The beauty of nostalgia is the instantaneous transportation to a time, or better yet, a feeling of when life was good for even a brief moment. Wasting time in a friend’s basement, conjuring up fantasies of rock stardom and exploring the creative boundaries of an unshackled teenage mind seem like rites of passage to anyone who’s had the audacity to dream that they could escape their banal adolescent existence by exposing their core to the world through music.
The opening verse of Strand of Oaks’ “Goshen ‘97” reads like a chapter in the biographies of thousands of aspiring musicians, but it feels like Timothy Showalter was writing about kids I knew in high school. Maybe it’s about the guy who played Hendrix songs at coffeehouses, or the girl who had a voice so powerful you knew she was going to make it somewhere in the music industry, and then there were all those misfits with cool t-shirts of bands you never heard of who played all ages shows a few towns away from the rathole we lived in. How about my friends who wrote lyrics and poetry, but could only play the main riff from “Blister in the Sun” on guitar? “Goshen” could be about any one of them and I ached to be like all of them. I was alone, but there was a joy in the shared ostracism I knew we all felt. That’s the crux of a great song isn’t it? It makes you feel as though the songwriter reached into your chest and extracted a portion of your essence, forging it into an expression of auditory catharsis.
The sense of reminiscence and longing, while dreading an uncertain future is unmistakable as the chorus soars into anthemic territory with “I don’t want to start all over again.” Even the keyboards have a 1980s’ vibe to them, adding the perfect accent to a refrain that echoes the anxiety of losing your youth and facing traumatic life experiences head on.
Showalter shows that there is still a place for guitar solos in modern rock music by bringing in J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. to handle lead guitar duties for this track. Mascis has the ability that all great rock guitarists have, which is to hit notes that aren’t quite sour, yet are devoid of any hint of sweetness. His playing is able to impale you with a spear of angst and explosive determination. With screeching string bends and melodic squawking, Mascis captures the energy of the song like a master artisan putting the finishing touches on his apprentice’s ambitious endeavor.
The way I know Timothy Showalter is a kindred spirit is by the last verse of the song:
Singing Pumpkins in the mirror
Porn and menthols under my bed
Before I was fat drunk and mean
Everything still lied ahead
He could have inserted any early to mid-nineties rock band (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP, Greenday, etc…) into the song, and that was me singing in my bedroom, trying to drown out the loneliness of being uncool and pathetic. I can still taste the Newport cigarettes and envision the untrimmed pubic hair of women from Penthouse magazines stolen from friends’ fathers that I had squirreled away in my bedroom so my mother or little brother wouldn’t find them. At that point, I hadn’t yet gained thick layers of fat on my body, hiding a once powerful, muscular physique; my affection for alcohol and drugs was just beginning, (it would not reach it’s zenith of self-abuse for another ten years); I had not done or said shitty things to people I loved when I was pushed to the edge. All of these things would manifest themselves over the next 15 years. Of course, unlike my bloated prose, Timothy says it all with a four-line verse that is like a vignette of what I once was and what I would become at my worst times.
Repeating the chorus as an outro might be an over-used songwriting device, but this song begs to have its mantra blasted into the ears of the listener while J Mascis fires off one lick after another, cementing the fusion of sweet remembrance and the foreboding knowledge of what lies in front of you. Some earworms are maddening, or even embarrassing, but I’m cool with “Goshen ‘97” writhing around in the recesses of my youthful memories. Give it a listen and maybe you’ll be taken back to when you were 15 and bought a pack of Kools at the corner store that didn’t check IDs, or the first time that you put some words to the only three chords you knew. You might have been lonely, but you were having fun.