I was at a crossroads in the summer of 1996. For the previous 5 years, my college career had been one semester up, one semester down—if I was lucky. At the beginning of that year, my GPA bottomed out at 1.5 or some ridiculous number. I was worn out, used up, floundering, flunking out of my journalism program, and, in retrospect, desperately un-medicated…I was years behind and ready to quit. My extracurricular activities of going to local punk shows and writing my music zine had me spent. Punk rock did not save my life. My best friend Chris was going down to Oregon for the summer to study archaeology at Portland State, and asked me to be his roommate. Before he could finish his sentence, my bags were packed.
“Many rivers to cross, but I still haven’t found my way over... Wandering I am lost...”
I had saved a bit of money from my barista job, but for the most part, I was broke—coasting on fumes. So I did a lot of walking that summer. One of the albums in ultra-heavy rotation on my Discman was the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. For those of you who were too young to remember 1996, the musical abomination called Third Wave Ska was in full flowering. My pal Brendan, who had a punk/ska band in Anchorage whose name is too offensive to say here, turned me on to the originators like Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals. Chris and I, with our mutual displeasure of modern ska, sought out the originals and devoured that soundtrack all winter and into the spring. Most days I roamed downtown Portland, notebook in hand, jotting down things I thought were interesting. It was the first time I’d ever been to the Lower 48 (except the one time when I was seven, which I have no real memory of, save for family photos). I was in awe of how old and established things were. Journaling was one thing, but once I began writing a short story, or a poem, I got jammed up. I would write a line, consider it, and then scratch it out. Write another line, scratch it out. I mostly wrote autobiographical things, but my well had run dry and I had no patience. And a limited pool of inspiration, so I thought. Soon I’d become self-conscious about being self-conscious, get angry and shove my Moleskine back in my pocket. At times like those, when I was completely stuck, I’d browse zines at Reading Frenzy and maybe sell a few back issues of our zine Noise Noise Noise, walk to the fountain by Hawthorne Bridge and watch young families running through the water, or walk up to the Henry Weinhardt brewery and marvel at the beautiful brick and how old it was. Its staying power impressed me.
“Rome was not built in a day, and opposition will come your way...and the harder he battle you see, is the sweeter the victory now!”
The one thing I had proven I could write about was music. As burned out as I was, music still gave me great pleasure, and I was grateful for that. When I wasn’t wandering the streets, you could find me sneaking in to Portland State University to type up reviews for our little magazine. Chris and I saw many of our heroes perform that summer: The Cure, Buzzcocks, and Richard Hell, to name just a few. Witnessing their creativity fed me and writing about them gave me a kick in the ass. I felt like I could actually write something that entertained me, and hopefully others as well. I just needed to be patient. But undiagnosed depression and anxiety wait for no man.
“Pressure got the drop on you you you yeah, PREssure! PREssure! PREssure! PREssure! Pressure, pressure drop...whoa yaaa!”
Gravel and branches crunched under my boots as we hiked around Mount Hood. We stopped to admire the view, and Chris’s cousin passed him a joint. He declined. I inhaled the sweet smoke into my lungs and let the peace wash over me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t a big hiking guy back then. As I stood there, I wondered, why not? Looking out at the forest, and the little towns beyond, and what those families might be doing, how they lived, gave me solace. This summer helped me shift my focus away from myself. I would learn this lesson again. But at the time, the release of this self-generated pressure was a revelation. These songs were a giant part of my summer soundtrack, and their lyrics of yearning, resilience, and rebellion struck me deep.