I’ve been spending a lot of time lately building a list of bands I want to see and cool parties I want to attend as I prep for SXSW next month. I’ll be sharing all this on the blog over the next couple weeks, so if you are into standing in a backyard in Texas with a cold beer, rest assured we’ve got you. But all this obsessive planning and feeling kind of on the ball has got me thinking about the way I got into music to begin with, which was decidedly not cool.
One of the things I love about SBS is that we’ve never been about proving we knew everything about punk rock before you first popped Snoopy vs. the Red Baron into your off-brand childhood Walkman. In the spirit of this, I wanted to share a piece I recently read at the “Mixtapes” night of Miss Spoken, Chicago’s decidedly non-dudely live lit event, about discovering the joy of mixtapes and slowly learning to be cool with loving what I love.
I’m 16 years old, leaning forward in the backseat of Lindsey’s extended cab Ford F-150, shouting over the wind and The Bloodhound Gang, hair and sand and cigarette smoke blowing in my face from the lowered front windows as we drive the smokers’ circle. Lindsey teases Amber about hooking up with her boyfriend in Lindsey’s truck outside a high school dance (never leave your car unlocked), Amber teases Kristen about wanting to get with the high school English teacher, and everyone teases me about how the high school English teacher really wants to get with me.
You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals
The music sucks and I have dirt in my teeth, but I’m so happy to be along for the ride.
As a self-proclaimed outsider, there aren’t many teen bonding experiences I can fondly recall, having sworn off drinking, smoking, drugs, team sports, and church as early as 8th grade. But circa 2000 in rural North Dakota, driving in a 4-mile square around our hometown offered a temporary escape from its confines, so I constantly found excuses to stay in town after school and drive around listening to mix CDs.
Honestly, I really didn’t even care about making mixes at first. At 15, I’d boldly declared that I “didn’t like music,” meaning I was super into that one Harvey Danger song but it hadn’t occurred to me that the rest of the album might also be good (still one of the biggest regrets of my life).
But gradually, I found myself pulled in, experimenting with loud music in place of booze or drugs or DIY safety pin piercings.
Let’s go, don’t wait, this night’s almost over, honest, let’s make this night last forever
Due to the lack of radio stations or record stores or really anything in western North Dakota, we turned to piracy on our parents’ computers, giant beige boxes barely running Windows 98, pulling songs from Napster or Kazaa on a 56k dial-up connection.
They’d dropped thousands of dollars so we could one day be at the cutting edge of technology with lucrative dot com careers, but instead we trolled Yahoo chat, played virtual pinball, and burned CDs featuring the kinds of alternative radio hits the reservation station sometimes played after 10 pm: stuff like Everclear, Blink 182, and Green Day.
I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby, like you
Through the teenage dirtbag internet, I found more punk bands, bringing The Ramones, The Misfits, and other such classics into my friends’ mix CD pool. Throw in Nirvana and Weezer (my music nerd friend’s favorite bands), and of course my crush’s favorite band, Rammstein, and you had a passable soundtrack for my fondest high school memories: frantic 100 mph drives down the two-lane highway to Williston (usually for something incredibly dumb, like a showing of Joe Dirt), or the time we stuck flavored condoms filled with silly string to our band director’s windshield (in the winter, so they’d freeze), or the trip to Minot where we drove around shouting Du Hast while wielding a piece of rebar out the car window (we’d found it in a junkyard while Lindsey was trying to buy parts for her AMC Javelin from a shirtless dude whose intentions seemed suspect), or all those nights we stayed up until 4 am forming our plans to get out for good.
Planning big could be a gamble, I’ve already rolled the dice
As anxious as I felt about my lack of musical knowledge or taste in subsequent years, I regarded that time fondly–we’d made the most of what was available and had cobbled together some pretty great times.
Of course, memory is fallible. Nostalgia glosses over the rougher edges of your past, leaving succinct 5-paragraph nuggets of triumph without all the awkwardness of your actual life.
In college, I discovered indie rock (literally by typing it into google), then struck gold with my purchase of Cathy’s Comp Cassette at a thrift store in Bismarck, which caught me up on classics like The Smiths and The Cure. God bless you, Cathy, wherever you are.
Around this time, I came back for Homefest or some summer holiday and completed the familiar ritual of piling into a car with my sister Lisa and her friends, the new keepers of the stoner-nerd alliance we’d formed to make high school bearable for kids who didn’t play sports.
I cringed a little as a Flogging Molly song came out of the speakers and cringed more as the teens started bouncing along. “Oh wow, I haven’t heard this in years,” I said. “Whose CD is this?”
The driver replied, “Oh yeah, Emily, I think this mix is one of yours.”
Not old or new but middle school, fifth grade like junior high
Flogging Molly rolled into Bouncing Souls and NOFX and then two Green Day songs in a row and god knows how much Eve 6. SO MUCH EVE 6. I sank lower into my seat as they quoted lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fight Club and SLC Punk, air drumming, giggling maniacally, and passing around some new flavor of Mountain Dew–something like Code Red or Live Wire–all red-mouthed and sugar high. Not exactly the crew of badass rebels I remembered us being.
I’d already decided most of my high school experience was garbage. Were my fond memories terrible too?
Shortly after this visit home, I left North Dakota for good, heading off to grad school in Ohio and then a job in Chicago, expecting to be glad to put the past behind me. An important lesson from English class: Jay Gatsby never went back to North Dakota. You can be the person you want to be as long as you completely bury your past.
I wanna publish zines and rage against machines
Except as stifling and uncool as hometowns can be, now that I’ve left, I find myself looking forward to visits back. My last trip home for the holidays involved getting a group of old friends together for a game night, daring each other to do shots of this disgusting “shimmery liquer” called Viniq, and catching up on the new rounds of local gossip (that English teacher is married now and has a kid). The night ended with the whole group singing Weezer songs in my sister Jamie’s kitchen.
“I’m a lot like you, so please, hello, I’m here, I’m waiting” has unexpected resonance when it comes from someone who used to (completely correctly) rib you for thinking Atlas Shrugged was a really good book.
I think I’d be good for you and you’d be good for me
Really, the inside of most of our heads probably resemble Weezer’s garage, full of comic books and role playing games and bad movies and stupid jokes. A realization that can horrify the way Weezer lyrics horrify: I loved this and it’s really, really, really bad. But embracing our whole, dorky, pretentious, clueless, teenage dirtbag selves can be liberating too: who you are and who you used to be don’t have to be secrets to bury. You can be cool without being mysterious, and sometimes the awkward weirdos turn out okay.
Swallow my doubt, turn it inside out, find nothing but faith in nothing
Recently, on a road trip to Memphis, I asked Lisa to put on something fun as we bombed down I-57 in our tiny rental car. So we listened to the first two Eve 6 albums in their entirety. I still knew every word. And, guys, I felt like a total badass.
Check out Miss Spoken the last Wednesday of every month at Gallery Cabaret or visit miss-spoken.com. Check out my twitter feed for an absurd number of Eve 6 references.