Recent studies reveal that the teenage brain is not fully developed; the nerve cells that connect the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain are sluggish, resulting in self-centeredness, poor decision-making and lack of insight.
I was a 17-year-old senior in Saginaw, Mich., when Boy Sets Fire released The Day the Sun Went Out on Initial Records in 1997. Angry for no real reason, I walked around with a chip on my shoulder like it was me against the world. Before, I’d flirted with alternative and underground music with no real direction or point of entry. It wasn’t until my junior year, when a friend introduced me to bands like Youth of Today and Minor Threat by copying CDs onto cassette for me, that music, particularly hardcore, became a central part of my life.
Though the Internet existed at this point, it didn’t to me; catalogs and zines served as my main source of information. Once a week I’d stop by Harmony House, the only place in Saginaw that carried the Metro Times, Detroit’s free alternative weekly. I’d look through the ads to find out who’d be playing where and spent weekends attending shows at Old Jamestown Hall in Saginaw or the Flint Local. Sometimes we’d head to Detroit to St. Andrew’s Hall, or Clutch Cargo’s or the Shelter (perhaps most famous as the setting for the battle scenes in 8 Mile). But my love of Louisville-based Initial Records began at Empire of One.
A short-lived skateboard shop in Flint, Empire of One hosted bands from all over, including many bands on Initial. And it was on one of their samplers that I first heard “The Fine Art of Falling,” from Boy Sets Fire’s full-length debut The Day the Sun Went Out. Lyrically it was a love song, but musically I’d never heard anything like it. Perhaps the poppiest song off of the album, it demonstrates singer Nathan Gray’s melodic voice, particularly a range I’d not heard in other hardcore vocalists.
Allmusic.com assigns the moods: angst-ridden, cathartic, confrontational, intense, passionate, tense/anxious to The Day the Sun Went Out, so it makes sense that my teenage self was drawn to this. However, the album also had a hand in my political-awakening. The songs cover topics ranging from abuse to sexism to war.
At a lull in “The Power Remains the Same,” my favorite track on the album, a voice rattles off: “homelessness, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, the system that creates them,” followed by, “I reject, I reject the system / I renounce, I renounce their values / I refuse, I refuse their standards,” and then Gray screams, “the system that creates them” as the song rips into a heavy breakdown. I found this music cathartic and energizing. When I listened to those songs I felt like I could do anything, and had a place to direct my aimless angers and frustrations. I realized my anger was justified because a lot of shit in the world was—and continues to be—messed up.
Boy Sets Fire released three full-length albums after The Day the Sun Went Out before disbanding in 2006, but I’d stopped listening not long after their debut. Because their music relates so much to a time and place, it couldn’t last long. I lingered in Saginaw longer than I should have. I dropped out of the college I’d enrolled in right out of high school and chose, instead of more stringent academics, a life of show going, hanging out with friends and just trying to have fun, all while I worked two jobs at the mall and attended courses at a community college.
Eventually I left that part of my life behind—though I’ve stuck with the political convictions. I’d heard that the owner of Empire of One drove his car through the store window. All my hardcore friends turned on one another, accused each other of “selling out,” scattered and eventually disappeared. The moment was over.
Boy Sets Fire actually anticipated this. In the liner notes of The Day the Sun Went Out, there’s a manifesto that opens with a quote from Norman Podhoretz (a surprising source considering the band’s socialist ideology): “The difficulty with youth movements is that youth is an unstable condition and nature its enemy; with each passing year you get less young and if you build a movement around youthfulness you’re dooming yourself to obsolescence in a very short time.”
The manifesto itself states: “hardcore is without question a youth oriented movement … it is unlikely that there will be many 50-year-olds ‘fuckin’ shit up’ or floor punching to the latest jigga jigga craze, however it is more conceivable that many of us will grow older, have children and attempt to live within a system that just a few short years earlier we were convinced we would rebel against.”
I don’t listen to hardcore anymore, preferring instead classic soul, Motown, traditional country and rockabilly, but every now and again I have a flashback—a line out of nowhere comes to me and I’m filled with an incredible energy.