Don't be surprised if they don't remember you...
The Dismemberment Plan and pre-graduation ennui, Late of the Pier, Writing about DMB, and "Paper Moon"
“A Life of Possibilities”
HANK: For the past few years, I’ve been plotting a book. The title would be something inane like 10 Albums. The basic idea is this. I write a series of essays about my life through 10 albums. This one is a version of an essay about Emergency and I from The Dismemberment Plan.
It’s Spring Break of my junior year of college. I’m pushed up against the prow of a boat that’s traversing Lake Atitlán in the Guatemala highlands and all I’m doing is trying to remember the exact away that “A Life of Possibilities” by the Dismemberment Plan goes. This is sometime in the early, early aughts and thus very much in that time before I had an iPod and even more years becomes socially acceptable to walk around with giant headphones strapped to your gourd at all times. Besides, I’m on an international service trip with the Newman Center (Catholic student organization) of the University of Tulsa. I didn’t even bring my disc man, I don’t think. Besides, it’s supposed to be a religious experience. My only recourse is to piece together the song bit by bit, phrase by phrase from memory.
The group of us are there for a week with a priest and another chaperone. We’re also met by another Golden Hurricane (that’s our mascot), an alum who’s living elsewhere in Guatemala doing service work for a year. He’d done this trip back when he was a student and decided to come back. The reason I’m there is my friend Paul. Paul’s from St. Louis and, like me, from a Catholic family though with his faith (as with most things) he’s more diligent and responsible than I am. He actually goes to mass on Sunday rather than feigning homework. This is the apogee of my faith before things really go sour. I’ve decided that rather than giving things up for Lent, I will do something in service of faith, like get my ass to church once a week. On the service trip, we go to mass every day, so I make up for some lost time.
The service that we’re doing is providing muscle for a series of building projects—homes for members of the diocese, which is also putting us up and keeping the fridge stocked with bottles of Gallo, Guatemala’s national beer. With the quantity of volunteers that we’ve brought, our main task is laying the foundations of future homes. So, day after day, we’re going to a heap of rocks, piling them onto a truck, riding in the back of the truck to the house’s location and dropping the rocks into the trenches for the foundation as actual skilled masons arrange the stones we drop, cement and mortar them, as we mix the mortar and cement. Then, repeat. On the first or second day, we realize that the word for “three” that the masons are using (as in “we need three more buckets of concrete”) sounds vaguely like the phrase, in English: “oh, shit.” This goes too far. First we start saying “oh, shit” instead of “three.” Then, we think, well if “three” in the dialect of Mayan that these masons are speaking is “oh, shit” to us, then, logically, to them, “three” in English must be (in their dialect) “oh, shit.” So as we ride back and forth to pick up rocks and ride back and forth into town and to this beautiful colonial old church that we’re staying at, we’re yelling – “Three! Three!” – at the top of our lungs. White kids terrorizing the natives.
Of course it’s not all work. There’s also mass and some cultural excursions like the trip to the town across the lake that makes me recreate all of “A Life of Possibilities.” And, at the end of the trip, we visit Antigua. Like most folks in their early 20s, we swing between cultural (and spiritual) awe and reverence and, well, yelling “Three!” at the top of our lungs to a group of folks who are just walking home. Among the group, little flirtations and romances flare up. In Antigua, Paul mocks me for holding the hand of this sorority girl who’s also on the trip. It’s as far as it goes and pretty much fizzles the moment the wheels of our plane touch down stateside. Not that much could’ve happened there. We’re sleeping in a church and separated by gender. To that point, pretty early on, us guys get chastised for drinking all the Gallo that was in the fridge. The beers had lasted the entirety of the previous trip, with us, they’re gone in a day or two. If they didn’t want us to drink it, they should have told us, I complain, never wanting to be blamed for anything, standing atop the high horse of white guy colonialism. Besides, Gallo tastes fucking great after you come home after hauling rocks all day. And, if they were so pissed about it, they shouldn’t have kept restocking the fridge.
The part of the song that I was hung up on was the final chorus. Travis Morrison, the Dismemberment Plan’s lead singer hits the first part of the chorus by chopping up the phrasing of the lyrics such that each syllable gets equally stressed. It makes the lyrics sound both profound and a bit robotic: “If it’s a life of possibilities that pulls you away, that claws and tears and challenges you to stay, well then / If it’s a life of possibilities that you’ve gotta live, well don’t be surprised when they don’t remember you or simply don’t want to.” In another musical context or even with another musical expression, I feel like the whole notion of a life of possibilities would sound saccharine, but Morrison and the D-plan (one of the names they called themselves) had this way of making the promise of opportunity semi-alienating and like a bit of a pain in the ass.
Pitchfork described the band’s goal around this era as trying to mix Radiohead and De la Soul, which seems like about as good of description of them as one can give. The Plan (another of the names that they called themselves) was almost impossible to pin down. In a lot of ways you could say they’re a post-Fugazi band and that would be true. They sound a lot like Q and Not U’s younger brother, despite the band being older than their DC brethren. Maybe Q and Not U’s older brother with a Peter Pan complex? I mean when you start to dig into the more obscure corners of the band’s discography, you find bizarro nuggets like “Gets Rich,” which the band says was created when they thought about what would they sound like if they spent all their money on samples. It sounds like a post-punk band with way too many samples. Even with utter noise anthems like “I [heart] a Magician,” Emergency & I can sound like a MOR record compared to their first two.
Part of this seems to stem from the quarter life crisis that flows through Morrison’s lyrics. In the liner notes to the 2011 reissue, Morrison talks about the record coming quickly after he became an uncle for the first time and after his father passed. For as raucous and angry as things can get, there’s no shortage of nostalgia and regret: “Now you find the very same pit still yawns deep down within the very same gut / the very same ghosts still seem to haunt you down down those lines you always tried to cut / You thought you just might need a little change and now you find you got nothing but / How can a body move the speed of light and still find itself in such a rut?”
That Guatemala trip ended, like I was saying, with this trip to Antigua, a profoundly beautiful place and bona fide Guatemalan tourist and cultural destination, perfect colonial town surrounded by mountains. We go out, feeling the end of the trip coming along and ready to further enjoy ourselves. A group of us guys go to this barbershop for straight razor shaves. We find this dark Nicaraguan rum that they say you can’t find in the states and the guy whose living in Guatemala rustles up some Cuban cigars (also banned back home). Then, the whole group of us gringos convene on the roof of our hotel drinking rum and smoking cigars, looking out into the city and the night. The “three” joke is pretty much played out, so we’re not doing that as much anymore, but we’re having a good time. And, like I think I mentioned, I’m holding this girl’s hand, because who knows why, and we’re looking out and suddenly someone says – “was that a shooting star?” It’s really dark and then I see it, but it doesn’t look like a shooting star to me, because it doesn’t shoot. It’s also not that color of starlight, that yellowy clear color, this is red, umber. It oozes. We’re trying to figure out what it is. Is it the sanctioned rum? Paul, who’s a geologist by study, figures it out, though. It’s a volcano, he says, all these mountains around us are volcanos, this is a very volcanically active area. What we’re seeing isn’t astronomical, it’s terrestrial: lava coming out of the top of the mountain and then working its way down, which is why the “star” seems to ooze. It’s lava going down the sides. This thought kinda freaks me out a bit because all I’ve ever seen are eruptions that destroy. So, I’m a little nervous. But Paul isn’t. He’s enraptured. And, it bears mentioning here that Paul is drunker than I’ve ever seen him before, and we’re roommates so we’ve seen each other drunk a lot. But the drinking has raised him beyond normal insobriety and into the sublime. Volcanos are where life began, he says. Where nucleotides and amino acids are forged. In heat vents under the ocean, volcanic activity fused the parts that become us. This isn’t destruction. It’s life. It’s the beginnings of life. The most elemental parts of us hurled from the rock, thrown into the world. We’re watching that, Paul said. We’re watching it right now.
It wasn’t too many months later that The Dismemberment Plan (yes, sometimes they decided to capitalize “the” and sometimes not) broke up. After putting out their final album, Change, the group announced a final tour and that was that.
Somehow, between Sam, Justin, and I, I was the first to hear about this. It was surprising to me because they’d both been the two to introduce me to most of the music that formed me like The Plan and Fugazi. I was legit devastated. The Plan was probably my favorite band and the thought of them not around anymore was a serious bummer. Morrison talked on his blog about not wanting to be like Michael Jordan – as a lifelong Bullets/Wizards fan, he’d just lived through the joys and pains of Jordan’s return and end of his career – so the breakup was an official breakup.
We were all looking at our future in the face, too. Senior year of college in full swing, Half of us were trying to hold onto long term relationships in the face of impending graduation and those that weren’t, were just holding on for dear life.
Sam’s dad passed down a piece of advice that I now pass down to my students: when you graduate, it’s no longer your town. I was double-fucked because after graduating, Tulsa was no longer my town and my parents had moved to Morehead, Kentucky the summer before my senior year, so when I went home after graduation, it was to a place I had never been before. I remember asking – “they spell Morehead with one ‘o’?” “Moorehead with two ‘os’ is in Minnesota,” my mom said. Also the self-proclaimed hardwood capital of the world, it was difficult to imagine a more phallic place. Graduation is a time of hard, adult truths. I’d done the grad school application thing, and that’d fallen on its face. The four of us, Sam, Justin, Paul and I had a wall dedicated to rejection letters in one of our apartments. The camaraderie was reassuring even if the future was not. But, unlike Paul who was off to Columbia, Justin who was off to U of A and Sam who was off to Indiana, in the end my contribution to the wall hadn’t led to salvation, just to a temp job at the Morehead State University bookstore while I plotted my next more. And by plotted, I mean that I wrote mediocre stories about how miserable and isolated I was and called my friends across the country with that liberty of no long-distance charges on the first cell phones.
The Plan’s farewell tour took them to Arkansas and with Sam and Justin in Fayetteville, Paul halfway, in St. Louis, and me with nothing else to do, I couldn’t pass up the trip to go.
May 30, 2003 at Dickson Street Theatre. Dickson Street was getting bro-ier and bro-ier as the University of Arkansas’s party scene descended down from on high. The theatre had to do club nights in between hosting bands like The Plan and Built to Spill. Fayetteville had anchor indie institutions like Jr’s Lightbulb Club and Clunk records. Two places that will never go down in the annals of music history but are well remembered in scenes. At the time of that Plan (the simplest, most effective way that the band was known, this moniker was largely used only among their followers) show, the Fayetteville scene was very much in flux, as all scenes almost always are, but this time frighteningly aware of it. Morrison and the Plan had played at Clunk before and even another venue, but this was the biggest show they’d done in the area.
The first three songs were straight from Change before Morrison turned to the crowd—he wanted requests. It was one of the most extraordinary nights that I’d ever seen. The Plan played for two plus hours, only requests. We dug into the back catalog, too. Someone yelled “Gets Rich,” and Morrison said: “We can’t play that. Why would you ever think we could play that? We don’t have enough equipment to play that.” During “You are Invited,” some audience members heckled the song’s narrator, a guy who seems to always be on the outside who (as the title might suggest) gets invited into social situations which he shouldn’t: “I made my way to a party all the way across town / It was thrown by the friend of an ex-thing / I wasn’t sure if I should go / But when I got in the place there were smiles all up and down.” “Pussy!,” someone yelled from stage right. Morrison was taken aback at first then got into it. With “What Do You Want me to Say?,” he threw in parts of Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty.”
It was easily one of the best shows I’d ever been to. I stayed more days there and eventually had to turn and go back home. In the coming years, as I finally got into graduate school and would make twice yearly solo pilgrimages across the States, Fayetteville, with Sam and Justin, would always, kindly be a place to rest, regroup, and listen to some fucking great music.
2012. I’m sitting on the couch, a bit tipsy with the woman who will become my wife. The Dismemberment Plan has reformed and is touring around a reissue of Emergency and I. “We’re going to a concert,” I tell her. It’s good of her not to break up with me then and there. Having to wait outside in New York in February for a band you’re not that familiar with isn’t most people’s idea of a good time. But, she goes for it.
It’s freezing outside and I’m there with everyone who also showed up early. They’re like me. 30s, jobs and kids. You know, what counts for stability. “I haven’t been to a show in years,” the guy in front of me confessed. “Neither have I,” I said.
If you’ve never been to a Plan show, then you’re missing the finale, which is one of the most joyous songs of self-loathing, “Ice of Boston.” As the story goes, at a show back in the day, Morrsion talks about a dream that he had with people dancing an inane dance to the track. At the end of shows, he invites you to do the inane dance with him. We storm the stage and are lost in the frenzy of people as Morrison screams – “Here’s to another goddamn New Year!”
I’d been inhaling the press for the reunion tour with a joy that I hadn’t since reading Pitchfork and finding about The Dismemberment Plan’s breakup back in the day. Their breakup was a story of a group of guys trying to find their way after having done something that none of them had ever imagined. Getting back together was about them returning to the thing that they loved.
I’ve been lucky to keep up with the people I’ve mentioned in this story. In the real way, too. It’s not the same as it was, but I know if we got back in the same place at the same time, it would be.
The next year, the band announced that they had new songs and released, in 2013, Uncanny Valley. The band toured till the end of 2014. They haven’t been on the road since.
Talking About a Track
ZACH: Late of the Pier - “Blueberry”
If I could have everyone listen to one album from the WLFY blogging days, it would be Late Of The Pier’s “Fantasy Black Channel”. My two pieces of writing on this newsletter are about “favorites” and “Fantasy Black Channel” has been a consistent favorite album since 2008.
When writing about music these days, I’m going to try to walk the reader (you… thanks for reading!) through how I was introduced to certain pieces of music that I would eventually fall in love with. We named our music blog We Listen For You because our pledge was to give every track that was sent to us a listen regardless of genre or how successful the band was at the time of consideration. Hank and I both promoted whatever we liked... it was a simple constitution and felt fair to anybody who took the time to send us their art.
I’ll never forget one morning spending a few hours listening to music submissions that just weren’t my thing one after another after another (everybody was doing Girl Talk mash-ups at the time and I just couldn’t take another bombardment of several great songs haphazardly stacked on-top of each other). So, why spend all that time checking out every submission to the blog? I compare it to flipping through records for hours and you only do it because you know that thrilling feeling of finding that gem after all that time spent searching. I can remember the growing smile on my face while I watched the music video for “The Bears Are Coming”... finally I found that needle in the haystack that justified the hours of time spent considering each promotional email.
“The Bears Are Coming”
My first intro to LOTP.
Perfectly displays the band’s free-flowing and fun approach to music:
The second song I heard.
I’m starting to fall for this band...
Third song a few weeks later…
and I’m sold…
I had to have this album:
Imagine my excitement when a year after the release of “Fantasy Black Channel”, LOTP unexpectedly released a new single called “Blueberry”. I assumed this was the first offering for a new LP, but just as soon as the single was released… the band disappeared into the shadows, never formally breaking up, but never surfacing again with a new album. It’s because of “Blueberry” that I’ve always considered LOTP one of the top “what if?” bands of my music writing career. It’s almost the exact same feeling as what could have been with The Unicorns.
“Blueberry” signals to what the band was building toward and how their sound was evolving. Every music writer has written or read the words “sophomore slump”... and the beauty, creativity, and overall emotional impact of “Blueberry” makes me think the band would not only overcome the second album curse, but they were growing into their unique sound and could possibly become the Radiohead or OutKast of synth-rock (synth-dance-rock)… evolving the ordinary like the previously mentioned did with “Kid A” or “Stankonia”.
In the end, it’s a “be thankful for what you have” feeling with LOTP. They released one of the greatest synth-rock albums of all-time with “Fantasy Black Channel” and a wonderful single with “Blueberry”... which ultimately illuminates the true greatness of LOTP: how did a band with less than twenty songs somehow become one of my favorites?
NOTE: While doing research for this article, I stumbled upon a great piece by Dazed Digital that gives a full account of the band.
Also… I found this amazing press kit video for the promotion of “Fantasy Black Channel” which was uploaded to a YouTube account a few years ago. I had never seen this video and it makes me like the band even more:
HANK: I’m so jealous of this piece by Katie Baker at The Ringer on Dave Matthews Band and their album Crash.
Also, in birdhouse news. We have an occupant.
ZACH: “Paper Moon”
(streaming for free on Kanopy)
One of the biggest failures of film discourse these days is the simple misunderstanding between “best” and “favorite”. When declaring a film “best” or “greatest” the debaters are trying to objectively consider the document, where “favorite” needs no debate at all. Your favorite film is your favorite because it is connected to all the great subjective things you love… it’s your taste, what you think a movie should be, and is typically a film you can watch over and over. “Best” is an almost impossible and sometimes unnecessary quest to put your own personal feelings aside and consider the cinematic tools used by the creator to craft the piece of art. This is where lighting, sound, script, acting, etc are examined against intention, theme, subtext, abstraction, emotional impact, etc.
Basically… There can be no wrong answer to “what is your favorite film” and I only ask people this version of the two film questions because most people aren’t film theorists or have any education in the field whatsoever… a debate with said person in an objective sense is a waste of time and yet we all seem to fall into this trap day after day. There is great fun and illumination of an individual when you hear someone gush about their favorite film because it aligns closer to what the point of film ultimately is… being part of THE AUDIENCE and not THE CRITIC. I personally believe everyone would be much happier if we all just promoted the art we love from the perspective of “favorite” rather than “best” (note: this doesn’t apply to actual film critics, filmmakers, theorists, or anybody who spends their time studying the artform in full).
When asked what my favorite film was throughout my life, I would answer:
Age 6-12: Fantasia
Age 12-13: Die Hard
Age 14-15: Groundhog Day
Age 15-26: Bottle Rocket
Age 27-31: Groundhog Day
Age 32-36: The Apartment
Why is the title of this post “Paper Moon”?
“Paper Moon” has always found itself in my top ten favorite movies (from the first time I saw it at age nineteen). The only requirement for watching “Paper Moon” is to not judge a single aspect of it until the final credits roll (good advice for every film you watch, in my opinion). I’m sure someone out there hates “Paper Moon” but if I had to recommend a film without knowing the taste/preference of the person I’m suggesting it to… I will always pick “Paper Moon”. If you take the time to watch this beautiful film and it does nothing for you… feel free to message me on Twitter and I’ll write you an apology poem for wasting your time. I truly believe anyone and everyone can relate or be moved by the characters, story, themes, and craftsmanship of “Paper Moon”... a forever favorite film.