somehow, i feel okay posting this minutes after bobby’s post. this certainly is not an attempt to steal his thunder, but i think they go well together. beginnnnnnnning now:
Tonight the Avett Bros play a show in Madison, WI. They will visit the exact venue, The Barrymore, where eight years ago I witnessed the live performance of the Big Wu’s 10th Anniversary show. That night was one of the happiest moments of my life, and yet it contained the saddest realization of my high school years.
The Barrymore Theater is a run-down auditorium that reminds me of a school playhouse. Two sloped cement aisles split rows of red velvet chairs and lead down to a simple elevated stage. Almost exactly eight years ago, about ten feet from that very stage, I caught my friend Danny as he slumped against my tie-dyed t-shirt. Halfway through the second night of the 10th anniversary gig, he turned gray and passed out completely, drowning in a dizzying sea of marijuana, alcohol, and an unkown variety of mushroom.
Danny, Chris, and I had become best friends during a lonely and difficult senior year of high school. Chris and I lifted weights together three times a week. Danny and I drove together to school. The three of us shared a love of hiking and the outdoors, of jam bands and sports. Our weekend nights extended to the early hours of the morning. One night we chased deer in Danny’s rusting minivan. Another night, I drank my first beer under the one lane bridge behind Danny’s house, and we threw our empty bottles down to the paved bike path below.
We caused trouble in high school with elaborate pranks, and skipped out of classes with intertwined and intricate excuses. But, while foolish and annoying (placing dead minnows behind various library books, serving Digornio pizza to classrooms while in session, and at one point hiding a dead squirrel in the drop ceiling of the hallway outside of our gymnasium), these pranks were not endangering our character any more than a skinned knee threatens a man’s life. And yes, I do now understand the grossness of hiding dead animals as a joke and can no longer easily explain the humor in these actions.
The three of us had anticipated this early winter evening for months. We had sworn allegiance to the Big Wu over all other main-stream jam bands like the String Cheese Incident or Phish, cherishing our own Midwestern band and memorizing the words to at least a dozen songs. The afternoon of the show, we met at our local Park ‘n Ride and excitedly packed snacks and drinks into Chris’ Toyota SUV. The one hour drive to Madison lived up to our anticipation, and I distinctly remember savoring the moment while leaning forward from the backseat to join in on conversation. It felt a lot like the sense of satisfaction after eating a home-cooked meal amongst family.
We arrived wild-eyed in the college town of Madison, and it seemed that the momentum of the evening could hardly be contained. Someone spotted a local Mexican restaurant and hollered for Chris to pull in. But, halfway through our burrito dinner, I sensed that I was being left out of a shared secret. The other two guys were taking turns sneaking off to the bathroom, and they would return to the table smiling to each other as they sat down. When Danny returned to the table after his second visit to the bathroom, the upper portion of his pant leg was soaking wet, and I asked for an explanation. They had been smuggling glass bottles of beer into the bathroom in the pockets of their pants. Against my protests, the trips continued for another round, until a glass bottle crashed against the tile bathroom floor and sent us hurtling out of the restaurant.
As we careened out of the parking lot with the other two guys laughing in the front seat, the weight of loneliness began to sink into my stomach. My sense of belonging had been lost. Later that night, as I watched the people around me dancing with free spirits and inhaling strange tastes and smells with abandon, I felt isolated and alone. By the time I dragged Danny out to the SUV and forced him to drink a bottle of water, I was ready to return home.
Riding back in the darkness of the stark highway and the quietness of the exhausted group, I realized that this was the last night I would ever share with my two closest friends. I understood that they were leaning into experiences that I refused to attempt, and that the adventures were reaching depths I did not want to visit. I remember looking out of the window in sadness and admitting to myself that I could no longer pretend to share the same goals or aspirations.
That moment, while riding home, felt like someone turned on the lights during a crowded show. Suddenly the ripped velvet seats and the cracked paint of the cement aisles didn’t seem as inviting. The stage seemed smaller. And underneath the rows of seats, I could see the stains of spilled beer and the crumpled forms of discarded trash.