If you interviewed for a job at the Twitter corporate headquarters some time in 2008, you were likely asked to name your “theme song” – the song that should play in the background as you walked on screen or into a room. The question was not just one of taste or tip-of-the-tongue recall, though it was those, but they also wanted to know how you wanted to project yourself and make people feel when you arrived. I had been in San Francisco for two weeks when I was asked the question a few beers in at a drafty Western Addition bar.
About ten seconds of consideration and I responded. “Dismemberment Plan. Face of the Earth.”
I didn’t want to work for Twitter, but the people I was with worked there and were so delighted with adding this into the interviews they had been conducting that it had spilled over into social outings. Of the five youngish, nerdish boys sitting on mismatched thrift store couches, only one knew the song in question. I was not surprised. My selection was based in no small part on remembering a steamy summer evening years prior when teen-aged versions of he and I had shared the shelter of a clear plastic poncho as a downpour soaked The Plan’s last Fort Reno show, back home on the opposite side of the country.
However, my answer was not really true. Certainly the song is swirly and sexy and sad and, at that moment, I did feel like I had “spent my life in planes” traveling on and off of campaigns for the previous year and having just packed up and moved cross country. However, were I being honest, I would have said either “Spider in the Snow” or “Gyroscope” – songs of the band’s earlier album, Emergency & I which felt to me (as they do to thousands of others, no doubt) uncannily biographical. Those tracks, though, were too literal, too personal, and entirely too homesick for that moment. Too cliché also to bother mentioning to this person who’s on-again-off-again affections had made it seem like a pretty good idea to move to California – that I would have a friend and not be totally alone in a new place – until I actually got there.
I came to the band late in their career, sometime in my teens. When Emergency & I came out I had only fairly recently started going to concerts at legitimate venues without supervision (my prior years were mostly passed in church basements and DIY spaces which I had somehow managed to convince my mother were wholesome). I had been given home-burned, Sharpie-decorated CDs of The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified and ! – but Emergency & I I bought for myself. I loved those records like they had been made especially for me. The band’s website has long said that “The Dismemberment Plan was based in, and very much a natural result of, Washington, D.C.” So was I.
I would see the Plan a number of times in those next couple of years. Along with Q and Not U, perhaps, they were the sound of growing up at that moment in the late nineties in a Washington which was long past the post-punk generation – though certainly their influence still hung heavily in the air – but before the explosion of cultural activity the city boasts today. A Dismemberment Plan show was always ecstatic and joyful. Those were the shows where I learned that, when everything lines up just right, a concert can change your life.
It was not just the songs and the band, themselves, though. It was also about participating in a scene. About the process of growing up with a group of people who share similar values and experiences. Over time, you see the same people at shows or coffee shops or house parties enough that you get to now one another and some of them will become your best friends. Being from Washington, I have always felt proud of – and grateful to be a part of – a around the really supportive, positive, and accepting scene that this city nurtures.
In 2007, the last time the Dismemberment Plan played the Black Cat, it was a few weeks before I graduated college. It felt more official of an ending of something than my actual commencement ceremony. After all, I did not grow up on the Mall; I grew up in dark rooms with bright lights and these strangers and friends, jumping up and down, and these songs. That show felt final and conclusive. This was a benefit show for their friend’s child in need, not a whole tour, and without any suggestion it would be more than those two nights. I left the club and I more or less set the records aside for a long time. In part, I hardly need to actually listen to them – I know them so well by heart that the opening strains are pretty much enough. But there were also just other bands, more relevant to my new, adult life. The songs stayed in the back of my mind, but I reached for them less and less. When I moved to California, I could not listen to them at all, even the one time I tried. The space was too wrong.
The next time I would hear a Dismemberment Plan song, I had moved back to Washington. One day I went to retrieve my car from the shipping depot out in Virginia. I turned the radio on, pointed the car back to DC, and “All Things Considered” used an instrumental bit off Change as transition music. Convenient that I was wearing sunglasses facing the car into the late afternoon light, because those few notes at that moment were enough to make me tear up.
When this series of reunion shows was announced, I decided I would attend and it had to be at The Black Cat. As far as I am concerned, the 9:30 Club is for big touring bands. Stars. The kind of people who play with backdrops and laser light shows. Not bands where you are acquainted with multiple members, however casually, and are used to seeing around town. No, The Dismemberment Plan are too personal and local for a venue like that. Moreover, the 9:30 has never felt like home to me with the cavernous main stage and imposing balconies. Friday’s show was also a benefit for We Are Family and, fittingly, Fort Reno.
Upon walking into the room, I saw familiar faces all around. Some of them people I had not seen in years. The inevitable problem that faces a tight-knit scene being that, eventually, we age ourselves out of it. New kids come up behind, those of us who have been around lose our edge and stop going out as much or keeping up with newer bands. I have never seen so many pregnant women at a rock show as on this night because, while I am on the younger end of the fan base by a little bit, even my peers are marching steadily into that relationships-jobs-marriage-kids realm which can, if you let it, really adversely effect the time you put in to your local music scene. The band sold baby clothes at the merch table.
This brought to a head something which had started worrying me about a week before the show: Was this simply an exercise in nostalgia? Baby boomers who leave the office for the weekend to put on the old tie-die and attend a concert of whatever past-his-prime performer has been wheeled out and act like greying teenagers are a certain kind of pathetic which I have no interest in resembling. Our tie-die and headbands might be Sonic Youth tees or plaid Western shirts, skinny jeans, and black hoodies, but are we really any better? Could this show possibly deliver the energy and emotional resonance I remembered from a decade prior, seen now in soft focus memories and over-saturated Polaroids? This music was always important to me but something about the reverent, adoring way people have been speaking about the band in recent weeks had failed to sit right with me. I loved them, but they seemed too small and close and too much a part of the community for me to really consider myself a “fan” in that way.
I drank beers and caught up with acquaintances. The openers, Tereu Tereu and Bluebrain, played short sets and kept very closely to the posted set times. During Tereu Tereu, particularly, people were more interested in keeping up conversations than paying attention, so at times they were nearly drowned out by the crowd, but everyone was in good spirits. The 11:30 headliner slot came very quickly.
Before the set began, Mark Andersen, the long-time punk activist, organizer, and author spoke about We Are Family, Positive Force, and the overwhelming positivity and engagement which has always defined the Washington, DC scene. His enthusiasm for mission and community verbalized how the room already felt. His brief words gave a feeling of an invocation before the proceedings.
“This is kind of a family celebration,” he reminded the crowd.
With the house lights still mostly up, the band launched into “Soon to Be Ex-Quaker.” People looked slightly uncomfortable – in the audience and on the stage. It was not until about the chorus of the second song, “Back and Forth,” that things seemed to click and fall into place. From there, the band was off and the crowd was with them.
Perhaps too with them at some points, really. Multiple times, Morrison had to remind the crowd that they had paid money to see the band play as they do now – and so might consider not shouting along every lyric of every song just as it appeared on the records. You cannot blame people for living in the cathartic, vibrating, shared experience, but by the time they set to play the aching “Superpowers” Morrison basically asked people not to sing along just this once, albeit good-humouredly. It was apparent early that the band was not going to play the songs exactly as they used to do. Seven years away from touring the material can do that to a musician. Some songs, though, have always demanded audience participation and the crowd was as well-rehearsed for those moments as the band, having acted them out so many times before.
As the room bounced together through “You Are Invited” silly string sprayed the center of the crowd. As the encore wrapped up, a few bars of Robyn’s “Fembot” were worked in with “Ok Joke’s Over.” These moments that reminded the crowd that this was never meant to be all that serious. That this was a band that existed to give rocker kids permission to dance. The songs might feel as heart-breakingly true as they felt life-affirming, but it is all done with a wink.
Was it the best show I had ever seen? No. This was probably not even the best Dismemberment Plan show I have seen. (Morrison seemed happier with the Saturday show, for example.) Which is sort of ok with me and as it should be. We are all older now, dance punk as a trendy genre has come and gone, and pop-culture references in the lyrics have grown dated. Do the younger kids even know who John McLaughlin is or remember a time when he was relevant? Or phone books, for that matter? Maybe there is simply nothing new to bring to this music. I would buy a new D-Plan record if they made one, but I cannot say I would approach it without trepidation. I am more interested in other musical projects from the band members bringing their talents to new material than re-treading Plan territory.
As far as I know, the globe stops rotating for three minutes when those first notes of “Gyroscope” play over a club’s speakers, hundreds of people moving and shouting together. “If she spins fast enough than maybe the broken pieces of her heart will stay together, ” Morrison sings. Everybody in the room feels less alone in the world. That is an amazing experience and it is why pop music matters and I certainly do not want to understate that. On the other hand, there is an element of diminishing returns as one gets older and has that moment again and again. It never stops being fun, but it is hard to capture that transcendence it might once have had.
There was a lot of fun both in the audience and on stage on Friday and ultimately that is what matters. That, and that even as some individuals grow up or, less forgivably, move to New York (cue boos) this city remains uncommonly rich in young people who want to make music together, build community, and create positive change in the world around them. I love The Dismemberment Plan and I probably always will. If they want to keep coming out of day-job retirement to play a benefit every few years, that will always be great.
However, after the show wrapped around 1:00 and the crowd wandered out to the cold or to grab one more drink with some friends, I left the club with one thought in mind: I hope so very much that the amount of excitement and enthusiasm that have been spent on these three reunion shows and the amount of ink spilled over this band will be kept up and invested in what is real and vital about DC’s music scene right now. The best way to avoid falling prey to nostalgia would seem to be maintaining relevance. I find that there is no shortage of exciting, vital, and relevant music coming out of this scene right now – but if you think there is, by all means, start a band and make some. That is what these guys did eighteen years ago and we are all a tiny bit better for that.
“This is the life. For better or worse, it’ll stay that way.”