For my high school graduation, I asked my father to send me to recording engineering school in Appalachia. I packed my car, put on my Dylan CD, and blasted "Like A Rolling Stone" as I left my driveway. I drove four hours straight through cornfields to Chillicothe, Ohio, where I moved into a creaky house with three other women. The rest of the camp, some 70 people, were men, most of whom lived in small cabins up a hill. Each day we headed to a complex of buildings that housed studios, editing suites, and sheds of gear. I was 18 and this was my heaven. We'd record and splice and jam and do whatever til about 9pm ever night, then head back to our homes.
We'd gather on hill in the middle of the cabins and make a bonfire every night. And every night the guitars would come out, and we would sing and laugh and they would drink, which I never did because I was 18 and I only did psychedelic drugs. My four best friends were a guy named Steve, one named Nick, and another two whose names are now forgotten.The forgotten ones included a guy with lovely long black hair who was in a speed metal band from San Diego, and a short guy from Kansas had the most poetic sense of melody I'd ever seen. Nick was a lo-fi psych dude who wore a Swirlies shirt every three days and tried to make music only with children's toys, and Steve had a long pony tail and had just left New College.
Steve was a kind of native intellectual, a hippie sort who liked music purely, the kind of dude to stick his head into the speaker cone to laugh at some detail most people would never even hear. Every night he would get near the bonfire and not really get along with the bros, who mostly played grunge tunes or whatever lame originals they were working on. Steve would only play Neil Young songs.
At that time I associated Neil Young with Pearl Jam through "Rockin In The Free World," which was a staple of the cover bands in my hometown. I knew about Harvest and generally associated him with a.m. radio, country music, and those specks of dust you can see glinting when you stir things up in a streak of sun. It wasn't that he was uncool per se, but just from a completely different time, old in a way I couldn't understand. In retrospect, it might have been part of that 1960s utopianism that pulsed through alternative rock in the 90s, through quotations by Kurt and the brief if ironic return to guitars as a medium for a message.
Steve was maybe 21, 22, which seemed impossibly old to me at that time. Maybe he could understand the melancholy of Neil Young in a way I couldn't, and even though it didn't make sense to me I listened to his songs and only teased him nominally.You can't be 20 on sugar mountain, I could understand, it felt like an elegy for the childhood I was leaving behind and rang true where so much other music couldn't because I loved the softness, the gentleness, the high break of his voice. He was probably the first musician I truly understand could orchestrate with one simple instrument: how could just a guitar sound like a symphony? I could understand it when Steve would pick through the parts and sing.
Then I started dating Nick, who for some reason was sheltered in a house in the bustling downtown of Chillicothe, and I started going to the bonfires less frequently, instead sitting on the roof of his house with a guitar watching cranes drag logs into piles at the Mead Paper Plant that dominated the city. When it rained, the air was sick sweet with pulp, and the sky was always red. We'd play Nick's favorite songs by Leonard Cohen, who I'd also never heard before. These were different songs, not pastoral or filled with that mysticism that I'd later understand to be West Coast, rather filled with people and longing and stories of New York that already touched on the fantasies I'd had about life not away from but in a place I would love, a real city. I could understand the desperation for spirituality, and the solace in a weakness of an earthly self: we are ugly but we have the music.
Whenever summer comes, these two musicians come to my mind, however autumnal I feel their sound is. The still air of the night, sick with smell and humidity, is full of Cohen. The clink of bottles and crack of a fire and when you think of putting on a long sleeve shirt at night, it is Young. Summer is coming again, and with each time around I start to get these two men more than I did the time before. Is each summer is always shorter than the last? Is each winter longer? Do I notice less as the years go by? I am convinced that this one must include some bonfires, guitars, beaches, sun dresses coasters, grills, and the new sounds that come with them. What will happen? Will it be just like last time or some completely new thing? Is that possible? I feel like that girl leaving the driveway again. Nothing to lose.