Farewell to Streetlight Manifesto (for now)

There's nothing about New Jersey that makes me prouder than Streetlight Manifesto. I've been following this band for ten years - since the moment my best friend handed me a burned copy of Everything Goes Numb in summer 2003 - and being able to grow up alongside their career arc is probably one of the best things that's ever happened to me. Their songs are kindred, wise spirits. Witnessing their enormous room-filling passion inspired me to chase creative passions of my own. 

Though Streetlight's musical maturity renders them the type of band you don't outgrow, I thought I'd experienced the maximum energy I'd ever feel at a concert (at several of their shows over the last decade) - that is, until this weekend. Facing an uncertain future, the band played their "final" three shows at Starland Ballroom at the pinnacle of musical intensity. I spent a few minutes during their Friday show in the photo pit as multiple crowd surfers fell over the rail and onto me. The adrenaline rush of being so close to my heroes in the midst of barely-controlled chaos is a feeling I've felt before, but this time it felt even better to channel the adrenaline through my camera lens.

Thank you, Streetlight, for an amazing ten years.

It's been 20 years since In Utero was released, and 10 years since I was a crazed Kurt Cobain minion

It happens every few years: Nirvana starts trending due to an anniversary and subsequent celebratory re-master/Nirvana product you never knew you needed. The latest buzz is the 20th anniversary of In Utero, being commemorated by a giant re-issue and DVD release. The 20th anniversary of everyone's favorite haunting hour - MTV Unplugged  - is coming up in November, as is the two-decade mark of Cobain's death in April. For the next few months we have multiple excuses to publicly obsess over Nirvana...again. Because despite Kurt Cobain's fame-loathing and the band's collectively flippant attitude, Nirvana demanded everyone to become mind-bendingly obsessed with them.

Transient

I can safely say that I have never been as obsessed with anything as I was with Nirvana. Being an loathsome millenial, In Utero's 20th birthday coincides with my 10th anniversary of becoming a ridiculous, borderline disturbing Nirvana fan. My hardcore fanship eventually faded into calm appreciation, but here are some examples that illustrate the depths of my embarrassing-but-formative life experience idolizing Kurt Cobain:

  • In 2004, I wore black and held a death day vigil for Kurt in my basement with the lights out*, lit candles, and listened to Unplugged. At one point the candle flames all started flickering rapidly and I actually believed it was a sign from the great beyond, something akin to Kurt being like "Hey kid, hang in there." (FYI, I just cringed while typing that statement.)

  • Following the band's example, I stopped combing my hair for a period of time - a time in which my Mom was horrified - not because she wanted me to be girly, but because I was being a fucking weirdo.

  • I listened to Nevermind once a day for an entire year after discovering it.

  • I made sure to wear my Kurt Cobain t-shirt - which was awkwardly way too big on me because Hot Topic didn't stock sizes for 8th grade girls - at least once a week, because it was really important to me that every person I encountered knew that I loved Nirvana. I also wore it on every holiday to ensure that my family knew that the definition of Diane Szulecki was literally "Fan Of Kurt Cobain." 

  •  My LiveJournal username was skin_the_sun and the subject line of 95% of my posts was a Nirvana lyric for a period of about 500 days.

  • And finally, the most mortifying fact: I got into the "Kurt Cobain was murdered" conspiracy for a while and posted on a forum called Justice for Kurt that encouraged people to write letters to talk show hosts to bring publicity to the issue. ("Issue.") I actually e-mailed Larry King about this and I'm sure he was riveted by my explanation of why Kurt Cobain NEEDED JUSTICE. I also placed a Justice for Kurt sticker in a prominent position on my messenger bag. I had to spread the word, guys.

None of the above is much different than the fanatical albeit prettier crap One Direction or Justin Bieber fans do today. There's a universal teenage zest for identity development via fan culture. 

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The difference is that Kurt Cobain was an explicitly adult artist making very adult music. Music that wasn't manufactured for tweens and arena tours. Art that captivated teens with a shocking, grown-up allure. (While we're on the topic of In Utero, I have to note that the lyric "I own my own pet virus / I get to pet and name her / Her milk is my shit / My shit is her milk" still really makes me uncomfortable.) I've often wondered what it was about Cobain that settled so deep in my 13-year-old soul - and I'm sure he wondered the same about the hoards of kids who adored him. As a nerdy Honor Roll student from the suburbs who didn't come from a broken home and still slept with stuffed animals, why did I identify so strongly with a horrendously tormented and not-remarkably-nice member of the 27 Club? 

The answer has something to do with Cobain's knack for artfully embracing the anxiety of feeling like an outsider. Despite fitting in with my group of friends, I always had a looming, dread-inducing awareness that I was different, exacerbated by peers who frequently reminded me that I deviated too far from their perceived norms. By the time I got to eighth grade my self-esteem hardly existed. I didn't see how it could ever improve so I just got more and more depressed. (I know this is the life story of a billion and one teens, and I am grateful I've since grown up relatively unscathed. BONUS: I'm now a corporate cog!)

Soon after getting into Nirvana I read a biography about Kurt Cobain that sealed the deal on my idolatry. He got made fun of too! He was often moody and depressed! He saw himself as an outsider! The solace this brought me was huge, but the major gift Cobain gave me was not the imaginary camaraderie of a fellow outcast - it was the realization that not being like everyone else is actually a cool thing. Nirvana's brutally honest, take-no-shit attitude convinced me that I could own my quirks instead of fighting them to conform.  When I struggled to find the confidence to not care, I thought of Cobain and suddenly found myself capable. The second I stopped caring what other people thought of me was the second my life got drastically better. And it hasn't stopped. 

Transient

A decade on, I now possess an adult brain that no longer treats Cobain as a mythical greasy-maned unicorn who came to deliver me from my sad feels. I recognize that he was a brilliant but fucked-up dude who struggled with epic demons. But the punk lifeblood of Nirvana - doing your thing, not caring about norms - is my core identity. (Cobain's feminist and anti-bigotry tendencies planted a first round of progressive seeds in my brain, too, but that's a whole separate essay.) Though I regrettably deleted my account in an attempt to never think about my teen years again, a little part of me will always be LiveJournal user skin_the_sun with a Heart Shaped Box .gif avatar.

Streetlight Manifesto said it best: "K.D.C you were much too young / and you changed my life / but I draw the line at suicide/ so here's to life."  

 

My 5 Favorite Albums of 2013 Thus Far: An Inconsequential List In No Particular Order

1. Foxygen, We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic

I saw Foxygen live and left totally disappointed. This album is an incredible, intricate, layered shindig that taps into my inner freewheeling 1960s party-attender (and many people's, judging from the MEGA ULTRA BUZZ surrounding the band).

Unfortunately, what could have been an amazing live experience fell pretty flat: it lacked the depth of the album, and Sam France seemed determined to be more theatrical than musical (he jumped off the speakers, jumped into the audience, laid on the stage, literally screamed every lyric, wrapped the mic cord around his neck, and told people to put their phones away because he "doesn't want to be on the Internet"). But whatever troubles Foxygen may have live--they left SXSW early, canceled their European tour, and were apparently kicked out of Wilco's Solid Sound Festival--don't make their new album any less obsessively listenable. I comfort myself with this as I mourn for my Favorite New Band That Never Was.

Listen to this right now: "On Blue Mountain." It's like The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones birthed a child who appreciates the drama of Broadway showtunes. 

 

2. Iron and Wine, Ghost on Ghost

UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: I am a bigger fan of Iron & Wine's jazzier, more produced albums (this one and 2010's Kiss Each Other Clean)  than his minimalist earlier work. Not that Sam Beam needs any production to sound utterly beautiful, but his voice and notoriously edgy lyrics + a full band is insanely satisfying. It's all good, though. Listening to one of Iron & Wine's older albums and then listening to Ghost on Ghost is like the difference between listening to the best lullaby and then eating the best five-course dinner. 

I finally saw Iron & Wine live a few months ago and had a brand new life experience. I've never, ever, felt so calm and peaceful at a concert that I put my feet up on the seat in front of me. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF SAM BEAM.

 Listen to this right now: "Lovers' Revolution." If you are attracted to musical drama like I am, you'll love it.

3. Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God

I'll try not to write a dissertation here but it's going to be a struggle. Sorry.

Although I use the term "genius" sparingly, I am 100% certain that Jim James is actually a genius. I can say this with utmost confidence because I am a massive My Morning Jacket nerd - such a nerd, in fact, that my sister made me MMJ cake pops for my birthday. I've written about Jim twice this year here and here and spent a lot of time trying to succinctly explain why the man is such a wizard. There are many obvious reasons, of course (hi, ridiculously good voice and hair mane), but the very root of Jim James' brilliance is his bottomless well of creative quests: he fearlessly glides between genres and sounds, never settles for long on one musical path, yet always manages to put forth quality work. 

Clearly, I was super excited for this album - even more so when I read that Jim played all of the instruments on the album aside from the drums and strings. Awesome, a trip into an interesting person's brain! I resisted the temptation to listen to Regions before it was officially released: I wanted to have the rare experience of anticipating an album and not cheating with a leak. Bundled up in bed one night in February after a rough day at work, I finally listened to all of Regions and felt like I'd just uncovered a new aspect of this crazy genius dude's mind. Even though the songs follow a story arc inspired by God's Man, a graphic novel, most of the tracks have surreal overtones - like you're inside someone's head space, not totally sure what's going on but getting the basic gist of their thoughts. Love. Lust. Darkness.  

Listen to this right now:  "Dear One." There are lots of captivating songs on the album, but this one is my favorite. I'm a sucker for interesting love songs - that shit is hard to do.

4. Streetlight Manifesto, The Hands That Thieve

This band is closer to my heart than almost any other. I first got into Streetlight in 8th grade after my best friend burned me a copy of Everything Goes Numb, and they immediately turned into our #1 obsession. Our parents used to drop us off at Starland Ballroom and random places in the city so we could see them, and I continued going to shows throughout high school and college. Now, 10 years later, I just bought my tickets to the two final shows they'll play before they put the band to rest (hopefully not forever). I think my Streetlight love has sustained a decade because their material was serious, poetic, and deeply introspective from the start - even though teens love it, it's not shallow kid bullshit. 

Streetlight has long been at war with their horrible, evil record label to the point where they couldn't even ship copies of this year's long-awaited album The Hands That Thieve. Much of the new album is clearly about the creatively oppressive label conflict (the album title says it all), but it doesn't come across as self-pitying. Tom Kalnoky's greatest strength as a writer is his ability to turn life experiences into broad, universal, important themes. Instead of penning some crap like "OUR RECORD LABEL SUX," he writes thoughtful songs about good vs. evil, calling the little guys to come together against unnamed super-powers, and other it's-not-about-me-it's-about-all-of-us musings. 

Listen to this right now: "With Any Sort of Certainty." This song contains the lyric of our time: "Nobody mentioned that the pieces wouldn't fit / You can re-arrange them all you want, but the puzzle, it was rigged." 

ALSO LISTEN TO THIS: An acoustic version of "With any Sort of Certainty" by Kalnoky (under the name Toh Kay). Unlike the version above, the softness of this one stirs up an entirely different set of feelings. The art in the video is incredible and so moving. Streetlight's label took this down shortly after Toh Kay independently released it, claiming copyright infringement since it's an alternate version of a Streetlight song. They also canceled his plans to release this song and others on his planned solo album. Thankfully, someone re-posted it, and I am happy to share it here: Kalnoky's talents are much too valuable to be silenced. 

5. Tea Leaf Green, In The Wake

I'm ten years late to the party, but I didn't get into Tea Leaf Green until late last year when I saw them play two awesomely energetic sets at Brooklyn Bowl. At that show the band announced that they raised enough money on Kickstarter to put the finishing touches on their new album, In the Wake, and out it came this May all fresh like a spring lamb.

In the Wake will make you feel like you're existing in an epic non-sleepy dream adventureOne minute you're floating along all peaceful and mellow, the next you're listening to this crazy disco-bass solo, then there's a super rock-star arena stomp song and later a sweet and heartbreaking ballad that includes a lyric that might make you cry: "Don't go, my world needs you to seem fair." 

Listen to this right now:  "Give Me One More Chance."  "Catchy pop tune" isn't the first descriptor that comes to mind when most people think of jam-fiends Tea Leaf Green, but  this song proves they do it well: it's one of the most fun surprises on In the Wake.