How To Take It All In Alone, Together
Learning to toggle between solitude and company, all with the sound of a crisp amp in the background.
Personal Record is a subjective, critical chronicle of uneasy listening. Tune into Personal Record for everything from Music for Airports to music for dissociating in the back of the club, delivered with anxious panache.
To be alone with yourself, your psyche must be a tolerable place. It’s a room a lot of people don’t enter unless they have to, an attic of anxieties draped in dust cloths. Everyone I know has some form of trauma or mental illness, so this is my working theory for people’s reticence to go to shows without a friend in tow, among the other, more widely acknowledged risks (safety concerns, sexism, racism, PTSD, fear of seeing your ex).
Generally, we’re socialized to embrace the buddy system, and it’s reinforced by social mores. You don’t want to be seen in the high school cafeteria with your 500-page Jack Kerouac biography and no tablemates; you don’t want to be on the receiving end of stares at a house show where everyone’s dated or dating each other, coupled and throupled up. Solitude can come across as a mystery (hot) or a liability (unloved, pariah).
I learned how to be alone in public in college when I edited the music section at my college’s paper (the Pacemaker Award-winning Daily Tar Heel, naturally). I’d stand at shows at the Local 506 or Cat’s Cradle with an X on my hand before I turned 21 and, sometimes, a camera I could barely use around my neck. Before smartphones were particularly smart, when unlimited data plans were the province of the out-of-state wealthy, I fiddled with the aperture and ISO and wished I could melt into the floor. I was running on FOMO and fumes, but if the set was good enough, I could forget my own awkwardness.
I began hitting three shows a week, then four. My grades dipped. The musicians working the door remembered my name. I got invited to house shows and house parties, and I memorized the local lore—the Superchunks and Archers of Loafs that put the scene on the map, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ national popularity, the ebb and flow of notoriety in the Triangle’s indie rock cosmology. I loved the scene and it loved me back; I showed up weird and it only encouraged me to get weirder.
I don’t know if I believe in unconditional relationships, but I believe in the kind where you can still be loved with a shitty DIY haircut or a protracted William Faulkner prose-styling phase. If I’m self-actualized, it’s in some part because I moved in with one of my best friends (a beloved NC musician with a Cancer sun) and made Twin Peaks my entire personality during the summer when I was at shows every night of the week.
I was triangulating myself against any culture I could consume, trying on whatever fit. I spent a few vulnerable months swimming further out from the shore of my collegiate community—a pastel-blue sea of athletics, frat houses, and gender normativity—and I was given a gift in exchange for my vulnerability. I learned how to be alone with art, alone with myself, and in return, I rarely had to be. I could toggle between solitude and a crowded room at will, and in that sea, I was ebullient.
And then there were a few less ebullient years, where I was both constantly alone and constantly besieged by someone else’s needs.
The day I flew home from my baby shower in North Carolina, every television in the airport was reporting the first COVID case to hit Midtown. I cried at an airport restaurant that advertised Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s signature barbecue sauce, then returned to a marriage that was already fracturing.
During the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, my artistic diet went from feast to famine—no shows, no rubbernecking at coffee shops, no writing groups, no weird medieval paintings of babies at the Cloisters I could joke about on Twitter. Up to that point, the consumption of art had been the bridge between me and the people I loved. How would we find each other without this lingua franca? The internet was a meager, inadequate substitute, a game of Russian roulette where I was just as likely to encounter conspiracy theories as I was a solid meme.
I pined for shows again the way middle-aged men long for affairs. If I could just hear the crackle of an amp, I could tie the old me to the new one somehow. I could situate myself once more in all this chaos, in all this birth and death. My apartment was a shadowy room I couldn’t leave; my psyche was, too. And the thing that sounded most liberating was sharing air and space with a bunch of strangers, feeling that distinct frisson of potential that’s so impossible when you can map every hour, minute, lunch break, and diaper change of every day. An entire lifetime passed within those years, like I’d traveled to Mars. Months expired; I aged; venues shuttered; the supply chain collapsed; my sources of serotonin dwindled to Instagram Lives of musicians in their bathtubs, collecting money for mutual aid.
The connections I had then were ballast, and I was sinking. In marriage and motherhood, I was a poor performer, clocking in dissociated and half-alive.
Life before felt distant, but I held onto the joy of years past like someone in the first seconds of consciousness, committing a dream to memory. I’d forged community before, and I could—and I would—do it again, by standing in new rooms, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, brave enough to believe that we’d find each other in the crowd.
This July and August, I traveled to Bed-Stuy for Evan Wright, June McDoom, and Nick Hakim, where I met a new friend and her circle, and June McDoom sang, “Saw you in the darkest night time / It was darker than in my mind.” The smell of someone’s joint wafted down the barricade; I luxuriated in her voice like it was a breeze. I cried to Midnight Cowboy at Film Forum with two buddies — my doula, a book group bestie — and felt the most lonely time of my life collide with the fullest one. I took my kid to a lake house where I only knew one person, and joined the chaos of three other families wearing an old Jackson Browne t-shirt and a nervous smile.
I took a date to the Florry and Kurt Vile show down the street and did not talk to the dads in their tie-dye (but we all had a great time). I threw a reading at KGB, a leftist bar in Ukrainian Village, and moved around the room, hugging people I knew and people I didn’t, but wanted to. I danced alone to Kate Bush in my apartment, which I found and fought for with the determination of someone who’s had to sit in her own crowded mind a long goddamn time. I stared down the furniture; I yanked off the dust cloths one by one. I relied on myself, and I relied on other people.
A Playlist, by Linnie Greene
- Honeycombs (Here We Are Again) by Sengoko
- The City by June McDoom
- The Pretender by Jackson Browne
- Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson
- Speed of the Sound of Loneliness by Kurt Vile