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?”
“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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]