Posted By: John Black
Sweet, merciful buckets of bullshit! Has it really been five full weeks since I’ve written anything to be put here!? Well, my beautiful and unique little snowflakes, it’s time for that to change. Sadly, this is going to step away from my usual attempts at comedic storytelling and actually just be an attempt at formulating something a bit sappier. Sorry all, the funny man can’t always be funny. Anyway, here goes.
There are certain pieces of pop culture (be it a scene in a particular film, a chorus from an old pop punk boner jam, or anything really) that stick with me enough that, when revisited even for a moment in something as simple as scrolling through your Instagram feed in the morning while trying to delay getting out of bed a bit, can transport me into another place and time entirely. I’ve written about this effect, and how it relates to my love/hate relationship with New York City, several times. Here is another example.
I was lying in bed this morning and stumbled across some concert footage that my long lost friend and occasional sharer of the stage, Tom (@obi_tom_kenobi) had posted. The band in the video was called Hot Rod Circuit, a band whose legacy predates the first time I even picked up a guitar as a kid. They’re not a band whose catalog was ever something I really sat down and took the time to absorb or be moved by. Definitely not in the way that I immersed myself in the earlier work of bands like Taking Back Sunday or Brand New, driving around blaring their songs at full volume and singing word for word until I was hoarse, but they stick out in my memory as one major piece of an all but perfect day in my youth. One in which I was jolted back to vivid memories of this morning as I laid in that bed.
Upon revisiting the day, I searched for the set list they played that night to find that it occurred on Saturday, March 22, 2003, which would’ve meant I was 16 at the time in my Junior year of high school in the suburbs of Westchester, N.Y.. I had been invited to the show last minute by my (at the time) platonic female friend, who we’ll call “ER” for reference sake. I’d never heard of the bands playing, and was really just starting to get into this genre as a whole. Having only discovered bands like Taking Back Sunday and Midtown the previous fall and absolutely falling in love with everything that was early 2000’s pop punk, a genre originally coined and adopted by kids who didn’t really fall into any particular camp or clique, so they created one of their own.
The commute to Manhattan was often a quick 45 minute ride on the Metro North Railway System’s Hudson River line, the same iconic one referenced in Billy Joel’s classic, “New York State of Mind.” It was on that iconic line that “ER”, one of her best friends (who we’ll call “The Third Musketeer”), and I began the day.
A few images that stick out to me about that afternoon. We wandered the downtown streets for hours upon hours before the show, shopping and taking in all that was great about the city after one of the darkest times in New York’s history. We were only about 16 months in the immediate wake of 9/11 at the time, fighting two wars on terror and having just freshly invaded Iraq. Downtown Manhattan felt like a different world. We were missing the two iconic steel structures we had grown up with and always felt solace in when we would gaze upon the old NYC skyline, we were wounded by such a heavy loss of life, but most of all we were afraid. It seemed like every single day, the threat level would be escalated to a new heightened and stressful color, we were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. That day was the first time I ever saw armed soldiers yielding high powered assault rifles in my city’s streets and transit hubs, groups of them emerging from inbound subway cars casually as it if were now the new norm. In the old downtown, you could go and buy any smoking paraphernalia (which we of course did), Fake ID’s, or illegal knockoff designer stuff you wanted from any number of street vendors always looking to haggle, but now they were all selling gas masks and duct tape by the truckload instead in the wake of our Government telling us that such items would save us from a nuclear attack.
The old Knitting Factory on Leonard Street sat just a few short blocks from where the twin towers once stood, so to look upon that neighborhood, which once had two distinct shadows cast over it, and see only clear skies instead, that felt more ominous than a clear sky ever should.
We sat across the street from Engine 7, Ladder 1, Battalion 1 on Duane street, the firehouse that was the subject of the 2002 documentary, “9/11” in which 2 French brothers and filmmakers captured the Battalion’s story in the weeks leading up to the attacks right on through the events of the day unfolding as they filmed right from the lobby of the towers. We hoped to catch a glimpse of Tony, the “proby” who was originally supposed to be the primary focus of a documentary about a boy (probational firefighter) becoming a man. Instead, his unit was one of the first on the scene that day and captured the only known footage of the first plane crashing while doing an investigation into a gas odor call at 8:46am that morning. We never did catch a glimpse of him.
When it finally came time for the show, I was already exhausted, but excited. I had never heard of any of the bands on the bill aside from taking a brief listen to Hot Rod Circuit’s “The Pharmacist.” I’d later come to find out that these guys were everywhere. They were like the emo house opener for every up and coming act in the tri-state area. They were joined by acts None More Black and The Reunion Show, neither of which I particularly remember caring for.
The show itself is a blur, likely because of the pot we smoked right there in the middle of the now shuttered and moved concert space. The room itself wasn’t actually tremendous, so it was ballsy of us to light up right in the middle of the not-so-crowded room, but at that time smoking cigarettes was still allowed in every New York City bar and the smell of burning tobacco vastly outweighed the smell of the smoke were putting forth.
As I watched the guys in Hot Rod Circuit play their set, I remember falling head over heels in love, not with their music really, but with the moment itself. The venue, which I’d have the good fortune of packing out with my own band just 5 and a half short years later, was perfect to me. Just big enough where you don’t feel like you’re standing around some asshole’s empty bar, but small enough that there was no divide between the band and the crowd. Several times throughout the set, I’d connect eyes with the singer, who seemed to definitely realize that I was the odd man out who had no idea who they were, being one of the very few people not mouthing the words to every song right back to them. While I watched, even though I knew none of the material, I still felt a connection to their music, at least in that moment, not realizing I’d probably never sit down and really listen to it again.
When the show was over, we went to go catch our Metro North train back up to the suburbs. We were all exhausted from what had turned out to be a really amazing day. The trains were eerily quiet. “The Third Musketeer” in our group decided she wanted to get some sleep and opted to leave “ER” and I alone to catch a few minutes of shut-eye in the row in front of us. As we sat together, I noticed her body language for the first time begin to display affection and attraction. For the first time with her, I felt it too. But in the 45-55 minutes it took us sitting there in awkward limbo on that ride home, I didn’t act on it. I wouldn’t end up kissing her that night, but developed the roots of what would become a pathetically one-sided two-year-long crush which would culminate in a few awkward make out sessions later that spring, then never blossom. Still, even despite that, the day was perfect.
It’s hard for me to imagine my state of mind on that day now. The imagery, the feeling of eerie aftermath, reaching the peak of your high mid-set sharing this connection with everyone around you, it stayed with me for years, and it set the groundwork not only for my own pursuit of music and connection with an audience, but for much of my own writing in the year or so that followed.
It’s an odd phenomenon, this connection we feel with music, this associative memory we all seem to have, where something as simple as scrolling through a social media feed and watching a video someone took of a band they love and are passionate about could transport you to a moment in time so powerful to you that it influenced the person you became, even if you didn’t particularly feel the same kind of connection with a band’s music as the person who posted that video. That’s what I love about it, and why I’ll never officially leave this little semi-professional hobby of mine behind.
Thanks for that unintentional little reminder, Tom. That was a trip.