a pretty good, long verse for a pretty good, long rock song with two verses and no chorus. At the end of that first verse, Doug says that that eternity is only half a blink in the secular eternity he’s talking about. Then he sings the second one.

I’m gonna be perfect from now on, he wailed, slow and deliberate like on the album in my car.

I’m gonna be perfect, starting now.

I was disappointed track one wasn’t track two when he and his band started playing it, but by that second verse I didn’t care. They were exactly right. I’d tried to be my best for a while, but now, starting tonight, I was going to be perfect. I mouthed those words and none of the other ones, until they were done and gone.

I didn’t know where Natalie was by then, and left thinking it was a shame I’d probably never see her again. By the time I got home, I was completely wrong again, with a new friend request and AIM buddy waiting for me. We talked for about an hour. She was actually Italian.

Her boyfriend had been at the concert too, though she had ditched him in the back of the room to come up where I was. One of the few things I remember from that first meeting was that he kept texting her, telling her to come back,4 while she replied telling him to come up. Finally, he appeared some five people-rows back, his pouting face bathed in moon-white stage lighting as he silently beckoned her. It was a motionless beckon. Continually she refused, both of them without a word beside the ones exchanged in T9 morse code. It was one of the more dysfunctional things I’d ever seen transpire between two people nominally in love. So much so that when I typed to Natalie that I wouldn’t go for a taken girl that night, but that she could get in touch when they broke up, I figured it’d be soon. If I was naive, I wasn’t yet as much as I’d be a week later, when she invited me to a movie.

The cinema of choice was the royally dilapidated reel-dump in Wayne, a Mainline hangout that was a bit juvenile for a rising junior like her (all the moreso a recent grad like me). I swung the long way over in the Shitcopter, parked out front and, slightly late, strolled my way down the aisle after previews. I found my place next to her and a couple of her friends, who fell back into the script-margin oblivion of my life halfway through “hello.” Natalie took the next line and asked for a kiss, from which I demurred; I just met you, I wanted to say.

“I’m not trying to make out in public here,” I said instead, and it was more than half true — even if the theater was less than quarter-full. As her brow arched distraught in the simple glow of a terrible movie, I noted, reading this expression on her face for the first time, that she looked markedly different than she had in the simple glow of a good concert. She looked even prettier.

“Why not?” Things started feeling surreal as I tried to process her request, the situation, her concern-magnified prettiness — all things not quite like anything I’d faced before. I filled the space with a quick kiss, but held my ground for the rest of the movie, ignoring it as I pondered the fresh spark in my lips.

The movie didn’t protest; it was, after all, Bruce Almighty II. I remember nothing but the raccoons.5 Natalie had been folding herself up onto her chair and in my whispered direction the entire time, and leveraged the good fortune of those raccoons — “Oh my God I hate raccoons!!” — to recoil herself up halfway onto me for a bit. I figured she was just improvising a phobia for intimacy’s sake, but like her heritage, I’d later learn the truth. She really did hate those things.

As the credits rolled, we made our way back to the suburban-chic streets. If anything happened between leaving the theater and being led to the partial privacy of a one-walled parking lot, I don’t recall it. Sliding my back down the lone brick sheet of the imaginary room around us, I bridged some of the gap between our noses. Her tip-toed kisses felt so impatient and passionate I started to smile, until my lips parted so wide between impressions of hers that they simply had to laugh.

She had to laugh, then, too. “What’s so funny?” The deep hazel of her eyes shone even brighter with expectation, hiding all kinds of pretty complexities I couldn’t yet see. (It was dark as night out, like her hair, like those eyes that night.)

My mind split-seconded the girls I had liked before. There was the season-long, long distance, theatrical first “relationship” I started with a girl in Tennessee the autumn after sophomore year, September 10th, the night of my first real concert; there was the wild Mainline girl whose hair alternated between natural blonds and reds (maybe the copper in her shower water), who tried to steal me back from the south, outlining a love triangle that felt like fiction for a shy kid who had barely even touched a girl just months ago (I wound up being with her while she was blond, wishing red); there was the gorgeous-goofy, perfect-height siren who sweetly tried to make it all so simple, and my clueless self stumbled nearly every step of the way (eight months to get with a girl who clearly liked you day one ought to be illegal); the rower girl who I July Fourthed with on her farm, who rolled on top of me sometime between feeding her nocturnal llamas and brushing the horses at dawn; good friend Marie; and maybe a couple other girls the circumstances around whom were too unmemorable to be literary, or anything feigning literature at all.

It took me no more than a single beat to speak: “This kind of thing just…doesn’t happen to me so often.”6

She smiled what I would’ve called the purest smile I’d seen so close. Then its symmetry curved sexily to one side.

“Well, how about this?

She put two steady hands to my head, tensed her runners’ calves to propel her own, and landed tongue-first in what was certainly, suddenly, my left ear. I laughed again, shoving her off me like a wet towel.

That “this” was totally different, one that must have really taken something to be comfortable trying on a guy you just met. I didn’t know if I’d ever know what.

  1. I felt especially bad about Harrison. He was relegated to a junior varsity boat, which I knew for him was insult enough — but some dead weight in that hull only made it worse, and Harrison narrowly lost the same race in the same boat he and I had the year prior. Like me, he was a deeply serious kid, and I knew it tormented him to have to go down like that after everything. It was like knives just having to watch, useless and to blame.

    It was still bearable while there remained some hope for my lungs’ quick recovery, but once my coach said it was too late to recondition me even if magically healed that minute, I grew weak. I averted my eyes, focusing them anywhere else at all: a woefully understaffed senior project, the fretboard of my bass, my budding best friendship with Jack. I needed distraction, and thirsted after these different sapors greedily. I became the stuff of shifty gossip at the boathouse, having been its cornerstone not even a month ago.

    Then came the funereal end-of-year barbecue at Ben’s. After a series of awkward speeches skirting the season’s limp anti-climax, Harrison — a likely captain for next year — got up to handle the last words. He recounted gravely the story everybody already knew — and then, graver, began to lie. He said that even when my body gave out, I didn’t. He said I kept coming to practices, kept helping out — because that’s the kind of guy I was. Voice faltering, he said half a dozen things he shouldn’t have had to improvise. Whether he meant to bury the hatchet or carve a parting notch, I couldn’t tell, but as he gestured to me and the crowd broke into applause I rushed to embrace him without a second thought. My muscles bracing to stave a tear, I could feel the same reflexes tensing in his. []

  2. In fact, that’s exactly what I attempted for a week straight before I finally went to the hospital. It didn’t help me breathe better or sprout fresh organs, but it did scar the lungs I do have. []
  3. I’ve never went to go see Mindless Self Indulgence. This is speculative. []
  4. “It’s my boyfriend,” exasperated. She seemed like the type of girl who maybe thought that was hot, and might’ve maybe been right. []
  5. Apparently, it was actually called Evan Almighty, something the largest encyclopedia in human history just now taught me. []
  6. I was lying; “this” had never happened to me at all, like that. []

“At Last”

For me, the moment we’d been waiting for was even briefer than its reality. Avoiding eye contact with the 200-person attendance record before me, I felt my half hour onstage melt quicksilver-like into some alloy too hot to hold or measure. By the time I noticed my hands playing the bassline to “Hate to Say I Told You So,” the hubristic coup de grâce of our set’s pop montage tetrad, I felt like I could count the minutes passed using the fingers of mine not presently clutching my pick like it was the most important thing I owned.

As a child, I followed my surprisingly deft turn as a supportive father in the first grade play by trading a lead role the next year for some silent gig as either penguin or palm tree. My stage legs, weak and unrehearsed from the start, had atrophied over years of private stasis. They stood in gaunt contrast to my offstage ones, which, thanks to an olympiad of another kind of public performance, were just exiting the best shape of their lives.

Talking about it later with Jack, I found that he too had lapsed into some lower state of consciousness as we rose to the stage. Muscle memory, of tendons syncing with the sinews of our strings upon their necks, became everything. The stakes were even higher for me, perched as I was at the frontmost angle of Milkboy’s uselessly pentagonal stage; Jack was relegated to the amplifier backdrop, obscured by the frontline of synthesizer, microphones, and their vocal attendants.

Pete, tousled sommelier of the evening, sabered open our set with a petillant wash of phased chords poured from the keys. As fizz turned to fizzle, I struck into the solitary sprint through the run of notes measured to kick everything else into motion, uneven on raw instinct before the cyclical battery of Dilan’s floor drums grounded me. Then came the guitars, the dramatic build in my vague vision rendered with what limited, chromatic vocabulary I had, reaching a subtonic fever pitch before giving way to a snare roll that dropped into, well — a bit of “Moneymaker,” by Ludacris.

Channeling a primal energy left outletless by two or three months off the river, I amplified my simple root notes, downstroke chugs and brute force coordination with Dilan’s beats via all manner of rock star recompense. Larynx-lacerant punctuation, bold emphasis headbanging and windmill swings at my bass were added per the liberal cues of my inner impulse. It was pure, kinetic excess, learned absolutely nowhere but at reckless practices and from driving my ‘96 Volvo like an asylum escapee. Sweat tensing beneath my rolled sleeves, I even grabbed an idle mic and ventured something like falsetto harmony once or twice.1 For that half hour, my arms did things that my ears remembered from yesterday, my eyes scanned the body heat writ large along the window walls, and my mind didn’t think a thing.

***

After the party comes the after-party, and Swainia’s garage was nicer than at least one hotel lobby within the 10-mile vicinity. Having to break down all our gear first, we would arrive well after scores of our teenaged show-goers had. As they exited the venue, they took with them what felt like a general hum of satisfaction, soon to be echoed in Facebook accolades accrued over the consequent days. One sage elder, presumably cultured and worldly after his freshman year of college, insisted that we “must” record an “album” before summer’s end dispersed us like birdseed.2 Outside the coffeehouse a pretty young barista marveled that “you guys did it,” as though having just won an internal backroom bet. A prettier, younger ballerina – one I then liked but lacked the panache to net – would soon herald me a “rock star” at our party while the incredible feedback in “Brain Stew” wafted through the summer air. Even then, I lacked the panache to net her even then. A month or two prior, she and I had spent a very long moment alone in fancy clothes, hiding in a starlit crop circle from cops after people who looked like us.

Green Day’s lone masterpiece had been put on by Jack and Pete, who during my intermission shower (in the same practice space bathroom of yesterday’s big ado) had timidly begun their inaugural attempt at DJing. The makeshift playlist probably involved Family Force 5, pre-high school hipness Justice, and definitely some mash-ups. Some kid actually broughtand offered, as rhythmic sacrament to bless the DJ table, a comically thick stele of beat hardware — “the thing Trent Reznor made his entire first album on” — and was summarily dismissed. It would’ve been a bit tough to integrate real skill into a set played off iTunes.

As night fell darker the party followed gravity down the hill, plateauing in and around Dilan’s luminous pool. Some of the boys had dragged with them the backyard’s military-grade trampoline, positioning it ambitiously adjacent to the chlorine stream’s widest nexus. Lamentably, Dilan’s parents had outlined the pool in chainlink fencing long ago, which meant these young guns would have to to bounce themselves over it, clearing at least a WNBA draft pick’s wingspan in concrete to reach the softer impact beyond. I didn’t want to dispel too much of the almost-innocence agleam in the irises orbiting that glowing lagoon, but felt confident extinguishing that one idea was a right and kindly thing to do.

Within, Lupin harmonized in the shallows with a couple of vocalists from Laid Out, together pondering Brian Wilson’s genius and the prospect of starting an “all a capella band.” I entered the gate and traced along the scene’s cinderblock lip for a bit, cluelessly fielding advances from a couple girls who had been at the show. Finally, Jack, whose undershirt was already clinging to his torso above the water and billowing freely about him below it, shouted an invitation to dip my toes. I turned my gaze from the girls and met his with a smile, then past him to the pool slide, and last the diving board.

The adrenaline of the stage long gone, I was locked into a different kind of autopilot as I walked this more literal plank. In Jack’s mind, what followed would rank in future anecdotes among his most formative teenage memories. In mine, my synapses let go with my feet — and arms wide, spine straight, pupils steady, I embraced the surface all at once.

  1. Possessed by the spirit of Matt Sharp past. []
  2. Certainly, though, we had all made some kind of plan to continue into the fall. Summer was too young to carpool with a bunch of boys to a hypothetical gig at some faraway campus, but certainly the rest of us wanted to turn this thing into some kind of mobile human disco of hand-played party music for college party movie-style college parties up and down the east coast. Even Dilan the stubborn could admit the idea sounded like “the life, right there.” []

“Here’s to Never”

At last came our final practice, blessed by our hero’s prodigal return. Skin bronzed, with well-sunned seeds of beauty marks beneath, Lupin sauntered back from Florida to Swainia shoulder-slung with foamy guitar case, and what seemed a casual confidence for our big debut the next day. His bowels came equipped, too, with a thorough business plan, demanding upfront remuneration before the rest of him would consider any musical concerns. It was a new inverse of Lupin’s standard operating procedure: showing up late and empty, a car ride to the nearest hoagie his only priority.

Battered by a week’s knead of anxiety, I simmered pancake-like on the floor in lazy indignation. Fine, I said; that he use the bathroom in Dilan’s main house was my only request. Lupin seemed to have his heart set on the one directly adjoining the practice space (“C’mon, it’s right here”), but I figured that if we only had a couple hours to set straight the past week of his sudden sabbatical, the least we deserved was an unprofaned practice space in which to atone. Lupin doffed his guitar, deterred but undefeated, and left the garage.

Nearly half an hour later he returned again, stressed and restless. It was broad daylight at the top end of what would prove the sweetest summer Philly’s ever known, but despite the sun’s ample assurance, Lupin had stood convinced in Dilan’s driveway that the looming fortress before him was full of mean, dead spirits.  With our defiantly unrelieved frontman sulking back into sight, I relented with a sigh. I was, in many ways by now, sick of his shit.

Another lengthy wait later, we plugged ourselves in and set to work, breathing through open mouths. Objectives one and two were the tunes Dylan had come all the way from The Shore to rehearse: our set-closing rendition of Haddaway’s infamous “What Is Love” and a backpocket encore, our semi-apocryphal standard “El Scorcho.” We hadn’t played either in the time it takes a lightning bug born lucky to die, and the couple runs we gave each sounded tentative — especially “Love,” which none of us had thought of in at least a month and was unstructured from the start. The way we happened to play it that day felt too cool, afraid to commit — whereas the one jam we’d given it prior, in the Marie era, had promised cinema-scale catharsis. Dilan now preferred to err on the side of restraint, while Pete and I were only ever enthused by the cover for its potential to billow and detonate like microwaved pop-mallow. This, of course, wouldn’t be possible if Dilan didn’t dial up the heat with me in the engine room, and I found tepid the metronomic ride cymbal he added instead. Everything about Dylan’s clever arrangement longed for release, and as a band we yet lacked the verve to convey a beauty like tension unresolved — not like our primarily ‘burb-teen audience would be able to discern it, necessarily, if we could. But they could smell boring a mile off.

What ensued was a classic case study in garage band politics. Dilan’s quiet vehemence (fueled, insofar as I could tell, from a lingering sense that this show had come to dominate the early third of his summer break) sought and found support in Lupin, who by now was used to siding with him in such matters. Guitar man Jack, typically my closest ally, had been ousted from the arrangement by Dylan’s fingerpicked progression and Lupin’s spectral wash of harmonics and feedback, and had never really connected with the intent of our rendition. I turned his way.

“I don’t know, man,” he smirked. “You know I don’t fuck with this one. I’m gonna be hanging outside the venue during this shit.”

I remained certain our version would disappoint if it weren’t combustible, but Dilan relished the de facto power he had over me — and though not entirely beyond the pale of my onetime stupidity, I wasn’t one to assault a kid in his own home over a Haddaway cover. I pressed Dilan on it before a second take, but he budged only a little, still far too inert. With little recourse, I told him he’d better bring some thunder onstage the next night, my threat empty and harmless on the floor.

Changing subjects, we lacquered the rest of the set with a final coat of run-through, and things sounded fine. Pete, his acrobatics finally tethered somewhat to a miniature Alesis synth Jack had bought when the Novation proved itself a lost cause, was still a bit uneven due to the very recent assignment of all his parts — but what did we expect? Nobody fucked up enough to notice, even as Lupin’s wish to “save his voice” for the show kept things to a kinetic minimum. By the time we reached the climactic throes of our set’s fourth “Medley” (of four), however, we tore into it — partly of unanimous enthusiasm for being near-free at last — with conviction anew. Lupin howled his throat wide through the last line of the Hives’ already-ossified “Hate to Say I Told You So,”1 and after we’d all at once gloried in that last staccato downstroke, he muttered with nervous nonchalance: “I think I just ruined my voice.”

The rest of us laughed it off, but unassuaged, he poked again at the sore a few minutes later. “You know, I get terrible stage fright.” This time, it took.

“Are you serious?”

Terrible.”

“How are you telling me this now?”

The vague recollective anime in my head skips a heavy stack of cel frames here, but of course Lupin’s words were like an icepack filled with steaming jasmine for the many inflamed nerves in the room. We split ways for the night in awkward silence, all seven of us anxiously mulling whatever remnant fantasies we each had for the trial we’d share in just a little over 24 hours. Jack went to his girl’s place, where he would listen to Ratatat Remixes (Vol. II). I have zero memory of what I did, to what I listened. I maybe slept just fine.

***

Facing my modest dresser the next morning, I decided to wear a recent tee ($4 new) emblazoned with the abstract likeness of either an American soldier or a jellyfish, and the familiar maxim: DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE. After having talked this show up to Leaning Tower proportions on nascent social media (back then, my Twitter feed came to me a text at a time on grayscale LCD), I figured it was the one fittingly flip thing I could wear on my self-inflicted day of reckoning.

“Don’t believe it, huh?” Jack asked when I arrived in his kitchen that afternoon. I only grinned. The t-shirts we had made, tremendously last minute, had arrived that morning. Jack’s semi-artsy semi-girlfriend Leah had designed them — her sketches the right idea, just a bit too botched to use. Back at our well-worn home in the Swainia garage annex, Summer with a quick glance would volunteer her steadier hand to render them anew.

On the last possible (school-)night the clothing company in California could receive the designs and still stand a chance of returning them to us tangible and in time for the show, I made my first visit to Summer’s neighborhood. A very coincidentally five-minute drive from my mom’s (Summer and I were both around half an hour away, by car, from the nearest thing happening anywhere), her curious abode boasted vivid palettes of concrete floor, a pretty half-pattern of painted stones lining her foyer, and a color-coded constellation of worn clothes and incidental ash in model orbit around her bedroom’s heliocentral keyboard (which, plotted as it was on the floor, seemed to provide her rug its deep-orange albedo). It was a perfectly storyesque place for a gifted girl to sing her songs and live a young life story you could imagine people later writing down. Spread out upon her kitchen table was Leah’s design, next to a copy meticulously improved by a quietly proud hand. I hope I was smart enough to give her a great, grateful hug. It was close to 3AM.

Now here they were in Jack’s kitchen, pressed and printed and real. In misleadingly twee handscript was our band name across the chest, plus an equatorial amp and non-sequitur slogan (a joking revision of the old “rock is dead” credo) along the bottom backside. Inspired by one of my favorite band tees, a Self one from their 2005 farewell show in Nashville, I had chosen a creamy off-white for our fabric — which, unfortunately, was the chameleon-precise fleshtone of the suburbanly pale teens likeliest to be at our show.2 “Oh well”-shaped synonyms were exchanged, but they barely diminished the deep-set satisfaction of seeing our idea take on a form destined for the fossil record.

Returning our attention to the night ahead, Jack and I packed up our gear — which may have been one guitar and nothing, respectively. We mostly just grifted equipment off of Free Gilbis! for practices (even my bass wasn’t mine, but a long-running loaner from Dylan), so I remember the plan being to simply split one full rig between the three bands, and take turns running our respective pedals through the communal amp wall. Rock’n'roll, practically speaking, after all.

Arriving early at the venue was a strange experience. Besides a few coffee-sipping props, the only people already there were the other bands and a pair of merch girls Lupin had been hyping as “so hot, I’m so psyched” for what felt like months. I remember them being too young to even scan as aesthetic entities for me, and the profound age gap between me and at least a quarter of my band became palpable once more. If asked later that night I could only verify that the two girls were, without a doubt, very Warped Tour.

The preponderance of instruments and amps decking the modest dais-polygon upon which we were to perform looked a grim portent indeed, the alien nature of it all highlighted neon-pink by the garish cables draping the gear — to facilitate recording, I was told. These wires snaked through the floors and into the back of a basement mixing board, between Hollywood lot barrels of people’s future throat-burn and morning momentum. The post was being manned by a bespectacled porter who looked fresh off the Kevin Smith cosplay boat at Comicon. He indulged our curiosity with a quick glimpse of the different track channels in his already-dated looking ProTools interface — one for my bass, a cluster for our several guitars, a Summer, a Lupin, a me (for banter purposes), and a multi-channel subdivision for the various trappings of Dilan’s drums. We all nodded in ignorant approval, another layer of pressure sliding silently atop the strata above us. We didn’t have to impress just the kids soon to pay twelve bucks to get through the door, but also, now, the scrutiny of studio vérité.

What followed next remains scattered in my mind. Free Gilbis! set up and played, as a steady stream of attendees began to filter into place. Most of them humored the pop punk pranksters from the outset, about 40 or 50 kids in all, but by the time Laid Out took to the stage, it was simply too hot inside the venue for feigning damns. The bulk of the crowd slow-dripped back outside – where the sun was in the last of its dyeing rosy throes, ending another day of the sweetest summer it’d ever entrust Philly – and even I followed, eager to engage with the few among the throng I recognized. I didn’t know it then (or him), but a snowboard-thin kid named Donny stood to the side beneath a Led Zep mane, wearing a hand-vintaged “FLOP” tee I had screenprinted with friend-associate Schantz for meager profit a couple months prior. He could play guitar, far better than anyone onstage would that night.

I remember being happy to see DJ, a good kid with whom I was then trying and failing to make an understaffed yet game-changing video parody of the college application process, and his improbably hot girlfriend.3 The strip of street down the length of Milkboy began to assume the convivial vibes of a block party, which in me relieved one tension with the addition of another. People were coming — an audience.

And, apparently, ours. At one point Dilan came outside, asking with sheepish grin if I could perhaps corral all these wayward children back into the venue for the ongoing pop-punk inside. I smiled back: Dilan had been threatening for weeks that making our band headliner would be suicide, as naturally the one reason anyone would want to attend was for the “huge” Laid Out. I admitted I knew hardly anyone in the crowd (who even were they?), but gestured invitingly to the few I recognized as I stepped back into the calescent maw.

Ironically, in less less than a year, some of the kids outside would probably be subscribed to the YouTube channel of Laid Out’s guitarist, who’d soon rebrand himself Dave Days and garner 50 million views in a year for his pop-punk parodies of Disney stars and their kin. By early 2010, he’d briefly be the single most subscribed-to musician on all of YouTube, having become big enough that Disney had to pretend they’d been in on the joke all along. I didn’t know him, and have never listened to his music since that night, until right now. Here he is, covering Avril Lavigne a couple weeks ago — which sounds, if I remember right, pretty exactly like Laid Out did that night.


My cadre and I spent the rest of our remaining time in the basement-level “backstage,” where we donned our fresh-pressed uniforms of black and white. I remember feeling fundamentally zen as I stood there readjusting the tie and moptop in the mirror, though I was definitely spending an undue amount of time doing so.

“Dude, you all good?” Pete slapped a brotherly palm to my collarbone. “You ready for this?”

I requited his question with some distracted affirmative, eyes still trained on the reverse of my hair’s curvature.

“He’s freaking,” he said to someone outside my peripheral — probably Jack. “He’s definitely freaking.”

“I’m fine,” I said, and felt it. But I could already sense a shift into an alternate, more adrenalized consciousness, the kind familiar from feeling my twin oars grace the starting line just a few months ago — a few full years ago, too.

Laid Out above were capping their set of blink-182 derivations with a spirited reading of blink-182. Once finished, the familiar chords gave way to the sound of the room, and the oceanic din communicated through the rafters our promotional coup. A packed house for a band without a single song — just a judiciously hyped Facebook blurb and one gingerly edited compilation of rehearsal footage, each dashed out in a sitting by my amateur hand. I maybe pondered the decibel of our success, at least subliminally, during the ten or so minutes we let the ambient anticipation swell in the room above. At some point Summer reappeared, having darted off to sip a friend’s smuggled drink, and at another I gave the word, leading my pack into the great big wait one story up.

 

  1. In our on-going campaign to keep cart firmly before horse, this interpolation was meant to serve as one last schoolyard jeer at the local contingent of early Pitchfork adopters that had privately doubted our band and show were ever to materialize in enviable form. []
  2. Sometime, in the near future, an old girl friend would relate to me an anecdote about wearing it into a 7-11 and compelling the cashier to recite, with his outdoor voice, their storefront sticker policy: “No Shirt No Service.” []
  3. A few weeks prior, we were all hanging out at another friend’s house after having done some filming, and said girlfriend started to channel-hop about the radio. She skipped most songs in less time than it would take to legally constitute a sample, but every once in a while she would linger just long enough to exclaim, “I love this song!” And then, as with the fragmentary adverts and presumably-country effluvia in between, she was on to the next. We didn’t listen to songs so much as the montaged suggestions of them, and my conviction about our generation’s insatiable yen for recognition-based gratification — perhaps first informed in music by Girl Talk — deepened with anecdotal emphasis. The kids wanted attention deficit pop; I wanted to provide. []

“Before the Movie, The Life”

Back at the practices of June ’07, A-Town was helping us to keep things reliably unreasonable. Rehearsing the 4-minute musical slur we called “Medley 3” one afternoon, the core five of us began working the build out of pre-meme OK Go (as spliced with then-hit “Tipsy” and Nirvana’s “Drain You”). Several moments before the drop into “99 Problems,” I realized Ace – who didn’t have a part in the song ‘til then – was nowhere to be found. The rest of us traded bewildered eyes during the last two bars before the transition, a moment penultimate to our imminent collapse, when A-Town came springing out of the bathroom with door swinging and mic in hand, to land room-centered right on beat and cue: “If you havin’ girl trouble, I feel bad for you son!” We hit the next section of the medley with renewed enthusiasm, and damn if the kid couldn’t out-cartoon a slave wage sweatshop when he felt like it.

Around this time I started to regret not having blown my life’s savings to have a production crew film every minute of work going into this show – for optically optimal hijinks like the above, in part, but mostly for all the grossly exaggerated stress and strife we self-inflicted along the way. Everyone involved had zero perspective in all the best and worst ways: we actually thought this show, if executed properly, could be the launching pad for a relatively direct and uncomplicated ascent to wider recognition. My recently abandoned record label had made a name for me in the vibrant pop-rock scene of Nashville (for a time, I was the stuff of barroom legend: the mysterious “Jacob Dorruff,” an enigmatic young teen who kept investing in local records and infiltrating all the otherwise inbred message boards with impassioned diatribe), and I figured I could leverage that into some gigs and regional success down there. (And while I knew the music we were doing then wouldn’t make the grade with anyone but impressionable school kids, I knew also that this show at Milkboy could give us enough local momentum to sharpen our adolescent focus, and arten up the grooves a little.) So we took everything deadly serious, in the kind of hyper-aware/oblivious way that makes the bands documented in DiG! so compelling, charming, and resolutely hateable. Even during the maddest moments of those long rehearsal weeks, I knew that if nothing else, we could’ve made for a deeply entertaining case study.

Many episodic trials came to pass, like when Jack and I got a little too obsessed with “live production” and frivoled half a day trying to learn how best to use the $200 bass pedal I had just bought,1 and Lupin and Dilan staged a brief mutiny during which they demanded we cover the Go! Team’s “Huddle Formation,” in its entirety, in lieu of a fourth medley.2 Dilan kept repeating, to no pragmatic end, that he’d need a “trash can drum” to pull off the song’s distinct percussive feel. I briefly considered the irony of being financially unequipped to indulge my drummer’s garbage yen,3 then stopped entertaining the idea at all.

Lupin’s infractions were mostly the product of a typical space case’s distance from terra firma (relative to everyone else’s in the band, this was rather remarkable), but Dilan’s growing recalcitrance was a direct function of the bitter choler he kept in cheek for having to practice two to six hours per day, as recently promised.4 I once had to dead a run through the gauchely obvious “Tainted Love”/”SOS” segment of our second medley because I noted, rather furiously, that Dilan was actually texting; and then once more because his promise not to fuck up the beat whilst doing so proved predictably brittle. Another time, amid circumstances I can’t recall, he left Summer to languish by her lonesome in the practice space for several hours, while he went to “handle some chores in the house” – the most pressing of which was a nap. I bristled at him on both occasions, blue flame for eyes.

One particularly painful-funny day came during that crucial week Lupin had disappeared to the south, and my attempts to get the band to rehearse without him were slain for their ambition.5 Pete and I crashed with Jack in his basement the night prior, having fallen asleep to a wax platter of either Stars of the Lid or early Elliott, anticipating the morning and the en route synth we had finally ordered for Pete. How we decided which keys to cop was fairly arbitrary, and typical of our approach in those days: I had managed to track down the guitarist of Family Force 5 on Facebook (circumventing his stage name and, doubtless, the recently estrogenic legions who wanted his hand in prom marriage), friended him, and solicited his general insight. He guaranteed me that with enough practice (and without having heard a lick of our music), we too could surely learn to rock out as pro as they did (which, before they went all electro-soft and Auto-Tuned, was damn pro) — and that felt like encouragement enough. He also gracefully answered my inquiry into what little synth Crouton (I think it was Crouton…) slung for their legendary Craig Ferguson demolition: “The Novation Bass Station.” We found it listed online for a pretty sober $200, so Jack comped it to his family’s plastic post-haste. The show was looming dangerously close for our keyboardist still to lack a keyboard, and if it was good enough for national TV, it was good enough for a gig at Milkboy.

***

“It’s fucking software” is what I first heard that morning as the last of a warm dream died, skin sickly sweat-welded to bare folds of basement couch pleather. My clarifying eyes registered inanimate violence as a compact disc struck the coffee table before me, and, identifying the familiar scowl above, finished focusing as I leaned peelingly to take a look. The disc laid in its paper slipcase, labeled simply: The Novation Bass Station.

“It’s fucking software,” Jack repeated. Pete and I could scarcely believe it, scoured the torn packing remnants and even the mailbox from whence they came, all glowers and hair-sieving hands. No dice: without realizing it, we had just scrapped a couple benjamins on a library of keyboard sounds for a keyboard we still didn’t have.

That’s when I first got that thought about the film crew. Every video camera on earth, in that moment, trained its gaze elsewhere; we went on living an unwitting movie, each comic gaffe unprovably worthier of cinema than some immeasurable everything-fraction of memory cards and oxide strips worldwide.

Sugar-shit soured to pure shitrot when Pete revived his just-bought, refurbished Macbook Semi-Pro to find the screen bleeding dark matter all over itself. Cursing loudly, he demanded to know who the fuck had served his new machine its scars in the night. I had just woken up from a deep sleep long uninterrupted, while Jack too denied any foreknowledge of foul play – and so the tragic turn was attributed to the power of strange, spiteful mysteries. It laid an even damper rag upon the day – hell, upon the entire whatever-shaped thing we shared daily – no doubt for Pete especially. He’d scarcely owned the laptop for a week, and it was supposed to last him all the college years ahead. No rest for the weary; no warranty for the refurbed…

Jack had recently brokered a two-ticket deal to see Panda Bear that night on the secondhand mercado, and somehow, for some reason, turned out unable to pick them up himself. Somehow, for some reason (perhaps related), Pete and I concurred it made some sense for him and me to drive into town and make the exchange on Jack’s behalf. He hit us with the $80 cash we’d need, and soon the Shitcopter was burning cheap octane down the summer-green freeway like it really mattered.

As we sat waiting at the agreed waiting place – the parking lot of an inner city Whole Foods; his choice – the tix pusher told me via cellphone that he was 6’6”, highlighted vivid salmon by his ur-brand polo. (“Can’t miss me,” he gloated deeply.) Pete and I rolled eyes, but the guy’s aim proved true when he arrived on foot, unmistakably distinguished by polar bear frame and rugby-pink machismo. Our exchange took less time than it had for him to tell me he’d be obvious-looking to someone looking for somebody obvious: exited car, cash for envelope, thanks a lot, enjoy the show – and as we reclined back into front seat fabric, I realized with sad anxiety that there was only one ticket enclosed. Moreover, the outsized bastard had disappeared into the adjacent convenience of the Whole Foods, only to emerge five minutes later suspiciously without shopping bag or 50¢ yo-yo in hand. He probably figured I would have scooted by then, I figured.

Instead, I was back at his almost-eye level in a snap, demanding answers. He kept composure, claiming the deal had always been for one ticket – and though I can’t remember if he relented to give us some cash back or not, I do remember thinking he may have been telling the truth when Jack, re-examining his email correspondence with the guy back in his family den, quickly X’ed out of the window and cursed the Lacoste-clad curd for his cunning.

Somehow Jack found another ticket with ease — but there was a bleak flavor to the day that just couldn’t be spat.

 

Nighttime likewise skimped on its tongue scrapers. I recall collecting Mixtape again in a funk, driving with him and the others while he fed my tape deck a playlist of early Panda Bear.6 One of them was called “Inside a Great Stadium and Running a Race,” and for a ride used to utilitarian rock-outs like Year Zero and Pinkerton, the track’s laptop brittle of shits n’ squiggles just wasn’t a proper fit.

“This is the stupidest crap I’ve ever heard,” Pete finally fumed from the passenger seat, rubber sole pressed impatiently against the dash. His freshly tarred computer was probably still fouling his mood, but yeah: it was some pretty stupid-sounding music.7

“No no,” Mixtape persisted, barely comprehensible as he thumbed a boundary in the conceptual topography of bleeps and bloops mapped before us. “Panda Bear is great. He was just entering The Stadium before – now The Race has really begun.” I was trying to keep an open mind, smiling and pissed.

After depositing Pete somewhere proper, we manent three sauntered into the ground level Sanctuary at the Church, a space typically reserved for more sit-and-think music than the kind ritualized in the sweat-thirsty maw below (where we had recently witnessed Cold War Kids and Sunset Rubdown). Most of the frontmost pews were claimed by the time we arrived, so we staked out some fire hazardous space on the aisle carpeting to keep close to the stage, as had a few dozen others. I remember the moonlit opener being some Asian longhair maybe named Scott Mou, who unfurled upon the silent crowd an interminable loom of warble and noise.

Nowadays a drone tapestry has to be immaculate to sway me, but back then I wouldn’t have suffered it quietly for Boris, Merzbow, or Thurston himself. Sprawled out on the rug-floor in very physical exasperation after what felt like at least an hour, I wailed long, screaming protest into the dark of the sound and the cathedral. They took turns swallowing me whole, my voice too quiet and throat muscles too dimly lit for even the kid closest to notice.

Sometime long-feeling later, the ardent antimusician departed the stage to let Panda do his thing. I had earlier seen a YouTube or two of his live act courtesy Jack, and was disappointed to find what he was doing before me no different: the fellow simply stood in front of an effects board, occasionally twisting a knob, often wailing kind of like I had against Mou, strumming an intermittent chord or two on the guitar every odd interval. I’d seen a guy going by the nom de noise Animal Hospital put the live solo loop game over the top in a Philly basement about a year prior, and I found Panda, racing in his stadium once again, unfit to keep pace.

After a while, I felt comfortable folding. I left Jack and Mixtape to stew in the unhappening of it all8 as I favored some late chew in Chinatown, turning around to drive back and pick them up again as soon as I had finished dyeing my last napkin. Sitting alone for those two brief rides and a distended lo mein, I contemplated how I was in a bad mood per the music. Panda Bear’s, sure – but with four days left before our big show, I had to admit mine was bothering me more.

  1. For a moment, we actually considered setting up a “mixing table” of effects pedals onstage, which Pete or I would man for the entirety of the set – though of course, this was well beyond our means at the time. []
  2. This met with an instant veto from me and Jack, seeing how non-medley covers offended the sensibilities of the band we wanted to become. And also because “Huddle Formation” is a song so reliant upon its studio stratagems that even the Go! Team, a band whose career depended on figuring out how to play it live, couldn’t figure out how to play it live. []
  3. I correctly divined that a dumpy, metal cylinder sufficiently musical in tone/timbre would cost something, if not mostly time and creativity. []
  4. The true average ran much closer to two, but a few real marathons did happen. []
  5. An exaggeration, though only slight: I remember coaxing a couple lackadaisical practices out of Dilan that week, but the rest of it disappeared quietly into the etch-a-sketch. []
  6. His more recent solo breakout Person Pitch  was defining a lot of sensitive kids’ summers at the time, and though I wouldn’t give it the time of day, it really is a nice record. []
  7. I had no idea what to do with it in 2007. Now it just sounds like egregiously novice minimal techno del Berlin. []
  8. Summer would later remind me she was there too, her virginal absinthe experience having left her in a dumb reverie. I vaguely remember her staring across the aisle at me, trying well to mask the colorful feelings blooming from the stems of her every third nerve. []

“Water Honey Flavor”

The rain beat down on Swainia, torrential sky-spit pounding thick upon landmarks state and local. The insect dead in their floating graves mostly found relief too little and late from the chlorine that had done them in slowly, while others fragmented upon droplet impact; the private asphalt strips that cut a motorway arterial through the estate flushed a bolder shade of black; the trampoline where Pete had earlier that week almost-cracked his ribs, before moaning prostrate by its side strumming a body he could plug in but couldn’t play, sweat through its fibrous skin; the lake and trees drank greedily from the dirty cotton balls above, deep drafts swelling nearly to their mud and barken brims.

So I observed through the many open windows of the royal garage annex where we practiced, sharper and more spirited than ever before. Even though Lupin wasn’t there – he had not yet departed to the warmer climes of Florida, but even in the final week he could practice with us before the show he had missed crucial shed time for things like haircuts and moonbounces – the spirit behind his restless maxim (“we need to get fucking tight”) was in one way or another on all our minds. Just the three of us: me the bass, Dilan drums,1 Jack on chords power and barre. The rhythm section. And as the crisp gales circulated from window to window, they replenished us like they did the other green world outside. Playing garage (annex) rock reheats of “SexyBack” and solo Stefani could scarcely feel fresher.

It reminds me, now, of a thing I had written a couple years earlier. It was about one of the few perfect moments I enjoyed in tenth grade, a moment during which my boatmate and I, in a two-man shell, rowed our way down the vapors of a freshly rained river. Other boats among our team fleeted in and out of vision, the mechanical hum of our coach’s instruction melting into the ambient fog around us. Ben’s back before me, I turned around to glimpse past my shoulder the Girard Avenue Bridge, a skyscraping monolith with railroad for roof, as its stone arches peaked through low-floating clouds like an ink mountain on ancient Chinese silk. At a time when I had little enthusiasm for rowing, those enchanted few minutes helped me to realize why I ever bothered with it in the first place.

Like rowing, music needed a vital reminder every now and then. And like rowing, music entailed discipline2 and commitment, tough decisions like pushing a close friend out of the mix for the better of the band or boat, and a willingness to work endlessly for a brief and immensely high-pressure gasket blast of glory or shame (so close to one another in elemental quality that one often can’t tell them apart til it’s over). Lupin’s Floridian holiday, just days away now, would certainly raise the stakes for the possibly-gigantic debut show we were to play in less than two weeks, and its nearing deadline helped raise the intensity of that dialectic compound of total loss/victory. Focused, detail-oriented practices like this one seemed essential to the show’s success – looming ever closer – but even if we were starting to sound pretty good, the amount of work left to do felt daunting.

For starters, we…needed a rapper. Lupin was first mortified by the prospect of reciting rhymes in front of a potentially large crowd, then excited, and finally mortified or excited depending on the rhyme in question3 – in any event, somebody would have to fill in some blanks. And we needed a female voice to replace the long-hanging void left by Marie’s half-reluctant departure: we knew that she wouldn’t do, but had no idea who would. And by God, we needed Pete to learn his keyboard parts – and Pete, even more pressingly, needed a keyboard on which to learn them.4

Thankfully, Lupin would now add to his resumé of band contributions5 an invaluable connection. He’d sung with a girl named Summer at a local music camp the year previous, and per his recommendation, somehow or another she came whisking silently through Dilan’s garage one fine June morning.

Her bright, gold-flecked skin endowed her a radiance from beneath the redder crown of hair that flowed down her back like some layered veil. The effect, combined with the sharp features of her visage and a height that’d be unusual for a girl of any age, made her seem older-souled than most kids her year. Without noticing it, this quiet maturity reminded me of myself at her age, whatever it was – which I would learn later that day, to my disbelief, was a mere fourteen. She had just turned fourteen.

What had nothing to do with me at any age, though, was her voice. Lupin told her to sing, and so she sang a song she knew and liked (something by the Format), and it was so good that the depth of its good passed me by. Hers was a beautiful instrument, as rich and ready for jazz standards as it was for a reading of Rihanna, and its arrival into our world was so sudden and simple that I could only yet comprehend it as good enough to recruit on the spot. I’m sure someone explained to her the vague heights of our ambition and raison d’etre as a band, but if it was me I’ve long forgotten the conversation. In my memory, Summer simply appeared, sang, and stayed.

 

Enter Summer.

Enter Summer.

 

Her voice was even better than Lupin’s Beach Boys pipes, but the best part was that it went with his like honey into tea. The way they blended reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Calamine, whose Dan and Julie worked better together than happy marriage.6 With next to no effort, our sound improved tremendously.

***

If we found Summer in the morning, then hopefully we could find a rapper by mid-afternoon. Assembled semi-circle on couch and floor, the lot of us racked our cellphones for inspiration. But before we could even get to our “address books” deep within the clunky chassis of our pre-smart SIM cards, a bid for power came from an unlikely corner.

“I’ll do it.” Pete, from the couch.

“Really?” Skepticism on the floor. Pete can rap?

“Yeah, why not,” he said, shrugging slightly in the leather but slouching neither less nor more. “It’s not like I’m doing anything else in this band.”

True enough. Still no keyboard.

Someone passed him the lyric sheet to “99 Problems” courtesy of a messy Sing365 print-out7 and cued up a YouTube8 instrumental to match.

Pete, rapping the second verse, which was not even a part of our set: “Cause I’m young and I’m black FUCK it I can’t do it,” lyric sheets scattering on “FUCK” with a defeated whip of the wrist. For Pete’s budding career as a young rhymesayer, it was a bold and valiant death.

“You’re not gonna believe this, man,” said Jack, next to Pete on the couch and back to his cellphone. “But Ace raps.”

Ace. The blond-haired, hazel-eyed poster child for the suburb-American ideal. Met Jack in childhood when he was rambling through their neighborhood, miniature football in hand and asking the fellow young’un if he wanted to play (did, but I’m not sure if either of them have – together or separate – since). Went to the Mainline’s slightly weirder, kinda artsier private school for kids who probably wouldn’t quite fit in at the other ones (except Lupin’s), but probably didn’t quite fit in because he didn’t do much art, never hair-dyed his introversion a compensatory purple or pink, couldn’t play the guitar quite well enough to comfortably answer “hey man wanna jam after fifth period?” to the affirmative. He had come over to Jack’s house one recent night, though, and handled Jack’s (otherwise unused) drumkit well enough, til he broke the snare with grinning mid-teen gusto (as it happened often, Jack told me). And now Jack was telling me that on one such night, Ace and Jack and little Jack brother Ian attempted to improvise some demos (Bisy Backsons was the band name), broke most of their gear along the way, and concluded with a scratchy little thing featuring just Ian on the kickdrum, Jack on the harmonica (B. Dylan crush), and Ace freestyling some “poesy to the Mainline” – not unconvincingly for a white, prepubescent eighth grader, said Jack. I saw no reason not to get him over and give it a shot.

 


Enter Ace.

As it would happen, his beginnings in the group were somewhat less auspicious than those of our new, amber-tressed chanteuse. I can’t even remember exactly how it went, to be honest. We probably plugged in, ran through a number or two with him relieving Lupin of the raps, had a “hey, nice” moment, and ticked another check on our mental clipboards.

What I do remember came later that afternoon, once we had returned to our rugged semi-circle and airing out me and Jack’s latest ideas on the acoustic guitars. Something in particular must have sounded especially good, because soon everyone was exclaiming their praises. Ace, caught up in the spirit of the moment, bolted right up off his chair, seesawing back and forth on rubber heel, shouting a barefaced lie:

I’m from New Yawk!! I’m from New Yawk!!

The ridicule with which the room received this gesture was sitcomesque, ostensibly scripted in its fervor and unison. Even Summer, who’d never met Ace before and had scarcely been in the band for 90 minutes, was vocal in her disapproval. It wasn’t until some 12 hours later, reflecting on the day from the couch in Jack’s back room – a frequent sleep haunt of mine in those days – that I realized how amazing Ace had been in that moment. The only person in the room he knew was Jack (I had met him maybe twice before, and only briefly), and yet he didn’t hesitate a moment or hold back a single joule in gratifying his strange and sudden impulse. It was definitively unreasonable; I decided I loved him for it.

***

In truth, it had not been Ace shamelessly a-shimmy at Dilan’s that afternoon, but rather his alter ego. I was soon to find Ace had at least three personalities: the first, Ace himself, being the all-American suburbanite of means modest and manners mild; the one Jack had met years ago over Nerf. Then there was A-Town, the schizoid, racially recombinant rap bastard who lived off pure thrill, freestyle verse logic, and the physics of whatever big budget music video he had most recently seen. This, of course, was the loudmouth from “New Yawk” – a spiritual descendent of Flava Flav, and an illegitimate forefather of Major Lazer’s trademark hypeman, Skerrit Bwoy. And then there was a third, long elusive to taxonomy, who was Ace when trying to act like A-Town. People tended to like Ace, love A-Town unconditionally, and resent this third fellow – we’ll call him Fake-Town – in equal measure. All three were our rapper, at various intervals – which one he’d be with us when his turn on the mic was to come at Milkboy, no one could be quite sure.

One of my all-time favorite A-Town memories – the type that could steel your faith in him to rock any performance, if not anything and everything – would actually transpire many moons after the fact, on a night when Jack, Summer, Ace and I all went out for a rare group dinner. Ace was in his mood au naturel as we downed NY egg creams and bacon sides at Minella’s (the 24/7 diner in Wayne, and the only place on the Mainline to eat past 11pm), no hint of anything extraordinary in his table manner. Summer hitched a ride back with him, while I went with Jack. When the two of us returned to Jack’s driveway, we were shocked to discover Summer standing there alone in the dark – especially since she and Ace had left Minella’s a bit after us.

When we asked her what was up, she said Ace had lost control on the drive back, doubling the speed limit whilst sitting ass-out upon the driver side window, steering with his kneecaps. (How he managed to keep the car accelerating under such constraints, we could not be sure.) Jack and I were plenty familiar with A-Town by this point, but even then had to doubt he was capable of something so far beyond – but sure enough, not long after the words had left Summer’s lips, A-Town came screaming back round the bend well out of his window and coming off an incredible surge – how could his foot still be reaching the pedal? or the brake? – as he burnt rubber heel to a halt some ten yards ahead of us. He turned around, shouted some hoodrat hex like a shaman channeling the onomatopoetic consensus of a million hack rapper adlibs, then slipped back into the cockpit and somehow whipped his baby-blue Honda Civic onto an adjacent street at Ferrari speeds, jack-knifing back in reverse with comparable momentum a moment later, the three of us wounded with laughter. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen another human-being do.

  1. The practice space was his, you will recall; Swainia was what he and his family called their giant residential compound. []
  2. Tellingly enough, Sun Ra was so obsessed with the virtuous behavior that he named several albums and compositions after it. No doubt it was essential to his music, as it often required dozens of tack-sharp musicians to play. []
  3. What’s less embarrassing about rapping a MIMS verse than a Jay-Z one, I don’t know. Perhaps the same reason a band would find covering the Monkees preferable to the Beatles… []
  4. Hilariously, Dilan had a fairly generic but nevertheless 88-key Yamaha in the practice room: Pete could have easily gotten a start using that one, but we’d be damned if we allowed even our rehearsals to be fouled by its cheap plastic tones. We must have thought that if it wasn’t good enough for the show (the rationales on these matters tended to be implicit, unspoken), then fuck it for practice, too. And so our keyboardist continued to show up simply to disembowel tambourines and jump up and down to the beat, a concern about how “we really should get a keyboard soon” voiced occasionally. []
  5. As has been previously noted, the young lad’s beyond-his-years guitar and singing skills had already proven a gamechanger. []
  6. Musically only, sadly, and for just six recorded songs. Get the EP. []
  7. Which, incredibly, had included the song’s fan commentary in the document. Our favorite voice at the roundtable went as follows: “I am from a white suburban neighborhood and the pigs are just as big a dicks. However, if you have some cash and you CAN fight the case then you shut the fuck up when talking to the pigs and call your lawyer (#1 in my speed dial) otherwise, if you are too poor to have a lawyer available, you are fucked because the pigs will do whatever the fuck they feel like to you like search you shit or haul you in for a talk. 2.25 million in jail in the US – 1 out of every 8 black men between ages 25 and 29 – yea, I say fuck the police and fuck your dickhead dad for spending 25 years harassing people in jail for victimless crimes. Dan kilo dot com” []
  8. YouTube! in 2007! []


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