Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

The Earliest of Novembers

A meandering essay about the emo music of my teenage years in New Jersey.

The Earliest of Novembers
Photo by Mick Haupt / Unsplash

The only reason I know it was April 30, 2010 is because about three hours ago, while trying to figure out how to write this story, I searched for “Ace Enders” and “Ramapo College,” knowing there was a good chance, with how much I posted to Facebook back then, I would’ve asked someone to join me for the show.

And there it was: my request, Adam’s response. A few hours later, we made the drive up from Bayonne to Mahwah, parked, and walked to the building where Ace Enders was set to open for River City Extension, another New Jersey band long broken up.

At the time of the show, I was 21 years old and a junior at William Paterson University. My hair was short, my tee shirts and jeans no longer skintight. I hadn’t been an emo kid since junior year of high school. But it’s incredible how your favorite memories become so caked into your consciousness, they draw you back. As if time travel were real and you could relive your past. That sense of nostalgia was just four years removed then, and it's just as alive for me more than 18 years later.

I had seen Ace, the frontman of The Early November, play for the first time on October 17, 2003. We had spent that entire summer, Mickey and I, in his attic watching his Drive-Thru Records DVD and finding songs, like Allister’s “Somewhere Down in Fullerton,” and Home Grown’s “Give It Up,” which were easy enough for our band to cover. There was this live version of TEN’s “Every Night’s Another Story” from Skate and Surf, which was like Bonnaroo for New Jersey emo kids in the early 2000s. We watched it over and over and screamed the lyrics out to each other. Somehow Mickey found out all our favorite bands—Allister, Home Grown, The Early November, Starting Line, Senses Fail, Steel Train*—were playing at Club Krome, a rundown venue in either Sayreville or South Amboy (depending on what you Google), and we convinced our parents to drop us off and pick us up.

It was maybe the greatest show of my life. For four hours, we lifted our hands to the sky, screamed our throats raw, and surfed on the fingertips of strangers. That night, we went home with the fading signature of Senses Fail frontman Buddy Nielsen on our arms and a load of band tee shirts we were proud to wear to school the whole of the next week.

I don’t know how we come to the genres of music we love.

My first favorite band, in third grade, was the Spice Girls. In fourth and fifth grade, it was the Backstreet Boys. Then Blink 182. In eighth grade, I bought a ball-chain necklace and System of a Down tee shirt and told everyone my favorite band was Cold. Listening to them enabled me to wallow in the misery of being a chubby kid on the periphery of the popular crowd while claiming some deep-seated superiority to them. Then somehow, Mickey and I found emo music, and it became the defining genre of our teenage years. It’s hard to argue, for me, nearly two decades later, it still isn't so. Jason Isbell, Ben Howard, Sufjan Stevens—who are they if not the emo music of 30 year olds?

During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I had this yellow Walkman that I played music on when I walked back and forth from school. For a long time I had The Early November’s 2003 album, The Room’s Too Cold, on without interruption. That was the age before iPods and curated playlists. I had bought the CD at Sound City on Broadway, where my friends and I spent hours loitering in the aisles, before our musical appetite became so insatiable that we turned to Ares, Kazaa, and Limewire to get our fix for free. Looking back now, it feels like that was a more innocent time, though I know that’s a lie.

CD cover for TEN's 2003 album The Room's Too Cold.

I do this every year around in the fall when the temperature drops and the leaves fall off the trees. I turn to Emo/Screamo (2002-2006), the Spotify playlist I’ve been curating since December 15, 2014, and I think about those years when I spent Saturday nights at shows around New Jersey with my friends. When I wore my hair black and spread across my forehead and left eyeball like Sonny in From First to Last did before he became Skrillex. When the only thing I wanted was for our band, Catullus, to get signed to Drive-Thru or Victory Records by the time we were out of school so that we could tour the country and have other teenagers sing our sad/angry lyrics with us over a crowd of pulsing fans.

Back in 2017, the writer Mabel Rosenheck wrote about this same nostalgia for her days as an emo kid in New Jersey in an essay for Longreads. She pointed out something I also realized as I got older—which makes it hard to go back to that playlist each November and actually, really listen to each word the guys in Boys Night Out, Hawthorne Heights, and Coheed sing. She said:

Though I clearly indulge in it, nostalgia is a problematic mode of understanding the past. It is too often...about a time and place that is romanticized, a time and place that never really existed quite as we want to remember it. My memories seem so real, so accurately recalled, but I know better than to trust them. I know that memories lie, and yet I believe mine....Mine are memories that want to find a place in the present...but they are memories which I fear are simply naive artifacts of the past. They are artifacts I’m not sure I should retrieve. They are artifacts I’m not sure how to retrieve anyway.

I can tell you, without question, that some of the nights I most cherish today are the ones I spent in Mickey’s attic, after Catullus practices, listening to music, eating 28-inch pizzas and Double Stuf Oreos, and talking about where we would go if things went right. I think deep down inside, we always knew we weren’t going to make it. We weren’t going to be rock stars. I think we also knew there was a problem with the lyrics we were writing that made it sound like the most important thing in the world was hooking up with girls, and the worst was having them reject us. If they did, we’d turn their rejection into a song other blue-balled guys around the state would empathize with and post to their Myspace pages, and other girls would find endearing—which would make them want to hook up with us. What bullshit.

Listening to Ace Enders’s lyrics now at 32, I realize he wasn’t a genius. He was an angsty, suburban South Jersey kid, just a few years older than I was, trying to find a poetic way to talk about girls and, in his deeper moments, trouble at home. The hooks to his songs were catchy, though they made little sense. Take the chorus to “Ever So Sweet,” the first and most popular song from The Room’s Too Cold:

Ever so sweet, you baked it in cakes for me /
What you left behind /
It hurts my teeth /
Bring in the past /
with the postcards you sent for me /
Every line, /
It brings me right back down.

But, to his credit, Ace never did stop writing. In 2010, when I saw him with Adam, who was the only one of us to make it in the scene,** The Early November had been broken up for four years. Ace was releasing music under two different names: Ace Enders and a Million Different People and I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business. He was prolific and maturing. Eventually TEN got back together and released four more albums: In Currents (2012), Imbue (2015), Fifteen Years (2017), and Lilac (2019).

Playing guitar for Catullus at a Battle of the Bands in a skate rink somewhere in North Jersey, circa spring 2006.

It’s easy to think that artists stop existing the second we tune out. Today, when I meet former emo kids—you can usually pinpoint them in coffee shops  by their tattoo sleeves or the holes in their ears and lips where plugs and snakebite piercings once were—I find myself saying, “I like Underoath too. But just their old stuff. The new stuff got weird” And, by new stuff, I mean any album after 2006. It is genuinely astounding to me to learn that Senses Fail and Silverstein are still releasing music in 2021. Who listens to it? Surely not this generation. Or are they like I am with Springsteen and John Prine, discovering geniuses decades after their first wave of ardent followers moved on. “They changed, man. It’s not the same.” I say that about bands like Yesterday’s Rising, Alexisonfire, Spitalfield, that started breaking up before I could even buy beer. And now I’m sitting here weeks from having a second kid with a hairline that’s hanging on for dear life.

That show at Ramapo College, Ace Enders played alone, with an electric guitar he hooked up to an effects pedal that made it sound like he was playing in outer space. He asked if anyone had requests, and I did: “Just Enough.” It was an acoustic song neither he nor the band ever released, but it appeared on the Drive-Thru DVD Mickey and I watched obsessively that summer of 2003. It was a show-off move.

I wanted Ace to know he had a real fan there. A kid who had walked to school in Hudson County, probably the county in New Jersey with the lowest number of emo kids per capita, humming his words every morning and wearing tee shirts he had bought at his shows.

Ace was as surprised as I had hoped to hear my request. “I don’t remember how to play that one, but if you do, why don’t you come up here and play it with me?” I couldn’t accept the invitation, because I didn’t know how to play it either. The show ended, and we talked for a bit afterward. I asked him who his favorite writer was—thinking he was going to say Hemingway, William Faulkner, or Chuck Palahniuk. Instead he told me he was dyslexic, so he didn’t reach much. Bryan Adams was his biggest influence as a songwriter. Adam and I got in the car and drove back to Bayonne, probably listening to Dance Gavin Dance or The Dangerous Summer, bands that formed the second wave of emo music in my life—a more quiet time when I no longer needed to wear girl's jeans or tell people that mainstream emo was for posers.

The Early November has never, from what I can find online, played a show in Knoxville. But I check from time to time to see if they're planning reunion tour yet. When they do, maybe they'll stop close by in Nashville or Atlanta, and I can be there in the front row making weird requests. What I do know is that Ace is 39 today, just four years younger than Sturgill Simpson. In 2020, he released an album of covers from his various projects, under his own name, called Dustin' Off the Ol' Guitar. I listen to it and I'm transported back to a younger version of myself. As ephemeral and imperfect as those days were, maybe we could all use that kind of time travel on occasion.

Incredibly while Googling to verify details for this essay I stumbled on a video clip from the April 30, 2010 show a YouTuber named roman warrior posted in 2015. Here it is, if you’re curious***:

*This was an inside joke between us. Steel Train had this song, "Blown Away," on the Drive-Thru Record DVD. The song isn't good and singer's voice is the kind of whiny that you remember years later. We took turns singing the songs opening lines as whiny as we could in Mickey's attic and swore no one else took that band seriously. Amazingly, they outlasted some of our favorites. Steel Train broke up in 2013.

**Adam was always the most talented. Mickey recruited him while we were playing hacky sack at lunch when we were in eighth grade and he was just a sixth grader. He tried out by playing us the solo from "Hell Song" by Sum 41. After Catullus broke up, Adam played in a couple of different bands and started recording music of his own at what became Timber Studios, which produces a lot of what's big today in the post-hardcore genre. His band Gatherers is signed to Equal Vision Records.

***This is a subject for another story. But am I the only person who finds it fascinating there are people on YouTube posting videos of these songs and bands years after they filmed them? When I get nostalgic about music from the local NJ scene of the early-to-mid 2000s, I'll search Kick Over the Traces, Guns Like Girls,Postbreak Tragedy and find videos with comments below them of people who are on the same reminiscing journey as I am in those moments.

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Jamie Larson