I associate the early winter of 2004 most strongly with Explosions In The Sky- The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. It feels sparse and cold to me, like the ice storm that canceled the first day back to school after break. I think I walked around town with my headphones on listening to it. It's a perfect winter album.
At the start of the year, I was also listening to a lot of Death Cab- Transatlanticism had just come out the past fall, and I was learning to cope with my first rainy winter in the Willamette Valley. Growing up, it was always freezing cold and snowy, but bright and crisp. The new grey sky that I would get used to pushed me towards music that suited it better.
I remember listening to the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack quite a bit, and I had just started delving into Elliot Smith when he died the previous October. There was no shortage of new music to find- a lot of file sharing went on in the dorms, but there was enough out there that I paced myself and didn't try to absorb it all at once. I don't know if I was actually depressed, but I thought I was, which is probably enough. The excitement of new people had worn off a bit, and I started to doubt my direction (I had no idea what I was going to major in).
One thing I didn't doubt: my love for Against Me! (how's that for a transition?)
I first heard Against Me in 2002- an online mix tape included "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong", which I enjoyed but considered to be just sort of a slight improvement on a Dropkick Murphys sort of drinking song. I eventually explored a little deeper though, and what I found shocked and invigorated me.
At this point in time (lets say into late 2003), Against Me! were underground punk rock darlings. Virulent but intelligent anarchist folk punk with a DIY ethic, a thrashing live show, and one of the most sincere and moving catalogs that I have ever been exposed to. Their discography was comprised of fairly lo-fi acoustic and electric EP's, along with a more produced first full length which came out in late 2002. I remember spending evenings online in high school just reading their lyrics as poetry, and appreciating the angst but not quite understanding the depth. But in the freedom of college and the confines of my own (new) mind, I started seeking my own personal brand of anarchy with them as the basis. It wasn't violent or destructive, just free. Around this same time, I was also being heavily influenced by a book I picked up online from anarchist collective Crimethinc.
It was called "Days of War, Nights of Love", and was sort of a manifesto for the modern world. It was political in nature, I guess, but what really attracted me was the personal statements it made about what it meant to have free will and be an independent entity. It wasn't the most detailed or nuanced stance- sort of an Anarchy 101- but I was endlessly inspired by the possibility of living outside of whatever "system" was waiting for me, and to forge my own path.
The whole thing is available as a free pdf, should you want to feel like me in 2004.
I got really into taking free stuff- never quite dumpster diving, but the idea of living off of the excess of the system was appealing. Free piles were plundered- a smelly recliner came into my dorm room. I wore khakis from goodwill a lot of days that were a little too big for me and wore my shoes down til they had holes in them. I ate a lot of white rice for dinner and stole additional snacks from the cafe just because I could. And through all this, Against Me! was on the stereo and lyrics were written all over the posts of my lofted bed.
A glimpse of one of the most meaningful to me:
To my friends and enemies who could have been anything,
Titans and heroes who found survival in cause and effect.
Behind counters, Behind windows, Striving just To be people
With bitter ideals of justice.
Do we only need to keep working because it pays rent?
Sleeping under plastic stars glued to ceiling,
Muscles burning alcohol and nicotine
But we gave them hell
There's a height beyond skyscrapers,
There's a distance beyond the freeway,
More than pictures in a magazine,
More than tragedy in a rock and roll song.
It's more than the actions you know are safe to make.
It's more than money could ever buy.
Are we living to work and die in American cities?
And working to live and die in American cities,
And dying for what we worked?
Which leads me to the release of the next full length album- As The Eternal Cowboy. I didn't know it then, but every future release would be unique in tone- never pausing long enough to feel like a rehash of the same thing. In my opinion (and really most others), this ended up being to their detriment, each album never quite living up to the passion of the previous. But unlike the earliest of the complainers, I found this album to be their pinnacle. To me, it's the exact album a band writes when they are on top of their world- inspired and unforgiving, still with the same questioning nihilist ideology, but also strength. It's short, clocking in at around 25 minutes, but it packs so much into that time that you barely notice.
They came to Eugene in February, and somehow Nathan and I got down there to catch them at the WOW Hall. It was a landmark show. Everything I had heard about them was true- from their blistering pace with no breaks between songs to the crowd participation and chant-alongs. I bought a shirt, my precious long sleeved thermal with the lightning bolt on the back, and Against Me! secured immortality in my mind.
You could say that my ideology and ethos of that time (the remnants of which still smolder in me today) are a combination of three basic principles derived from 3 landmark albums that all came out in 2003. The first was the humanism and sort of intense hippie power of the Rx Bandits "Resignation". The second was the cynical but unstoppable nihilism and personal freedom advertised in Against Me! "As the Eternal Cowboy". And finally, though lately only on my good days, you have the unimpeachable positivity and spirit that is exhibited in Andrew WK's "The Wolf".
The Wolf is sort of a "for fans only" release. I Get Wet was perfect for beer commercials and frat parties (though it transcends all classes and confines), but The Wolf is a little too ballad heavy for such broad appeal. The lyrics are inane at times, but a lot more present than some of the unintelligible chanting and repetition of the previous album. It's an album about living your life to the fullest, enjoying the good and the bad, and never letting down no matter what gets thrown at you, and it does not care what you think of it.
I may not get another chance, so I need to talk briefly about the man "Andrew WK" for posterity's sake. Research it yourself after this, but you need to know what an intensely intelligent dude he is and how grateful we all should be that he focuses his skills into this persona that simultaneously inspires and entertains us and keeps us all going. He gives all and takes nothing and is the type of person we should all strive to be. Read his advice column. Read interviews. Watch videos and see him live if you ever can.
Case in point: Shortly into The Wolf tour, he broke his foot during a show. Rather than cancel the tour, he continued on and performed the rest of the shows in a wheelchair. Watching this video has about a 1 in 3 chance of bringing an actual tear of joy to my eye.
So that was my early spring, who I was, who I am, who I strive to be still. I was getting it figured out a bit philosophically, but not making a lot of meaningful relationships with girls. I had kept in touch with Kathryn (who Nathan and I met in San Francisco, you remember), and she had come up to hang out with us once or twice. So when I had an opportunity to go visit her in Eugene when some friends were headed down for a show, I jumped at the chance.
We decided to catch a movie with her friend Kit, and opening that weekend was the new Charlie Kaufman movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". I was excited for it, but didn't know a lot about it. Needless to say (if you've seen it), it blew me away in one of those great ways, where your whole frame of mind is off kilter and you spend the next few hours looking at the world a little differently. We sat silently in the theater as the credits rolled, lost in our thoughts and slowly made our way back to the dorms.
I had another hour or so to kill before my ride went back, so we decided to go around and meet a few of her friends. Maybe we went in more than one room, I don't even remember anymore, but the one room I do remember changed my life and probably altered the future of the world in some way. I think there were a few girls in there, and we got to chatting about music or some such or some other. One of them commented on my Sublime t-shirt I was wearing, and we got to talking about this and that and whathaveyou. And then out of the blue, she brought up Against Me! and asked if I had heard them. Keep in mind at this point the only people I knew who listened to Against Me! were people I had shared them with. And to boot, not only had I HEARD of them, I pulled up my sublime shirt to reveal the thermal I had purchased the previous month!
There was a weird vibe going the rest of the time, the whole world kind of fell away, and the girl and I got lost in discussion, probably about music. She started compiling a playlist for me of stuff I should check out, rattling off bands to see if I'd heard of them or not, trading notes etc. I walked out of that room in a daze, with a burned cd in my hand with an address and a phone number on it, and some lifechanging new tunes. I was silent the whole car ride back, and couldn't wait to get back to my computer to thank her.
Here's the CD:
This was the musical moment that changed my life forever. Had I not been into music like I was- let alone those specific bands- there is no way that these events could have come to pass. Everything I have, I owe to the music.
So obviously, Emily and I hit it off. The next two months were spent sending mixes back and forth, staying up until 4 in the morning chatting and one by one emailing songs to each other to listen to together for the first time.
Her arsenal was largely new to me- bay area hip hop, reggae, and random indie stuff that hadn't made it's way into my circle of friends. I gave her a lot of the things I've mentioned up to now, and was also at the moment in the throes of a love affair with Jets to Brazil. Because they so perfectly straddle the line between sad-bastard and saccharine, they were a perfect way to transition from the grey of february to the first glints of March sun and the great things I had awaiting me.
She's the only one reading this, so I don't need to explain the details too much, but together we built two mix tapes for the train ride down to Monterey that was to be our first proper date. One for the excitement of day time, one for mellowing out on the train at night. We shared song picking duties and ended up with our first true collaboration. She had a pair of headphones that could be shared by two people, and we spent the whole trip each with one ear in and one ear out, lost to the world.
I guess through it all, we sort of determined that this is "our song" (though we have albums and albums worth)
By now, there wasn't a lot left to Freshman year. We each took a trip or two to visit each other, and then the term was over and we had to part and go our separate ways for the summer. We spent one last weekend together in Portland at her Aunt Tina's house, and walking around downtown we stumbled upon the rose festival where we got to catch a few songs from the Violent Femmes (who she had introduced me to).
We said our sad goodbyes and went on to really equally two of the worst summers we'd ever had. She spent the next few months living in a closet in a terrible part of San Francisco, working as a hostess and server in a restaurant. I spent it back home, waking up at 4 in the morning to spray pesticides and collect mosquito traps. We chatted and talked on the phone when we could, but our schedules didn't really line up conveniently.
Fortunately, this (like every other job I've ever had...) was a job that allowed me to listen to music constantly. A lot of the time I was alone driving a pickup truck at 15 miles an hour across country roads, just trying to stay awake.
I'd say my two best musical compatriots that summer were Blackalicious and Cake.
Blackalicious was my first and definitely strongest foray into hip-hop. I was scared off by the aggression of some of it, turned off by the commericalism and objectification of some more, and really hadn't bothered to invest the time to find any that actually spoke to me. Blazing Arrow changed all of that. Lyrically mystical, intelligent and experimental, but still capable of getting you moving and nodding your head, I think it still stands alone as my favorite hip hop album to date.
I also can't believe how long it took me to actually get into Cake. I had "The Distance" on my computer from when it came out and everyone was singing it, but for some reason nothing else about them ever clicked for me. It's weird, because I feel like they would have fit perfectly with me through middle and even high school, but I just never really tried them out. I'm not sure what changed, or if I was just hurting for something new, but I fell for them hard and immediately absorbed myself in their entire catalog. I waffled around a bit on which album was my favorite, but I think when the dust settled I have to give it for the raw-est, Motorcade of Generosity. The guitar in this song destroys me:
I didn't have a lot of people to hang out with in Baker. Matt Jager was working hard at keeping a new band alive, and moved down to Eugene where he was painting apartments. Nathan took an opportunity to go count parrots in Costa Rica. Kyle was working in Glacier National Park. And I was stuck alone in Baker, with my bike, my walkman, and a stack of cds. I also picked up a record player that summer from a street sale, along with a pretty good copy of London Calling. Kyle had loaned me his receiver and speakers while he was gone, so I had a pretty powerful sound system in my bedroom.
The only musically relevant weekend of that summer was a weekend trip that 4 or 5 of us made down to Salt Lake City to catch an RX Bandits show. We drove most of the night, stopping only to sleep in our cars (and on the ground beside them) in a chinese food parking lot in Twin Falls, Idaho.
I'll always love the comraderie of a long trip with friends to go to a show- living 2 hours from a city of any size, it was the only way we got to see things, and it added to the excitement and allure.
At the first frost, the mosquitoes were dead and I was free. I flew down to San Francisco and joined Emily and her family in the drive up to Eugene to the house she (and I, eventually) would be living in. That month was the greatest. Work was over, school was coming, but not too soon- we were free. Neither of us had a car, and there were no roommates and no responsibilities. Just the two of us trying to make "living together" work for the first time.
The first day of school came, and I went up to Corvallis to join my new brothers at Beaver Lodge, one of the finest co-ops in the whole town. My heart was split though- weekends were often spent down in Eugene, and a lot of my mental energy went down there as well. I painted a big mural on my room wall, complete with against me lyrics. I slept on a sleeping porch with 20 other dudes, and wore headphones most nights to help me sleep. My usual poison- Bjork's acapella masterpiece "Medulla", and Brian Wilson's triumphant return "Smile". I was also listening to Arcade Fire- Funeral had just come out and reminded me a lot of a more focused Polyphonic Spree, who made their way onto a few mixes.
The next and final musical moment of 2004 was over Christmas Break. I was in Boise visiting family, and Nathan and I went and saw the Life Aquatic for the first time. One of my favorite movies ever- I know it doesn't work for everybody, but well, that's not important to me. Most significant to this blog is the climactic scene when they turn the lights out as the Jaguar Shark drifts over the top of them soundtracked to "Staralfur" by Sigur Ros.
How could I not have listened to Sigur Ros before this?! I loved all things post-rock, the more cinematic the better- Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, (a little) Radiohead, Godspeed!- it just seems like they would have found their way to me before this. But they didn't, so this late December moment is mostly just foreshadowing for the years to come.
I think I've exhausted myself, and anything else that happened in 2004 probably just wasn't important enough. Onward, upward, forward.