Tony and I looked on as the minister, in a pair of summery swim trunks, laid his hands on the top of Isaac’s head and lowered him into the hotel’s Jacuzzi. In the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, Isaac emerged with his white T-shirt clinging to reborn skin, his long curls of black hair matted against a reborn forehead, chlorine stinging reborn eyes. He blinked away his sins and looked up eager and proud, not at me, not at Tony, but at his new friends — Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke, I presume, was still stacking chairs back in the conference room.
I met Isaac on the first day of middle school, and before long we were cracking jokes under our breath about the homeroom orientation session we were made to endure, caustic humor and irony a bluff to disguise our insecurities. But it was more than proximity that brought us together. I suspect we recognized each other as fellow outcasts. I was short and pudgy, stricken with the obliviousness common to the firstborn. He was funny and handsome, but a birth defect had shortened one arm and withered a hand he self-consciously tried to keep tucked out of sight. Our friendship followed to high school where we’d meet Tony and then, after Isaac dropped out of his freshman year of a college in Michigan, to Austin, where we’d become roommates.
These people he’d known for a few weeks or months, however long it had been since he joined The Sacred Heart of Whatever-the-Fuck Airport Hotel they could find space in that week. Tony and I had come out to support him and his search for meaning outside of booze and the Playboy channel, but the minister had pronounced the two of us a lifetime ago with little more authority than a 501(c)(3) status and some warm water. Isaac would soon inform me that I needed to find a new roommate. He’d gotten a DUI while grieving his mother’s death and decided, somehow, that I was “a bad influence.” He would move in with his new church friends when our lease expired.
Even then, I knew it wasn’t entirely about me. I was the one who had chided him about driving home drunk the first time, the time he didn’t get caught, making him walk a length of rope from the junk drawer. I was also the one who had asked Tony to move out after he chugged a month of pain pills and tried to cook a frozen pizza on the stovetop, filling the apartment with smoke in the middle of the night. True, I’d let a low-wage job at a record store take priority over school. And yes, Maxim magazines had shown up in our mailbox with my name on them, a practical joke by a feisty, seemingly never-single coworker. But that was the joke: that I would ever read — much less subscribe to — Maxim. Nevertheless, Isaac believed his mother could see his compulsive masturbation and drunken aimlessness from Heaven. Mortified and ashamed, he ended our friendship, and I couldn’t help but feel angry at his misplaced blame.
One of Isaac’s more unfair grievances was that I’d been spending too much of my free time with a trio of boy-crazy underage sisters. When I met the Beam Girls, Lilia, the youngest, was awkward and talkative, trying to convince herself, her sisters, and everyone else in earshot that she was more than just a tagalong. She floated opinions she didn’t quite believe herself, measuring them against the reactions she got in order to see if they were cool or smart enough for her sisters’ friends. The middle daughter, Ellen, wasn’t all that different, except she negotiated her acceptance with her own nascent sexuality. She was busty where Lilia was rail thin and her commentary was often laced with innuendo. Libby, the eldest, was only five years younger than me, and she was bookish and aloof, which I read at the time as mysterious. My younger sister brought her by the apartment I shared with Isaac, and Libby later told me she knew after that first meeting that we were destined to become friends. It wasn’t long before I knew it too.
Like Isaac, I was looking for a sense of belonging that rooted me in something larger than myself. As a college student in Austin, a part of the city caters to you, but it’s a superficial part, one that expects your transience. The area surrounding campus where I first lived was corporate and transactional. The college shanty town where I later moved was a flimsy approximation of the former. As friends from school started applying for graduation and moving away, I found myself craving a deeper connection to the city. Somehow the idea of befriending people who were from there, who had gone to middle and high school there, who knew the other Austin out beyond the campus shuttle loop, seemed like the way to do it. Without any of Isaac’s hang-ups about our age difference and only a brief interrogation from their mom, these sisters invited me into their lives and into their Austin.
One thing we shared from the start was a love of music, specifically Old 97’s. The band was, like me, from Dallas, and I recognized all too well their complicated relationship with country music, charting their unease in song as each successive album inched further towards pop. Similarly shy and self-conscious in my big glasses and now skinny frame, I also recognized how the lead singer, Rhett Miller, used cleverness and over-excitement as ways to hide. Ellen and Lilia had been admins on an early-internet fan site and had subsequently gotten to know the band. The lead guitarist would email from time to time. The bass player doted on them paternally. Rhett came over for dinner once. That night, he plinked away at their piano and even sang a little. When Libby saw my eyes widen at the part in the story where Miller left a cassette of demos as a gift, she grinned and generously offered to dub it for me.
In his essay, “The Carly Simon Principle: Sincerity and Pop Greatness,” Chuck Klosterman discusses the acclaim for Simon’s “You’re So Vain” to describe a phenomenon wherein an understanding of a song as real — in this case, that it’s directed at one or more celebrities we “know” — allows the listener to appreciate the song for reasons other than how it sounds. This perceived sense of what’s real or authentic, Klosterman argues, is what elevates a song or musician, or band in our imaginations. “That’s what pop greatness is — forced transcendence. We force our understanding of what it is supposed to mean on notes and lyrics and when we play it back, we hear greatness.”
The Carly Simon Principle was certainly a part of why I appreciated Old 97’s. I had met the often name-checked Robert Jenkins through an assistant manager at my record store. Friends of mine had met Dorin, a loyal Killbilly fan also memorialized in an Old 97’s song. I’d sold a copy of OK Computer to Peter Schmidt and seen his band, Funland, which had once been called Melt, as in, “In the front row / of the Melt show / I fell in love with you, and that was three weeks ago.” The band already felt more real than any other I knew.
But that tape, given to me by someone who had befriended the band, of demos that weren’t even available to purchase, became a totem of sorts. Back before Napster, before YouTube, rarity and scarcity were fundamental markers of fandom. Japanese import singles, live bootlegs, leaked demos — these objects measured the depth of your devotion and length of your pursuit. The tape bestowed a new sense of reality to my fandom, and the band subsequently became beloved to me, “great” Klosterman would say, in a way that felt newly and deeply personal.
That’s not to say I ever considered Old 97’s my quote-unquote favorite band. My perceived kinship with them was accompanied by angsty self-loathing, so I had to hold them the tiniest bit apart. But I felt like I understood them, and my earliest sense of adulthood was more tightly intertwined with them than any other. Too Far to Care, a manic coming-of-age album propelled by obsession and ambivalence, coincided with my own 21st year. The follow-up, Fight Songs, was a defiant rejection of approaching adulthood and its attendant expectations. I was something of a late bloomer, and the band nudged me to stop being so careful and finally step into my life, to make a mess of it if I had to. I quit the record store and got serious about school, started a band and fell in love, joined the Peace Corps just before 9/11, and then dropped out three months later.
When I returned to Austin, I was a good and proper mess. The city had rebounded from a brief recession and was riding a second wind of outside money from West Texas oil fields and Silicon Valley tech startups. The grimy, acid-fried outlaw haven, the one that celebrated Eeyore’s birthday, played disc golf, and erected statues to local blues legends was being subsumed by venture capitalists and paeans to weirdness where none seemed able to thrive. I convinced myself Austin was the problem. In retrospect, I needed a new sense of purpose to replace the Peace Corps, a new destination where I could make mistakes without letting people down and find a place for myself beyond the low ceilings of red-eyed slackers and well-meaning rich folks who hired me on as help. I left on New Year’s Day 2004, towing a trailer with all my possessions, headed for Seattle, a city I’d never been to and where I knew no one. I didn’t bother to say goodbye to Isaac before I left.
My then-girlfriend, Colae, tells me she would listen to the cassette tape I made her on her early morning bike rides to the Portland coffee shop where she worked, Neutral Milk Hotel’s woozy kaleidoscope of images scoring the slow awakening of a cloud-heavy sunrise. But in the afternoon, over-caffeinated and with tip money in her pocket, she’d flip the tape and whip through downtown and over the Broadway Bridge to the Old 97’s Hitchhike to Rhome. I don’t know why I thought she needed to start at the beginning, maybe because she’d made everything feel new again. But she loved those wary, self-indulgent songs written for free beer and phone numbers and by proxy began to love me, her transplanted Texan still finding his footing in the Pacific Northwest.
I saw the Old 97’s play later that year. It was a midweek show and Colae couldn’t make it up to Seattle from Portland, so I invited along a coworker and her boyfriend. I hadn’t prepared them for shuffle beats-cum-British Invasion, for swiveling hips and “Coahuila.” I hadn’t thought I needed to. But these people didn’t start at the beginning nor had they grown up with the band. They didn’t have Fina gas stations or a hip, downtown Elm Street, didn’t grow up watching black-and-white westerns on channel 21, and they didn’t make the same sense to them. Maybe you needed to be there to understand. Maybe “Timebomb” didn’t burn as hot if you hadn’t been scorched by it in your youth. Rather than try to explain, I held the band apart. They were too important, and I was too protective to risk exposing them to anyone’s critiques but my own.
I had plenty by then. The flip side of fandom and its false intimacy is permission to indulge in sanctimony and possessiveness. The band was in an existential crisis by 2004’s Drag It Up, with Miller’s soft-focus solo career nearly fracturing the other three into scrap hotels and family bands. And because of the tape Libby had made me, I could hear the way they had soldered together old songs from more fertile times, how they’d released good-enough versions they’d been wrestling with for years, how they’d seemed to be clearing out the cupboards they no longer were able to keep stocked. The compromises felt at odds with the risks I was finally taking in my own life, and I was embarrassed for them. Or maybe even by them.
Colae moved up to Seattle by the end of the year, and we found Pacific Northwest bands that spoke more to our relationship. Libby completed beauty school and brought her shears to Seattle shortly thereafter. By then, more and more Texans were turning up, and I was increasingly happy to share my new life with people who grounded me in a past I no longer needed to distance myself from. I introduced Libby to my friends and they in turn to theirs, and she hosted us when her mom, Liz, came to town for a visit. With all of us gathered in the narrow kitchen corral of her one-bedroom apartment, Liz lifted her beer and announced how reassured she felt knowing I was there to look after Libby. But Libby hadn’t come to Seattle to be watched over any more than I had, and she eventually cut me out of her life for reasons no better or worse than Isaac’s, and hardly different than I had done to those I left behind in Austin.
Throughout the years, new friends have rushed the stage with me, dancing and singing on the front row while others drifted to the back of the club or slipped out the door without saying goodbye. But Old 97’s have been a constant throughout. I recognize that the band members are not my friends no matter how many connections or near misses I accumulate over the years, but their music and the occasions it convenes are part of so many real friendships that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. They are the sound of road trip sing-alongs crammed full of off-key camaraderie and air guitar solos. They are a contact high at the edge of the stage at Austin’s Liberty Lunch. They are the silhouettes of a dozen fists thrown in the air as the crowd shouts “asshole!” together. They are dancing away one year and welcoming in a new one, Colae returning from a long line at the bar with a bottle of Shiner in each hand and one more stuffed in each of her front pockets.
While I can still hear the distance in the corners of Drag It Up, I also hear the euphoria of the future on Blame it on Gravity, an album that came out shortly before Colae and I were married. I hear the reaching for significance of The Grand Theatre a few years later and the urge to recapture a waning vitality, itself almost a cry for help, in Most Messed Up as I approached my own middle age. While beginning to explore sobriety, the band gave me Twelfth. Their art has spoken to my experience so consistently that my anticipation for each new album is now freighted with equal parts fear that I’ll finally part ways with them and the excitement to be given the words and feelings I’ve not yet articulated but will recognize as familiar. “Abide in me,” their songs urge. “Ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” I see now the adolescent possessiveness of my early fandom, but I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m connected to this band for as long as they continue to play. And though I hold them to an unfair standard, the critiques I harbor never manage to diminish my appreciation for them. As the band celebrates their thirtieth year, most of their alt-country peers have long since disbanded, and I am increasingly grateful for any new music from them at all.
Isaac and I are connected on social media but keep an awkward distance. The demo tape disappeared in a fit of exaggerated, self-indulgent pragmatism, but its songs have since been released on 2000’s Early Tracks and 2012’s They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos. The Austin of my memory has been paved over and remade many times and now exists as my sister’s home, a place I visit too infrequently. What’s real isn’t necessarily authentic; what’s reborn isn’t necessarily new. What comes together will eventually pull apart. If we’re lucky, it comes back together again. The one thing I was right about from the start is that the sense of belonging I longed for in people, cities, and music was never really about me (sorry, Carly). It was about the reality I created in its image and the temporary connection I found in that. Front row or back row, holy water, or forced transcendence, we all end up finding what we are looking for in the end. Luckily, that hasn’t made the searching any less “great.”•