The stage of the Chicago Theater went dark after the opener took its leave. But after the customary amount of fiddling time—for folks to grab concessions and get back to their seats—a disembodied musical progression could be heard throughout the theater, building up to Colin Meloy’s entrance. Finally, center stage awash in the spotlight was Meloy in a three piece costume, a guitar slung around his body like a prop. Slowly the mise en scene grows to include the rest of the players in the band, as they perform the opening song of their latest concept album. And, to help literally set the stage, two angelic humanoid creatures lower into the backdrop space, followed in a minute by what seems to be a gigantic drawn quilt, with cut-outs just so as to see parts of the angels. The quilt, of course, is also the cover art of the album.
Everything about a Decemberists’ show has evolved into a meta performance. Performance aware of itself as performance and loving it. Watching, no, experiencing one of their shows is different from that of their contemporaries. Whereas many folk rock musicians appeal to the sense of Artist we take from the Renaissance geniuses of old—men made special by a higher power but still men—whereas they play for you and showing their soul for a brief moment on stage to make a human to human connection, whereas they ask you to see them as mere people with gifts or talent, The Decemberists know better. They want us to see every element of the show as part of a performance. And perhaps they are more genuine then—with this no fuss attitude about what we’re getting.
As this shenanigans was all starting, my mind was still back in the opening act with a group called Alvvays. The lead singer of this band, from my vantage point in the first balcony, was wiry and bleach blonde. She had a deep side part, and I remember thinking about how much time I was spending looking at the top of her head. It was a strange vantage point for a concert-goer who’s used to swaying among much taller patrons on the ground floor. In my experience, when I’m looking at a musician, I’m looking up. So this particular woman, with her baggy dress and spindly legs, with her sheet of hair, deeply parted to one side, struck me as familiar, even from hundreds of feet away. This woman, with bleach blonde hair, and no discernable facial features to me, reminded me of my childhood best friend—who neither had bleach blond hair nor a rock career.
In 1990, we’ll call her Tiffany, and I played soccer together at recess, we rode bikes and played with dogs, we ate with each others’ families on Friday nights, we planned birthday parties for her younger sisters. We painted our nails and talked on the phone about crushes. And then suddenly to me, four years after we met, it was as if we were strangers overnight. A wall had gone up and there was nothing I could do to destroy it. We were too teenage girls playing the parts of teenage girls in a drama about ______? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know exactly what role I was playing, but I knew it had something to do with falling from popularity. I clung to my good grades and extracurriculars as if they could shield me from disappearing each time the bell rung and I stepped into a hallway.
Only after I had changed school districts, suffered through a three-year depression, and started anew, did I realize that what probably happened was a rumor that I was gay, or a lesbian. I’m not sure what terminology the fourteen-year-olds were using back then in suburban Texas, as I wasn’t too much aware of a terminology myself.
I always assumed that as she grew up, Tiffany would come to her senses and realize that queer or not, I was still me and she had broken my heart. I felt that one day, we’d speak again, and she’d be sad about all the lost time, but I wasn’t sure what I’d say or do. I wasn’t sure which role I wanted to play in the future I created. I didn’t want to think of her as a cruel person, choosing something else over our friendship for the rest of her life. A loss that big at a age that young ended up defining my adolescence in a way I’m still slowly coming to understand. I did get over it, and in 2010 I’d more than moved-on. I was standing in D’s and my first floor Wisconsin apartment, making the bed, when I got a phone call from a man whom I’d known in junior high, one of the friends I grew closer to after the split with Tiffany. Dan was calling to tell me that Tiffany had died. He wanted me to hear it from someone first before I saw it on social media. Her body was found away from her purse. It was ruled officially a hit and run.
I hadn’t thought about her in what was probably years, since the last time my brother or father (still in Texas) had mentioned that they’d seen her working a Italian chain restaurant. There were only a few times I had seen or heard of her since we were in the 8th grade, and I did get my wish. I do remember her trying to get my contact info from family to make a mends. I can’t remember if they gave her my phone number or if they gave me hers—but we never spoke again. In our youth, I had exited stage left long after she had left the building. But perhaps in our adulthood it was me who left her center stage, holding a photograph of us, with identical side parts.