I Know This Song

It’s hard to conjure Indiana sensations in a Baltimore row house surrounded by seagulls. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now. I’m struggling to muster up the feeling of morning at my parents’ house, sneaking outside for a cigarette to the sparrows singing in disgust—“No smoking, no smoking!”—before climbing on my bike, taking off for downtown.

Most mornings in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, the air reeked of wet pet chow from the Purina plant in town. But on some mornings, the Richmond Baking Company would beat Purina in a grand olfactory showdown, winning back the hearts of citizens citywide with whiffs of fresh cookies, if only for a few hours.

I’m thinking about Richmond this morning because I miss it—the creaky boards of my parents’ front porch, the hills around their house—brown in fall, green in spring; hills that kill and thrill crazy kids in their crap cars year-round. Most people don’t imagine Indiana as land laden with slopes and knolls. But Richmond’s niche, midway between Kentucky and Michigan, edging up to Ohio, is where the smooth scape stops and hill country begins.

I’ve had a few friends here “on the East Coast”—who were born and raised here “on the East Coast”—proffer up comical, inaccurate impressions of what Indiana folk must be like—we have gravel-mouth drawls, own dirt-stained work bibs, have a penchant for constant corn. True, Indiana is corn country; between every tiny town sits a metropolis of cornstalks. But for many Indiana folks, corn is just as much for trade as it is for taste.

I’m missing Richmond and I’m not sure why. I don’t want to be there this instant. I want to be there twenty years ago. That’s what I keep thinking about—Richmond twenty years ago. When the tiny town with its hills and its creaky porches and its pet chow plant was all I knew.

I was fourteen then. The age of abhorrence. My hormonal disdain knew no bounds—teachers could fuck off, parents could fuck off, homework could fuck off; German class and biology class and pre-SAT prep classes—they could all fuck off too. School was for kids who gave fucks and, well, I didn’t much.

One thing I especially despised at that age was the unoriginality of my hometown’s name. Seems like a strange and particular thing to hate, but it was something over which I obsessed and made note of often. Mid-argument, no matter the real issue at hand, I’d throw in an attack on my hometown’s moniker: “Everything sucks here because we’re in a Richmond. There’s a Richmond in every state. All the teenagers in every Richmond probably hate the dumbass town they live in because it’s a Richmond. Essentially, Richmond, Indiana is like John Doe, Indiana. And guess what? John Doe is fuckin’ boring.”

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It was a twisted, immature logic, especially when I tried to use it to explain away the bad grades on my report card. It’s not my fault, it’s this town’s name’s fault—was not much of an argument. I see that now, but back then it made perfect sense to me. For all I cared, Richmond, Indiana could take its commonplace name and fuck off.

You may be wondering why I’m missing Richmond right now, given that I apparently hated it so much. And you may be particularly curious as to why I’m longing for a time in my life during which I hated (the name of) my hometown the most.

I think this longing is more for a sense of resourcefulness I once had than it is, say, arbitrary or simply age-related. I miss how inventive I was twenty years ago in Richmond Fuckin’ Indiana—when I was fourteen, bored, really into discovering good music, and, as of yet, not completely suicidal. Because if you wanted exposure to good music in Richmond—not just for the benefit of listening, but also for the benefit of knowing—then you had to be creative to get it. Even back then I understood the difference between someone saying “I know this song” and someone else saying “I know this song” and that the difference was most discernible in the focus of that person’s eyes. I really wanted the glazed glance of the person who knew her music. Sure, there was MTV, but even back then it was changing its direction. And the music wasn’t necessarily that great anyway. Just the same videos on repeat: Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ video with melting doll faces; Lisa Loeb in her cat-eye glasses looking like how some of my friends do now, beg-singing for someone to stay; and Ace of Base’s horrible synth-pop song ‘All That She Wants’—a tune that got stuck so easily in your that all that you wanted was another handgun.

No, if you were a fourteen-year-old in Richmond, Indiana and you wanted exposure to decent music, then you probably rode your bike to one of two places: Side 1 Music or Earlham College. The former was a record store; the latter a safe haven for many local teens, because smack-dab in the middle of their otherwise nondescript John-Doe-ish Midwestern town was a liberal arts college of national repute. Ani Difranco played there in the early nineties, as did Phish and Dar Williams. Sure, these names might provoke scoffs or shrugs or laughter now, but they didn’t so much back then. There were a host of other little-to-lesser known bands—bands that would later make it big—that played in rinky-dink Richmond, Indiana in their early days. And for this the local teens were actually quite lucky and grateful.

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But let me stop right here. Really, I’m not being fair to Richmond. Though it wasn’t much of a big deal at the end of the twentieth century, the small city had, at one point in the twenties, been home to Gennett Records, a company that not only recorded the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstraong, and Gene Autry, it actually pressed their records too. So there was musicality—original musicality and musical history—in Richmond at one point. And there were residual fans of that golden era, my grandmother being one, who kept its memory alive. But I didn’t appreciate all this at fourteen. In fact, I fear that, had someone told me all this about Gennett Records at the time, I might’ve said Gennett Records could fuck off.

But back to the Indiana sensations of which I’ve been trying to conjure up. I actually miss the smell of pet chow in the morning. It seemed at its strongest during summer months. And I long for how it felt to get up on those stinky summer mornings, knowing I was going to devote my entire day to either attaining a particular album or hanging out at Earlham College, where there was food, an endlessly-abandoned indoor pool hall, and the audiocassettes of college kids blasting bands like Sebadoh or Skankin’ Pickle or Sonic Youth. This morning-time anticipation invoked strange, almost synesthetic associations. In order to ride my bike anywhere, the weather had to be nice, so the smell of pet chow or the occasional fresh-from-the-oven sugar cookie made my calf muscles ache. I’d listen to a tape from Side 1 music—Frente or Mazzy Star or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, something I’d purchased by way of a three-hour bike journey—and the music would make me think of the color gray. Because that’s all I’d seen for miles and miles en route to retrieve said tape, uphill and downhill toward the record store—gray pavement, gray gravel, sometimes a gray overcast sky.

And corn. Lots of music made me think of corn.

I didn’t have a job at fourteen; therefore I didn’t have much money. Sometimes being resourceful meant having to “borrow forever.” I couldn’t borrow from Side 1 Music, but I could from the Earlham College radio studio, which was located in the same building as the abandoned pool hall. Like the abandoned pool hall, the studio seemed perpetually unmonitored, perhaps because the music selection there consisted of albums most teenagers wouldn’t consider worth stealing—Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart or Debussy’s Claire de Lune or Walter Ostanek’s Grammy-award-winning polka compilation “Accordioningly Yours.” Still, there were several albums in one corner of the room that were stacked in conspicuous disarray. I could see right through the ol’ carefully-disheveled-Jenga-tower-of-CDs trick; such staged carelessness didn’t fool me. These were the albums played by students late at night, the albums I needed to know. Though I managed to transport all of two CDs from this stack—each during a separate trip to Earlham—all the way back to my bedroom, I cherished these albums even more for their embezzled classification in my growing library; they were Magnapop’s ‘Hot Boxing’ and The Lemonheads’ ‘It’s a Shame About Ray.’

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My visits to Side 1 Music were made with more focus; I’d go with enough stashed or filched cash to actually buy something. I also went to ogle the musicians who worked there, one of whom—Norm Kirby—was lead singer in the band Kites Above Mercury. He was a few years older than I, which meant approaching him was something I did sparingly, out of fear of saying something dumb.

Norm had the quintessential rockstar’s mouth, comparable to Steven Tyler’s and Mick Jagger’s. It was safe to say, in the most unironic way possible, that his mouth was indeed purdy. He also had the quintessential rock star physique, comparable to Iggy Pop’s or Perry Farrell’s. The words “pretty” or “purdy” didn’t apply to him here. In fact, when I’d go see Kites perform, the first word that came to mind the moment Norm removed his shirt was “irritable.” Norm looked irritable on stage, which, I suppose, was his intent. He agitated the crowd; looked like he wanted to struggle right out of his skin and couldn’t. And since we couldn’t struggle out of our skins any better, we stared and screamed and wriggled around on Norm’s behalf. Sometimes Kites Above Mercury shows felt transcendental like that. We were all devoted to helping irritable Norm out of his small-town Richmond skin, to following his mighty lips to stardom.

If it is indeed a lost sense of resourcefulness I’m missing this morning, one that I associate with my younger days in Indiana, then there must be a reason for it. I suppose it may have to do with the twenty years that followed, most of which were spent battling addiction. I only emerged from that haze two years ago, without one single attachment to place or sound. I discovered new music. Then I forgot it. I moved around, smoking a hundred cigarettes on a few dozen different porches. Not once did I wake up and want to make a special journey to procure new music. I stopped stealing CDs and started stealing money. Then I started selling CDs.

But it’s possible to regain sensations, or so I’ve been told. And I think this is true. Because when I listen to music—Frente or Sonic Youth or Sebadoh, whatever from twenty years ago—I feel those old leg cramps flarin’ up again, just a little, like phantom cramps. And no matter where I go, I know the fuckin’ pavement is gray.

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“I Know This Song” first appeared on Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

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