Way Yes has a new album coming out May 7th called Tog Pebbles. The first single is “Colerain,” named after the township in Ohio where the band is from. Songs named after municipalities? I can get down with that. To put it less irreverently, the ways place impact us will always fascinate me. Specifically, the places we call home that we’ve left behind physically but never can psychically, and all the people we associate with them. Because the title sounds almost like the name of a person, as well as a made-up word or phrase (like mishearing “cold rain” or “coal train”), it evokes the mysterious sense of that which is no longer clear, yet still identifiable and unforgettable. It’s a layered choice perfect for a song about something lost, though it’s something you can’t ever completely lose because of how it impacted you.
Or, more accurately, someone.
“Colerain” is one of the best representations of how I felt coping with the death of a friend I grew up with. It takes almost two minutes for words to kick in, just as it took me time to process a sudden, shocking loss, one that I did not nor ever will understand completely. When the lyrics do come, they are, “When I sleep you are still alive. Then I wake up and you go and die all over again.” In the changing status of the “you,” I can hear the altering states of acceptance and disbelief.
That shifting sentiment encapsulates so much of how I felt from when I first learned, sitting on the cold wood floor of my bedroom in Brooklyn on a clear Saturday morning last January, my friend Jeremy had taken his own life. It was how I felt seeing his body laid out in Erie, PA, our hometown. It’s how I felt for some time afterwards, and how I still do feel when something triggers a memory of him. Like music. He was an unbelievable musician. It was in his blood; he frequently performed with his similarly incredibly gifted father and brother. And for me, just about everyone in my life inevitably becomes imbued in various songs, like a sonic mental scrapbook.
In the times when memories of a friendship being forged, strengthened, and so on swirled around me, I went inward, as I tend to do. I am not usually all that expressive about my feelings, especially when it is something of this magnitude. I’m getting better, but I can be pretty closed off and I often live inside my head. This is why I love music so much, for the sense of human connection derived from creative expression, intuitive evidence of the beauty of being more open. It helps me overcome my own reserved nature, like an emotional stimulus. Things resonate that I may be afraid to say or sometimes may not even have realized about myself.
A song like “Colerain” floors me because it so powerfully taps into feelings I instantly recognize. Here, the feeling of inexplicable grief entwined with nostalgia and the attempts to reconcile that I had grown apart from this person – thinking that’s just how life goes – with them now being irrevocably gone, removing any chance for a return to closeness. Paradoxically, once they’re gone for good, you realize how they always were there and how no one that was ever important to you can ever really go. We just don’t always notice with everything else that gets in the way. There is a sense of guilt that I wish I could have – and maybe a firm chiding that I should have – stayed closer, that maybe if we did try a little harder to sustain those ties, we’d all be better off. The song offers a brief glimpse at the cold, hard truth that we spend most of our time distracting ourselves from or actively denying: everyone dies. What remains is the understanding that if you want something, you can’t just assume it will resolve itself of its own accord since everything is transient. It’s harsh, but it’s also the ultimate source of empowerment.
“Colerain” mines this vein through the dreamlike yet tangibly emotional nature of the music, using tribal drums, warbling guitars, and watery effects to craft an engrossing and evocative soundscape. It puts me back in those moments where I was trying to be stoic in the face of pain. Hence, I love the vocal tone, a voice asserting it’s not that bad through words, but still betraying its underlying anguish through feeling. I love how the lyrics are both so simple and so laden with meaning. The chorus is “Colerain, you are so far away.” To me that says almost everything one feels in the most succinct way possible.
Probably more than anything else, it’s about distance. I hear this and remember how I felt the years that passed since I had last seen Jeremy. How long ago it was that a bunch of us were joking around on the school bus in middle school, or making ridiculous movies with all the guys in The Neighborhood, or him and I grabbing guitars to play during free time in 10th grade theology, or the time we saw Gallagher and he took a hit to the face and I thought for sure he was bleeding until he flashed his huge grin upon realizing it was only cherries, or all the adventures of our year as class officers along with Hank and Joe and how coming together as a group and elevating each other to achieve things not possible individually is something I’ve been chasing ever since, or listening to the Smashing Pumpkins Machina in his room the day it came out and being disappointed after being such fans of the band, or the outrageously hilarious yet strangely wise “life lessons,” like “If you seed in the mouth you ain’t be” imparted on countless aimless drives on countless nights, or the morning he was looking at girl’s ass during the Pledge of Allegiance and kept saying “that booty is thick!”, or how he channeled Jimi Hendrix in one of the many performances with Professor Bad Feet and the Funk Explosion and how impossible it seemed that any space could contain him when he poured his spirit out through his fingers and made that Jackson Pollack-style self-painted Fender Strat sing.
I hear this and think how there’s so much more I want to share about his life and so much more that I may not have remembered but which will come back to me when I least expect it and I’ll smile or laugh out loud or realize it made a shitty day that much better. How on the other hand, it is still so difficult knowing a person with so much to offer felt that this was the best fate for himself, how wasteful it seems and how unfair, especially to his family, whom I can’t think of without my heart breaking. How none of us will ever unravel the messy, knotted threads of possible reasons why and how hard it is to shake the feeling that it was all a fluke, that it just as easily could have never happened. How I know I couldn’t have changed anything but how I regret spending more time in his last years talking about him and what he was doing than talking to him directly. How what really hurts most is that I had no idea things were that bad.
I hear the song and become acutely aware of all the distance that I’ve traveled from that former epicenter of my life and how much has changed so dramatically and so unexpectedly from what I ever thought possible at age 18. How much has been gained and how much has been lost. And how I felt and still feel the distance between where I am and where I hope to be as a person. A death like this rattles you, and after all the time you spend thinking about them, it makes you think about your own life. How can it not?
Then the key changes.
Around the five minute mark, the song starts to sound a little more positive – a literal uplift as it ascends to a new key – a reminder that somehow hope eventually emerges. As awful as the circumstance of viewing a friend who died far before he should have, in just about the most incomprehensible manner imaginable was, I can’t deny that returning home and reconnecting with so many other people from my past was special. I won’t forget us in that smoky bar we went to after the viewing, sprawled out around a bunch of tables because the group kept growing, drinking, laughing, remembering Jeremy, and sharing our own lives into the late hours the night before the funeral. A funeral that came too quickly and was draining in every way but was truly a celebration. It was part of the healing process to finally let the sadness all the way in but also feel all the love, celebrate my friend’s life, and be surrounded by a lot of great people still in mine.
I wish he could have heard the beautiful things said about him and all the ways people will remember him. I wish he could have known the impact that he had on such a vast amount of people. And I wish I could have thanked him for being in my life and being a good friend, that I could have said something even a fraction as appreciative as what he wrote to me senior year ten years ago, right before graduation and the widening of all of our worlds, the most heartfelt yearbook message I ever received: “Your skills and compassion will take you far. Hold your ground and never let anyone change you. You’ve been a great friend and helped me a lot. Thank you. I love you.” Thinking of his life makes me want even more to become the best version of myself, and it is a surprising but real gift that it makes me feel like I can.
Listening to “Colerain,” I can hear that what often is so far away can also still be very close. That’s the power of music. That’s why Jeremy loved it, why I love it, and I’m sure why many of you do, too. I hope you take six and a half minutes and let this song wash over you.