By Lindsay Zoladz | 25 January 2011
(Photo courtesy of Mehan Jayasuriya and Stereogum)
The only thing better than a great memory is waking up the next morning to the thought that you will get to live it all over again. Such was the liminal state of reverie in which I walked around my neighborhood all Saturday afternoon, poised between the Dismemberment Plan’s two back-to-back reunion shows in their fiercely yet endearingly possessive hometown of Washington, D.C. There was a single moment during Friday’s set at the Black Cat, which will maybe go down as one of my personal favorite moments at the venue, when the city’s mounting fervor over the band’s homecoming seemed to reach a fever pitch. Travis Morrison stood alone on stage beside a small Yamaha keyboard, manning the endearingly chintzy beat of “You Are Invited,” and behind him the rest of the band began to filter back out onto the stage: Eric Axelson strapped on his mighty bass; Jason Caddell slung his guitar over his shoulder; Joe Easley, head dwarfed by his ubiquitous air traffic controller headphones, sat down behind his kit. By the time Morrison got to the part in the song where he talks to his ex in the kitchen, the air was taut with what we all knew was about to come. A few people scattered around the crowd wearing birthday hats held cans of Silly String aloft. Strangers grinned at each other with that conspiratorial look right before the guest of honor walks into a surprise party. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a place so ready to blow.
But before that Silly String goes flying, let’s set the ol’ memory machine back at least a couple of days, to a time when most D.C. residents within a two-decade age span were clamoring with anticipation and nostalgia over the band’s imminent return. Nearly every local publication ran a series of articles about the band and their legacy, scene veterans eagerly tried to one-up each other’s I Was There stories, and the recently reissued Emergency & I (1999) seemed to be playing inside every pair of headphones in the city. I had not seen critics and laypeople united in such a collective tizzy over music since, well, y’know.
Even in their absence (they broke up in 2003 but played a pair of D.C. shows in 2007), the D-Plan have maintained an emotional stranglehold over many of their fans; otherwise stoic grown-ups are given to telling their “I got on stage for ‘Ice of Boston’” stories in the same tone of voice they reserve for stories about losing their virginities. It makes sense: the band was in the business of unabashedly mining the dormant emotions of early adulthood. Through Morrison’s lyrics and the mechanized warmth of their music, they laid bare the secret truths of fledgling adulthood and urban malaise that everybody more or less feels but often acts too together, or too old, to say aloud: that a life of endless possibilities is often more crippling than it is freeing, that opening your heart to other people is sometimes the hardest fucking thing in the world, and that the everyday mechanical grind of city life is crushing, heartwarming, alienating, lonely, poetic, and often times all of these things at once.
But any Washingtonian will tell you that there’s something about the Plan’s perspective that’s particular to D.C. Of course, there’s the city’s music history, and the way they fit into a local narrative of innovative punk: their reign as Best Band in Town spanned the couple of years between Fugazi and Q and Not U. But their connection to the rhythms of this city runs a little deeper than even the surrounding musical landscape. I didn’t get it when I first moved here, and I certainly didn’t get it the first time I heard Change (2001) or Emergency & I, but now entering my sixth year living here, I think I do. There’s something about this city that’s particularly disillusioning and prone to the sort of slaphappy eyeball rolls you can almost hear an audible echo of in Travis Morrison’s voice: it’s what you feel as a not-that-young-anymore-and-not-entirely-together person living in a city that stands as a metonym for a polished, successful and stately idea of adulthood to which you’re pretty sure you will never live up. It’s in the feeling of riding the Metro during the Federal employees’ rush hour, your sneakers beside their expensive briefcases as you sit in a t-shirt that bespeaks the alliterative name of the restaurant or cupcake shop where you work. It’s the feeling of going downtown to collect an unemployment check in a building that’s within the line of sight of the White House or the Supreme Court or the Washington Monument—a skyline of empty, dignified stone that seems to leer at you when you can’t live up to its unattainable standard of success. That particular strand of disillusionment and the life that kicks so fiercely beneath it is what the Dismemberment Plan were able to articulate more precisely than any band before or since. Just listen to the first minute of “Spider in the Snow”: the way the chilly synth washes over the ever-forward gait of Axelson’s bass line and the deadpan intonation of Morisson’s “I would walk down K Street to some temping job / As winter froze the life out of fall / Yeah, I must have been having a ball” say more about trying to cobble together a life in Washington than any monument ever will.
So that’s what was behind the conspiratorial look we were all sharing when the band pounded into the second chorus of “You Are Invited” and the Silly String went flying into the rafters. The Black Cat show was the first and the smallest of the three shows the band would play in D.C that weekend, and being in a tight space gave their frenetic, two hour set the benefit of intimacy. From the unexpected opener “Soon to Be Ex-Quaker,” it was a set surprisingly heavy on the spazzy stuff (the chaotic singalong “Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” being an undeniable highlight in that category), but there was plenty of room for some much beloved slowburners too (“Ellen and Ben,” “Rusty,” “Superpowers”). Pretty much everyone I talked to that night left in a state of awe at how a band that hadn’t played together in almost a decade could sound so tight.
Saturday’s performance at the 9:30 Club proved the old show-going adage that the bigger the venue, the more likely you will be able to discern what the people around you were drinking by smelling your clothes the next morning. I always seem to have a similar experience at this club, and this time was no exception, as even in the second row (you know, up there with the people who supposedly really like music) I ended up standing in front of two girls who chattered through all the slow songs, sloshed poorly-gripped gin and tonics into my hair, and between songs saw fit to yell the rather cumbersome “TRAVIS UNBUTTON ANOTHER BUTTON ON YOUR SHIRT,” much to the embarrassment of everyone else standing in the section of the crowd from which that comment reached the stage. (I don’t even want to tell you what was coming out of their mouths during “Girl O’Clock.”) But as always, this experience is an almost-worthwhile trade-off for the 9:30 Club’s commanding soundsystem, which made the band sound positively soaring during the chorus of “What Do You Want Me to Say,” and which maximized the gutpunch when that yowl of a guitar line cuts through Easley and Axelson’s kinetic percussion on “The Other Side.” As always, the guys also found an opportunity to affirm their love of pop music: closing number “OK, Joke’s Over” had embedded within its extended bridge an inspired cover of Far East Movement’s “Like a G6”—a fitting statement, since, as you can imagine from where I was standing Morrison by that point had the sober girls acting drunk and the drunk girls acting real drunk.
The chance to experience this sort of thing two nights in a row allows for one to perform controlled experiments in show-going: one night drunk and one night sober; one night with friends and one night alone; one night watching “The Ice of Boston” from the crowd and one night living out the dream of screaming, “OH FINE MOM, HOW’S WASHINGTON?” with about a hundred other ecstatic people on stage. For when the dozens of shaky, front row iPhone videos finally emerge: that’s me in the yellow skirt, jumping up and down next to Morrison for the first five seconds of the song, and then, in a deluge of dudes, promptly getting pushed back to the furthest corners of the stage and into a line of sight where I could not see the crowd or the flashbulbs in front of me but from which I was able to gather for you this bit of reportage: Joe Easley plays the drums better than you do in your dreams, and guess what, he does it barefoot.
The overwhelming sense of community at these shows was particularly and belatedly gratifying to me, since my own personal D-Plan narrative is more of an I Wasn’t There story. I picked up a copy of ! (1995) on a whim at a used record store only a couple of years ago. When I got the album home and looked at the track list, I was startled to find a song called “13th & Euclid—I’d just moved into a basement apartment on that very corner only about a week before. The Plan’s approach to punk immediately reminded me of the Minutemen’s approach to punk: not as a dictum on how to sound or what sort of haircut to sport, but as an entire ideology of creative freedom—a blank slate for a defiantly personal perspective. Still, “13th & Euclid” stood as a metaphor for the way I felt about my connection the band—and in a lot of ways, that spectral ideology of D.C. punk—it was almost maddening to know that all of that had happened right here, but that a decade later those memories seemed to be the possessions of time, not space.
So, unlike most of the people who were living here in the band’s heyday, my love of the Plan’s music has felt singular and isolated. Last year this feeling became even more pronounced, when I was coping with a close friend’s death and Change was quite literally the only record that existed for me in those first couple of weeks. Having the chance to finally be in an entire roomful of people singing the lyrics to “The Other Side” or “Following Through” was not just an exercise in personal catharsis, but it felt like a strange moment of past collapsing into present—the making of a common memory.
Even if ?uestlove can’t make the Dismemberment Plan reunite for longer than the couple of shows they have scheduled in the next few weeks, their homecoming in D.C. this weekend was enough to cast the entire city under a spell. Rare are the moments when you see the town about which “Do the Standing Still” was written carried away in collective, admittedly cheesy hand gesture, but when you’re screaming along with a few hundred people at the Black Cat and you get to the part in the song that goes, “The city’s been dead since you’ve been gone,” what else is there to do but point at those four dudes on stage.