Between the ages of 19 and 23, I played in a punk band. You may have heard of us, but odds are, you haven’t. We only put out one full length album, a handful of EP’s that we burned onto CD-R’s to hand out free at shows, and did some short-ish tours, mostly around the Midwest. Locally, we achieved some level of notoriety as “the band with the singer who falls down and cries a lot at the end of their set,” but there was never really a place for us in our hometown scene. Our performances were too chaotic. Our music was only “punk” insofar as it was loud and generally fast. And lyrics-wise, we eschewed the more typical punk themes of social unrest and scene brother-and-sisterhood in favor of songs about walking home alone on New Year’s and my Peter Pan complex.
The lack of recognition and appreciation was a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, if you were in a punk band, you didn’t play for recognition (Or at the very least, you didn’t admit to it). Punk was about expressing your honest and authentic Truth to the world, whether or not the world was listening. On the other hand, it was a bit dispiriting constantly playing shows to crowds of uninterested people who only came to see their friends’ bands. Wasn’t being able to support yourself doing something you’re passionate about also, paradoxically, a part of the punk dream?
So, in 2010, after a winter tour through the Midwestern states, one which involved our van breaking down not once, but three times in subzero temperatures and driving through a blizzard which stretched from Cleveland to Pittsburgh without functioning windshield wipers, I decided that my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Not just the band, but, as I would later realize, music altogether. I told my band mates unceremoniously via text that it was time to call it a night.
Naturally I was a bit sour after that. For four solid years, that band had been my life. Writing and performing songs was the highest joy that I’d ever known, and suddenly, the joy had ceased. While our peers had managed to grow their audiences and make waves in the independent music press, our legacy consisted of a few positive reviews from various blogs and about 225 unsold copies of our first LP (We only pressed 250). I’d screamed my honest and authentic Truth until I vomited, and the world didn’t seem to care.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I’d realize we had been worth just a little bit more as a band. I was hanging out with our former bass player, discussing the old days, naturally, when he informed me that he’d been in the habit of googling our name to see what he’d come up with. He told me that he’d stumbled across a forum thread devoted to our first LP, and that a young man from Russia had posted about how he’d just received his copy in the mail, and how it had saved him from committing suicide.
Now, he may have been speaking in hyperbole. But if he wasn’t… I was unable to process how I felt upon hearing this. Sure, our record sales may have only added up to a tank of gasoline, and our shows may have been sparsely attended, but, assuming this young man’s statement to be accurate, our music had saved somebody from making a very tragic decision. We had mattered to somebody so much that they kept on living.
There’s an old saying in the indie music community that goes something like this: Only fifteen people were at the first Velvet Underground show, but all fifteen of them bought guitars and started writing music. I highly doubt the veracity of this claim, as I’ve heard it in numerous variations. The number of audience members differs, as does the band, but the point of this little cliche is that ultimately, fame and mass appeal come second to inspiring others. The Velvet Underground (Or Sonic Youth. Or Dinosaur Jr. Or My Bloody Valentine) inspired fifteen people to express themselves through music. We inspired one person to stay alive. That’s a legacy I’m content to have.