We all share this: an adolescence, music, an aching heart. And it all gets tangled together, the memories, the feelings, the textures and desires. You’re listening to an album in your bedroom, or watching a concert from the back of the hall and you want it to last forever. And it does: you make a song of your own, or a poem, or a baby. Something has its genesis out of the love you feel in those moments. You can’t un-hear that, can’t un-feel it and so it gets mutated over time, a song is associated with a lover’s rejection, or the feel of their hand in yours. You in a group of your friends in the dark and under the lights and the opening riff is plucked slowly, teasingly, ripples of recognition turn into applause, turn into whistles and cheering–we all know this one.
Who was your favorite band when you were 18? How did you come across that first song? See them live? Stand in line for a ticket? Cut school the day the new record came out? Turn the lights out and listen to the old stuff on headphones in your bedroom and notice new things in the background? Have a crush on the singer? The drummer? Wait in the cold for hours just to watch them walk to the bus after a sold out show? Made mix tapes of their b-sides, learned to play acoustic versions of the singles? Imagine what you would say if they noticed you, said hello?
For me it was Veruca Salt. I was just out of high school. They broke my heart when, at the height of their popularity, they disbanded. Rumor had it, some dude, not even musical differences. I wanted them to be better than that. I held music on a pedestal and somehow thought it was unrelated to love. How innocent. But against all odds, we got a do-over.
20 years after the release of their first album in 1994, they got back together, said their sorrys (their emergence was announced with the line, “hatches buried, axes exhumed”), and the new singles sound like the old singles: sweet, pleading harmonies over heavy guitars. Their songs, not so much the radio friendly singles, but surely the bulk of their music, build like an orgasm: you don’t know how good it is until it’s over, then you just want it again and again.
It gave me a strange giddiness to listen to the old stuff: to put on my headphones and hear Twinstar for the first time in a long time, and the afternoon before seeing them live for the first time in 15 years, I wanted to cheer and cry and could barely contain myself on the train. I looked out the window as Nina and Louise harmonized the I’m stuck in my ways bit and thanked God for the Chicago River.
That night, My friends and I waited out back by the bus for a few hours and eventually, one by one, Jim and Steve, then Nina and finally Louise came out. I didn’t know what to say. Or rather, what I wanted to say I didn’t want to say in the praise chorus of fans echoing in the parking lot. So I waited a little more and did what I’m best at–I wrote them a letter to be delivered at the Chicago show:
Dear Veruca Salt,
I was late to the party with you guys.
In 1994 I was listening to Ice Cube and Cypress Hill and other mainstream, foul-mouthed rappers. It wasn’t until my buddy Reuben (with whom I was at your show tonight, and your Milwaukee show on Thursday) made me a mix tape with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, The Breeders, and yes, Seether. Who the fuck is this? I remember thinking right after the opening Ow! and a split second later, by the time the drums kicked in, I was hooked.
I’ve since lost that tape, but my friendship with Reuben and my twenties were both branded by pop-rock music: I grew out of the angry rap I listened to for most of my childhood and it was during this late introduction to 90’s alt rock that I got my first girlfriend, got my heart broken, bought a guitar, wrote some shitty songs, and worked in a record store. Reuben and I worked the same gig at different shops, we spent our early twenties bonding by getting high and going to free shows thanks to the comp tickets from the record labels. We were going to two or three shows a week, anything we could get our hands on tickets for, and I thank God I had that growing-up experience. We just wanted to hear music and talk about music and play music. I know you know that feeling.
We saw Stone Temple Pilots at Rosemont Horizon, We saw Korn at the Aragon—weeks later we saw Ani there too. We saw you guys at the Riv’ in ’97 and four days later Green Day at the same venue. Tori at Arie Crown and every winter it was time for Twisted Christmas at Rosemont and every summer Jamboree at World Music Theater. We saw Foo Fighters at the Riv’ one year on the fourth of July and I will never forget standing on the Red Line platform at Lawrence and watching the fireworks. That display was an explosive, sky-wide embodiment of my youth. I know you know that feeling.
No Doubt at the Metro. Fuck, we saw everyone at the Metro: Mr. Bungle and Soul Asylum, G Love and Special Sauce. I saw the Smashing Pumpkins’ original line-up (minus D’arcy; Auf Der Maur played in her stead) do their last show at the Metro and when Billy plucked the first notes of Mayonnaise my eyes began to well up. But I wasn’t emotional because something was over; but rather because I was teetering on that high wire between euphoria and nostalgia and it brought me to tears. I was missing that moment, in that moment. I know you know that feeling.
The ticket stubs from those shows are light sensitive, of course, because Ticketmaster didn’t want us xeroxing them and getting our buddies in for free. And so years later, even as they sit quietly preserved in a closed photo album, they are fading away. When I open that album now and again, it feels like that first break-up, the sting of watching something you love leave without any power to stop it.
In my mid-twenties, I quit the retail business and went to college: I wanted to be a writer. My first year at college I was so broke I had to sell most of my cds to pay rent. But I read Jack Kerouac and Sylvia Plath and Harper Lee and was nourished in a different way from what food could give. And my life was changed again. I couldn’t hold onto the 500+ cd collection that I had built up, but I had been changed by that music, by that time in my life, and I am so thankful I can access those emotions just by thinking about my finger on a wet car windowsill on the way home from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—the first concert I ever went to with my dad.
When people attack my profession, and ask me, what good is writing for? What good is a liberal arts education? What a waste of money, all those cds…I tell them: math might make a mathematician, but the arts make citizens. I am a thinking human with feelings because of all those cds, all those concerts. And because of that education I can take those emotions and make something out of them: I can make art. And that’s what changes the world–not calculations, and not bombs.
My first year of grad school my guitar was pawned for the electric bill. Seven years earlier I had named that Washburn acoustic Nina. Six years ago I bought another one, and I can still play Karma Police with my eyes closed. It’s rusty, but it’s there for the prying open. The new guitar, a sweet acoustic Art & Louthrie, is named Louise. Things sometimes change, some stay the same.
This is a rambling kind of love letter, one in which I wanted to tell you a little about the life of one of your fans, I wanted to give you a chance to see me in the crowd. I wanted to tell you how much your music means to me without listing out all the songs I love and dissecting them, scrutinizing the lyrics and twisting the albums to fit my life, my agenda. The lasting lesson I got from grad school is this: art should be respected, and allowed to live its own life. And so I love your music, and respect it, and it was part of the genesis I went through in my twenties, and here I am a 36 year old man, and I am a better person for having had Veruca Salt in my life.
To be specific, for just a moment, I will say this:
When you played that Tower Record show in ’97, right before the release of Eight Arms, I stood in line for hours in the cold, with hundreds of your other fans. I was infatuated with Nina, her sickly sweet voice, and that extended “me-ee” at the end of “Leave me” in the last line of Volcano Girls has left an indelible print on my heart. I got to the front of the line that day, stood before you guys and told Nina, “There are certain pieces of heaven on this Earth and you are one of them.” I was just sick with fear, what would she think? What would she say? Would I get thrown out or laughed at? I don’t know that you even heard me and oh God, a corny and rehearsed line for sure, but at the time I thought it was what I felt. What was that good for? It was the first time I looked a woman in the eye and told her what she meant to me. I was changed. I was made a braver person for it. I was emboldened by that act, and I remember it fondly. Nina, you helped make a man of me. And Veruca Salt’s music has continued to help turn the cogs of my heart.
Tell me, how do we go about our lives while there are old ladies looking at paintings and dogs hanging their heads out car windows, songs being written by Veruca Salt and not just drop to our knees under the weight of the beauty of it all?
Surely because beauty is weightless.
Your Pal Eli
I hear most nights on this tour, Veruca Salt close the show with 25, the same track they closed shows with so many years ago. Jim gets up and leaves his drums, then Steve puts his bass down and walks off as well. Nina and Louise are left with themselves and their Gibson SGs and continue playing. Nina talks about this ritual here,
“It’s pretty intense playing the song ’25,’ which is the last song on ‘American Thighs’…Back then, the song was about what happened when I was 25 — I was 26 when I wrote it. Now, it’s taken on this incredible meaning for me. When I was 25, all of this was happening: It was about what happened when I formed a band. I always got emotional singing that song, and now I really do. It’s nostalgic and bittersweet. This whole thing is fascinating from a personal standpoint. So many lessons have been learned, with time healing all wounds, the feeling of life being very long, so things you thought could never happen can happen.”
Don’t we know it.
On the blogs and message boards and FB fan pages some version of this image keeps popping up:
This pic I took at the Milwaukee show. Just Nina and Louise, two girls who started a band. I’m reminded of the line at the end of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the bit about how we all die, but in the middle of so much misery and sadness we find, “an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined.” Veruca Salt’s music gives me those hours. But so does poetry, and the Lake, and my wife. I want this joy to last forever. Most people would say impossible. Nothing last forever. I would say bullshit. When they played I’m Taking Europe with Me in Milwaukee I thought of Susan Howe‘s The Europe of Trusts. And so I have this new memory now, of being at a Veruca Salt concert and thinking about Susan Howe. The life of art, of joy, of happiness, is defined by its ability to connect to other pieces of art, of joy, of happiness. And it is through those connections that we make meaning out of our own lives, ya know?
Be nice to yourselves,
Your Pal Eli