The Minivan Albums

 Caroline Galdi

When I was eighteen and about to drop out of music school, I started exchanging online messages with this guy in California who tried to gag himself with a carrot. I met him via an awful Discord server full of people who all had “Parasocial Relationships” with a band whose earliest albums had been recorded in a minivan. 

The band was becoming “Indie Popular,” and a lot of publications like Pitchfork were publishing articles about their Cinderella-story rise to fame. Everyone loved to tell you how the lead singer had started out belting his heart out in a minivan with a guitar plugged into a MacBook. But it took a serious fan to actually sit down and listen to the minivan albums, because they were by and large not good. 

And we were all serious fans. We loved the minivan albums more than whatever the band recorded in a real studio. We had thoroughly excavated the personal histories of the musicians, as if they were figures and not extant twentysomethings living in Seattle. We jealously hoarded old photos and rare recordings as if they were worth something. This made for a thriving social landscape: we had fights and drama and sent each other things in the mail.  I loved the band to death, and still love it today, although this might be a better story if I didn’t. 

It started in the main chat when someone had made himself sick from eating too many hot wings and messaged us all saying he was going to deepthroat a carrot to make himself puke. He had a carrot picked out and everything. I told him that that was a waste of a good carrot and he should get some tea, like peppermint or ginger. I had “Anxiety,” and the idea of him making himself puke upset me. The guy said he didn’t have any tea in the house and I said how do you not have any tea in the house so he said he’d go find some. He drove out looking for tea.  

Then the rest of the chat moved on to our bi-weekly argument about whether or not a certain line in one of the band’s songs was talking about oral sex or not. We began to message each other privately, so as to not have to talk over the ardent discussion on the semantics of the phrase “get eaten”. 

Apparently it was raining hard, even though it never rains in California. Apparently he was risking his neck for the tea. Every tea shop in town was closed—he kept driving up to them and finding them closed, messaging me this one’s closed, this one’s closed—and eventually he found a Starbucks in a mall but they were all out of both ginger and peppermint tea so the barista gave him earl gray with a breath mint dissolved in it. I said that that wasn’t the same thing at all, but as far as I know the carrot lived to see another day. 

I spent a lot of time in the server that winter, and we all knew each other and talked about our lives. I would tell the group all about my music school adventures. For some reason, the fact that I was in music school and went to Lessons and Recitals and Seminars made me interesting. Really, being in music school meant that I spent a lot of my time in a cold practice room looking for a reed that worked, but more of my time in a cold dorm room kicking myself for not being in the practice room. I never felt very special or interesting except when I was in the server. 

So later, when the carrot guy told me I was special, I let him. He said things like: You say you’re afraid of people but you still go to parties, you must be really complex, or: I feel like you have a lot to say, like you’re a really unique person. I accepted these comments by saying things like: aww wow gee thanks. Nobody in music school, save my cellist friend, saw how complex I was. They were all busy listening to New Music, which was funded by arts grants and not recorded in cars. 

We set up calls a couple of times. Sometimes I’d play my instrument in the practice room and he’d tell me how good I sounded, which was not something I heard a lot anymore. I was doing badly in music school. Everyone else seemed to find it easier than I did, and didn’t run out in the middle of rehearsal to have “Anxiety” in the bathroom. But I didn’t have to worry about playing well around Carrot Guy. I could just fumble through something that sounded like “Bach”, and he never had anything critical to say. 

We texted about: our favorite movies, books, old boyfriends and girlfriends, music. Carrot Guy kept wanting me to get into new music, which meant the “Indie Canon,” bands that had better RateYourMusic scores than one we were in a Discord to lose our minds about. But all I listened to, all day, were the minivan albums.

What I loved was the lead singer’s insecurity, his self-hatred, his voice cracks. The newer stuff was good, too, but it was too polished. I loved—we all loved—to hear his songwriting unedited and unadulterated, his voice sometimes ugly with emotion, the self-hatred and teenaged frustration thick as his four-chord singing broke into screams of impotent rage. I loved that his lyrics bounced between the profound and the fake-deep, that there was a persistent feedback whine on half his old recordings, that he didn’t know how to end a song. I loved this the same way parents love their babies’ spit-up and their children’s bad dance recitals. That was why I had a hundred photos of the lead singer saved to my camera roll. Yes, he had real songwriting skill—yes, Pitchfork and NPR liked him—but I loved him, loved the minivan albums especially because they sounded bad, because they were mine alone, because they were full of a beauty, a natural talent, that only I could hear. 

One day I was texting Carrot Guy before a recital, which was so not a big deal. It was a studio recital where all my professor’s students had to play, even the ones who were counting down the days until they dropped out. I saw no difference between, say, a math exam, and the act of playing Bach’s Cello Suite #1, Prelude from memory in a recital hall.  You had to dress up, but in music school, that wasn’t special.  

Bach’s Cello Suite #1, Prelude is a completely overplayed piece of music, by the way. You see it on TV all the time. I just saw an episode of House MD where there’s a lady in the psych ward who used to play cello until her mental problems got bad, and at the end of the episode she plays the cello to demonstrate that she’s cured. The piece she plays is Bach’s Cello Suite #1, Prelude. It is the song that you play to demonstrate that you are cured or that you are in love or that you are a genius. 

And I had to play the Prelude, but I was not cured, nor in love, nor a genius. I wasn’t even a cellist. I played the saxophone, which is the opposite of the cello. The cello leans its neck on your shoulder and shivers with an otherworldly resonance. The saxophone does none of that. It hangs heavy from an ergonomic foam strap around your neck like it is an albatross and you are the Ancient Mariner who killed it. It squawks. It hisses. It drips spit on the leg of your jeans. 

There are genres and traditions of music to which the saxophone gives something important or even sexy. Jazz, rock, bebop. But the saxophone only found a home in these genres after being exiled out of the tradition that birthed it. 

Once upon a time, Adolphe Sax survived several childhood near-death experiences to grow up and become an instrument maker. He saw a gap in the symphony orchestra. The trombones and horns and trumpets drew their power from their brass bodies, but lacked nimble agility. The flutes and clarinets and oboes, on the other hand, could play quickly with their delicate little keys, but lacked raw power. So Sax made an instrument that would fit perfectly in the middle, with the volume of a trombone and the agility of a clarinet. 

Symphonies didn’t want it. Nobody wrote for it. The fact that anybody studied classical saxophone at all was a holdover from 1940s Paris. The fact that I studied it was a mistake borne out of the fact that changing my mind after everyone had been so nice about letting me study music and giving me scholarships seemed embarrassing and stupid. 

Necessarily, there were problems that came with playing a cello piece on the sax. It wasn’t written with a saxophonist’s limitations in mind—I needed to breathe, whereas my cellist friend could draw her bow across the strings for ages and ages without ever having to surface for air. I thought my cellist friend was so perfect and ethereal. She had a natural talent that bubbled out of her. I loved to see the cello rest its neck upon her shoulder and shiver with an otherworldly resonance, and when she played, I thought she was the most cured, in-love genius to ever live. 

But my instrument didn’t work the way hers did. So I could never finish a phrase in a single breath, and my phrasing became choppy. I tended to breathe very shallowly back then, because of “Anxiety.” 

Anyway, the studio recital was about to happen and I was in a practice room testing out reeds. And Carrot Guy texted me What are you up to and I said I was about to bomb this studio recital because I hadn’t practiced enough. 

And he said You’re gonna do great, I know you will, and I, familiar with the self-deprecation dance, and also confident that I hadn’t practiced enough, said: Probably won’t but thanks anyway lol

Which made him say No really, you’re going to do great out there because you’re talented and that’s what matters. 

At that point I hit a limit. I could not accept his encouragement. My rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite Prelude #1 was weak and my tone sizzled with spit and my phrasing was choppy and those were the facts

I said I mean thanks but that’s not how it works 😐 talent isn’t enough you gotta practice too…

No, but your natural talent is going to shine through at the last minute and everyone will see how great you are, he said. And I couldn’t explain to him why his compliments were bad. 

I couldn’t explain that there were pretty girls who actually sucked at their instruments, nor could I explain why it bothered me so much that he wouldn’t believe I was one of them. Clearly I wasn’t cured or in love or a genius. Clearly I was just going through the motions of a beautiful song on a chimerical fluke of an instrument. Clearly I was only doing it because I would rather suffer quietly for hours than quickly and abruptly put an end to something. And I was mad that he couldn’t hear that. Over voice call, he couldn’t hear how much I sucked! 

I didn’t reply. Instead I warmed up a little more, which was futile because my reed was old and bad, and then I walked out to the recital hall and walked onstage and played a mediocre rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude from memory. My phrasing was bad, and my articulation was choppy, and air hissed out from the corners of my mouth. The twelve people in the recital hall clapped politely and then I bowed politely and went back to my cold dorm room, and I sat there for the rest of the evening, listening to the minivan albums so I could hear a different college freshman make bad music and hate himself.   

I left the server shortly after, and later that year it got shut down, per the request of the band. I found this out at one of their concerts. There I was in the pit, and all their equipment was onstage—and a stranger to whom I had been pontificating about the minivan albums pulled up the band’s official fan subreddit and saw the posts about it. “Did you see the frontman shut down the Discord server?” he said. “Everyone was being freaks about his personal life and his minivan recordings.” 

I said, “Really? Good. I always hated how they acted about him.”

And then the band came out onto the stage and picked up their guitars and we all screamed and yelled but I felt weird. 


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