The Sad End of Something Really Not All That Great to Begin With
by John J. Stazinski
illustration by Nancy Bach
WHEN WE opened for a band of high-school kids playing bad ska-punk, I had an inkling that this might be the sad, sputtering end. It wasn’t until our drummer quit, at the insistence of his fiancée, that I became sure I’d crossed some unspoken threshold onto the pathetic edge of indie-rock cool.
She’d given him an ultimatum. And though he fought for us, arguing, when she called our music crap, that crap was in the ear of the behearer, he chose her. No one blamed him, at least not to his face. To be fair, she was kind of right. He was in his 30s, without what you might call a steady job, or much ambition to find one. We certainly weren’t making money. The tens of dollars we’d made as a band did not go toward their rent. Whatever little cash came in at the end of a gig we handed over to the bartender, creating a wonderful little mutual admiration society. This behavior was what drove the drummer’s fiancée bananas. In her estimation, we were too old to still be playing clubs and drinking beer on a Tuesday night. In truth, we embarrassed her.
Once he’d left for good, we did the only thing we could do: We made relentless fun of him. There were the obligatory whip-crack sounds and a few covers of Devo’s “Whip It.” We started telling people he’d gone to work at Lane Bryant. Our guitar player did one particularly fine impression of him as a giant, throaty-voiced vagina. And none of it ever really got old. The vagina voice became the one we used to leave messages on each other’s phones.
The thing was, these frat-boy antics were completely out of character for us. We were a band that made moody, bookish indie-rock. We listened to NPR. Discussions about why Morrissey had such an appeal for gay Latino youth could delay practice for hours. We were not men who typically gave cartoonish voices to parts of the female anatomy (though we were uncannily good at it).
Of course, we felt betrayed. He had abandoned us, and it took months of scanning Craigslist to find another drummer. But our feelings of rejection didn’t explain why our Adam Sandlerish taunting of him lasted so long. It wasn’t simply that a bandmate had up and disappeared. That had happened before. Instead, I think, it was that his reasons for leaving had tapped into an insecurity we all harbored, but hadn’t yet vocalized, even to ourselves. We were all in our 30s, or close to it, and knew, or at least suspected, that this would be our last band. The only real question, and it was one none of us was willing to ask, was how far from the end we were. At some point every amateur club musician either learns to play “Chicken Dance” at weddings, or goes gently into the night, pawning his gear for a set of golf clubs and a tatoo-covering oxford. Were we already there and had just failed to realize it?
I picked up the bass when I was in middle school, not because of any great affinity for the instrument, but because I was a chronically awkward guitar player, my fingers too long to gracefully run the neck. I had, having recovered from a youthful infatuation with Tone Loc, fallen in love Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. This was the dawn of the ’90s, pre-Nirvana, a time when a prerequisite of joining a teenage band was working knowledge of the entire Warrant catalogue. You were hard-pressed to find someone willing to cover a Stone Roses song. Even proposing it would garner you a very un-metal nickname that suggested your appreciation for other boys.
It wasn’t until eighth grade that I found a kindred soul. Mike Keily had inherited his older brother’s record collection, a cinderblock shelf of old punk and New Wave records. Neither of us possessed an iota of coolness. Mike had the soft physique of a boy who spent too much time on his bed, ears wrapped in headphones. On our faces, whole constellations of acne had recently bloomed. While our peers were discovering beer and heavy petting, we spent our weekends lying on the shag carpet of his bedroom, the stereo blasting the Replacements and Talking Heads.
Eventually, we found our way to his basement, where his brother had left a stash of garage-sale guitars. Neither one of us could play, but actually playing wasn’t our goal. Instead, we danced around while our records spun and held the guitars as close to the amps as possible, creating a squall of feedback that Mike’s mother claimed to have caused the death of the family’s parakeet.
The music made us feel like we were in on some secret, something older and more mature than we were. We whiled away hours staring at record sleeves, trying to mimic Patti Smith’s look of cool indifference on the cover of Horses. This look that came in handy at school dances as we stood against the wall, jackets flung over our shoulders, disgusted by our unevolved classmates, willing as they were to slow dance to C+C Music Factory. We gladly allowed our obsession to separate us from our peers, who didn’t want much to do with us anyway.
Later that year, Mike began taking lessons. My mother couldn’t afford what Mike was paying, so, seeing my disappointment, she found a flyer at the supermarket for a teacher whose rates were much cheaper. His name was Kevin. He was probably in his 40s, and lived, at least as far as I could tell at 13, inside his Corolla hatchback.
In retrospect, I’m not sure Kevin knew how to play guitar very well, though he looked like he should. He had that horseshoe baldness, completely bare on top, the left-over whisps pulled back in a mousey ponytail. He chronically smelled of cigarettes and beer-sweat. Once, he showed up to our lesson with his arm in a sling, not ideal for teaching guitar. He said he’d fallen while scaling a fence. His character was such that I never thought to ask what a 40-year-old man who lived in his car was doing scaling a fence. It just seemed natural that this man, in the course of his day, might need to do that.
I learned no scales or theory from Kevin; I learned only to adore him. He was, at least to me, the coolest guy around. He came to my house each week and showed me songs from the Freedom Rock compilation, ones I suspect he had figured out the evening before. The rest of the time, he told stories that I realize now were mostly about being stoned; I remember one theory of his about how the best way to learn a foreign language was to spend time in a foreign jail. Clear from his tone was that he had done the research on this particular hypothesis. For a socially awkward 13-year-old boy, falling under his spell was inevitable.
Thank You, Boys
In high school, Mike formed his own band and invited me to join. Kevin had literally disappeared by this point. Not that I ever told him I wanted to stop taking his lessons; he’d just left one day and never come back.
We soon discovered, however, that Kevin’s lessons hadn’t much prepared me for actually playing. The songs moved too quickly for me; I struggled to bend my fingers into the shapes of the chords, some of which I had never heard of. After a few frustrating practices, Mike handed me an old bass from his basement. While I can’t say everything fell together for us—I still couldn’t play—we did create a band.
We practiced a bunch, never playing for anybody but ourselves. Perfecting our look took up most of our time. Sophomore year we all took to wearing moccasins for no real reason. My mother referred to our junior year as “The Year of Vintage Clothing.”
I understood even then that I was not destined to ever be very good at this. I envy those people who hear music in their heads, then rush to their instruments to recreate it. I’m not one of them. I struggle with the bass, inconsistently wrestling the right notes from it. But from Mike’s band I learned to truly love playing. If listening to those records in his bedroom had given us confidence in the face of mounting evidence of our gross unpopularity, playing together tripled it. We were still, by anyone’s standards, painfully uncool, but we waded through the emotional tumult of high school pretty much unfazed, able to convince ourselves that we were just misunderstood.
Maybe that’s why I still play, that feeling of creating something, really believing in it, even when no one else does. Or maybe I fear I just wouldn’t know myself without it. What I would miss most, though, is not having a place to go and make mistakes—many mistakes—and have them forgiven. The band, for me, is an escape from real life, a refuge from feigning perfection in so many other parts of life.
It’s been 10 years and several bands since that first one, none of them, including this one, even mildly successful. But I still show up to practice every week. Sometimes, especially since our drummer left, it can feel a little like arrested development, pushing 30 and still needing to go and bang on things. But in that practice space, when everything is going right, I can still sometimes feel the way I did as a kid with Kevin and Mike, as if I’m onto some secret and just knowing it gives me a place in the world. I suppose that’s why we are still doing it. That and the fact that our old drummer finally got married, still hasn’t touched his kit, and, I can report with some satisfaction, is utterly miserable. I was the best man at the ceremony. Our band wasn’t asked to play the reception.
John Stazinski teaches writing and literature at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. He is also the bassist for the Boston band the Milling Gowns.