14 October 2022

The burning heart of God

The period in my life from 1997 when I moved to Chicagoland to 2003 when I left for Japan, was marked by going to shows. Every show I remember is bundled with some other memory, something adjacent to whatever band I went to see, often about a girl one way or another. All of those bands at the time were only mildly popular — they were playing in the Fireside Bowl, or some smaller theatre. They then ended up breaking through at some point, Jimmy Eat World was probably the biggest one, but then Death Cab for Cutie, and the Dashboard Confessional, and Weezer of course, each of which is now embarrassing to like on one level or another, even though I remember being in the back of Colin Crockett's car in 1999 hearing My Name is Jonas on tape, for the first time, and no one having any idea what a Weezer was. When I left in 2003, I wasn't cool anymore, not that I had ever really been, but at least I knew bands that other people didn't know. Now, everyone knew about everything, and my whole personality collapsed. I saw a reunion show for Hum at the original Furnace Fest and I was already nostalgic for a time that I had actually not really lived through.

I did have several exceptions, bands I liked that everyone else liked, namely Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows, both of whom had big hits in that same time I had not been old enough to really clock it because I was still listening to DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay, the Christian knock-off bands that didn't swear and talked about not having sex. My older brother though somehow managed to get around this, and got into bands that didn't sing about Jesus, bands like Pearl Jam and the Spin Doctors, and of course, Counting Crows: he had Recovering the Satellites, and the year he was a junior in High School and I was still in the eighth grade, the music was percolating through, I was starting to hear it in the car with him here and there, until he left for college and I got a copy of Dookie, ironically from someone at church, and I started to cultivate my own pipeline to real music.

Counting Crows was the sort of band that I wouldn't normally see, because you had to get the tickets through Ticketmaster and I normally didn't want to spend more than ten dollars on a show, particularly if there was only one band I wanted to see. I did this with my brother earlier that year and regretted it: we went and saw MxPx with Blink 182 at the House of Blues, and we left after MxPx because all the other bands had been joking about sex and swearing and I was very uncomfortable. Counting Crows in 1999 had released their third album and they were still big, but on the backside of the crest of their popularity. I loved the third album though, and when they announced the tour, I got tickets to see them in Milwaukee in November with my brother and girlfriend, and waited months and months for it. The show itself was unmemorable: it was at the Eagles Ballroom and there were way too many people, but I remember it being one of the first shows I stood behind a girl with my arms around her waist, singing along, and feeling like life was on this constant edge, everything just about to come but not quite there.

It's twenty-three years later and when I saw that Counting Crows were coming to Birmingham, I thought about going, but couldn't justify spending fifty-five pounds on a ticket. I more-or-less knew what it would be like anyway and had no motivation to buy a ticket, particularly because I had no one to go with: your patience for music your partner likes but you don't begins to wane exactly one week into the second trimester of your penultimate pregnancy and never returns. Still though, on Sunday afternoon, a day before the show, lying on my side of the king-sized zip-and-link bed, I looked at a resale site and bid for one, for £34 with fees. I'll go alone, fuck it, I said to several people, telling a story about a show in 2003 when I bought one ticket to see a band I misremembered to be Dave Matthews at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and the couple I sat next to, upon hearing that I was alone, said, Well, now you're here with us, but as I told the story several times, I realised it was actually Radiohead on the Hail the Thief tour, not that any of that matters to anyone. The rest of it was true. 

When Counting Crows played in 1999, they were tired and on autopilot, I think: this was the year of Woodstock and how many years of being as big as they were. There was terrible feedback all night, expensive production, frat boys, and twenty-somethings that had liked them in 1993 and were even then starting to realise they were getting older. Now, of course, that realisation has metastasised and spread, resulting in divorced dads pushing fifty, or well past fifty, and me, alone, in the middle of it all, realising that I too might as well be a divorced dad: being seven years younger than someone at this age is nothing, and I'm indistinguishable from everyone around me. My judgement on the whole system, all these normies, is now a judgement on myself. I'm just another charmless, sweaty middle-aged man, annoyed at the cost of everything and all the other sweaty middle-aged men around me, and angry with a number of them who had managed to talk their partners into coming out, or worse, whose partners were happy to be there with them. 

Adam Duritz, for anyone not following any of this, is the lead singer for Counting Crows and known for his insufferable depression, a kind of poster boy for dreadlocked, white male angst from that era. Indeed, if one were doing an archaeology of my own insufferably, he would be an important figure, sat brooding alone on a chair, hugging himself, singing, I am fine when clearly he wasn't and just hoping that someone, ideally a woman, would attempt to comfort him and get sucked down into that darkness. Something, however, has happened in the last several years: Duritz cut off his dreadlocks, gained weight, and started to get close to sixty. The result, it seems, as the lights went down and the band came on stage with just their instruments and venue lights, is a kind of gratitude. He sang all the songs the same way, about grey being his favourite colour and being covered in skin, but it felt a bit like he was covering those songs, like he was actually genuinely happy to be on stage after 31 years, with all of us, us middle-aged men some with real-live partners, singing loudly like we were at a football match for guys who like Counting Crows. There was a kind of strange intimacy, like hey look at us: we're still here, on a Monday night, past nine

I learned all the wrong lessons from Duritz — women don't want to save brooding, insufferable men. My girlfriend broke up with me after I went to college, and in my mind, those last two years of high school became a kind of missed turn in my life that I tried again and again to backtrack to, a place in my journey when I felt like I was going in the right direction. When the show ended and I got past the crowd, I felt and then remembered the feeling of ringing in my ears after a show, how you were underwater and how quiet home was after you'd made out in the car as long as you could and raced back for curfew. It is silent, but sound hangs on in a strange way inside you. Now, I let myself into my own house, the house on Victoria Road that I would never have imagined in 1999. I check the locks and get into the sort of bed we bought which would purposefully not disturb each other. I turn off the lights and close my eyes and the sound hangs on.