When the bombs went off on Boylston Street, I had no newspaper of my own.
Don't get me wrong: I love my new job. I'm surrounded by smart people who are dedicated to making journalism smarter. But on that Monday I'd been in my new digs for all of a week; I was still figuring out how to check the email. As the smoke curled into the sky, and my friends called frantically from the blast zone, I watched my new home snap into formation - this beautiful machine, built precisely for times exactly like this. I'm now a card-starting member of the mainstream media, but on marathon Monday the embers of The Boston Phoenix were still warm. I sat in the newsroom at my new job and watched very closely, trying to make out the signals and language and protocol, as my new colleagues risked life and limb to break story after incredible story, day after day. During the biggest Boston breaking news event of our lifetime, the unfathomable carnage unfolding in familiar streets, I would catch myself wondering what city we were in where the criminals throw pipe bombs out the windows of SUVs like villains in third-rate Batman scripts. In my own city I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
On my drive into Dorchester during the first week at my new job, I played only two songs over and over and over again, but I probably played 'Allo Darlin's 'Tallulah' most of all. There's a refrain that goes:
"And it's been such a long time
Since I've seen all my old friends
But I really love my new friends I feel
I've known them a long while"
I knew exactly what the song means, even though it had been less than a month -- in some cases just a few days -- since I'd last seen my friends at the Phoenix.
The ache of it kept me hitting repeat: the old thing, familiar and comforting and missing; the new thing, pulling and making promises.
The song, like the rest of the album it comes from, was written by a woman who'd emigrated from Australia to Europe, and the lyrics throb with the lingering, phantom-limb glow of what she left behind.
All of us from the Phoenix in those weeks felt like refugees -- we'd meet in bars and try to decipher the strange customs of this cruel and unusual world we'd suddenly inherited by virtue of losing our island of weird and incomprehensible freedom. We could afford to romanticize a bit. We were unemployed and, oddly enough, the toast of the town.
The other song I played on repeat all that week was 'Wonderland,' off the same album. Right before 'Tallulah' on the tracklist. It's a pretty song but I was playing it for just the one line, which I could imagine was being sung only to us:
"Feels like the world is ending
And I'm with you, and I don't care"
The media isn't really a thing. We all understand this. It's an abstraction of many good and terrible things that arise from people attempting to tell stories and make money, not necessarily in that order. And the Phoenix, like the media, is now a mist: it was once a single people and now it is a diaspora. The immigrants from Phoenix-land are not uniform - there are the strivers, trying to level up; there are entrepreneurs, determined to make it on their own.
And now there's The Media, trying to make things right.
When the bombs went off on Boylston Street, some friends were in the restaurant where the second blast went off. Everyone lived. Then they wrote stories about it that I didn't publish. And my Phoenix friends wrote stories that I didn't edit. They are all fantastic stories. You could print them out and cut them up and paste them together and you'd almost have a thing. Almost.
I kept playing the two songs over and over again. Just the two. I recommend them to you if you find yourself caught between an old and a new.
I know about 'Allo Darlin' for only one reason: because Liz Pelly told me they were good. There are a lot of things I know about that way. Bands, labels, political movements, people. For a time, Pelly's job title at the Phoenix was Editorial Assistant. The job is vestigial, from a time when Phoenix editors-in-chief actually kept people on staff as assistants, to answer the phone and fetch their laundry. I had no use for that, but we hid Pelly there so she could write and report and crusade and turn us on to cool shit. She had a few actual clerical tasks, like doing payroll. She was terrible at it -- like, really, really bad. She was so bad at it we eventually had to promote her to another job that didn't really exist, and gave her clerical stuff to someone else. When you're an editor at a paper like the one I used to run, there are some people you try to teach, and then there are others you just try to set free - and maybe run ahead and clear as much bullshit out of the way as you can. And maybe take notes.
The Media is an immigrant song, I think: it's the noise made on the way from an old home to a new place. Echoes of the old things, flashes of new promises. It's a reflection of what happened to be possible - because nobody wanted the thing to end but it did.