Yesterday was raw*. The rain started when I woke up and was still falling when I fell asleep. The cold wind cut through all the layers and sliced into bones. It was the first day of the year that felt like winter. It felt good. It felt like Pittsburgh.
Back then I’d keep myself warm riding bike to class through shit-stained slush with a pair of headphones and a beanie. I’d escape the brutal cold not with layers, but with music. Layers kept the chill out; music kept me warm and away from the congestion and concrete of the city. My roommates and I were also really cheap, so we kept the heat only as high as needed in order for the pipes not to freeze. I had the largest room in the house, up on the second story, with a set of three windows that looked out onto Juliet Street, two streetlamps shining their signs onto the beige carpet all night, no curtains and a mattress on the floor. I’d burn a few sticks of Nag Champa every night and throw on a record to fall asleep to and keep warm under my comforter. In 2005, during my senior year, there was one particular album that I would listen to nightly as I waited for the incense to fill the room - Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney’s masterpiece Superwolf. It took me 44 minutes to fall asleep on those nights.
“I know nothing and I’m overjoyed…” is sung, repeated as an incantation, throughout “My Home is the Sea” as Sweeney’s guitar sends reverberations, ripples of riffs throughout the industrial landscape of cold, winter Pittsburgh night. Silence outside for once. The snow has a habit of doing that, shutting everything down, sending a big “shhhh” quiet enough and long enough that everyone gets the point. Those were the nights that I loved that city the most. When Sweeney’s guitar and Oldham’s voice created an urban meditation in a sea of concrete and rough edges, I could see the city as a habitable place, a home of sorts. An ocean.
That record played me through Pittsburgh, loneliness, heartbreak, hangovers, delirious canoe rides down the Allegheny. It kept me from capsizing when the barges came to close, or when I just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Sweeney’s rumbling chants would protect my ears from wind as I pounded those bike pedals up and down riverine hills and across yellow bridges.
The thing is, that record didn’t stop playing when I left Pittsburgh and went deep into the north Maine woods. I couldn’t bring my LPs with me, but I had it, at the time, on cd and then eventually on my Zune. For three years that record would put me home as I lived out of a backpack and traversed the country from Maine, up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and then Colorado. One night I sat on the beach of the Lost Coast and listened to Oldham sing about running as elk bugled behind me and otters wrestled in the water. There was a thick mist the next morning. I could hear the waves, but couldn't see where sand stopped and water began.
I kept repeating those lines to myself, a mantra for me - “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed, I know nothing and I’m overjoyed”. Because I didn’t. I still don’t. I was living not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night. All I needed was a sleeping bag and a little stove to heat water with. A chaw of beef jerky and my lunch was done. I had so little, knew nothing, and was happy.
I still am. I still barely know anything and yet, I get excited just driving to work. Today, a field of sunflowers. Yesterday, some rain that darkened the creek. Tomorrow I’ll drink a cup of coffee and mow the grass. I know nothing and I’m overjoyed. My copy of the record is now 12 or so years old. It’s one of my most played records and I can't tell if it's dust or Sweeney's guitar fuzz that I hear as I wash the dishes. It's beautiful either way. I still have the tickets to the Superwolf show I saw at the Rex Theater back in 2005 in the sleeve. After the show, I saw them outside the theater smoking cigarettes in the back alley; I was too nervous to say hey and tell them how much their record meant to me.
“I sing evil, I sing good, I sing as a seagull should, and if you melted, then I would, melt myself all into you” - Will Oldham
Buy it here - Superwolf - Superwolf
*I wrote that line last November. It's actually really nice, fall like weather right now. The record still plays perfectly as cicadas and locusts get their last choruses in.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.