Fannies in the Heartland

A story about driving across the country, Teenage Fanclub, and getting old

There’s this thing people say about music that they don’t say about other types of art, which is that you will never love it as much as you do when you’re a teenager; that the older you get, the further you become from whatever mystery of hormones made it possible for you to love a song or a record or a band so much that you either wanted to die or, failing that, incorporate it into your identity so wholly that it would never leave you, forever a stake in the ground of a particular time and place.

I always thought that saying was such a lie. If you’re a true music person, the kind for whom music is not mere entertainment but lifeblood, you never stop longing for the next perfect song, the next perfect band, to encapsulate and articulate the minutes of your life, even if the clock has considerably less time on it than it once did. Music is sacred and it has a sly way of finding you when it needs to and not a moment before. 

Anyways, you’re never too old to feel like a teenager, as I discovered while spending the first four months of the year at my parents’ house in Los Angeles, where I grew up, having opted to skip the New York winter for California sun. Nothing can make you feel 17 again quite like needing to ask your mom permission to use her car in order to go anywhere at all.

My California sojourn had another objective: it was time to give up the immature delusion that I might someday move back to the Bay Area, and finally retrieve all my things—most crucially my record collection—from storage in Berkeley. Then came the part where I had to decide how, exactly, I was going to get it all from California to Brooklyn. Since the idea of entrusting some private shipping company with the safety of my LPs gave me stomach pain, I decided instead to drive it myself—by myself.

When I told people I was driving back to Brooklyn alone, the most common response was surprise, followed up by the anxious question “Aren’t you scared?” Honestly, until the possibility of something bad happening was broached, it had never occurred to me to be scared. After all, bands drive across the country all the time in vans full of shit and does anyone ever ask those idiots if they’re scared? If a band can do it, I can do it. That’s what I told myself.

I left Los Angeles early on a Saturday morning in mid-April, my rental van packed full of records, books, clothing, and all sorts of random things I’d somehow acquired over 20 years without putting down roots anywhere for longer than a few years at a time, as my parents fussed over me and tried to pretend they weren’t terrified I’d be swallowed up by the landscape somewhere between Flagstaff and Chicago. Secretly, I was glad to be leaving. Though my parents are great, staying with them had been stressful. It often seemed like they didn’t know how to relate to their practically middle-aged daughter whose life has followed a completely different course to their own, which sometimes made me feel even more teenage than I did as a teenager. Then there was also the pervasive sense that, although I’m very much a Californian, whatever the place once had to offer me was now gone. I was finally ready to commit to New York City, where I’d paid rent for two years without it ever really feeling like home.

Initially, I thought I’d use the driving time to listen to records I’d never heard before, ticking off albums like on one of those “100 Records You Should Hear Before You Die” lists; an ambitious and rather stupid idea, since I don’t really enjoy treating music as if it were homework. However, about 3 hours into the first day’s drive, somewhere on the barren stretch of I-40 in the Mojave Desert between Barstow and Needles, the YouTube algorithm spit up Teenage Fanclub’s “I Need Direction” off of 2000’s Howdy! I was unfamiliar with the song, but four months in L.A. had rekindled my appreciation for hometown heroes the Byrds, and “I Need Direction” is a particularly Byrds-like tune from the Fannies, so of course I loved it. I loved it so much I listened to it on repeat until I was well into Arizona, which is something you can do when you’re driving alone. The following morning, when I plugged in my phone and started considering music options for the day’s drive, I found that all I wanted to listen to was Teenage Fanclub. 

Obviously I’d listened to Teenage Fanclub before and liked them. Who doesn’t? The band is well-regarded for a reason. I’d heard Bandwagonesque many times and thought it was great, and there was a CD copy of Grand Prix bouncing around in a box in the back of the van. But I’d never spent any appreciable time with their discography. That was over. For the next two weeks, I listened to Teenage Fanclub obsessively, exclusively, poring over their records in a way I’d not done for any band in years (it helped that they’ve never made a bad one.)

Teenage Fanclub’s songs are practically made for driving across the country: all those big open chords mirroring the big open landscapes as they unfurl before you, desert mesas melting into rolling prairies that stretch across rivers and slope up into hills and then mountains, each vista as anthemic and distinctive as the band’s choruses. It’s pleasant and high vibrational music, easy to listen to for hours on end. But there was another reason I had Teenage Fanclub on the brain.

I’d done an interview with Norman Blake for a Bandcamp Daily article (conducted via Zoom while sitting on my bed in my parents’ house in L.A. while he was in the kitchen at his parents’ house in Glasgow) about Teenage Fanclub’s new album, Endless Arcade; a record I found really beautiful and quite compelling as far as rock records go because it’s very plainly about the experience of getting older, but without either the despondency or mawkishness that usually accompanies such subject matter. Though I’d filed the piece before I left California, I wasn’t entirely happy with how it had turned out. Listening to Teenage Fanclub while driving helped me formulate ideas on how to fix it, which I eventually did one night in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Teenage Fanclub’s music has always been described as “melancholy,” something I asked Norman about during the interview. He said it probably had to do with growing up in the west part of Scotland where it’s grim and dark a lot of the time, but then the summer comes and the sun stays out until midnight. That’s nice and all, but it sort of sounded like some canned bullshit he’s been using to respond to the question for the past thirty years, which is fair enough because it’s a bullshit question to have to answer. The reason I asked it was because, to me, Teenage Fanclub’s music isn’t melancholy at all. It’s actually some of the most joyful rock music I’ve ever heard: vibrant, upbeat, happy to exist. A band I knew many years ago once told me that, whenever they were angry at each other on tour, they would put Teenage Fanclub on in the van and allow the bad feelings to dissipate as everybody began singing along, everyone taking a different vocal part and harmonizing with each other until it no longer mattered why they were upset, until they didn’t even remember the reason for it in the first place.

If I had to pick a single word to describe Teenage Fanclub’s music, it would probably be gentle, maybe kind-hearted. It wants to be liked. More than that, it wants you, personally, to like it. It isn’t trying to scare you. It’s also not reactionary music. A Teenage Fanclub record is a Teenage Fanclub record, regardless of whatever is trendy at the time. They don’t really reference anything but themselves and there’s never too much progression or regression in their sound. It always just sounds like them.

Even so, making my way through the band’s discography, I found that I wasn’t interested in listening to anything before 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain because, frankly, the jangle-grunge aesthetic of Teenage Fanclub’s early records has been ripped off so much that it feels sort of dated at this point—a relic of another time and place, if not another world entirely. Staying present becomes something you have to actively work at the older you get, when there’s a lot more behind you to get lost in, and I didn’t want to listen to anything that would pull me into the past. As I became more familiar with Teenage Fanclub’s post-2000 records, it started to seem like staying present is something the band has tried to work at, as well.

There was something else Norman said in our interview that I thought a lot about as I drove, which was that Teenage Fanclub consider themselves a contemporary band, if an “older contemporary band,” who are still interested in making new music rather than coasting on nostalgia. I loved hearing him say that because, while getting old doesn’t really scare me since there’s nothing to be done about it, the idea of living in the past is terrifying—and it seems to happen to a lot of music people.

Scrolling through Instagram, I see accounts from old rock heroes of mine from the ‘90s that are nothing but photos from their youths, captioned with teary recollections of days long gone. Then there are bands from the same era as Teenage Fanclub who don’t really bother making new music and instead endlessly tour on the back of records they made decades ago, playing songs they wrote as 20-year-olds to people who weren’t even born when those songs were current. I don’t want to be too judge-y because you shouldn’t hate on musicians making money however they can these days, but all of it makes me sad. It’s as if they’ve become stuck in some infernal time loop where every good thing that will ever happen has already happened and now there’s nothing to do but look back as it all recedes in the rearview mirror. Is this what becomes of the grand adventure?

Teenage Fanclub’s records tell a different story. If the prospect of living in the past is predicated on the idea that life is a single day that goes from morning to noon to night, no turning back once you’ve entered the dark part, Teenage Fanclub frame life as more like a series of days and nights you go through as you age, each one a little different than the last. Endless Arcade is very explicitly about getting older, but a lot of the band’s later catalogue also deals heavily with the subject. Not all of it, of course, and there is always the danger that I’m reading into the music what I want to be there, rather than what actually is there; but I don’t see how you can interpret a song like “Cells,'' off 2005’s Man-Made, as anything but a song about the relentless and unstoppable creep of age, other than it’s Norman’s homage to Bert Jansch. 2010’s Shadows (probably my favorite of the bunch and the most whimsical, despite the name) is even more literal, with tracks like the strummy “Live With the Seasons,” followed up by a lovely, consolatory tune called “Sweet Days Are Waiting,” and closing out with the sanguine affirmation “Today is the day that never ends.” Then there’s everything about 2016’s Here, the title a proclamation of presence and the songs on it offering sympathetic advice about holding on to one’s dreams through changing circumstances.

Yet for all their acknowledgement of the passing of time and the sentimentality inherent to such an endeavor, Teenage Fanclub never wallow in self-pity over what is gone. Finalities aren’t part of their vocabulary. There actually doesn’t seem to be a single song in the Teenage Fanclub catalogue that speaks of losing hope or giving up completely, and the fact that they didn’t break up when Gerard Love left the band ought to tell you something about their outlook on things. “Don’t be afraid of this endless arcade that is life,” goes the chorus of the title track on Endless Arcade. Even now, they still don’t want to scare you.

Hearing a rock band, in particular, take on the topic of growing older with such forthrightness and optimism was very meaningful to me, as the trajectory of my life so far often makes me feel alienated from my contemporaries, including some of those who also work in the youth-crazed music industry. Social media is littered with people in their early thirties warning “the kids” about bad knees and terrible hangovers and how they better have fun now because it’s all over by the age of 32. It makes me think back to my booze and blow-soaked early thirties spent chasing bands around, booking DIY shows in basements and warehouses, and living my teenage music scene fantasy by generally doing whatever and whoever the fuck I wanted. Then I think about my current circumstances and wonder if I’ve gambled away something I can never get back.

After all, maybe those people with bad knees and terrible hangovers have children and partners and mortgages; all the archetypal milestones of “successful” lives that will see them safely cared for into the future. I have all my worldly possessions in the back of a van I’m driving across the country alone to a Brooklyn apartment where I live with three roommates. It’s not that I’m unhappy or ungrateful for all the blessings of my life, of which there are many. It’s more that, no matter how much I achieve or how many of my dreams come true, it still feels as though I’m constantly attempting to outrun the lonely fate that everything in the world—every film, every book, every callous relative with a snide comment, every Instagram post from people I once looked up to as models for living a fulfilling life—assures me is at my back, waiting to suck me under the moment the clock strikes midnight.

There was a lot of time to fret about that possibility as I drove through long stretches of empty, quiet country; a blank temporal canvas on which to ponder the contours of my “Accidental Life,” as Teenage Fanclub once sang. Listening to the band’s songs brought me comfort by promising that there wasn’t only darkness ahead, but in fact another dawn—and another dawn after that and another one after that. Maybe, Teenage Fanclub’s music seemed to say, it isn’t that there won’t ever be a worm in the apple, but sometimes it’s just you looking for it that makes the worm appear. It was counsel I hadn’t even realized I needed and I began to feel very close to them as a result, in a way I hadn’t felt to a band in a long time.

It occurred to me somewhere between Oklahoma City and Omaha that the canard about losing your ability to love music as you age is half true. Although we can love many bands over our lives, the ones that imprint themselves upon our souls are those whose music shepherds us through things we haven’t yet got the psychic tools to process. So it’s not that you stop being able to love bands in the same way as much as you stop needing them to be guides to the unfamiliar because less and less is unfamiliar. At 38, I probably don’t have many active groups left who will be able to provide that for me, not ones still making records or at least records worth listening to, anyway. Sooner rather than later, all the “new to me” groups will be dead, broken up, or behind me developmentally, so whatever emotional insights they could offer will be ones I’ve worked through—adolescent angst, lovesick depression, whatever else.

This was probably the real reason I didn’t care to revisit Bandwagonesque or Thirteen. There was nothing in those songs for me, no feelings I hadn’t felt, no experiences I hadn’t already gone through. But Teenage Fanclub’s records about what it feels like to get older? Those I could still learn from. Those I can still lean on whenever the fear of being doomed to live in the past threatens to rear its head and spoil the present. It hasn’t happened to Teenage Fanclub so why should it happen to me? If a band can do it, I can do it. 

My last stop before getting back to Brooklyn was Pittsburgh, one of my favorite cities because it’s home to some of my favorite people, one of whom is my friend Eli Kasan of the Gotobeds. We met when I first came to Pittsburgh in 2019 to write an article about his band, a piece touched on many of the same things I’m writing about now: getting older, still feeling passionate about music, still pursuing dreams considered to be reserved for those much younger than ourselves.

I told him I’d been listening to Teenage Fanclub obsessively during my drive. He pointed out that they’re a band who started out very clear about being influenced by groups like Big Star and the Byrds, and how that didn’t necessarily come across in their music at first; but the older they got, the closer they came to sounding like those bands: sweeter, softer, more comfortable, comforting. Maybe that’s best thing any of us can hope for ourselves, really: that as we age, we grow closer to what we hoped we would be in our youth rather than further away from it; and, though life may hurt us in ways we can’t expect then, in the end our teenage dreams will remain unsullied by the tragedy of having gone unfulfilled.

The trip between Pittsburgh and New York was the only part of the drive I’d done before. I’d driven it the last time I returned to Brooklyn, after the pandemic led me to hide out in West Virginia for four months and I stopped in Pittsburgh on my way home. It was summer then and the whole way back along I-76, I listened to Sleater-Kinney, my favorite band from when I was young, the group who defined my whole life in those days. This time it would be Teenage Fanclub, of course. Endless Arcade had been released the day before, so I queued it up and listened on repeat for the next six hours. Teenage Fanclub sounded sweeter than they’d ever sounded and more classic, singing wistful songs about lives not free of disappointment and loss but brimful of hope all the same, their touch gentle and their hearts kind. Around me the fields and forests of western Pennsylvania continued their slow burst into another spring.