I spent a few years after college living in a variety of locales in the Detroit area and working shit jobs as I passed off my mid-twenties waiting to see what use the world might have for me. For a couple of years I worked at a Pier 1 Imports on 8 Mile Road. I’d arrive at six-thirty to help unload the delivery truck, then, after the store opened, unwrap shelf stock and interact with the customers when necessary. The customers were actually okay most of the time—they were rich families from Grosse Pointe looking for porch furniture for their summer homes in Traverse City, or single girls stopping by after work, the name-tags from their own unsatisfying, five-bucks-an-hour retail jobs still pinned to their chests, cheering themselves up with purchases of bath beads or little soaps or whatever they could afford with the change at the bottoms of their purses. The “alternative” (we still used that word back then) radio station in Detroit was 89X, and this is what they played on my way to the store and elsewhere.
1. “Penpals” by Sloan
Canadian band Sloan probably got more airplay in Southeast Michigan than other parts of the country (remember, Detroit is actually north of Canada—Windsor, at any rate). Their subsequent career has been spotty, which isn’t to say bad, but I still think Twice Removed is the greatest guitar rock album of the nineties. I liked how each of the four band members sang in his own distinct voice, and yet they somehow all sounded the same—like one guy singing in four different registers, depending on the song.
2. “When I Come Around” by Green Day
Didn’t like this song—still don’t. But don’t let my tastes influence yours. The memory I have is of making a left hand turn under the Woodward overpass to get onto 8 Mile and points east. Two tall, vertically aligned billboards for some brand of cigarette on either side of the road. Gray snow heaped up along the sidewalk, of course. I might’ve had a hamper of dirty laundry in the passenger seat—I’d go to my mom’s house after my shift and do the wash while drinking Foster’s straight from the oil can and watching the Tigers on TV.
3. “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails
Now I’m on Woodward, so I must be on my way to the first Pier 1 I worked at in Royal Oak, before I got promoted to second key and shipped down to 8 Mile. The affection I had for this song would later transfer itself onto Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights”, which I discovered way late. The radio station wouldn’t bleep the “fuck” in the chorus, they’d just drop the volume, but you could still hear it in your head. If you were singing along, there’d be a moment when the vocals went away, and it’d be just you, in your 1988 Dodge Shadow, wearing your blue Pier 1 apron, hungover and tunelessly singing “fuck” to the Laundromats and body shops of Woodward Avenue.
4. “The Distance” by Cake
I’m doing seventy on the Ford Freeway, so who knows where I’m going. I’m looking up at billboards for personal injury lawyers, debt consolidation, Buddy’s Pizza. It’s a bizarre song, lyrically—like a little short story, with characters and a plot with something specific at stake. A late appearance of a trumpet adds to the sense of an overachieving band trying hard to make an impression. A cop flags me down for going five over the speed limit. I don’t kiss ass as much as I should, so I wind up with the ticket.
5. “The Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
This song followed me from my car at 10pm on a Thursday night and into Ye Olde Tap Room on Charlevoix and Alter Road, where the selections on the jukebox were more or less the same as the 89X playlist. A huge gray cat—I don’t remember its name—lived in the bar, and it would draw everyone’s attention as it stepped through the peanut shells on the floor. If someone had a copy of The Metro Times spread across the bar, it would waddle up and lie down on the paper. You’re not reading this, are you? Years later I heard it got killed by a fox or a possum or some such. You felt sorry for it until you realized what a good life it had had, up until the end.