The summer of 2003 is the last year that I consider ‘normal’ from my youth. It’s the first time I was aware of the ticking clock over the heads of my high school friends when we hung out, as they would head to the four corners for college in a couple years. It’s also the last year before the fractures in my parents’ marriage began showing true depth, which would eventually lead to their divorce.
Ten years later, I packed up my car and drove north for the last time as I moved to Chicago in early 2013. I was leaving my family and everyone I had grown up with. As I hit the interstate, I turned on an album to make sense of the hope I had for my future. The first track defines that moment to me as I drove towards unknown potential – “So Long, Astoria”.
So Long, Astoria by The Ataris lived and died by the era it was written in. Early 2003 saw an epidemic of generic pop punk bands, the likes of which would prove to be the ruin of the genre from mainstream radio. However, it is because of this deluge that allowed a record like this to truly stand out as something special, even if it also got lost in the shuffle without the credit it deserved.
So Long, Astoria is an album about specific moments in life. Each song is a short story littered with tiny details from real points in vocalist/guitarist Kris Roe’s life. That, or he’s a better fiction writer than anyone has given him credit for. Personal memories, such as playing a guitar alone in a bedroom and dreaming of the future (“So Long, Astoria”), or having someone tell you that their best friend likes you (“Summer ‘79”) is what makes life so special and memorable. It’s arguable that The Ataris are responsible for the first album I had ever heard that wrote about the best of memories instead of broken relationships.
Each song focuses on a defining moment while growing up. Whether it be about reflection on life, childhood memories or just taking in the beauty of Americana, the details are astoundingly poignant. Standing on the edge of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, it’s hard not to think of Roe singing, “The sunrise over smoke stacks in the Midwest / The beauty of this abandoned factory / Christmas lights blinking on and off, all out of time / In what used to be / Your pink house dreams of a middle class America” (“All You Can Ever Learn Is What You Already Know”).
The theme of specific moments has always stuck with me. Whether I was aware of it or not, I have always played songs from this album in the background on days or during moments I thought might be important. High school graduation (“Summer ’79″), my first flight in a decade (“Takeoffs And Landings”), and after every romantic breakup, when I didn’t know what else to do but just sit and stare into the middle distance (“A Beautiful Mistake”).
Even so, I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of The Ataris. I’ve never heard another record they have released, and I don’t listen to So Long, Astoria that often. I can’t even claim to know the lyrics of most of the songs, or why I listened to those specific ones until I re-read the lyrics while writing this article and remembered why they meant so much to me.
What is important is the message of the album. Don’t take life for granted. Enjoy the happy times and look back fondly on them and how they made you into who you are today. Nostalgia is great, but what is the point if those cherished memories don’t make you smile each time you think of them?
I don’t see my high school friends very often, and it is hard to imagine my parents together anymore after both have moved on to different and better lives. But I remember the moment I made peace with their divorce and saw how happy they were afterwards (“The Hero Dies In This One”). But I still laugh at the thought of some of the things we got into as my generation became adults. Unintentionally, So Long, Astoria is a diary to a specific moment in my life before things started to fall apart, often for the better. It is a record of youth and the acceptance that something better is always just around the corner. In the end, that is the best legacy it could have left on anyone willing to listen.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and took two multi-hour walks listening to this album before writing about it. He did not realize how often it came up in his life until that point, because he is a dunce. If you see him, ‘BOO’ him to his face until he cries. He will know why.