Justin Courtney Pierre makes music for the weird, anxious punks who aren’t even sure if they belong in the alternative scene, this culture for outsiders. His hair is characteristically wild, sticking out in all directions like he wants his outer image to reflect his inner state of anxiety, and he’s been wearing the same thick black nerd glasses for ten years.
All the musicians we loved ten years ago have kids now. They’ve finally escaped their hometowns and eaten enough pizza with their friends, and they’re now ready to settle down and living actual adult lives. In 2015, it’s our first year of college, and we’re trying to be adults, too — maybe in the past being 18 or 19 meant being an anarchist crustpunk with no regrets, but the world is shifting, our job prospects are crumbling hopelessly, and everyone around us feels like we all need to hold down salaried jobs by the time we graduate, so we kick our checkered Vans into the back of the closet and add each other on LinkedIn.
Thank god I chose my first college roommate not by career prospects, but by our mutual interest in pop punk bands. Deanna is practically Twitter friends with Gerard Way at the time I meet her, and we become thick as thieves to the point people start to confuse us with each other. We always danced in our dorm room, our socks sliding around on the linoleum. “One of these days I’m going to slip and bust my ass doing this,” we would tell each other, catching ourselves on the bedposts while blasting Patrick Stump’s album Soul Punk, Deanna’s favorite, and applying eyeliner to go to a frat party we’d end up ditching.
The opening guitar to the Motion City Soundtrack song “Pulp Fiction” reminds me of rounding the corner in the tiny airport in Ontario, California and seeing my mom during my first Thanksgiving break home from college. But the rest of the song reminds me of riding with Deanna in the creaky dorm elevator we called “Otis,” bundled up in winter clothes because Deanna is from Florida and wanted to feel, just for a minute, what 30 degrees Fahrenheit felt like, wanted to see her breath, and she was singing in the elevator. Her Floridian ways were an endless source of amusement to me; her wonder at seeing flurries of snow for the first time, immediately calling her mom in excitement; and the time she asked me how to make hot tea because she had never made it before.
It was exciting to be out of our suburban hometowns. Deanna had lived so far south in South Florida that the immense length of the road trip farther and farther north just to get out of the state seemed to me like pushing oneself up from the bottom of a deep swimming pool. And my Southern Californian town had been too far inland to regularly do anything interesting. In comparison to some cities, Atlanta is no bustling metropolis, but we found plenty of things to do. Mostly we were interested in concerts, the ones cramped tight in little dark venues. When we’d heard Motion City Soundtrack was coming to town on their ten-year anniversary tour for their album Commit This to Memory, we knew we had to go.
At the same time, the campaign for the 2016 presidential election was kicking into gear, that long and exhausting slog of 531 days. In the beginning, it was fun; we watched debates on the grimy common-room couch, watched Donald Trump press his weird, wet little lips into the microphone to say something idiotic, which Alec Baldwin would then parody on SNL three nights later. We poked fun at Ted Cruz and Jeb!-with-an-exclamation-point, having little idea what we were throwing ourselves into. We visited the CNN center, where the marquee that encircled the massive food court was displaying “Donald Trump: Ban all Muslim travel to U.S.” in LED lights in a dizzying and repetitive pattern. We felt we could still shake off these statements like so much November rain off of our clothes; we ate fast food and took selfies with the cardboard cutout of Wolf Blitzer.
We counted down the days to the concert and endured freshman year the best we could. Everything about college still felt new, every assignment and party and friend-from-down-the-hall reminding us, this is college. And the dark parts — panic attacks and failed tests and friends dropping out — reminded us that we were also more alone than we had ever been.
Sitting on my bed, I read a Facebook post letting me know that my friend Jess had died of an aggressive cancer called alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma. She had just turned 18 and had been sick for a year. She died with her parents holding her. I was alone in my room, but I shut myself in the closet and cried in there because I thought it would be quieter. Then I packed up my things and went to my Film Studies class, a welcome distraction.
How do you grieve on campus? Every acquaintance I saw tossed a vague “how are you” at me, reflexively, and it felt shitty to say “good” as an equal reflex. How to grieve a digital friendship? I called Danny, who had met up with Jess in Liverpool while studying abroad. “It’s so unfair,” I said into the phone. I could feel the box springs of my dorm-room mattress pressing into my spine. Jess would never feel that — she would never go to university. My first real experience with grief, made even more cutting and strange by the intangibility of the internet. When I told Deanna, she asked if I still wanted to go to the MCS concert. I said yes. It was the only thing I could do.
Before the concert, we went to Ikea with a few other friends, laid on beds, window shopped for imaginary apartments, and ate meatballs. I thought of Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. “Oh no, honey, our sink isn’t working.” “Good thing we bought a house with two kitchens!” This was our facsimile of adulthood.
I had never been to The Masquerade before, the venue where the concert was being held, but when we arrived I could immediately tell why it was so famously beloved. It was a dark, leaning thing; all wood painted black. It looked abandoned. Some of the windows were boarded up. The emo kids were lined up outside, in flannels with band names painted in large, white letters on the back. There was, inexplicably, a DeLorean. Atlanta crested into darkness, the steeple of the pencil building illuminated yellow.
The Masquerade has three levels: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. We climbed the creaky stairs, wooden planks with gaps too large for my comfort, to Purgatory. Cool emo kids are not afraid of precarious stairs, so I said nothing.
We had discovered, at some time far too close to the start of the show, that Motion City Soundtrack was not actually headlining. Rather, they were opening for The Wonder Years. I had been making fun of The Wonder Years all week. The lead singer’s name is Dan Campbell; we called him Campbell Soup. Their most popular song at the time included the lines, “I came out swinging from a South Philly basement / Caked in stale beer and sweat under half-lit fluorescents” which was far too masculine and genuinely self-deprecating for at least my own interests. The song also includes the line “Been on a steady fast food diet / Like we’re this generation’s Morgan Spurlock,” which made Deanna laugh. (If you didn’t attend a public school health class in 2009, Morgan Spurlock is the guy who stars in the documentary Super Size Me, in which he eats nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days straight.) “What does that even mean?” Deanna would ask, laughing. “Morgan Spurlock is this generation’s Morgan Spurlock.”
One of the opening bands for MCS (many small venue shows are a cavalcade of bands opening for bands opening for bands) was called Ya Blew It! with an exclamation point. (The exclamation points are very important to these bands.) Ya Blew It! turned out to be a bunch of flannel-wearing bearded white dudes who addressed the audience by saying, “It’s about to get lit, fam!” They did, indeed, blow it.
I remember only details about Motion City Soundtrack’s actual set. I remember that before they came on stage, the Masquerade played “Ms. Jackson” by Outkast and everyone sang along because it’s Atlanta. I remember that all of the crowd’s jumping was causing the floor of The Masquerade to literally bend beneath the weight of us all, which was a little concerning, but again, cool emo kids do not care about the structural strength of the building in which they are dancing. I remember dust raining down from the rafters of Heaven, the fine particles visible in the beams of the multi-colored stage lights. This triggered a small asthma attack and I was embarrassed to use my inhaler in public. Ironically, Justin Courtney Pierre is so famously asthmatic that fans sometimes ask him to sign their inhalers.
I remember Justin giving all of us a thumbs up during “Time Turned Fragile,” when he sings in the words of his father, “J, I’m so proud of all the things that you have done.” I remember someone tossing their cup of beer into the air and splashing it, somehow, directly into my eyeball. I remember Deanna and I screaming the lyrics to “Everything is Alright” in each other’s faces, arguably Motion City Soundtrack’s most popular song, about struggling with OCD, anxiety, and addiction, as so many of their lyrics do. “I’m getting better at fighting the future,” Justin sings. “Someday you’ll be fine / yes, I’ll be just fine,” everyone screams back at each other. “Everything is alright / just tell me that you’re alright,” and the floor is still bending, and nothing and everything is alright, all at once. Nothing is alright about Jess being dead, or the state of politics, or the terrifying future that stretches out before us, but in this room, jumping on the caving baseboards of this decrepit building, yelling in each other’s faces about being scared of the future, everything is alright for a moment.
The energy only builds until it culminates in Motion City Soundtrack’s other famous-for-screaming-out-your-feelings song, “L.G. FUAD,” which — and I’m sorry to repeat this in an academic context — stands for Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die. It is a song for when you know that logically, you should probably stay alive, but all you want to do is get fucked up and die.Justin pleads, “I’m a mess, I’m a wreck / I am perfect and I have learned to accept / all my problems and shortcomings ‘cause I’m so visceral / yet deeply inept.” In comparison to other pop punk lyricists, Justin Courtney Pierre is practically a scholar in the poetics of anxiety.
We decided to see another wiry-haired punk that weekend: presidential nominee Bernie Sanders. The line at the Fox Theatre snaked down the sidewalk and around the block. Temperatures were in the 40s. Deanna got hot chocolate from the hotel cafe across the street just to warm her hands. A gray-haired woman in line gave us some grapes; someone else gave me a button that said “Bernie 2016” with a photoshopped image of Bernie Sanders holding a kitten in each hand.
I remember most the excitement, the pure naive energy of a progressive year ahead. The chandeliers of the Fox Theatre and the velvet curtains and the homemade signs. Bernie’s likeness was easily iconified into a head with glasses and unruly hair, and one volunteer was waving a rainbow-colored cardboard cutout of that icon. Killer Mike, the Atlanta rapper from Run the Jewels, introduced Sanders to the stage. Years later, Killer Mike would be criticized by the left for taking money to publicly endorse the NRA on television, but for now, he talked about how he and Bernie had eaten at a popular soul food restaurant together earlier that day. The concept of a candidate who seeks out local food seemed charming and homely. When Bernie took the stage, he launched into his spiel about Medicare for all, and community college without tuition, and how the top one-tenth of the one percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, which by now sounds as soundbyte-y and tiresome as anything. But in 2015 it was hopeful, a compelling and convincing argument.
Of course, all good things end. Bernie Sanders lost the primary. Deanna transferred to another university. The Masquerade was evicted from its original location. Motion City Soundtrack broke up. Outside, the November wind fluttered the international flags of the hotel as we waited for our Uber. “We might have just seen the next president of the United States,” Deanna said. As we stood on the dark street and the crowd dispersed and wandered back to their cars, I felt the dull ache of grief and winter revealing itself again. We climbed into the warm car of a stranger who our phones told us to trust, and we were delivered safely to our parallel beds. This was college, a community chattering to each other over Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” And this was America, Sharpie-scrawled sneakers pounding the floorboards of a condemned building.
Alex Brown is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She can be found on Twitter @violinwitch.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/IcaWise