In September 1999, I was a shy and angsty Carolina freshman. I lived at Granville Towers, just off campus. (Campus housing? Perish the thought!) My roommate and two suitemates were from my hometown, as were two more guys down the hall, as were two girls farther down. It was like dipping a toe into college – I could gauge the temperature of the water, but the warm and familiar was right there waiting if I found it all too cold.
And then Something To Write Home About was released. I'd been looking forward to The Get Up Kids' sophomore album for some time; 1997's Four Minute Mile had been a staple in the CD player of my 1967 Mercury Cougar, with 'Don't Hate Me' and 'Coming Clean' earning the most plays and scream.
Oh Amy, don't hate me for running away from you
Oh Amy, don't hate me, 'cause I'm still in love with you
I'll concede that those lyrics look pretty simplistic written out like that, but the combination of lyric and melody, the in-line rhymes of "Amy" and "hate me" made a certain small-town attorney's son scream and sing along many mornings on the way to school.
But Something To Write Home About was on a whole other level. It was tighter. More consistent. It had a flow that was missing from the Kids' debut. And it spoke to a brand new college freshman, capturing the angst, the uncertainty, the, yes emo(tion) that would tell a shy kid from an Eastern North Carolina town, that someone was relating to him, that his personal experience was unique but not wholly unfamiliar.
The opening track, 'Holiday,' gets right to the point, with twin pick scrapes down the neck of the guitar leading to escalating power chords and Matt Pryor asking, "What became of everyone I used to know? Where did our respectable convictions go?" That spoke to this kid, the one taking small-town values and trying to apply them, trying to fit them in on a college campus that threatened to swallow him whole, to the kid that looked around and thought both "Where is everyone I knew?" and "Who is everyone I know, really?"
The Get Up Kids came to Carrboro, to the much-missed Go! Studios Room 4, and I absorbed the music fully. The screaming "Won't somebody notice me?" invectives and the plaintive "Please notice me" ballads. Something To Write Home About came into my life at the right time.
Now, some 18 years later, comes Car Seat Headrest. Twenty-four year old Will Toledo has released 10(!) albums, the two most recent, 2015's Teens of Style and last year's Teens of Denial on Matador Records, helping him break through toward –if not all the way to– the mainstream. Car Seat Headrest was popping up in one of my Spotify Daily Mixes, alongside Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird, and then I saw my friend Kinsey Brooks on SnapChat. She looked directly at the camera and said "Car Seat Headrest!" with confidence. And sang.
It doesn't have to be like this.
It doesn't have to be like this.
It doesn't have to be like this.
What did that even mean? I didn't know, and maybe still don't, but the melody was there, singable and innocent in its profound approachability. I investigated, dipping another toe into the waters of the angst that had defined me 18 years prior, but too often returning to the warm and familiar again, to Hamilton and The Beatles and Pink Floyd and Sufjan Stevens, the music that envelops me in my 30s as The Get Up Kids and Old 97's and Ben Folds Five did in my early 20s.
But a few months later, my neighbor Rachel Etheridge mentioned that her husband Will was going to see some band, some "Car Seat Headrest, or something."
"Car Seat Headrest?" I said. "I'd go to that." And so we made plans.
Now here I must make a confession. I know it's somewhat frowned upon among music snobs like myself to sneak a peek at setlist.fm and see what's being played on tour before attending a show. I have no problem with this. If I'm going to see a band that I'm not completely familiar with, I take a look ahead and make a Spotify playlist of the songs I might expect to hear. There are two schools of thought here, and I'm willing to listen to the other side. If The Beatles were somehow to tour again, I wouldn't look at the set list ahead of time; I know the whole catalogue. But if Mark Knopfler came back –I know a handful of Dire Straits songs– I'd take a look, make a playlist, and get to know the gems on Sailing To Philadelphia.
So yes, I built a playlist based on the songs I might expect to hear, and I'm glad I did. Toledo has a knack for melody that elevates him above those that might aspire to his level. I wanted to be able to nod and smile at the opening riffs of songs I'd heard before.
Will picked me up on a rainy Monday night. As we drove into Carrboro, he asked me, "Can you remember the last time you were at Cat's Cradle?"
I thought. "It was either They Might Be Giants, or . . . The Get Up Kids' reunion tour." I stared out the window of Will's car, the parallels setting in.
We walked into a Cat's Cradle that was new to me. The entrance, once on the front of the strip mall, then on the side of the building, was now in the back. The mummy man that used to haunt the ceiling now resides over the bar in the rear of the room. And while I have grown up, the people at Cat's Cradle, many of them, anyway, have stayed the same age. Including, I might add, the same ageless doorman, who has gotten somehow not gotten older or younger in the 18 years I've been going to Cat's Cradle.
The opening band was Nap Eyes, an outfit out of Nova Scotia. I didn't know much about them, but they were fine. In the push to find standing room at the Cradle, I ran into a familiar face, my guitar instructor Mark Voller, a hip dude seven years my junior, with a tattoo of a bass clef on his forearm, the kind of guy who says "Right on!" and makes you believe it. "I don't know anything about either of these bands!" he said with a grin. His girlfriend Christina Anglin, and he was game. I imagine he said "Right on!" when she proposed the idea.
I introduced Will to Mark, though I was a bit uncomfortable. When my worlds collide, I get a little uneasy. Generally I am able to compartmentalize my selves. There is work Turner, the Turner of Turner's Take and Twitter. There is home Turner, the married man with the wife and the dog and the church and the neighbors. This is where my neighbor Will resides. And there is music Turner, the college singer/songwriter who still dreams of seeing his name on marquees, if not at Royal Albert Hall then at Motorco or Local 506. This is the arena that Mark inhabits. Each of these audiences is aware that the other exists, but my fear has been that if a citizen of one of these worlds meets someone from another, some illusion will shatter and all will see me for a fraud. But Will cut right to the heart of the issue.
"Is Turner a good guitar player?" he said to Mark. I started sweating. See, there's this false narrative in my head, the one that doesn't allow for vulnerability to show. If I tell my neighbor I play guitar, I'm going to need him to just take it on faith that I am good at guitar. If I tell my guitar instructor that I'm a good writer, he's going to have to trust me. At 36, I still haven't mastered the art of letting go the illusion of perfection, of allowing my friends in on my struggles, of showing my work, be it writing or music or fitness or mental health. I don't know how necessary it is for me to walk down the street and say, "Hey neighbor! I'm getting better at guitar!" But it may be helpful to let someone in on the idea that I am doing the work of self-improvement. I don't have to have mastered everything to have friends. I have people who are in my life, who give me life because of my flaws, not despite them. They don't resent me for not being perfect, for having to work at it. They relate to the struggle.
"Yeah! He's awesome!" Mark said. Right on. I sighed. But Mark continued. "You know, Turner takes voice lessons before he sees me for guitar." Oh shit here we go. "I walk by the room, and I hear him singing show tunes, Sinatra, Hamilton . . . "
"Will, you're not supposed to be hearing this," I interjected.
"Oh yeah," Will replied, unabated. "We've heard an entire Hamilton performance at the piano at his house."
I turned. "Mark, you're not supposed to be hearing that," I said. They laughed. I laughed. Worlds remained intact, for now. An exhale. Right on.
Car Seat Headrest took the stage right at 9 p.m. Toledo wore a black turtleneck, his hair falling down over his bespectacled eyes. He was Joey Ramone, 2017. His guitarist wore a shirt for the video game Doom. His bassist looked like every bassist in every high school band ever, cradling the oversized guitar and bopping his head. His drummer wore a headband and kept the beat like it was his job (it was).
They tore into "Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An)," and the crowd nodded with appreciation and sang along. And then, "Fill in the Blank."
I'm so sick of (fill in the blank)
Accomplish more, accomplish nothing
If I were split in two I would just take my fists
So I could beat up the rest of me
You have no right to be depressed
You haven't tried hard enough to like it
Haven't seen enough of this world yet
But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
Well stop your whining, try again
No one wants to cause you pain
They're just trying to let some air in
But you hold your breath, you hold your breath, you hold it
Hold my breath, I hold my breath, I hold it.
It's clear that Toledo himself has dealt with his own internal issues and found a tremendous, constructive outlet for them. In "Fill in the Blank" he is at one moment invalidating his own feelings, giving voice to the inner monogue that says "Get over yourself," and in the next allowing space for those feelings. I've been there. Many, many have. People were singing along. Post-teens were swaying. A man 15 feet in front of me had his eyes closed and hands in the air, as if he were at a tent revival. They were relating. For my part, I don't have the same angst I did at 20; now it's major depressive disorder, the nagging thought that by this point I should know what I'm doing in the world. But to be among a friendly group of people, all connecting, all exuding redemptive, therapeutic energy was inspirational.
I've got a right to be depressed
I've given every inch I had to fight it
I have seen too much of this world, yes
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
I looked around the room. People were bobbing their heads and acknowledging their own emotions, their own internal thoughts that hold them back, and finding voice and expression, relation and validation. Toledo was laying out the very same discomfort that I'd felt when my worlds collided just moments before.
"How many of you go to Chapel Hill?" Toledo said between songs. There were many whoos. "Congratulations," he said. "And also, congratulations if you don't." The crowd laughed. If you've got a Telecaster strapped to your back and an adoring audience, anything can be funny. But the young man who began his career recording his compositions in the back seat of his car makes for an uncomfortable rock star. And so he began the next song.
"Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" is the first Car Seat Headrest song I heard, way back on Kinsey's SnapChat. When it began, the guy behind me said, "This is my favorite song of his." 'Well, of course it is,' I thought, like the music snob I so despise. But by the time the chorus came around, I was singing along, if only silently.
It doesn't have to be like this.
And singing alongside people of all ages, one knows that indeed it doesn't have to be like that. That there is a collective empathy that, if embraced, can buoy us all.
It was steamy inside, the mass of humanity and the humidity from the rain contributing to a hot night in the Cradle. I had to move to the back of the room, by the door. The rain outside was coming down hard. There were people closer to my age back here, enjoying the music but not needing to be pressed up against one another. I remembered that one of my favorite things about a Cat's Cradle show was walking into the cool air afterward.
I ran into Michael Lananna, a recent Carolina alumnus and Baseball America writer, a music fan. He'd been up by the stage. "These guys are great," he said with an earnestness that I admired. "He's so good. "
"Yeah, he's got a gift for melody and hooks," I said.
"And lyrics," Michael said. "They're funny. Self-deprecating. But, like, real. Kind of like The Ramones mixed with The Strokes."
"Well, yeah. He looks like the grandson of Joey Ramone. But let's be honest, his lyrics are better than The Ramones." And they are. Dear reader, The Ramones weren't the most lyrically complex band in the history of music. It's OK to like "Judy Is A Punk" while at the same time admitting that it's not Melville. And Will Toledo knows more than four chords. But I digress . . .
I told Michael that if I were 18 to 21, I would be all about Car Seat Headrest. I would mainline Will Toledo's music. I would write lyrics on my arms and paste them into away messages. As it is, I'm not 18 to 21. I can appreciate this music more from afar, placing it in regular rotation without needing to binge it.
The band wrapped up their set with "Famous Prophets (Minds)," then returned for an encore consisting of a Devo cover and "Beast Monster Thing (Love Isn't Love Enough).
My neighbor Will found me on his way out, and we stepped into that cool air that I had so longed for. "What did you think?" I said.
"I thought it was great," he said.
And it was. Car Seat Headrest doesn't have to be my favorite band in the world, but I love knowing that there's an artist 12 years younger than me giving 'the kids' something to relate to, tackling his own anxiety and depression and allowing his audience in, allowing them to be comfortable in their vulnerability. That is something to write home about.