I remember the announcements.
Vintage Chevys sporting loudspeakers would drive slowly down Raleigh's backstreets, playing "Born to Run" until all the neighborhood dogs howled in sync to the saxophone. And then they blared the news: "Attention: Titus Andronicus and The Hold Steady's Craig Finn—the patron saints of Playing Tom Waits in Bars—are coming to town. If you fancy yourself too smart for The Gaslight Anthem, prepare your flannels. You are young. You are excited. You are free."
The prerecorded crackle of a Fender combo amp was distinct as the cars stipulated that all men ages twenty-six to thirty-seven were to report to the Lincoln Theatre March 3 for the big concert. They'd better have their shirts untucked. The smell of freshly cut grass and Miller High Life—as if it were a cologne worn by a dad one summer, when I was still innocent—permeated the air. I don't know why, but I hid the white wine in the attic.
We were a simple people before the show, a people who sometimes enjoyed dance music, the hip-hop, the country music with the big guitars. We didn't realize real rock was waiting to pounce, like a Cassavetes VHS tape in heat. We didn't know that we had been living lives of quiet desperation. We didn't even know there was a problem, what with all the fun we were having and rent we were paying. Our older citizens—those who'd survived the eighties enjoying Depeche Mode before boyfriends in threadbare Hüsker Dü shirts made them feel ashamed about every damned thing—warned us.
"Run, boy," they said. "The boys are back in town, and they're going to explain that we're born to lose or whatever, that we're sad beyond our literal imagining. They're going to tell you about vague 'lost' females they know by the dozen. There will be pointless references to Freeport and cigarettes. They will tell you about how fashion and pop are lame. Even the casual use of the word 'replacements' will be forcibly shortened to ''Mats.' I've seen this before. An Eddie or a Cruiser killed my brother. The Boss is really the boss now. Run, boy."
Before Craig Finn and Titus Andronicus came to town together, there was light. Darkness existed, sure, but we didn't talk about it incessantly. It was neither in our hearts nor on the edge of town—just around, like at night. You could always turn on the TV and watch New Girl if you felt sad.
But this was before the boys came to town. They claimed they were "back," but I've lived here all my life, and I'd never seen them, their bandanas, or their references to Richard Ford short stories before. I miss when things weren't so heavy, when I could describe a bad time without sounding like some beatnik therapist.
It started slowly, just before the concert. First, every street was renamed after a New Jersey mall. Soon, every beer was loaded with meaning; talking about anything besides the fleeting nature of youth was verboten. Two days after the show, the mills suddenly closed down, and—God as my witness—I swear we'd never even had a mill. (My daddy ran a Perkins.) As I've been writing this, the guys around me have started singing along, and a bowling alley grew up around us. I now say, "My dreams went sour" instead of "I woke up." Diners were once a treat, but they aren't when you have to eat at one every day and when all the waiters describe their hangovers in verse. Even food orders are epic: "She said 'You always get your eggs over easy. I've never had it so easy.'" I can't remember the last time I had a simple bowl of Corn Flakes.
While we were in line for the gig, the tour managers put us to work building a solid gold statue of Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg. Together, they wrestled a hydra whose every serpent head represented a contemporary musical evil—Auto-Tune, Kendrick Lamar, drum triggers, non-DIY publicists, The Goo Goo Dolls, "suits," and so on. That's when I knew there was no going back. I could pray to Mary all I wanted, but the only saint listening was Maggie May.
The mandatory sing-alongs were rousing and interminable. Our fists would pump until blood no longer flowed past the wrist. I remember when drugs were fun, but we didn't have to discuss it. We didn't want to die, man; we just wanted to listen to Janet Jackson because she made us happy. As mandated by the new regime, though, happiness is for suckers and rap fans now. We are supposed to live like we are dying or die like we are living or maybe live-tweet our death or just be mad at Walter O'Malley. It all gets so confusing.
I saw a grown man in child's shorts lecture a woman about how Courtney Love didn't write Live Through This until she cried from boredom. I saw a gang of men clad in Converse covering our historic district with spray-painted memes about how Beyoncé wasn't a real musician. I saw a teenage boy executed on Main Street for mixing up Richard Brautigan and Gregory Corso. The boys claim we must be vigilant against "them," but they never fully articulate who "they" are. Republicans? Jocks? People who comb their hair or think Carver would be better with more adjectives?
These days, Raleigh looks like a Norman Rockwell painting of Tulsa and smells like a dorm room. We're all regular guys now, roving tribes of Silver Bullet Bandits in Yankees or Twins or Mets caps. What I wouldn't give for a beard trimmer, a Torah, and a nice romantic comedy.
But there is no salvation, like they keep telling us. All towns will soon be like ours. Craig Finn and Titus Andronicus are coming for you, too. You will be authentic. You will be scruffy. You will—with an audaciously double-hopped regional beer hoisted high, as sentimental dude sweat bleeds from your brow like lost angels leaving home—sing along.
This article appears in print with the headline "Who's the Boss?"