If you’re reading this, you probably live in Ithaca. You live in a town that is named for the Odyssey’s mythical idea of home.
What’s really amazing is that Ithaca, the town, is almost great enough to deserve its name. It could so easily have turned out otherwise. If the town were smaller, it couldn’t sustain the vibrance of its culture. If it were much bigger, it might be as unremarkable as Syracuse or Binghamton. And if it were closer to New York City, you wouldn’t be reading about Ithaca’s art scene. You would be reading Brooklyn Vegan, because Ithaca would have no scene of its own worth writing about.
We are lucky.
I left Ithaca almost four years ago, and the last thing that kept it feeling like home is gone now. So I want to pay my respects, both to the project I was a part of and to the town that was its home.
Most of you probably never saw my band IY play. But you probably have seen a little blue “IY” sticker on some road sign somewhere. That’s us. We started IY as Boynton Middle School students in 2000, at age twelve.
There wasn’t much of a middle school live music scene, but there was a vibrant scene down the road at Ithaca High School. The high school bands often let us open for them at the shows they put on at the CSMA, the Teen Center, and elsewhere. It was a scene run almost entirely by high schoolers, for the benefit of high schoolers; it was a scene that I think most small towns in Upstate New York don’t have. I’m glad it was around to take us in.
When we got to high school ourselves, we landed our first shows in bars. What kind of bar would book a band of fourteen-year-olds? The Nines was first. But within maybe a year, certainly within two, we’d played The Haunt and Castaways. I can’t figure out what business sense it makes for a bar to book a band so young. And not only would they book us–often they would make exceptions to their 18+ age limits and open their doors to anyone who wanted to see live music that night.
I thank the owners and operators of every club in Ithaca that gives bands of teenagers the chance to play the same stages that John Brown’s Body and the Sim Redmond Band play. I’m looking at you, Will Fox. You gave my generation of Ithaca teenagers the chance to experience the wonder of live music, and that is a great thing to have done.
I’m not, by the way, suggesting we made wonderful music at sixteen. We didn’t. The wonder was in a full room of people, all roughly the same age, celebrating that we were young, together, and making stuff we thought was cool.
So many of the people we played with back then are tackling rewarding, ambitious projects now.
The guys from Subject to Change–indeed, it changed and they now go by Ambassadors–toured England last year, and they just got back from a week of gigs at SXSW. The guys from Seth Feldman are still making music together, and they’ve started their own record label with a roster of (so far) twelve artists. My friend Maïa, who you may remember from the band Kievan Rus, made a surprising record of Rancid covers arranged for (mostly) voice and accordion. She calls herself Your Kid Sister, and she plays in Paris and Barcelona next month.
For our part, well, we managed to make six records, we got to be the band in the Hangar’s glorious production of HAIR, and we got to tour Australia for six weeks last summer.
Most of all, we got to be an active part of the Ithaca music scene for an entire decade. Much like the high school scene embraced us when we were middle-schoolers, the local scene let us in when we were too young. The Sim Redmond Band had us open one of their shows when we were just seventeen. Grassroots gave us a gig the next year. At nineteen, we got to make our CD “Two Letters” in a proper studio, where we learned, among many things, how to accomplish an ambitious project on a budget, without cutting any important corners.
I don’t think I can express how grateful I am for all of this. But I’ll try to illustrate it.
NYU (where I am about to graduate with a degree in philosophy) has a Department of Recorded Music. It was founded by Clive Davis himself, and it is widely regarded as a Very Big Deal. You can spend roughly $50,000 per year to attend this Department of Recorded Music, where they teach you record production, studio budgeting, tour promotion, songwriting, and more. To a musician, these are all things worth knowing.
And growing up in Ithaca, I got to learn them for free. People often ask me–particularly lately–what I’m going to do with a philosophy degree. I tell them I’m going to play music for a living, and people who are not from Ithaca get this look on their faces that says, “Yes, but what are you really going to do for a living?”
I don’t blame them a bit. But when young adults from Ithaca say they will be musicians, or writers, painters, dancers, what have you–they know what they are saying. They know the risks and challenges they’ll face, and they know how great the rewards are. I think you have to be from Ithaca to understand this.
IY is not the first band to begin and end in Ithaca, and we will not be the last. I’m sad that the project is over, yes. Quite. But mostly I’m grateful we got to be around for so long in such a great place.
Please help it stay great. If your kids start a band, don’t discourage them from taking it seriously. They may not become rock stars, but they may well become working musicians. Even if they don’t, I promise the band will bring them only good things.
And when a current high school band like The Cece’s plays a show at The Nines, go. Make sure to stay off the dance floor and out of the way of their crowd, who are celebrating something you can’t celebrate. Instead, stay by the bar, buy a drink. You can toast to supporting something great.