Early Writhings


Arts & Culture

Going through my childhood desk recently I cleaned out years of weird detritus (novelty bar mitzvah magnets, Nickelodeon magazines, packets of incense cones) and came upon a copy of The Highland Fling, my high school newspaper. I opened the paper and scanned the newsworthy items of a typical suburban high school, circa spring 2001: various sports victories, a pointless Q&A with a sophomore, the possibility of a new town pool. Then I came to the reason I’d saved this particular paper: in its pages I had reviewed the Dave Matthews Band album Everyday.

That’s exciting, I thought. Let’s read what is sure to be some wonderful and delightfully precocious writing.

Or the other possibility.

Reading the review I cringed. There was light to moderate trembling. Maybe even perspiration.

“It seems like there is nothing left for life-long Dave Matthews fans,” the review begins. (I guess “life-long” referred to the under-ten set, as the band had only been putting out records for some eight years.) I was only fifteen when I penned this hatchet job, yet given that I wasn’t even old enough to operate a motor vehicle, I display a sweeping critical jadedness. I huffed and I puffed and I blustered (“underachieving and disappointing … run-of-the-mill”). I referred to Glen Ballard, the album’s producer and cowriter, as “the producer of numerous successes,” at which point my readers could hardly be blamed for thinking I’d written my review in Mandarin and then put it through a crude translation program. But perhaps the most cringe-worthy—and my favorite—part is the following description: “a tepid electric roller coaster of lyrically vapid tracks and unoriginal, lackluster compositions.”

I recall clearly that, with all the self-assurance of a seasoned writer, I bristled at the editor’s changes to my review, particularly the addition of the nonsensical line, “The material, however, does rise above the level of the music.” And I stand by that objection. But if the inclusion of that line embarrassed me even then—which must’ve been a pretty difficult thing to do—I remember feeling that it was overshadowed by the review’s stunning conclusion, a bit of bravado that I’d feared would be altered or cut altogether: “So after all this time, was it even worth the wait? Hell, it was hardly worth the time that it took me to download it off Napster.”

Ah, the fools, asleep at the wheel! In one sentence I managed to both say “hell” and admit to illegal file sharing—and all in a school newspaper! If that didn’t affirm this fifteen-year-old boy’s faith in a free press, well, nothing would.

Constitutional triumphs aside, the review was hardly revolutionary. Listening now to Everyday, I realize that my judgment wasn’t at fault: the album is bad. I am no longer a fan of Dave Matthews—Everyday was the last day for me—but there are elements of earlier albums that I can appreciate and songs I still enjoy, mostly, but not completely, for sentimental reasons. I was correct at fifteen in thinking that Everyday, with its hard new direction, had the air of a hippie slipping a stiff leather jacket over his dashiki. I just didn’t know how to say it.

After reading the review I immediately had two opposing thoughts: one, I’m immensely glad that everything wasn’t published online a decade ago; two, I should put this on Facebook. Why not? I thought. People would find it funny, and a healthy dose of self-deprecation, plus three to seven caveats, would mitigate any embarrassment over what was just juvenalia anyway. After all, you can’t be—or at least shouldn’t be—embarrassed about anything you did when you were a minor.

On the other hand: “tepid electric roller coaster.”

I thought it over as I emptied my desk of the many things I had saved because I’d thought I’d one day want them. Old yo-yos and lanyards and baseball cards met an ignoble end. When I finished cleaning out all my childhood garbage I got up and didn’t post the review. Perhaps the most basic goal of being a human is to go around every day trying to not make an ass of yourself. In a time when every hasty email and wall post and tweet can spiral out of control in a hundred unexpected and embarrassing ways, this is probably more difficult than ever. There’s rarely a need to help things along by posting cringe-inducing things about yourself online, ancient history or otherwise. That, anyway, is what I told myself.

But there was also a hint of something more than a basic embarrassment which helped keep my old review offline. It was more of a worry, one which I imagine is common, if not universal, to any writer who reads his early work; a worry that probably applies not only to writers but to anyone looking back and making an honest assessment. The worry that your early stuff isn’t painful because of how bad it is, but because maybe you haven’t come so very far at all.

(That said, if one were looking to name a psychedelic band, one could do worse than Tepid Electric Roller Coaster.)

Josh Lieberman lives in Brooklyn, New York. His last piece for the Daily was on Holiday Magazine.