In Which an Aging Pop-Punk Outfit Inspires Reflections on Nostalgia

Blink-182, then and now.

It wasn’t until “Grantland’s Rough Guide to Parties in Movies” inspired a not-atypical bout of Wikipedia-ing this afternoon (Can’t Hardly Wait –> Blink-182 –>Neighborhoods [Blink-182 album]) that I realized that the favorite band of my 15-year-old self had released its first album in eight years back in September. With my curiosity properly piqued, I downloaded it. It’s been playing on repeat for the last four-and-a-half hours.

I’m really not prepared to say whether its a good album or a bad one, or even whether or not I like it. The sensation it inspires is akin to driving around the town I grew up in. My old high school added a wing and the Fazoli’s is closed, but, hey, it’s the same damn town. Do I like these drives? Do I not? It’s almost beside the point. They drag the existential terror and possibility and myopia of teenagedom out of whatever brain-drawer I’d filed them away in, giving me the chance to hold them aloft and compare them to the existential terror and possibility and myopia of young adulthood. Good or bad feels like the wrong metric to use here. It’s my past. It’s makes me yearn and squirm at the same time. I tend to avoid it.

It’s not a habit of mine to spend much time thinking about the past. I generally don’t like talking about it, either, at least until an aging pop-punk outfit lays out some unreformed surfer boy yelps and syncopated drum rhythms to grab me by the scalp and yank me back into the halcyon days of youth. And when I say halcyon, I mean it. It was as happy an upbringing as one can realistically expect. Proms and basement hangouts and football games and all that. I’m a white middle-class kid from the suburbs of Atlanta who was not only not-beaten, but who was adored by his parents. What’s to repress?

I don’t know, but if I had more faith in the lyrical talents of Mark Hoppus, I’d feel like he was personally mocking my avoidance tendencies in the (outrageously catchy) chorus to “Natives“:

So let me go, go
So let me go, go
Just let me go, go
I’d rather go it alone
So let me go, go
So let me go, go
Just let me go, go
I’m never coming home

I wonder if people predisposed to focus on the present–a category I’ve been placed in, in contexts both flattering and unflattering–are operating out of some anxiety toward past and future. Can you be afraid of nostalgia? Afraid–like the teetotaler convinced of his alcoholic genes–that once you let the monster out of its cage it’ll overpower you with its sadness and sweetness and leave you unable to function? When the term was coined at the end of the 17th century, nostalgia didn’t mean I Love Lucy lunchboxes or twentysomethings watching Rugrats clips on YouTube. It meant a medical condition, a soldier’s debilitating longing for home that occasionally grew so severe as to cause paralysis and even death (DEATH).

While I don’t expect Tom DeLonge’s power chords to land me in a coffin, that doesn’t mean nostalgia isn’t a menacing concept for me. Reminiscing about the past is like conjuring a lame facsimile of something that’s ultimately irrecoverable. Any comfort found in “happier times”–if they really even were happier–is bound to be tempered if not outright negated by their overness. Things aren’t going to be as they were then. Why allow yourself become hypnotized by the ghost of something that is, for now and forever, dead?

But maybe Faulkner was onto something in his story “Delta Autumn.” That’s the one where he coined the now cliched saying “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” It’s after 1am now and Blink-182 is still on repeat. Perhaps Faulkner was right. The return of the repressed. Choosing not to look back–as an individual, but also as a nation or a society–doesn’t erase what happened, and it doesn’t cease it from shaping your present. It’s not a coincidence that when I horsewhipped myself into writing a novel (Where the Devil Don’t Stay, coming eventually to a bookstore near you) what appeared on my computer screen was a story of the South, an attempt, however flawed, to capture the ugly and the sad and, yeah, the glimmers of beauty and love in the reddest of red counties during the High Bush Era.

Even when we don’t choose to look back, even (especially?) when we pride ourselves on not looking toward the past, the past will wait in some unexpected cupboard or closet or punk song, ready to burst open the doors and screech at you, insisting on itself till you give it its due. Staring directly at the past can be scary, though. Maybe art is a way for folks who are too cowardly or damaged or terrified to peek at it obliquely, like watching a solar eclipse through one of those pinhole boxes you build in elementary school. When we listen to a song or write a book, we can access and process the feelings, the affections, and the anxieties of our pasts without being blinded by the real.

Snellville, Georgia. My real.

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