I am not ashamed to admit it; it started with The Grateful Dead. As a middle school latchkey kid, I remember American Beauty on repeat and spazzing out in my living room alone after school, drumming on the furniture to “Friend of the Devil.” I decided I needed to learn how to play guitar. I decided it needed to be an acoustic guitar. I sewed dancing bear patches to my eggplant-colored LL Bean backpack (monogrammed with my initials, as was the style of the time). For the first time ever, I actually volunteered to grow my hair long (to my mother’s delight and my father’s chagrin). I occasionally wore tie-dye.
Next came the 10,000 Maniacs. I was especially in love with their rare, early work—late-80s Joy Division-influenced recordings the band did in their hometown of Jamestown, NY. Who even knows how I got my hands on it? Can you remember the moment when you decided you were going to be that kid who obsessively scoured the dusty shelves of local record stores? I, for one, cannot.
It was still records then. Sure, CDs were around, but we still called them record stores. And most of them also sold tapes and vinyl, not marketing nostalgia or irony or even audiophillic glory, but just because, well, a lot of people still had record players. And everyone listened to tapes in their cars. The Maniacs were a good adolescent crush for me because I could convince my dad to play them in our teal Ford Escort. He liked them too. Soon, my friends and I were singing the more MTV Unplugged-friendly material with acoustic guitars at our annual summer camp festival, Hirdstock (I went to a hippie camp less than an hour from Actual Woodstock, in case you were wondering how this came to pass). I was learning a lot, and growing, but I was not quite ready for a real relationship yet. This was the stuff of awkward obsession. No talk. No action.
But then REM came along and rocked my world. As is the case with many young people, especially those living in pre-Internet times, my taste improved rapidly with age and exposure. In that era, my generation was handily seduced by the 90s casuists and I was no exception. Michael Stipe had a perfectly calibrated political compass; weird, mumble-y, probably very deep lyrics (if we could only understand them); and luscious blonde curly locks. You remember when he had hair, right? Just before he shaved it all off to combat his chronic shyness (which only made him cuter)? I remember staring at the picture on the back of Eponymous, his lips pouty and pursed, his piercing blue eyes dreamily pondering global injustice. I read interviews. I joined the fan club. I imagined him shopping for hard-to-find out-of-print vinyl in some tiny record store in Athens, GA. I was utterly destroyed when my high school best frienemy finally managed to convince me he was gay. To this day, I still believe this move was out of spite. It was the only way she could have truly broken my heart.
By the end of high school, I was moving on to Favorite Band Number Four: Sleater-Kinney. This was my I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck Phase and S-K was my looped soundtrack to random acts of vandalism, driving crazy distances to see weird shows, existing in a state of near perpetual intoxication, making very bad decisions and, of course, many the hung over morning drinking burnt coffee at some local greasy spoon with an equally hung over, sassy wait staff.
Sure, as was my way in all things during those days, I had short indiscretions. Warped, paranoid shut-in weekend flings with Neutral Milk Hotel; odd gray downer days with The Smiths or Cat Power or Joni Mitchell on headphones; crazed, manic afternoons with Kathleen Hannah or Solex; homesick-for-New-Jersey evenings with Patti Smith or The Boss or The Fugees or local hip hop shows I had taped off a long-retired Seton Hall radio show; the reassuring best friend sob sessions with John Vanderslice or Aimee Mann when things just didn’t make any sense anymore, which was, well, kind of a lot. I was young and selfish and having a lot of fun (except for when I wasn’t, of course).
By the time The Fiery Furnaces came along, I was pretty sure I was destined to be alone forever, and I was getting pretty cool with that. Maybe that’s why our relationship ended up being so awesome. I didn’t need them; I just loved them. I didn’t feel inferior; I just appreciated everything they did and the way they did it. They were my last true favorite band, and for us, it was one of those magical moments where you catch someone’s eye from across the room. From first listen, I knew it was going to be special. Their sound was at once their own and everyone else’s—totally unique and new, but also mashed up and grounded in pop music history. There was earnest, sincere sentiment candy-coated in a shell of total absurdity. Things sounded weird. Everything they did was cloaked in a weirdness, in fact—but underneath there was something sad and true.
If the band had actually been a person and that person and I had actually been dating, I’m sure I never could have taken them to parties. Other people hated them. In fact, their music drove uncool people insane, providing a perfect litmus taste test for me. If you didn’t immediately love Gallowsbird’s Bark, I was questioning other things about you. I’m not sure if this made me really weird, a total dick, or both. Probably both.
This band had the strange jaminess of The Dead playing on a million hits of acid paired with the experimental recording techniques of those early Maniacs’ records underscored by the great catchiness of REM’s most memorable hooks and the high-energy live shows of Sleater-Kinney. They were everything I ever wanted from a band all at once. I gushed to all my friends. This was for real.
Now, nearly ten years have passed. Our honeymoon phase is long over and our days have settled into a pleasant platonic cadence. Don’t get me wrong—we’re still great friends. And it’s not that I fell for someone else. It’s just that I guess as I grow up, I’m enjoying my alone time more.
I suppose it’s also that, in this world of streaming on Spotify and 160GB iPods, it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever really love again the way I loved them. It’s for that reason that our time holds a special place in my heart. Now, I am going to tell you some of our stories.