Words by: Emma Pearce
* = named changed
The year is 2005. It is a year of side-sweep fringes and fingerless gloves. A year of skipping lessons to drink neat vodka and smoke weak joints in nearby fields with other seventeen year olds; blasting out music from CD players through cheap portable speakers. It is the year that the first colour phones came out and my screensaver is a gun smoking bright red blood. I have a Coheed and Cambria patch sewn on to my backpack. There are six of us who have found each other at sixth form college, six of us kindred spirits who all own Drive Thru Records compilation albums and have opinions on poetry, politics and pop-punk. We are seventeen and we are unbreakable and I am certain that we will be best friends forever.
I’m speaking figuratively, of course
June 8th 2005: Josh* comes bounding up to us at break time; his faux-scruffy highlighted hair flopping over his eyes, face spread wide in his signature grin. He is the glue which binds our friendship group together and has an uncanny knack for making friends. Everyone loves him. He is genuine. He is carefree and caring. He is stunningly attractive in the way that only a skinny, blonde 17-year-old in a Distillers hoodie and ripped jeans can be. He is the bass player in local rock band Something About Nothing*. We idolise him, we admire him, we adore him. He is carrying something in his right hand.
“Oh my God GUYS have you heard the new Motion City album?” Josh is waving the Commit This To Memory CD under our noses and grinning like the Cheshire cat, fumbling for his CD player and earphones so we can all gather around him and listen to it. He draws people to him with his infectious enthusiasm, a charisma born out of his genuine love for the world and everyone in it. Motion City Soundtrack are his favourite band and he is convinced that this is their best album yet. He stayed up all night listening to it, he enthuses. He hasn’t taken his headphones out once on the forty-five-minute bus journey to college. The album came out yesterday – of course we haven’t heard it and he knows that. Privately I think that he relishes sharing it with us more than he does the album itself.
I want to know what it’s like to be awkward and innocent, not belligerent
He is right to; in many ways Commit is the perfect pop-punk album. There’s something about the wild emotional roller-coaster of teenage years which is perfectly encapsulated in this album, with its driving Moog riffs and oddball lyrics which pull on stereotypical teenage heartstrings: loneliness, heartbreak, change, confusion. Its happiest songs are tinged with a kind of reflexive irony (both lyrically and melodically) that seems to question itself even at its most upbeat.
From the punchy opening track Attractive Today which captures the oh-so-teenage feeling of being awkward and ungainly and speaks, in frontman Justin Pierre’s wavering falsetto, of a deep-seated longing for self-approval, to its quieter tracks Hold Me Down and Together We Ring in The New Year which demonstrate Pierre’s knack for the kind of mournful, playful lyrics which serve to set this album apart from the plethora of now-maligned and discarded albums from your brooding-in-too-much-eyeliner phase.
It was always the anthemic LGFUAD (Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die) that we blasted at full volume at house parties on weekends when friends’ parents were out of town, or in the car speeding down the motorway on our way to some gig or other as we necked back shots of vodka in a way you only think is cool when the first one of your friends has learned to drive and you don’t have to bear the burden of staying sober.
Commit This To Memory’s second track Everything Is Alright will always remind me of Josh. More specifically it will remind me of one seemingly unremarkable night in a nondescript South Coast town centre after one of his gigs. Josh struggles with depression and anxiety and ever so occasionally, we see it. We see it in the mania that grips him as he pushes us to dance all night, long past the time that we have started to drift asleep across piles of beer cans and miscellaneous debris. We see it in the late night phone calls and the black circles under his eyes as he skips yet another Economics lesson because he just can’t concentrate, okay?
The night in question: We’re sat in a dirty Weatherspoon’s pub celebrating a successful show. The privileged few who have turned eighteen buy the drinks while the rest of us give what we (almost certainly misguidedly) assume is our best impression of being mature-and-responsible-definitely-over-the-legal-drinking-age-adults.
Laura* has driven us all down to this unfamiliar seaside town to support Josh and his bandmates, putting up with us controlling the playlist and swigging neat liquor on en route. But now it is getting late and she is the only one of us who is completely sober. As the rest of us laugh and joke, trading insults and anecdotes it is obvious that she is becoming increasingly enraged.
Everything Is Alright comes on the pub’s jukebox and without warning Josh grabs her hand, pulling her to her feet in a stumbling jive. His wild laughter is the perfect counterpoise to her weary derision, and suddenly, with a flash of his brilliant smile, the spell is broken and she is dancing with him. They spin and laugh and laugh and spin until they end up tripped and tangled on the dirty floor. Josh broke his finger that night and didn’t even feel it until the next morning when Laura drove him to A&E without a word of reproach.
You’re the echoes of my everything; you’re the emptiness the whole world sings at night.
June 8th 2008: I’m at university. It’s just past midnight. I’m taking a well-earned break from my finals coursework by sharing a bottle of cheap red wine with my housemate Jess* in her room in our shared house off a picturesque street in Oxford. The room is decorated with Indian tapestries and charcoal drawings of renaissance figures. Mos Def, Aphex Twin and Alice Coltrane album covers adorn the walls. I’ve thrown off my emo mantle; instead I spend a lot of time listening to sprawling sub-genres of metal, hip hop and jazz and getting into EDM in a way that a just-barely-twenty-year-old in a new city with thousands of other just-barely-twenty-year-olds can. Dubstep is only just starting to become a thing.
We’re listening to something Brainfeeeder-esque and arguing about where or not Keats was a genius or just a bit of a dickhead (my opinion is, and remains, the latter). I’m struggling with the workload. I’d just come back to university after a debilitating kidney infection and the fact that I have coursework deadlines which count towards my final grades is stressing me out. I’m low-level buzzing that something is wrong. I feel disquieted, uneasy, I couldn’t have told you why.
And then my phone rings.
My friend Sam*’s name pops up on the screen of my flip phone. Sam is part of my core friendship group from sixth form. We’d spent many nights screaming our little hearts out to Brand New, reassuring ourselves that we liked them before they became mainstream.
“What does he want?” I ask Jess as if she would know “I’m not gonna pick up. I’m gonna leave it. I’ll call him back tomorrow” I silence the phone and pour another glass; sinking back into the bean bag on which I am sprawled. Sam calls again, and again, then he texts me: Call me. Now.
“Christ I’d better call him.” I gesture ‘two minutes’ with apologetic fingers and roll my eyes.
I’m addicted to words and they’re useless
Justin Pierre’s lyrics on Commit This to Memory are centred on change. References to the New Year pepper the album’s songs and its central tenet of the fleeting nature of youth binds the mournful ballads and punk rock anthems together to create a cohesive, tangible whole. The tapestry of youthful jubilance, wistful regret and self-reassurance that is woven into the very fabric of Commit is what makes practically every song on it an anthem for those in the brilliant-yet-brutal middle stage of their teenage years.
Pierre’s high-pitched drawl manages to be hauntingly beautiful, brilliantly melancholic and yet at the same time hopeful and glorious – echoing the delicious confusion of youth, the oscillation of emotions which are characteristic of your teenage years. It was universal. But in retrospect for Josh I think it spoke to something deeper. Pierre’s lyrics are born out of his struggle with mental health and addiction, and the at-once jubilant and at-once wistful tone of the album counterpoising the traditional driving pop-punk riffs with its minor-chord laden melancholic timbre, typifies the oscillation so emblematic of the beautiful, bright and cruelly curtailed life of one of my closest, and always-missed, friends.
I would love to be able to say that, after he died, listening to Commit This To Memory eased the pain. It didn’t. In fact it took me two years before I could listen to it again, and another two before it didn’t make me howl. Almost eight years later I can’t quite say that it makes me smile, but I’ll get there, I know it, I owe it to Josh.