During my senior year of college I became mesmerized by a guy named Jonnie Russell. In some ways my enthrallment was founded on superficial things like music and fashion; Jonnie had style in spades, and at the time I wanted few things so badly as to be thought cool, but he also had a certain elan, a scrappy joie de vivre that gave his carefully cultivated art rocker image a lighthearted edge and magnetized his personality, drawing me in. We were students at Biola University, near the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties. I had shown up at school with a set of ideas about what was hip that had been shaped in my home town of Santa Cruz, which, while a surfing Mecca, was a tiny hamlet compared to L.A. and provincial in its own way. Said ideas began to morph and expand within fifteen minutes of my arrival on campus. By the fall of 2004 I had come to see Jonnie as the embodiment of style.
Jonnie and I weren’t quite friends; we were the textbook definition of acquaintances. We moved in overlapping social circles, but only just. From the outside looking in, Jonnie’s crew was a rotating cast of poets and aspiring filmmakers and musicians and recent graduates (everyone seemed slightly older than me, and slightly more worldly) who had read books I hadn’t and listened to music I knew nothing about. While I’d spent high school listening to Christian ska and going to youth group events, they’d been listening to The Pogues and reading Susan Sontag. They were hipsters, and in hindsight a few of them were probably insufferable. I didn’t understand this at the time, being too busy trying to emulate them.
I’d experienced the kind of gravity Jonnie exerted before, pulling me toward various heroes of the subcultures I identified with, like skateboarder Heath Kirchart or Russ Rankin of the punk band Good Riddance. Each had their own mystique, Kirchart with his goth vibes and death-defying acrobatics, Rankin with his tattoos and ability to command a stage. Jonnie had his own charisma, with one crucial difference; I actually interacted with him. Not often, and not much, but more than enough for him to become a cipher onto whom I projected an aspirational grid of hopes and dreams. While it was not a sexual fascination that held me in its grip, whatever force was working on me was hardly unrecognizable. I had a crush on the guy. A raging man crush.
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As with anyone, the first thing I noticed about Jonnie was his appearance. He was slender, with artfully tousled, straw-colored hair and a leisurely air of self-awareness. If you could chill equipoise like liquid nitrogen, the fog would have rolled off him in waves. He was that cool.
While “cool” may be among the most subjective terms in modern English, it undoubtedly connotes something for you, regardless of how you would personally define it. For me it has always included a sartorial quotient. Jonnie was ahead of the skinny jean bell curve by a couple years, wearing snug denim long before it caught on in the chain stores. He could be seen around campus in a collection of weathered t-shirts and rumpled cardigans that opened my eyes to the possibilities of a simpler, less outrageous style than the punk aesthetic I’d long cultivated. Part of what lent his wardrobe power was its simple consistency, its coherence. He actually had a recognizable style, whereas I was mired in a catastrophically indecisive transition from band shirts and skate shoes toward a vague notion of sophistication that failed to ever really crystallize. I couldn’t commit to a new direction, the result being that some days I wore pants that looked like they’d been applied with spray-paint, while on others jeans so baggy I could’ve used them to smuggle bowling pins.
More important than any shirt or pair of boots was the way Jonnie carried himself. Like all the truly cool ones, he was a lounger. James Dean, Jim Morrison, Elvis, Sinatra, Newman, McQueen; notice how they move. You’ll never find them walking rapidly from place to place, or looking around nervously, or even standing up straight. They lean against brick walls and drape themselves over motorcycles. They swing in close to beautiful blondes, and sink down in their chairs. They raise their eyebrows while taking slow drags on their Lucky Strikes. Jonnie was no different. I would regularly encounter him reclining on a grassy hillock outside the cafeteria, basking in the sun like a Roman senator, a beautiful woman at his side laughing at something he’d just said.
In addition to his style and easy self-possession, Jonnie had a rogue’s wit that could burst into flame unexpectedly. He would riff in a wry, deadpan style on anything that came to hand. My friend Charlie once told me about a night in their dorm when Jonnie launched into an absurdist, freestyle spoken word session centered on nothing but a burning candle. Jonnie went on to start a band, and I’ve seen a film clip from one of their recording sessions where a producer can be heard asking Jonnie to describe what kind of guitar tone he’s hoping to dial in.
“Pretty clean,” Jonnie says.
“Can you cite an example?”
“Well,” he says, straight-faced. “Sort of like... nothing that’s ever been done before.”
Looking back on it now, I realize that whatever force drew me toward Jonnie was amplified by my perception that we shared certain similarities, which in turn exacerbated our differences. Like me, Jonnie was a small guy, short and slight of build. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to be deeply conflicted about this. He was a darling of the philosophy department, while I was an aspiring writer who posted bad poetry in our school’s online forums. We were both guitarists, though he could actually play well, as opposed to strumming the same four chords over slightly different melodies, which is what I did. He seemed comfortable in his own skin, whereas I was still struggling to come into my own.
If my observations sound dipped in envy, that’s because they were, but not the consuming, bile-soaked type. Jonnie didn’t give off the aroma of disdain, at least not when I was around. Despite the airs that some people in his orbit put on, he never made me feel unworthy or unwelcome. I was self-conscious in his presence not because of anything he did, but because of the strength of my desire for his approval. I did not resent him. I wanted to be him.
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During the time my fascination was taking root, my roommate and I got into the habit of hosting little parties in our on-campus apartment. Our Christian college didn't allow any drinking, even for students of legal age, so we served juices, teas, and, my personal favorite, a mocktail that was simply a gin and tonic, sans gin. Yes, just tonic water, with a forlorn little slice of lime floating in it. It was pathetic, not only because of the actual substance of the drink, but because, in our sheltered way, we thought it was kind of cool. My wife has advised me to cut this anecdote, stating, “You don’t have to be that honest.”
Anyway, I invited Jonnie to a couple of these get-togethers. He said yes more than once, but never came. Something else had come up, I reasoned. He'd had somewhere to be. He'd forgotten. Who knew? He hadn’t been trying to spite me.
This should have made me mindful of the many times I had blown off the invitations of people I didn’t consider important enough to remember or prioritize. It should have been a learning opportunity. Because the reality is that it was rare for me to be on the receiving end of this kind of forgetfulness. Mostly though it just stung. It stung, even if it was only a confirmation of something I already knew, which was that Jonnie and I weren’t really friends. It stung, but not enough to keep me from still wanting to somehow prove myself to him.
One of the many things that might have trumped our sad party invite was band practice. During that last year of college, Jonnie was in the process of forming a group with a few other guys from our school. If you’ve listened to your local indie rock station at some point in the last decade, you’ve heard their music. They called themselves Cold War Kids.
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I knew about them before they were big. It’s the classic refrain of music snobs everywhere. Sometimes it happens to be true, though you can never know it at the time.
Cold War Kids’ first recording, an EP called Mulberry Street, failed to capture my imagination. I had picked up a copy because Jonnie was in the band, but the music was heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, an inaccessible reference given my palate at the time. Singer Nate Willett’s voice initially struck me as whiny, and his lyrics as precious.
The four original members of Cold War Kids were Nate, Jonnie, bassist Matt Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro. In the beginning they did what every band does and played anywhere they could. This included a house party in my friend Charis’s backyard one Friday night. Cold War Kids would eventually go on to play shows across five continents, but at the time no one outside our school had heard of them. Most of the people inside our school had never heard of them.
The guys set up on a brick patio beside the garage. I remember Maust using a little curly-cue cord to plug in, something that looked more like a toy than a piece of musical equipment. As the band started up, a loose collection of partygoers spread out across the backyard. I ended up standing next to a guy drinking straight from a bottle of red wine. At one point between songs a drunk dude in a leather jacket started shouting praise from the kitchen window. He leaned forward, shaking his fist in a universal “rock on” gesture, then lost his balance and nearly fell out.
The band didn’t play long, maybe five or six songs. They didn’t have much material at that point. Afterwards I wandered back inside and ended up sitting on the carpet with Charis, flipping through her collection of vinyl records. Sometime after midnight I got tired and stood up to leave. Just as I was about to head out, a door off the living room opened and Jonnie and Nate emerged, the strains of a hypnotic blues song unspooling from a stereo somewhere behind them. Jonnie was doing a strange dance, a kind of cross between the slow prowl of a hunting Tyrannosaurus and a tiptoeing villain in a silhouette performance. After a few feet he lay down on the carpet, threaded his hands behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling.
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The Mulberry Street EP grew on me a bit, but before long it became irrelevant. It was completely put in the shade by the band’s next two releases, a pair of EPs they put out the following year, one of which contained a song called “Hang Me Up To Dry.” If you’ve heard it yourself you know how perfectly it employs the best traits of a great pop song, the memorable intro and the catchy hook. The hook in this instance was a double-whammy, an infectious chorus followed by a simple, unforgettable trio of ascending guitar chords. The first time I ever heard that guitar part my eyes turned into spirals. It burrowed deep into my brain, colonizing the musical part of my psyche so completely that all these years later I can still feel the shiver from that first listen traveling down my spine.
In the months leading up to those breakthrough records Cold War Kids were still just another undiscovered indie rock band playing dive bars around the vast Babylon that is the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. I went to a few of these shows. I’d been to a lot of concerts by that point in my life. Starting in high school I’d made a steady circuit of the local clubs in Santa Cruz, then started driving up to San Francisco for shows at Slim’s and The Bottom of the Hill. I’d seen hundreds of bands, big and small, but I’d never seen anything quite like the live show Cold War Kids put on.
One of the main joys of going to see live music—though, in the world of indie rock, self-consciously hip audiences and occasionally bands themselves can seem determined to deny it—is getting to watch the musicians; the guitarist’s mid-solo grimace; the hitch in the bass player’s hips; the visceral hammering of the drummer. Live music is among the oldest and most elemental forms of performance art, and Cold War Kids performed. They were fun to watch and they knew it.
Their early sound was a deliberately lo-fi marriage of soul music and hyper-literate garage rock. Performed live, the songs arced and snapped with the band's kinetic energy. Accustomed to the heavy distortion and supersonic drumming of punk, the thing that threw me off about Cold War Kids was the fact that, while they trafficked in an entirely different style of rock and roll, they had as much spleen as any punk band I’d ever seen. Even on their slow numbers they jived and shimmied and banged into each other, managing to pack more tension into a single tune than many punk bands channeled in an entire set.
One night I drove down to Costa Mesa to see them at a place called the Detroit Bar. It was a tiny club with a low stage backed by a rich red velvet curtain. Word of mouth had begun spreading at this point, and the place had sold out. By the time the band went on the tension in the room was thick. From the first note of the first song the three guys who weren’t trapped behind a drum set began rumbling around the stage, sashaying and bobbing in a vigorous ballet.
I knew Maust from school, where he cut a shy figure, skulking around campus in tight t-shirts and rarely smiling. Onstage he transformed into a dynamo, whacking his bass with the heel of his hand and randomly hip-checking his bandmates. Nate Willett was a paradox. His bona fide good looks made him a magazine-ready frontman—he was like a more handsome version of Woody Harrelson—but his high, almost girlish voice seemed out of place in that strapping body. He was prone to bouts of spastic clapping and hand-flailing. Independently, either of their live personas might have seemed an affectation. Taken together, the idiosyncrasies somehow worked.
Meanwhile, Jonnie could do no wrong in my eyes. His mannerisms seemed to embody the band’s angular, neo-blues sound, his whole body fairly humming as he alternately crouched over his amp or struck out across stage in a distinctive flamingo strut that was part Keith Richards, part Someone Just Dropped An Ice Cube Down My Shirt. He wore his hollow-body guitar high across his chest as if it were a bandolier of ammunition and he an electrified revolutionary.
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I was making my own music back then, writing simple folk songs in my dorm room and playing the occasional show. Jonnie came and saw me once at a little coffee shop in a boring part of Fullerton. The blandness of the setting made it that much more surprising when he showed up alone and stayed for my whole set, sitting toward the back of the room. When I noted his presence my pulse ticked up a beat. Going to someone’s local show is a gesture of support and respect that musicians extend to one another all the time, but I doubt Jonnie realized just how much his attendance that night meant to me.
Eventually we graduated. I moved back in with my parents in Santa Cruz while Cold War Kids hit the road. Before long they were discovered by influential music bloggers, got a record deal, and began touring at an increasing pace, playing to larger and larger crowds. Within two years of forming they had entered the stratosphere of indie cred and begun selling out clubs like San Francisco’s Café du Nord, where I drove up to see them one crisp September afternoon. I showed up a few hours early, hoping to hang out.
During my time at Biola I’d gotten to know another student named Brett Williams, a friend of Jonnie’s who became Cold War Kids’ manager. Brett was standing out front as I walked up, making small talk with the guitarist from the opening band. He greeted me, and then we ran across Market Street and ducked into a little bodega where he bought loose tobacco and rolling papers. Back inside the club we joined Jonnie on the open floor directly in front of the small stage where hundreds of fans would soon cram themselves. For the moment the subterranean bar was silent except for a low murmur from the back of the room where the sound man was running through a checklist. The ineradicable skunk of the previous night’s beer lingered in the air. Jonnie and I watched as Brett prestidigitated a pair of cigarettes.
“Are we allowed to smoke in here?" Brett asked, handing one to Jonnie. We all knew we weren’t. Jonnie shrugged and lit up, exhaling a thin stream of blue smoke from his nostrils.
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A few months after the show at Café du Nord, Cold War Kids played in Santa Cruz. I had started my own band after moving home, and Brett did me a favor and got us on the bill. The main opener was another Southern California indie band called Delta Spirit. Their lead singer, a firebrand named Matt Vazquez, got on a baby grand piano a few hours before show time and started banging out a string of Tom Waits songs at the top of his lungs. While this was going on Matt Aveiro calmly sat in a corner, reading Camus’ The Stranger.
By the time we took the stage that night the club was maybe half full. I was nervous, wondering if either of the other bands would even watch our set, wanting so badly to play well. It's poignant, now, to realize how similar my feelings as a twenty-four year old were to my feelings as a sixth grader.
During Cold War Kids’ set I hung out backstage. This was my right as an artist who had performed, but I felt like an impostor. After the show I talked to Brett, who said some kind things about our set. Backstage, someone propped open an emergency exit to try and bleed off some of the heat from all the sweaty bodies, and I could see that a winter storm had rolled in. Sheets of heavy rain were falling past the open door. Maust and Willett opened a bottle of wine. The club slowly began to empty. We started packing up our instruments. At some point I glanced back at the open door and saw Jonnie leaning against the frame, smoking and staring out at the falling water. I watched as he took a drag on his cigarette, seemingly lost in thought. I couldn’t look away.