For half of my graduate studies, I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t know anyone who liked the music I did in order to hitch a ride if anyone was actually going to shows. I also lived off a stipend that totaled about a third of what I had used to make at a small daily newspaper company.
I’ve been out of grad school two years now, and I’m still averaging about 3 shows a year, if that. I’m recovering. It’s different now. I got married and I don’t go to the same kind of shows that I used to. My husband and I enjoy some of the same bands, but he likes music that the snob in me refuses to acknowledge. Most of the time, I instigate the concert-going. I pick out a show and occasionally have to introduce him to the band to see if he likes it well enough to go. If not, I have one friend in the DFW area who might attend with me. Even then, I risk not going unless I fly solo.
When I was thinking about starting a relationship with Tim, so many people in my family approved of him, but I remember one conversation with my older brother Andrew that raised a very interesting point: he asked me what would happen to the part of my life that was dedicated to going to concerts and daydreaming of B-list cool. He knew that our interests didn’t align in that regard and I didn’t know how to answer, so I said we’d figure it out because Tim was different than anyone I’d ever met. He was so uncool, and at the same time, belonged to that class of attractive, athletic, popular, and seemingly happy people who I never took time to know. It was terrifying and very important.
My brother agreed but assured me that we would have to share important hobbies with each other. It’s give and take, he said.
I took my brother’s advice seriously, and over the next five years, Tim and I learned how to talk about our preferences. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to restrain my judgment in order to allow him the space to like what he likes without shame. People like me were the very people who never let him think he could be an artist or a literature major—and he’s a pretty decent sketch artist.
During one of our many conversations about music, Tim asked me what I thought of Ben Kweller, and I said he was “OK.” A decade ago, Kweller had made it onto a few mixes that friends made for me, and I liked a few of the hits like “Commerce, TX” and “My Apartment” because of that. In college, my sister-in-law encouraged me to give him another chance and I found a few other songs like “Ann Disaster” and “On My Way” to be entertaining. It was Tim who pushed me to give him one more try.
Soon, I found out that Ben Kweller had provided teenage Tim with a soundtrack for just about every one of his adolescent emotions. I’d known about Neil Young, the Beatles, Paul McCartney, really bad radio rap, and even Thursday, but this new information gave me entrance to a part of his life that I never got to know.
A few weeks ago, I was in need of a date and a break from teaching duties, so I resolved to find a show before the next school year began. I couldn’t find anything matching my criteria, but I saw Ben Kweller’s name on the Granada schedule. I bought the tickets and left them for pickup at will call in part because I missed going out, and in part, because I knew that Tim needed a turn. He doesn’t look out for concerts unless it’s my birthday, so he wouldn’t know. Plus, he would never initiate conversation about it even if he did. He just doesn’t ask for much.
We made it to the show early enough to get some food across the street. We ate at the counter of this small Levantine cuisine café and passively watched a few minutes of a show featuring girls who pout about overpriced wedding dresses. The narrow restaurant with its waxy wood paneling reminded me of some of the diners in Coventry in Cleveland. I knew it was going to be a good date, but I didn’t know why yet.
While we waited for the show to begin, we poked fun at the live Twitter feed projected on a screen until the opener began an hour later. At last, Kweller began with “Commerce, TX” and I could see Tim grin. Song after song, my husband modestly displayed his enjoyment, shaking his head to the beat almost imperceptibly. As someone without any especial allegiance to Kweller, I was surprised by his technical skill. After every song, Kweller addressed the crowd without affect. He played his hits, interspersing solos not found on album versions, but none ever meandered into the self-indulgence of some certain southern rock or jam bands.
During the performance, Kweller’s boyish antics didn’t channel any sexuality or angst. His swearing wasn’t snide or sincere but playful. His drummer, Mark Stepro, wore a hat that looked like something from the wardrobe of Where the Wild Things Are, one I would imagine a drunken frat guy would wear all evening without noticing and wake up the next morning having used it as a pillow on the front lawn of the Phi Kappa Psi house. The bassist looked like a chubbier version of a guy Tim and I used to work with at a coffee shop.
The absence of cool onstage, however, made room for joy. Very few shows I have seen have ever accomplished so much. I’ve seen Broken Social Scene celebrate so frankly as to ignite a dancing pandemonium among the crowd, but Kweller and his band didn’t perform in numbers suitable for marching bands or rely upon horns or confetti to conjure jubilance.
Pitchfork slams Kweller again and again for being juvenile and unoriginal—the wasted wunderkind from the up and coming of the early 2000s. Maybe that is precisely why I enjoyed myself at the show. Never once did I look around me and wonder if I were too old or cool enough to be there. I didn’t even care if he played a greatest hits lineup because he was having the kind of fun that included everyone.
Maybe my artistic tastes have regressed since dating and marrying Tim, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think I can attribute enjoying myself at the concert to the fact that there was no pretense of art. Let’s go back to Pitchfork a moment: most of the bands they praise have a penchant for turning despair into gimmicks, whether it’s a Nietzschean approach of channeling calculated superficiality or if it’s a career-spanning, brooding, dramatic conceit. Both methodologies allow people to ignore or cradle their sadness to pass the time, feeling carefree, vindicated, momentarily understood, or deep.
I’m guilty. I admit to being romanced by pain. Almost without exception, I read novels of depravity and disappointment in my spare time. When I write about joyful things now, I find it easiest to find it through inversion. After all, that’s how I know it best. Too often, even my outrageous humor is born of my persistent fight against feeling too sad or pathetic to smile. It’s another essay or probably a book if I go too much into why, how, and when I turned into such a persistent mope, but for me, maintaining a positive attitude has been a spiritual issue as long as my memory allows me to recall.
This is probably why, when I fell in love with Tim, I didn’t know what to do. I’d never met someone who was so uninterested in himself and so eager to love someone. He had no idea how to be hip. He never learned how to fake it like I did; consequently, he was lonelier than I ever knew myself be, and far, far easier to love.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I chose to spend time with people, I was looking for those who knew how to commiserate more than they knew how to challenge me. For months, I kept my distance from committing to a relationship with Tim. One night we kissed after a baseball game, and I promptly informed him that we either needed to enter a relationship or quit seeing each other because I couldn’t control separating the “friend” and “boyfriend” distinction anymore. Besides, I had things to do if this wasn’t going anywhere. He was thrilled with the options, and responded that this wasn’t “puppy love” but “full-grown canine love.”
While I was thinking that I could be committing myself to a total corndog, I was also relieved because I knew that he meant it. He was ready to grow up—and continue to be the biggest ball of fun on the planet.
So I told him I was in and we made out in his driveway, much to the enjoyment of his childhood friend who was watching from his window from across the street. (I found out about this a few days later, and when I met him, I shook his hand and confronted him for being a pervert.)
For the first time in my life, when I chose to date Tim, I chose to do something that was both crazy and beneficial. I broke every stupid dating rule I’d created for myself and kept all the ones that really mattered to me.
Within the first few months, there were some days when I contemplated breaking up with Tim. Seriously dating at such a crucial decision-making time inhibited my ability to take jobs that I wanted and live the kind of freewheeling adult life I thought I’d live after I ended up on the other side of college unattached. I didn’t want to maintain a distance relationship, either. I shared my concerns with my family, and my sister Jo—the one who sat down with Tim and told him that he better not break my heart the first time she met him—told me that she’d never seen me so happy.
She was right, and the prospect of knowing joy in love frightened me—but I needed it and I was finally willing to wager my reservations to get it.
At the concert, as I occasionally looked at my husband, I took notes about how Tim got me to relax and do the kinds of things I was always too afraid to do when I was worried about being cool, mature, or emotionally impenetrable—all of which I rarely achieved anyway.
Following the main set and a short break, Kweller returned to the stage to take some requests. Several fans shouted for “Thirteen.” At first, Kweller tried to persuade them to pick something else because the song was “soft and sweet” and we had, after all, just ended the first set with a rather upbeat song. Still, he acquiesced and played the song. I felt like such a sucker for tearing up.
The simple song is about falling in love with someone, rejoicing in all the escapades and holding onto each other through the pains of youth. While Kweller played the song, I hid from my husband at first, like I usually do when I show that I’m susceptible to emotion, particularly the vulnerability of wanting love. Then I grabbed his hand.
We tell and retell our story frequently, sometimes to ourselves, and probably too often to people we meet. In one of the versions of the story, Tim tells me that he used to see me sitting alone at a table in our university’s lounge (The Eagles Nest, to be more precise for alumni and townies) doing homework. He knew my name from a class we’d had, but he often referred to me as “lonely girl.” The first time I heard that, I was shocked, but he was right.
When I was giving Ben Kweller that final chance, I stumbled across a song that he wrote called “Sundress.” In it, there’s a line asking about “the girl with loneliness.” The whole song is a nice, mushy piece about commitment to a woman who can’t seem to shake her depression. He calls her back so they can talk it out and figure out how to have a good time, together.
Call that adolescent, but it’s that kind of childish invitation that has drowned my sorrows and pulled me outside myself over and over again.
The day after the show, Tim thanked me for taking him out. He said it reminded him of another time in his life, but that it was a good thing. I didn’t tell him that I liked it because it reminded me of all the times I never let myself feel anything, and how he, with the patience of Christ, has waited for me to open up my dark rooms to believe that joy on Earth is possible.
What I experienced at that show reminded me of how I fell in love with someone who isn’t afraid of making a fool of himself in the name of tenderness and passion. He, somehow, has never given up on reminding me how important those things have always been to me, no matter how much I shut them out for fear of losing my cool.