Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was essentially the mantra of, and definitely the soundtrack for, those middle years of undergrad, which were mostly comprised of cruising around the West Kentucky countryside with friends, looking for a place to get high. We lived in the dorms, didn’t have girlfriends, weren’t old enough to get into bars, weren’t cool enough to go to parties, weren’t smart or involved enough to be occupied, and weren’t boring enough to attend school-sponsored events. So we’d buy a bag of shitty weed, pile into someone’s car, and roll out.
The roads stitched together a patchwork of cornfields and tobacco barns, cow pastures and tiny churches, the main street strip malls and the wooded hills that surrounded Kentucky Lake. Head north on 16th until the town’s lights start to fade; go left at the stop sign onto Cole’s Campground, which will become Walston, which will become Collins, which will loop around onto Airport; left onto Poor Farm back to town. Or catch the 641-spur out to 80E toward LBL; first left onto Bethel; second left onto the no-named stretch of gravel where we once drove off the road and spent hours waiting in the dark for a wrecker with Prentice Duncan, the farmer who owned the land, and his humongous son-in-law, Randy; right onto Elm Grove, back to 80, and back to town. Or take 94 onto Clayton onto Outland School, where one night we got too close to an oncoming truck—three inches to the left and we could have been killed—and the driver’s sideview mirror came through the window in a shower of pebbled glass; quick right onto Old Salem and back to town. Or so on and so forth, et cetera, ad infinitum.
Once the engine turned over, the Arctic Monkeys propelled us onward. From the first pounding drumroll of “The View from the Afternoon” to the last saccharine chord of “A Certain Romance,” we became muddled-up North England clubbers, staggering after taxis, pissing off bouncers, prowling pubs and dancefloors with the dull sheen of indiscriminate hormones in our eyes—just another face in the “queue” the Monkeys might say. True, we weren’t North England clubbers; we were West Kentucky stoners. And while we didn’t know the places and people in the songs, we knew what they were about: the push and pull of personality and circumstance, the tumult of chance and fate, the wide range of selves that appear within that haphazard liminal space between Saturday night hedonism and Sunday morning redemption.
Not to mention, it’s pretty decent rock ‘n’ roll—at turns distorted crunch, house beat thump, or melodic reminiscence, with lyrics offering the even-handed critique of a keen and, for the most part, kind observer. Nothing revolutionary nor particularly transcendent, but an apt representation of the surrounding world and the speaker’s place within it. At worst, an unintentional testament to the torturous luxury of the existential malaise reserved for aimless, extended adolescents. At best, a streamlined frenzy cranked up to eleven, pulled tight between a rhythm section dialed-in to ass-kick, a torrent of lyrics bounding between unreasonable self-assuredness and crippling self-loathing, and a sonorous guitar plucking along at cut-time as if having stumbled into the wrong session—the whole damn thing seeming to fray at the edges, practically bursting at the seams with all the discordant energies inside.
Which again is why we liked it. Every verse and measure spoke to the yet unknowable, almost uncontrollable self that we were told was our primary responsibility to know and control. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not the album proclaims, but even that’s a far cry from a resounding declaration of an individual identity. Here lies that human tendency to self-actualize through negation. In other words: “I don’t know what I am, but I know what I’m not, and it’s not what you say it is.” Not old enough, not smart enough, not cool enough, we told ourselves—but these reasons were only projections of our own insecurities. And so, perhaps more accurate, if not more cumbersome to parse: “I don’t know what I am, but I know what I’m not, and I am not what I assume it is that you think that I am.” The real tensions then, internal of course, between the person we want to become, our uncertainty of how to proceed, and the fear of what we’re becoming in the meantime.
The North England clubbers took to the dancefloor in revolt; we West Kentucky stoners took to the roads. What began as exploration, became a ritual of escape. The clubbers themselves disappeared in the crowd to cut loose, let loose, be immersed within something other. The long country roads, often dark and empty, offered a different type of anonymity, but in effect the same dissociation from self. In truth, we came to know the roads better than we knew ourselves. We knew where we wanted to go and how to get there, at least for the next thirty minutes, the next hour, until the next strum of that last saccharine chord.
Nowadays, when I find myself back in that little town, the car almost steers itself. 16th to Coles Campground to Walston and so on. New blacktop, new sidewalks, new dorms taking over a cornfield, strip mall stores replaced by different strip mall stores, strip mall churches, and so forth. The cast and crew that shared those long days and short years out cruising, now scattered throughout the expanse of adulthood, with military and museum and social service careers, with wives and children and mortgages and mutual funds, et cetera. Oh, how times have changed ad infinitum. But the roads are the same. When I drive them now I remember us, how we were, how we could both lose and find ourselves within the span of an album, how necessary it seemed to escape. Night after night we retraced those routes, the days’ worth of bullshit classes, half-assed extracurriculars, and all the things people said or we thought they said, unspooling behind us. Somehow we always managed to pretend that we wouldn’t have to turn around and follow the thread back home.