On July 20th, 2003, a tour van rolled on I-5 south of Portland, OR, killing three of my friends. They were members of power-pop band The Exploding Hearts, and I’m told their story is one of the biggest “what ifs” in punk rock. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can say for certain that it’s the biggest “what if” in the lives of those they left behind.
Rock & roll, immortality, youth—whatever was shattered that day, this is what I keep.
10 fragments—10 years later
The shoebox came to me stuffed with tissue and a pair of brand new high-top Chuck Taylors, size 7-and-a-half, black with white laces. That was the fall of 1996. I was a 14-year-old freshman at the Arts & Communications magnet school in Beaverton, Oregon—a place we tender pupils called Talking and Drawing School—a home away from home for wayward alternative kids in the usual genres: goths, punks, hippies, heshers, and ravers. I’d saved up to buy the Chucks because I wanted to make friends with the punk rockers and that’s what they wore. That was maybe all it took.
These days the cardboard is soft and crushed in the corners, the bottom is bellied. OLD LETTERS it reads, again and again, in red sharpie. That small collection of meaningful documents, those OLD LETTERS, dated way back to the year before. I guess I thought a year was a pretty long time back then. Which just goes to show, that grumpy arcade owner in Wayne’s World got it right when he observed, “Kids know dick.”
There’s a mixtape in the box, compiled around the time I bought the shoes. My first ever mixtape from a boy, given to me by Jeremy Gage, the skinny kid with short blond curls who hunched next to me in either math lab or Ohana—I don’t remember which. Ohana was what the administrators at Talking and Drawing School called homeroom. Supposedly it means “extended family” in Hawaiian. That’s what they told us because that’s what we were to be to one another: an extended family.
Sunny Day Real Estate
Considering his encyclopedic knowledge of punk rock, Elliott Smith was a pretty emo choice for Jeremy. I caught shit from other kids whenever the tape got to that song that went I’m in love/with the world/through the eyes/of a girl. But I liked it. It was the kind of song that made you want to stare meaningfully into the distance. It was the kind of song that made you eject your tape and send it spinning on your pencil, to be played again and again.
There’s a photocopy in the box: a page from the yearbook. On this particular page there’s a picture of a senior we all admired named Adam Cox in which he appears behind bars, his eyes hidden in the shade of his hat. If you look closer you see the bars are actually the stripes of an American flag. His quote—“I never have and never will pledge allegiance”—is a lyric from a Propaghandi song.
In high school, Adam fronted a band called The Iguanas, and we all repped their T-shirts, each sporting a crude drawing of a lizard drinking a forty of beer.
After graduation, Adam vanished to California where he assembled skateboards at the Tum Yeto factory. It seemed like he was gone a long time, though it was probably just a few months. When he returned he was world-wise, a kind of prophet, having steeped in a warehouse of grizzled older skateboarders.
Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll tell you Adam was a hilarious guy, though it’s hard to put your finger on what made him so funny. He was wry and somehow hyper at the same time. He was a linguistic eccentric. I’m pretty sure he coined the term “beardo.” When he thought something was great he called it “genius,” which morphed into “gene.” A hollow-body Gretsch or vintage Les Paul might be gene, for example. Certain haircuts or styles of socks. For a while all he could talk about was diner breakfast. Then those portraits of baby Jesus from Mexico. Then sweater-vests, and pretty girls with bangs. (Of course, every guy loves a pretty girl with bangs, but he was obsessed, and more so with the bangs than the girls.)
I’m tempted to say, I guess you had to know him, but the fact is you never will. Day by day the memory fades or distorts, taking him with it.
There are song lyrics in the box.
Ancient Iguanas lyrics. Lyrics for songs that made the split seven-inch with our local heroes, The Automatics. They’re copied out on journal paper, in Adam’s tiny script. The margins are adorned with his drawings; navy stars and swallows and scrolled banners—images he would later have tattooed to his body.
Images that his tattoo artist, later still, would painstakingly reproduce on the small box containing his ashes.
My favorite teacher in high school—everybody’s favorite teacher—was a guy named Mr. B. He taught our film and video classes and gave an annual “love lecture,” a greatest hits of all the sweet, awkward, and confusing dating experiences he’d had when he was our age. It was sort of like if John Hughes gave a Ted Talk.
One day, a beautiful, quiet boy in that class skipped school, walked to the park near his house and shot himself.
I didn’t know Chris, but his best friend, Matt Fitzgerald, transferred to our school and took his place the next semester. We were fast friends. By summer I’d moved into his parent’s basement—a kingdom of comfortable couches where beer could be smuggled easily through a sliding glass door. Matt rarely talked to me about Chris, but I do remember him saying once, in a grim mood, that he felt his suicide had canceled his own right to die. Nothing could happen to him now.
There’s a letter in the box from Mr. B., presented to me on the occasion of my dropping out of high school junior year. “This is going to sound weird,” he writes, “but when I think of you I get scared. I worry because I want to shield you from any hurt or disappointment. Please try and remember the best growth and learning comes when your life looks like a car wreck, no matter how painful it is, it’s important to go through it…”
Five years later, days after the actual car wreck, I opened the box, extracted that letter from Mr. B. and carried it around with me, a talisman.
“I’m a Pretender”—track two of Guitar Romantic—begins with a simple rock and roll riff, the high-hat keeping time. Then the slow build detonates, launches into an epic drum-roll, the joined voices of those boys belt out (almost screaming) “I’m a pretender at the game of love! Please somebody help me shatter my heart!” The shatter-my-heart is a stadium worthy chant, running all together and climbing the scale higher with each syllable. The phrase is an onomatopoeia of feeling, the embodied sensation of having one’s heart shattered. There is so much raw energy in those first 20 seconds of music, such tremendous force, the instant it hits my cochlea I feel on the verge of going berserk.
And what’s the singer with that vaguely British accent saying, anyway? Pizza party help me shatter my heart?
Who knows. Who cares? It’s SO FUCKING GOOD.
I lost touch with Matt after high school, but heard that he’d become tight with Adam and Jeremy, that the three of them had formed a band with our friend Terry Six, and that the band was “actually super fucking good.” I knew Adam was a great songwriter and ambitious and that they all possessed a kind of gene-ness, so it didn’t surprise me much. At some point I ran into Jeremy and he gave me a copy of their demo, four-track recordings of songs that would later appear on Guitar Romantic.
Adam had done it. He’d formed the band we’d always wanted to hear. I fell in love, and listened to those tracks on repeat, but didn’t dare go to their shows for fear of being outed a poseur. I guess in that way it was a lot like my experience of family, those people who knew you when—an overwhelming dread of being seen, of being exposed. Ohana.
In the early spring of 2003, Matt happened into the coffee shop where I worked and we went out for drinks after my shift. He looked better than ever. That sort of gray, haunted vibe was gone.
There was light in his eyes, levity. He’d quit smoking and was into martial arts. The band was doing well. Lookout!—our high school hero label—was interested.
Matt had grown up. Naturally, I wondered if I had too. I searched the bar bathroom mirror for signs of maturation. I didn’t find any, and after that night, I didn’t see him again.
After July 20th, after the accident that killed them all, I wanted to hear no other music. Guitar Romantic was the only important thing. I knew every word—every lick, every intake of breath—by heart. I carried it with me everywhere.
My boyfriend at the time was a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, so we made the two hour trip between there and Portland twice a week. I often commandeered the stereo and blasted The Exploding Hearts. One day, during our millionth time through the record, I pointed out the window at the highway shoulder and announced, “I think it happened here.”
I pointed to the place where I’d heard they died and my boyfriend ejected the CD.
“You’re morbid,” he assessed, correctly. “Do you really want to listen to this? Here? Are you crazy?”
The simple answer to his question was yes. I was crazy, and I was obsessed. Obsessed with dead people. Obsessed with the sudden revelation of mortality, theirs and mine. With the fact that at any moment, and for no good reason, life could end. It didn’t make any fucking sense.
When Elliot Smith died a few months later, I tore open the shoebox and pulled Jeremy’s mixtape out and tried to connect the dots. What did it mean, this strange bookending? What was the connection? The thought of my own heart horrified me. Anxiety bloomed. My pulse skipped and raced. I was fine, I was calm, and all of a sudden my chest would seize and some invisible fist would punch me in the heart. Soon I was having full-blown panic attacks, almost daily. On one occasion, my heart was so fucked up and erratic the typically dismissive ER doctors rushed me to a backroom, slapped some wires on me, and ran an EKG.
The diagnosis was anxiety and low potassium, and I was sent home with a prescription for bananas and Ativan. The Rx slip gave me my first smirk in recent memory, how it sounded like the title of one of their songs. Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades. Thorns and Roses.
Bananas and Ativan.
Growing up is hard no matter what, but confronting mortality in your 20s seriously ramps up the suck. I wasn’t the only one melting down. The people who’d remained close to Adam, Matt and Jeremy through the years were shattered—or so I heard. I heard rumors of heavy drug use and depression. I heard about somebody’s crack-up and trip to the bin.
Then the stories started to peter out.
Then I didn’t hear much at all anymore.
Every once in a while I visit Matt’s grave. Sometimes I still find a few empty Pabst cans or cigarette butts strewn there. I take a strange comfort in that.
Ten years have passed since the accident. My feet and legs ache every time I finish a shift at the coffee shop. I get raging hangovers from a couple of glasses of wine. Invincibility is an illusion my body no longer harbors. I walk around, in fact, with a keen awareness of the many ways in which it might be destroyed.
Most of the people I knew in high school have rounded the bend at 30, have lived beyond the age you’re supposed to quit punk rock. They’ve gotten married or divorced. They have kids, degrees, jobs and homes. Maybe it’s true that the friends we lost never stopped rocking, never got boring, never dimmed—but to me, that’s cold comfort. And maybe it’s a convenient conclusion since they’re gone, but I can’t help feeling we lost the best of us, that their best was ahead of them, that if they’d lived to make families of their own they’d still be hilarious, prodigious, totally gene.
There’s a set list in this box. A guitar pick.
A memorial program with their names and ages.
Matt Fitzgerald — Jeremy Gage — Adam Cox
20, 21, 23.
Old as they’ll ever be.