One foot out the door less open
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Day one in the Observer office introduced me to what an exhilarated Adam Ramos, Associate Scene Editor at the time, dubbed “the new sensibility.”
It was an atmosphere, the product of a record — “Teens of Denial” — and its commentators — Adam alongside then-Scene Editor Erin McAuliffe, Jimmy Kemper, Kelly McGarry, John Darr and Jack Reidy, that saved the fresh-faced, first-year me from having to telegraph the guiding sentiment of my new existence: “I have nothing but questions / I need answers, those might fill me up.”
Adam’s soon-to-be-published praise for Car Seat Headrest’s major label debut proffered these answers — filled me up — before I had time to question. It quipped, with deliberate flecks of bone-dry wit, “Hello, my friend, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time. / We have reason to believe your soul is just like ours.”
F—k Welcome Weekend, it said to me. F—k Moreau and f—k all 346 f—ing boiler plate introductions you’ve sent into the void over the last several weeks.
“Did you ever get the feeling you were just a little different?”
Yeah, I guess I did.
“Well, here’s our webpage, you’ve finally found a home.”
I wasn’t any different, of course. Hurl a grapefruit on Notre Dame’s campus, and you’re more likely than not to strike a lanky, six-foot four-inch Irish Catholic white boy in his oversized melon (before promptly lobbing another, hoping to repeat the results of your little experiment).
And, using Car Seat Headrest’s “Teens of Denial” (and my new friends’ treatment of it) as a receptacle, I could happily discard my fabricated feelings of difference (manifested, usually, as angst), disinfecting the problematic parts of my personality with a bit of prose, some poetry, more than a few irresistible hooks and a liberal dose of self-reflexive humor.
Swimming against the prevailing “get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out” current of campus life, Car Seat Headrest and the Scene kids led me down the back roads to success, from which I’d emerge tattered, twisted and disoriented but evidentially much happier than if I’d taken the traditional “back seat of my Rover” route.
As exceedingly trivial questions continued to proliferate during the dregs of the first semester of my sophomore year, crowding thoughts with nagging, needless noises — “What should I do? Eat breakfast! What should I do? Eat lunch! What should I do? Eat dinner! What should I do? Go to bed! Where can I go? Go to the store! Where can I go? Apply for jobs! Where can I go? Go to a friend’s! Where can I go? Go to bed!” — I readily accepted “Twin Fantasy” as my makeshift portal to another, equally distraught, cathartic Neverland.
“Face to Face” with the unseemly doubles living inside “Twin Fantasy,” I felt like I was looking into a f—ked up mirror, staring at a dejected version of myself and reveling in the experience. I grew addicted to the gaze.
“It’s not enough to love the unreal,” the record’s protagonist rightly wails. He and I wanted to sit in the editing room, clipping from our mundane mental landscapes “a cut scene,” “the next related video,” anything to make ourselves appear interesting, cinematic.
Cue the stupid thought, as follows — “You know that good lives make bad stories.” — and leave me, the pretentious idiot I was (and probably still am), to lament my good life as the fodder of the worst story ever told.
When others caught me in the act of pretense, tried to get me to see straight, “Twin Fantasy” stood behind me, helping me listen “to the people I got drunk with […] the people I fell in love with.”
“That’s not what I wanted to say at all,” I remember thinking.
“I’m sick of meaning.” Ready for the chorus.
“Is it the chorus yet? No! It’s just the building of the verse, so when the chorus comes it’ll be more rewarding.”
So I waited through an extended montage of burgeoning bands, weekends brimming with unseemly content — from which we’d get to know ourselves better than we would’ve liked, weeknights nervously forgoing academic obligations to aimlessly wonder why “you’ve just been singing about girls” whose forgiving attitudes surfaced a series of unforgiving truths about self-sabotaging conceits, and a lonely summer ironically made much better when my dad traveled a few hundred miles out of his way to see Will Toledo sing about wanting to kick his own dad in the shins, barely relishing the build, for the chorus to come.
Then, it arrived.
September 2018, Camden Street, I took in the scene.
“Everybody is swinging their hips (now). Everybody is giving the waitress tips. Everybody’s dancing all of the dances. Everybody’s dancing every dance right now!”
Junior year proceeded, first overseas, then at home, in a space with neither a semblance of nor a need for tangible progress. It was, at present, an uncontrollably perfect chaos.
“Well, so what. We’re young. We’re alive (most of us). We’re thin (most of us).”
So, ride happily on the seat of privilege we did, foresight and fear in our peripheries. We forgot how to talk about certain things: points of self-criticism, the future, but we allowed these gaps to exist.
“As long as we move our bodies around a lot. We’ll forget that we forgot how to talk.”
The chorus eventually faded, though, and senior year brought the future as its distinguished and wholly unwelcome guest.
Chronically underdeveloped, I protested the new development.
My parents responded with love, compassion and even tempers (alien invasions, as far as I was concerned).
“I know that it’s a lot to remember, says mother. I know that it’s a lot to remember, says father.”
My bandmates and I — fall 2019’s particular variation of amorphous indie rock collective The Shifties — dug in. Over a series of sweaty, crowded but unimpeachably sincere subcultural gathering we made our case.
My mother (and father) attended these gatherings, greeting my pointless angst with love and support.
(Thank you, mom. Thank you, dad. I’m sorry for not thanking you sooner and more often. But now I’m home and it appears we’ve all been destroyed by hippie powers.)
I got a job, eventually — a comfy little gig in New York City gracefully opening the door to an easy coda: college life lived, loved, wrapped in the neatest of f—king bows, goodbye, the end, next thing.
All those questions from before, reverberated in new iterations — “How was I supposed to know how to use a tube amp? How was I supposed to know how to drive a van? How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself? How was I supposed to know how to make dinner for myself? […] How was I supposed to know not to get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and (why not) Sunday?” — which could have culminated in an “expensive mistake,” amounted to little more than kinks in the learning curve.
The only thing left to do was sit, listen and enjoy until the end of the song.
It seems the “invisible hell” had other plans for us. Student of the “unforgiving world,” it cut our song short.
By eliminating prospects of a breezy finish, a smooth transition to post-college life, COVID-19 taught a MasterClass in “making the door a little less open.”
First, saturated excitement dried out and shriveled. “You feel the time pass by, but you don’t look around.”
Then, I started to process, scraping together a horrendously rough analysis of our current predicament: “You go back to the old house, but you’ve been locked out. And it wasn’t for love that you went back home.”
Soon after, realizations set in — of my evident privilege, of my inability to acknowledge it, of my lack of control — “the guilt in your throat like you swallowed a bone.”
But good people, the best people really, in my house first and foremost, but also scattered elsewhere — first day friends, Scene kids, radio freaks and frequent collaborators reaching out remotely — graced my life with a pleasant reminder, exactly the kind of thing we all have to hear when we have one foot out the door less open.
“There must be more than blood that holds us together. There must be more than wind that takes us away. There must be more than tears when they pull back for curtain.”
There is more. There must be.
And, whatever it is, I’m sure as f—k not going to find it between my ears.
I need help. I’ve always needed help.
I need a Scene.