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    a guitarist playing on a stage

    In Search of Lost Tribes

    The Raptures of Belonging, and What Is Left Behind

    By Ian Marcus Corbin

    August 19, 2020
    • Matthew Ritchie

      Well done sir! You captured a shared experience and made it visceral, tangible, and real again. I miss much of this days and find myself sharing many of the same sentiments you described. Thank you for sharing!

    I couldn’t have told you at the time, but one of the central sounds of my late adolescence was the heavy thunk of dirty metal doors in grimy back alleys. Every all-ages club, bar, VFW hall, church basement, or regular basement had some approximation. If you were close with one of the bands performing that night, or in one yourself, most times you could make a call, or bang your fist, and get someone to hip-check the door open – a wide, creaking swing of surrender. This inner sanctum, vast expanses of knowing styles, fearless postures, and tribal recognition, would open itself and urge you in. You, a skinny boy of no accomplishment, proudly trashed-up sneakers and unkempt hair, too lazy, sensitive, and self-aware to do anything much in the Boston suburbs, granted special entry. An epiphany.

    Stepping in from filthy pavement to cool air and dusty concrete floors, you’d generally see some guys you knew – they were usually guys – coiling or uncoiling wires in ratty band t-shirts and tight worn jeans, tough guys whose tough-guy mien would melt into goofy, soft warmth when they saw you. The tougher they looked, the softer they tended to be.

    Now a long night of loud, glorious posturing, dissolving eventually into a miasma of bruised up singers-along, sweaty and blissfully self-emptied in the controlled chaos of the mosh pit.

    After the contents of your drummer’s mom’s minivan was piled in from the alley – friends, bandmates, and gear (amps, cabs, drums, guitar cases, all banged and stickered up from a hundred nights, absolutely real) – the door would swing closed and lock itself behind you with a loud, hard bang. And that settled it. Now a long night of loud, glorious posturing, dissolving eventually into a miasma of bruised up singers-along, sweaty and blissfully self-emptied in the controlled chaos of the mosh pit.

    I had occasion recently to pine for these old nights while subjecting my kids (eldest twelve, youngest two) to YouTube videos of some high-school heroes – Rancid, MxPx, Jimmy Eat World, a few others. The pining surprised me – I’m much more interesting and accomplished now, I think, and a whole lot wiser – as did an accompanying gut punch of dismay, almost despair. I’d put on a video of a live club performance by The Juliana Theory, a nebulously Christian emo/rock/power pop band that formed in 1997, my sophomore year of high school, and was big with my friends at the time.

    My kids humored me with bored bemusement, but the dim, shaky video wrapped itself around me. I felt a hard pang of vestigial awe, like I had felt in dozens of similar rooms, the erotic gnaw to be that good, that real, that big. The whole pageantry was completely familiar – the affected grandeur of the lead singer’s Christ pose, the exaggerated gestures of passion inflicted on beautiful instruments, the ear-wrecking volume of thick, astringent guitars, the sweat on everyone, saturating and tying together several hundred young people who had haircuts and clothes and wild emotions that insisted: something new and important is happening here. It reaches far. It changes everything.

    I used to be nothing to this band, and I still should be. How the mighty have fallen.

    Of course, I now saw, they were mistaken. It was some small club in some city. The power on those nights was real: the band could absolutely own the whole emotions of a full, dark room. But the footage was clear, and pitiful: it was one night, and then another, fading into blackness, but for a shaky cell-phone video on YouTube. The Juliana Theory still exists. It has a Twitter account, where it retweets expressions of band-related nostalgia. It followed me recently, after I mentioned that I had been listening again. I felt sad when it did – I used to be nothing to this band, and I still should be. How the mighty have fallen.

    The young people like me, who felt like they might live forever on those nights, are for the most part settled into approximately the same banal adult life that I am now: work, perhaps meaningful; relationships, difficult but fruitful; children, burdensome and miraculous; money, endlessly stressful. It’s okay, and even good, on balance. Those nights of Dionysian dissolution and unity, though, keep fading and fading.

    This microcosm I thrilled to in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where I felt seen and cared for, invisible and absorbed, where I had heights to aspire to – I suspect many people have their analogues. An athletic field, a friend group, a sorority, I don’t know . . . a video game? My dream world had an additional twist – like The Juliana Theory, lots of the bands I knew, and my own dumb ska-punk band, had some religious element. We had met in a high school Bible study, and we would join hands and pray on stage before every performance, no matter the setting.

    My own religiosity was intense, achingly sincere, and very often tortured. I was the son of Pentecostal ministers, who’d met playing reggae, and then fled to the most extreme religion they could find, lest they destroy themselves and their children. I knew euphoria and self-forgetfulness in that setting too: our church services would stretch for long hours, sometimes quiet, with a heavy, almost palpable weight of divine presence in the room, or erupt into literal convulsions, as some worshiper or another was struck by the Holy Spirit and started to shake, jump, yell, fall over.

    I saw, and to some extent my bandmates saw too, our music as an alternate route to the same deep reality. What the nights in grubby rock venues added was a tribal style, a way of being down to the choice of belt and shoelaces, manners of greeting and tastes in just about everything. My Christian music friends took the story of a self-donating God made man in a sandal-footed carpenter, a lover of the outcast and flipper of money-changing tables, and set it alongside a rebel culture of authenticity, romantic feeling-following, community, and anti-materialism. For a time, the parts worked together, and they granted me some nights of deep being-at-home, real authentic bliss.

    I can’t live for that self-forgetting now. I have people who need me, and I live for them. A father is a workhorse, among other things. Thankfully, I do write and pursue work that matters to me; I have friends over and we have some drinks and argue and open our thoughts to each other; I have a woman who shares her bed and life with me; I have many good things. But that intensity – the thrill of belonging to a whole culture that hems me in just so and hands me what I need to live – that’s in the past. The nights where it seemed so real are distant and small to me now.

    a guitarist playing on a stage

    Photograph by Flavio Gasperini (Public domain)

    Perhaps the intensity of adolescent belonging, when the metal door opens for you and then clamps shut to keep out the uninitiated, is a chimera of youth, dangerous to desire in adulthood. Still, the community I felt in those sweaty crowds during those nights can remain a goal. In my relative cultural homelessness now, I still find some version of it in little pockets when I really connect with other people – they need not share my taste in music or clothing to make connection possible, though now as ever, these commonalities make it easier.

    Is it cruel to have the experience of total belonging for a short time, and then have to settle into wider worlds where treaties must be made and maintained one by one, where commonality and strangeness intermingle even in the person of our closest partners? What is the lasting effect of such intense but transient communion?

    On one hand, maybe it sets us up to ask too much. A few hours in a music-saturated room is like the erotic thrill you have early in a relationship, before children enter the picture and then only sporadically afterward. You wouldn’t want to trade those things away. They set a standard that serves to bound the range of our experience, some ideal that makes sense of the realities we live with more regularly. We can and should desire to have more of them; ecstatic self-abandon should be a recurring feature of our lives. We need to lose ourselves now and then.

    But of course, these are peak experiences, oases in the desert. No politics – God help us – should be aimed toward that kind of belonging. No family life or romantic relationship will consistently exist in that haze. To demand it is to court resentment, failure, and the deformation of the community and its members. It is to remain an adolescent far past when one should.

    T. S. Eliot, who seems as un-adolescent as one could be, and who would not have joined me in the mosh pit at any age, writes:

    Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
    The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
    Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
    Isolated, with no before and after,
    But a lifetime burning in every moment
    And not the lifetime of one man only
    But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

    Adults who are able to take their place amongst the fantastic diversity of real life, who are able to make and remake the thousand daily treaties without losing contact with the home that they began in, will have won a very good thing. If it is not possible (pace the idealistic Mr. Eliot) to let lifetimes burn in every single moment, I’m confident it is possible to live a life where many moments do so burn. The rich heat of consciousness in a body is inexhaustible. Driving the kids to summer camp in the morning, doing the dishes tonight, in my apartment, after the rest of the family is in bed, waking yet again with the two-year-old to comfort him back to sleep, laying a hand on a familiar waist in bed, these also can burn, even if no observer could detect it.

    It is here, in the abandonment of earlier intensities, that we might actually begin to find deeper communion.

    I make these belongings, these burning lifetimes, insofar as I do, through quiet, willed, dogged attention, by refusing to demand that the people and things around me be other than they are, and most especially by refusing to demand that they be me. Eliot closes “East Coker” with this advice for the aspiring attender:

    We must be still and still moving
    Into another intensity
    For a further union, a deeper communion
    Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
    The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
    Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

    As I approach a kind of end, the not-at-all punk-rock age of forty, it increasingly seems to me that the careful custody of vast waters, the patient waiting for fire even through seasons of desolation, is the task we must take up if we care to live well as adults. Eliot suggests it is here, in the abandonment of earlier intensities, that we might actually begin to find deeper communion. The raptures will come when they want to – and God help us, they’d better – but we can only prepare for them by losing ourselves in a different way than I used to when the lights went down, and the whole room rushed to breathe, move, and sing as a single, sweaty thing.

    Contributed By IanMarcusCorbin Ian Marcus Corbin

    Ian Marcus Corbin is a philosopher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is currently the co-director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School and a senior fellow at the think tank Capita.

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