note about setting: this takes place during the week of July 23-27, 2007. During this week I was away from home, visiting my parents in Hilo, Hawaii, where I grew up. I spent a lot of time driving past old trysting-places and floating in my parents’ recently erected plastic swimming pool like the protagonist in a community-theater version of Less Than Zero. On Thursday, July 26th, I turned twenty.
I need a car today because my friend Jason is flying over from another island and I’m picking him up from the airport, so I drive my dad to work in the morning. There are two kinds of healthy sons: those who are enough like their fathers to find common ground over some movie or novel or Bruce Springsteen album, and needn’t, when together, delve into unshared quarters; and those who are enough unlike their fathers to be sure that their fathers will never be convinced, by any amount of argument, to have good taste. The two kinds, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are much alike, and each may look with pity upon the unhealthy son, who though his tastes diverge violently from his father’s cannot get it out of his head that his father is a rational man who would like Xiu Xiu were it only explained to him.
I am of the latter set, and haven’t grown out of it, and when I have my dad in the car with me I usually insist on playing something I know he’d enjoy if he’d only listen. On Monday morning I feel guilty about this so we listen, at random, to the new Mandy Moore album, about which I lack passion—it is likable and unadventurous, and gladdens more for what it says about the unassuming, unflappable Mandy than for real beauty—and which we discuss only briefly, as follows:
“Do you like this?”
“It’s OK. It’s likable but unadventurous; it gladdens—”
After dropping him off I need to kill time so I lie in the pool and listen to half of The Warning by Hot Chip, an album glazed with the melancholy that these days makes dance records into indie-kid successes. Like From Here We Go Sublime and Sound of Silver it pilfers New Order’s trick of finding in four-on-the-floor a wish: let me leave none of myself outside this moment; let me be instantaneous. “And I Was a Boy from School,” the second-best single from The Warning, fails this task so completely—it’s thick with memory, revised and regretted—it could by itself be the reason people who Really Dance treat Hot Chip as a white boy’s toff-nosed pastiche: if you’re going to dance, dance; don’t jiggle sadly with an eye on the clock. But these people miss the point. Dancing is so direct an extrapolation of living that straining out time and death is a worse affectation than stressing them; the clubber’s wish to be here now is beautiful because it’s always denied.
Some days ago, when Jason’s visit was planned, I promised, or threatened, that while he was here we would be listening to nothing but Paramore’s Riot!, an album I kind of adore and am determined to be straight with. It wants to embarrass me but I won’t let it. Driving to the airport with the windows down, earnestly blasting Christian pop-punk, I’m a one-man pride parade. A week later I’m in someone else’s car going on a liquor run, and I put Paramore on the stereo, and a girl I don’t know very well calls it “emo,” not unappreciatively, and asks me if I like it.
“I do,” I say, “and I’ve been thinking lately about the ascension of emo to the post of Most Noticeably Co-Opted Subculture, which I guess is what grunge used to be. Like how the biggest bands in America are Nickelback and Hinder and these other really grinding earnest rock bands, but now we’ve got stuff like My Chemical Romance all over MTV and on everybody’s T-shirt, and it’s just this absurd hysterical Day-Glo theater nobody who’s not fifteen could ever take seriously. But I like it; I think there’s a vivaciousness to it that’s more interesting and intelligent than the other stuff, and if I had a little brother in eighth grade I’d want him to have an MCR T-shirt, not a Nickelback T-shirt.”
Jason doesn’t ask about Paramore, but when he gets in the car he gives me a look and makes a mocking rocking-out face. Jason is very tall and grew only slightly less freckled as we aged. He has curly hair that he puts stuff in and thin ears that glow red when he stands in front of the sun, and he tells long meandering stories that he has refined into a Zenlike art. The classic Jason Anecdote is about Jason fixing a VCR; it lasts, with all its elaborations, emendations, hesitations and alterations, over twenty minutes, and at the end the VCR is still broken.
Honolulu’s theater scene is more or less singlehandedly sustained by Jason, and so he hasn’t slept for a day and almost falls asleep in the car, but wakes to tell me about the new Harry Potter book. I missed the sixth book and am thus not on board for this one, but Jason keeps me posted, explaining that Harry, this year, must recover seven Horcruxes and three Hallows, or was it the other way around, after which he must presumably enter the final dungeon and rescue Princess Zelda. I pretend to be interested in the plot for purposes of mockery but really I have to know, in detail, what happens. The first five Harry Potter books anchored a chunk of my childhood—five centers of gravity around which adventures, crushes, triumphs and disasters turned—and I can’t let the story slip away any more than I can dance without regret.
At home Jason does sleep, and I spend a maudlin hour reading old LiveJournal entries and listening to When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog by Jens Lekman, an album that rather than finding sadness in dance’s escapism finds it in pop music’s chintzy accumulation of cliches. Apropos, because a chintzy accumulation of cliches is exactly what I’m reading, and trying to find sadness or happiness or insight or something that’s not embarassing is exactly what I’m doing, though I’m not having Lekman’s success. My dad calls and asks to be picked up and I ask him how he could stand me as a kid, a question he finds irritating. Driving him home, making him listen to the National (which he finds plodding and tuneless), I tell him I think I’m obsessed with the past.
“I think it’s a problem. I think a lot about how I should have been in high school, or middle school or elementary.”
“How do you think you should have been?”
“I think I should have done more E.”
He looks alarmed. “Did you do E?”
“No, that’s the point.”
“Did other people do E?”
“I dunno. They didn’t do it with me.”
After breakfast Jason and I launch rafts into the pool and languish, discussing memories and listening to Garbage’s Version 2.0. Version 2.0 was released in 1997, but I didn’t hear it until 2002, when a girl I’d been consumed by, not that she knew, wrote on her LiveJournal that it was one of her favorite albums. I didn’t buy it to be closer to her or to impress her; I bought it because she was older and inexpressibly cool and probably did E and thus the album must be cool too, and it is: lacquered and sonically flawless, it suffers only in the last third and redeems itself with the final track, “You Look So Fine,” a lust song of such velveteen simplicity I could not restrain myself from using it to score a scene in a movie I made in 2002 in which this same girl is walking down the street in slow-motion while a tertiary character, played by me, gazes longingly at her.
When I “premiered” this film in front of fifty-odd schoolmates the wild applause the scene garnered was probably not, as I assumed at the time, appreciation of the Shakespearian tactic of reflecting protagonists’ sacred love with the profane love of a comical supporting cast; no, it probably had more to do with the audience’s sudden knowledge that Theon Had A Crush. I’m not sure she’s forgiven me.
The peculiar thing about Version 2.0 is that though its link to the girl in the movie makes it a terribly evocative album for me, one by which I can’t help being thrown back to 2002, the music-crit knowledge that it was recorded in 1997—and the knowledge of what music in 1997 was like, what was at the top of the charts, what Garbage’s own situation was upon this album’s release, all things I have a basic comprehension of despite having spent the time in question listening to nothing but the Eurythmics and Holst’s The Planets—makes it evocative also of 1997, when I hadn’t heard it and didn’t know Garbage existed. In 1997 Jason’s father turned fifty and retired from the Air Force and at the retirement party Jason and I watched Hercules and tried but failed to enjoy the Spice Girls.
“I remember that party,” Jason says when I mention it to him. “My babysitter was at that party.”
“I had a crush on your babysitter.” Which brings the count of exciting older girls evoked by Version 2.0 up to two. Unsurprising; the record oozes—not sex, strictly, but an exaggerated, deliberately unattainable version of sex. The songs are music videos unto themselves; they embody everything MTV’s learned about putting sleaze on a pedestal. Maybe it only reminds me of 2002 and 1997 because of those two girls; all music is nostalgic for its time but good music canvasses the past for moments it may gather to itself. Memory often seems to be ordered, not chronologically, but thematically.
I wake before Jason and catch up on my Stylus reading. Mallory O’Donnell has written an On First Listen about Pavement, months in the making, and it delivers. Mallory O’Donnell and I have very different musical philosophies, but as with Communists and Fascists the superstructure of ideology doesn’t mean much in the practical world:
But there is a war to be fought tonight. Let me explain. Enraptured by improbable film scenes in which armies of ten-year-olds led by little Pattons play Capture the Flag, turning convenient forests into battlefields, the young me was wracked with frustration at the inability of ten-year-olds to put together anything remotely as elaborate. When I conscripted the others on my street into CTF games it was six kids running up and down asphalt, no dramatic reversals of fortune, no brilliant military minds. After high school, then, during an aimless year spent in Hilo, I split a pizza with two or three like minds and decided to mend the wounds of the past. Rules were drafted, acquaintances were called, and a tradition sustained for years was founded; tonight Jason and I drive to a deserted park near the bayfront to play a thirty-man game of Capture the Flag, in the dark, with water balloons.
People I’ve never met and won’t meet again show up for these games—tonight it is two Australians someone met on the beach. They fight well, but I don’t—I wrote the rules but I’m awful at the game—and languishing damply in jail I watch what’s left of my teammates beaten back and think about what a strange excavation this is: thirty people, most of whom can unwind in bars afterwards, creeping through the night with water balloons and serious expressions, coming up to the occasional couple in the moonlight and hissing “Are you playing?” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story called “Diamond As Big As The Ritz” in which a man builds a deeply improbable empire in the mountains and, at the end, bargains directly with God to keep it; our ridiculous recreation is like that, an enormous request made of the cosmos to allow us to relive a life never lived. One feels Hot Chip would understand.
Jason and I are soaked when we come out of the game, and doffing our shirts and feeling very rednecked we tear out of the park blasting Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I am conflicted about reducing to an accessory in a game of dress-up until I discover how fun it is. We drive too fast across town in the middle of the night; Jason, halfway through an Anecdote about a similar night long ago, comes close to whooping. I try to explain my quieted qualms. “You know, I really like this album, and I don’t like the kind of smug irony it’s easy to fall into when someone with my tastes likes A Country Album, so I didn’t feel so great about using it like this. But Miranda Lambert’s persona on this album is so fake—which is a good thing, I mean it’s fake but it’s so carefully crafted—that I don’t think it can be a bad thing to use the album to fake a persona of my own, you know what I mean?”
I am twenty today. I have to undergo, tomorrow morning, a disgusting medical procedure that requires me to be profoundly empty, so the only thing I am allowed to eat or drink today is a substance about which the less said the better. No cake for me, then, and according to my notes no music either; perhaps the perfect storm of memory that is turning twenty and being in my parents’ house and having Jason over was plenty without adding to it as I have been for the past few days. Instead Jason and I watch The Larry Sanders Show, and another friend comes over to watch this, and later, when it’s time to drive Jason to the airport where he is leaving for Scotland in his capacity as part of Hawaii’s contribution to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we do listen to Paramore, in the background. I leave him at the airport and he says he’ll come see me in Portland soon, and I turn off the music and drive home to watch old episodes of Maverick with my father. In this we find a strange oneness; we both admire Maverick, and for the same reasons, and for a little while I am not compelled to play music at him and reason him into a correct opinion.
On Friday night, to celebrate two or three birthdays including mine, I put on a coat and tie and drive downtown to eat dinner with fifteen or so friends. I am listening to Okkervil River’s The Stage Names and failing to get into it; for all its impeccable roots-rock arrangements and unshakable libretto it doesn’t have the pagan undertow of the band’s previous Black Sheep Boy. But it’s a relief to listen to something that lacks associations. The concern I aired to my father on Monday afternoon, about being obsessed with the past, seems fretting and solipsistic but makes sense—memory hasn’t been my friend on this trip home; it’s been gauze to tear through rather than delicate dressing to notice and forget.
At dinner I eat and flirt and afterwards we drive into the night looking for something to do, the difficulty of which is another reason for Capture the Flag’s local success; there is nothing, just a succession of parking lots to stand in and a succession of radio stations to tune to. I dance on the dark asphalt to anonymous rock songs—the kinds I said I was glad were being supplanted by My Chemical Romance—and then to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” which when it last came on the radio in Hilo dark triggered some of the most blissful few minutes music has ever given me.
I was in the back seat of a car, sometime past midnight, cheek against the window; I was a junior in high school and driving was a senior named Malie who received from me the usual admiration. She was tall and thin and had long wispy blond hair and seemed physically to recede into the same mist from which verbally she stood out; she was outspoken, a little but not off-puttingly loud, and she drove me home from school a few times with her sister whom I remember as looking just like her though I’m sure there were differences. On that night, being driven home from a party, half asleep, I heard none of R. Kelly’s lyrics save for the circular blare of the chorus—”so what, I’m drunk”—and because the line had all the immediacy for which Hot Chip would later strive, and because I was, “Ignition (Remix)” buoyed me above the dark power lines to a height of which “I Believe I Can Fly” could never conceive.
So hearing it again, four years later, dancing badly in a parking lot, I am convinced that this is one of The Songs, for me if not for everyone, and I wonder if I shouldn’t try to explain it to my father before deciding against it. It isn’t that music is Personal, though of course it is—it’s that it’s not the music I want to explain. That I can do, and often will, sometimes for money. It’s the memories, arranged according to a scheme as unexpected as it is rigid, classified by tone and theme and genre like bands in the All Music Guide. That’s why I approve of the ascent of emo—because emo understands the place it’s going to hold in the memories of its fans, and tries to earn it. That’s why I like melancholy dance music—because it understands that everyone on the dance floor has the same problem: they don’t want to remember but can’t stop. Balm this wound and all is forgiven. Four years ago Malie turned down the R. Kelly and caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. “Are you OK with this?”
“It’s just that this guy is kind of in trouble now.”
She told me.