Mountains Beyond Mountains

To look at me, a 40-something Gen X-er with more salt in his beard than pepper, you would expect my musical tastes to have ended sometime around the year 2000. Sometimes I worry that’s been the case. Looking at my favorite albums and songs and bands, it’s easy to see why; my music choices have largely remained drawn from the 1970s through the 1990s, with some deep dives into the music of the sixties.

Despite being a 70s kid, the music of my early childhood was the music of the 60s. That was the music of my early years, those long drives with my family, the radio tuned to some oldies station (though back then these “oldies” were barely 20 years old), or an album on our station wagon’s 8-track cassette player.

It was the 70s, okay? Don’t laugh.

This was the pre-teenage, pre-music discovery years of my life. The music I listened to was the music my parents listened to. For most people I’m certain their childhoods were the same. The emotional connection I have to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ are largely drawn from those younger years.

I didn’t really start discovering “my” own music until the mid-80s. I’d moved to a new city and state and as such did not integrate very well. After schools and weeknights and weekends were spent listening to the radio in my bedroom. This being the mid-1980s though, it was a fine time to be a music fan or to become one.

Live Aid was the first eye-opener. Queen, U2, and a new-wave band from Boston left the biggest impressions. In fact the first proper album I bought with my own dollars would have been this one:

And it’s still one of my favorites

The Cars were my gateway to modern music. They led to the discovery of bands like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, The Jam, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, David Bowie, The Pixies, New Order and on and on and on. This was a golden era for music, as any Gen X-er will tell you, though we probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. 60s music still seemed cooler, and ‘classic’ and was still everywhere, thanks to the first baby Boomers hitting the big 4-0 and entering their midlife crisis years. We 80s kids didn’t yet realize that by the time we reached our parents’ age we’d be nostalgic for the music of our youth the way they were for theirs and would stop looking at new music in the same way we once looked at our older sounds.

[Part of this is actually science. The teenage brain reaches its peak development around the age of 16 and continues on that path until the early 20s. That’s why the music you loved at that age and the five or so year span following remains with you your entire life. While you certainly can and should continue discovering new music, it will never be the same. ]

I, of course, dove deep into music over the next fifteen years or so. I was there for the birth of “Alternative Rock” and Grunge and Hip-Hop and the rise of Generation X. I bought the albums, I went to the shows. I lived the life.

And then … it sort of ended. By 1995 I was parting ways with music. It wasn’t as important to me. The bands I kept up with dropped off, broke up, committed suicide (literal and career). Life got more complicated, the workload more intense. I was in this weird, nebulous place where I wasn’t quite old enough to be nostalgic for my still too-recent childhood and teenage years, but hadn’t yet ‘arrived” in my adult ones. Life felt like it was on pause while I sorted my shit out. Music was paused as well.

So what does all the above have to do with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album “The Suburbs”?

EVERYTHING.

Hypnotic, melodic, complex – The Suburbs was and remains everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you. Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was a teenager. I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it.

The Suburbs remains my “New York Soundtrack” – the album I’ll put on anytime I want to remember what those Big Apple years were like. Me, essentially starting my career and life over again after some pretty disastrous decisions in the mid-2000s nearly killed my career. It, along with The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Metric’s Fantasies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, take me back to a time that seriously does feel like yesterday and a million years ago at the same time. But I’m not here to talk about those great albums (yes, even the Coldplay one). I’m here to talk about The Suburbs.

But not the album. Not exactly.

The Suburbs. The ‘Burbs. The Sprawl. Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who (until Covid-19 anyway) lived comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home. The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies. When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.

Call them “sub-urban.” Beneath contempt.

Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them. The suburbs made me who I am. And in this COVID-era, the suburbs seem to be drawing more people into their orbit. The appeal of the big bad city becomes somewhat limited when you can’t go anywhere or do anything.

Unless you’re wearing a mask, that is.

My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp. I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister. One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors. I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it. Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky. We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built, yet to be occupied. The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it. I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me. That there was more out there than just my home and street. That there were mountains beyond mountains.

Looking at a map of that neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many. Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west. My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me. Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up. Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.

As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day. Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls). On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit.  Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially.  There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant. Cruising through neighborhoods only a mile or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs.  We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night. Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.

Not to mention that to the creative mind, monsters could be lurking ANYWHERE, even the burbs.

But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit. To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in. You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home. I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.

When I first experienced The Suburbs I was living in NYC. Prior to that I lived in another large city. All told “Urban” living has occupied 25 years of my life. Big cities, sprawling megalopolis. Places I thought would be my forever home but ended up being just a blip of memory. Places where I thought I’d find a path through life, a career, a happiness that eluded me for much of my life. There’s something to be said for a reinvention. I reinvented myself when I moved off to go to college; again when I threw it all away and made my way to another part of the world. Chasing that dream only to realize it wasn’t the one I really wanted.

And now it’s all over.

In 2018 my family and I decamped to the suburbs; actually to a town founded in 1630 that’s part of a greater metropolitan area (this is no tract house subdivision; it’s older than the danged country). But we’re close enough to the big city that we don’t feel quite so isolated. Our lives are back on those quiet suburban streets, where our child has learned to ride his scooter and now his bike. Where the playgrounds ruing out with the sounds pf playtime and laughter. Where the local baseball diamond hosts little league games all summer long and the ice cream trucks prowl.

It’s certainly a different place from the one I pictured when I began my professional career. Ending up as a work-from-home/stay-at-home dad in a suburb is now where I expected to wind up. It’s a different life than the one I envisioned for myself. In many ways it’s much, much better.

In this pandemic year of 2021 the suburbs are experiencing a rebirth of sorts. They have a much greater draw then they did a decade before. The cities still draw the hopeful in, and I will proselytize that at least a few years of urban life is good for the soul. The cities are where you make your name, where you forge the person you hope to become some day. But stand atop the Empire State Building, Mulholland Drive, the CN Tower or the Prudential Tower, and you’ll see the lines radiating out like spokes on a bicycle wheel, connecting villages to towns and cities and the suburbs in between. At night, the streets and roads and highways gleam, headlights and taillights rushing through like red blood cells through veins and arteries.

The suburbs are about longing. They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday. Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse. The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it; the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.

But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs. You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over. You can waste your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.

14 thoughts on “Mountains Beyond Mountains

  1. I love Arcade Fire and I love this story! The Suburbs is my favourite Arcade Fire album and probably because I’m from Montreal like they are it feels like an album about me and my life. So amazing to read this and see how it’s affected you and your memories!

  2. Hey Brad – great write-up! I’m not an Arcade Fire fan outside of a few songs I hear on the radio now and then but I’ll have to give The Suburbs a listen. Funny enough while I grew up in a small town I understand that pull of the big city. But in the end I guess home is where you decide to make it.

  3. Thanks, Krista. It may not be their “best” by critical consensus but I think it was just one of those ‘right album at the right time’ first listens for me. I’d been off discovering new music for probably five years before I decided to take a dip.

  4. Thanks Marty! Yeah, small towns and suburbs share some of the same DNA. Especially ones close to bigger cities. I don’t think you could get something like “The Suburbs” from adults who grew up in someplace like Brooklyn or downtown Chicago. We’re all products of the hothouse conditions we grew up in.

  5. Hey Brad – It’s funny how growing up we were all told (and told ourselves) the suburbs are a dead-end but they seem to be getting their due. Question: I know you’re a comics fan – did you ever catch ‘Paper Girls’? It seems to have that weird suburban fantasy vibe. Check it out if you haven’t! J.

  6. Hey Jay – I have read Paper girls and own all the trade editions. Highly entertaining, highly recommended as well. I think the final issue(s) in particular really nailed the whole small town/suburban existence quite well. Thanks for checking in!

  7. Love this piece. I lived in the L.A. ‘burbs – San Fernando Valley – which almost seemed too big. My little neighborhood in Glendale was a postal stamp compared to the rest of that sprawl but it was my entire world for most of my childhood. Flying east for college we flew over my neighborhood and I only really realized then how small the entire city was compared to the rest of the state and country. I’ve never heard Arcade Fire or this album but thanks to the playlist you embedded now i will!

  8. Thanks, Kurt, and I agree you don’t really get a sense of how small your particular patch of the world is until you fly over it or look at it on a map.

  9. Did we grow up in the same town? Seriously, i don’t think I’ve ever read or heard anyone explain the unexpected romance the suburbs contain quite so well. Yes, they’re kind of bland, cookie-cutter sprawl, but there’s something about them i can’t shake. Evening bike rides, aimless wanderings, baseball in summer, sledding in winter on like the one hill that’s just covered-up landfill. Do you ever think you’ll write a story about the suburbs? I think if you did it would be great.

  10. Ha! I don’t know if we did/did not grow up in the same town but maybe similar circumstances, Jami. I can say that I’ve been mulling a story set in the suburbs that uses them as more than just a setting. Still looking for a hook on that one but once I find that I’d love to do it.

  11. Great read! Where I lived in the Jersey suburbs there was this one area you could go to and see New York’s skyline in the distance. It seemed a million miles away and just close enough to reach at the same time. And I did visit it frequently, first as a teenager, then as an adult. I lived in Brooklyn for a time but as exciting as it was, it never really felt like “home”. I’m back in NJ now, and while it’s not as exciting as the big city, it holds its own joys. Thanks for writing!

  12. I can’t profess to know your age, Andrea, but I think as you get older your world gets smaller by choice. You don’t necessarily need proximity to bars and clubs and movie theaters, and you tend to seek a smaller refuge away from the things that once drew you into a larger world. Or maybe that’s just me 😉

  13. Hey brad, I surfed down here from your most recent post. Really enjoying all of your writing, seriously. So many writers seem to have abandoned the longer type of writing for social media posts. You have built quite an impressive amount of work on this website by the looks of it – over ten years of material? Wow! Anyway, yeah, favorite albums. I’d have to go with Metallica’s black album. It was totally the soundtrack of my early 20s. I had it on tape and it stayed in the tape deck of my car on my very long job commute. Every so often I give it a listen (on Spotify – the cassette and that car are long gone) and find myself taken back to 1991.

  14. Oh yeah the black album is a classic. Never really into Metallica but a friend of mine was so when Enter Sandman hit the radi and MTV you could not escape it.

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