I’m not going to tell you that living in Rexburg was the best time of my life. I met some amazing friends there and grew in a lot of ways, but I was not happy. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, thinking that the thing that made me different was my Mormon faith. When I first experienced a town full of Mormons, I realized that wasn’t it at all. I was just different. There was also a strange dynamic there – the whole town was divided into a very strong, very literalistic and conservative Mormon majority, and then a minority backlash of people that couldn’t stand Mormonism or anything it stood for. I wasn’t either of those things, so I never did feel like I fully fit in there. I am pretty sure most of my friends at the time felt a great deal of what could only be called pity for me, especially as the Fall of 2002 ended. I should be surprised that this was 10 years ago, but in all reality it seems like so much longer ago than that. I guess I’ve come a long way since then.
Along with all that emotional tension comes musical inspiration, and I found quite a bit of it in Rexburg. I hadn’t really fully developed my songwriting at that time, and because I felt emotionally depressed and socially inept, I think my songs lacked the power they could have had if I were a more mature person, emotionally and musically. When I got off my mission, I really listened to Elliott Smith for the first time, and realized that he was actually performing the music I was trying to write in Rexburg, but lacked the ability to pull off. Hearing those songs now would probably be nostalgic but painful for me, though I do find some solace in the fact that there were some amazing musicians in Rexburg who appreciated my music.
The first real cool person I met there was a girl named Stacey Dye who ran (and for a while, lived in) a little consignment and music shop on Main Street. She had just taken over a voluminous yet run-down club with a stage that she had renamed The Underground, and she brought some great musical acts through town to play to record small numbers at this place. I still remember one band that played to about three people, and in between songs the singer asked the “crowd” where exactly everyone was? I then heard Stacey’s response from the darkness in the back: “Spud harvest!” Not only did Stacey bring bands through, she also had open mic nights and poetry readings, of which I participated in gladly, and met some of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Listen, I can count on my two hands the number of people who really appreciated what Stacey was trying to bring to Rexburg. The bands were obscure, the crowds were small, and Rexburg had lower cultural appreciation than, well, I can’t think of any place I’ve been with less cultural appreciation than Rexburg, Idaho. I mean, the people there listened to nothing but John Mayer and Jack Johnson. Therefore, I’m not sure The Underground was ever a financially viable model, but for me, it was a freakin’ oasis of cool. Now that I think of it, if I were to make a list of the coolest places I’ve been in my life, The Underground, 2002 would be in my Top Five.
I first met Miles and Rachel, both Rexburg natives, at The Underground. They both played music on the same night one night and I was awestruck by both of them. They had such interesting, creative musical sensibilities, and approached music in very different, yet still tangibly remarkable ways. Miles had this amazing, emotionally piercing theremin-like voice – very much like Matthew Bellamy from Muse – that he combined with simple yet melodic original acoustic guitar songs that sounded nothing like John Mayer or Jack Johnson (I think I remember his guitar being a cedar-top Seagull). Rachel played acoustic guitar songs as well, but hers were very much influenced by grunge and alternative rock, and also not in the least bit by John Mayer and Jack Johnson (thank goodness). She had this bizarre yet magical picking hand that cranked out some of the coolest picking patterns I’d ever seen. The two of them had been friends for a long, long time, and when I hung out with them I got a small feeling that I was intruding on something very special, like watching a random episode of Lost (you know some weird, amazing things are going on, and would be better explained by a full explanation since the beginning, but you’re still just caught up in the unexplainable amazingness going on)(I’ve never seen Lost by the way, I’m just guessing). However, the two couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming to me, the refugee that I was. To them, I was probably just this guy that came into town, hung out for a year, then left, but to me, those two were some of the most striking humans I’ve ever met in all the places I’ve lived.
There was one song in particular that they played together that will be forever burned into my memory. It was a melancholy yet hopeful song called “Waiting For A Call,” and Miles had written it. It starts with a fragile chord progression and Miles’ ghostly voice would slide right in almost unannounced. Just when the chorus came in, Rachel would join him with a golden-voiced harmony. It was gorgeous and stunning, and I will never, ever get tired of that song. Luckily I have a little mp3 of Miles singing it in what sounds like a living room, but I still hear Rachel’s voice over it when I listen. I will never get tired of that song. I swear, if I could take my memory of that song, distill it, and put it into pill form, I would take it twice a day for the rest of my life.
However, in the midst of this love-fest, I must say that Rexburg kills musical souls dead. I got the feeling from both Rachel and Miles (and others in the town) that being a musician simply wasn’t in the cards for people from that town. It was a fantasy, a pipe dream. There were no resources, no connections, and a religious community that was not at all sympathetic to the fragile, mystic musicians that I found there, like Rachel and Miles. Miles went on a mission a few months after we met, and after that we lost touch. Eventually I think he found meaning in other things besides songwriting, like his wonderful wife and family, and for that I say God bless him, though I do wish he’d at least record one or two songs now and then. Rachel kept talking about Portland like it would save her, but I don’t know if she ever got the opportunity to move there. She’s in Boise now, I believe. Rachel and I were friends until I left Rexburg, but by the end of the year I was there I was fed up. I was sick of the town, I was sick of my life, I was sick of the weather, I was sick of the religion, and I was sick of my own music. Eventually I gave up hope of ever finding myself in Rexburg, decided to withdraw from classes, and within three days I was gone. I then threw myself, heaving and panting, onto Seattle, Washington, where I found myself and decided to go a mission.
I wish I had a lot more story to tell about Rexburg, but it’s all a bit fuzzy now. I remember going with Rachel and a friend, in the ice and snow at night, through a trail in the woods to a beautiful, peaceful glade with a creek that ran through it, that was just so glowing self-illuminated and eery that I didn’t feel the cold at all. I remember the girls I kissed and some of the shows I played. I remember being asked to play a Jack Johnson song by random strangers every time I walked from one place to another with my acoustic guitar (and for some reason I’ve forgotten whatever snarky response I would invariably snap back with). I remember walking in just a t-shirt and denim jacket all the way from The Underground to my dorm room one night, slowly losing the feeling in my extremities as I walked. While I still remember very vividly some of the people and experiences I had there, in general it’s like a series of incredibly emotional snapshots of music, love, and friendship, interspersed by dark stretches of oppressive darkness. In some way, my feelings for Rexburg are perfectly captured by the image of standing on top of the hill in Rexburg at night and looking out at the miles and miles of darkness, the clear air, the powerful and ominous silhouettes of the black Grand Tetons, and the brilliant, swirling stars and the lights of the surrounding towns, which is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.