Good Old Days

This originally appeared on my old blog, Nothing But Bonfires, in March 2010

In the early summer of 1994, when I was just fourteen, my friend Caroline gave me a mix tape to listen to one night. Actually, side A was a mix, but side B was an album she’d recorded from someone else, just something to fill in the blank space. I took that tape into my tiny boarding school dormitory, fed it into my walkman, and listened to it through my headphones in the dark. I don’t even remember what was on side A now, but side B mesmerized me like a magic trick. I rewound and rewound, listened again and again, and when I finally got to the end of side B, I fast-forwarded all the way through side A until the tape clicked over and side B started from the beginning again.

In the morning, I looked at the cassette box. It’s A Shame About Ray, Caroline had scrawled in her loopy handwriting. The Lemonheads.

I sought her out at breakfast. “That tape you gave me,” I told her. “I loved side B. I loved every single song.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I thought you might.”

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I bought the album myself, from the HMV on Reigate High Street when I was visiting my grandma one weekend. I bought it as a CD, which felt a little extravagant at the time, and I played it in my room with the door closed, played it in the car with my dad when he drove me back to school on Sunday evenings, played it in my dormitory after lights out, my discman — -I had upgraded to a discman — -slipped sneakily under my pillow. I carried that CD with me from boarding school to university, from university to my adult life, from London to Connecticut to San Diego to Charleston to San Francisco, packing it up with every move. It still remains, without question, one of my top three favorite albums of all time.

Later that year, or perhaps it was another year entirely, Caroline and I found out that the Lemonheads were playing in London. “We should go,” we said. But we were fourteen and London was miles away from our leafy suburb and the only concert I’d ever been to was Janet Jackson with my dad, and so we didn’t go, and later in the halls at school I heard some older girls talking about the Lemonheads concert, how great it had been, and I wanted to punch myself for not being cool enough. One day I’ll go, I thought, and the years went by and I went to lots of shows as I got older, shows in grimy clubs and sweaty stadiums, pressed up against other people with my head swiveled towards the stage in adoration, but I never went to a Lemonheads show. And in the end I sort of just forgot about it.

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And then last month, I was idly scanning some dusty corner of the Internet, and I saw it: Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Cafe du Nord in San Francisco, February 28 at 8pm. Who would go with me to this? I thought. I emailed my friend Amber, with whom I had often discussed a mutual fondness for the 90s. “Random question,” I wrote, “but did you ever like the Lemonheads?” Her email came a few minutes later: an enthusiastic transcription of the lyrics to Dawn Can’t Decide. We booked our tickets.

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The concert was on a Sunday night. Who goes out on a Sunday night? We arrived at eight on the dot, two overeager thirty-somethings who forgot that bands never go on stage when they’re supposed to go on stage, that no-one ever gets there until at least two hours after the time on the ticket. We drank cider and looked for boys with plaid shirts. We stood and stood and stood, waited through two interminable opening acts, inching ever closer to the stage. I’m too old for this, I thought, and then of course I’m not too old for this.

I don’t think there is a way to describe the way you feel when songs you’ve carried around with you for years are suddenly right there in front of you, live and in full color, or maybe there is, but there are people who will do a far better job of it than I could. For me, I will just say this: it was worth the wait. All sixteen years of it.

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I am nostalgic to a fault, perhaps because of the way I grew up —always moving, always leaving, always idealizing the place I used to be before I left it —or perhaps because of something else entirely, a rogue strand of DNA that got mixed in at the last minute. I miss people before I’ve left them. I reminisce about things ten minutes after they’ve happened. I look back on times that were happy and they make me happy but they make me sad too, and sometimes there is just no way to separate the happy from the sad, and it’s because you can’t go backwards, I think, because there’s no way to press the repeat button. Things happen and then they’re over. People are here and then they’re gone. We keep going forward because we have to, and the past recedes in the rearview mirror behind us, and it gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

Nostalgia, if you can believe it, was once recognized as a medical condition. Soldiers fighting in wars in the eighteenth century were diagnosed with nostalgia and sent home. Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique describes how Swiss mercenaries were banned from singing the songs of their homeland—the Kuhreihen, or cattle-herding melodies —because they stirred in them such a powerful longing for the past that they would run away, become ill, or even die. Nostalgia—from the Greek word nostos meaning “returning home” and algos, meaning “pain” or “ache”—was also known as mal du Suisse (Swiss sickness) or mal du pays (homesickness). Ah, homesickness! There’s something I know a thing or two about.

You can’t go home again, they say, and it’s true, you can’t: you can’t go back in time to a dusky summer evening in 1994 when all the world seemed alive and new. You can’t go back with hard-won knowledge and hard-earned skills, and you can’t do it over, even if you swear you wouldn’t do it any differently at all. You can’t go backwards, and so you have to go forwards. But there’s nothing wrong with looking over your shoulder every once in a while.