(on the left, Victoria, on the right, me, Memphis, 1997)
Last week I missed the one 90s indie band reunion show I thought I was waiting for when the Grifters played in Memphis and I stayed home in Austin. They were my favorite band from 1993-8, I saw them in at least five cities, have a photos and live tapes from their shows, and a fabulous cartoon thank-you note drawn by bassist Tripp Lampkins after taking him out to celebrate his 30th birthday one Halloween night after a show. Dave Shouse played a solo set at my wedding party. They were underappreciated, having disbanded pre-internet, they haven’t played in over a decade, and I always thought they’d be the one reunion I couldn’t miss, until I did.
Being born at the younger edge of Generation X means I was just old enough to see a healthy swath of 90s bands (I was there to see Nirvana fuck up an instore, to see Pavement with Gary Young drumming, to see Come, I was there) and just young enough to miss some important ones. Since 2005 I’ve seen the reunions of plenty of both—Slint, My Bloody Valentine, The Clean, Thinking Fellers Union 282, Pulp, Jesus Lizard—never worrying about being let down or marring great memories. Many of those shows involved air travel, domestic and international, and time off from work.
But this was the one I hesitated to see. When the news hit (not that far in advance) that they would be playing at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, I thought “what,” briefly talked with friends about going, then never pulled the trigger on a plane ticket, forcing me to awkwardly tell my BFF Jennifer, whom I have known since I was 13, that I wouldn’t be making the trip to Memphis with her.
The Grifters hit my turntable via a record store clerk at Austin’s Sound Exchange (the same place and guy responsible for the Daniel Johnston mural) I crushed on because he always put me on to good music, or whose recommendations I heeded because I thought he was cute: hard to tell at 16. He pointed out the Grifters’ second indie release, One Sock Missing, and the fuzzier-than-slanted sound and Delta melancholy interspersed with static-soaked freakouts became my new favorite. I wrote them a fan letter and introduced myself when they came to town in the spring of 1993.
Jennifer and I would go see as many of their Texas shows as we could, talking our way into Dallas and Houston venues or getting the band to sympathetically sneak us in, as we were still teens. Jen and our friend Steve were thrown out of Emo’s in Austin once for underage drinking and I still feel guilty that I wasn’t nabbed, too. In addition to these Texas trips, she flew up to see them in Minneapolis once (the only other time I missed one of their shows. I canceled after being taken out by a cyclist doing tricks at a block party), and I detoured an Austin-Atlanta roadtrip to see them play a warehouse in Manhattan, Kansas, on a bill with Rodan and the Flaming Lips. Finding that show in 1994 required using the primitive methods of calling the band’s label and consulting a AAA atlas to figure out where to go. A couple of years later, I wound up in Memphis for a summer, brought there by the connections I’d made in the city because of them.
The greatest hazard of trying to repeat a good past experience is that it won’t live up to the memories. A lesser one is that it will. In either case, the present loses. This never troubled me when I chose to see other reunion shows, but none of those bands crashed at my house when I was 20. This band and those memories are too real-life to permit me an aesthetic or fan appreciation divorced from the experiences and emotions of those times.
There are some parts of my 20s I don’t want to revisit. The last time the Grifters played was in 2001, a year before I stopped drinking. One of the first memories that sprang to mind when I started thinking about their Memphis shows in the 90s was a night when I killed a bottle of Knob Creek and Jennifer poured me into bed, making sure I was on my side to prevent possible vomit-choking. If you want to know what keeps me from drinking—I’m not in a program or anything, I just up and stopped one day in 2002—it’s shame. It’s the indelible physical memory of how shitty I felt with my one-or-two-day consuming hangovers. There’s no reason they should be more associated with one band than any other, but after ten years, pretty much everything I did drunk I’ve done sober. Going to Memphis is one thing I haven’t; thinking about it unearthed some raw places.
Since I decided not to go to the show I haven’t even listened to the records. I feel about them almost how I feel about my own juvenalia. It’s like looking at one of my old fanzines from the 90s. I didn’t make that music, but it was such a part of my life that the associations are as personal as old diary entries. Not to mention that my adolescence feels like it barely ended. I have never held a paycheck job as an adult and never had children. Marriage and graduating from college are the most adult things I’ve done.
There is little separating a precocious teen and a late bloomer. Both feel alienated from their peer group and seek belonging that is tethered to common interests rather than common circumstances. And the insecurity of being the oldest person in the room is so familiar because it’s just like that of being the youngest. It’s the rare teen who looks around a room of people ten years older and thinks “I’m so cool and precocious” instead of “who would ever want to talk to me?” The thing that’s changed is that now I have a smartphone instead of a book or fanzine to read when I’m out alone, and that instead of trying to look old enough to be at a club I’m trying to look young enough to not be their mom. I am at last starting to relate to people based on common experiences more than shared tastes, although it’s hard to separate them out sometimes, since following my tastes led me to more than a few of my experiences.
The thought of only having those strong musical bonding moments for a short percentage of life seems deeply sad, and I can’t tell if that means I’m sad because I want to continue to have what is a consensus adolescent experience for the rest of my life. What a tragedy to lose interest in hearing new sounds, to relegate to youth the experience of hearing a strange new noise and being perplexed by and then in love with a new favorite band. Every couple of years I’ll find a new obsession and it’s such a great feeling. Am I arrested in still loving novelty? Or am I arrested in returning to old favorites? The inseparability of identity from taste is confusing. A part of me feels bound to expand my sense of self past the rebellious brat that I was, and another part feels really proud of her for being adventurous and not knowing well enough to stay home and for having a sharp bullshit detector and keeping herself whole.
It is the question of what is the appropriate way to become an adult, a problem that seemingly did not exist pre-Baby Boomer, pre-youth culture. Is it by remaining loyal to your youthful tastes, insisting on their continued relevance? My sister put a Hi! How Are You? onesie on my nephew (don’t look back/you can never look back). Or is it by moving past them, letting them be relics? Any kind of happy grown person’s life involves knowing what the balance is, and when to let things stay part of the past.
I talk to a lot of youngish folks on the Internet and at work, and have caught myself in the nick of time before saying “when I was your age,” a habit I was in danger of developing when talking to people in their early twenties. I have resolved that that is every bit as irritating for them to hear as it is for me to hear “you look good for your age.” It is the callow youth’s prerogative to say things like that, because they haven’t yet experienced getting older. But I know better because I have been young, and remember how patronizing it sounded.
Our constant reminders of anniversaries are the broad equivalent of “when I was your age;” every time someone on Twitter talks about feeling old because a young person is doing grown-up things (Hanson being in their 30s) or because time has passed since they did young things (whatever indie record is 20 years old) I have come to think “time passes in one direction! Things that happen become things that happened in the past! What boring thoughts.” Then I inevitably catch myself doing it again, thinking about how inconceivable it is that it’s been twenty years since so many records I loved came out. My 20th high school reunion was a couple of weeks ago, but I gave it less thought than I’ve given any of these past events.
Time moves in one direction and memory in the other, roughly. Technology can collapse time and distance when it comes to accessing the images and sounds of the past, but it can’t completely erase the passage of time. While I’m still a little confused that this is the one reunion show I didn’t see, I am not sad about it, and grateful for some kinds of distance. The show was recorded and is available for playback online. I might watch.
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