Life Through Music: #9 Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

The house was crooked.

I think we knew that when we bought it.

I think we chose to overlook that.

If you put a marble on the floor in the center of the big space, it would roll to either side, depending on how far off center you were.

I didn’t notice it so much at first. I thought, hell, houses settle, this one is over 100 years old, it…settled a little more than others, I guessed.

And then I put on a record. Titus Andronicus. The Monitor. A way to celebrate a new beginning by connecting to my own past, they being a New Jersey band who sing of the Garden State Parkway and quote Bruce lyrics.

And the needle scraped all the way from start to the center.

The house was crooked.

It is said that you shouldn’t make big life decisions while you are pregnant. I know it’s said because I said it. I have offered it, as the sage wisdom of one who has seen more than a few trips around the sun, to my tenants, who heard me, agreed with me and proceeded to move out because they didn’t listen. They told me this, almost apologetically, because they had asked my advice on this when they moved in and then they dismissed it out of hand to buy their dream home, five blocks from the place they lived in, from my house.

That was okay, I chuckled when they told me, I did the exact same thing. Do as I say, not as I do, I guess.

Beth was pregnant with Zack. (I wrote and rewrote that sentence a couple times. Because I vacillate between “Beth was pregnant” and “we were pregnant”. She was carrying him but the trials we went through to have him were a long road of In Vitro sessions, shots, pills and a podcast, which is no longer available but chronicled the months long attempt to gestate this kid. I settled on “Beth” because that’s the truth and I was just along for this ride, in the end.)

While it was relatively early in the pregnancy it was a taxing one. And an expensive one.

Even though our insurance was kind enough to pay a portion of the test to see if the embryos had Cystic Fibrosis (They remembered that Liz was a million+ dollar kid and we all preferred not to have to go through that illness again), pregnancy is fragile in the early stages, IV just seems to compound that fragility.

At the time I was consumed with the idea that, now that we knew that the baby was going to be a boy, it seemed less and less like a good idea to shack them both up in the same small room together.

I was 5 when my brother was born. I remember those 2 years, crying baby in the crib two feet from the head of my bed, screaming kid having his diaper changed on the dresser at the foot. They were awful. And we shared a room even after, when we moved to the house in Chatham Township. My father had failed to make good on his promise to fix up the “attic” across the hall and give it to me. It was really just an unfinished a-frame room with a floor that almost reached one end and no insulation to protect from any extreme weather. There was old, desiccating carpet foam on the floor and an outdoor antennae that was…inside. One of those big ones that you used to see on every rooftop. I don’t know why it was inside that room, and I never wondered if we needed it, I think we had cable at that time so was it even being used?

Every year he promised. And another winter would go by and I would still be in the same room with Jon. Until one Saturday when I turned up my speakers so loud they could be heard down the block and I tore up that carpet and the foam and ripped apart that antennae, dragged all the pieces to the garbage cans and then, when they were full, to the street. I hauled the vacuum cleaner up the stairs and, for the very first time in my life, figured out how to suck up the dirt with it.

I hoisted my twin mattress off my bed, dragged it across the 3 foot landing, dumped it on the floor, plugged in my 10 inch black and white television and wrote a sign that I taped to the door:

“Abandon all hope, ye that enter here.”, it read. While I knew this was from Dante’s Inferno, I had never heard of Inferno until I read the quote in an X-Men comic (which they credited to Dante, to be fair)

I closed the door and reveled in the silence.

Over the years I would take advantage of the lack of drywall and hammer nails into the exposed studs and hang a hammock to sleep in. (I placed piles of blankets under because I was sure it would fall and it did. Often.)

I would hide my dirty magazines and beer under the floorboards on the unfinished side of the A-frame, it’s possible that whoever finished that room once we sold it and moved had no idea that there was left behind a small case of cheap ale and a stack of my dad’s British porn. Why British? I don’t know. Dad had his predilections, I guess.

The room was mine. And that was important, even if the lack of insulation meant that, for a few weeks each winter I would find myself back in the old room with my brother.

Having my own space was important. I couldn’t imagine what it would be if, instead of being brother and brother, it was brother and sister. Perhaps that’s my own sexism at work but I didn’t think it fair to Zoe to have to go through the crying, the screaming and then the desire for privacy.

So, I decided, it was time to buy another house. And I was gambling, to be truthful. We bought our first house with the same loan that caused the 2008 meltdown: Zero down. Zero interest. In no world should anyone have let me buy that house but, 2004 was a different time. And in 2010, the market was recovering and I wanted to cash in. I wanted to buy a second house just as the market was recovering and I was all over a new porn: Real estate porn.

Zillow and Redfin were daily reads for me and, one day, it seemed the perfect place appeared. A two story Victorian less than a mile from where were living. We knew that hood. It was a bit rougher than we were used to but, heck, we can make that work.

“I think I found our house.” I told Beth, as she was laying in bed, reading, trying to stay as stress free as possible. With her blessing I took Huck to go and take a look.

My agent was going to meet us at the house but we knew that code to get the key. Huck and I entered. The flaws were everywhere but all I saw was space. Space for a new baby and a 3 year old girl and a backyard for them both to run around with their dog. I saw a place that a family could grow into. It had no character, to be sure, but we would give it character, dammit.

Upstairs I could already picture who would get which room, Beth and I would have the one with the bay windows and, more importantly, it’s own bathroom.

The kids could have the rooms on opposite corners.

The fourth bedroom could be an office. A guest room. The possibilities were endless.

Huck looked at me, walked into the room that would become Zack’s and took a shit on the floor.

Well, that never happened before. Maybe, like when a bird craps on your head, it’s good luck?

I should’ve recognized the omen.

On the very first night in our new home I wept. The gleam gone, the adrenaline of the purchase dissipated, the high of the transaction had worn off.

I hated this place. I hated the new neighborhood, which was hammered home by Oreon, the neighbor who would stand in the intersection and…bark.

I loathed the lack of character as soon as I realized that I wasn’t equipped to “fill it”. This bland monstrosity made me long for my old place, the cozy one.

I spent hours walking around the block in search of whichever smoke detector was chirping day and night and, when I found it at an apartment 5 doors down I tried to explain to the resident that a chirping smoke detector doesn’t mean it’s working, it needs a battery and your landlord will change it.

I was angry at the house but more so, angry at myself for this capricious choice. A choice I made when you are not supposed to make choices like this!

Ugh. My anger was reinforced and fueled by the soundtrack I chose to christen our new home.

I propped up the back of the record player so it was level and I cranked up Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor.

Not since The Gaslight Anthem (Or Arcade Fire. Or John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band) has there been a band that has been as explicit of its love of Springsteen as Titus Andronicus. But, if that means you are expecting heartland music about the downtrodden or deserving, you won’t get that here.

Part Civil War reflection piece, part Americana, part punk, part rock operas, The Monitor is impossible to pigeon hole. The opening track, A More Perfect Union, is a kitchen sink of chaos. But it’s really the next track that Titus Andronicus show their true colors.

They are an anthem band for the 21st Century. Bookending the anthem with quotes (most notably, Lincoln’s “most miserable man living” at the end) they aren’t writing anthems for stadiums. These are intimate, difficult, small venue anthems. Which is perfect for them as songwriter/singer Patrick Stickles is also a bartender at the cramped Brooklyn recording studio ironically named “Shea Stadium”. Titus Andronicus want you to hurt the way we all do when we are wronged. they want you to feel the blood on the battlefield on the mid-1800s.

Or that’s just what I am putting on them. But, deep in the chaos and dischord are some beefy and powerful hooks. I imagine a sea of Jersey kids jumping up and down, fists in the air, chanting, “you will always be a loser” at the end of “No Future Part 3: Escape from No Future, which, on the album, uses that momentum to take us into a marching band, parade snare gigantor of a track, Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem). If this 2/4 Irish jig on steroids doesn’t get the crowd going, I dont want to know what would.

The album seems to reach its nadir of despair on “Four Score and Twenty”, a song of hopelessness and desperation as I’ve ever heard. But the band knows well enough that there’s no currency in pure hopelessness. So, the second half of this 8 minute centerpiece roils up like The Pogues challenged to a fistfight and declares itself “Born to die just like a man”. It’s ultimately a heroic piece, if even for the ultimate conclusion of much of the civil war, these men were NOTHING if not brave in the face of certain death.

Whew.

Fortunately that’s only followed by the most Replacement-like paen to blind stinking drunkenness, “Theme from ‘Cheers'” which has nothing to do with the actual theme from “Cheers” and more from the “Theme” of what happens in a bar. I.e. getting vomit inducing drunk.

The capstone to the record is the 14 minute (yes, you read that right) “The Battle of Hampton Roads” which is elliptically set against the epic battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack but is really a confessional for the singer who is rebelling against….well…everything. And finally pleas with his “darling” to never leave him, for he’d be nothing without…her? Or is it the war? Or is it the society he needs to rebel against?

I don’t know. I don’t think Stickles does either. It doesn’t matter. It SHOULD be unresolved as the famous battle wasn’t decidedly won by either side.

The Monitor isn’t an easy album. It’s demanding. If you give yourself over to it, it’s like discovering Neutral Milk Hotel for the first time. Only edgier and angrier with a LOT more feedback. This band could be called Feedback. Or Funeral. Or Funny Funereal Feedback.

But, when you do give yourself to Titus Andronicus, be prepare to rock out like you’ve never done before.

And when that cathartic record was over I was determined that this slanted house, crooked four ways from center, the house my dog shit in as if to warn me to stay away, would be just a way station. I would get my wife and kids and dog away from the barking man and the drug dealers who eyed Zoe’s violin on her way to lesson, away from the burned out home that the owner never repaired with the insurance money, just put tape up and never went upstairs again. I would find our home. Cuz this surely wasn’t it.

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