Grand Haven, Michigan: Your Source for Paralyzing Depression
by Chris Willie Williams
A lot of my colleagues here have written about how their parents' specific musical taste and collections acted as a starting pistol for their lifelong musical geekiness. I can't say the music my own parents liked was necessarily was a catalyst for my music gluttony (though I do admit to an enduring fondness for Hall & Oates). However, they wholly supported my obsession with music. Mom and Dad would drive me to bookstores to purchase album guides, so I'd know where to start my journey. (The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock was essential to me, and the SPIN Alternative Record Guide is far more informative than you'd think.) Once I then had a plan of action, they'd happily drive me to record stores so I could look through the CDs with the intense focus of a crime scene investigator. They were also willing to often listen to my albums in the car when we were riding around. They may not have shared my particular taste—they like R.E.M., but They Might Be Giants drove them positively garanimals—but Dad and Mom understood it.
Whenever I think about how lucky I am to have parents who were so encouraging and supportive of my all-consuming need to listen to all the music, I think of one particular time they went out of their way to help me with it. It's a lengthy story, so get a snack. A brown liquid snack, if you get my drift. That you've heated up in a spoon.
I must've been 17 years old, and my parents decided we were going to take a family trip to Grand Haven, Michigan, for a summer weekend. I have absolutely no idea why they chose Grand Haven. I do not recall this municipality offering anything that any of us particularly wanted to see or do. (For instance, as of this writing—which I admittedly started a while back—the city's tourism site confirms that you are allowed to "celebrate salmon" within its municipal borders. It also recommends that visitors drive a half-hour away from Grand Haven to Coopersville, Michigan, for "Del Shannon Days": Shannon, the great early rock-and-roll songwriter, grew up in Coopersville, so they obviously honor the man behind such milestones of popular music as "I Go to Pieces" and "Runaway" with... a car show. Nothing else would make sense.)
Anyway, along the trip, I recall that it somehow became clear to my parents that I was REALLY stuck in an especially deep urinal trough of depression that weekend. I'm not sure how that particular episode manifested itself, since my brother Tim and I were mostly reading quietly in the backseat of the car while we rode the three hours to Grand Haven, but I do know my depression was indeed being extremely rough on me at the time. That is, I've always suffered from severe depression in general, but on that trip, I know those chemicals were boiling over in an unusually aggressive manner, to the point that I must've done something that Mom and Dad found worrisome. Maybe I was crying? I am not sure. I do remember that I wrote the lyrics to the early Disclaimer song "Five Mile Hill" on that trip, because the titular hill is a Grand Haven tourist attraction. The hill, topographers have confirmed, is a large hill, thus visitors flock to it, I guess? The song is a super-teenage slice of angst and self-loathing. (The music wound up catchy, though, if I do say so myself. Should you be interested, it's here: https://disclaimer.bandcamp.com/track/five-mile-hill) At any rate, I was really, really in a bad mental place, and it was clear to everybody.
My parents were naturally very concerned, because although I wasn't suicidal or giving off self-harming vibes (or I certainly hope I wasn't), their son was feeling helplessly miserable, and they felt terrible because there was no clear way they could make me feel better. They tried to quietly discuss it among themselves that evening, but even if you're whispering, it's hard to keep things private when your entire party is smooshed into a spartan Red Roof Inn room.
Of course, there was nothing they could have done to cut the problem off at its head—my problem was internal, not external—and I feel awful in retrospect that they felt bad for being unable to wipe it out. But that's what Mom and Dad were quietly talking about while I eavesdropped and wrote emo song lyrics, and I expect Tim watched SportsCenter. (I am not saying he was oblivious to the situation or uncaring in any way. My brother is as thoughtful, generous, and warmhearted as anyone I've ever met. But what do you do when you're 15 and your older brother suddenly switches off and begins to act as though he'd welcome the end of the world? I would think the most obvious path would be leaving it to your parents and just trying to get along with your normal routine. Which in his case was listening to Chris Berman set a new world record for obnoxious blowhardism for the thousandth consecutive day.)
The next day, my parents came up with a legitimately brilliant idea: they somehow managed to hunt down an independent record store in Grand Haven or the surrounding area. (I have no idea where they found an indie record store in an area whose official tourism website commands, "In winter, bundle up and search out the lighthouse. The photo ops are worth the chill." I like that they essentially pose this suggestion as a frigid scavenger hunt.) They knew if anything could retrieve my mind from that pit, it was gonna be a record store. And it pretty much worked!
When I go into a record store, my brain always shifts into critic mode—there's almost an audible ca-CHUNK! in my head: the sound of all other emotions being locked in solitary confinement for the duration of my shopping hunt. My mind instead pulls up a database of reviews I recall reading, artists I want to check out, new albums I've been on the lookout for, etc. It's a fun, weirdly relaxing experience for me, which can be punctuated with excitement if I find an album I've been looking for in the dollar bin or something. (Three years ago, I probably literally jumped up and down when I found Barbara Manning's In New Zealand that way at a little store in Amherst, Massachusetts.) And my parents had been attentive enough to realize that, for at quite a few years by that point, I'd developed the wonderful ability to turn any record store into a sanctum, dumping my emotions at the door.
And by "attentive enough," I mean "subjected to enough of my pissy little rock-snob rants every time we went record shopping."
So Mom, Dad, and Tim patiently browsed and then ultimately just stood around and waited while I fussily pawed through the store's entire stock of used CDs. I did not engage in negative self-talk or depressive mental exercises while doing so. I did not think about anything except, "What do I need to hear?" (And, of course, sometimes stuff like, "Oh, sure, they've got twelve damned copies of Amy Grant's Heart in Motion, but they don't feel the need to stock The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. Super. A-freaking-plus." But that sort of snobbery can be fun too, as long as I keep it inside. Except where Dave Matthews is concerned.) It was a much-needed break—for all of us, I think.
I wound up buying the soundtrack to Richard Linklater's eye-roll-inducing philosophizing-slacker film subUrbia. The soundtrack is enormously uneven, but does have a few must-hears:
Beck's mellow, Mutations-style folker "Feather in Your Cap";
UNKLE's "Berry Meditation," which predates DJ Shadow's participation in the band, but is nevertheless beautiful, with scampering hip-hop beats and Money Mark's shooting-star synths levitating a spoken recording of some guy spouting Buddhafield-level mystical nonsense;
Elastica and Stephen Malkmus collaborating on a gnarled, deliberately sloppy rendition of X's "The Unheard Music," the original of which was too long, too tight, and too normal.
The Butthole Surfers' punk drone "Human Cannonball," which uses lead singer Gibby Haynes's Gibbytronix vocal manipulation machine to stretch his vocals out to manic, impossible cackles. This one was originally released on the Surfers' barely-written (but still largely enjoyable) 1987 album Locust Abortion Technician.
That's an example of the mindset I fall into when I go into a record store. Or, apparently, even start thinking about my experiences in record stores. But back to our story.
I also bought a used copy of Frank Black's The Cult of Ray, which had been on my “to-buy” list for a while. By the time I checked out, I did indeed feel significantly better, due to album-purchase endorphins. When my family got back in the car to go home, my parents immediately said, “Why don't we listen to one of the CDs you bought?” in an attempt to cheer me up further.
Then, because they're amazing, my parents sat silently and patiently through the entirety of The Cult of Ray, Frank Black's odd and not-really-successful attempt to merge a straightforward rock album with his own love of unpredictable, abrasive noise. The album opens with “The Marsist,” which is basically a rhythm guitar and drum section playing a simple surf-rock song while a lead guitar squeals some frenzied whammy-bar Morse code and Black rambles and shouts about (I guess) the famous “face” in the Cydonia region of Mars, with no melody to speak of. Not once did I see my parents look at each other to say, “What did we get ourselves into?” during that song or any other. I know they couldn't have been enjoying it. (The album does get more accessible after “The Marsist”—which I actually think is one of the stronger songs—but man alive, are there some bad songs on there, like “Punk Rock City,” “You Ain't Me,” “The Creature Crawling,” etc.) Every once in a while, I'd catch a glimpse of my mom glancing back from the passenger seat, to check how I was doing, and at that moment, I was fine. I was in critic mode.
I don't remember what form my depression had been taking at the time of the trip, but my parents were savvy enough to realize that sometimes it could be temporarily given the slip by getting me to a record store and cramming my earballs with whatever new spoils I'd acquired there. I think that's pretty fucking attentive and loving parenting, and although it's not like I'm the spokesperson for perfect mental health, I'm very grateful that my parents—and brother, who had to be dragged along on this side trip—went to all this effort and then sat through one of Frank Black's lesser albums without issuing any of the valid complaints they could've, just to try to pull me from beneath all my mental rubble. I'm lucky.
That's not to say this was a permanent cure or anything. Depression and anxiety are still a huge part of me, and probably always will be. (I once went to a chiropractor who told me I carry more stress in my shoulders and upper back than anyone he'd ever treated except for one guy who was a pro linebacker.) Without outing anyone, there are a few of my friends at Discord & Rhyme who struggle with depression and anxiety issues in their personal lives as well. We've talked about it, and have discovered that one thing we share is that music—listening, absorbing, interpreting, discussing, sharing, critiquing—lets us spacewalk outside the parts of our minds that are unnecessarily unkind to us. My biggest hope for this show and this project is that it becomes a place where people who might feel similarly can put their issues aside and feel comfortable visiting and interacting with a small community of positive, supportive geeks. Welcome.