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
soyrev: this kid
soyrev: DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL
soyrev: he does NOTHING
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
soyrev: how ridiculous is that
jack: our new front man
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.
- 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. [↩]
- Again, in this case, a broad range of childhoods all indelibly marked by the same piece of Super Nintendo plastic. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Even later, Jack’s dad would tell him privately that I was who Mixtape would’ve become had he not “fucked up.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- “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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- The expectation for proof of our individual Training was very real, if nothing else. [↩]
- 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. [↩]