Of course Zach loves “Float On,” he’s a drummer. When I say it now he corrects me — I was a drummer — but don’t believe that for a second. Identities aren’t always defined by practices, we live with our love for things inside our hearts even if sometimes we leave them unattended. Besides, it’s hard to find space for a drum kit in a Brooklyn apartment. He is a drummer.
The Modest Mouse album that song appears on is called Good News For People Who Love Bad News, their breakout, the big one, the album that made them. But I always wanted to rename it. Good news… for people who are so used to bad news that they distrust good news, stare it down, poke at it, try to find a way it’s a sham. Good news… for people who are so used to bad news that it feels familiar and more secure than the terrifying thrill of something good, than the risk of hoping that blip of light will last.
Good news for people who don’t even think they deserve to float on, who think floating is for everyone else while they sink sink sink under abuse or poverty or depression. Good news–good news is the scary thing for me and my siblings, it was something precious to be guarded, played down, made not too good unless it disrupt the order. I thought this album was just for us until I began talking to some other adult friends about their childhoods–if you think you’re all alone in your abuse or shame, you’re probably not.
For a lot of complicated reasons, my childhood was mostly filled with bad news. My life was filled with violence, both emotional and physical, but I didn’t really know that. Well, my body did, and a certain tone of voice still elicits a full-body chill and flinch, but if you had asked me back then I would’ve denied all that and spouted off script about how my parents loved me very very much. They did and do, but were ill-equipped and wounded themselves. Growing up, I learned dysfunction as love, as many of us have. We were working-class poor, Budd a garbage man and and Jane a stay-at-home mom with the four of us kids. Eventually, she began picking up night shifts at the local Subway sandwich shop for the extra money when we were old enough to tuck ourselves in. Dad never tucked us in.
We lived in a very small, homogenous town in Oregon filled with people that I now affectionately refer to as either yokels or yuppies. Everyone I knew was white; almost everyone in my town was white. Almost everyone in my world was also Christian and Conservative, and I attended a church where speaking in tongues was common, encouraged even. I was homeschooled until I was twelve to avoid the secular thinking I would surely encounter in public school.
We lived among trees and green and parks, which I loved, and we went to church every Sunday and literally sat in the front row, which I dutifully endured. I had no friends, and the main thing I remember from my childhood in Oregon is a sense of desperate suffocation. But even back then I knew I was smart as hell. Smart as a whip, as my Grandpa Bill would say. Eventually, my grandfather got so fed up with my parent’s borderline poverty that he built us a house and sold it to my parents for a dollar. (Good news will work its way to all them plans.)
My brother and I had a strained relationship when I was a teenager–the warped and desperate affection that results when you grow up in an abusive environment. As far as I was concerned, there was only one person who could accurately connect me to things that were actually Cool and Good, and that person was Zach. He was four years older than me and quite obviously the coolest person on the planet. Did I mention he was a drummer? Did I mention I learned about pop punk by sneaking into his room when he was gone and listening to his CDs? Did I mention he could skateboard? Did I mention he was the only person I ever saw stand up to my dad?
Some days, he was my everything, the only thing person standing between me and actual, palpable danger; others, he was distant and locked up inside his own head, unable to be there for me while he took care of himself. I was too young to understand that, and felt abandoned any time he went off to live his life on his own. (Even if things end up a bit too heavy, we’ll all float on.)
The day Zach left for college I refused to even get out of bed to hug him goodbye. How could I be in this house without him? Who was I going to become without the safety net of my family’s familiar dysfunction? I hated Portland for like a year straight after that, seething that a city so nearby had stolen my brother from me, even if some part of me was happy he’d escaped. And it seemed clear that college was the only way to do that.
So I put my intelligence to work, surviving high school by losing myself in sports and overachieving; I was away from home as much as possible and graduated top of my class. My 4.0 earned me a full scholarship at a prestigious college in Los Angeles, and when it was time for me to go I was leaving in the typical White family fashion–abruptly and broke. My dad would drive me down to California, to a school I’d never even seen. Just the two of us, a journey I dreaded more than I could possibly say. I wouldn’t get to see Zach before I left the state; he had to work.
Except, the night before, I left good news–a package overnighted from Portland showed up on our front porch. It was from Zach, and it was for me. The package contained a long letter and a mix CD–truly, the perfect sendoff. In the summer of 2006 Good News For People Who Love Bad News had been out for two years, and “Float On” was already resonating everywhere. It was the band’s first No. 1 on the Rock Chart, made it to No. 68 on the Billboard 200 and was even nominated for a Grammy the year after it was released. But I don’t think I’d heard it yet, in the car, leaving home forever, I heard it for the first time. There were actually two versions of “Float On” on the CD Zach made for me–the original, by Modest Mouse, was the first track on the CD and a cover of it, by this Alabama bluegrass band called Iron Horse who did an entire covers album called Pickin’ On Modest Mouse, was the final one.
I’m sure I’m exaggerating when I say this song saved my life, but I’m also sure I’m not. On that drive down I-5 through the unfamiliar deserts of California, I was 18, green and terrified, clinging to Isaac Brock’s flimsy assurances for dear life. (We’ll all float on okay.) I switched between those two version of the song for the entirety of the drive down, sitting sullen on the passenger side with my headphones in, silently sobbing for the loss of something I couldn’t name. (Alright already, we’ll all float on.) I didn’t even listen to the rest of the mix CD until I got to campus, and I never would’ve put the CD on in the van and risked subjecting Isaac Brock’s hopeful yelping to my dad’s acid tongue. Nope, me and the song were floating safe together, tucked in headphones away from him. And I was almost free. (Don’t worry we’ll all float on.)
When I finally got settled at Pepperdine and my dad eventually left, I played the song as loud as could on my own personal speakers, blaring it in the still-empty dorm and screaming along: WE’LL FLOAT ON GOOD NEWS IS ON THE WAY. And it was–I graduated college, moved to New York City, and became a successful music writer. Who gets to do that? After five years in this city, a chance encounter with “Float On” will still reduce me to tears, turn me back into that scared teen girl buoyed by a single song on a mixtape from her brother. But I was buoyed–this song made me float.
Isaac Brock lives in Portland now, but I don’t think he even did back then. I do remember though, that the farther I got from Oregon–and the longer I lived away from home–the more Modest Mouse’s gritty, unswerving insistence on existence sounded like the essence of the state itself; wildly imperfect, quirky and repetitive, fully aware of its flaws but resolute that things can change, will get better. “Float On” is also the song that I would argue represents Portland itself the best: aggressively insolent, secretly soft, incessantly hopeful, and just a little twangy and weird. Oh, and adored by the country at large even if most people don’t really get what’s at the heart of it.
But even for the people who might not hear the deeper significance of this song, who think it’s tired and old or overplayed, you know what even they get? Those fucking drums, man. Wherever you are, that’s the sound of good news.
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.