Paint’s Peeling: At a Rilo Kiley Show in 2003

Some of your beloved writers are going to see Jenny Lewis tonight. She will probably play Rilo Kiley songs. I first saw Rilo Kiley in 2003. This is a made-up story about other people seeing Rilo Kiley for the first time in 2003.

I’ve heard they cry at Bright Eyes shows. Not just from Emily. I did some research on the internet. It’s kind of embarrassing but I didn’t realize people my age didn’t really use newsgroups for this stuff anymore. The Bright Eyes newsgroup is mostly a bunch of assholes making pretty good points about how Bright Eyes sucks, and I don’t really have a problem with that except it seems like kind of a weird theme for the Bright Eyes newsgroup, and also makes me think, fuck me, is this how I sound on the Star Wars groups? So it makes sense that you have to hunting around LiveJournal and the Saddle Creek message boards and, for as long as your eyes can take it, MySpace to find a bunch of people – let’s be honest, mostly girls – crying their virtual tears over Conor Oberst and his stupid one-man band and haircut.

I don’t know if Rilo Kiley people are going to be the same as Bright Eyes people. I would think they’d be as different as Rilo Kiley sounds from Bright Eyes, which to me is pretty different, but apparently they have a lot of fans in common so maybe I’m the weird one. Anyway, research can’t hurt. I want to know what those internet-type people are like even if I’m not going to be one of them. Some of them sound okay.

I chatted with this one guy on AIM. He gave me the idea of what this Rilo Kiley show would be like. I mean, I’ve been to shows; I know what that’s like. I know the difference between hardcore bands playing the back room at the pool hall and the assholes from the seventies and eighties and today who play at Kalamazoo or Ann Arbor. But I don’t know: somehow the Saddle Creek bands seem different, like they’ll change the shapes of the rooms by entering them and bringing in whatever. The AIM guy backed that up, actually. He said it’s like nothing else although at that point I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what “it” was and I didn’t really want to ask.

He also talked a bunch about The Execution of All Things as a concept album, and I don’t really see it. “It,” in this case, meaning: his totally stupid theory about Execution as a “song cycle” about the emotional aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.

I’m confident that however meager my research, I am by far the most-researched person in this car on the topic of these bands. Emily knows more, but it’s not from research. It’s from listening and feeling and listening some more. It’s like how she’s a better driver than I am, but doesn’t always remember to read the exit signs. I do, though. We make a good team, by which I mean that put together we can accomplish as much as one reasonably smart person with a driver’s license.

Reed is in the back and I can tell you Reed does zero research. He just likes hanging out with us; he’s up for almost anything. I’ve seen him slamdance at hardcore shows and he does not listen to hardcore. When I finally saw his CD collection, I felt like I was receiving a message in code. Reed really, really likes Billy Joel. He likes the Beatles, but who the fuck but idiots in high school doesn’t like the Beatles, and he has what I have to assume is every fucking Sheryl Crow record. He also likes Oasis (so I guess he really likes the Beatles), and the Ramones, and I swear he has the Rammstein album. I’m just listing bands here because there is no rhyme or reason so far as I can tell. He just likes stuff. He never says turn this fucking shit off, which is almost unimaginable but also makes him really fun to be around.

But yeah, not a researcher.

Shannon was supposed to come too but she got sick. She researches mainly what Emily likes. Not that she just deep-copies everything Emily does; she just likes to know what’s going on and make an informed decision, which is not so unlike me, but she’s a bit more Emily-centric about it.

I sit shotgun and read the exit signs all the way to Detroit. It’s technically summer but it feels like fall, which I consider the ideal short-roadtrip weather as well as the ideal walking-outside weather, physical-activity-if-you-must weather, and having a birthday weather. Fall is the best season, no argument. Proof: open windows on Emily’s mom’s but basically Emily’s Subaru. We can’t play Rilo Kiley on the way to a Rilo Kiley show so Emily plays Death Cab for Cutie and I don’t even mind.

Reed is great at finding parking spots, which is good because Emily and I have a philosophical difference on the matter of how big a spot her Subaru needs. Emily thinks she needs like a whole block, I think she misjudges how much space you need to give the hydrant, and Reed says hey can we park at the grocery store lot? The store is closed so the answer seems like no but the lot is almost full and is some cop gonna go and write out 80 or 90 tickets in a row? I doubt it. I hand it to Reed: good eyes on that one. I make a mental note to find him a Billy Joel song on the radio on the way home.

We went to this club once before to see the Breeders. At the time, it was disappointing because I had an idea that I knew more Breeders songs than I actually turned out to know. As we walk in tonight, though, I’m glad for that first show where I got bored halfway through because it turns out it was a trial run for tonight. Now we know this place, and we’re ready to see a good band although I don’t one hundred percent remember where the bathroom is, and when I get in the bathroom I wonder if maybe I didn’t use it last time we were here, which has me back wondering if this was the club we were at that time.

When I come out of the bathroom, I see Emily and Reed talking to a guy I don’t know.

He’s wiry, wearing Vans and black jeans, and I realize this is the first time I’ve seen black jeans on a person since I stopped wearing black jeans in ninth grade because I realized I looked like a dirtbag: in general, and also like a specific dirtbag from my gym class. This guy now looks like some stuff, but not a dirtbag. He has nice hair, too; even I can see this.

“Bay!” says Emily, just a little too excited.

“Em,” I say, like we didn’t come here together, and like I ever call her Em, which I do not.

“This is Brennan,” she says.

“Brendon?” I say on purpose.

“Brennan, good to meet you,” he says with a surprisingly soft voice and surprisingly firm handshake. I am not used to this. I am used to loud people who do not shake hands.

That fucking hair of his stands there between the four of us, like: yeah, hi, no big deal.; Reed is looking at it, too. I don’t know if Brennan is a Rilo Kiley guy or a Bright Eyes guy at heart but his hair is more of a Bright Eyes guy.

Brennan is talking to Emily and he keeps looking over to me and Reed, like we’re the ones he needs to be sure to include. Like he and Emily need to be nice to us. The whole thing with me and Emily has very little to do with niceness. In a weird way, that’s what makes it easy: we know each other so well that we transcend love and hate and like and kinda like. Brennan, I can tell, is not transcending anything.

It wasn’t always like this with me and Emily. It was mostly not like this, historically speaking, because we’ve only known each other for two or three years. We met – really met, after being faces at school since middle – at the mall, and not even at the record store in the mall. The H&M. I was running with these mallratty kids at the time – I think a couple of them tried to make the claim that they were trying to do early-nineties mall culture revival in the late nineties, like they could make mallratting a subculture thing (ska-core was a thing at the time so I guess they figured all bets were off), like being a mod or a hippie or something. I’m pretty sure one of them actually used the word mall-core at some point. But really they were all just in varying stages of admitting that they liked the mall and wanted to spend all their time there.

I met them in fourth-period lunch, of course: basically a late breakfast when you’ve barely been at school a couple of hours, and anyone with any pull has lunch later in the day. The mallratty kids, Shelton and Loviza and BankS, and some others, let me sit with them in exchange for making a bunch of jokes about batting practice to me. I helped out by not knowing that it was slang for jerking off. I mean, I don’t follow sports, so to me the whole of baseball is basically slang for jerking off.

But I stayed at the table, and when they invited me on a mall trip one weekend, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved, because weekend trips to the mall provided key context for the stupid shit they all talked about at lunch the next week.

Later, when I went back and tried to count how many mall trips it took for me to run into Emily while we tried on hats and entered into an immediate bargain whereupon we would always let each other know when we looked stupid in hats, I came to two major mathematical conclusions: (a.) I wasted middle school and (b.) wasting middle school was totally worth it.

Now, watching Brennan talk to Emily like he’s nice, I am thinking: I can’t go back to those mallrat kids. I don’t even know if Shelton and Loviza and Banks and them even still go to the mall, and they almost certainly aren’t still stuck in fourth-period lunch. But in my head, that’s where they are: shuttling between fourth-period lunch and the mall until the fateful day they graduate high school and realize they can have fourth-period lunch at the mall food court, every day, walking from counter to counter, inhaling the smells of fast food prep, lamenting the eateries that won’t be open until eleven or noon. I picture myself with them, knowing every line, getting every joke.

I cannot go back there. I cannot go forward there. Emily cannot allow this to happen.

She wouldn’t allow this to happen. She’s probably just being polite to this guy trying to chat her up. What are they going to do, hang out in Detroit, not at a concert?

Brennan goes to show Emily the poster for the first show he went to here, which gives me some time with Reed.

“Pretty brazen, right?” I say.

“I guess so,” says Reed. “But it’s good, she has us with her. This could’ve gone way, way worse.”

“Like she could’ve gotten kidnapped and we’d need to call someone for a ride?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Reed. “Or other bad stuff when you meet internet people, uh, I-R-L.” He sounds out that last bit tentatively, like he wants to pronounce it “irl.”

“What?” I say.

“I just mean it’s super good that Brennan didn’t turn out to be some forty-year-old,” says Reed. “Can you imagine trying to fight off a forty-year-old? Can you imagine fighting someone like three years younger than your dad?”

I must admit I cannot imagine this.

I am not sure if it is a problem with my imagination in general, which I often suspect is lacking, or the inhibitor of a thought running through my head as if on a full-screen news ticker: Emily met Brennan on purpose. Emily met Brennan on purpose. Initial estimates put the death toll at one; sources confirm no one cares.

“Chaperoning an internet date,” says Reed. “What a Saturday.”

If you’re just now joining us: Emily met Brennan on purpose.

We make our way to the front left: me, Reed, Emily, Brennan. Shannon doesn’t realize she’s been replaced and Emily obviously doesn’t care that she’s fucked our group’s precious guy-girl ratio, possibly for good. The crowd isn’t packed tight like at bigger venues – we don’t have to shove our way through as Statistics plays. But the crowd also feels uneasy, like thirty or forty people have simultaneously wished they had to nerve to say something to us or elbow us in the face for encroaching on their easy-fought spot. Usually when Emily and I do this, it feels okay: if anyone wanted these good spots, we figure, they’d close them up, and anyway, who could say no to us? We are slight and fair by most definitions. We are hopeful and a little bit cynical, just the right balance; surely they can see this in our eyes.

But doing it without Emily – alongside her, in a group, on the edge as she maybe touches Brennan’s shoulder to stay together in the crowd – I can feel the eyes on her, and the rest of us, and I feel like a fucking asshole. We should’ve been waiting in line. We should’ve been into Rilo Kiley in 2001. We don’t deserve the front row, not even off to the left.

We get there, though, and I lean forward on the stage, hunching: at least let the other kids see over me, though distressingly few of them will have glowered at us specifically due to my height. Hardly anyone ever thinks to themselves: oh, great, a boy of average-to-below-average height is going by – except short girls, who hate everyone at shows and probably think: oh, great anyone else but a short girl is here, fuck me, boo hoo. I know this because Shannon is a little on the short side and I’ve caught her thinking this, possibly even about her own friends. I think again about her supposed sickness; maybe just short-girl Munchausen syndrome. Emily has told me I should cool it on the short-girl talk because they’re a demographic who might find me tall/dark/handsome, or at least tall, and then the rest takes care of itself because if you’re short and looking up at a taller person maybe the shadows and angles that create dark and handsome become distorted in your favor.

The Emily met Brennan on purpose crisis continues, entering what feels like its seventh hour.

M. Ward plays after Statistics. Not sure what’s up with his missing first name; maybe he’s in the indie protection plan or something. He sounds like he could be Conor Oberst’s scratchy dad. I like him. I won’t buy the album but maybe I’ll download it later or, more likely, listen to it in Emily’s car, if I can hear it from the back seat, where I’ll be relegated if Brennan sticks around. He’s not even from our school, which means God only knows how many hours wasted going to pick him up and bring him back to where-ever he comes from. As far as I know, he comes from the internet. Maybe we can just keep it to email. Maybe we can just email him away. I picture Brennan as an attachment on an email, subject line check this out, forwarded to some girl who likes Dashboard Confessional. Maybe she opens it, maybe she thinks it’s spam. Not my problem.

But Brennan remains Emily’s attachment; I can feel it, by this point, even with my back to them. I wonder how my back looks. Probably okay, could be better. My posture fucks up what would otherwise be a solid feature. Regardless, they’re stuck with it for now. I can’t look back at Emily; she’ll see how I’m upset or she’ll see how I’m checking on her, or she’ll see absolutely nothing and I’ll be forced to feel even worse. I look over at Reed, improbably and unjustly wedged into the front row next to me, less improbably and somewhat justly close to being squeezed into the second row by the girls on the other side of him. Reed smiles at me and I nod. He thinks I am saying: you are correct to be happy. I am actually saying: that’s right, Reed, it’s just you and me tonight, eye contact-wise.

Then the lights go out and Rilo Kiley comes on stage – or rather, the lights go out and I realize the guys who were fiddling around on stage were Rilo Kiley, and now they are starting a song. The song has this short strumming melody and Jenny Lewis, the lead singer of Rilo Kiley, is singing something and Blake Sennett makes this loud droopy sound with his guitar and turns the song louder, and I still don’t know what I’m hearing.

I don’t know the song. 200 spins of The Execution of All Things and at least 75 spins of Takeoffs and Landings plus some other songs Emily played for me in recent weeks, very possibly, I realize, via Brennan, and I still don’t know this song. I am confused. I panic.

I look back at Emily.

I don’t see Brennan. That’s not to say he’s no longer there. He probably is, but I can only see Emily’s eyes already locked in with mine, and her mouth smiling as if to say finally, like she was willing me to turn around. She points to Jenny Lewis with her eyes and points to me with her eyes and I swear she even somehow points to herself with her eyes, and we share in the newness: all of this preparation and we’re listening to something completely fucking new, together, like we should be. By the time I turn back to the stage, the song is almost through. It ends with a Jenny Lewis yeah and then it ends with the beginning a song I know: “The Execution of All Things.”

There is a rational side of my brain that understands that this song does not sound radically different from what I’ve listened to 200 times. Yet played louder and noisier, it does have a distinct feeling: this is how the song sounds in my heart, and now it’s escaped, and the people on stage are taming it, keeping it from exploding into blood and meat that would not be very musical at all.

I look at Jenny Lewis and Blake and Pierre and Jason and I realize that the way Emily and I hear Rilo Kiley is the way Rilo Kiley hears Rilo Kiley. This music is happening to them, not just us. At least that’s what it feels like, to the point where I’m almost jealous of them.

They play almost everything off of Execution; instead of listing them in the probably wrong order, it might make sense to say what they don’t play from that album. They don’t play: “Three Hopeful Thoughts.” They don’t need to because I already know it would sound great. The same goes for all of those EP songs. A few kids scream for those songs after the encore, hoping to lure band back out on stage with what is essentially trivia. In the mild commotion, I hear one small voice crying out from somewhere in the back: “Three Hopeful Thoughts!”

It’s a good song to yell out – as good as any, given that even I know the band isn’t coming back out, and maybe a little moreso because it sounds like the shouter is about to give a list: attention, what follows are three hopeful thoughts. If you shout for “Paint’s Peeling,” it just sounds like an extremely mild warning. And anyway, they played “Paint’s Peeling,” I realize as the show turns into the past. I don’t recall when. I’ll ask Emily.

As I turn back to the dissipating crowd, I see her, and Brennan, and reed coming back to join us – some short girl got the best of him, although I hope he went further back by choice because the alternative theory is that he was crowd-surfed back by a whole mess of vengeful short girls, and I wouldn’t want to miss that; I have never seen real-life crowd-surfing. It sounds ridiculous except for the part where the guy falls down. That part I get.

Emily grins. Is grinning. Will be grinning. Maybe forever. Brennan looks agreeable, and agreeing is, at this very moment, just not enough to destroy me. At this very moment, Rilo Kiley live in concert has thrown a haze over me and Emily; it hasn’t blinded us but visibility is low. Brennan knows a lot about a lot of music but he may not realize how little power that will exert over Emily, who consumes music faster than almost any boy in Michigan can put it on mix tapes or even mix CDs. I could not crash Emily’s internet date, but Rilo Kiley could.

“Yeah?” I say to her. I add a second one for Reed. Emily grins. Continues grinning. Will keep grinning.

She kisses Brennan on the cheek and slaps me five. His smack is softer; mine makes more noise.

I call it a draw.