I grew up on Sixth Street. We had a big white house - or at least, in my mind, it was big. It was definitely white, with steps leading up to a front porch. The porch wasn’t enclosed, but it was covered, the porch roof held up by tapered square pillars. In my mind, the wooden floor was painted a shade of blue-gray.
When thunderstorms rolled in on summer nights, my dad and I would sit on the porch and watch the storm. There was no popcorn, no Cheez Balls. Just us in a couple of lawn chairs on the covered porch. We could smell the rain and could see the occasional bolt jump out of the sky. Cars would drive by, almost always from left to right, since Sixth Street was a one-way… except that day someone with Florida plates was driving the wrong way.
I cannot imagine convincing my child to sit and just watch the sky for an hour.
Also, my child would already be in bed…
I thought about that this week when the temperature called for a window open to a dark morning storm with distant occasional thunder. Storms used to be welcome. No, you didn’t want to get rained out, and you didn’t want to get caught out in a storm, and you most definitely didn’t want to get caught out in a dangerous storm, like that one Memorial Day weekend when it went from not raining to superball-sized hail in less than five minutes.
But a simple thunderstorm? That was a good thing. It was cleansing. It helped things grow. It was part of the regular rhythm of things.
Climate change is a true existential threat. But I think part of why we can’t collectively wrap our minds around that is because we treat weather as an existential threat. It used to be that if you wanted a forecast you had to watch the evening news, read the morning paper, maybe turn the radio on. Now we can check the temperature every 47 seconds and we can all watch radar on demand. We are so damn uptight about the weather that it is part of why we’re not more uptight about the climate.
An isolated thunderstorm isn’t a problem to be analyzed or solved! It’s literally the way the world works. Yes, the crazy weather events we’ve experienced are different. But that’s precisely the point: they are different.
Back to the porch.
I don’t have any conscious memories from a time before living in the house on Sixth Street, and we were in that house until just before my 9th birthday. These are ancient memories, but I can picture the heavy hiding sliding wooden doors, the steps with the green carpet, the Jetsons-chic kitchen, the cement poured in the back where I signed my name, how somehow my bedroom had a walk-in closet… all of the features that crash together into a young child’s understanding of what “home” is.
Since my dad’s parents were several blocks away and my mom’s mother was even closer, this all also added together into a young child’s understanding of what “neighborhood” is.
I have long explained that I think people take input, usually childhood input, and either embrace or reject it. If you grow up with a sense of “neighborhood” you either gravitate back to that or you run away from it - or both. If you grow up with a sense of “home” you either gravitate back to that or you run away from it - or both. The tension of embracing and rejecting something at the same time can explain a lot of our collective neuroses.
For me, “home” and “house” were largely interchangeable concepts. I suspect this is a common phenomenon especially in America. The whole postwar concept of home ownership for all… I think people get hung up on the ownership piece of that, without recognizing that it’s the home piece which is most durable. To put it another way, home means no shared walls.
Neighborhood has always been fuzzier for me. That neighborhood I grew up in, I didn’t have friends there. I didn’t go to the neighborhood school. So the neighborhood concept was oddly bereft of people. Instead it connoted the relative closeness of family, and friendliness with the next door neighbors - the only ones whose names you actually know - and then the buildings and streets themselves.
This was a neighborhood where the streets and the avenues were mostly numbers. When the new street signs were put in, numbers up to 10 were spelled out, and above 10 were kept as numerals, so according to the signs, you’d be at the corner of SIXTH ST and 20TH AV. The streets in turn largely had their own things going on. Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Tenth are all normal residential streets. Sixth and Ninth are also residential, but they were one-ways, intended to be the main ways in/out of the neighborhood. Seventh, at least when you get far enough north, is a commercial strip. 11th Street is a major city thoroughfare. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in my mind, numbers of particular importance were 6, 7, and 11…. and still are.
Many years later, when Golden Smog formed as sort of a supergroup, the band members assumed “Smog names” - their middle names followed by the name of the street they grew up on. (In retrospect this was probably because of some sort of contractual thing.) Well, having no middle name, that meant my Smog name was just SIXTH, and so I started using that as my alternate handle on Internet Relay Chat.
I was wired to focus in on numbers anyway. I can’t help but think though that growing up in a grid of numbers accentuated all that.
And so when sitting on the porch, overlooking Sixth Street, I think that to me was my way of being part of the neighborhood. While for years I had this idea in my mind that a neighborhood is supposed to be about neighbors, sitting here now, I wonder if the neighborhood, for me, wasn’t largely about… sitting on the porch.
Our house today has a lot of outdoor places to sit, but there’s no covered porch, and - by design - all of the places to sit are tucked away, not places to just sit and watch the neighborhood. I get why a house would have been designed this way, but I wish it were otherwise.
At the very least, I think I really do want a canopied place to just sit outside, so I can be there even if it’s raining. Ahhh, but now that I’ve written it out, now I have to look into how to pull this off, with crazy contraptions in the air between house and garage. Musing can be a dangerous thing.
Late Thursday morning, the sad news circulated: Bryan St. Pere has passed away.
I got to college in central Illinois in 1994, the year before Hum released You’d Prefer an Astronaut. There have been other bands from central Illinois who have done well for themselves, but that time, that place, that album, that was true zeitgeist stuff. And they were understood as a cohesive band, not a collection of parts but something more than that.
For my money, as a native, having lived in Illinois for almost my entire life, the three pinnacle rock bands from the state have to be Cheap Trick, Uncle Tupelo, and Hum. There are so very many other great ones. But it starts with those three.
Bryan St. Pere was the drummer through most of the band’s existence, including all of the albums. His name has always been stated with a certain kind of quiet reverence. I remember people in the ‘90s talking about how he was the drummer they wanted to be. From about 1995-2000, it seemed like every other new band in Central Illinois wanted to be some variation of Hum, and a whole lot of those bands were really, really good. Look up Hum today and you might see them categorized in a lot of different ways: shoegaze, space rock, even emo. I think they transcended all of that though, which helps explain the reverence but also how they never got bigger than they did.
By all reports I’ve ever heard, he was a class act and consummate professional. He was only 52.
I had the privilege of seeing Hum three times. Sometimes when a band is so close, you don’t go out of your way to make every gig, figuring there will always be many more. Alas, that was never really the case with them. So while I got to see them, I never saw them as a club headliner. Kids of today, don’t miss opportunities like that when they roll around.
So what was the big deal? You can try to glean it from a handful of videos. It’s best if you turn the volume up, if you really want to try and get it.
You have to start somewhere, so may as well start with the hit. You’d Prefer an Astronaut sold something on the order of 400,000 copies, if my memory serves me, but sometimes it felt like all of those copies went to someone inbetween Interstates 70 and 80. They famously refused to make a radio edit of this song, which probably cost them airplay, but gained them a whole lot of respect:
In 1997 they released Downward Is Heavenward, a masterwork which had no real chance of major commercial success. The single was “Green To Me”. As with “Stars”, the thing to notice is that the drumming is a particular mix of power and control.
23 years later, during dark days of the pandemic and lockdown, Inlet arrived. You had to make sure you had the house to yourself, so you could turn up the volume louder than anyone else would find acceptable. Then hit play, and:
And of course there’s “The Pod”. No, this isn’t metal, and isn’t really what you might normally call heavy music. But when the time comes, no band could rock harder:
RIP Bryan. HUM forever.