By Russ Marshalek of APBWAS
On the heels of several albums I consider of utmost importance in my life – Patrick Wolf’s The Magic Position, The Knife’s Silent Shout – turning 10 this year, it’s The National’s Boxer that’s most interesting to me, nostalgia-wise. I didn’t listen to it until 8 years ago, when it fell into my iTunes playlist via a gift from a girl I was dating at the time as part of a “New York City Starter Pack.” Let’s begin there.
So worry not
All things are well
We’ll be alright
We have our looks and perfume
The first time we were truly alone together, she’d swallowed me within ten minutes of saying, “Hello”. It was 2009, and I’d moved to New York in a daze, having just watched a job and a relationship get swallowed whole in Atlanta. I, the southern publishing social media hotshot young-gun upstart, could surely find a job in (salsa commercial voice) NEW YORK CITY, the land of milk and honey where such jobs grew on trees if you knew the right people, and I knew a little over 3,000 of them, if my Twitter following was to be believed. My friend graciously allowed me Her couch space in Astoria, and I booked a one-way ticket from Hartsfield to La Guardia, clutching a copy of Louis Urrea’s Into The Beautiful North and a piece of paper that had directions to Her place. “Tell the cab driver this. You don’t need to understand it.” I didn’t.
Tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on
Do our gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders
I don’t remember how we met. Mutual contacts in publishing? MySpace? The story’s changed so many times over the years, but the details remain the same. She was tall. Incredibly tall. Legendarily tall. Impossibly good-looking. Hosted an infamous party in what some would call one of the last vestiges of “old New York,” though I loathe that phrasing and don’t actually know what it means. Notoriously impossible to hook up with, be it for a social drink or a love affair. Worked a very high paying job, particularly for someone in Her late 20’s at the end of the 2000’s. A republican. Oh, god, a republican.
Raise our heavenly glasses to the heavens
Squalor Victoria, Squalor Victoria
I’m going down among the saints
I couldn’t find a job.
Every interview failed to land, every appointment cancelled, every financial road blocked, but it didn’t matter, as our whiskey-soaked days and nights were financed by Her. This was a painful stretch for me, having been raised both southern and poor AND “proper,” to believe that the man paid for everything and shut the fuck up about it. But when one is taken on a date to a four-star New York restaurant, or a Broadway show, and one has $4 to one’s name, no real fixed address, and no job, one shuts up. Especially when one’s protests are stopped with lips that taste of very, very expensive bourbon.
Your mind is racing like a pro now
Oh my God, it doesn’t mean a lot to you
One time, you were a glowing young ruffian
Oh my God, it was a million years ago
My days were empty, so I would walk a lot. To interviews. To escape my crushing fear of having made the stupidest mistake of my life. So She bought me a “New York Starter Kit”: a pair of nice shoes I could wear to interviews, a shoulder bag to replace my carry-everywhere backpack, and a copy of Boxer on iTunes. It took me a long time to listen to it. It wasn’t until leaving an event featuring a much older book person who I quite enjoyed talking to that I had become close friends with via various social media sites, at a large chain bookstore in midtown, walking as far as I could before getting on the N train in Union Square, that the dusk and the high from good books made me put it on. I’d been familiar with “Apartment Story” through an Andy Weatherall FACT mix, but when the percussion hit in “Fake Empire” I was hooked. I exited the train to a series of disturbingly sexual images from the author. I got home to find more messages and images on my social media channels. I would later be sexually assaulted by this person at a bar party for a publishing event in broad daylight and never say a thing about it to anyone other than Her. She told me to shut up and stop crying.
Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over
Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch
Another un-innocent, elegant fall
Into the un-magnificent lives of adults
But I’ve lost the plot here. New York was not what I had expected. Or hoped for. Or was it more? I was, essentially, a kept man, minus the times She’d hit me (it was the whiskey; it meant passion), minus the times I’d go home from a bar “meeting” with someone who was powerful, or engaged, or both; minus the times I swore to meet her family and didn’t; minus the number of times she told me to die and locked me out in the cold at night.
I wanna hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you
And crack you up
So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God, I’m very, very frightening
I’ll overdo it
I begin to realize now that She took me on as a pet project, the way some take up the tango. I’m not sure what it was about me that was particularly enticing, other than how abjectly pathetic I was. I think, and this is no insult to The National but rather a compliment, that’s what drew me to the cracks and nooks in Boxer. Lyrics like, “Can I take a minute and not be nervous/And not think about my dick,” show a vulnerability that is unfathomable. Boxer is a record about trying a little and failing a lot, with the backdrop of the greatest city in the world that is also the worst. It’s a record for those who choose to analyze every line, and those who get in mosh pits at The National shows, get thrown out of said shows, and call friends “buddies” (as in, “my buddy and me”) (Her brother did). It’s a beautiful, glorious mess, sopping wet in the rain and buzzing your apartment at 3:30 a.m., tasting like alkaloid and shitty Matchless Jack Daniels, telling you everything’s OK now. I asked Her to be mine. She hit me. Again. It felt like a (kiss) (hit).
You were always weird but I never had to hold you
By the edges, like I do now
There’s a part on the Comedy Central show Review, which is very good, where the main character’s wife, having undergone a series of incredibly strange humiliations (to oversimplify it) screams at him, “You’re WEIRD!” Every time I hear or see reference to that, I think of the above lyric. It’s what She screamed at me the night she found out I was in a room with a girl from another state from a Publisher in town for a Publishing conference, drunk on 3 bottles of pinot, from behind.
3:30 in the last night for you to save this
You’re zoning out, zoning out, zoning out, zoning out
This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck up
She didn’t like any of these things, most of all me. I was weird. I was poor. I was to be discarded. And so I was.
Hold ourselves together
With our arms around the stereo for hours
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
While it sings to itself or whatever it does
When it sings to itself of its long lost loves
I’m getting tired, I’m forgetting why
Boxer is a record about New York. And that’s from someone who never fucking intended to be here. It’s a record about struggle. If you can get that far down, it’s a record about struggling in New York. For me, it’s a friend. A friend that I will have a drink with when needed, that will show up when they know it’s 3:30, and that you can’t, but that you will, because you have no other choice.