Elliott Smith – “Kiwi Maddog 20/20”

When: 20 August 2008
Where: The Grapevine
Who: My parents
Weather: Hot, sunny

“Smith also had a slyly humorous side, which he exhibits on the closing instrumental “Kiwi Maddog 20/20,” a languid surf-y tune that wouldn’t be out of place playing over the credits of a Quentin Tarantino film. Which means “Kiwi Maddog 20/20″ is totally out of place on a collection of depressing folk-pop songs, though after 30 minutes with Smith’s quiet tales of desperation it’s practically a lifeline.”

When I first read that on The AV Club, I could have said the same. Managing school, work, a girlfriend, and college admissions was an uphill battle, and I didn’t always win. I lost my job at Bulgarini’s when they left me off the schedule and never fixed it. And I’d made myself physically ill thinking about all these things. But finally the fear had passed, and it was time to collect my reward. The night before leaving, I actually jumped for joy, so high and so hard that I hit my head on the ceiling. I tried not to fall asleep that night so as not to have a concussion.

I didn’t, and the next day we were on the road north. I’d prepared myself a “travelling playlist” which included this song. I had never risen higher…

Next: …And before I knew it, I had never fallen further.

Beck – “Where It’s At”

When: 31 May 2008
Where: Southbound on San Gabriel Boulevard
Who: My parents and bubby
Weather: Warm, morning fog

On the way to graduation, my dad took the opportunity to hijack us once more and buy pork buns from a nearby Chinese bakery. His obsession with making me eat pork buns followed me all the way to college, where I’d never have to listen to him again.

Next: Making musical concessions

Modest Mouse – “Dashboard”

When: August 2007
Where: My mom’s car
Who: My mom
Weather: Hot

The pedigree was undeniable, the beat inescapable. Johnny Marr’s guitar shone with distinction. I realized what I was hearing right away. In future period pieces, it was inevitable, I imagined, that this would be the song that says to the world, “Hey, it’s 2007!” Just listening to it made me feel effortlessly cool. School was coming, senior year, and I was certain to have the adventure I was dreaming of. Or maybe I was just thinking too hard.

Next: Returning to the Strokes.

Beck – “Timebomb”

When: 23 July 2007
Where: Southbound on Lake Avenue
Who: My dad
Weather: Warm, clear

Friday. My summer was going a lot better. I’d spent some time walking around Downtown LA during a mild stretch of summer, entirely losing my shit over the movie Barcelona and the guy who made it, Whit Stillman. I’d run into old friends, girls who had crushes on me, and their mothers who love me, and always with a sunflower on hand. I saw movies in theaters, frequently, like never before or since. But my excitement that day was for more than just beautiful weather and hilarious movies. It was Hallows Eve.

Tonight, I was going to a massive street party (the kind Pasadenans will find any excuse to have) at Vroman’s Bookstore for the debut of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, so I decided to win it. After all, I would never get that opportunity again. I spent the better part of an hour circling the store while crappy wizard rockers pounded away and news cameras rolled. Luckily, rescue came in the form of the Art School Girls and their leader, Taylor Doran. We go back when the line starts, a grad student hits on me, and I get my book.

Monday. I’d already finished the book. I had attended a scout meeting earlier that night that was sure to be among my last, and as my dad drove me home, this strange song came on the radio, the definitive song of 2007, if I had to say so myself, effortlessly cool. It was the song of the summer. When it ended, the DJ posited a question: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if that was meant to be a cover version of Time Bomb by Rancid?”

And I thought to myself, “hell yes.”

Next: Things get gross again.

Elliott Smith – “A Fond Farewell”

When: 27 March 2007
Where: Portable room 701, Bosco
Who: Several classmates
Weather: Well, let’s just tell the story…

“Is it Argentines or Argentinians?” Marc Meehan turned to ask me. Everybody called him Father Marc, and while he intended to come back to Bosco to teach, he was emphatic that he wouldn’t become a priest. Too bad, I thought, you’ll have to pay your own rent. Most priests had affairs off-campus anyway.

“It could be either,” I replied, “but if it were up to me, I’d say Argentine.” I always preferred shorter demonyms.

Bosco was on a block schedule, so all of our classes lasted an hour and a half. It gave us enough time to actually learn things, but just as often gave us ridiculous amounts of free time if we had a test. We had such a test in Mr. Rod’s algebra 4 class that fateful March day. It was raining as I listened to This American Life. The story of the journal of David Ben Gurion. Fearing for my lost memories, I began to play with the idea of not only keeping a journal, but giving myself the discipline to write reliably in it as he did.

Rod’s cell phone rang. There was no landline. “Okay,” he said, “we’re having a lockdown.” I was used to lockdowns from my middle school days as we were located next to the Motel 6 where Hunter Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But somehow lockdowns seemed more serious in high school. It’s a shooting, I thought, some psychotic freshman. And we began to formulate a plan to defend ourselves. But Bosco didn’t have a gunman. The reality was so thoroughly beyond our experience that we couldn’t imagine it until we saw it happen.

We looked out the window. The parking lot was gone, only a dark grey void. The raindrops on the glass became longer. Before long, single drops were stretching across the entirety of the plane. The heavy metal doors rattled, and a whole limb of the tree outside our portable slammed against us. Mr. Rod had us close the windows. I continued to listen to This American Life, and eventually they played this song.

Finally, some students came to tell us we could go to the next class. When we got out, there was a straight line of devastation across the campus. Bits of trees, cracks in buildings. I had been in the eye of a fucking tornado.

Contrary to popular belief, California has more tornadoes per year than any other state, but they are generally not very strong, seldom in populated places, and never on the top of a hill. And yet there we were. I went home, dove into my old middle school stuff, and pulled out the blank journal from the Renaissance Fair four years earlier, and started writing.

And I was going to need it, because the tornado was just the beginning.

Next: The drifting meaning of “loud.”

Modest Mouse – “Float On”

When: 10 April 2004
Where: San Marino Pool and Patio parking lot
Who: My mother
Weather: Warm, sunny

In April, it became clear that I was going to Don Bosco Technical Institute. Applying for Catholic high school is a lot like applying for college: I had my top choice, the preppy La Salle, and my second choice Bosco, where I really wanted to go. Knowing I would go there was an enormous relief. I could go to school without having to worry about girls, avoid all the rich proto-frat boys, and be a nerd, which wasn’t cool yet.

But back at Barnhart, the pressure had only become greater. My crush on Alex had gotten worse and got me nowhere, but I couldn’t stop having feelings. I confessed it all to her at an inter-school dance, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

When I say it was sunny, I mean California sunny. There was not a cloud in the sky burning electric blue, there was not a spot within miles where the sun did not touch. It was under this sun, the day after the dance, that my mother pulled in to buy patio furniture. I don’t remember why I came in, but this song came on and I opted to stay in the car and listen. And I felt a lot better. I quit guitar lessons.

Next: Making drama and picking sides.

Beck – “Mixed Bizness”

When: May 2000
Where: The TV room
Who: Nobody
Weather: Unknown

Beck is an incredible artist. He can take things that haunt nightmares and turn them into something awesome. And as he proved here, he can even turn one of my Sunday night migraines into a fond memory.

In the spring of 2000, the Fox network added two new TV shows. One of them was a deeply personal laugh track sitcom called Titus. The other was Malcolm in the Middle, the first single-camera comedy since The Larry Sanders Show, and the first ever on a broadcast network.

At the time, Fox was still cruising on its status as the “edgy” cult network, and promoted for May Sweeps accordingly by advertising only Malcolm and Titus that night. Clips from the shows were interwoven by shots of Frankie Muñiz and Christopher Titus smirking, all along to a seemingly old song I long believed to be called “Turn it Up.” They showed me.

“Malcolm in the Middle and Titus. Turn it Up!”

Next: Fourth grade ends with a bang.