For a hallway often packed to the jambs with sweaty blazers and testosterone, the air felt carbon stale. Strewn backpacks muting the walls like the neoprene pads of an anechoic chamber, my footsteps melted into silence a moment-fraction after they sounded. The same could be said for those of the vague stranger walking opposite me, a head shorter and with one crowned by locks even longer than mine (and grungier, blonder). But we shared enough, one could tell – our little, pointed deviations from the dress code, or our postural concessions to gravity – that we were likelier to have something in common with each other than with most anyone else in the cussing throngs that usually filled these halls. He knew it, too, willing as he was to risk an invitation.
“Hey Jacob, come this way,” he mumbled. “I wanna show you something.”
Following him into a nearby science lab, I neither corrected him about my name nor asked him his. Instead, as we arrived at a record player, and the small gaggle of self-styled weirdos circling its awkward place on the lectern, I asked him what kind of records they played.
“Punk,” I thought I heard, as he removed the wax from its paper slip. It might’ve been “funk”; the music soon proved him wrong either way. The band was called Dressy Bessy, and their brief time on the platter made for the first and last time I’d ever hear them. Still, I was impressed: I never knew there were even a few “countercultural” kids at my high school,1 and I had yet to really experience any vinyl before that day. I made a mental note to maybe look into it, and when he put some Elliott Smith on next – “A Fond Farewell” – I did the same for him. A minute later I got back on my way, probably to the boathouse for another afternoon of sprints and blisters.
Max was the kid’s name, and he was not long for Haverford. A few months later he would be expelled for an after-school infraction that involved trashcan arson, and I never saw him again. I remember stoking Green – one of the other vinyl weirdos, and then a fellow rower – for the inside scoop, finding out there was another kid who had been with Max at the time, and likewise got the boot.
I didn’t know it then, but Jack was the missing link between both stories: that Dressy Bessy record belonged to him, and he happened to have been Max’s unlucky company when he decided to spend the last of his matches on some gymnasium garbage. That was their freshman year, when they shared a volatile, impulsive bond: the previous semester, on a hill between Haverford and Jack’s girlfriend’s house, Max made a move, and the two locked lips while Jack, surprised, tried to figure out what he felt. Ten or twenty seconds later, he pushed Max away, and relations between them strained. A few weeks later, Jack was sleeping in a cabin down some densely forested path called Cushion Peak Road, waking up to clenched fists and velocity. Max grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head against the bed’s metal frame sometime around the moment Jack realized who and what was happening.
So there they were, just a football field and a few months beyond that abortive hookup, somewhat reconciled and burning the most obviously flammable thing in the locker room. Max went on to live a life of painting houses, Cali dro, and freak folk improvisation. Jack, however, was able to appeal to the school administration as having merely been a naïve and confused witness to the destruction, and thereby permitted to return after a semester – thereby fating his friendship with me a year after that. In the early stages of that friendship, Jack told me all about his spring away from Haverford, spent at some co-ed youth oasis where real-life girls frolicked, textbooks existed only as an abstract (and only agnostically accepted) concept, and teachers were frequently interrupted by students for makeshift, tabletop-hocketed renditions of Kelis’ then-hit “Milkshake.” According to Jack, this extended vacation in the academic netherworld was just another “Breakfest” – an annual tradition during which he would liberate himself from all schoolwork and otherwise reasonable obligation, as the spirit moved him, to fuck around of his own accord for a little while.
Amidst a kindling forest of cloves, I now found myself playing witness to another such paid vacation of his. It was Saturday night, and we were spending it in a small crowd within a large basement beneath the nice liberal arts college just down the street from our nice conservative high school – a place from which Jack had been away without leave for nearly two weeks now, showing little concern for the thin ice he must’ve been on after the Great Trash Fires of ’06. Instead, he’d been spending his days and emotions at the local hospital, visiting his sick grandmother – and scurrying down the road to the magazine and CD racks at Borders, in hopes of soaking up what little worldly culture the Mainline could afford him after the one independent record store in town called it quits.2 As for the nights, he’d been spending those going to events like these, oftentimes with me as the facilitating company and set of wheels.
This particular event was one of the harder ones to categorize. We stood steeping in the exhaled drags of the under-eighteen assembly – Jack to my left, puffing on his trademark Djarum Black – while a waif-thin wastrel stood white-rapping onstage. The comparably skeletal beats emanated from an ailing boombox with a sound like an amplified dumptruck, and the lyrics – few of which were his – mostly revolved around cocaine, group sex, and other fine adult fancies well beyond his barely pubescent reach. My amusement with his grifted rhymes3 proved poor recompense for the grief of my shallow lungs, however, which were fast approaching the brim with recycled smoke.
“And then you go out and buy her some flowers, and a box of chocolates,” the cachectic emcee spoke with his nose. “Not because it’s Valentine’s Day, not because it’s her birthday, but because it’s today, guys. Just ‘cause it’s today.” Having made our brief appearance, Jack stamped out his nicotine clove while I laughed away a cough, making our ascent up the stairs and beyond the pipeline canopy.
As the smoke-reek of the dormitory bowels faded from my pores into the crisp April dusk, my mental lens refocused itself on fresh surroundings. It was a beautiful evening, young life teeming thicket-like at every turn, nourished by the light at the end of the semester, summer’s fertile pollen on the wind. As for Jack, well – I had been spending a lot of time with Jack lately, hadn’t I? After all, it’d been only a month since we had met in his backyard, a few weeks since that first night we hit the town and found a corpse in it, and less than 24 hours since some rogue mother (neither his nor mine) extracted him forcibly from my car to drive him home. For such a young friendship, ours seemed to have seen well beyond its share of interesting experiences.
Tonight would prove to be another in the series, but for what we would find in ourselves instead of strange circumstance. We wandered our way around campus from party to party, looking for something to grip us, but our idle talk about the band and what we wanted to do with it soon began to develop plenty traction of its own. It didn’t take long for us to drift far from the constellation of kegs and solo cups and into our own expanding microcosm, scrutinizing the smallest details of our sudden epiphany, committing them to fervent memory.
First came the realization that the band had fallen far from the place I had first dreamt it, and the place it still occupied in the deeper recesses of my mind. I had been inspired to start playing music by listening to Girl Talk’s Night Ripper and faintly imagining some kind of live, orchestral rendering of those impossibly layered, laptop-sampled sounds. Instead, we had evolved all too slowly from seaworm origins to some kind of barely bipedal medley cover band, planning to start our show with a lounge jazz take on “Moneymaker” that would build momentum into “SexyBack” a la faux flamenco – worst of all, whilst wearing a ragtag patchwork of whatever sub-ironic thrift store refuse we could find.
…wait a minute. this is NOT cool.
Indeed, both the sound and image of what we were doing had gone awry. Jack likened our current look to one of those menial frat bands that trade Sublime songs for their weight in keg draughts, whereas the sound of what we were doing was abstract to the point of flaccidity. To wit, in having hung out over the past month Jack and I had come to develop an aesthetic sense that valorized a sharply defined rock sound (think Spoon), with a sense of style that reached beyond the decent sale items our mothers brought us home from the mall every now and then. Meanwhile, our band looked like ska and sounded like jazz, if only to our jejune understandings of the two.4 And that terrified us.
To remedy, Jack suggested recalibrating ourselves around a new uniform: white shirt, black tie, black pants. It was more or less what he’d worn to school every day since long before I knew him — and it worked for me. After all, a cleaner image would encourage a cleaner sound: as I wrote to the other members of the band after that night, “There is beauty in simplicity, and our only goals are to rock while retaining pop/rap’s smooth grooves and lateral hipshake.”
And that was it, in our minds. If we could achieve a perfect rock/pop/rap amalgam in our sound and a correspondingly snappy uniform-image, the masses would come willingly. I wrote in that same missive to the band that we needed “AT LEAST” 100 people to show up to our first show, but that I wanted “double that.” We’d have to do whatever it would take to get the good people out there and pay their week’s allowance, to be able to surpass their likewise lofty expectations, to give them not just a show but a spectacle. Jack and I made a pact to smash our instruments to pieces at the set’s conclusion, just for unreason’s sake (who the hell goes Cobain Mode in a coffeehouse, anyway?), and one of us pitched the idea of ordering a facecake — featuring the smug mugs of the entire band — for by-the-slice sale at the merch table, just to be assholes. It all seemed like a great, catchy joke in the making.
With that night, the night of our earliest Vision,5 I realized why I had been endeared to Jack so quickly. In him, I found a reflection of myself, albeit the more ridiculous, daring, cocky bastard side of me that had been harder to see on my own, without a mirror. What kind of reflection he found in me, I wasn’t then sure, but there was something to it that both of us found narcissine in its attraction, worth returning to weekend after weekend and days inbetween. In a way, he helped me find my strength and a sense of identity in a time when my sudden trouble living while rowing had divested me of both. And though we agreed that our limited means at the time would have to make for some interim compromise, it was that night that cemented in my mind the idea of “live Girl Talk.” Whatever that meant, I knew, we would damn sure figure out.6
I would be remiss, however, if I continued to underplay Pete’s place in my life back then. Despite having been estranged by my move to a different school at the end of junior high, we had wound up best friends for the better part of senior year, braving the winter months in my new used car to drum up whatever weekend momenta we could muster.7 Even when Jack entered the picture (the car), Pete and I remained the weathered veterans and elder statesbruvs, teaching much to the young gun about late-teen life and proper rock-out etiquette as he observed from the spacious backseat. I don’t think we really considered him an equal until the one sunny afternoon he boldly leaned beyond the divide, proffered to the front seats an iPod cued to a song called “Stand Up (Let’s Get Murdered),” and introduced us to the rapper P.O.S.
Pete and I shared a skeptical glance as Jack returned to his post, but the ensuing rush of brass bravado took mere seconds to set us straight. In the span of a few big choruses and one convenient traffic jam, I lost myself and a cheap pair of sunglasses to the music (I came back, at least), while Pete gave his trademark tambourine a fierce beating with the inside of my car door.8 Jack had proven himself wiser than his years.
From then on, the great times in that car didn’t stop. It was a fine enough Volvo ’96, in a lot of ways, but perhaps for timidity borne of attending a school where most kids got fancy whips with their learner’s permits, I had dubbed mine “the Shitcopter” – both an acknowledgment of its shady, streetwise origins and a metaphysically skyward transcendence thereof.9 It was nice and comfortable enough for people to enjoy – even covet – its warm, fuzzy interior, but not nearly cultured enough to discourage a little bit of off-cuff raucousness. In some ways, its allure was not unlike that of the finest lo-fi rock.10
Indeed, its purposes – and appeal – were largely musical. With Pete too afraid of himself to drive,11 and Jack’s mobility still limited by his age, the Shitcopter was the only way we ever got anywhere, our silver-grey transport to and fro the rock show of the evening. And whenever the ‘Copter was in motion, so were the jams and we.
One of the its finer days came just toward the tail end of spring. Fresh off practice at Dilan’s, the three of us invited summer’s first embrace with open windows and a liberal stereo-dose of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s ’60s psych/folk revival music. Pete, tambourine in hand as ever, began to shake and tap along, while I added in on the triangular chime I had recently draped upon my rearview, as traffic and timing allowed. Jack reclaimed his acoustic guitar from the trunk, kicked one foot up against the back of my seat, and began casually strumming along. Always with a last-generation Kodak disposable in his pocket, he even paused to commemorate every now and then.
The ‘Copter had thus extemporized a hippie reenactment caravan for the day, liberating warm sounds and good vibes into the oppressive streets of suburgatory. And incredibly, people seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture: onlookers young and old would smile widely, bob their heads along, and flash us hand-symbols of solidarity as we passed. When we parked and disembarked briefly at the music store to stock up on picks etc, a trio of beautiful girls across the way actually hopped excitedly out of their car and pointed in our direction like we were…well, something to point at.12 It was about as sweet as an afternoon on the Mainline could be.
As we made our way downtown for another basement rock spectacle (in a church most young locals have at least been to once, by now), we ratcheted up the intensity with choice selections from favorites of the day like Apollo Up! and the Family Force 5 (the latter of whom had claimed our hearts with a recent bit of latenight TV ridiculousness).13 Entering city limits, however, I noticed some disconcerting number of missed calls from the mom back on planet earth – knowing me back then, I’d probably forgotten to tell her my evening’s plans – and deemed it wise to pull over for a brief interlude of damage control. I had no idea that by the end of the phonecall, my car’s ignition would no longer be in its rightful place, but rather dangling uselessly from Jack’s trembling hand.
He had apparently wanted something from the trunk while I idled on the phone – space for his guitar, maybe – and, with characteristic impatience, cared neither to wait nor figure out how to properly remove the key from the wheel. And so he yanked, yanked harder, and tore the whole damn apparatus clean out. Perhaps it was the Shitcopter’s way of telling us we’d gotten a little carried a way with the music, today…
Either way, engine still revving — and all four windows wide open — we found ourselves trapped in a shit-seedy neighborhood, our debilitated cripple-car miles from subterranean church maw. But instead of consulting my wallet’s AAA card, I wound up simply jamming the ‘Copter’s severed appendage back into its socket till it stuck in place and, miraculously but without promises, revived the vehicle to rumbling life.
We wound up making it to the show just fine — unreason wins again — but it was the ride back that proved meaningful.14 A crucial recent discovery of ours was a little slider on my car stereo – right next to ‘Bass’ and ‘Treble’– modestly called the ‘Fader’ which served one purpose: moving the sound between the car’s front and back speakers. When panned hard to the rhythm of the music – especially the electronic kind – it sounded incredible, the effect of a makeshift mixer for in-transit DJing. The way back home that night made for our best set yet.
“This is this new band called Justice,” Jack said halfway through the drive, putting on the French duo’s debut EP – still the only thing they had out at the time – before proceeding to flip the beats from the front to the back of the whip with a natural’s touch. Funnily enough, I remember thinking I’d never hear of them again (my mind would change when I heard “D.A.N.C.E.” a month later, and co-opted it for a high school graduation video without second thought), though their harshly pixilated electro-house sound made the perfect palette for Fader improvisation.
By the time we turned onto Lancaster Ave – the main line of the Mainline – we were on to Year Zero, Nine Inch Nail’s new album and a pretty uniquely violent exploration of industrial glitch rhythms (also the first ostensibly ‘electronic’ album I think any of us ever really heard and understood). Tracks like “Vessel”15 and “Meet Your Master” were Fader classics, and the three of us were lost in epinephrine reverie as Jack, head bowed and eyes shut, leaned shamanistically beyond the backseat to commune with the rhythm. Things reached a fever pitch in the midst of The Greatest Fader Track of All Time, “The Warning” — me taking advantage of the abandoned road to spend perhaps undue16 attention to the beat, Pete gone somewhere behind his pulsing mop, Jack’s finger and thumb exacting methodical violence on the audio. Given the deafening volume, it wasn’t until the track fizzled to its conclusion that we began to notice that the cinematic swirl of blue and red lights illuminating us were not per God’s attentive lighting design from above, but rather the screaming police car right behind us.
Fuck. How long had that been happening? I quickly pulled into the parking lot to my right – which belonged, conveniently enough, to the local precinct – and watched as the patrolman pulled his buggy up alongside the ‘Copter. The euphoria of just a moment ago was now replaced with a deep and sobering dread, as I took belated stock of our thoroughly unlawful conduct. First, we of course must’ve been speeding, to have drawn his attention. Then, when he began to pursue, he probably noticed Jack, his headful of corkscrew brambles extended far into the front of the car, safety belt clearly unbuckled. What’s more is that we didn’t even realize he had been trying to pull us over for, well – having been in the midst of a musical sojourn to some different plane of being, at the time, it was hard for me to know how long. We must have looked every bit like the ludicrous young dolts we were, and my limited experience with cops up to that point had taught me that in the big game hunting of traffic violations, teenage guys were their favorite target. As the badge approached, I could tell my wallet, insurance, and social life were about to suffer in ways beyond what they could yet comprehend.
“Do you know why I stopped you, young man?” the officer asked, hovering above my open window while Jack and Pete sat silent in the backdrop. I think he was fairly young for a county pawn, maybe somewhere in his early thirties, but as his frame blocked my view of the only lamppost in the lot I had little grasp of what he actually looked like. Arm outstretched and hand palmed against my hood like a cat pawing its hapless rodent prey, he didn’t mention anything about license or registration – bastard was probably savoring the moment, stretching it leisurely – though he was conversational aplenty. After he’d completed his circumlocutions, he announced finally that we had been going close to 60 in a 35, and maybe mentioned a couple of secondary offenses along the way. I did my best to parry, apologizing quickly and explaining, with penitent grin, that we had “gotten a little carried away with the music, tonight…”
“Yeah, I noticed your big-haired friend there in the back, kind of leaning forward to DJ the stereo, or something,” he replied. My disbelief was eclipsed only by a visceral sense of precisely how fucked I was about to be.
But both of those feelings were about to be eclipsed themselves by something even greater, like some fantastically rare alignment of distant cosmos the beauty of which only a few devoted souls will ever know. As the weight in his palm pressing against the roof of my car began to shift, I could feel some subtle detail in the air shift with it.
“Okay then, guys. Just…”
He shoved off from the hood of the car, now standing erect with each arm at either side. With his movement came a hint of light from the sole giant lamp hanging beyond him, peeking around the brim of his hat like a sliver of divine promise.
“Just keep rocking out.”
And with that, he left us, fading into the brilliant rush of electric light that now overwhelmed my vision unobscured. Confusion, laughter, understanding, joy…for a moment it seemed insane, stranger than all but the worst fiction; but then, it all made perfect sense, something magnificent dawning on us there in the empty lot. We smiled together, reveling for a moment in our shared enlightenment before driving onward into the night. The stereo enjoyed a silent respite for the rest of the ride, music having provided us that rare kind of moment even music itself can’t properly soundtrack.
I was absurdly lucky that night, without a doubt – but it felt like something more. A police officer had just seen a trio of teenage boys delighting in gleeful ignorance of the law, pulled us over to exact draconian justice, and then saw something in us that changed his mind – turning punishment into encouragement, contempt into respect, salted shit into pure cacao.
Or if it wasn’t alchemy, then perhaps it was something fated from the start – some kind of message delivered to us from above, conveyed through the unlikeliest of vessels. Of that, I couldn’t be sure. But whatever that cop meant when he said those words, I knew, we would damn sure do it.
- Even if Mainline standards for such largely meant Urban Outfitters and Zach Braff, at the time. [↩]
- By this time, we were already visiting its urban counterpart on South Street whenever we’d head downtown. [↩]
- He stole mostly from the Party Andersons, who were a pseudonymic rap group formed for a single song-length lark by The Lonely Island, the same threesome that went on to join SNL and mastermind social media coups like “Lazy Sunday” and “Like A Boss.” They’re ubiquitous nowadays, but in those days familiarity with the group entailed a certain degree of in-the-know. [↩]
- Nowadays I would criticize us for having looked ska without the brass to back it up, and having “sounded like jazz” without the chops…or having actually sounded like jazz at all, for that matter (well – cocktail, maybe). Back then, we reviled those genres from a place of complete ignorance, as so many kids do, and thought they should be avoided at any cost. [↩]
- A re-Vision of what I had first seen, even more dimly, on my own a month or so prior. [↩]
- Dear world: this was early 2007, and these were teenagers. Things change. [↩]
- Highlights included an absolutely incredible Ken Andrews show, too many meaningful chats in hellhole diners and cheesesteak ditches to count, and an absolutely batshit night at a suburban mansion where the host’s mother would regularly get high with the kids, get ass with the kids, and ultimately get arrested with the kids. [↩]
- Pete would always have a love-hate relationship with his tambourines, invariably ending in a kind of strangulation or, as was this case, vehicular homicide. [↩]
- It was a passing joke made one day to Marie, actually, but she loved it so much that the name stuck. [↩]
- On a midsummer’s day, windows recessed, the aura of its open steel exuded a vibe something like so. [↩]
- “The idea of me being in control of a huge, moving metal box…is fuckin’ horrific.” [↩]
- When later retelling this story to a future girlfriend, I briefly reevaluated my memory of this particular event when she insisted they must have simply been laughing at us. I wound up instead concluding that my girlfriend was a jealous jerkoff. [↩]
- Their first album actually had some party rock stupidity par greatness on it – inversely boosted by their bizarre insistence that they were, sincerely, a Christian Rock band. [↩]
- Sunset Rubdown provided a perfectly fine set of music unfamiliar to me, but the only thing I remember clearly from it was mainman Krug’s between-songs assertion that “tomorrow doesn’t start at midnight, but whenever the sun rises” – a statement I had made to Jack earlier that day, dead verbatim. [↩]
- It was great fun to pan the song’s huge synth-chord to the back of the car, and to play ping-pong with Trent Reznor’s exclamatory chorus: “OH! my! GOD!” [↩]
- /safe. [↩]