What Sleater-Kinney Means To Me

Every January and February I descend into a deep funk. I fucking hate this time of year. I get irritable and short with people. I don’t want to get this way, but it just happens. February 13th 1999 my sister was killed in a car accident. I was 18 at the time, she was 25, and that was 16 years ago. I’ve nearly lived as many years without my sister as I have with her in my life, and that is a somewhat scary thought. I only recently found some details on the accident. It didn’t reveal anything I didn’t know already, but truth be told I’m very interested in seeing the site of her death from google maps. Morbid curiosity I suppose.

I also think it’s a clear distinction that my sister didn’t just die, she was killed. She was the passenger in the car involved in the accident, her boyfriend at the time driving. He woke up from a coma a few days later and denied vehemently that he was driving the car. To this day that pisses me off. My mom flew back for his criminal trial for vehicular manslaughter, and he surprised everyone, including his own family, by pleading guilty. I guess it’s a very minuscule silver lining, not having to spend weeks or days in the courts, my Mom getting to come home and be with the family, him taking the punishment head on. Though there could hardly be a smaller silver lining.

The week after my sister died was a blur. Valentine’s day was the next day and I had sent a message to a girl I cared about,  but I stopped hearing from her a couple days later (pile that one on). Things were such a blur I don’t remember when I got the letter, but around that time Cal Arts sent me a rejection letter for its animation program, which I was sure was my destiny. And I also now remember we lost our California house (my Mom corrected me from saying “evicted” to people as we weren’t escorted out, but had days to move) in July that year, after having lost our house in Utah, my childhood home, the August of the previous year. 1999 was a fucking shitty year for me, and Dreamcast hardly made up for it (sorry my VMU-loving brethren.)  The day before the accident I had just bought my first computer, a Grape iMac, with money I had saved delivering pizzas, and I probably sat up cruising the shitty internet of the day and fiddling with filters in Photoshop 5.5 (probably the one relatively happy memory of the time.)

My Mom flew to Georgia (from California) to identify the body, after which my sister was cremated. Later in the week I was home alone, woken up by the doorbell where the postman needed a signature for a package. It’s one of those moments that feels too fucking cruel to be real, but there it is, stamped on the box, “cremated remains inside.” It may have said “Handle with care” as well, which is adorable.

I didn’t drink at the time, didn’t do drugs. I was too young to drink and drugs were illegal. Goody two shoes. I escaped into media. Video games, movies, and music. Annually my coping mechanism has become listening to Sleater-Kinney albums. A week after my sister was killed I went to one of the local independent music stores (because they really had a much better selection of material than Wherehouse Music) and just wandered around. On the wall was a listening station with all the new albums of the week, and there was Sleater-Kinney’s “The Hot Rock.”

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I don’t know what it is about the cover that caught my curiosity, but it’s what made me give it a try. It seemed rare to see a photograph (which felt like photography and not studio-lit bullshit ) of women on a cover of an album looking like real women,  and women I would want in my circle of friends. I didn’t listen to the album at the store (I was (stupidly) too self conscious about what everyone thought I was doing at any given moment), so when I got home I loaded up previews of tracks on CDNOW.com. I listened to the opening song on the album and a few tracks from the previous album “Dig Me Out” and I was hooked. It was different and I liked it. And instead of ordering the albums online I went back to the store and bought both albums because I couldn’t wait (you know, in the literal sense) for them to be shipped.

At the time I was delivering pizza and had a cassette player in my 1985 Pontiac Fiero, and each album’s sub-45 minute runtime lent itself nicely to the side of a 45 minute cassette tape, along with a few other songs thrown on at the end (which I don’t think I can remember, but I’m pretty sure it was Garbage.) I delivered pizza 3-4 days a week, listening to the album over and over and over in the months after my sister’s death. I don’t know that there is anything specific about the album that directly relates to what I was going through at the time. It wasn’t as simple as listening to a breakup song and relating to the positive message of moving on, or discovering a metal album and relating to the angst and being fed up with the way the world treats you. But there was an angst on the albums, there was a frustration, a level of raw that felt real. It had an energy that resonated with me at the time, a purity lost in other music covered in a level of late 90s grunge polish that felt saccharine.

Every year at this time I find myself listening to The Hot Rock again. I often listen do Dig Me Out right after. Sleater-Kinney expanded their discography in the years following and I jump around listening to each subsequent album, though each has a different theme for me.

  • All Hands On The Bad One – Meeting an 18 year old when I was 21 and marrying her months later, only to find out she lied to me about who she was so I would like her (including liking S-K) and cheating on me and leaving me for a drug dealer (oddly enough that was hard at the time but I really easily got over it in the longrun.)
  • One Beat – The summer I was dating the woman who would become my wife and mother of my children. I of course held her at more of a distance, learning from the mistakes of my youth (one year before). And a few months later the band toured in support of the album (with Black Keys opening for them) so One Beat is a more positive memory for me.
  • The Woods – A more internal struggle with my own shortcomings as an artist and creator. At the time I was just graduating college and dealing with the rejection of not being as talented of an artist I thought I was. Facing up to my own sense of entitlement. It was a more subdued one, but took years to overcome and work through, and when I listen to the album I reflect more upon myself than I do with any of their other albums.

So here we are, coming up on February yet again and facing my demons and there is a new Sleater-Kinney album, and it’s a bit surreal considering that this is the first release in 10 years. For 10 years I’ve been going through the same motions, listening to the same albums, and repeating patterns of mourning and reflection. Year after year it gets easier, not so much easier that you feel too guilty for finding it easier, just a bit easier than the year before. It’s only natural. It’s how loss works and it feels shitty and disrespectful to the lost but it’s how it works.  But this year it’s different.

So far I don’t know how I am going to feel two weeks from now. 16 years later and you still don’t know what kind of mood you are going to be in when that day comes. This album came out a little over a week ago and the emotions seem to be coming sooner than usual. The new album is Sleater-Kinney returning in full form, like they picked up where they left off in 2005 like no time had passed, and with this new album’s purity I’m now getting a true resurgence of feelings along with new emotions. I guess in a way it’s different now because the sadness is just as sad as it has always been, but what happiness I have is growing alongside it, getting stronger each year. Watching Sleater-Kinney perform “A New Wave” live on The Late Show brought tears to my eyes. I was in fucking tears, and the most emotion ran over me in seeing Corin Tucker sing with what looked like a smile on the chorus’ harmony. You could argue that it wasn’t a smile, that it was just her teeth coming together to form the “eeeee” sound, but I could swear I saw a spark of joy in her face, and it made me happy. I know, I’m lame, but I think my happiness is growing. Maybe.

In my happiness I find myself reflecting more on the family I have now, grateful to no end to have my children and wife in my life, hoping that the pain I knew will not fill our walls for decades. Having children is odd because you come to realize that the best case scenario you want to create for your life is to die before your children, and hope they love you enough to mourn your passing, but pray they have the strength to not let your loss eat them alive; and that’s the best case scenario. So I suppose there is still the fear resting immediately below the surface, knowing that anything can be taken away at any moment, because it has been already once in your life 16 years ago.

Ultimately I don’t even know what I wanted to say with all this. I guess with this new album things are far more fresh in my mind and I didn’t want to go on without saying something, if nothing more than to try to wrap my head around my own feelings instead of burying them in work or video games or work on video games. I don’t see this tradition of listening to The Hot Rock changing any time soon. It’s been my own coping mechanism for so long, and I this new album is adding an interesting layer to the mix. And of course three important words to help me get through it:

Fuck you, February.

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