The center of the center of downtown Chicago is known as The Loop. That’s a bit of a misnomer in that, like so many things in Chicago, it is all hard flinty right angles, not the curved infinite thing a name like “The Loop” suggests.
“Aloha Spirit” by Seam is built around a loop. A simple, circular six-note guitar figure rotates slowly in the background for the entire duration of the song. With each successive pass, it gathers the other elements into its orbit: a few simple guitar chords; a somber, loping bass; a second guitar, chiming a high, sympathetic arpeggio. And each time the loop repeats, it sounds a little different than the time before, as everything around it rises and settles and decays.
I left Chicago in 1998 not knowing I’d never move back. I left not knowing I’d never see my friend Steven again.
Steven was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, with a brilliant mind for numbers and codes. But you wouldn’t necessarily guess that sitting next to him at a bar. “I come from peasant stock,” he would say, flashing his giant grin. That was his way of explaining why he was so strong, and why he could drink whiskey like a motherfucker. He was a generous listener, and he beamed at you when you were talking to him. He was part of a circle of friends that I never had before then and have never been able to replicate since. We were young and Asian American in a city whose most visible color lines were starkly black and white. We were a crew.
Steven and I had the good luck to become friends with one of our favorite bands, and in those days, to move among the crowd together at Seam show was, for a few hours at least, to feel the dynamics of the usual world turned inside out: An Asian-American band onstage; a mostly white audience hanging on every note; our circle of friends that felt so close and needed and unbreakable.
When Steven was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma he had just turned 30, and just gotten engaged. He traveled to L.A. to see a specialist, and to get some rest. One day I called my friend Melissa, who happened to be visiting him. As she was about to hand him her phone, the doorbell rang, and a group of friends rushed in. I could hear them in the background exchanging hellos, Steven’s childlike laugh pixelated by the cell phone’s primitive microphone. I figured he was busy enough, and told Melissa I’d call him later. I never got that chance.
“Aloha Spirit” is the final song on the final Seam album. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. Sometimes, I listen to it for no other reason than to remember Steven. And I can see him, standing next to me at some hot crowded club in Chicago, bobbing his head in time, a giant wondrous smile stretching across his face. It’s like he is still alive inside this song somehow, between the inevitability of the guitar loop and the slow hard physical labor of the drums, in the spaces that open and crash closed and rise again, a charged particle of joy that burns through the heart and is gone.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.