Band: Wilco
Album: Summerteeth
Best song: There are no bad songs, but I’d suggest that there are a few not-great songs. My favorite is probably “Via Chicago,” but that changes with the day.
Worst song: “Summer Teeth” isn’t great.

This is, most-assuredly, a first-world post. I can understand if anyone who was not raised within the cocoon of suburbia and higher education and such cannot relate to it. Hell, it may not even translate to those who did not go to a college or university large enough to sustain the type of experience I am about to describe.

Nevertheless, the freshman year of college is the most unique experience a person can have.

I’m nearly twelve years removed from my sojourn to Columbia, Missouri for my first days of freshman orientation, but it’s still a pretty vivid memory. Unlike high school or the post-college enviornment, the freshman year of college was different in its confidence, era of reinvention and cognition in said time. It’s a brand new world, a giant abyss of socialization.

I was on a date with a girl recently who was absolutely aghast at the suggestion that I am shy. I imagine some of that is my increase in confidence that comes with age, so, it’s difficult to explain how shy I tended to be.

Part of this is my struggles with mental illness; I tend to fancy myself relatively unworthy of companionship in the way that I probably should. Like so many, my social issues often come out in the form of, well, being an asshole. I don’t deal with others in a positive way and I certainly don’t approach others for social interaction.

This manifested itself in simple silence when I was younger. I graduated high school in 1999 — that Prince song is tattooed on my brain, thank you very much — so my freshman year of college began in the fall of 1999. High school made me be social and I was lucky to have activities that let me have friends, as well as the envirornment — a huge high school — that let me meet friends that shared my interests.

The most life-changing aspect of 1999 is my introduction to the world of big-time college radio.

I spent high school doing radio; my school was rich and big and had a radio station. WNTH was, essentially, a minor league college station. I was music director and public affairs director for a year each.

Growing up in the shadow of Northwestern and the city of Chicago, I was a snob of enormous proportions before I got to the University of Missouri in the fall of 1999. I assumed everything was twangy and country-fied; I didn’t even know if indie rock existed down there.

To understand why I went to MU, you have to understand a few simple facts that I’ve not completely established in this space.

  1. I, like many people, was a ball of unleveled hormones in high school, exasperated by a pretty heavy depression and an often chaotic home life.
  2. My sister was studying some fancy medical/biological stuff at MIT at the time and had been a superstar at our ultracompetitive high school.
  3. I had spent much of high school goofing off and had been grounded for a year not once, but twice.
  4. I had applied only to schools within the Midwest — still not sure why this is — and my fallback was Northern Illinois University.
  5. I had no direction as a teenager –see above — so I was not exactly looking at specific programs to study at any particular university.

The final point is an important one. My guidance counselor suggested I apply to the University of Missouri, as it has a good journalism program and I could go into radio through that. It’s worth noting that I had contributed a grand total of zero articles to our high school’s newspaper and I absolutely did not do the yearbook or TV station or whatever. Journalism was not really in my goals or dreams; I just knew I wanted to do something interesting with my life.

Columbia sounded vaguely like a college town, but, admittedly, I didn’t really know. I knew Evanston because I was born there and grew up right next to it. I knew of Boston because my sister lived and studied there. I vaguely knew of Urbana/Champaign, but I certainly wasn’t getting in there. I’d passed through Bloomington and I’d seen a bunch of colleges my sister visited (UNC, Yale, Brown, Stanford, etc.) all of which I could not get into.

I’m not trying to denigrate Columbia. NOt even close. I loved it while I was there and consider it to be a top-notch town. But, I had no particular inclination toward University of Missouri. I applied there because I didn’t ahve to write an essay and it was close enough that I could get down there easily. Ultimately, it wasn’t any different than the other schools that I applied to.

I applied to nearly all of them in the fall of 1998, all within a span of two weeks. I cannot emphasize enough that I did not care much where I was going to school. Missouri simply was the first to reply and the first to offer me scholarship money.

So, I said I’d go there. I didn’t visit until after I’d accepted my admissions and whatever. I was pleasantly surprised when I visited on my spring break — at the risk of sounding like a disguting teenager, the women were beautiful — as the campus didn’t look lioke the ninth circle of hell.

Basically, I just wanted to get the hell out of dodge. Because of the above factors, I felt it time to leave the proverbial nest. While I think my parents fancied me a homebody of sorts and someone that needed hand-holding, I was ready to get out of their house.

So, when I finally got to my summer registration/orientation weekend — MU did a thing called “Summer Welcome” where you register for fall classes and see presentations from aspects of student life and such — I was amazed to see the guys from KCOU. Wearing my Tortoise t-shirt and long hair, I mostly just wanted to see some sort of analog to WNUR at Missouri. KCOU was it. The dudes wore ironic t-shirts and the women (I believe there was one woman, actually. I’d later learn her name to be Erin.) wore librarian glasses.

You have to realize that this was just before the Internet made nerd culture and style the prevalent culture. No Kanye West thick glasses. No sweater vests. Tina Fey was a nerd, not a sex symbol.

Eventually, I applied to be a DJ at the station and found direction. There were people to mentor me; two guys called John, one called Pat, one called Aaron. But, moreso, there were peers of mine that I could find my future with. I went to every KCOU event I could find.

That was only, of course, one part of my 1999.

It’s also of some note that 1999 was the time when I finally got the hell out of my parents’ house and turned into a college student. I’ve mentioned (both in passing and outright) my friendsfrom high school and our closeness. Some of us didn’t acclimate to college well, but I absolutely did, mostly because of the effect the station had on me; it was a readymade group of friends. My social group was prefabricated and I found friends solely through the independent music that station gave us as a bonding material.

But, as mentioned, the first year of college is such a unique experience that I would want anyone to have it. The dorm enviornment is the Real World without the scripting; we all come from different places and different schools. But, we’re all in the same boat and up for just about anything. Want to drive 100 miles to get tacos? Sure. Why not? Want to play hockey in the dorm hallway? Of course. Want to play Nerf assassin in the dorm? Yes, I do. How about seeing Run DMC on the quad? Sounds great.

As I’ve written, a lot of friendship is simply opportunity/luck/chaos; your best friend when you’re a small child is simply whoever lives down the street. In college, that is the dorm.

The beauty of luck is such that it hits and it makes life better sometimes. I tell this story:

Within the first month of my college career, I wandered up to the third floor of my dorm to see some classmate of mine or something. In walking around there, I saw a door ablazoned with a sticker from the Aquabats.

I am not an Aquabats fan, by any stretch. But, I am aware of the band because they were a guest on Loveline during the time I was in high school, when I was an avid listener to the show. I remember how odd the Aquabats were — they were a goofy ska band that was convinced that they were from the made-up nation of Aquabania — and that stuck in my mind.

So, I saw the fellow — probably wearing a Hawaiian shirt, almost certainly wearing flip flops — walking into the room and I said, “Hey, the Aquabats.” He responded with the only logical question, “Do you like them?”


I could very easily have explained that I didn’t really like the band, but I thought it was kind of quirky that they were completely weird. Or I could’ve mentioned that I’d heard of them through Loveline but I wasn’t familiar with their stuff and that I was rather into indie rock. Nope. I didn’t say any of that.

Instead, I simply said “They’re from Aquabania.”

And so a friendship was born. My friend Josh could not have been more different than a 18-year-old Ross if he tried. He was a religious, relatively conservative kid from suburban Kansas City and I was a pretentious ass from Chicagoland. But, we both didn’t drink, so we ended up hanging out a lot in college. We did a lot of driving to faraway places to get tacos and played cards and goofed around with Nerf guns.

Eventually, we lost touch after college for a couple of years, but thanks to Facebook, he found me when he decided to move to DC. He’d gone into Peace Corps, met a lovely woman and got married. He’s since had a beautiful child and remains one of my closest friends in DC.

It’s all luck, man. All because the insanity that is the freshman year of college.

Though it was discounted with a little research, I originally thought 1999 would be the best of these album years. I say that largely because the heights of 1999 records is unsurpassed, as some of my favorite albums were released in 1999. But, 1997 has 1999 beat in depth.

To whit, the great records released in 1999 — the year I ceased being a minor — are great. In addition to Summeteeth, one of my favorite all-time albums and the second unlisted album ony my RS project, the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin was released in 1999. Maybe the greatest backpack rap record, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, was released in 1999. Built to Spill’s sublime Keep it Like a Secret was released that year. The first Method Man and Redman collaboration album, Blackout!, was released in the fall of 1999. Jimmy Eat World (shut up) released Clarity that year.

But, Summerteeth is Wilco and Wilco is such a huge part of college for me. My ex-girlfriend was from the same neck of the words as Jeff Tweedy and she partially introduced me to the band. Uncle Tupelo — the Wilco precursor band and originator of alt-country as we know it today — thanked KCOU on their first album, as their St. Louis-area roots brought their tours to Columbia. I got to see Wilco multiple times thanks to that connection.

KCOU opened up a million musical avenues for me, but Wilco may be the most important. It’s a type of music and a band I’d never see otherwise. A band that’s been a huge part of my life since.

Luck/chance/chaos got me there and it’s continued.

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