Photos by Matt Hono
I wrote most of this piece in 2019, but have repeatedly come back to it over the last three years. There has always been some detail to add or an unfinished thought to expand on. I never felt it was ever truly completed. I have continuously revisited this story, however, because I think it gives an accurate look into the mind of a kid who is desperately searching for respite from his own thoughts and finally finds it in music. Since the time of initial writing, the world has changed dramatically and so have I, with Current Joys reaching much more mainstream success, but an essential piece of my youth lives on in this story.
I sat next to my friend Aidan in our last class of the day, explaining my masterful plan. I told him about how I had saved up an exuberant amount of cash — $50 — packed a change of clothes, stolen my brother’s MetroCard and printed the tickets. “Cool,” he replied simply, but I was proud of my cunning anyway. After class ended and we were out of the grasp of high school, we walked into the parking lot, where an ominous gray sky greeted us. A chilly fall wind made me button up my jacket. We got into his car, driving through a drizzle that spotted the windshield.
That night’s plan was a little different from our normal routine of playing Halo and driving to Wendy’s; we were going to a concert in Brooklyn. The band was Current Joys, a small indie outfit from Nevada that Aidan had found weeks earlier. He discovered the band through haphazard YouTube music video exploration, and incidentally, they had an upcoming show. I had only listened to a few of their songs at that point, but the tickets were cheap and, as a 17 year old, I was eager to dive into the world of live music — although a growing feeling of dread was starting to make my stomach uneasy.
We got to his house and changed out of our school uniforms. I laced up my thin, bright red sneakers without a moment’s consideration of the weather. I immediately wanted to get on our way to the city, but Aidan reminded me that the concert was in six hours and that we could get there in two. I grudgingly agreed and spent the next two hours half contributing to conversation and half methodically thinking over what trains we had to catch.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we walked down to the train station. While we were waiting, Aidan told me to relax and that it was going to be fun. We boarded the next train.
It was raining much harder now.
The four o’clock train was crowded, so we had to sit apart. Looking out the window, I watched the storm make the windows foggy as the train steadily traveled south. I was thinking about how I had always wanted to do this. I had often imagined myself exploring the city and going to cool-indie-underground-rock shows with friends, but fear continuously held me back. My parents had always been restrictive, and I was afraid of the big city that I knew little about. I was scared of getting lost in the sprawling underground, missing the last train home, and then probably getting eaten alive by rats. I was also terrified of my parents learning of my deception. I had strategically left out that part of “hanging out and going home with Aidan” included a concert on a school night. Above all else, however, an inexplicable fear of the unknown also dominated my consciousness at that age.
Despite these worries, my most powerful motivation for going far out of my comfort zone was the feeling that there was a world outside the one I was familiar with passing me by as I watched from afar. A world that was outside of high school routines and my hometown. A world that was full of excitement and moments that would make good stories. As I looked out that window, I started to think that I was finally in the world that I so desperately wanted to be in.
Eventually, we arrived at Grand Central. We needed to take the subway, so we headed for the underground. Immediately and with hopeless confusion, we found ourselves in the middle of rush hour. Uncaring faces swirled around us as we struggled to navigate the overwhelming scene. We almost boarded the wrong train twice. I panicked as the map failed to load on my phone, but after many directional pivots, we finally found the right train and squeezed in. I anxiously watched the stops go by, making sure we were going in the right direction.
When we got above ground, it was pouring. The streets were empty, and the sky was dark. The only light was from the neon signs that hung from the shops. The rain drenched our clothes and made my shoes heavy.
We quickly tried to maneuver the streets, wiping our phone screens with our sleeves to see the map. It brought us to a deserted park that was so shadowy that we couldn’t see where we were stepping. We got lost, and what should have been a 10-minute walk turned into 30. Feelings of anxiety were striking my stomach.
The storm seemed like it would never end.
We finally stumbled upon the venue that, to our surprise, was a church. All we had before coming was the address. We hesitantly walked in to find a man quickly pacing through the pews. He informed us that the show didn’t start for another hour.
He showed us to the bathroom. The only sensation I felt was one of deep discomfort. My soggy socks were making every step a nightmare. We took off our socks and shoes and put them under the hand dryers. With a weight off our legs, we laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. As we struggled to stretch our bare feet directly under the dryers, a young man with baggy clothes, bleach blonde hair and rainbow Converses walked in. He might have been the coolest guy I had ever seen. He laughed at us and complimented my sneakers; finally, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Aidan and I took our seats in the church, and the uneasiness faded further. We finally made it. I looked around and noticed the beauty of the church. There were large arching ceilings, ornate masonry details and narrow stained glass windows on the walls, drawing my eye to a menacing circular window above the altar. All religious items were removed from the altar, and in their place, microphones, guitars, a drum set and bright color-changing lights were set up.
People gradually flowed in. There were middle school kids, stoner teenagers and older couples who seemed to be quietly awaiting Sunday mass. Somehow everyone, from such far distances and overcoming endless hurdles, had found their way to the show as we did — a miracle that still impresses me today.
Finally the lights dimmed, and I saw shadows of figures walk out onto the altar. The crowd cheered and then quieted. My eyes widened. I held my breath. I heard the quiet sound of a kick drum. It gradually built in intensity and filled the church. Fast, distorted guitar chords erupted from the darkness. The lights brightened. The lead singer, Nick Rattigan, neared the microphone. Soft pink, purple and blue lights illuminated him as thick smoke rose from a side room. Gradually, only the shadow of a ghost musician could be seen. A phantom sang from the fog.
Time seemed to slow in that church. Nick continued his haunting sermon, and I recognized the man from the bathroom as the drummer. The music filled every crevice in my brain, bouncing off the ceiling into my ears. I tapped my foot and bobbed my head, entranced by the emotion emitted from every movement, word and facial expression.
They played “Kids,” a song dedicated to childhood mistakes. “Don’t listen to your brain / And follow your dreams,” Nick sang. His slow, raspy, droning vocals struck me deeply. For a kid worrying about choosing a college major, the words were particularly relevant. His voice seemed desperate, and he sang as if he was yearning to be heard. He sang as if the world was closing in on him and he was running out of air. Mellow guitar riffs echoed off the ceiling as a steady drumbeat progressed. His hands moved with untraceable speed across his guitar’s strings. The music was heart-wrenching. Deeply melancholy words from songs like “Blondie,” entered my consciousness, spiraling through my head.
There are flowers in my heart
They’re growing thorns and it hurts
The lyrics gave a voice to the loneliness that had been buried deep in my chest, resonating more than anything I had heard in my prior 17 years of church-going.
Nick interjected light conversation between each song. He talked to the crowd like old friends. He asked us how our day had been. He gave a tip about Guitar Center’s return policy and couldn’t help himself from making puns about preaching. His comfortability and sincerity were wholly apparent.
The band played songs that now have millions of streams for a room of 50 people. Many of the songs that perfectly captured the feeling of youthful energy and desire made me eager to run and jump. The crowd was only restrained by the layout of the church. I am convinced that the energy of the song “My Motorcycle” would have invited stage divers if only there was a stage to dive off of.
After an emotional and yearnful set, Nick announced that the next performance would be their last of the night. I knew this song from the first note — “Fear.” He told us to rise from our seats and gather around the altar. I snaked into the second row and caught myself thinking this is a moment I won’t forget. I heard the words “It’s so hard to stop the rain” echoing through the church as the song began. The crowd moved and the people sang:
But I don’t want to be afraid
I don’t want to live this way
Was that catharsis? The song ended, Nick thanked the crowd, and we walked out of the church into the humid night in a daze. Was what we saw real? Was this really a Tuesday night?
After minutes of awestruck idling, we suddenly realized how late it was and we started running through the streets, trying to make the next train out of Grand Central. I felt light and couldn’t stop smiling. I often look back at that moment and see it as the ending of my coming-of-age film. The fears of disappointing my parents, losing my way and missing trains were evaporating. The scent of freedom and possibility was in the air. My shoes were dry. They were light. The hard-fought, uncertain battle was over.
The rain had stopped.