Thursday, February 25, 2010
In the summer of 2006, I was maybe as lost as I’ve ever been. That summer vacation marked the thankful end to an alienating second semester of my junior year of college. I had returned from my study abroad in Ireland which was nothing more than a prolonged drinking binge with little study of linguistics and a brief visit to the Martello tower on the sea where Joyce lived with Oliver St. John Gogarty where I watched an old couple swim under grey December skies. I had returned to a school I wasn’t quite fond of to see most of my friends either graduated, graduating or dismissed. This semester had begotten quite a few bad habits that I was more than hoping to get rid of.
As that May got off to a wet start, I found myself looking for ways to occupy my time, which is also known as a summer job. I had spent most of my summers before 2006 working in my father’s warehouse that was part of his veterinary supply business. However, we both thought that it would be better for my own sake that I move on from those canine and feline anesthetics, antihistamines and antibiotics to something less dusty and more substantive.
I applied for jobs as a strawberry picker (not a racial or sexual innuendo), a waiter at a country club, a janitor at a pool club and a journalist at the town newspaper. None of these options took and I was beginning to get desperate. However, I soon found a job working as a camp counselor for a summer camp at a boarding school near my home whose campus happened to sit right up on the waters of Head of the Harbor – anyone who is familiar with the North Shore of Long Island knows that this is quite a beautiful area. Simultaneously, I had happened to land a minimally paid (read gas money) position at a local fitness magazine with a staff that was comprised of myself and an overweight woman who would sometimes massage people by candlelight while I interviewed local fitness celebrities over the phone. Although, I did once interview Victoria Recano of Entertainment Tonight.
That June was tremendously hot - as the rest of the summer was, or maybe I just remember it that way – and work at the camp seemed easy enough. They needed me to “float” from group to group, but when one of my teenaged colleagues would be spending too much of his summer vacation vacationing with his family, they stuck me with a group of fifth graders. Although the work was fine, I was still finding myself in bad habits: getting drunk at strangers’ houses and falling asleep to wake up in the middle of the night and walk home or to call the mortalest of enemies to “just help me with a ride home, man,” littering beer cans in the roads in my neighborhood, riding around with drunk people. As I saw my final year of college approaching once the weather grew cooler and more exciting in September, I began to feel anxious at the walls of my life, which I had constructed with such uncaring indifference and distance, caving in.
It was at this time that A Hundred Miles Off by the Walkmen came out. I had followed the Walkmen sporadically before that album. As most people my age, I was infected with “The Band Fever” during high school and scrounged for any new piece of music by a band that had inserted the word “the” in front of their name. So, I had gotten my hands on the Walkmen’s first two albums in bits and pieces, downloading singles. I knew they had come from a cult band by the name of Jonathan Fire*Eater as well. However, it was A Hundred Miles Off that set the tone for that summer and for perhaps some change in me that I am still feeling or trying to understand.
During the heat of the day, I would take the kids to the pool, to the harbor of Head of the Harbor, to the sound at Long Beach in Smithtown, to the dirt fields to play soccer, to the basketball courts to teach them the art of the layup and the bank shot and to relive my past high school hardcourt glories; I would encourage their weirdnesses, hobbies and secret interests that they may have normally been embarrassed to share, because if I thought it was OK and if I looked like an older kid who was not quite an adult but not quite a kid, then I must know something about what was cool. So while my colleagues were groping and horny teenagers or teachers trying to make money during their summers, I was a privileged college student, daydreaming rock n’ roller/country singer (listening to a LOT of Gram Parsons in these days) and aspiring writer who was prematurely trying to dry himself up on the short side of forty (40).
So, after the last pieces of dust from the last SUV picking up the last kid had settled around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon, I would hop in my own SUV - a 1997 Nissan Pathfinder - and slide A Hundred Miles Off into the Bose CD player. Then, I would begin to imitate Hamilton Leithauser’s insane Dylan whine as the mariachi horns of “Louisiana” spoke to me about having “my hands full all summer long” while there is “thunder and lightning a hundred miles off.” I’d get wistful – and so did the plunking and playful piano - as I drove along the sloping horse field lined streets and through the shimmering leaf sunlight and think of hammocks under trees and of past summer girls that I’d lazily cared for and of Levin standing on the balcony of his home looking at the storm clouds roll in over his lime grove. It seemed like things would get better just like he’d thought at the end of Anna Karenina.
Or on other days, I would feel my restlessness rise and subside, just like the insane rubber band tempo of “Tenleytown,” which thrashes and then stalls like no other song in the history of mankind. I’d listen to this gem of a song and scream at the top of my lungs with the windows of my car rolled down, feeling young and unjaded, feeling everything very immediate and real and knowing that even though when I got home, things would all be still in the late afternoon to evening light, that the energy was always out there. That I could grab it and access it whenever I wanted to and that even if things were still and hazy, that it was OK to sit on the porch and think about that. Or, in the dank basement of the magazine office, flubbing my way through another interview with a mother of three weightlifter while my “boss” and her Latvian boyfriend fed each other cheesecake, that in the end its all just a damn joke anyway, tempered by our own made up melancholy and seriousness at not getting the whole thing.
And yet, there were other days, when I would temper my own perceived melancholy with a real melancholy while I listened to “Emma, Get Me a Lemon” with its pounding verses and soaring gut wrenching choruses. And I would think about moments with girls that I actually did love or maybe could have loved if I paid attention or were astute enough to listen to myself. I’d play my air guitar behind the wheel of the car and while thinking about those passing, starry visions of my past, would feel the extreme restlessness that the chorus builds in a listener as well. Sometimes I would be driving at night and listen to the album, and if, while stopped at a stoplight or stop sign, “Emma, Get Me a Lemon” was on, I would look out into the darkness and smell in the perfume from the trees and homes all around me. First, I would let the car stall and wish I had a cigarette, then a notion would hit me, something profound, something to due with the slight shade between the darkness of tree leaves in the summer and of the sky when its clear. That notion would pass and I, not knowing what it was, would drive on, ambling after it in my mind.
Soon, though, the camp was over and my body had been appropriately sunburned with little use of suntan lotion throughout its duration. I wrote the kids nice messages in their camp yearbooks and told them that I wished them the best. I meant all the things I wrote to them; because what I learned from them was that their little lives were infinitely more interesting than mine and that if these little kids thought that I was a good camp counselor, than there must have been something still human left in me after all. And that was something to build on; that was something to have confidence about, as small as it may have been.
The summer wore on for a few remaining weeks and I drank comfortable beers by my pool with whatever friends were still around and I cooked dinners with my family. But, I always found myself up late at night driving and listening to the album. The last song is a cover of the Mazarin song “Another One Goes By.” It’s a shuffling soul beat that could have even been a Roy Orbison song. I’ll break my little “voice” character here to say that it is literally one of the best songs of all time. There was one lyric that always stuck with me, “Don’t know what to offer you when I’m only broke and lonely.” It struck me because that was how I had often felt towards the people in my life. And yet this summer had gone by, another one floated by, and there was more that I could offer and I was bound to determine that as I packed my gold SUV full of crap to take to my final semester at a college I had outgrown enough to finally enjoy.
Flash-forward two years and I’ve of course fallen in love with other bands and other girls and other waterfront settings. Now, I’m living in Brooklyn, finishing up one of the best and most exhausting summer of my life and lo and behold (Bob Dylan and the Band Basement Tapes reference) the Walkmen are releasing a new album under the radar. I of course leap on the damn thing once I hear about it. I get it early and I start playing the songs to death on my rooftop sitting there in the heat with my friends and piling up beer cans and laughing while the fluorescent light of my kitchen shines out onto the black tar and above us, the light pollution makes that terrible illuminated canopy bed that feels so inevitable. The songs this time around were subtler, refined in places were they were edgier. They had not lost their edge, but rather they had grown into it, expanded on it. There was something comfortable in the guitar and vocals on these songs and there was something comfortable in my foot up on the white table on my black tarred roof.
I got tickets to a show the Walkmen played at the Bowery in August 2008. They blew me away. It was the most excited I had ever been to see a show. I knew all the songs and the show took place on the day the album was released. And those reverby, echoey songs stuck with me as the summer died out with the romances I had. Those wailing and wistful vocals grew stronger and bolder as the winter months came and I enjoyed the first snowfalls of my living in New York. And as the rest of the world caught on to how good the album was. I realized that this album and this band had transcended being simply good or important to me – they were a part of me, or rather they felt like they had come from the source of my creativity of what causes me to speak and want to put something out into the world.
You & Me is an extremely melancholy album. The single “In the New Year” is all about a narrator who is still living at an old address even though things around him are changing. His friends are married to all of his sisters, and even though everything is changing and his heart is in the strangest place, its going to be a good year moving out of the darkness and into the “fire.” This song was an anthem – at least to me and those I knew – when it came out. It was to me because my life had certainly changed and was – is – continuing to change and I could only see the good in that. Even, if sometimes those old yous and those old times get blurry and out of focus and don’t seem familiar to you, you have to believe its going to be a good year, because even if you are living at the same old address, your old bum friends got it together enough to marry your sisters. And if your heart is in the strangest place, then you are on the verge of figuring something out.
And then there is “Red Moon” a slow pirate or boat waltz that makes one think of a calm night at sea. The singer and his horns think of some loved one that he’s lost and the dynamics and space of the song allow this common tale to gain a resonance. The rest of the music falls out at the right places to emphasize the echo of the vocals and then the horns come in to suggest the warmth of the breeze before the singer says, “I miss you, there’s no one else. I do. I do.” And the song comes to a graceful end. It doesn’t matter who that’s about. Those lines are true because they’re simple and we all want to say that to someone. Whether the motion or the words are inappropriate or misplaced or not.
“Red Moon” flows perfectly into “Canadian Girl,” which builds and builds from a pleasant little shuffle to a soaring coda with horns and chiming guitars as the singer tells the girl he’s singing to that she’ll miss him when he’s gone because she “is the morning” and he “is the night” and only he “still calls her” his. I could never quite figure out what this song was about, but it sounded romantic enough and if you don’t fall for that horn coda, then I don’t know what kind of soul you have or if you are even capable of romanticizing the small postures in life.
The Walkmen don’t lose their edge ever and “Four Provinces” proves that. Maybe the most artfully aggressive song since “The Rat” this song packs a thump that doesn’t allow you to not shake or groove. There is a break in this song where the horns come in that adds an element of grace that “The Rat” never achieved. When the singer says “the next time I see you at Sophia’s place” there is a mastery over the phrase. He knows the world he’s traversed in and even moved past, however the familiarity still makes him uneasy and puts him on edge as he finishes the song “every bone in my body broken one time or two/every hour of the long day trying to spend it with you/every year that I’m living trying to stick by your side/the sun goes down moon comes up sky is black and blue/me I stand running with you.” There is something simple and also tumultuous in the lines, which is just like the whole song itself. When you know your world in and out, it can be very simple, but the simplest things, when focused on can breed endless complications and disturbances. Just ask Joyce’s Dubliners.
The main event of this album is “If I Lost You,” which perfectly melds the two sides of the Walkmen – the aggressive and dramatic, and the cool, controlled shuffle. This is all about a car driving through the night, maybe even just circling a neighborhood with the kids in the backseat. Yet, just like in all the songs on the album there is a line about missing someone when they’re gone. The song picks up steam and you can start hearing those horns in the background, while the drums begin to pound a little louder and that guitar chime becomes more of a wail to match the singer’s vocals as he asks someone throw him a rope. “I knew you when I was young…I wish you were still around/I waited a long time/I lost you/ I was sleeping in the backseat when I got home/I lost you.” That’s how the song finishes on a dramatic and powerful blast. And that’s very much how I felt – and still feel – about a lot of things in that end of summer through winter of 2008.
I saw the Walkmen two more times in that stretch. They were the band of that moment for me even as Animal Collective became the band of the moment and of the scene and perhaps rightfully so. However, what this has all been for is the fact that the Walkmen grew with me as I grew up. I could have described that time period when You & I came out in the same Frederick Exley voice I did for my description of A Hundred Miles Off, however, I grew up. In 2006, I was wild and all over the place just like The Walkmen were. They were fidgeting and couldn’t stay in one spot. Then they reached a mood on You & Me, they reached a mood and fleshed it out as far as they could and in doing so, they touched on levels of poignancy and craft that they never had before. That’s what we should all be capable in our lives and our arts. Focus and flesh it all out, know your form and your craft to its fullest to create what is timeless and forever poignant to others.
And maybe you can’t just compare yourself to a band or an album and maybe I haven’t grown up and maybe most of us haven’t grown up. Sure, this isn’t anything that is going to change the world or make tragedy any easier. Art wasn’t made for that, art was made for us to question our own makeups in a cracked looking glass and it is only through doing this that we can then go out and make that decision to change and heal the world – to take on the pain and toil that others can’t. I’ve seen glimpses of that in myself and I’m going to try to find more and more of it as I figure out that I’m the least interesting person I know. I can only hope the same for the rest of you.