Saturday, December 12, 2009

When I was in college, living in Bellingham, I drifted a lot: boyfriends, jobs, cars, friends. I spent most of my twenties searching for home without realizing it. One of my few constants was The Squirrels.

At first, my love for them was just a byproduct of my love for the Young Fresh Fellows. I had been listening to the Fellows since I copied a cassette tape from a friend in 10th grade, memorized it, and idolized them. (I even did a lip-synch to "Searchin' USA" for drama class my senior year.) Some of the Fellows had a little side project with this guy Rob Morgan, and Rob eventually got his own backing band and became The Squirrels.

Living in Bellingham in the 90s was a lifestyle choice. Seattle was the logical stepping stone after you enjoyed college and finished up your play life in the small town. Bellingham wasn't really small, but it wasn't a big city either. It was the minor leagues to Seattle's big time status, especially after the grunge scene exploded and everybody wanted to move to the musical magical rainyland. Choosing The Ham meant you weren't into "all that" - money, success, prestige. Staying here meant you would always be small-time, and choosing to stay here meant you thumbed your nose at what Seattle represented. You were too cool to act cool, too real to sell out. I didn't want to pay the price of living in a big city: noise, traffic, crowds. And I definitely didn't care about success or money; I was far above all that. Going to Fairhaven College, an alternative slightly-hippie school, only cemented my ideas about life: money = evil, success is of the devil, and all that matters is this moment and being honest about who you are. Moving to Seattle was antithetical to everything I believed. So I stayed in Bellingham, and worshiped my favorite band from afar.

I first saw the Squirrels play at a UW show where they opened for the YFF. The sound at the show was far too loud for me (the bass was up too high), but I loved the theatrical display happening onstage. They had a drummer, guitarist, bass player, keyboard player, lead singer, each in some kind of costume, and a girl in a tight dress playing (seriously) the Slinky, all behind a bubble machine going full blast on the edge of the stage. One of their songs was a riff on the church song, "One in the Spirit." "We are one in the spirit, we are one in the lord," they sang, over and over, ending in, "and we're all coming over to your house for dinner!" I laughed and laughed. They mishmashed songs together in my favorite cover song tradition, playing pop songs until they broke and bending them into new compositions entirely. I loved what they did, and even though I got a migraine that night from the pounding bass, I knew I had found kindred spirits in love of music and mockery.

For the next 10 years, I went to every Squirrels show I could. I collected their gig posters, I bought their records, I worshiped from afar. I learned every word to every song, and at each gig I couldn't help but sing along. (Their music was usually loud enough that you could hide your voice.) They weren't hugely popular, but the people who loved them adored them. I saw a lot of the same people at every show: leather metal jacket with red hair, he and his buddy would always end up doing that square dance move where you lock your arms and jig in a circle. Sometimes the YFF showed up at the shows, and I knew some faces but never felt cool enough to talk to them.

On weekends, I went to see the Squirrels, and I spent a lot of hours driving the miles from Bellingham to Seattle, in my Ford Escort, my Toyota Celica, my VW Rabbit, my Toyota Tercel, even my mom's minivan once when I got a flat tire just miles from their house. I took Tony, Eric, Peter, Scott, Darrell, Jef, Jay to the shows. I crashed in Seattle with Erica, Sarah, Joy, and sometimes instead of driving all the way home, I stopped in Stanwood and slept on the couch at my folks' place, waking up blearily a few hours later to drive the last 45 miles home, stinking of sweat and secondhand smoke the whole way. When my younger sister visited me for Halloween, the Squirrels played an all-ages show on campus, just up the hill from my place. I took her to her first show, where she got hit on by college students at age 14. They played in Bellingham other times, too, and I got one of my favorite souvenirs (a Cabbage Patch Doll signed by all the members of the band) from a show they played at the 3B. My first real grown-up apartment had a full wall dedicated to my Squirrels memorabilia, and whenever they opened for another band, I broke the Rule of Cool and stood right in front of the stage and absorbed the music, even with no one else standing anywhere near me. They opened for Mojo Nixon at Speedy O'Tubbs once, and I got my friends to play duck duck goose on the empty dance floor as the band played.

Over time, the band started to expect me at their shows. One of their fans started up an email mailing list for fans of the band, and most of the band was included, too. I kept track of them and their shows through my email accounts: through my WWU student account, then hotmail, then gmail. If I didn't have a job or a car, then I missed shows unless I could convince someone else they had to see this band. Most of my friends didn't have the devotion to the Squirrels that I did, and would roll their eyes when I'd rave. Occasionally I'd pay for gas, food, and the show just to get a ride. When I missed a show, I'd read the email accounts of the shows enviously, and reply with my regrets. But most of the time I'd find a way to be there, regardless of sleep missed, secondary cigarette smoke inhaled, miles driven, couches slept on. Until about eight years ago, when I got married.

Though I'm sure he'd be happy to take the blame, I can't say that my husband made me start missing Squirrels shows. Maybe part of it was moving five times in five years. Maybe it was a casualty of going back to school for my MFA degree and spending two weeks in Los Angeles every six months, missing the Annual XXXmas show for three years in a row (heresy in my previous life). But I can definitely say turning 30 caused a severe drop in my energy level, and spending hours driving to a show and losing the next day to recovery was not as appealing as it used to be. I started really loving my sleep time, and I started choosing activities much differently than before. Living in Portland, then Shelton, etc., meant it was a longer trip, and to be honest, we were extremely broke and barely buying food, let alone paying for gas and tickets to shows. Most of the time, we couldn't make it happen, and my practical side knew it, but that other touchy-feely side wanted to go on a murderous rampage. I mean, what kind of a world wouldn't let me go see the Squirrels play? Not. Fair.

In a Norman Rockwell world, this essay would have a cross-stitch sampler on the wall: Growing Up Means Accepting That You Can't Always See The Squirrels Play. Okay, so that's true. But I never thought it would also include the end of The Squirrels. Now after 25 years of entertaining fans and newbies alike, they're giving up the ghost, they're done. Tonight's XXXmas show will be their last. They've threatened this before, and the band has gone through so many lineup changes that their reunion shows can feature more band members in the audience than fans. They've had their ups and downs, but I always thought they'd keep playing. They were one thing that stayed the same for me, for the last 20 years. No matter where they were playing, I'd find the place, walk in the door, and wait, sometimes by myself for hours, just waiting. Then they'd set up, and for those two or three hours they'd play onstage, they were my sanctuary, my home.

My husband and I bought a house last June, and in one of those little ironies that you'd swear someone planned, we moved to our new house on the day of a Squirrels show. After days of planning and stress, and a full day of physically moving everything we own (with help from our friends), there was no possible way I could get to the show that night without passing out or causing injury to myself or others. I was disappointed, but realistic. We love our new home; it's everything we wanted and more, and every day I feel more comfortable here. Over time, I can feel my muscles relax and ease up, muscles I didn't know were tense in the first place. I found a new home; now I can mourn the loss of the old one.

G'bye Squirrels. I'll miss you. You can all come over to my house for dinner, any time.

1 comment:

Anti-Civilian said...

My God...this is an excellent blog post, Sarah. I have posthumously become a Squirrels fan as a result of reading this.