Feeling as though we’d discovered some kind of calling, Jack and I simply had to get the rest of the band on our wavelength. It was obvious, within a couple days, that nobody cared to read the novellaic Facebook message I had written in the inspired afterglow of that April night on the local liberal arts promenade, and that nobody would. Slapdashing a backup plan, we invited the freshest face in our lot, Lupin, to Jack’s suburban headquarters for an update on the scale and scope of our ambition.
The uniforms, the loosely-defined “live Girl Talk” concept,1 the hypothetical audience awaiting: it all made sense to Lupin, and we could tell it moved him as he shifted excitably in the folds of the backroom beanbag, realizing that “we need to get fucking tight, though.” Even if it was clear to all three of us that the acoustic “SexyBack” we had jammed just minutes prior wouldn’t suffice, we probably had no clue that something like that was in fact not a shredded percent of what we’d need to accomplish our artistic goals. But we did know something like this would take a lot of work; we did know we’d need a team capable of getting fucking tight.
Lupin wasn’t quite the serious artiste he seemed at first brush, though. Inklings of doubt came early, one of the more memorable being a Saturday morning practice at Dilan’s after he had spent the night hosting Lupin. The two had invited over a couple of girls, Bonnie and Laura, the former of whom was prolific Dilan’s main squeeze at the time, the latter being a prospective hookup for Lupin. The night ended for them sans girls and sprawled across Dilan’s endless leather sofa, where we were surprised to find them together the next morning, disheveled and unconscious ten minutes past our 11am ETA.
Lupin awoke demanding a shower, which Dilan — foregoing one himself — granted the singer with a wave and a mumble toward the practice room bath next door. Once Lupin had shuffled out of earshot, Dilan took to telling Jack, Pete and me all about the night prior, during which Lupin evidently made several timid non-advances in Laura’s general direction, before quitting the plot entirely. From there, our stifled hero retired to the practice room, where he let loose on Dilan’s drumkit. After prattle-shouting awkwardly over the rhythmic din for a bit, the girls split, and the two boys, reunited, ended the night where we had found them come morning.
“Yo,” Dilan observed, some 40 minutes later. “Is he even showering yet?”
Silently, our ears attuned to the distant thrum of what we collectively hoped was a shower nearing conclusion. Of course, five minutes later the distinct sound of water coursing between open drains flooded the room, as did the distinct sensation of facial nerves meeting open palms.
Another thick swab of time dampened and waned before the shower ceased, during which Dilan probably shared more details of the night prior. What he couldn’t tell us, though, was something none of us knew: Lupin was in love with Bonnie. So in love, in fact, that part of the reason he was excited to meet us in the first place was to distract himself; he had been crushing on her for months, and two of his then-closest friends had each gotten with her shortly after he confided in them his feelings for her. That’s why Lupin seemed so sullen at the TV on the Radio concert where we met him — the boy Green, who introduced us, was one of the two turncoats — and that’s why Lupin threw himself into our band with such ostensible enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter, though, like a plot twist in a lazily scripted teen flick, our drummer Dilan met Bonnie and wound up bedding her, virginity and all. It was certainly enough to explain why Lupin had been so tempestuous the night before.
It wouldn’t have sufficed to explain, however, Lupin’s two-hour retreat into the adjoining room. We were deep into the afternoon by this point, hungry and not yet begun the practice we were planning on having finished soon; sometime around thirty minutes beyond his shower’s laggard post-mortem, I lost my nerve. Storming through the practice room and around the rock debris strewn floorwise, I reached the door and flung it open to reveal a fully clothed teenage child, smiling blandly at himself in the mirror.
“Lupin,” I exasperated. “What are you doing?”
Blue eyes unblinking, he turned on his heel, flash-photography smile intact, and chirped cheerily: “Waitin’ for my hair to dry!”
Marie, then still in the band, was not coming that day, and though we were in those heady, overlapping months of both Myspace emo-narcissism and the dawn of Facebook tagging, there was nary a camera (or photographer) in sight. He just wanted to make sure his hair air-dried right (which, as it was about mine length and density, I knew would take at least an hour) before showing himself to even just a few guys in the band — who, of course, were waiting on him to practice in the next room.
These were perhaps simply the kinds of inconveniences I’d earned myself in recruiting a preternaturally talented 15-year-old to my band. But then again, Pete and I both knew we were nothing like Lupin when we were three years younger, and the middle children Jack and Dilan were only a year or so removed and just as dumbfounded — but pretty much everyone’s immature at that age. It just speaks in different ways.2
Still, I wasn’t always the most understanding guy, and Lupin — though I felt sure he lacked a mean bone in his body — gifted me plenty of challenges. About a week later, we had a full-band practice that went well enough, though Lupin’s inability to get Marie to properly harmonize with him foreshadowed trouble. We finished around 8pm, and Dilan, eager as ever to go veg or find some pretty face for company, rose quickly from behind his toms and cymbals. Marie had her car, and Jack, Pete and I had mine, but Lupin seemed to have neglected to tell his parents when to pick him up, stationed as they were in some faraway burb none of us had ever heard of before.
“I guess I’ll just chill here for a while,” he said, returning phone to pocket, his father having not picked up. Dilan looked confused, muttering a “What?”-like syllable. Perhaps he feared a reprise of the strange mood-kill Lupin had executed the last time he was around while Dilan had girls in mind.
I remember laughing on the way out, wondering what they’d get into this time. About an hour or so later, still on the road home after having deposited Jack at his Radnor digs, I found out – the screen of my old cellular brick illumined, bearing Lupin’s name.
“Yo!” he shouted, as lively as he was likely to get in those days. “Me and Dilan have such a legit idea.”
Cautious curiosity. “Yeah man? What’s that?”
We’d been talking about expanding, beyond the walls of Facebook and into the streets, our promotional efforts for the upcoming show at Milkboy. Lupin’s pitch was to flier the Mainline exhaustively, something we’d been planning to do for some time – I was with him so far.
“And on the flier,” he said, priming me for the big reveal, “beneath our band name, there’ll be a picture of your face, of Dilan’s face, of my face, and of Jack’s face – Pete’s too, if there’s room3 — and we’ll all be looking sick.4 And beneath that, it’ll say, If you want to get with us, put your name and number here. And there’ll be a bunch of lines for people to write themselves in.”
The idea took a moment to coagulate along the inside of my skull, then burst with an aneurysmic pop; somewhere microscopic, a marble memorial honoring some couple hundred braincells appeared. Head aching anew, I tried to test my blurring senses: there was not a hint of irony in his voice, nothing to counterweight the notional absurdity of attempting to schedule carnal appointments with girls via the conduit of a virtually nonexistent band. I went with my instinct.
“No. Absolutely not,” I scolded. “First of all, that would never work: if I saw a flier like that, the most I would do is flip open my phone and jot down the number of the funniest person I could find.5) The least I’d do is make a mental note to hate that band forever. Cut it out — I don’t wanna have to look for another singer, man.”
Fortified by his new ally Dilan, Lupin staged a protest – but I was steadfast, and, though not without bitterness, this particular issue was soon quashed. Still more were in gestation, however: I would later learn, after getting to know a few people in Lupin’s social circle of the day, that he had begun to annoy them all by always bragging about his band (worrying me that people would come to hate us by name before even hearing a note), and that he had more or less co-opted the unusual spin on contemporary slang that Jack and I had formed and curated in just a couple months of knowing each other (oblivious to the fact that, as Jack and I watched grimly from afar, his fanatical adherence to the lexicon led to inadvertent parody thereof). In any case, it was funny to soon hear that all his friends were wondering why the hell Lupin suddenly kept saying words like “sick” and “legit” with such strange inflections every other sentence.
Something else they noticed was Lupin’s sudden boost in confidence – something we detected after just a couple of practices, and in which Jack and I exulted. We doted like proud parents when he followed our advice to extend a “fuck you” to various jerks and jokers who we heard, via anecdote, had treated him disrespectfully (Green in particular), and we grinned doubly when we could see how happily liberated he seemed as a consequence. We didn’t know about the anxiety he must have felt for Bonnie and Dilan’s recent collaborations, but in any event, the doldrums that shadowed his every step when we met him seemed to have fallen from his sides. It felt like we had helped perceptibly improve his daily mood, and we became not unconsciously aware of the potential to, in some way or another, provide people some joyful fulfillment through the means of our unreasonable take on life and music — a vague, powerful feeling.
Lupin’s surplus confidence frequently refracted back against those musical ambitions of ours, however, often jeopardizing the entire undertaking. One day we permitted him to come to practice a couple hours late due to a day party and, no doubt in attempt to impress the girls he met there, he later called back asking if we could instead move our practice to said party, trading drums and amplification in Dilan’s garage for acoustic guitars and comfy flotation in his hostess’ Moonbounce.
Worst of all, though, was that announcement of his during the early days of June, now less than a month away from our live debut and with precious little rehearsal to our name. Lupin’s family had just finished planning their yearly trip to the beach, which this year fell precisely the entire week before the show. Jack, Pete and I were mortified; Dilan and Dylan, simply curious as to how we would be able to learn the material now.
Desperately, we reminded Lupin that he had confirmed his commitment to this gig date long ago, and that we simply would not be ready if he – the lead voice and guitar of our act – were to spend that crucial last week lazing about the shriveled shores of the south’s hottest AARP compost heap. We implored him to implore his parents for a rescheduling, but he accepted their plans as intransigent without posing to them a single question. Delusional with anxiety, we even tried to convince him to convince his parents to let him stay with us that week while they went seaside with their daughter and whoever else, appealing to Lupin’s simple desires with promises of parties, rock shows, lavish meals, and some seriously committed wingman assistance in the dating department — it’d be like camp! — but Lupin proved intransigent himself. He liked Florida, and wanted to go. There was no alternative.
Worse yet, this miserable revelation came shortly after we had decided to minimize the role of Dylan6 in the band.7 He was a great sport about it, happy to use his newfound free time to take up a residency at the Jersey shore, content with our promise to invite him back for a day or two closer to the show for rehearsals of our version of “What Is Love?” (as it was based around his prettily plucked interpretation of its chords and melody). But it presented the sobering realization that we, as a band, lacked a keyboard (which Pete was to play, as soon as we could find one), a female vocalist (since the Marie incident), a rapper – Lupin, uncomfortable with mimicking the likes of Ludacris and MIMS, often reminded us that we needed one – and soon, for a time, Lupin himself. We also had barely rehearsed just one and a half pieces – “medleys,” in our parlance – and didn’t know what we were going to arrange for the rest of our set. What we did have was a looming debut, now just a few weeks away, and a Facebook event, which was promising a mindblowing performance to the 150+ people having already Confirmed their plans to attend (hundreds more had penciled themselves in as Maybes). In order to push through, I’d have to disconnect from the realm of reason entirely.
- A concept that would eventually change drastically, I feel ever obliged to note. [↩]
- One thing I had in common with Lupin, for instance, was a pretty misguided faith in my ‘exceptional’ maturity. [↩]
- A slight not on Pete’s face, to be sure, but rather his involvement in the band. [↩]
- Hot without fever. [↩]
- I wasn’t above a little mischief then, and maybe I’m still not: the idea of, say, my high school security guard getting a call from some dumb teenager re: rock-related makeout sessions would be tough to resist. If this weren’t my own band being discussed. (I did not yet possess my high school security guard’s phone number then, but would come to have it a couple cellphones, summers, and one high school graduation later. We’ll get there. [↩]
- Our original lead guitarist, not to be confused with our homophonic but more traditionally spelled drummer. [↩]
- Though he was a great fit at first, Dylan wound up a victim of circumstance when Lupin entered the picture. Dylan was the superior ax man, but Lupin could play all of our material with perfect fluency, and his more indie rock pronunciations fit our sound better than Dylan’s idiomatic fondness for folk and funk. Also, it was much harder to get three guitars in sync than two, and the additional amp’s biggest contribution to our sound was its intermittent blasts of feedback hell-noise. [↩]
“The Vision” / “The Curse”
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. [↩]
“Cake and ‘Cakes”
Lupin, for his part, meant no harm. In truth, the only way he could have ruptured my friendship with Marie was by having a nice voice.
Marie had some decent pipes herself, but they were far from Lupin’s make, and listening to them harmonize felt like grading a class project shared by the star student and a C+ slouch. It was a conundrum I never would’ve guessed to ponder when I first met Lupin that fateful night at the Trocadero - but it didn’t take long for me to be surprised.
Even now I’m surprised by how quickly I must have been surprised, back then. It goes without saying that different people will always remember things differently — but one’s years-diluted recollection is almost always inferior to another’s written just hours after the instance in question.1 And though my memory’s not the worst of those present at the time, there’s only one person with access to such an ongoing history of this time-window in my life: Lupin.
He was just the kind of kid to write in his journal every damn night about the damn day done, and though he isn’t that kind of kid anymore, he can now look back on that time in his life and say, “I remember that perfectly — that’d be in the White notebook.” Which is just what Lupin said to me when I asked, and just what surprised me when he shared some of those notebook pages with me: Jack and I asked him to audition for our band a scant four nights after we met him at the Troc.
“Then I went online to get French homework,2 and ended up talking to Jack and Jacob [sic] for a long time about music, and I’m gonna audition for their band on Friday.” [White Journal, 4/24/07]
My life then moved like refrigerated molasses in a pickle jar; it felt like Jack and I had deliberated on whom next to audition for weeks. There had been the blond choir brah Ryan, who blew off his first audition and simply blew, in an anti-rock kind of fashion, at the second. And I still had in mind an athletic college kid from the local Ivy, who I knew in one fell motion could yowl a tune and do a backflip whilst verifiably model-handsome in a $5 tanktop — but what the hell were we gonna do with an old pro like him? Ask him to sing “El Scorcho?”
So by the end of a four-day eternity, we gave up and decided to ask Lupin. It wasn’t that we didn’t like him, or that we even had any idea what he sounded like — he just seemed a little too circumspect to be what a bunch of party jam jokers like us needed from our vocal comptroller. Besides, at the Troc that one night Jack and I could each tell where he had bought every single item of his clothing, and such predictability made the thought of him being in our band almost silly. Who’d wanna see a party band fronted by some sad boy wearing an Urban Outfitters tee?
No matter. We asked the old boy Green to hook us up with Lupin’s AIM credentials, and soon we were chatting with the emo candidate himself. He seemed like the kind of genuine dude his deeply blue eyes and (correctly) presumed passion for Bright Eyes indicated he would be, and he was unabashedly excited by the prospect of being in a band — even one of our strange shape and kind. Jack asked him what he sounded like, and Lupin said he’d mostly had his voice compared to that of Thom “Radiohead” Yorke, which Jack found unlikely and we both found unfortunate. Who’d wanna see a party band fronted by some sad kid wearing an Urban Outfitters tee, sneering like a cat trapped in an existential angst-sauna?3
Still, for all his enthusiasm and all our nonexistent alternatives, we agreed to audition him at the afternoon dawn of the weekend. In the long shadow cast by the Bowflex Power Pro of Dilan’s jock jam practice space, Lupin strapped down with us on the requisite Pinkerton before handling lone takes on Bright Eyes’ then-fresh “Lime Tree” and, of course, RadioYorke’s sublime “Karma Police.” Jack and I weren’t all too keen on the new album that had provided Lupin with his Oberst tune of choice,4 but he sang it very prettily, and knew his way around the guitar maybe as well as Dylan did — albeit with less a taste for the funk which Jack and I had unfairly prejudiced, and more for the kind of indie rock music that made our young souls sprout spiritual erections. As Jack had predicted, Lupin in fact sounded little like Yorke, and for our purposes this worked out well — he had a good, clean, dependable voice for a boy his age. Without a reason to hesitate, and like Jack before him, he was asked to the next one.
The sun’s daily arc drew itself long and slow then, to be sure, but for that very reason it felt like so much could happen between rise and set. Proving himself to be as unreasonable as any man, Dilan somehow managed to book us to play at the biggest and best of all local coffeeshops, Milkboy, for the date of June 28. Not only were we to play, but we were also to headline, with Dilan’s punk band opening,5 and Dilan’s punk band’s friends’ pop punk band Laidout playing between them and us. It was a pretty large venue, and the incumbent coffeebastards expected us to draw at least 100 paying customers (at $8 a pop) if we wanted any hope of not shriveling up and whisking out the door a human tumbleweed of debt and embarrassment. So that made us a band with nothing but a name and a few ridiculous pictures, hardly any actual material to speak of — certainly nothing recorded, or recordable6 — and a need to get at least 100 people to pay 8 dollars and 1 Thursday night (a summer Thursday, no less — which roughly equaled a hot Saturday by any other season’s standard, and with many a crucial friend waylaid at the shore) to see us. And that, of course, meant that we’d have to put on a proportionally worthwhile performance, to prevent the venue from becoming a roomful of riotous, refundthirsty hate.
An avalanche of activity followed, and looking back on it our strategy seemed to be to hype the show up and get as many strangers committed to that Thursday as humanly possible — once that happened, I must have guessed the adrenaline needed to practice ourselves to perfection would naturally follow. So while musical progress did continue to seep slowly from Dilan’s amps and toms, primary concerns seemed to be more superficial: on May 2, Lupin told us about the two cuties he managed to convince to get to work our merchtable (we had nothing to sell; we’d figure it out); on May 12 we homespun ourselves a photoshoot I later managed to Photoshop into serviceable promo quality (the fliers of which are around somewhere, just not on my harddrive — I did recently hear about a girl who, long post-high school, keeps a stolen one on her wall, like the lovelorn forever keep a light on) ; on May 17, I made a Facebook event that still exists and promised incredible things for a band that had maybe a couple minutes of rehearsed material ‘finished’ at the time; on May 19 Lupin shat an anxious, God-fearing brick into his White journal about just how many people had RSVP’d as ‘Attending’; and on May 27 we had a full-band practice (as full as the band was, at the time), which Free Gilbis! bassist Drew filmed into a videotape that I would quickly edit into a brief promotional clip.
[the video was here. now it isn't.]
Slyly fashioned to make it seem like we had a lot of stuff rehearsed, the video was actually just a disordered pastiche of rough-‘round-the-edge moments from what we called “Medley 1” (a.k.a. “The First Medley”), and then a few snippets of the first time we jammed on a cover of Haddaway’s cheese-as-fuck classic, “What Is Love?” It was based around a classical guitar-picking arrangement of the chord progression that Dylan7 had come up with and played at a school assembly around the time I decided to ask him to join the cause.
The June gig was scheduled, then, before Lupin was even in the band — but in a way, it wasn’t until he showed up that it all seemed remotely real or feasible. Lupin, as was the case at the beginning of this chapter (in 2010), had no idea he had effected such change — all he did was show up when asked (cryptically late, more often than not). But he brought with him a preternatural talent that made the rest cohere — Dilan and Dylan were both great for teens, but teen-great drumming and teen-great guitaring alone are seldom enough to feed our young (or veterans) — which is evident in that Lupin provides pretty much all the memorable moments in the clip [formerly] above, from his improvised solo over Gwen Stefani’s “Sweet Escape” to the pretty little nothings he whispered harmonically into Haddaway’s cold, lonely ears.
By this point, my life was in nigh-total flux. I had been auto-ousted from my boat and team (of which I had been captain) around the time that Lupin joined the band by force of the inexplicable and inhaler-irresolvable respiratory failures within me, and on the day this practice was taped my former boatmates and best friends were racing the river without me, long past the hope that I could ever rejoin them. It was an immense pain to feel what was once such a large part of my identity wither and keel like a hunk of charred lung tissue, something beyond what I could comprehend or coerce myself to face at that point — and I don’t doubt that’s why I delved as deep into the band as I did. It had gone from something I had practiced and gotten right high school-good at over the span of several unbroken years, to being forced to replace that with a pursuit of something completely novel and unknown to me. It was depressing and yet catharsis, confusion but exhilarating — and the enthusiasm of the skilled musicians who came to serve my nascent (still mostly shapeless) vision, exacerbated by the surreal, forest-for-the-trees pressure of being self-conscripted to fit it all together in just another month, inspired in me something of an obsession. I threw myself at it with horse-blinders abandon.
Yet the change in me felt most pronounced not on May 27, this day of practice some thirty before the show itself, but on the day before — my birthday. Amidst the deep-spring warmth of the sun I returned to Jack’s backroom, the place where we had met, to find he had bought me a “blackout” cake — a reference to some slanguistic inside joke of ours at the time, though neither of us ever blacked out proper — and a plastic camera that was all the hepcat rage at the time. It seemed impossible to me, just how close I had gotten to this kid, two years younger than me but more compelling than any other friend I’d ever had. It had only been two months.
Marie got me some sweets as well, except the cupcakes she gave me were ones she had baked, iced and sprinkled herself. It couldn’t have occurred to me at the time, but in this way my nineteenth birthday became the pivot point at which my best friend of the past and the best friend of my future crossed, intersecting at an all-too-sweet vector of celebratory confections. The two desserts were equally delicious, and their respective qualities had nothing to do with the friendship shake-up that was about to occur. If it had really come down to cake and ‘cakes, Marie would have won some decisive extra points for having made hers for me — but not long from this point she would be instant messaging Jack, telling him that she hated him, claiming that he stole my friendship from her, or else razed hers to make room for his own.
This, of course, was untrue: there was no reason I couldn’t have stayed close to both of them. The turning point came elsewhere else entirely, and turned pointedly one night when Marie and I discussed her place in the band. She’d been our girl vocalist for the past couple months, but had blown off a great many practices for a few not-so-great reasons (saying she’d be over to Dilan’s in 30 minutes, then spontaneously combusting into afternoon nap — caring not to alert anyone before or after the fact — was one memorable instance), and with the show being less than a month away I wanted to resolve her commitment issues like a soon-to-be groom trying to make a ho a housewife.8) And as it turned out, she did not hesitate to tell me she had no interest in the band rehearsing or being any good: we had a show to worry about, true, but in her own write she was just happy to be able to tell people she was in a fun band — and she only ever really showed up to practice because we were all attractive guys, anyway, and hanging out with five or six attractive guys through a musical conceit was an alright hobby to have (her words (paraphrased by the ages)). That this was not only the case, but also one she saw no problem casually fessing to, struck me pretty confounding — especially considering she was only a passable vocalist, and lacked the Clinton-years-surplus of talent that could have maybe made it hard to let her go. Given the circumstances, it seemed hopeless to resolve — as melodramatic and inevitable as my body’s submission to the igneous rocks suddenly lodged inside my chest.
I had no replacement in mind, but after what must have been a couple days of inner strife over the awkward friend vs. bandmate dynamic, I decided I simply had to risk it. I’d like to imagine that I tried to find Marie on AIM or even lobbed her a couple missed calls before resorting to the Facebook inbox, but in the end I did it through a letter made of kilobytes and apologia. We may have been a dumb and aimless party band when Marie had joined, but with the introduction of Lupin and a concert date burnt into the social calendar as imminent reality, we were now a dumb and aimless party band aspiring to greatness. Even a slim girlsworth of give-a-damnless deadweight could be enough to fuck the whole thing to oblivion. In any event, my efforts at diplomacy were not well received, and I didn’t hear again from her in a long time.
It was a dumb reason to make a casualty of a friendship, but circumstance had made it hard to steer clear, and as I drew closer to Jack by bond of band I don’t think I even allowed myself too much time to think about it then. Marie wasn’t my friend anymore, but I can’t remember if I ever paused to wonder who had really made the decision — the music or me.
- There used to be some truly unsalvageable garbage here about how I’d like to scribble these scrawls faster than I do for this very reason, but it did include a self-aware quip about being hindered by “swollen footnodes.” I still like that. [↩]
- Perhaps from someone else I was soon to meet. [↩]
- Disclaimer for the humorless: Thom Yorke sounds significantly better than this. [↩]
- I dig most of it, now. [↩]
- When I first met them, they were going by the regrettably apropos moniker ‘Generic Youth.’ One day we came to practice and heard from Dilan that his father got an email from a clothing company also named Generic Youth, who demanded the teenage jerks acquiesce and make some nominal adjustments. So one quick band meeting later Dilan logged onto Myspace to officially rechristen their baby ‘Fuck Generic Youth,’ which evidently failed to appease Generic Youth the threads peddlers; Dilan’s father got another email. They went on to settle for their third and certainly worst name, Free Gilbis!. Looking back on promo materials for the show, they sure did perform as Free Gilbis! after all, though I couldn’t have told this story had I just referred to them as such from the start. [↩]
- I do recall, even pre-Lupin, Dilan opening a ProTools file he was woefully ill-equipped to open, and trying to fill the DAW with an “El Scorcho” coversworth of me-brand bass and Jack guitar, but this proved quickly abortive. Dilan asked Jack to keep going after one take, and Jack replied, “I played it perfectly once, loop that shit — that’s how everybody does it these days.” A second take happened, but not much else did. [↩]
- That’s the guitarist, not Dilan the drummer, for those keeping whores at home. [↩]
- I must’ve forgot about Dre. (Or just didn’t really know him yet. [↩]
“Better Than Aliens”
“I know you’re not really a huge fan of them, but I’m sorry,” she said from behind the wheel. “Tonight’s a Radiohead night.”
She was right, at the time. But that night it made little difference to me. I could see where she was coming from, and even back then I had a hard time complaining when “My Iron Lung” was on the stereo. I cracked the passenger side window to let in some summer dusk, and put my free hands to use around the pliant neck of my imagined guitar. It was the only instrument I really knew my way around, but I looked smooth and polished as an MTV closeup as I synced my diving hair and fluid arms to the chords.
Twisting a knob between us, she turned down my daydream as we approached the drive-thru window, so better to speak with the fluorescent tableau of fake fish and comestible cancers to her left. The vocal menu and its attendants stocked our laps accordingly, and we soon returned to the suburban bends beyond the backdrop treeline.
There we found our empty home, filled with other people’s trinkets, furniture, and three-legged dog. It was really only empty — and ours — thanks to the weekend absence of those other people, middle-aged and mortgaging. They had entrusted the house and its hobbled guardian to the more capable stewardship of Marie, paying her some plum sum to keep a lonesome and responsible watch over things. But she had bent the rules a bit, inviting me along last minute to keep her company for a stretch of the long and boring night ahead.
Boring in theory, anyway. In practice it was the kind of summer evening that seemed lit from within, somehow free of the dim unease such quiet nights can bring. That’s to what I had quietly accredited the subtle luminescence of our twilight drive, but it lingered even as we escaped the falling night between those four unfamiliar walls. As the lights flickered on to greet us, it felt sort of like walking out of a minute coma and back into matrimony — a happy home filled with friend-given gifts from a wedding I couldn’t remember, sofas and blinders from a trip to Sears well forgotten.
This, of course, would make Marie my wife, and as we had only ever been friends I had to doubt that those housewarming lights evoked in her the same wordless feeling. Subverbal thoughts quickly passed as my attention turned to one-leg-less Petey, who filled the sad space left by his limb with all the love and bonhomie he could muster. We returned his wagging advances with adulation and porcine fries inbetween bites of the spoils we had nabbed from whatever local additive landfill Marie least disdained, then slid our way into the basement, where a superior television set would entertain the DVD she had brought along.
The film was high school era Marie in a TLA clamshell, some dry documentary about a couple of eccentric and crusty sisters who lived in a doddery squat someplace Welsh or British — just quirky enough to earn them thrift store video shelf syndication. I liked it fine, and once the credits had commenced we must have talked it over a bit as we sat on sub-street level carpeting. At one point or another I perused the bookshelves of audio documents the real Man of the House had collected — live bootlegs of bands like Tool, Dave Matthews Band, and other mainstream-cum-subculture groups that have inspired many middle-aged and disposably incomed former musicians to dedicate secret corners of their suburban reformatories to shrine-like archives. The carefully penned performance dates and venue names were interesting, for a time, before ceasing to be.
Sometime around the latter clause Marie disappeared from the room, and I turned my attention to the cheap, fingertrap magic of her vacant chair. It was magic because it had no legs, only the stiff plastic seat and back support, but by sitting in it on the floor one could be effectively suspended in animation. It was cheap because, like a Chinese fingertrap, its magic didn’t defy but rather relied upon forces of nature (gravity, the golden corporal ratio) in order to work, and looked like flimsy crap in the meantime. Bored and still alive in a world some two years removed from phone-sized Internet access, I decided to try an experiment and place my head upon it, as though it were a pillow. This wasn’t comfortable, or unboring, but it worked. A few moments later Marie returned, and decided to try an experiment of her own, sitting back down in her chair without first asking me to remove my head from its corner.
This also worked, and solved everything my weak scientific inquiry hadn’t. Somehow she had managed to sidle herself in with one smooth motion, and suddenly my head was in her lap, my hair cushioned by her dress on one side and being gently sieved by a little hand on the other. Like so many other young men with a lot of hard typewriter nights in their weekends past and future, I managed to remain eluded by the obvious intentions behind her gesture, almost forcibly on my part. A ton of lovely chances fell into my lap during high school, and I let most of them slip, for all the strangest non-reasons.
But now that chance had fallen into hers, she seemed to know what to do. Her taste in guys had probably afforded her some experience parsing damaged boy code, and she cracked my half-hid hesitance with accordant fluency. Soon we traded that tacky almost-chair for the floor, our limbs entwined and our eyes set to the Spielberg sci-fi unfolding onscreen. That I felt comfortable enough to lean over her shoulder and interrupt her lips in the middle of some witty quip about aliens was a testament to her skill.
Our brief time together remains unique in my mind for how entirely innocent it felt. No clothes were removed, and all we did was kiss. But there was something especially intimate to it, as if we had in fact found our way to that domestic twilight zone parallel, however distantly, to the typical teen reality we shared. By the time we looked at a clock it was almost daybreak, and I remember sitting on the couch in the first floor living room, the sun beginning to coat the smaller, daytime TV screen in its reflected glare as she lay on my lap, bundled up and smiling peacefully in a shallow sleep.
“Wait a minute,” she said, behind the wheel again, watching the train pull away for the city without me. “I think there’s another station close to here that’s got one coming soon.” It must have taken some time to rouse ourselves from the empty home, shuffle into the car and get moving, but it felt as fast as snapping the spine of a dream.
“No worries,” I assured her, opening my door. “I don’t mind a wait.”
She insisted, and removed her foot from the brake with finality. Not to be outdone, I swung my legs out the open door and dropped my feet to the moving ground, the rubber soles of my off-brand Dunks screaming dramatically against the asphalt. She relented, shouted that I was crazy, and with a smile requited my farewell.
I wasn’t so sure what was going to happen next at the time, but that imaginary plane we shared was not to be repeated or realized — and for a long time, we never spoke a word of it. But for just as long, something new played inside her eyes every time they met mine. Our friendship found its way through the night to that delicate place where it could stand enriched, not in ruins, by having moved just briefly beyond that threshold — as if there were some sweet knowledge between us that most great friends seldom can or get to share. The fact that we have now each written pieces about it means something, though I can’t be quite sure exactly what — I’ve never read hers.
Of course, after she joined my band to lend us her voice at high school’s end, things wound up getting more complicated. Just a couple months later, we wouldn’t even be on speaking terms anymore, and she blamed Jack — her “replacement” — for the death of our friendship. She had said as much to Jack herself.
But she was wrong about that. It wasn’t Jack who had been responsible for my fallout with Marie, but none other than that sad, bright-eyed boy Lupin.
“Nights It Came Together”
When a non-musician aspires to lofty heights of musical accomplishment, any number of things can happen. Occasionally a pretty face or limited talent is propped up by someone who can fill out the soundscape either to highlight a star’s exceptional ability or to mask lack thereof. Sometimes an absence of theoretical training is trumped by sheer force of will, and the non-musician strikes an artistic and commercial nerve as an Oasis or Nirvana. Less significantly (but at least as admirably), a guy like Robert Pollard can spend many long years and albums toiling in expensive obscurity before catching the world’s ear with something like Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, crafting an ingenious piece of music while essentially remaining unmusical.1 By and large, we tend to view these kinds of people as having been possessed by some innate gift or power, and wrap them in enough magazine mythos to make them seem remote, otherworldly, unreachable.
At their most potently influential, however, these rare case studies are best read as a reminder that with enough drive and determination, otherwise-amateurs can make something to transcend themselves. After all, there’s no shortage of bad Oasis or Pollard records to demonstrate that even having created works of art on a par with anyone’s,2 these people remain very much sub-superhuman. And I’ve profitably dredged enough overwhelmingly dire records by now to believe pretty firmly that any band in the world is capable of creating at least one Great song for the records, should they really care to try. Or, to paraphrase Joe Carducci: “Never underestimate four randomly selected Americans’ ability to come up with listenable shit.”
It’s harder for me yet to tell what happens, exactly, when that non-musician is me. The Story could already fill a small book, but remains largely unwritten as both literature and life-in-the-making. (In its immodest way, this blog is a rough draft recollection of what one could maybe someday call the former.) Regardless of what the outcome winds up being in either form, though, it was a literary moment that spring of 2007, when a sebiferous disciple of hipster cynicism approached me at school and said, in passing,
“Your ambition far outweighs your talent.”
The fact that he saw this as an insult rather than an asset spoke louder words than the barbed ones he spat my way, but I could still feel the sting in his venom-spittle as he turned and walked away. Old Pollard could probably relate, having endured reddernecked variants of comment box-sized contempt in backwoods Ohio for years before the outside world took a listen and really heard something.3
Which is not to say that this kind of criticism is unwarranted, or at all unhealthy for the criticized: in truth, most of Guided By Voices’ early records are pretty disposable,4 and even though that lightly greased hepcat had no way to be truly sure of it, my band back then deserved his jeers. In essence, we were then a very sincere joke: a couple times a week we would doff all inhibition, don garishly stupid closet debris, and get together at Dilan’s practice space — him drumming and Dylan guitaring (very eloquently) whilst I would play the bass and my exceptional friend Pete sang (very not). Pals of each and all were invited often, and corollary cameras soon bore chemical witness to me in meshbare P.E. rags, Dilan impartial beneath dad-era Boston Bruins headgear, Pete looking studious in a labcoat and 3D spectacles, and Dylan in various stages of hairy cross-dress. Weezer’s “El Scorcho” was steamrolled repeatedly, typically with Pete or me verbally harassing the microphone, a detail mercifully intangible to friends’ lenses — although it should be little surprise that someone might see these photographs and ascertain that we sucked.
So it’s rather remarkable, then, just how much that music changed the life of that non-musician me. Over the quick couple months to come, the force behind my vague dream would forge beautiful friendships while torching others; provide me with experiences alternately unforgettable and regrettable; introduce me to people I would love and would not, in equal measure; and any number of other literary clichés that are commonplace in fiction, but quite a trip to actually live out. All this in the pursuit of something that was, at the time, little more than a bad weekly jam session.
I still remember how Dilan introduced me to Jack, for purposes unrelated to music but rather to a film Dilan and I had made about denim jackets and orange juice. This was a work of art beyond the pale of iMovie, I decided, and so Dilan — who possessed plenty of expensive software he put to no particular use, but not Final Cut — brought me to Jack’s house one night, claiming that he was the kind of kid to have Final Cut installed on his laptop. He did; he was also the kind of kid to lend that laptop to me for a weekend without ever having met me before, like it was no less natural a thing to do than shake hands (which, of course, we didn’t do). As it turns out, Jack thought I would be a person worth knowing after he saw a schoolwide screening of one of my videos a few months prior, so perhaps his cryptic generosity bore an ulterior motive. Either way, the gambit worked: I was intrigued by this curly-haired quiet-type so willing to give his laptop away to a total stranger, and in the span of an evening his unique image burnt itself lightly into my psyche.
And so it happened: Upon our arrival, we found Jack pacing impatiently about his backroom — an extension to his house that at night functioned as a sort of backlit fishbowl, its contents illumined for all the critter rabble and other backyard voyeurs to see. His parents weren’t home, and he felt comfortable chain-smoking inside — a decision he would soon regret, when the effects of the amphetamine salts began to wear off (school had imbued in him a taste for Adderall, for which “speed” was his exaggerative shorthand). Dilan was flying sober insofar that I knew, but his demeanor seemed more drugged than Jack’s subtle high let on: he fell asleep during Pulp Fiction, woke up to drum sedative rhythms on Jack’s dilapidated kit (which Jack could not play), strummed questionable chords on the guitar (which Jack could), kneeled briefly at the mouth of a rainy driveway to no discernible end, channel surfed his way to a fragment of Kindergarten Cop that seemed briefly to hypnotize him, snored loudly while attempting to rest his bare feet on Jack’s face, and ate the most phone-number pizza of anyone in the house by a large margin. I can’t remember if he left or expired on the couch, but he faded fast from the memory of the night either way.
Meanwhile, Jack and I spent the many dark hours commiserating in shared insomnia. The demons haunting me probably lingered from another disappointing morning on the river, a regular reminder of my health’s recent and inexplicable deterioration. As for Jack, I’d imagine the bloodstream torrent of nicotine and psychostimulants weren’t helping him find peace. To offset the issue, he dropped some Air into his stereo and let the pretty French atmospherics mix with the marijuana smoke soon exiting his lungs. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about — just the kind of thoughts and details you wouldn’t normally reveal to someone you just met. The words trailed off around when the Air did, evaporating gently into morning dew and birdsong.
Jack had disappeared by the time I woke up, but kept himself lodged in my mind with a well-placed email that, in its brief two lines, seemed to reflect a more compelling character than I had found in any other schoolmate of mine over the past four years. Still, borrowing his laptop and occasionally gallivanting with him to rock shows would have meant little if not for the context of our own rock; Jack, after finding out I had a band, let on repeatedly that he knew his way around some pretty okay chords. I had my initial reservations, but eventually invited him to fill in for Dylan at a lead male singer audition. That potential frontman wound up flaking in favor of a 16-and-over night at some cardboard club downtown,5 but Jack twanged his way through “El Scorcho” and handled his acoustic guitar well enough. He seemed capable of adding some solid rhythmic support behind Dylan’s impressive leads, and so he was given the date and time for the next one.
Conceivably, the next one could be called the night it all came together. At least literally: all past practices had been corralled on the fly, the floor-strewn instruments picked up and plugged in by whoever was around to play them — but this was the night that the whole team made it. Crucially, Pete met Jack, and the two commemorated what would soon become a rich friendship by indulging in a great din on Dilan’s keyboard and drumset. I missed what they would inform me were rather good “primal jams” when I returned, however, as I was off getting Marie.
Marie had been my best friend for about a year or two. We met during the earlier half of high school through a confluence of mutual friends and the internet, beginning with the nice compliments she gave me in the form of Xanga comments (replete with eProps) at a time when I was on the precipice of a bizarre long distance relationship and had someone to feel jealous about me. I visited her house one day with friends Melanie and Melissa, and Marie briefly interviewed me vapid talk show-style before them about my music tastes, how I made mixtapes (extravagant productions, always), and asked me questions about my first kiss (which I was still a few months off from having; when I replied “haven’t had it,” the two-girl live audience to my left squirmed and like children half their age hearing Santa Claus might, in fact, be real again), among a few more sexually direct talking points I wasn’t very used to discussing, least of all with a stranger. It made her interesting to me, a little bit edgy, and while I didn’t start hanging out with her regularly till more than half a year later, there was enough intrigue to leave open the possibility of a great friendship.
By the time I had drafted her as the girly voice in my band, that possibility had already blossomed into something pretty lovely, as far as friendships go. Having her at practice felt right, and she provided an estrogen offset to help palliate the wildly imbalanced hormonal makeup of our practices. By the time I brought her back to Dilan’s space that night, the guys were already limbered up and ready to lend some helping hands to my silly-puddy ideas. Of course, there was the inevitable reading of “El Scorcho.”
Dilan’s friend Drew was around to film the proceedings, thankfully, and I quickly pieced together a small document of the evening on some cheap editing software discovered on Dilan’s PC. Looking back on it, there’s little to appreciate there musically, but it’s a nice little memento of what was then a very sunny side of my life. Pete’s prescription pill percussion, Dylan’s gender-bending patriotics and cheese-funk guitar solos, a rare appearance of Jack on the keys, Marie’s reminiscence on our favorite rock documentary, and my early efforts to figure out the instrument hanging from my neck as anything more than fashion accessory made for quite the ramshackle arrangement, held together against all odds by Dilan’s stickum drumwork. It was not a bad place to start for an aspiring non-musician, filled with curiosity and ideas just small enough to express in such limited vocabulary. You could only tell I was reaching for bigger things by the way my hands fumbled up and off the fretboard.
- Without getting academic, I’m defining the standards for musicianship pretty harshly here. I’d personally call anyone who’s made a good song a “musician,” but let’s suppose — as many do — the term means someone who has a robust understanding of theory, or could have at least made a living as a session player had not synthetic sound crippled the profession (i.e., I am so good at what I do that you will pay me to do it for you). For what it’s worth, Pollard at the top of his game considered the epithet an insult, while one of the Gallaghers once insisted that playing your first chord qualifies as musical christening. Brian Eno, one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, has said for decades that he’s not a musician at all. [↩]
- Pollard’s basement pop homebrew, at its fizzy best, sibilates the senses in ways unlike any other sonic spirits; and Oasis’ boldest field-filling anthems are as sweepingly effective as the form gets. [↩]
- Years after writing these words, I found myself sat at a table in an impossibly decorous dining hall as a more-ambitious-than-talented (yet deservedly moneyed) mogul turned and challenged the young musical savant next to me: “If you can’t make it in [conversationally relevant New Jersey podunk], how are you gonna make it in New York?” I almost brought up Pollard and Guided By Voices, a band for whom he was once The Bigwig, but thought better of it. [↩]
- Pollard used to throw them, like remedial beer bottles, at the walls of his soon-to-be-sacralized basement. [↩]
- Either that or he showed up and timidly flubbed his way through the couple songs he hadn’t learned at home. I seem to remember both of these things happening. [↩]
“Something to Follow”
At long last, we plugged round cords into round sockets, and reveled in the sound of our amplified selves. It had been a long time since we had last done it this way — for a week’s eternity, we had been practicing with acoustic instruments only — and it felt like a momentous release, like finally having someone to share your sexual energy with after having wasted it on yourself for so long. The electric catharsis was in the air, and in our sound: we started loud and, in transitioning from the first section to the second, grew louder still, played harder still, grinned wider still, happier and happier —
Suddenly, it all fell apart. Dilan drummed one of his cymbals to the floor, Lupin defected a microphone, Pete made quick work of a fresh tambourine that had recently cost its weight in gold, and Ian — thoroughly drunk and uninvited — had stumbled into the room and stomped on a cable, splitting it off and jamming the amp Jack’s guitar was using. In the span of five minutes, some several hundred dollars worth of damage had been done.
In truth, I was no musician and never had been — at least not until very recently, and very technically. It was the late March of 2007, and I had been unmusical for the entirety of my 18 years alive to that point. From ages 8 to 12, I struggled to achieve sub-mediocrity with the violin, an instrument I hated and practiced only because I had been coerced to care. Around the time my first teacher tried to teach me Hitler’s theme song — to be performed at a middle school recital (where there would no doubt be a few historians and European grandparents in attendance) — I found my second teacher; around the time my second teacher made me walk on a balance beam across his heater-sweltering apartment, in order to teach me “how to balance,” I stopped playing violin altogether. In 8th grade, I attempted to learn guitar from a a young hippie, and instead wound up learning that I sucked. It was around the time he asked with incredulity how it was possible for me not to what “Wonderwall” was that I gave up on performing, and decided to be a record label exec instead. I signed my first band that same month, and released their first album a couple seasons later. They were in their mid-to-late twenties, and had recorded it during the summer between my middle and high school.
After spending some of my free time as a 15-year-old releasing pretty unremarkable music by adults 1.5 times my age, I wound up becoming a 16, 17, 18-year-old who worked with some pretty legit acts.1 But, I wound up binding my brand to a somewhat fair contract with some extremely unfair people who served as our national distributor, and who completely violated the terms of our legal writ, arbitrarily deleted all my account records from their database, and robbed me of roughly three thousand dollars. This was around the fall of 2006, when I was forced to share some pretty rare record industry beef with a band who were expected by many to become “the next Nirvana or Weezer,” and were expected by few (themselves) to be “the next Beatles.”2 They wound up flopping in karmically disproportionate, miserable ways shortly after stealing two new bands from my roster, my label wound up getting more deeply robbed by corporate suits who probably wore t-shirts to work, and I was too busy worried about getting into college to file an expensive lawsuit either way. Then the seasons changed, I got into college, and my body stopped working the way it had previously. There was too much going on to care, beyond profanity.
In the meantime, a record called Night Ripper had taught me to love far more music than the limited stock I had before. The transition was quick and profound. I can remember October 2006, visiting the Yale crew and buying a cheesy mammoth sandwich from the local mini-mart at the round-midnight part of Friday they called “half-time,” hearing “SexyBack” on the intercom. My large, lug-headed host began to jitter his sculpted legs to the beat, and asked me if I liked the song too.
“Maybe facetiously,” I replied, and he sneered at me like the little shit I was. Precisely three months later, I was listening to “SexyBack” on the radio (still!) and imagining how I would interpret it on my own stage, were I to interpolate. I was imagining something, and I wanted to make it real.
This became the basic inspiration behind the band I wanted to form, an idea I had given its name before it contained even a single real musician. Helping me to love some Billboard radio, Night Ripper had also taught me that attention-spanless music could sometimes transcend the relatively longform format of a 3-or-4-minute pop song. And so, momentarily, I decided I wanted to make a band that re-envisioned these kinds of songs in radio dial fashion, chopped apart and recombined into one long motion — each cutout segment lasting somewhere between the length of an iTunes sample clip then and an iTunes sample clip now. At its most modest, it was not to be anything more than a fun, simple novelty; at its most ambitious, something of a (small, pop) sonic experiment. It didn’t seem parenthetically small to me then, though — what I had in mind was loads of musicians, up to fifty of them, reconstituting the entire spectrum of music that then meant anything to me.3
Not long after being graced by this powerfully vague epiphany, I shared it in my most hyperbolic idiolect with my friend Dilan. Dilan was a talented drummer, a rower of great promise, and the younger brother of Ian, a young man with whom I was once photographed in a hospital smock and a pair of boxers, my arm around the neck of a diffidently peace-signing cop. Ian had a habit of coming up with great ideas and never following through on them — like our reckless teenage variety show, Blame Mass Media — and Dilan thought my concept was as clever as any other being tossed around by his rambling manor that week. And as mine had a chance of happening in some scaled form or another, he became my first musician-recruit on the spot. Realizing I needed to play an instrument in order to be in my own band, I borrowed a friend’s bass guitar — figuring it was the least conspicuous to fumble while learning how to get a real handle on the thing — and we had our first practice that weekend.
The experience wound up opening my eyes wide. As we made our way to his garage-based rehearsal space (much nicer than such shorthand suggests), I warned him not to expect much, as I had never really played my instrument of choice before, and had never played with anyone in my life.4 I was expecting it to take several months for me to finally play in time with him, meanwhile floundering helplessly along the bass neck and trying to tap my foot to his steady beat with an incompetence that would surely outlast his patience.
After that anxious image had seized my mind’s eye for the surprising length of a Dilan’s-driveway-long staring contest, it felt nothing short of revelatory to lock into his rhythm and find a decent groove almost immediately. For a good five or ten minutes, we jammed on my improvised rendition of a bassline dedicated to the immortal spirit of Ludacris’ “Moneymaker.” (Cough…) It was repetitive, but not monotonous — in fact, it was the most fun I’d had in a long time. My luck with the label and the ladies hadn’t been too swell lately, and my vanishing ability to row certainly wasn’t much help; I hadn’t had much reason to smile for a little while.
Now I was remembering what a grin felt like. That sensation of metrically interlocking with another — in a lot of ways, it was the perfect substitute for the catch and slide of rowing. In the boat, the person seated in front is called the “stroke man,” because he sets the cadence (“stroke rate”) for those behind him. If he’s not keeping steady, someone in the boat might shout, “Hey — give me something to follow.” Your average stroke man might offer a cuss or two in return; a good one will refresh his focus and try again to find his place in the measures of the tide below.
And like a good stroke man, with his punctilious timekeeping and fluid fills, Dilan was giving me something to follow. It’s no coincidence that I would begin to take the idea of this peculiar band more and more seriously as my condition worsened to its eventual conclusion: stepping out of the boat, lungs heavy and heaving, and never going back.
The music stopped, my grin reclined comfortably into a smile, and we looked at each other. Dilan was used to playing with more seasoned musicians, but he could admit that it sounded pretty good. Together, we admitted it was pretty good enough to start recruiting some more followers.
- Although not quite the stuff of massive bragging rights, the fact that one of those records earned a fine 7.3 from today’s primary music gatekeepers is a decent indication of how far we got as an operation. [↩]
- That’s something you just don’t say. Or think. [↩]
- Thinking hard about it, I think this was limited at the time to rock, pop, and rap that resembled the former two in some way. It seems bizarrely narrow-scoped to me now, but it must not have been for a kid who only found it acceptable to like music as late as age 13 or 14, and had spent the past few years on a pretty strict diet of Nirvana, MTV2 shlock, and, increasingly, a handful of more stylistically variable unknowns like Self. [↩]
- Excepting a couple very-terrible middle school orchestras I used to help populate. Probably the worst was the one that my school ran; the best thing to come from our weekly rehearsals was a pretty good tape recording of me and my unwilling collaborator, Ned, doing a noise-piano remix of the Charlie Brown theme. [↩]
I sat in a sterile-white room, perched atop a bike designed to go nowhere, breathing into machines while my legs pedaled indefinitely. Like some sci-fi, supercomputer-sized future cigarette, the convoluted apparatus pursed between my lips plumed smokily from its opposite end every time I exhaled. The exercise didn’t feel particularly difficult at first, but the vapory echoes before me soon grew labored and erratic.
Efforts to make a quick return to rowing proved frustrating. Confused pulmonogists prescribed me a laundry list of inhaler genres to try, none of which helped me to get back onto a rowing machine or into a boat. A fresh variety of medicinal nausea within my lungs, it actually seemed like my chest was swelling itself shut quicker than before. The results from the bicycle test had revealed that, while most people’s breathing capacities maintained (or even expanded) during exertion, mine was dropping more than 25 percent after no more than a light, five-minute workout. I wondered how far it might have fallen during the 500-meter sprints I was doing earlier that week.
Brittle optimism at the boathouse began to break as the days turned to weeks. For a while, I tried to remain a ‘team player’ despite my sudden inadequacy. I was briefly made an “official” freshman coach and helped teach the kids form on the river for a few afternoons — until it became evident that we already had more real, adult coaches than needed — and I would of course attend the races. That latter of which was, in truth, one of the hardest things I’ve had to do: watching my boat go by without me, no longer able to do any better than a distant third. Team parents would accost me at the sidelines, offering suspicious inquiry as often as condolences. The implication that I had simply bailed on the team for some change of heart with less than a month left in my last high school season wasn’t painless — especially considering how we had been in such close contention for some gold medals, and all I wanted in my life at that time was to win them. Thankfully, the majority of the team knew me well enough to know better, and they were very supportive — but it was still hard to go from being the captain and cornerstone of the crew to its biggest disappointment in the course of a night and day. Freshmen who had once upheld me as a kind of mentor now looked at me with pity and disappointment; my boatmates tried to put up a kind facade, but it was clear that beneath the surface they were no less frustrated than I was; and my coaches were so confused that sometimes their own doubts about me bubbled to the surface. Only making it harder was the knowledge that I couldn’t blame any of them — I probably would have felt the same.
Around this time my senior project began, and as days wore into weeks, crew became too much of a mental stress for me to keep hanging around — especially after doctors of all shapes and sizes told me I wouldn’t be getting back on the river anytime soon. While I still occasionally showed up at practice and sidelined it for all the races, I really needed to get my mind off of rowing and focus on things I could actually still do. It was one of the weaker willed decisions I’ve made, consciously or not, but soon I was avoiding as much as possible that beautiful old building that used to feel like another home.
My senior project was to make a movie, into which I poured hundreds of hours of my time and energy — but like many things from that spring, the project went unfinished. It sounds a little melodramatic, maybe, but I was strung out from four years of trying way too hard in high school, more than a season of strange and then unexplained physical ailments, and finally the mental stress of so badly letting down my coaches, my friends, my team and myself. Embarking to make a 40-minute video was, in retrospect, probably a bad idea. I was completely spent, inside and out.
The defining moment came at the start of June. Ever since a slapdash pep rally-type video became a runaway hit and scored 10,000 views in a single week — an experience that, for a brief time, made me some kind of local hero and resulted in at least one practically life-affirming standing ovation — I had been more or less assigned to make the video for the senior dinner that was coming up, by that point, in a week. I put my own project on hold and made an effort to find some specific almost-hundred people and film them over the course of two days, then began the unnecessarily protracted editing process. My computer was too slow for the software I was using, so a single effect or reordering of clips could take ten minutes to load, even if I just wanted to try something out. Everything was taking so long that I had to get an extension on my main project, which was to be a satire of the college admissions process.
It came down to the night before the video was supposed to debut. I pulled a very reluctant all-nighter, then traveled to the school media lab to continue working. The school principal, Rind, stopped by to check out the work-in-progress and said he liked what he saw. I asked him how he thought we might project the video to the audience, and he reassured me that Harold — who had the uniquely improbable distinction of being both school president and head of the audio/video department — would have all the needed equipment.
Several hours passed, and it was now around 6pm. The senior dinner was beginning, and as the video needed a little more work, I had opted out to keep working. While my friends and peers upstairs dined and reminisced together as classmates one last time, I tried to put the finishing touches on my rogue FinalCut file. Sometime during the meal, Harold moseyed on down to the lonely lab and kindly asked me what’s up. I relayed Rind’s comments about Harold’s A/V equipment, which, to my horror, seemed to be the first time the young prez had ever heard about it. Even more to my horror was Harold’s revelation that the necessary cables were stowed at his house — some 45 minutes away.
Worse yet, Rind hadn’t thought to check in with me again, and instead had already directed the students to the auditorium where the clip was to be debuted. Had they been left to sit and chatter at the dinner table, all would have been well — but now they were sitting in uncomfortable foldout chairs before a large, blank screen, expectations and impatience rising with each passing minute.
A scramble ensued, and I’m not exactly sure how everything was resolved, but some forty minutes later I turned up before the audience to boos and jeering. Excruciatingly, the recently recovered equipment took another ten minutes to set up. Finally I played the clip off my laptop, cradling it on my knees from the top of a precarious rolling ladder that was necessitated for some reason or another, grinning with every big laugh and applause the video elicited. But it was still just a modest eight-minute clip that could never make up for a bored and restless hour spent inside an empty auditorium, and I knew it. Once it concluded, most politely clapped away while a few others made their parting shots from beyond the stage, filing out of the building while I descended from the staircase to gather my things. Just as I was zipping up my laptop, Rind approached me.
“Hey great work, great job,” he said tonelessly. “I mean, if you could have gotten your other video done and this one, that would’ve been really great. But, I mean…it was nice.” And then he walked away, leaving me to ponder.
As I left the building, I realized how hungry I was, and made my way over to the dining hall to see if there were any leftovers. A kind employee hooked me up with a tray of cold steak and sog-sopped vegetables, which I sat and ate alone in this cavernous room that had been brimming with familiar faces just over an hour ago. There was a display of childhood photos of everyone in my grade, as provided by the class parents, I guess, and once I finished eating I took a moment to peruse them. What must have been a fun and nostalgic diversion for my classmates just a little bit earlier now felt like the pastime of some sordid voyeur. My own photos only made me even sadder, for some reason. I walked back out into the moonlight, past a bench where Rind and an associate were conversing freely, seeming not to notice me.
On the drive home, I realized how the night summed up exactly all that I had gotten wrong in high school. I had spent too much time worrying about creative projects, tried too hard to impress people into being my friends rather than just going out there and letting my personality speak for itself. I often told myself that I’d sometimes rather try to be productive than socialize with a lot of the people that surrounded me at that time, but probably more honestly I was just shy — the idea of having some creative work vouch for me had always seemed appealing. It’s a neurosis that, to this day, I’m not entirely sure I’ve shaken.
It was an easy realization to make that night, having toiled away on a video for people to whom, after four years, I had come ultimately to feel little connection. They ate together, laughed and cavorted, while my eyes practically wept blood from nearly 30 uninterrupted hours of laptop radiation. Now, as I was having this epiphany, my tired eyes welled up with tears. Having to quit rowing still fresh on my mind, I felt pathetic — as though I couldn’t get anything right anymore.
As the other facets of my life began to fall apart, I found it increasingly easy to invest myself in something new. Athletics, ‘filmmaking,’ even friendships seemed to be falling at my feet. And with each collapse, the luster surrounding my newfound musical aspirations grew ever brighter.
“Green and Garbage”
A month had passed since that fateful evening in and around the Tower Theater, and it seemed as though Jack was becoming an operator of unlikely reunions in my life, my car his switchboard. It wasn’t his intention; he was unaware that I had once known the kid he wanted to bring to another concert on the night of April the Twentieth, 2007. And he was unaware that I had once lamentably known the kid he reintroduced into my life a few weeks prior — a boy who would come to be known as Mixtape.
As was much less common then, Mixtape and I had first met by way of the internet — a specific locus of the internet dedicated to celebrating maybe the only videogame worth remembering, and conning, under the guise of “donations,” tens of thousands of dollar from dumb kids too young to understand the real-world value of their stockpiled allowances. Mixtape was more or less just that kind of kid in his barely teenage years, as was I, and we eventually discovered through this website’s forums that I would be visiting his middle school some imminent Friday. When that day came, we converged in the very physical realm of a busy cafeteria, and his gaze met mine with undisguised horror. Conversation followed in brief, awkward clips, and after a few moments he vanished back into the undulating mass of warm spaghetti, frozen gel-packs, and friends. I left that school a few hours later feeling sick and disoriented, choked on a scalding dumpling for four and a half terrible seconds in an empty restaurant, then logged online to find that Mixtape had cut class the rest of the day to disseminate libel about me across the worldwide web. He called me ugly, I called him a jerk, and I wound up attending his school that same fall. Between those first two events and the third, he had been sent to a psychotherapy compound somewhere between Texas and Utah, and was never heard from again in the real world. He continued to post on that message board during rare servings of computer time, swindling a bunch of kids to send him care packages before getting banned for the kinds of things he liked to say. Around the same time I lost interest in videogames and videogame forums,, and once it was clear I’d never have to see him on campus he faded into one of my then strangest memories.
He wound up proving himself not such an asshole anymore, when he limped — on crutches — out of the depths of my memory and into the backseat of my car. He reintroduced himself with profuse apologies and evasive explanations, and later that night the three of us attended a satisfying three-band bill in the balmy basement of a downtown church, where I inexplicably tanned four and a half skintones darker over the course of the evening.1 In a touching offer of amends, Mixtape presented me with a bottle of water he’d dredged up from a massive icebox by the bathrooms. He was high and he was friendly: my forgiveness was bought for a dollar, and the several gulps of spring water it afforded me. Months later, he would be the unwitting inspiration for the one time I nearly got arrested; seasons later, he would be similarly responsible for my consumption of a filthily delicious hamburger that gave me a violent bout of food poisoning at least a long weekend in length. He didn’t mean for either of those things to happen, and still probably doesn’t know that they did — I don’t hold it for or against him.
That night was not April the Twentieth. On April the Twentieth, the third man on our journey to see TV on the Radio was not to be Mixtape, but rather a scrappy mop-top surnamed Green. Coincidentally, I had known him the previous year as the most thoroughly shag-haired freshman on the school crew — perhaps the very smallest and worst freshman crew in the team’s seven-decade history. When Jack revealed his full name to me in the car that day, I remembered him: he was, ironically, the freshman who had once told me the story about how Jack had been expelled from school for reasons pertaining to arson, giant grey trash cans melting like Dali clocks, and the anonymity of the night sky. Jack spent a season in exile at Radnor High — a place he would later describe to me, after I had met him, in a word, as “unreasonable” — before being readmitted to Haverford on the grounds of an emphatic and maybe not sincere apology (he had merely played witness to the destruction; the matchsticks and decisions were someone else’s). Green, on the other hand, shaved his head and fled Haverford upon the eve of Jack’s return, moving to an institution so concerned with the making of Friends as to include them in its name. He seldom resurfaced in conversation, by the boathouse or elsewhere.
Green had been a peripheral figure in my life, then, beyond that foreshadowing of my first encounter with Jack. But on that April the Twentieth to come, he wound up asserting his significance in two wholly separate ways. One would shape the course of a very eventful month of my summer, which would in turn shape the probable rest of my life. The other was precipitated by the simple fact that he had a mother batshit beyond any reasonable expectation.
After a brief reminiscence during the drive over, we landed at the venue’s adjunct parking lot, deep in the fiery gullet of a refluxive Chinatown. Green met up with a friend that he had aforementioned, a blazer-wearing boy named Lupin. A detached loneliness all but emanated from his blank expression, betraying a Bright Eyes obsession long before he spoke a word. In fact, he spoke almost none: he seemed too depressed to manage much beyond hello, so Green did all the talking. He mentioned that Lupin had an excellent voice — Jack and I had a band in need of a lead vocalist, he had heard, which we conceded to be true — and that we should try him out sometime. Lupin nodded sadly, and the two went inside to listen to the opening band while Jack and I investigated a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. Jack ordered himself some beef fried rice and spring rolls, and shortly after they arrived he declared them the greatest meal of his life.
“I’m dead serious;” he was dead serious.
We soon made our way back to the venue, where inside a band struggled to justify the volume of their amps. Lupin stood quietly by the side of the stage with Green, freshly purchased TV on the Radio tees pluming out of their back pockets like housepainter’s rags. The band seemed to give up, giving way to the customary half-hour delay headliners like to impose. I was only vaguely familiar with TV on the Radio’s music beyond the one song of theirs I thought was worth keeping, and their eventual set passed with few remarkable moments to recall. One of them, unfortunately, involved the frontman imploring the audience to get high, it being April the Twentieth after all. Another was the encore, during which they kicked the shit out of that one standout song — “Staring at the Sun” — then meaningful for me in a way it was for no one else in that room. For the first time that night, I opened my mouth, opened my ears, and felt it.
Having grown sick with the fever heat of a thousand-bodied sweat, the venue regurgitated its contents onto city streets now lit by headlight, streetlamp, and moon. The communal runoff on our arms and cheeks grew cool beneath the springtime breeze, leaving us altogether by the time we reached my car once more. Rumbling back to life, the stereo blasting like we’d left it, we embarked west to the shaded glen that sheltered Jack’s abode.
Green’s binary importance to the night had already expressed itself in one of its ways: he had introduced us to Lupin, who would at some point become more integral to our lives than he was letting on. The other way was cutting across the airwaves at that very moment, arriving with nominal fanfare in the form of a call to his cellphone.
It was his mother, and within seconds he was prostrate shameless before her every scream and shout. After a long massacre he hung up, explaining that he had forgotten her instruction to call her the very moment the concert ended (the band’s last note having died no more than seven minutes prior), and that there was a consequent hell to be paid come morning. Meanwhile, we continued to Jack’s house, where Green would be spending his Friday night and the dawn before reckoning.
But within minutes his cellphone revived, alive once more with the angst of a mother unprovoked. The car stereo, which had been lowered to an awkward volume — half respect, half eavesdrop — was now off altogether. The silent tempo of the passing lane dividers was interrupted only by the static stab of the mother’s savage accusations, and, occasionally, her son’s feeble protest.
Finally, he hung up the phone, and leaned forward with purpose. “Get off at the Gladwynne exit.”
The exit bore a hex – the number 337 – though I couldn’t recognize it yet. All I knew then was that I was being hijacked, for opaque motivations. Jack’s house was off the Radnor exit just a few miles beyond, and I actually knew how to get there — besides, if this crazed hag wanted to re-abduct her son, the location made no difference. Now she was involving Jack and me, and I didn’t fancy playing part in this poor kid’s pointless emasculation. I considered vetoing the demand, but when the Gladwynne exit came I hedged, opting to avoid confrontation for some small measure of time, pride and gasoline. I had made a mistake.
Once in Gladwynne, the sadsack son guided me with hesitant directions. Soon we were alone on what appeared to be an abandoned road, with now only the moon to light our ambiguous way. While Green pondered our next turn like life had challenged him to chess, I took note of the omens around us: to our left, a thick and cave-dark woods; to our right, a riverside hick community, populated by various trailer folk burning their garbage in the dead of night, staring at us with eyes illumined by their trashbag barbecues. My fleeting concerns settled into steadier fear.
Instinct drove me to take an opposite turn beneath a shambled bridge, and soon we were delving deep beyond the forest’s treelined veil, along an ascending plane of asphalt. As we reached a bamboo creek by the side of the road, a vehicle barrelled past us in the other direction at a new land speed record for a mini-van.
“That was her,” Green whispered.
I stopped my car and waited for a few perplexed moments, until she came surging back up the mountain, now swinging into our lane and stopping a few dozen yards ahead. Green apologized for the bizarre incident, then left my car to walk over to his mother’s. But as he had almost reached the dormant six-seater, it sprung to life once again, roaring farther up the road and swerving round the bend, gone from sight and sound. Green watched it fade and let the silence surround him, shoulders stooped and lips parted.
“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” he said as he returned to the backseat, composure blown. I sat confused for a moment, then cursed loudly and started speeding as fast as my car could manage. After keeping the pedal to the floor for five endless minutes, I returned the rogue mini-van to view. This time, however, its pilot refused to even feign a stop, and I was coaxed to follow farther along the winding ascent. There could be no question that Green would have been in her possession twenty minutes prior had we simply met at Jack’s house, a destination she knew well.
At last we emerged from the wilderness, and she cut a left off the road and into a residential area. I was surprised, then not, to hear Green croak that this was his neighborhood. Coursing through a quiet network of driveways like blood resuming vacant veins, we finally reached the central node where the mini-van had at last lodged itself. As I pulled to a standstill, the mother emerged, waltzed over, and tapped on my window. Curious, I rolled it down.
“I’m not crazy. I swear.”
She grinned sadly, then forcefully offered to drive Jack forcibly home, trying to convince herself that she was now doing me some favor proportional to the upheaval of the past almost-hour. I declined as politely as I could muster, further incensed by the clear implication that there was truly no reason she couldn’t have met our cohort at Jack’s house, and as I would have appreciated some company of my own for some of the ride back.
But she was determined to wrest whatever redemption she could, and in the end I could only her have it. Lost and alone in the wooded expanse, I coasted gently back down the mountain, looking for hot garbage to guide me home.
- Perhaps the last time this ever happened, at a concert or elsewhere. [↩]
Sometime between getting a call as I left the boathouse and watching a band of five dorks and weirdos play to an audience of some five thousand dorks and weirdos, somewhere between finally finding the concert hall and leaving the car in the Staples parking lot — that’s when we saw the corpse.
The call — which arrived in the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 27th — was one placed by Jack, a 15-year-old rockperson with impossibly curly hair and a senseless affinity for smashing guitars (completely alone, one time). He was in a bit of a predicament: he suddenly no longer had a ride to the evening’s biggest rock-styled event, and, asking himself who has both a license and an appreciation for music, found himself dialing my number.
Jack is something of a hepcat, but not your typical sort. He has a bit of a crush on Bob Dylan, he smokes black clove cigarettes, and he has been high while listening to Air, yes; but he’s also the type of human who buys a copy of Fall Out Boy’s new album Infinity on High because he’s curious and it felt like the right thing to do. Some speculate he’s bought several, now that he asks acquaintances if they want to “hear his demo” before passing them the shrink-wrapped CD, Borders sticker and all.
Young Jack needed a ride, and while I knew between little and nothing of the band in question — the Decemberists — I decided to be swell. Gas money and a ticket would be provided, after all: I had nothing to lose but time and sleep, and at the end of the day both of these resources are nigh limitless for those patient enough to wait. I hung up, went home, doused some wheat noodles in tomato sauce and downed them quickly, showered and air-dried, then cued up my iPod for the half-hour drive ahead.
I arrived at Jack’s house roughly 15 minutes before the show’s scheduled start time (the opening band was a non-factor, I’d been told). He hopped into the car rambling about how he’d just managed to score second row tickets not moments earlier — the catch being that we had to pick them up “somewhere downtown,” and soon. He had printed directions at the ready, and against the clock we went.
Somewhere downtown turned out to be a desolate strip of stadiums and silos near the airport, running parallel to the highway. There was scarcely another car on the road, and the asphalt felt especially lonely beneath the tired, time-honeyed streetlights.
“The lady on the phone said she didn’t know exactly what 900 Packer Avenue is,” Jack said as we wandered. “But she said the tickets would definitely be there.” None of the buildings had any discernible addresses posted; here was where things began to get unreasonable.
After a few tense, aimless minutes, we resigned ourselves to the local Holiday Inn, figuring they could at least point to some bright north star to for guidance. We passed a clique of young waitresses idling by the steps, asking beneath smoky methyl halos if we needed a table; at the door, we noted that this Holiday Inn was itself 900 Packer Avenue. The receptionist in the lobby silently greeted us with maybe-knowing eyes.
“I’m Jack,” Jack said, flashing a middle school ID too thumbed and corroded to even swipe properly in the cafeteria anymore. “Do you have any tickets here?” The mute before us fumbled through some papers behind the counter before producing an envelope marked only by vague cursive script, ink yet wet. He ceded in silence its contents, which in fact bore the appearance of two front-row tickets to the Decemberists set that was beginning at approximately that very moment.
Things were about to get less reasonable still. Back in the car, it became apparent that Jack’s directions from Packer Avenue to the venue were, in fact, written in reverse. And anyone who drives knows that you can’t go in reverse down a highway: his directions were more or less useless. One thing we did know, though, was that this venue — the Tower Theater, it’s called — was somewhere on 69th Street. So I swung us onto some local road or another, and simply followed it as the numbers on the perpendicular streetsigns increased. Starting nearly fifty blocks from our destination, it seemed like a formula that could work.
Our optimism curdled like heatlamp-lit soy when we began to realize our haphazard route was boring us deeply into the heart of Philadelphia’s hardest-boiled neighborhoods. The row-after-row ramshackle homes and spry bicycling youths began to converge upon us on either side, as we made our cautious, gradual way toward live music. We trailed a nearby police car for protection, until an opposing vehicle ran a red to nearly broadside the cop, breaking within some few inches of him. The siren responded in a punctual manner, and the two cars went aside to settle their new business like respectable gentlefolk; from there we’d have to go it alone.
We dodged several blocked roads via unmarked detours, one of which led us past a pitch-dark playground bustling with children like it was second recess, midnight nigh and not a grown-up in sight. Living conditions and in-car morale finally improved around the 60th street mark, but after passing 63rd Street, we found ourselves faced by the black vortex of a vacant forest. I cussed accordingly.
“Chill out, man,” Jack said, one to keep the faith. “We just gotta clear this shit out of the way.” I sized up the brush and shrubbery blocking our progress, and then the lane divider shedding red, sun-burnt skin before them. He was probably three figures in the hole on these rapidly expiring tickets — ones we figured couldn’t possibly be real, considering the suspect and post-deadline methods by which we’d attained them — and still, he could laugh. I made a right, grinning.
By crisscrossing down and across the failing city plan, we made incremental headway towards the magic number 69. A third person in the car could have felt our spirits balloon when we finally found and passed 68th Street with wide eyes and flared nostrils – and felt them deflate, blow by blow, as we rode past some ten unnumbered street signs, named after one faceless sadist or another. Surrounded now by the grass patchwork and empty parking lots of the suburbs, we decided to turn around and make our way back, baffled and defeated.
Passing an A-Plus minimart at a busy intersection, I decided that we would enter that minimart, ask the cashier what we needed to know, and, pending deliverance, accept the night for the strangely endearing failure it already seemed to be. We pulled the park brake and braced for impact.
Inside was a small congregation of locals who unknowingly gave the fast and firm impression that they had little interest in music towers. I chanced it at the counter anyway, but found myself staring down the barrel of a blank expression that seemed not to understand why I lacked a UPC to scan. Outside, we collapsed back into the refuge of our respective car seats, exasperated and eye-aching.
Just then, a bleach-blond surf nerd shimmered into view like a shooting star, crossing our windshield and fading romantically into the minimart.
“He’ll know!” Jack was shouting. We sat motionless, engine humming, until he resurfaced some minutes later, shining brighter, a real-life Mountain Dew in his hand.
He met my sentence-length catcall immediately with a “sure, just a second,” lifting his phone from his pocket to his ear as he said — without dialing a number – “Dad: I’ve got these two guys here who wanna get to the Tower Theater. Yeah, that one; where I saw Trey Anastasio.” Jack flashed me a Christmas morning smile, the cherub swigged his citrus carbon fuel, and soon we were watching the simple instruction of his free hand.
After a few additional minutes of road time, we finally found ourselves within spitting distance of the venue, now well into the Decemberists’ 90-minute set. Jack again began to shout, but I assured him our journey was not yet complete.
The problem was simple: we had no spare change between us (nor the driving experience to know that parking was most certainly free by that time of night), and there was nothing but row after row of parking meters and parked cars in sight. I turned left off the main strip and onto a small, shadowy lane that met us with another solemn sentry of two-headed meters – albeit this time with vacant space before them. At the end of the long block, beneath the moonlit backlight of a large, sprawling oak tree, there laid an apparently abandoned car. Behind it was yet another lineup of meters, but these were significantly behind the vehicular pall before us, a good ten or fifteen feet separating car and curb. It seemed suspect, but not enough to think twice. Still facing it, my headlights bright, I put my own set of wheels into park by the side of the road, briefly to ponder with Jack whether this was an appropriate place to decamp. During this contemplation, I noted that this oddly parked car before us was the makeshift bedchamber for a man dozing in the driver’s seat.
Seconds later, a second car surged into view from stage right, headlights bleary with an almost bloodshot intensity as it made its way behind the dead sedan, then doubling around it, again and again, in anxious, screeching circles. The atmosphere turned violent, the silent riddle parked before us assuming the form of some louder, grimmer omen. I leaned forward in my seat to more closely inspect the motionless vehicle and its compensative partner, eyes wide and breath short, trying to parse out some meaning. Whatever the spectacle was, it was being performed for an audience of two: aside from my car and its person-contents, there was nothing on this block or anywhere near it.
It took less than a moment to realize that the unfazed body behind the still wheel wore sunken, sallow skin heavy on his face, jaw hung wide and skull cocked back like a break-action handgun. In the occasional glow of the circling car’s headlights, it looked discolored, an off-shade of yellow, and it was…maybe very rotten. Fear flickering inside my head, I killed the parking brake to cut a fast right onto the perpendicular street, remembering an instinct too late that it was a shallow dead-end, making haste to saw and swerve my wheels back around, Jack yelling question marks as my breathing stopped altogether. We floored it past the aggravated motorist who had just parked to the side of the street and was now opening his door to get out. With a little momentum now I made a sharp left and a long drive for the main three-lane artery that would take us back into the realm of streetlamps and witnesses. There I would explain to Jack what it was that I had seen, what the behavior of the other driver seemed to imply, how what we had seen was something he hadn’t wanted us to see. There Jack would reply with a half-smile and a shake of the head. “Unbelievable,” he’d say.
Calling the cops wasn’t even a thought. Instead, we wound up finding a place to park in the closed Staples’ lot, trekked down two slanted blocks to the mouth of the theater, marveled as the scanning device at the doorway authenticated our late hotel tickets, then proceeded to enjoy a meager three-and-one-quarter songs by the Decemberists. They were a peculiar band – nerd-trying-damn-hard-to-be-nerdier frontman, buck-toothed shortstop keys girl, senior citizen on the drums, fat man in a little black suit on the guitar, plainly out of place bassist – with a peculiar audience: you could easily tell who was into it, by the inarticulate way their bodies stuttered to the simple rhythms. The band closed with a song about a whale and breaking someone’s fingers, big goofy geezer drummer on the floor, beating a bongo; the audience screamed like a shipwrecked, whale-fearing crew might when the guitarist made a gesture like a tree-hugger embracing fallen timber (the cue agreed upon pre-song in a deal bartered by the frontman), and that was that. The band accepted the beckon for an encore as they had no doubt anticipated, then made a brief attempt at looking modest by huddling to discuss what to do next. The frontman came back out with a lonely guitar as the rest of the band members dispersed this way and that, not to play more overstudied chamber pop but rather a charmingly reticent take on an old Cheap Trick song.
After speaking briefly with a couple friends I had found in the audience (having conspicuously entered two hours late to second row seats), we departed again, Jack commenting about how he had an MP3 of Soul Coughing and Weezer collaborating to cover that very same Cheap Trick song, recorded in 1997. Knowing what I knew, I had to doubt him, though if nothing else, the night had proven stranger things can happen.
As the crowd spilled into the cool streets, Jack lit a cigarette and inhaled it hungrily. After a couple drags he tore off the filter, ranting something about how it blocked from his lips and lungs some secret THC supply, then quickly spat it back out, throwing it to the ground with flustered conviction.
“Man. That tasted like shit.”
Soon we were back in the car, leaving Staples and starved. Even with the backwards directions to the theater – now right side up – we managed to get lost again, which pushed me within inches of a mobile mental collapse, as though realizing suddenly I was to be sprinting on the river in less than seven hours. Yet in the greater context of the night, the rest feels irrelevant. What mattered was how I had set out to see a new friend, and to see a band that I had little interest in seeing, and wound up also seeing Philly at its worst, a car starting shit with a cop car, a Holiday Inn-shaped outgrowth of some illicit ticket stub economy, a dead body, and a person apparently related to that body’s reason for being dead. It was an uncentering evening, one impossible to recreate, and one that, in some twisted way, made me think the unreasonable was reasonable, maybe.