Stations of the Journalist: Anatomy of a Mixtape January 2009

This is a special entry for me. This entry actually outlines an event I considered, and even had in my book until a few drafts from the end, using as the finale. I’m working with a bit of an experimental format too. Once more I’m looking at a mix CD from my car but this time I’m interlacing the events of the drive as I go. It’s a test. I’ll see how it goes.

It’s a beautiful morning. It’s a Tuesday in late January. Things are warming up but it’s still cold. I’m 24. I’m firmly established at my new job. I do indeed work at the newspaper I’ve grown up reading. It’s not the job I expected but I like it all the same. The ghosts of West Memphis are fading.

I’m taking this trip for no other reason than I want to and I can. It’s a simple day trip. I’m traveling to Jonesboro and Memphis. In a sense, I’m reenacting my journey from the year before. I’m at peace today though. At least I say I am.

The sky is blue. The gas is cheap. The day is mine.

Boomkat–The Wreckoning. The CD starts with a dark, sarcastic track from a group that never went anywhere, though lead vocalist Taryn Manning would go on to success on Orange is the New Black. Damn shame as this is a stellar pop song. It’s angry. It’s mean. But it’s fun. It’s got a nice sound. It starts the trip perfectly.

311–Flowing. One of my favorite songs if only because I relate to it so much. It’s another song that has a clear anger to it. It captures a sense of frustration at being unable to sleep, which means you think about how bad your life is. It’s a rather natural transition song.

The trip begins slowly.

The first place I stop is in Searcy at the Hastings. I run in and check their bargain books. Marvel has flung a few onto their shelves but nothing that grabs me. In fact, I’m rather disinterested in all I see here. I have better luck at the gas station where I grab a Mountain Dew. It’s diet of course. I’m really trying to lose weight.

My stop at Searcy in truth has no purpose except as a station. It was the first stop on trips to Jonesboro in high school. It’s the first stop from the year before. It has to be the first stop now.

The Eels–Mr. E’s Wonderful Blues. Better known by its refrain “God damn right it’s a beautiful day” and probably the most appropriate song to be listening to in this moment. It’s a strange song, filled with dark imagery yet it’s upbeat and bubbly. It’s just a great track to listen to when I’m in a good mood.

Green Day–Nice Guys Finish Last. Perhaps the track that feels the most juvenile on the entire CD. Green Day, who make two more appearances on the CD, grew up considerably after this song. Even though it’s a very high school song and the weakest song on the CD, there’s a few positives including a bass hook that makes it a propulsive driving song.

The emptiness of much of the drive makes it a great time to get lost in the audio. There’s almost nothing between Searcy and Jonesboro. Northeast Arkansas is a strange area in that way. As I drive, I’m at peace. In time, I’m there.

Smash Mouth–Waste. The first truly dark song on the CD. Everything about this track is calculated to invoke a sense of regret and sadness. It’s not at all a fun, goofy song. This is a side if the band rarely seen. It hints there might be some darkness in me yet.

Incubus–Wish You Were Here. The darker shadings continue here. OK, this isn’t a sad song but it is wistful. I’m on this journey alone today after all. It fits.

What do I do when I get to Jonesboro? I retrace my steps from the year before. This is inevitable really. I’m fixated on repetition after all. It doesn’t matter that I live by both Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble. I still stop in at both outlets. I visit the Jonesboro Hastings too, though at least that has used books. I’m unable to find anything interesting anywhere.

One thing I do is hunt for sodas. Why do I have this peculiar fixation on finding sugar water? I have no real idea. In truth a lot of sodas taste alike. I mean, is there any difference between Sun Drop and Mountain Dew? Most sodas blend into a generic sweet taste after a period.

But I hunt. I go to several gas stations, hoping to repeat last year’s bounty of Ski, Sun Drop, and A&W Float. I am unsuccessful. I settle on a second bottle of Dew.

3 Doors Down–Loser. I love this song even as I know it’s ridiculous. It felt like it mattered at 16 when I felt rejected by the world. At 25, it was fun. At 33, it’s shameful. But it fits the theme of songs I loved in high school, which many of these were.

Green Day–Warning. Another Green Day song and another HS song. Listening to it feels right. It’s got an edge to it but not much of one. It reminds me of feeling like important things were going on.

It’s at this gas station that two important things happen. The first is that I pick up the paper from the day before. It includes a few pages I designed. They’re nothing special as I was pretty much just plugging holes. But still, that’s my work. I’ve done something that made it out to the edge of the state.

The second is that I hear from Laura Harvey. It’s now over 14 years since our first meeting and I’m still shooting the breeze with her. We talk about nothing particularly important. About the only notable thing we discuss is our excitement for Watchmen. But that’s fine. In this new age of my life, I’m still close with her and that makes me happy.

Jason Mraz–The Remedy. A song from the cusp between high school and college. It’s pretty silly, goofy stuff. But it makes me feel good played loud. On this clear, cool day it feels nice to blast it.

The Offspring–Hit That. I love The Offspring. I loved them in the past. I love them in the present of 2009. I love them in the future of 2016. This is a “fun” song but it’s a bit angry too. That seems to be the blend of the day.

After a desultory trip to the comic shop, I begin thinking about leaving Jonesboro. What have I achieved on this journey? Well, a lot actually. It’s been nice to be out in the weather. I’ve seen a city I love. I haven’t found anything I want but the quest is the point.

So, at around 1 pm, I leave.

Travis–Sing. Another blend of a song. This is a sober cry for finding joy. It’s a sweet song about being happy but it’s a very minor key song. It feels like a cry to someone who is hurting. It’s more comforting to me than an overly upbeat song.

Toya–No Matter What. This is only on the CD because I heard it on the way to Journalism Day 2002. It reminds me of those past journeys. It’s really not a very good song. It’s a generic club anthem. I hate clubs. It’s welded in my memory though.

Another long stretch of nothing. Then I’m back in West Memphis. I even pass my apartment I lived in for a few days. Driving through this area is unnerving. It’s like looking at an alternate world. I could’ve lived here.

Only I know I couldn’t have. Driving through it as the light starts to curdle makes me feel uneasy. I never belonged here. Not really. It’s a dingy, grimy place away from all I know.

The only place I stop at in West Memphis is a liquor store inside a Walgreen’s. My only alcohol purchase was here. Maybe I’m trying to recapture the one happy memory I have from this place. I don’t find anything here.

I leave West Memphis quickly. It’s a good feeling to leave it. But as I leave, I know I’m destined never to get any closure about what happened here. I was hurt, albeit by my own hand as much as by others. I’ll never get to tell off the editor of that paper. I’ll never get what I think I’m due. This is reality. You just go on.

So it is I cross the river.

Sigur Ros–Staralflur. The sound of dawn and twilight all at once. Everything about this song conveys a sense of possibility tinged with the knowledge that possibility may be in the past. It builds and builds to a sense of grandeur I’m not sure can be matched in anything else in music.

U2–Get On Your Boots. This is not a good transition. This is U2 at their silliest. I love U2 at their silliest. U2 is far better as a rock band than they are at meaning anything. This is just a silly, silly song. I love the hell out of it.

I have a ritual when I go to Memphis.

I say this even though as of this date, I’ve only been here three times on my own. True I know in years to come I’ll go back annually at least, but in this moment I’ve only made three solo trips. I’m establishing my routine for the future.

The vast majority of my business in Memphis occurs on one street. It’s fascinating to me that Memphis is a sprawling area but I’m only interested in tw areas and really motly one. But so it is that I find myself driving up and down Poplar Avenue.

There’s a comic shop off Poplar that I deeply love. It’s not a big shop, but the content is perfectly curated. There are items that are a bit less common there. They sell a lot of kids comics. They have tie-in novels. There are older trades. I spend a good 30 minutes here but I leave empty handed. Just not today.

Dido–Here With Me. A very dark, somber song that might be a bit on the nose in this moment. It’s sonically lush, conveying loneliness in a way that few songs have. I know this emotion well. I know how it feels. This song captures the pain of it to a T.

Deep Purple–Hush. A classic. There’s more darkness here. But it’s an intense longing, a need. It’s admittedly a very sexual song, something completely alien to me at this point, but it strikes a chord. I have needs I’m trying to fill. And it’s just wonderfully intense anyway.

 After a desultory trip to Borders-I’d sooner die than admit it but my father is right about chain bookstores aside from the occasional screenplay that pops up-I make my way to Germantown and Wolfchase Galleria. This area is linked with so much pain in my life. I went here during Spring Break 1997, just before the fall of 1997, and just before I started work at the West Memphis paper. There’s a dark shadow here.

But I don’t care. I’m here because it’s a beautiful mall and I like shopping. Not that my luck is any better here. I’m in the right places and I’m searching, but I’m finding nothing.

Shinedown–Second Chance. If this CD has a defining moment, it’s this. Everything about this song is unnervingly dark. It’s very minor chord. The singer sounds angry. The lyrics use imagery of escaping all you’ve known. And the song is in fact about the sacrifices we make to succeed in life. It’s about letting go of what we know for a phantom shot that things will be good. I could point out that this is the next few years of my life. But why be on the nose?

Green Day–Minority. A weirdly awful transition song. Not that it’s bad, in fact Green Day’s output between their debut and American Idiot is underrated as hell, but it’s a bad fit. It’s aggressive in a disingenuine way. There’s no sense of honest anger in it. It’s fun to sing along to but it’s very 2000, nothing really matters angry.

Dinner is a crappy burger and fries from Steak and Shake. I only ate there because nothing else appealed to me and I had a false memory of it being good once. It’s enough to keep me going but I’m not satisfied.

I hit I-40 once more and drive the long, long drive back. Between Little Rock and Memphis is even worse than Little Rock and Jonesboro. It’s far worse in the dark. Just a long, two hour journey through purgatory.

I stay awake thanks to my CD. It keeps me at least alert. Also I’m drinking my usual megadose of caffeine. It works.

The Cardigans–My Favorite Game. The far more unnerving second hit from the band behind the rather unsettling hit Lovefool. Is it better? Not sure. I prefer it because it’s not overplayed but they’re really the same song. Love destroys us. I’m not yet able to understand this. I’m not sure I ever truly do.

Metallica–The Memory Remains (S&M Edition). The CD closes on a note of nostalgia because it must. I don’t prefer this version to the amazing CD version with a creepy interlude that haunts your dreams. But it’s an awesome song in any version. It ends the CD well.

I return home to my pups. They’re happy to see me. I’ve stopped, grabbed a Smirnoff Ice. I crack it and turn on the light as I play online. It’s a quiet end to the day.

There’s a lot to read into this CD. Most songs are at least sad in some way. Most are angry. All but two are from before the present radio playlists. I’m still dealing with unresolved issues. There’s very little limpness to any of these tracks. I must be in a bad mood.

As I relax, I think about what a great mood I’m in. Sure, this was a complete no-hitter. But that wasn’t the point. The drive was the point. And it was fantastic. 

Today was a continuation of the trips around town I so loved growing up except on a larger scale. But it was the same thing really. It was a weekend day. I got up. I got on my vehicle. I went exploring.

I might yet get this adulthood thing. 

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