The punk kids are angry. The metal kids. They always were. Or at least seemed angry enough to intimidate me. Maybe I was afraid it was me they were angry with. I had things good: three squares, two parents, one cozy suburban life. In true dweeb fashion, I held a deep, unironic love of classic rock and jam bands. When I was fifteen I paired this with a newfound love of pot, an impotent rebellion borne from self-medication. (When we medicate the self, it gets better by retreating? As in, I need less self to survive?) I went away to college and realized the punks were right—I was angry, too. Dubya and his blundering tongue had been turned into a late-night joke during his second term but the aftershocks of patriotism reverberated both at home and half a globe away. America mired in xenophobia to justify its wars while projecting materialism in blinding neon. Greenspan’s vision had not yet blown up in our faces and the free market ruled. Dollars were the last and best democratic hope.
America’s materialism immediately undercut itself by simultaneously celebrating its largeness or extremity alongside its very worthlessness, worthlessness because of how large and extreme everything had gotten and for no other reason than to be large and extreme, and to buy anything was to give the companies more money to make larger and louder and more extreme and expensive versions of the same product you’d just bought but would find lacking after the latest release. There was no reason everything continued to get bigger and louder and more expensive, things were big enough and loud enough and expensive enough already, but it was as though by building things so big and loud and expensive suggested that they, too, were in on the joke and recognizing the vapidity and temporality of it all absolved their actions. People bought things simply because they were ostentatious. Humvees, superhero movies, arena rock. To both mock yet indulge was the most typical course of action for consumers and producers.
* * *
I met a friend in a mosh pit. It was 2008, when the economy turned sideways, and I was at an Andrew W.K. show. Andrew W.K. mocked and indulged. He remained entirely sincere yet his persona was so ridiculous it could be taken sincerely if you understood that everything was ridiculous. Only in such a situation as that would I have had the courage to wade into a mosh pit, sweaty and nervous for I’d never pushed into the mass of bodies before. I was surprised to find it fun; I was bouncing around, not getting punched, only pushed. W.K. fans mocked and indulged as well, it was a simulation of a mosh pit, not a real mosh pit at all. After a few songs, I pushed into a tall man who knew my name. I heard Sam! even over the impossibly loud music. It was odd, hearing my name, as the friends I’d come with had stayed by the back rail to tap their feet and nod along. I looked up at the person who knew my name and saw it was another friend, Tom, who I learned from a thumb-pointing gesture had come with his group of friends who were standing by the back rail, tapping their feet and nodding. Here Tom and I were, pushing into each other, two friends who hadn’t seen each other for a year or more in any situation, let alone a mosh pit. After the set ended, we went outside to smoke, both of our groups of friends in tow, all talking in the alley of how Tom and I had actually ran into each other in the mosh pit, the one neither Tom or I referred to as a simulation of a mosh pit at all, though we knew, of course we did: we’d experienced that it was nothing more than jostling and fist pumping. Leaving this hint of danger made the coincidence of finding friendship within it that much sweeter.
* * *
I never listened to Crass before I heard Jeffrey Lewis’s cover album 12 Crass Songs. They were around in the 70s or 80s or something, when punk was maybe real. Before it had crossed over entirely into image management for upscale white kids, though of course this is what Crass was commenting on already, back in the 70s or 80s. By the time my own image needing managing, punk had become blatantly passé—people at my expensive-ass liberal arts college loved wearing Misfits t-shirts on laundry night, when their Polos were atumble.
Antifolk, my sword of choice against the calamity of the mainstream, had its own moments of crossing into rubes’ icons. The Moldy Peaches were on the soundtrack of Juno, Devendra Banhart had to put a song about loving little boys on a record to keep it from the Starbucks checkout line, The Mountain Goats got a thousand crowds across the country hailing Satan as loud as they could. Jeffrey Lewis has always been one of its stalwarts, this antifolk, this un-genre. For “folk” is a collective noun and folk music is something that’s popular with a group, then antifolk, by definition, is unpopular, music not for the people. But in the 2000s that’s what we wanted—to be different when everything was the same only in different sizes (big, bigger, biggest). There wasn’t much difference, if you looked long enough, between Arcade Fire and U2. So music made for nobody or a select few, that was made for me. This was before selling out was a good thing, with the rise of Spotify and the gig economy, where a musician needed their song to sell a new GMC truck or else they’d only make .0000009 cents a stream forever. I mean, we were still making our finest artists travel around the world and make a living selling t-shirts, but it was better than it is now.
Here I am, judging success by finances, like all those other chumps I decried earlier. Maybe success is being able to continue making art that expresses a true—at least temporarily—self, removed (as much as anything can ever be) from the churnings of capitalism. Jeffrey Lewis handles that, swinging on two polarities. He’s either talking broadly about politics, often communism, or narrating his (singer’s) personal life. It’s like War and Peace. Sometimes you are focusing on a man and his relations and emotions and other times, it steps back and history is considered, which makes us consider the character’s parts in it. Alone, we change nothing. Together, we are so much fodder—yet it’s our powerlessness that gives us power, knowing that we have to give ourselves over to community to change anything.
* * *
What is music but connection? And not only to other people but to yourself, a specific part of your life, three or four weeks where you listened to nothing but a certain album and now playing that album takes you back to that very moment in time. Yet, the music doesn’t allow a linear entryway into the past: The events are long over, the friends and lovers long gone. Our memories are incomplete, incoherent. But because emotions are always incomplete and incoherent, we can access, with strange accuracy, the feelings that accompanied these events and individuals through the music. Old emotions rise up from the depths in elaborate ways, as powerful as they were when they were felt the first time, all because of a track or an album that’s been dusted off to find the words and melodies remain in your heart, the muscle that will kill most of us and almost everyone we know.