The great American going out of business sale

It's a fine line between the newsletter and narcissism.

The great American going out of business sale

So here’s a funny little story. After my last post about Good Luck and all those other bands, people hit me up to do a bunch of work. Some of that is out there, and some of it is not, so even when I was thinking of good topics for this newsletter, I just let them slip because I was busy and tired and lazy. Or maybe just lazy. Anyway, I was asked to write a thing and recently heard back from the place that asked me to write it and they don’t want to run it (which is fine), so I decided to just put it here instead. I believe this is called “making lemonade out of rejection.”

But first, some context. I was asked to write about my own cultural identity within punk, which is kind of a weird thing. I don’t think my story is necessarily that special, so I opted to frame it around a record that I think speaks to where I come from and how I see the world. That record is Dillinger Four’s Midwestern Songs Of The Americas.

Now, astute readers may be saying, “Didn’t you write about that record for your column ‘The Shape Of Punk’ at VICE?” And you’re right! I did do that! But with the column, I wanted it to be about the album’s cultural impact on the larger punk scene, not my personal feelings about it. And I’ve gotta say, of all the truly killer albums I wrote about, Midwestern Songs Of The Americas was the one that was hardest for me to not bring myself into. And if you read this whole weird thing below, I guess you’ll see why.

Without further ado, here’s a thing that I wrote that would have been much cooler if it was published as intended. Instead, it’s a newsletter. Which is less cool, but the exact same in every other way.

The first place I ever remember living was a trailer park. I know that, technically speaking, that’s not the first place I lived—my mom and I landed there after she threw all of our belongings into a trash bag and left my dad’s house in the middle of the night before I was even a year old—but I  have no recollection of any of that. But I do remember that trailer.

At the time, I was too young to fully understand why my mom didn’t like telling people that we lived in a trailer park, but I’d figure it out soon enough. That’s the funny thing about being poor: You don’t realize it right away. But even as a kid, long before you can put words to those feelings, you can just sense that something’s different. You don’t know exactly why, but you know that your mom doesn’t like to tell your friends parents where you live. But once you know why your parents employ those evasive maneuvers, you either start doing the same thing—because you get tired of decoding whether talking about it will make other people uncomfortable—or you fully embrace it. Clearly, I’ve opted for the latter.

I grew up in Northwest Indiana or, as we prefer to call it, The Region. Those of us from that loose assemblage of cities and towns that butt right up against Chicago and Lake Michigan call ourselves “Region Rats,” a self-deprecating phrase that we champion because, well, sometimes you just need something to rally around, even if it’s not exactly perfect. While you may be assuming this is some hyper-specific term that’s only said by a small subset of residents, let me assure you, it’s not. The Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond sells T-shirts that have the phrase prominently displayed on both the front and the back, with a large, anthropomorphized rat dressed as a steelworker across the back. That should more or less sum up what most of The Region is like.

Growing up, we didn’t have much in the way of luxuries, but we always had music. My mom loved music, as did the rest of her family, and their eclectic tastes had huge benefits to a kid who was wildly obsessed with music even at a young age. One such upside was that, when Green Day exploded into the mainstream music world on the back of 1994’s Dookie, the CD just appeared in my house. Given my mom’s love of “When I Come Around,” it was suddenly acceptable for my kindergarten-age self to listen to an album with songs about masturbation, bisexuality, poverty, and more masturbation. As was customary for the mid-to-late ‘90s, Green Day led me to blink-182 and, together, those bands wedged open the door to the world of underground punk. Though I started off investigating many of the pop-punk and skate-punk bands that dominated the landscape, I’d soon find music that wasn’t just fun, but had a message I could relate to.

Getting Propagandhi’s 1996 album Less Talk, More Rock was an immediate revelation. With the band’s ethics printed all around the border of the album cover—Animal-Friendly, Anti-Fascist, Gay-Positive, Pro-Feminist—I was put off not by the ideologies, but the fact I didn’t know what half of those phrases meant. With the assistance of the record’s detailed liner notes, I slowly began to understand that maybe what I was taught in school, and what I saw in my hometown, wasn’t how things were supposed to be. Despite the necessary kick in the ass, bands like Propagandhi, Aus-Rotten, or even classic anarcho-punk acts like Crass and Subhumans, felt worlds away from my material reality. I loved punk, and it was doing a lot of work in forming my pre-teen identity, but it still felt like something that couldn’t really be claimed as my own. Then I heard Dillinger Four.

Like many of life’s most important moments, the band entered my orbit by pure happenstance. I was flipping through the punk section in a local record store when I came upon their debut album, Midwestern Songs Of The Americas. The album’s cover, with a tattered American flag floating in a window above a modest hi-fi setup, made me mildly curious. Then I flipped it over.

Filling the entire upper-third of the back cover was a gruesome photo of bassist Patrick “Paddy” Costello, his fingers actively bleeding while playing his bass, blood smeared all across the pickguard of his sunburst Rickenbacker. Right next to this was drummer Lane Pederson’s kick drum, which had a sparkly American flag sticker affixed to the front of his kit. That juxtaposition felt symbolic, and in a sea of glossy album covers churned out by Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, the pure grit of this one stood out. I put back whatever else I planned on buying that day and ran up to the counter, clutching my copy of Midwestern Songs Of The Americas, because it already felt like it was mine.

When I got home, I ripped open the shrinkwrap and threw the record on the turntable. Once the needle caught the groove, I sat there anxiously awaiting for the music to kick in. But instead of jumping right into it like so many punk bands would—to keep the short attention spans hooked from the very first seconds—the album started with a 40-second sample from an old test record, the kind people would use to balance their speakers. And then, after all that waiting, it finally happened. A chunky palm-muted power chord came in and Erik Funk started to sing. “Witness a jaded town / Got some champagne for a forty ounce frown / I've worked my theories through / Already half dead and nothing more to lose.” Then, apropos of nothing, he shouts “Go!” Only then does the band come crashing in with a cacophonous mix of distorted guitars, mangled bass lines, and three vocalists all diving over top of one another. For the next 32-minutes, I sat there, astounded by what I was hearing. I read along with the lyrics, and with each passing line I was getting confirmation that, for once, there was a record that I could actually relate to.

Midwestern Songs Of The Americas is the kind of album that could only have been created by a band whose members understood what it felt like to have been bred in cities where upward mobility wasn’t a given, and that working as a laborer was likely your only career opportunity. Costello and Funk had both spent time in Chicago, having originally come from Evanston before relocating to Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, linking up with Pederson and, eventually, guitarist Billy Morrisette. After a few seven-inches, they finally put out an album, and they made full use of the format, dropping in references to Midwestern ephemera and cultural figures as if this was all just a shared language. For some of us, it was. Not everyone knows the Empire carpet jingle, but hearing it used in a song named after Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus felt like hyper-specific regional references carried the same weight as all those California bands writing about their favorite beaches and burrito spots.

Make no mistake, this was music that could not have possibly been formed in a coastal city, as its references were so specific, its lyrics so barbed, and the music so drunkenly disheveled, that it created a kind of punk rock I’d never heard before, that of the left-wing, Midwestern union worker. My thoughts, my feelings, my sense of humor, and my identity were all there, finally legitimized in the art form I cared about the most.

As the record played, new washes of emotion sideswiped me. Costello’s ode to riding the bus with other blue collar workers on “Superpowers Enable Me To Blend In With Machinery” would become my lifeline once I entered the working world, starting out by selling fireworks as a 15-year-old—occasionally being forced to work 16-hour shifts, in blatant violation of labor laws—and then briefly working midnights in a bottling facility, where my manager would call me “fag” in front of the rest of the staff. After a couple days of it, I walked off that job on my lunch break and never came back. On the drive home, I blasted “Superpowers Enable Me To Blend In With Machinery,” screaming the final lines at the top of my lungs: “But it's the slow decay of the day-to-day / That says take your paycheck / Accept your place and fade away / But there was dignity in plastic seats that day.” It also didn’t hurt that there were lyrics like, “The only good boss is one that’s dead,” and the chorus was a succinct summation of all my scattered thoughts: “Fuck ‘em all”

But then, of course, there was the album’s closing track, “The Great American Going Out Of Business Sale.” The first time I heard it, sitting in the two-room house that had asbestos in the basement and no heat in the upper-half of the house—a home that housed five people after my mom married my step dad—I just wept. “We were raised to be just what we are, in case you didn't know / If I offered up to you some proof, would you let your anger show? / Or would you put your mind to sleep, kept warm by simple novelties / And a history that's really not your own?”

That history was one that saw my maternal grandfather work in a steel mill for the bulk of his career. His hardened skin and complete loss of hearing the byproducts of working around machinery with little-to-no safety precautions. Or my step dad, a diesel mechanic who despite his best efforts, couldn’t hide it when the hard times hit. I remember the whole family gathering around the windows and staring out at the tow truck driver repossessing his car, the unfortunate byproduct of him sustaining a knee injury and being put on medical leave from work while trying to pay for his 15-year-old son’s—my step brother’s—cancer treatments. Or my mom, who worked so hard to raise me while putting herself through school, now working through her own cancer treatments that overlapped with those of my step brother. None of us had signed up for this life, we were merely the products of a system that was meant to keep us, and everyone in our immediate vicinity, exactly where we were.

I never fully understood why so many people I knew took pride in being from The Region. It’s not that I was ashamed of it, but we were living in the rusted-out memories of a country that used us all up, then left us behind. I couldn’t understand why anyone would look at this place with anything resembling esteem. But then, right there at the very end of Midwestern Songs Of The Americas, I heard it clear as day: “I refuse to be just another dead nation’s bastard son.”

That line filled me with pride. Not just in who I was, but that my story, and the story of my family, friends, and neighbors actually had value. We were more than just the working poor from a place that most people only ever drive through—usually plugging their noses when doing so to avoid the distinct sulfuric smell of the oil refineries. “I have eyes that see / I have a mind that thinks / I have a mouth that speaks / And goddamnit, it will,” sang Dillinger Four, and I sure as hell believed that.

It was then that I started playing in bands and taking my writing a little more seriously. Through a series of basements, coffee shops, VFW halls, and one comic book store, we had a little underground network that stretched across The Region and the adjoining south suburbs of Chicago. A bunch of teenagers were just creating their own music and art for the sake of having a lot of pent-up energy and nowhere else to put it. There was never any belief that the music that was being made was for anyone other than the loose assemblage of weirdos that were there, because why would we? In the years since, I’ve gotten to see some of those same kids have their art written about positively, from the likes of artists like the late David Berman, to publications like Pitchfork and The Fader, occasionally even playing on big festival stages on the Pitchfork Music Festival. Even if we were never close, I was always proud seeing them reach those heights knowing exactly where they came from, even if no one else did. It was a shared secret, even if it was unspoken.

Eventually, I moved to Chicago to chase my writing ambitions as a full-time job. And for a while, I got to do exactly that. I worked at a cool publication and got to soak in all the things that felt walled off to me my entire life. I spent years working my way up the chain, making next to nothing and living paycheck to paycheck in the process, all in the pursuit of something that, at the time, felt noble. But after five years, it was becoming increasingly clear that the things I wanted to champion weren’t necessarily in line with the tastes of the middle-to-upper class people that defined our audience. Ultimately, my dreams were unaligned with reality, which I guess is why people call them “dreams.” Where I thought I’d find commonality in the halls of a media company, all I found was another caste system. There’s an old joke about how the only kids who go into journalism and writing come from rich parents, because they can afford to fail on account of their parents’ bankroll. I always bristled at that, so I’d respond with, "Well, maybe some of us are just used to being poor." I never said I wasn’t naive.

The day I decided to quit that job, the always argumentative executive editor was yelling at me in front of the whole staff, telling me I didn’t deserve my job as music editor because I didn’t like The Velvet Underground exactly as much as he did. He went on for minutes, with other staff members piping up to try and defend me, but he just kept on going. It was in that moment that impulse came back to me, like an old friend tapping me on the shoulder: “Fuck ‘em all.” So, the next day, I gave my notice then rode my bike home. I didn’t have much to show for my grand gesture, but at least I had my dignity. Maybe that’s all I was ever looking for.