When I was fourteen, struggling with the pangs of puberty, and desperately looking for my place in the Junior High culture of awkward cool, some friends and I broke from the safety of the status quo to perform Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” at the school talent show. I would’ve preferred hiding behind a guitar, bass, or drums, but alas, I had friends who were better at all three, and they needed a singer. So I picked up the microphone and did my best Kurt Cobain impression for the whole student body. The mocking cries of “hey, wait” followed me all the way through High School. Most people knew me as the kid who “did Nirvana” in Junior High and little else. By my Senior year, I had ducked out early to finish school in concurrent enrollment classes I could take at the local college. To this day, I wonder if this experience robbed me of a decent High School experience and set the stage for a lifetime of feeling like an outsider.
I had friends, sure. I was always able to summon my more gregarious side for social events and intimate gatherings. I always read enough of a variety of books to keep myself conversant in most topics. I always liked talking to people, getting to know them, and figuring out what made them tick. But even my two best friends in High School––the young men with whom I spent the most time––were able to carry on a love affair for years without my ever suspecting anything well into adulthood. (A police officer busted us in the foothills for underage drinking the night they tried to come clean to me, while, drunk and oblivious, I remained convinced they were playing a prank.) I existed then, and I exist now, on the periphery of even those communities I engage with every intention of finding a place. I might, as Brene Brown suggests, find comfort in the words of Maya Angelou, and accept that “you are only free when you realize you belong no place––you belong every place––no place at all,” but I don’t. I base my whole project on finding, building, and cultivating intentional community as one way of cooling the heat of the anthropocene.
I stopped listening to Nirvana after I performed in the talent show. My listening habits became decidedly more angry and anti-social after that. I honed my guitar skills playing Deftones, Alice in Chains, and Rage Against the Machine. I introduced sequencing to my musical pallet after Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, and KMFDM cracked open my mind like a series of auditory hallucinations. I recorded dozens of songs in my scrappy home studio when I could’ve been out socializing and finding my place. People laugh when I tell them that music is my religion, but it was there, in my parents’ basement, playing, sequencing, and recording music, that I learned to pray. Music has accompanied every spiritual or mystical moment I’ve ever experienced. The dejected crunch of Cobain’s guitars, the alienated wail of his vocals, helped me work through trauma at a formative moment in my life. From that day forward, music would be one of my best friends and most passionate lovers at every crossroads and oasis in these windswept wastelands. Years later, I would joke that, if someone couldn’t remember the day Cobain died, I wouldn’t date them. I was afraid that if they didn’t feel that loss the way I did––at twelve years old, listening to the news through the warped sound of an old radio––they could never feel music the way I do.
I don’t play music anymore except to pick up a guitar every once in a while to fiddle around with some basic scales and relieve some stress. I have traded in my beloved aeolian and ionian modes for research and writing instead. But I still turn to music during times of crisis to help me explore the mysteries of thought, sentiment, and perspective with which I have yet to come to terms. My partner knows that if I pull up to her house with the loud repetitive rhythms of Ministry destroying my speakers, I’m angry and looking for a fight (not with her, necessarily, but with the world). Whereas, she knows that the mournful howls of PJ Harvey act as unspoken code for, “I need some cuddles.” It is through music that I crack open my chest cavity to pin my heart on my sleeve. As I said recently,
In response, my brother and my son have both accused me of being too “emo.” I am not even sure what that means, I argue. And is it even a bad thing? Is “emo” just an epithet for wearing your heart on your sleeve? But look at what you said about Louis CK, they say.
But, I argue, I’m genuinely upset that one of my heroes turned out to be so scummy. Why shouldn’t I express that?
Look at what you said about a night out with your partner, they say.
But, c’mon, I ask, isn’t it fun to have someone else to beat the socialist drum with? I’ve been at it alone for so long now. I’m only excited.
It’s music that made me this way. I’ve interpreted so much of what’s happened to me through the emotional thrum of music that it’s natural to express myself with some amount of melodrama. Just listen:
The Velvet Underground – Venus in Furs (1967)
I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears
Led Zeppelin – No Quarter (1973)
Walking side-by-side with death
The devil mocks their every step, ooh
The snow drives back the foot that’s slow
The dogs of doom are howling more
Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (1977)
I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire
The Cure – Just Like Heaven (1987)
Spinning on that dizzy edge
Kissed her face and kissed her head
Dreamed of all the different ways, I had to make her glow
Why are you so far away she said
Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?
Depeche Mode – Clean (1990)
The cleanest I’ve been
An end to the tears
And the in-between years
And the troubles I’ve seen
Now that I’m clean
PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1994)
Climbed over mountains
Traveled the sea
Cast down off heaven
Cast down on my knees
I’ve lain with the devil
Cursed god above
To bring you my love
Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere and it’s Now (2005)
If you hate the taste of wine
Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?
Why are you scared to dream of God
When it’s salvation that you want?
IAMX – I Come with Knives (2013)
The paradox or our minds
Too much to believe, too much to deny
You fool me again to quiet my pride
But I’m a human, I come with knives
Lil Peep – Awful Things (2017)
It’s just the two of us, it’s just the two of us tonight
Burn me down ’til I’m nothin’ but memories
It’s so much longing, despair, and nostalgia expressed with such raw authenticity, and it’s been going on since musicians found a way to evoke catharsis through popular music. Call it “emo” if you want. I call it the authentic expression of emotional turmoil in a world more likely to traumatize you than provide you with sanctuary. So, rest in peace, Lil Peep, at least you got it. I wish I had had the courage to set aside the criticisms of a thousand peers to pursue my passion the way you did with such admirable disregard.