When the MTV News camera crew visited our apartment to tape a segment about Ruined Music, the producer had us sit on the stoop and tell the camera what we’d learned about relationships from running this website. “Has it made you cynical?” he asked. “Is there no such thing as a happy ending? Does love suck?”
The question made us laugh. You can see it in the finished clip. “If we ever break up, it’ll be the end of this site,” Mary added. “So everyone keep your fingers crossed.” It was a joke, the kind of joke you make when you’re sure something won’t happen. The producer laughed. He put that line in the clip, too. After it aired someone said karma would get us for being so happy on national television. That seemed unlikely. It still seems unlikely. But jokes have a way of turning around on you.
* * *
We met in the spring of 2004, the prelude to a sweaty city summer marked by street protests and political fundraising shows in concrete-walled lofts. Although our backgrounds were dissimilar—suburban New Jersey vs. small-town Maine, the bustle of the Shore vs. silent lakes, film school vs. an economics major—our lives then were very much alike. We kept strange hours, in Bryan’s case because he was freelancing and enmeshing himself in the New York music scene, armed with both a guitar and a camera; in Mary’s case because she was attending grad school and working a part-time night job. We hardly slept, it seemed. We met after our respective band practices, drank endless cups of coffee and roamed the streets until our feet ached, ducked in and out of dark venues, splurged on a giant bag of chips at the deli. We were young and eager and full of energy that we did not know how to direct.
There was a lot of music that was ours: music we made, music we discovered. But the Thermals were special. We saw them with a group of friends, our first real outing together, after some perfunctory introductions at a cheap burrito place in the East Village. The point of the show was Sleater-Kinney, but this other band was opening, and from the first propulsive chords everything about the Thermals was perfect. They were fast and urgent, tearing through songs that sounded the way New York felt then—even though they were from the Pacific Northwest. Their music said Don’t hesitate! Just do it! Go!
That night our friends disappeared, conveniently, leaving us to walk alone—together—to the subway.
* * *
It’s astonishing how quickly eight years can pass. Presidents come and go. The venues that once felt like second homes get shuttered: Luna Lounge, Sin-e, Rothko. Shoes wear out. Your face changes. It feels like it happened faster than a three-minute pop song, and yet evidence of a long, rich history abounds. There are photographs and Christmas ornaments and refrigerator magnets and jointly-purchased pillows, cards signed by each other’s parents, two sibling gray cats.
We moved in together after a few years. A few years after that we left New York and moved to Portland, Maine. Some people thought that meant we were careening toward a final chorus: get married, buy a house, let a new sort of future begin. We talked about it once in a while, usually in the car, going nowhere in particular. It seemed abstract and impossible to grasp. Neither of us had conventional jobs; Bryan worked at a local venue and took as many freelance photography assignments as he could, while Mary worked as a freelance writer and editor, struggling to pay off grad school, getting up before sunrise to work on a book that would never get published.
“What will we do with ourselves?” we asked each other. We never had an answer.
The thing we knew how to do together—the thing we did best together—was make things. Projects, we called them. There was this website. There were shows we booked, posters and flyers we made. We DJ’d together, under the moniker The Mayan Empire. We thought up slogans and put them on t-shirts. We lay in bed designing websites we knew we’d never launch; we registered dozens of domain names and promptly forgot them. We invented ridiculous alter egos and then started an even more-ridiculous band for them. There was the night we drove to Asbury Park to play at a legitimate music festival, and we wore our masks and costumes, rolled around on the boardwalk making deafening feedback and screaming into microphones. People weren’t sure whether to laugh or applaud, so they did both.
The point was Do It Now. The future was the hard part. That was the part we couldn’t figure out.
* * *
Have you ever seen a band go off-track mid-song? It can happen suddenly or it can happen gradually. The drummer and the bass player fall out of sync for a beat, come back, fall out again. The guitars plow ahead but can’t find the rhythm again. They try to keep the song alive—c’mon, you guys, we know this one, we’ve been playing it for years—but there’s nothing to be done. It isn’t anyone’s fault. You have to stop.
After several years in Portland Mary got a new job in New York, the kind of job she’d always wanted. Maybe that was part of it: the move, the long hours, the newfound immersion in politics and media. Bryan returned to the city with a heightened passion for music—this time as a promoter, a band manager, a stage manager, a professional photographer, not just as another dude in a band. Eight years! The things we had in common felt more and more distant. We were figuring out what to do with ourselves, but separately, not as a unit.
Music—good music, anyway—is built on tension. The loud and the quiet. The steady and the sprawl. The twitch and the soar. The Thermals do this, brilliantly. We’ve seen them since that fateful night in 2004, and every time it’s a revelation. They play so hard you think they might break, but they don’t, they never do. We did.
The Thermals can no longer be music that’s ours as a couple. In that sense their music is ruined, and we’ll never get it back. We are disentangling ourselves, selling the car, looking for new places to live, taking one cat apiece. But as music we love we’ll still have the Thermals, the same way we’ll still have everything we loved and always will love about each other. It’s just that their records can’t be the soundtrack to our jointly-created lives, nor to a future that’s built on our shared past. We’ll listen and we’ll laugh, and we’ll catch up over coffee, and then we’ll walk home, but not together.
As you may have noticed, this site hasn’t been updated in a long time. I hesitated to write a final coda, I thought I’d just let the archive lie here in the amber of the internet, but then I remembered that the point was to share our stories.
Ruined Music began as an offhand idea over a plate of Thai noodles one afternoon in Brooklyn; somehow this became an MTV News crew telling me to “look like you’re really posting something to the site” as they filmed over my shoulder. (For those of you who saw the clip and asked, yes, Buckley the cat is still available for commercial work.) Now we — and by ‘we’ I mean those of us responsible for running, updating, and otherwise steering the site — have moved on to other projects, other agendas. Ruined Music didn’t get dumped; it just ran its course.
Co-founder Bryan Bruchman and I were always amazed, though in retrospect we should have stopped being so, by the emails we received. We couldn’t post everything that came in, but we read every message you wrote, the funny ones and the sad ones, the profanity-laced ones, the ones that still believed in love, the ones that didn’t want to give up. I think, looking back on it, that the ones I will remember longest were those we received from young girls in faraway countries – places where a relationship can be ruined by parental decree, social mores, and customs that mean nothing to teenagers in love to the sound of the radio. I hope everything worked out for them. I hope everything worked out for everyone.
There’s a long list of people who deserve thanks, but I’ll keep this as concise as I can. MC Rob Holmes wrote the very first Ruined Music story on request so the site could go live. Fun fact: Rob is about to celebrate his first wedding anniversary, and yes, he played Superdrag at the reception. The nice folks at WNYC had me on the air soon after the launch, and I’m convinced that brought the site to an audience it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Several friends contributed stories, advice, and encouragement, including Liz, Emily, Brendan, Annie, Annette, Mike, Carrie, Felicia, Eric, the entire Serious Business family, and many more. Very special thanks to the Shondes, Beat Radio, the Unsacred Hearts, Nichelle Stephens, Mick Stingley, and Brandy Barber for making the site anniversary party at the Delancey such a success.
Most of all, thanks to the people who sent stories, read the stories, linked to RM on their blogs, contacted us for interviews, and helped spread the word in whatever way they could. This little project is over but it isn’t: next time someone or something leaves us with a gaping hole in our record collections, we’ll know that it will hurt but we will live to tell the tale. And that’s exactly what we’ll do, all of us.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing.
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