And It'll Haunt You Forever
Byung Joon Lee
Maybe mother told you true
And there'll always be somebody there for you
And you'll never be alone
But maybe she's wrong
And maybe I'm right
And just maybe she's wrong…
*and if so, here’s this song!” *
*LCD Soundsystem, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” *
*“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” *
*- Revelation 21:4 *
Between New England and the Tri-state area there exists a kind of no-man’s land, about three and a half hours of solid, uninterrupted, good old American highway punctuated only by tire stores and vegetation in varying states of decay. If there is an ideal for a highway - the highway as endless possibility, the highway as inter-state connectivity, the highway as a backdrop for a Subaru with zero down - then the I-93 would be a perversion of that ideal. The pavement is cracked, the guardrails are rusted and the landscape is dominated by Jiffy Lubes.
The word “godforsaken” comes to mind.
Presently, I am doing around 50 mph on this sorry excuse of a highway, freshly eighteen and freshly graduated from boarding school. I had spent the rainy ceremony alternating between thanking God for my blessed four years and replaying the beginning of Easy Rider in my head, looking forward to the journey that lay before me. As the car chugs along the broken pavement I try my best to block the scenery from defiling my memories of the ceremony.
I am also thinking about The Plan, which has been gestating for around three months in the back of my head. The Plan was simple: New Hampshire to New York City to LaGuardia Airport to Manchester, TN. At Manchester we would strike gold and find God. The Plan was intentionally loose, to allow ample time for detours and “just living, man.”
“Yo, what’s the name of that band you’re going on about?”
My best friend and travel companion Andrew asks me from the passenger’s side. (N.B. I asked him whether he wanted to be called Karlo Marx in the piece but he just told me to print his real name (“Who cares? We didn’t murder anyone.”))
“That band we’re going to see in Tennessee. LED Sound or whatever.”
“I don’t know why we’re going all the way to fucking Tennessee just to see this band. It’s like you worship them or something.”
I have an obsession with the Second Coming. I guess it was something I absorbed, one of those qualities you take in from eight years of Christian school and fourteen years of methodist services. In sixth grade Bible class we used to read the Book of Revelation and I remember trying to picture what the day of reckoning would look like. For some reason I would always think about the ending to Independence Day where the alien spaceship fires a poorly-rendered CGI laser beam into the heart of Washington, D.C. This seemed like a rather blasphemous take on the whole affair, so I kept it stowed away, one of many guilty thoughts.
The other guilty thought I had was that I was afraid of heaven.
In sixth grade, my English teacher - one of many Good Christian Men in my life - gave us a monthly reminder about the horrors of hell.
“The scary thing about hell is that it lasts an eternity,” he said.
“Picture a bird with a tiny spoon tied to its leg that flies over a mountain range, scraping off tiny bits of rocks with it as it goes. You wait for that bird to level all of Mt. Everest and eternity hasn’t even begun.”
For my sixth grade self, this was a pretty effective sales pitch for waking up early on Sunday morning and getting to services on time. The thing was - and this was the unposed question that still sticks with me today - couldn’t the same logic be applied to heaven? Isn’t heaven also scary because it lasts forever?
When I was trying to get through sermons without nodding off as a kid I would mentally autopilot my life forward to its conclusion (where I was invariably an eighty-something, happily married ex-basketball player-slash-nuclear scientist) and imagine my own ascension into heaven. They would check ID there, and I would pass because I had gone to Sunday school and never killed anybody, not even that asshole Brian from kindergarten who picked on me during recess. When they let me in I would sit on a cloud in between M.L.K. and Mother Theresa and the realtor lady from California who died when I was six and wait for nothing much at all. That was the part that always got to me: the crushing absence of a future.
If I really wanted to scare myself good during sermon I would simulate the feeling of waking up every morning to the same scenery - clouds, angels, pearly gates and M.L.K. - forever and ever, like some ever-respawning video game character, until I got to day sixty-five or so and cold sweats would pool in my palms and I would secretly - in my heart of heart of hearts - wish that I could forgo heaven, that I could simply roll the end credits on my soul before it disintegrated into television static.
In that sense, it’s funny that The Plan began on a Easter Sunday and started with a second coming.
The apocalypse took the form of a two-line Facebook post at 2 AM.
“LCD Soundsystem will rise from the dead this Easter Sunday at Webster Hall.”
I don’t remember my exact reaction to the news, but I do recall it being physical, some awkward hybrid between a guttural shout and a high five to no one in particular.
LCD Soundsystem was one of many mid-2000s Brooklyn bands that enjoyed moderate mainstream success. Their sound was a bizarre mix of dance beats, hypnotic Krafterwkian synthesizer lines and frenetic punk vocals. The band only released three albums before abruptly breaking apart in 2011 with little in the way of explanation. My father said they sounded a bit like the Talking Heads if no one knew how to play their instruments; my mother once referred to them as a headache. Both are fair assessments.
To me, however, LCD was my sonic adolescence. I discovered LCD Soundsystem on a fluke, during one of my many trips to the newsstand during the seventh grade. I had about four saved numbers on my phone during middle school and struggled to hold eye contact for more than forty seconds. Unsurprisingly, I was rarely invited to social gatherings, and as a result I spent an ungodly amount of time in seventh grade reading British music magazines cover to cover. This particular issue happened to contain a fairly in-depth story on LCD Soundsystem, a band I’d never heard before at the time. Within twenty minutes of Googling I was irreversibly hooked. I could spout the conventional music journalist jargon about “infectious grooves” and “eighties new-wave influence” but that would be taking away from the real reason I found LCD so irresistible: James Murphy.
James was many things: he was a rock frontman that looked like an overweight P.E. teacher. He made dance music for people who were too self-conscious to dance. He played the cowbell on stage and always seemed awkwardly unsure of what he was doing or verging on unnecessary emotional excess. I had found a kindred spirit. He was everything that I - a friendless kid stuck in South Korea who spent weekends churning out home-recorded songs - wanted to be: a New Yorker, a cowbell player, an unlikely symbol of cool.
I remember the first song that really sold me on James was “All My Friends.” At the climax of the song, James simply sings “where are your friends tonight” three times. It begins as a question that becomes an angry rebuke and finally a cathartic statement of purpose: at least we can be lonely together. “All My Friends” was James Murphy as the pied piper - he was going to round up the awkward, self-loathing misfits from New York to Seoul and lead them all to the promised land where they could all stare at their phones until the sun came up.
Never stay near Times Square if you’re in New York. The whole place is basically rats and souvenir shops and vape stores, with a few larger souvenir shops that have been elevated to the hallowed realm of the tourist attraction.
Andrew and I are here, however, because this was the cheapest place we could find for the night. It’s almost two in the morning, and we are sitting at a filthy slice shop somewhere on 46th Street. We’ve been sitting here for almost three hours now, reminiscing about the terrible time we had in high school.
Andrew - like most of my paternal family younger than fifty - is quasi-Catholic, which means every so often God would become a topic of conversation.
“You know what I think is annoying? The fact that religion was seen as this terrible thing at our school. Like spirituality became some kind of half-assed accessory you put on to make yourself more unique, like it was cool to say ‘yeah, I’m trying to find meaning and meditate and find God’ but that going to church on Sunday was the worst thing someone could do,” Andrew says.
“Everyone gets to have their opinion,” I say, trying my best to pull the plug on the topic altogether.
“I mean of course, but I don’t get why it’s hip to shit on the whole concept of religion.”
“I mean, aren’t you also Christian?”
“I don’t really talk about that kind of stuff.”
We let the cabs go by for a few more minutes. Times Square is a few blocks to the east and all the puddles are bathed in garish billboard colors - blood reds and Gatorade blues.
“Are you going to that party?” Andrew asks.
“The graduation thing tomorrow?”
Solitude goes undetected in Seoul - it seeps into the water supply, it drones in the subway stations and hangs thick everywhere like some slow gas leak. Once you notice it, the whole city starts to resemble a continuous attempt to be less lonely: the day-drunk nine-to-fivers buying beer and anti-hangover drinks at convenience stores, the thousands of midnight eateries that only have tables for one, the nightclubs that don’t close until eight in the morning, when you start craving bacon and eggs and the constant barrage of “party all night!”s sound less like a rallying cry than a death sentence.
A brief example: one of the most popular types of online videos in South Korea is the so-called “muk-bang,” in which a host consumes an unconscionable quantity of food alone (usually in some dimly-lit bedroom) and live-streams the meal out to thousands of equally dim bedrooms. Muk-bangs are something of a massive in-joke in the country: everyone knows how absurdly depressing the concept is, but the collective laughter is muted by the tacit recognition that it’s better than eating alone.
I’ve seen this unique brand of South Korean-loneliness described as many things over the years by my fellow (usually inebriated) compatriots: The curse of a country that got bossed around all its life, an expendable Chicken McNugget-shaped bargaining chip in the Cold War that never got to decide anything for itself. A product of homogeneity and cultural inbreeding. A communist plot. Sexual frustration: we all need to start fuckin’ fucking more! A 21st century ailment (damn millennials on their damn phones). A cancer brought on by the information revolution. The lingering chokehold of Confucianist values. The refuse of a broken economic system. Whiny kids inventing problems to feel validated in the face of their elders, who actually had to do things like, y’know, run away from North Koreans and Soviets and all that.
But what matters, ultimately, is that loneliness is a phenomenon. It exists, and you - a well-adjusted adult - deal with it quietly and laugh about it and eat a lot of drunk breakfasts and grind on strangers for hours at nightclubs and go on virtual dinner-dates but you never acknowledge it.
When my cousin and I went off to boarding school at fourteen, my grandparents held a celebratory send-off dinner in our honor. I remember that after the meal, my grandmother -the most strong-willed person I’ve ever met - got up and daintily clinked her wineglass before delivering a speech about her own experience studying in America. Back in the fifties she had boarded a transatlantic plane to go to school in Virginia, knowing full well that she probably wouldn’t see her family for the whole four years and had to go to a college where East Asians were mostly viewed as subjects for anthropological research.
“I had to work in the local shopping mall in the summers to pay my way,” she recounted nostalgically. “They used to come from out of town to touch my hair and see me work. They'd never seen jet-black hair before.”
Apparently my grandmother never got to call her parents during her time at university. She wrote them a long letter a few months after she arrived, but due to some mix-up with the post service it was never delivered.
“I was really homesick. I had spent a lot of time on that letter, you know. I was hoping they would get to read it.”
Her words came slower now, and she caught herself halfway through a slight break in her voice, one which she hastily transformed into a labored laugh. After the address she returned to her seat and asked my older cousin about what his room would look like next year. I could tell in her mind she was still replaying the end of her speech, that there were still questions there to unpack, that maybe a part of her was still stranded somewhere in a shitty Virginia shopping mall desperate to call home. But of course, she changed the subject, because that’s what we were taught to do. After all, solitude goes undetected in Seoul.
A few of my great-grandparents lived until their late nineties, which meant I got to see four generations of my family - mostly quiet people who never kept diaries and stopped uncorking wine when the room got too honest - spill their guts to God and God alone. When my friends ask why Koreans are so hyper-Christian when other East Asian countries are known for being non-religious, that’s the answer I usually give: because when it’s Sunday morning and you find yourself squeezed in between two paunchy middle-aged men and the blasts of organ and choral music are just loud enough and everyone screams amen you can feel pleasantly lost in an excess of warmth and sound and outstretched arms.
After church, it was tradition for my family to jam into three cars and go to a tiny Italian restaurant for lunch.
“You know, this is something you’ll probably be grateful for when you’re older,” my mother always told me on our drive there.
It’s been about ten years since I’ve last been to the restaurant. Like most significant endings, our final Sunday lunch appeared to be nothing more than a hiatus at the time. We’ll start doing this again when the kids are less busy with school. Then people moved away and died and drifted ways and stopped going to church.
I find it somewhat depressing that I can’t remember a single moment from any of those lunches - from the bits and pieces I can recall, the conversation was engineered to be as polite and as boring as possible, my cousins spent most of the time playing video games and I would always leave the table before dessert was served. We never told anything deeply personal at the table: those stories were for God and God alone.
“Dude I think this is like, what you’d call a fucking spiritual crisis, man.”
I can’t really make his face out - can’t make out to many faces at the moment (note to self: fuck Fireball) but I see he is wearing salmon shorts and is blending in seamlessly with the demo of this party. I don’t really know the guy who’s throwing it but I asked a few guests about him and the word “trust fund” came up a lot. Anyway, Spiritual Crisis is smoking from a poorly-rolled joint and educating the occupants of the surrounding couches about the spiritual bankruptcy of 21st century America.
“We can’t like…what is it, we can’t believe in anything, trust in anything anymore. What’s the point? Everything has happened. The pioneers have come and gone.”
I need to consolidate my brain energy, so I decide to break down my immediate reality into a series of goals. 1. I need to find a bathroom to vomit in 2. I need to get away from this guy 3. I need air 4. I need to find a bathroom to vomit in 5. I need water.
To my horror, Spiritual Crisis turns and stares me in the eye.
“Hey you’re Joon, right?” he asks.
“What’s your take on the whole thing, my man?”
“On what, sorry?”
“Y’know. God. The afterlife. Where the fuck are we going? Like where are we headed?”
I try to give a thoughtful response but Spiritual Crisis is already making out with some girl from my Physics class.
The party lights and sea of red solo cups - or maybe this is just the heat of the Fireball churning in my stomach - gives the impression that the entire room is on fire, like everyone here is damned. Voice in my head now: it’s my sixth grade Bible teacher. “I ask a lot of people your age a question: were you ever closer to God then you were now? 99% of people tell me yes. Was there a time when you were closer, Joon?”
Yes. But the Old Testament still makes me scared. I am still deathly afraid of hell, even if sometimes I doubt if it exists. I am just better at ignoring guilt, or more accurately, living in spite of it.
I stumble into the bathroom and empty myself of the Fireball and try to rinse out the taste from my mouth. I think about the first time I ever tried alcohol - a tiny dip of communion wine at church in kindergarten. I was with my mother - the wine tasted terrible and I spat it out immediately. She wiped the dregs off my lips and laughed along with the rest of our pew. Soon I was laughing as well, and then it was time for the final hymn, which I made a big show of belting out all the words to, and after that it was time for cupcakes on the front lawn of the chapel.
It was a sunny day. I often wish I was back there.
Ever since it was established to me that bad people burn forever, my religious experience has always been marked by some degree of guilt. It didn’t help that I went through puberty in a hyper-evangelical middle school, a place where we were taught Intelligent Design in biology class and where teachers were surprisingly comfortable with the idea that the majority of the world’s population was destined for eternal suffering.
April was always reserved for something called Spiritual Emphasis Week - the school would invite some atrocious Christian rock group to campus and we would spend two to three hours a day talking about the war the world was waging for our souls. The Friday of every Spiritual Emphasis Week had a few hours blocked out for students to cry. That was not an official designation, of course, but it was common knowledge that Friday was crying day. They would gather the whole school into the auditorium, and someone would play somber music and ask us if we were finally willing to give our lives over to God. At which point we would say yes, and the whole school would come together in a cathartic moment of group prayer. Sorry, God, for getting into a fistfight with Jim and stealing pocket change from my mom’s handbag and sneaking a glance at Jessica's breasts during lunch. I want to be your servant forever and ever. I really mean it. Amen. and for the next four or five days even the most hardened classroom bullies would be seen reading the Bible in between classes and there would be a strange quiet in the hallways until we all inevitably spiraled back into spiritual decay.
It was easy to get addicted to the thrill of temporal surrender, of giving your life to God for a few days knowing you could still transition back to the person you were before, that you would make the same mistakes and find yourself caught in a cycle as old as time itself, that you were just a tourist, just visiting, just dipping your feet in transcendence.
As much as I deluded myself every year that this would be the moment I finally got right with the Lord for good, the fact was that I enjoyed the feeling of throwing myself into the open arms of some classmate and forcing myself to cry by replaying clips from “The Passion of the Christ” in my head. For someone who had spent his middle school career gawking from the fringes of social events, it felt good to have an excuse to feel connected.
During Spiritual Emphasis Week my eighth grade year, however, the stakes were a little higher. I had just gotten accepted to boarding school, a place where there would be no mandatory chapel services and no Bible classes. My teachers kept telling me things like “don’t lose your way” and “keep up your faith.” I felt especially guilty, because by this point I - like virtually everyone in my grade - had become deft at keeping up the appearance of being devout while secretly skipping church and spending Sundays playing basketball, watching Tarantino movies and listening to punk records.
Either way, I decided that this would be the year where I would finally pull the trigger and give my life over to God. It couldn’t hurt, after all. It would be like getting life insurance, just in case.
The auditorium was packed by the time we arrived for our crying hour on Friday. There were five chairs laid out at the front of the stage, and behind them the pastor was gently noodling a constant C-Em-Am-F progression on a guitar.
“So I want to be honest today,” the pastor began. “I know a lot of you have been in rooms like these before, you’ve been through it all haven’t you? You’ll go to church and live the “Christian life,” check all the boxes, volunteer and read the Bible. But I know that deep down a lot of you are still uncertain about things, that you’re still caught up in this world. Remember: we are not of this world. And you can’t have it both ways. I remember a friend always told me, there’s nothing worse than being lukewarm for God. If you faith is lukewarm, God will spit you out.”
There was a pause for these words to sink in.
“So, Yongsan International School, I’ve really come to love your school and the wonderful people you have here over my week, and it’s been an honor to lead this Spiritual Emphasis Week. At this time, I want to give you guys a chance to really reflect on where you are with God. I’ve laid out five chairs - one is for people who don’t believe in God, who haven’t started their journey yet. Two is for people who have started, but still want to know more. Three is for those people who want God to take a more active role in their lives. Five is for people who are fully committed to God and want to retain and further develop their relationship.”
At this, a few try-hards began flocking to the chair marked “five,” while a couple of degenerates reluctantly made their way to two and three. One was empty. To admit atheism or agnosticism of any variety at my school was like admitting to necrophilia. The pastor continued.
“And here’s the most important one: four. I suspect a lot of you are fours. Four is for those people who are sick and tired of committing to God only to be torn away from Him again. Four is for those people who want to ask God, once and for all, please enter my life.”
I joined the massive crowd of students migrating to the four chair. This was what I had been waiting for. Within minutes I found myself sandwiched between a mess of bodies, all kneeling on the carpet with their hands to the ceiling. Soon, the lights dimmed, and the guitar crescendoed into triumphant strums. The pastor walked to each chair, praying for all the students who were there, thanking God and his powers of salvation. Eventually, he got to our chair.
“Lord, here I see many of your children. These students, Lord, are tired of being lukewarm. They want to be on fire for you, Father God. Thank you for giving them the courage…”
At this point, some girl a few bodies down from me drew first blood by breaking into tears. I was on the clock now.
“The courage to desire to be all in for you Lord. We’re tired of playing the Christian game….”
I was trying my very best to remember every tragic story from the Bible I could. When this failed, I tried picturing myself as the prodigal son, returning home after being lost for years. I still felt nothing.
“We want the blood of your salvation upon these young men and women today…”
I could already hear several people, including the six-foot-two, alpha-male center of the basketball team, bawling. I began to panic: when would my transcendent experience come? When would I feel the blood of salvation? When would the tears of catharsis come? I cheated a little by recalling the part in Bambi where the mother is shot. I could finally feel something resembling a tear in the corner of my left eye. Was it working?
“We pray for these students as they continue their journey…”
It soon dawned on me that I was one soul in an entanglement of souls desperate to be saved, desperate to get to heaven, desperate not to be spat out by God. That this community was motivated, if anything, by a deep sense of fear. That while you could hold hands and sing hymns together and hug each other all you wanted, you would still be alone on Judgement Day, salvation would still be a lonely path.
“In Jesus’ name…”
I was really running out of time now. I tried my best to focus on being transformed, on feeling different, on feeling liberated -
- it wasn’t working -
The amen fell over the room like the dull thud of a heavy door closing. Amen, the group responded. I said it as loud as I could, loud enough that I could forget where I was for a few moments.
When I first told my psychiatrist that I constantly felt guilty and deserving of divine punishment, he asked me why it is that so many people would follow God if God were such a destructive force. I told him I didn’t know. What mattered was that I had been taught that God was a disciplinarian, and that would probably be a lesson that stuck with me whatever I did. I would still have the image of the bird with the tiny spoon, of God spitting the lukewarm out. Most of my friends from middle school are now completely lapsed, and over drinks we would always laugh about how terrible our three years together were.
In between laughs, however, we could all sense the edges of an unanswered question materializing against our will. Maybe it didn’t have to be this way. Maybe our time at school had taught us a version of faith that set us up for loneliness. Perhaps this loneliness had been clawing at the corners of every church service, every Sunday dinner, every Spiritual Emphasis Week, every nighttime prayer I had ever been a part of. Perhaps being together meant finding a way to momentarily shut off this realization. The question, of course, went unposed. Solitude goes unnoticed in Seoul.
I have a habit of making of lists when I’m waiting for flights, and seeing as how I have now missed my original flight to Tennessee (mostly due to my hangover) and the LaGuardia gate staff is refusing to grant me even service-industry-manual kindness, it appears I now have at least two and a half hours on my hands to do just that. This is a hitch in The Plan. Andrew’s flight - which left earlier in the morning - has already landed in Tennessee, and I am supposed to be meeting him in Nashville in twenty minutes, Instead, I’m anxiously wasting time in the departures lounge, where the air smells like Clorox and Cinnabon wrappers.
Anyways, I decide to make a few lists to pass my time. Top 3 LCD Soundsystem songs? 1. All My Friends 2. Someone Great 3. Losing My Edge. Or maybe it should be Dance Yrself Clean. Top 4 best chain restaurants in the LaGuardia food court: 1. Panda Express 2. McDonald’s…..
Soon, I start making a list of everyone I hadn’t seen in a while and the last conversation I could recall having with them.
Ben from Hawaii: “Safe travels, Joon. Korea is a long way, isn’t it?”
John K.: “Yo, fucking pay me back for that cab ride.”
My psychiatrist: “You’ll get over this, and once you do, you’ll have the courage to get over any other fear you may have.”
My mother: “Give me a call during your trip. Stay safe, alright? God bless.”
The guy who worked at my high school cafeteria that I talked to all the time: “Yeah, I got a new job about twenty minutes from here, but I’ll visit often, don’t worry.”
Tess, who I had a crush on for like two years: “Uh, yeah, well I didn’t know you that well but I’m glad we had English together!”
Mr. Allen from eighth grade: “You’re one of my favorite students Joon. It’s good to see someone young with so much faith. You have a great time at high school, okay?”
Deb from eighth grade: “Heaven sounds fucking boring dude. I’ll take hell. Fuck it.”
At this point, I stop typing the list and close my computer. I put LCD Soundsystem on shuffle again and tap along the drum pattern on the side of my seat.
I guess I thought high school would be an escape of sorts. I could stop going to church, I didn’t have to memorize Bible verses for class, I could stop talking about religion and let people assume whatever they wanted about me. I spent my freshman year reinventing myself as a hip rebel and waited for the fear of damnation to slowly filter out of my body.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it never really does. I still prayed before every meal, although I did it in secret. I still felt bad waking up late on Sundays, even though I no longer had a church to be late to. There was guilt that I would be punished, of course - the feeling that I was constantly evading rebuke and was therefore headed for some massive, impending reckoning down the road. I sometimes felt that every part of my spiritual being had been gutted and all I had left were the Pavlovian fear I had to sin, a fear I held on to lest I lost God altogether.
Or I would think about my grandmother, how for almost twenty years she would leave to go to church at 10:25 AM every Sunday, and how every week she would see my grandfather still in his pajamas on the couch watching the morning talk shows. How when she crossed the living room to leave the house, there would be a brief moment of expectation, the small, ever-lessening hope that this would be the week where my grandfather would come to his senses, that this would be the week where he would stop her and ask if he could come along. That this would be the week where he got to heaven. Or I would think about my mother, how every day without fail she would ask God to lead my father to church. Then there would be guilt: guilt that if I abandoned God I would be perpetuating this cycle of Sunday mornings spent in quiet desperation and continuous disappointment.
So I never got to let go of spirituality: if anything, it came to color how I thought of everything else in my life, including music. Perhaps that’s why LCD Soundsystem appealed to me so much - while the great majority of LCD Soundsystem’s songs are performed with James Murphy embodying the hyper-ironic, aloof Brooklynite caricature he has fashioned for himself over the years, their best songs come when this facade begins to break apart. Every truly great LCD Soundsystem track is a plea for transcendence, for redemption, for transformation and companionship. It’s music that is simultaneously too world-weary and freewheeling for faith and community but at the same time deeply nostalgic for it. It’s dance music that realizes that the act of dancing all night is usually nothing more than a distraction from some deep emptiness, yet quietly holds out the deluded hope that one perfect song, one perfect guitar solo or synthesizer crescendo can make everything make sense, can serve as a break from the cycle of self-conscious wisecracking and empty hedonism, can get you to heaven. You can hear it when James’ voice cracks as he begs to “give me just a little more time” on Dance Yrself Clean, or when the band swoops in to harmonize the lyric “it won’t get any better” on Home, or when Nancy Whang assures us that we can all normalize on “Get Innocuous” or when a decidedly cheesy guitar solo reluctantly introduces itself at the end of “New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down.”
I told my friend once that LCD Soundsystem is the sound of being in front of a bathroom mirror at a house party at five in the morning, watching the sun slowly rise and realizing you hate most of the guests when you’re sober and missing your childhood home while simultaneously realizing how stupidly precious you are being.
My shirt is soaked by the time J. Cole’s set is over.
“Wasn’t that fucking sick?” Andrew asks.
“Yeah.” I reply.
“I can’t believe we made it, man.”
“Uh-huh.” I don’t mind J. Cole, but at this point, my mind is elsewhere. All I can think about is when James Murphy will finally take the stage. Unlike a lot of festivals crowds, the audience for LCD’s set seems to be mostly be there by themselves or in small groups of two or three.
A frenzied snare roll announces the first song of the set, “Us Vs. Them.” I am nearly beside myself as I chant along to the opening lines.
“The time has come! The time has come! The time has come today!”
When the song ends I look around and realize that Andrew has left to watch the Chainsmokers set next door. Before I can try to find him, however, the band is off, and I scarcely have time to breathe. After nearly two hours of breakneck dance-punk, there is a slight pause. The air is humid and you can hear crickets in the distance as the entire crowd waits for the inevitable with bated breath. Then, it comes: Nancy Whang starts playing the piano riff to “All My Friends.” The drums and bass fill out, and soon James - whose voice is completely hoarse at this point - begins stumbling through the opening lines.
Everyone begins singing together, hands up to the sky, the pot-smokers desperately trying to catch their breaths in between choruses. The mood is not unlike a church, or that cramped auditorium in middle school. Several people around me are in tears. In the pit of my stomach, I feel that glowing catharsis I used to feel when I cried during Spiritual Emphasis Week - the suspicion that maybe I am changing, maybe this feeling of transcendence is permanent. Maybe everyone in this audience is learning to be together in their solitude, united by loneliness somehow, as crazy as that sounds. It took them three albums and a long hiatus and a second coming, but perhaps James has actually cracked the code: maybe there is a way out from crippling self-consciousness, maybe music can actually bring about a state of complete ecstasy, even though it’s 2016 and we’re all fucked and we’re in the middle of a farm in rural Tennessee…maybe it’s all about putting our hands up in surrender together and collectively asking where our friends are tonight, whether we will ever see them, whether we ever really did,maybe….
And with that, the song ends, as quickly as it began.
“Thank you!” James shouts. “Good night.”
The stage goes dark, and the crowd lingers on, desperate to sip the last dregs of the concert, desperate to keep the camaraderie alive for just a minute longer. Then, as if in agreement, everyone - myself included - stares down at the ground. The spell is broken. I text Andrew - wya man? I sigh and slowly make my way towards the bass rumblings of the Chainsmokers as the transcendent glow in my stomach begins to fade.
I had a pretty vivid dream once in eighth grade, right after LCD Soundsystem announced their breakup and played their final gig in Madison Square Garden. In many ways, I feel betrayed by James: I had somehow developed this delusion that every LCD release was intended for me, and I am devastated by the prospect of having to navigate high school alone. James was supposed to take me to the promised land - the breakup seemed like a copout with no discernible reason.
In my dream, I’m in my bedroom when a large bear-like figure suddenly blocks my doorframe. It’s James Murphy.
“Wake up, kid,” he tells me. “We’re gonna fly.”
I get up and get changed, and soon I am on a private jet with the whole band. Nancy Whang tosses me a bag of pretzels. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of. The plane doesn’t seem to have a pilot, but I don’t mind - if the band is going down I’d go down with it.
I do have one question, though.
“Hey James?” I ask. “Will you, like, ever come back?”
He gives me one of those super self-aware grins and opens his mouth to say something but I wake up before I hear any reply.
It’s Sunday, so I get out of bed to the sound of the hymn CD my mother has put on every Sunday morning without fail for the past five years. I can sing the first three tracks - instrumental accompaniment and all - by heart. It’s a beautiful day outside, and for once Seoul is not the color of soot. I hear the sound of breakfast being served and see my father eating pancakes in his pajamas. My mother is already dressed and is furious when she sees that I have only just gotten up.
“Do you realize how late we are?” she demands.
I take my seat and leisurely unload a few pancakes onto my plate. My mother, needing a new target for her frustration, locks eyes with my father.
“You’re not going to church today, are you?” she asks, her voice piercing with sarcasm. I can tell, however, that part of her still holds on to the absurd belief that my father will say “actually I am,” that this would be the day that has made all her other days of prayer worth it. There is a split-second pause before my father gives his usual response. “Not today. You guys have a good time.” My mother gives her best I-knew-it face and rushes to grab her car keys. The hymn CD is on track three now, my favorite one.
I wonder if my father ever considers going to church as a favor to my mother. My mother would probably be aware that his attendance was not caused by a deep stirring within his soul, but she would probably play along, and either way it would be a useful delusion. The two could hold hands during hymns, and perhaps my mom would lock eyes with my father and wonder if he really had been transformed, and perhaps for a fleeting moment she could convince herself beyond reasonable doubt that he had. Then we could all go to lunch together and have polite conversations, and the Seoul skyline would look a little less barren and desolate. It wouldn’t be spiritual transcendence but it would be a pretty good imitation of it, and that might be the best we can hope for sometimes.
My father and I eat our breakfast in silence as my mother puts her shoes on, careful to leave some time for my father to change his mind.