Older Than Yesterday

How I spent my 10-year vacation from City Pages

With my Ramones/CBGB's T-shirt on under my gown, I graduated from high school at the Basilica of St. Mary's in downtown Minneapolis. The year was 1977, of which Joe Strummer sang, "No more Elvis or Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977." It is impossible to over-romanticize how revolutionary that felt to the minority millions who ingested it, all us kindred kids and lost boys and girls who connected on the cosmic plane when the import-only call of the Clash's "Garageland" went up.

Strummer lived in London. We lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Garageland (population: infinite) was real. A smelly, oily, pot- and beer-stunk place where you didn't need a college degree or record contract or even talent, just drums and guitars and amps and microphones and the bullshit detector that Strummer sang about and lent out like a snowblower. For those of us who had other options and career opportunities and eventually other lives but only one that made any real soul-sense at that preciously pure time, Strummer both harnessed the fomenting energy of a generation and threw down the gauntlet when he declared, with great pride and citizenship, "We're a garage band, we come from Garageland."

Ours was a basement band. We practiced at Kevin's parents' house, got pretty good, figured out how to express ourselves, felt the uncommon rush of lone-wolf community and the elixir of DIY creativity, got our names in this and other newspapers, split up, and spent the rest of our lives trying to figure out what it all meant. Now the name of that band bursts proudly from a star on the side of First Avenue, above the 7th St. Entry, where these nights, throngs of scared white people from the suburbs sit across the street at the Hard Rock Café, looking at the stars and musicians' names and wondering about a secret history they'll never know.

James O'Brien

But if you do know it, if it inspired you to do what you do for a living, if it's still as much a part of you as the dreamy drudgery of making your daughter's lunch in the morning or listening to your son reel off baseball scores, you don't go back from it. You don't have an experience like that and then, many years later when you're a husband and father and mortgage owner, simply shrug and pretend like it never happened.

No, you don't spend some of the best years of your life nurturing your soul and questioning authority and writing your ass off about love and music and community and individuality and then make like it doesn't matter when you get older and the going gets a little tougher. No, what you do at that point, as you have tried to do at every point, is, you listen to yourself, as everybody from Strummer to Sartre to Dr. Phil says, and find another way to do it, another way to make sure that your voice, that voice that first took flight in Garageland, stays intact.

Ten years ago today, I wrote this in my last column for City Pages: "For me, it's time to try something new: another city, another format, another family. Because I believe that change, especially in the newspaper biz, is good. Which is why I say goodbye to you now--so that I can say hello again later."

Hello. For the past 10 years or so, I wrote about music for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The goodbyes I've had to say in the last two weeks have hit me with a wave of melancholia, because I left behind writers, reporters, photographers, artists, editors, and readers whom I love and believe in. I'm back at City Pages because the thing I know most about this writing life is that a writer needs freedom of mind and autonomy: I needed to shed a skin that was getting too tight, and too comfortable.

Which brings us to this: my new weekly column, in which I'll write about life, me, you, the cities, the world, art--and yes, music. Just not all the time. I've said most of what I want to say about music for the time being; even though I'm still excited about talking about it and listening to it, too many bad arena concerts and a rising demand for music stories that have nothing to do with music have left me wanting. Besides, most nights now I'm more interested in making music than writing about it full-time.

More than anything, though, I'm back at City Pages because I want to continue surprising myself. Like many of you, these days I'm alternately fried and on fire, discouraged and determined, but I still believe in writing that talks about the conflicts and conquests of the heart. Which is why most nights I'm as likely to be hanging out at a club as I am to be hanging out at home reading Thomas Merton, who wrote, "Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only; I seek to speak to you in some way, as your own self."

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