Eleven years ago, I was working for an independent bookstore in Chicago that smelled faintly and pleasantly of rot. The magazine racks were up at the front. Extant demand necessitated five racks, and music zines took up an entire half of the big one by the window. Today, their names read like a war memorial: Hit It or Quit It, Chick Factor, Punk Planet, HeartattaCK.
The $6-an-hour starting wage guaranteed a revolving door of art-school students, former art-school students, and people who thought art school couldn't teach them anything they didn't already know. One of these referred to himself as the Jewish Indie Rock King of Chicago. He was kind of schlubby, but he had a decent pair of black plastic glasses. In those days, that was all guys really needed to show that they were emo. Yes, emo.
The phrase had none of the connotations it does today — connotations I barely understand because I am so old. At the time, to a college student from the suburbs totally into rocking but somewhat intimidated by asymmetrical haircuts, emo was interchangeable with post-hardcore. Bright Eyes' lashy mawkishness had yet to become inescapable, and Elliott Smith was not only alive but pissed off.
The first time I went to a show at the Fireside Bowl — 1998, Jets to Brazil, followed shortly by Death Cab that same year — I gazed longingly at the thin, bespectacled guys in ragged T-shirts and sweaters with unnecessary patches. At that time in Chicago, suffering the decrepit bathroom at the Fireside and eating vegetarian food were the easiest ways for us to express our punk-rock ideals. Washington was the apex of everything we aspired to be — which, as far as I can tell, was to be friends with Ian MacKaye.
One summer night, the Jewish Indie Rock King of Chicago announced he was off to see some band called the Dismemberment Plan. I had not heard of the Dismemberment Plan. The JIRKOC was scandalized: "Dude, they are only the best live act going right now. It's a total fucking dance party." Off I went. It was indeed a total fucking dance party, a strange one, where otherwise morbidly self-conscious dudes bopped around, smiling. Tight!
Eleven years ago, the Dismemberment Plan released the now-classic Emergency & I. After one more record, the band broke up, in 2003, right around the time Pitchfork achieved apotheosis. In the intervening years, the D-Plan's contemporaries started getting airtime up on NPR and PBS and column inches in the New York Times. Now, Barsuk has re-released Emergency & I on vinyl.
The band are playing a handful of sold-out shows — a few on the East Coast and two in Chicago. Joining them in Boston are old friends Certainly, Sir, who feature a former Boston Phoenix music editor. "Michael Brodeur is very easy on the eyes," singer Travis Morrison writes to me in an e-mail.
Since their reunion, they've already landed on Jimmy Fallon and Weekend Edition. "I think things have really changed a lot in the media landscape," Morrison opines. "Bands have a shot now. The playing field has been leveled. It's tragic when I think of the bands that came before us that just couldn't get anywhere. Not just because they weren't on a major label, but because they were so unique that they couldn't get branded in any way that would make them salable even to the indie-rock crowd."