A BETTER VERSION OF ME: TEN YEARS OF LISTENING TO RAINER MARIA

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Every time I get into one of those All Time Desert Island Top Five conversations, I hesitate.  I usually go for the safe,  the safe and obvious — Radiohead, The Pixies, New Order, Gang of Four, maybe like Sleater Kinney or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? But I’m always lying.  Because the thing I always hesitate to admit is this: one of my favorite bands, and the band I have seen live more than any other, ever, is actually Rainer Maria.

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That’s me, age 16, in a mall, holding a Frappochino, wearing a Rainer Maria shirt I made.

I don’t remember where, when, or how I first discovered the band — my best guess is on a mix or from one track that took me an hour to download from a nascent Napster.  But I remember saving babysitting money to buy their CDs from Sound Exchange, the independent record store in my town, and biking home to pour over the liner notes while I listened to them.  Rainer Maria was the only band I’d heard with the melodic rawness I’d come to love in bands like Braid and Alkaline Trio, but with a girl, and less violent and stupid, and with something else, something that seemed cool and too smart, something that seemed like how I saw myself.  They wrote songs about Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, they were named after a poet.  Clearly this was something different, something I needed to love. 

The context for this is, I suppose, is that I was born in the mid-80s and grew up in fucking New Jersey, a veritable mecca of hair gel, tanning beds, and strip malls.  But it was a breeding ground for that now oft-maligned genre of our collective teenage shame – emo, which admittedly constituted a significant portion of my teenage identity, years before Jimmy Eat World records started going platinum.  Between the ages of 13 and 16 my life revolved entirely around mixes from friends, crappy shows in American Legion hall basements, and college radio, facilitated by information I consumed ravenously from LiveJournal and an early Pitchfork Media, via the 14.4k modem my parents acquired when I was in the ninth grade.

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Living in a town where “not tanning” and “taking an art class” was all it took to make you “subversive” was torture to my oh-so-misunderstood teenage self: Rainer Maria gave me a promise.  My best friend and I would cut school to take the New Jersey Transit bus to New York, though we never knew what to do there.  We did what we thought we should do and waited in the places we thought we should be — bought books at the Strand, records at Other Music, ate pizza.  We shared my headphones waiting for the train at Broadway-Lafayette, one earbud in each of our ears, listening to the CD of A Better Version Of Me, which I’d just bought.

It seemed, at the time, that Caitlin de Marrais was actually singing about a better version of me, the one I could become.  I too could one day live in Brooklyn and be a literary and complicated redhead (that Caithlin and Jenny Lewis are partially responsible for my ginger conversion at the age of 16 is undeniable) and wear Victorian blouses and skinny jeans tucked into boots.  It seemed so sophisticated in comparison to my cropped hair and Converse sneakers. One day I too would have a complicated love life, a college education’s worth of pretentious literary references, and a knowledge of New York geography (the skyline is two gazes long, going nowhere on the BQE, pick me up on A & 9th) to drop into my songs to make up for a limited vocal range. Caithlin de Marrais was precisely who my maudlin, sheltered sixteen-year-old self knew I could be the moment I escaped New Jersey.  Never before had it been more obvious an option as it was on that train platform as I’ve seen the girl who will pick up where I left off, she’s already smoothing her hands for the pictures…I know I should drop everything and let her sing she’s a better version of me strained through tinny headphone speakers into my ears.

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I guess when I was 17 “taking a photo with the singer of the band” seemed like a cool thing to do

I saw them live for the first time on Valentine’s Day of my senior year of high school, in the echoing, shadowy chapel of the college (Vassar) that I had recently been accepted to.  The next autumn, having escaped the suburbs at long last, I flung myself with wholehearted naiveté into becoming an “Interesting College Student/Intellectual English Major.” But as I surrounded myself with books, sweaters, and mismatched earth-toned dorm room bedding, something I had long suspected began to concretize for the first time as well, in the form of a dark-haired girl from New York who would come to visit another friend at Vassar.  We went to a Le Tigre show at the campus center, and back in her friend’s room she smiled at me and held my hand under the blanket and my body froze at the electric warmth of her so near.  She gave me a sterile kiss on the cheek and apologized for not having any time alone with me, and mentioned that she had Rainer Maria tickets in a few weeks, did I want to come?

I took the Metro North south to Grand Central, and we made our way to Northsix, the filthy Brooklyn venue that has since become the Bowery-Presents-owned chrome-finished Music Hall of Williamsburg.  Her boyfriend bought us Sparks at a bodega, which we drank out of paper bags sitting on the broken concrete near the Kent waterfront (I know, I know) before the show.  Later, I pressed myself up against the stage and sang along to every word, while she fought with her boyfriend outside.

He broke up with her (via text message) on our way home, and I consoled her on the train ride back, her head heavy in my lap.  There was nowhere to sleep in her tiny Manhattan apartment but in her bed, and she clung to me throughout the night, her breath warm on the back of my neck, her hand on the small of my back.  I left the next morning after another apology and sterile kiss on the cheek, and walked to the train with a joy of anticipation or self-actualization or understanding rising in my chest.  There was a smaller sinking feeling in my stomach, and the suspicion that I had definitely cheated on my long-distance high-school boyfriend, though I was unsure why, as the evening’s most illicit incident had been a twenty-one year old buying beer for my eighteen year old self. 

I wrote in a small black notebook on the train back upstate: Went to see Rainer Maria last night, in Brooklyn. I stared at the page for a while, unsure of what else to write, since I felt like Something Important had happened.  Instead I carefully printed the lyrics: Save me some time. I’ve always wanted to wake up, on the Lower East Side. You want me completely and I’m ready and it’s fine, and so I begin the double life.

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my dorm room, sophomore year of college

For the next few years I would see every show that Rainer Maria played in New York, including their last, which I would go to just hours after flying back from a semester living in Prague.  Jet-lagged and alone, I lingered at the back rather than pressing myself against the stage, although I still knew the words.  "Living in New York" and "dressing kinda arty" no longer held the mysterious, elite appeal it did when I was fifteen, and I was deeply ashamed of my screamo-heavy, mall-shopping suburban history — patently uncool amongst my city-raised I-have-wealthy-artist-parents classmates.  An awareness of issues beyond “not fitting in at my high school” had developed, and I was conflicted by how self-indulgent the songs now seemed.  My new life in New York, a developing career in the music industry, and my time in Prague (naturally filled with electroclash, a new haircut, and a terribly affected sense of self) had caused something else: a guilty suspicion that this just wasn’t cool.  I left torn between embarrassment and a strange nostalgia for the person I had been when I loved them with such unbridled enthusiasm.  

Five years later, all of this is, of course, hilariously petty.  I’m sort of an adult now, with a day job and a live-in girlfriend and a lease I signed for and bills I pay, usually on time.   My teenage image of who I would be in my mid twenties is oddly accurate, although shifted: I publish my writing differently than I thought I would, and I’m a blonde now, not a redhead.  But as it turns out, there’s nothing especially glamorous about being a grown-up and living in New York.  There are times that I feel cheated by how unglamorous the whole thing actually is — the drudgery of the commute, rude taxi drivers, roaches, Excel spreadsheets of personal budgets.  I often feel old, old and boring.

But Rainer Maria is still on my iPod, every last song they’ve ever recorded, and I still listen to them more often than I want to admit.  Strangely, I think my lingering affinity stems from the fact that the songs somehow manage to re-romanticize for me the shocking ordinariness of what it’s actually like to be a creative professional in New York.  Somehow they bring back a nostalgia for the version of myself I am now, but as I saw that self ten years ago – the girl who will pick up where I leave off, the girl who will beat through all the hell and high water threatening what she believes.  She’s a better version of me.