If I were to time travel back to the year 2000 and tell 13-year-old me that she’d get to see The Violent Femmes in concert someday, she would erupt in celebratory expletives and jack up the volume on “Blister in the Sun” (which, naturally, would just happen to be playing on her boom box). She’d dance like a fool — much like present-day me dances — before going into a sloppy, yet epic air guitar performance. She’d have no idea that the news was about to get even better.
“Wait,” I would say, “They’re not the only ones playing. They’re opening for your #1 favorite band.”
13-year-old Steff would stop playing air guitar and her eyes would widen in amazement beneath her perfectly blown-out bangs.
13-year-old Steff’s #1 favorite band was Barenaked Ladies. “One Week” blew her mind in 1998, and so her 44-year-old dad took her to Best Buy one Sunday afternoon and bought her a copy of Stunt. She loved the entire album from start-to-finish, and thus began her very first mission to obtain every album previously released by a rock (?) group.
“No FUCKING way!” she’d scream before hitting “eject” on her CD player and replacing The Violent Femmes with Born on a Pirate Ship — the darkest, most brooding Barenaked Ladies album to date.
“BROKE INTO THE OLD APARTMENT!” she’d scream along, closing her eyes and collapsing onto her bed. “THIS IS WHERE WE USED TO LIVE!”
“Bad news,” I would say, interrupting her barenaked reverie. “Steven Page leaves the band in 2009.”
13-year-old Steff would sit up straight and stare into my eyes and demand an explanation. I’d tell her about the cocaine arrest, and her face would fall.
“What year do I see them?” she’d ask.
“…How old are we then???”
“Listen,” I would say, “this is also gonna sound really, really weird, but by the time you see them live, you won’t be a super fan anymore. You won’t even know any of the material that they released after Maroon.“
13-year-old me would furrow her brow.
“It comes out in a few months. Mom’ll get it for you. You won’t like it as much as their other albums, but you’ll appreciate it a lot during the first semester of 8th grade.”
“What the fuck?”
“We will always love and appreciate Barenaked Ladies,” I’d assure her.
A few seconds would go by, and then “Call Me Calmly” would come on. 13-year-old Steff would grab the boom box remote and skip to “Break Your Heart.” She’d become somber.
“But why are we seeing them in concert if we don’t like their new stuff?”
“Because dad’s client is also playing that night, so tickets were easy to come by. Also, in recent years we’ve become highly preoccupied with our mortality, and so we’re determined to cram in as many experiences as we can before we die. Seeing The Violent Femmes and Barenaked Ladies in the same night seems very poetic to us.”
13-year-old Steff would take a moment to process everything. Then she would say, “I like your t-shirt.”
“Thanks,” I would say, admiring her pink Paul Frank kangaroo. “I like yours too.”
“Spider in My Room” would come on. 13-year-old Steff would skip that song, too. Then she’d remember that she doesn’t like the end of the album as much as she likes the beginning, and so she’d walk over to the boom box, hit “stop” on the CD player, and then hit “play” on the tape player. Her hand-me-down copy of Gordon would start up halfway through “Enid.” She’d do some clumsy fast-forwarding before finally arriving at the beginning of “Brian Wilson.”
“The concert is still gonna be hugely important to you, Steff,” I’d continue. “That afternoon at work, you’re gonna realize that you’ve been single for exactly two years. You’re gonna think about all the incredible things you’ve experienced since you were 13 and used to listen to Barenaked Ladies all the time. You’re gonna actually miss sitting at your desk and doing homework and listening to “What A Good Boy” and thinking about your crushes and crying…”
“Wait,” 13-year-old Steff would say, “are you saying we’re gonna have a boyfriend?”
We would spend several minutes talking about this. She’d be confused by my tepid attitude toward the whole thing (“REAL boyfriends?!?” “Yup”) and she’d have all kinds of questions about how I got them to like me (“It just happened”). I’d try to explain to her that it’s important to always be yourself and to never change who you are in order to impress a boy.
“But are they HOT?!” she’d ask.
“Looks don’t mean shit,” I’d say.
“No. But looks don’t mean shit.”
Finally, I’d tell her about the show.
“You’re going to miss Colin Hay because you’re gonna be sitting on a park bench outside the entrance of the Greek Theater eating a veggie sandwich from Italia Deli. Mom’s gonna tell you about a dream she had the night before about Nick Cave.”
“Who the fuck is that?” she’d ask.
“Remember that song from Scream about the ‘red right hand’? He sings that. And he’s going to become hugely important to you when you’re 25. Anyway, you’re gonna be kinda tired when you get inside, but then The Violent Femmes are gonna come on, and you’re gonna wake the fuck up.”
“Do we still like The Violent Femmes?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “We do. And that album becomes a very important tool we use to determine how much we like new people we meet.”
I’d tell her about the young guy sitting next to dad and how dad’s going to give him a bag of potato chips that mom originally brought for us. I’d tell her that she’s going to feel compelled to turn toward the guy and ask him questions about what the band has been up to since Maroon and if the new album is any good.
“After you and the guy are done talking about the band, dad is gonna reach into his pocket and hand the guy a backstage pass.”
“We have backstage passes?!”
“Yes, but you’re not gonna use yours,” I’d tell her. “You’re gonna leave after the show and get stuck in horrible traffic. But yeah, dad’s client is gonna score dad some passes, and dad is gonna give his away to a kid named Rafa who still really, really loves Barenaked Ladies. Steff, you’re gonna feel very proud of dad in that moment, and you’re gonna vow to yourself to try to remember that moment next time dad does anything that annoys you. You’re going to try to remember that dad is a very kind man, and you’re gonna get a little bit teary eyed before the show starts, because you’re also going to be thinking about death.”
13-year-old Steff would sit in silence as she listened to me talk about love and death and backstage passes. I would almost tell her about how dad is going to test her patience an hour later when the band goes into “One Week” and dad grabs her arm and physically pulls her to him and then shoves her into Rafa while loudly proclaiming, “YOU GOTTA BE NEXT TO RAFA FOR THIS ONE!” but I would ultimately decide to let her face that challenge on her own.
“Also,” I would add, “you’re not gonna like the first song that much. You’re not gonna hate it, but you’re kinda gonna think, ‘Aw man, this is way too pleasant. I can’t get into this right now.’ You’re also really, really gonna miss Steven. You’re gonna think, ‘Fuck, Steven brought the edge.’ And then, after the applause dies down, Ed is gonna launch into ‘The Old Apartment,’ and you are going to lose your breath. You’re gonna listen to that song, and it’ll be your 200th time hearing it, but you’ll finally understand what it’s about.”
“No, not quite. You’ll get it, though. And it’s gonna blow your mind.”
“Am I gonna like the rest of the show?”
“Yes,” I’d tell her. “You’re gonna love it. But it’s gonna hurt a little. In a good way.”
13-year-old Steff would remain quiet. She’d have a lot to think about. I’d give her a hug, tell her she’s hilarious and beautiful and not to let middle school get her down, and then I’d hop back in my time machine to 2015.
Nick Cave once gave a lecture called “The Secret Life of the Love Song” at the Vienna Poetry Festival in 1999. A certain theme of the lecture swirled through my mind last night during the Barenaked ladies set:
“We all experience within us what the Portugese call Suadade, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul. And it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds.”
This is “the edge.” This is what I’ve always been drawn to in music, even by groups that also sing “nice” songs about Yoko Ono and what they’d do with $1,000,000. “Inexplicable longing.” It’s a powerful thing.
“I know we don’t live here anymore
We bought an old house on the Danforth
She loves me and her body keeps me warm
I’m happy there
But this is where we used to live
Broke into the old apartment
Tore the phone out of the wall
Only memories, fading memories
Blending into dull tableaux
I want them back”
— Barenaked Ladies “The Old Apartment”