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.
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