Oberlin Blogs

The Last Splash of Thursday

March 26, 2024

Ava Illi '27

I’ve always considered myself a pretty involved New Yorker. I love the Highline, I hate bikers, and I find myself in a constant state of pretending I’m the only one who’s running late on the subway. Before Oberlin, New York was the only place I’d really gotten to know. You can imagine what a shock it was to me to be limited to a 10-minute walking radius and buildings no higher than five stories as I began to adjust to the grand old city of Oberlin. 

The scattered skyline and majorly disjointed car-to-pedestrian ratio, however, were not the only things I found myself aching to leave behind (and no, I’m not going to talk about the emotional turmoil that fell upon me as I hugged my dog and cat goodbye for the last time - we don’t want to open that whole other can of worms). In fact, one of the most devastating losses of the summer had nothing to do with curses about who had the right of way or chasing a rat away from my dog’s newest pile. 

I also consider myself a (mildly obsessive) connoisseur of ’90s alt-rock. I am one of many who must admit that my middle school grungy phase just never wore off. Naturally, that summer saw the devastation caused by the inconvenient touring schedule of the quintessential 90s alternative rock band, the Breeders. I will always remember the day I stared in horror at the words “New York City - September 17th” on my tear-smudged computer screen. 

And it’s not just the Breeders! The great thing about being raised in the East Village of Manhattan is that it’s filled to the brim with rich rock history - pure as gold stories about musicians starving in the park while recording their most successful albums, or disgusting hole-in-the-walls where they’d have career-defining shows and break into the music scene. I’ve been surrounded by flocks of artists and performances my whole life, and it’s only now that I can fully understand the relevance of that. This past year in particular, for what seemed like the entirety of my time away from the city, musical figures from all angles of the Western rock persuasion - Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Liz Phair, L7 - the list goes on - were to be involved in some sort of public performance in my favorite, usually most accessible city. How would I go on knowing that THESE were the people I was leaving behind? 

As it so happened, the Breeders were playing a show in Cleveland on September 7th - during my first full week in Ohio. And as it also happened, this was not just any Cleveland venue. The Breeders were booked to play their entire best-selling album, Last Splash - the one that had gotten me through a good (bad) portion of high school - at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, no less. I was gonna make it happen, right? 

Flash forward to about 5:30 pm on the night of the show. I’m at Stevenson dining hall, the most frequented dining hall on campus, angrily shoveling pizza for the whole place to see in an attempt to somehow sustain myself for what I hope will end up being one of the coolest nights of my life. I’ll just book an Uber to pick me up outside of Stevie, right? 

A word of advice to anyone on campus without a car looking to get to Cleveland on a Tuesday evening - Be Ready. 

One second, Uber was THIS close to finding us a ride. The next, there was no one willing to come closer to campus than the golf club an hour and a half away. It took until 6:30 trying to book, cancel, rebook, recancel, and stalk the Uber icons within a ten-mile radius of Oberlin before I finally found the vehicle promising wholeheartedly to deliver us to salvation. 

Finally, we end up with a very nice man named Stephen. He’s very familiar with Ohio. And he has a daughter who also happens to be very into rock music. He’s appropriately excited to hear the Breeders are touring again. All is well. 

As we turn into Cleveland, the highway is just imperfectly aligned with the horizon enough to catch a glimpse of the sun nestled between pink, frilly clouds. All I could think was, “Wow, it’s impressive how unobstructed and flat this view is.” 

And just as the sun hits the glistening water of Lake Erie, the towering black pyramid comes into view. It’s an unmistakable dark building accented with red lettering (and a remarkably peaked bit of disturbance against what we’ve established ad nauseam of the flat theme going on here). 

The stage was tiny (and without an awning), and the audience was small but filled with anticipation. And then, they went on stage.

We could barely hear through the piercing screams as Kim Deal approached her special distortion-mic and began her first round of chant-like, monotoned hums to signal the band’s biggest hit, "Cannonball." Just as I felt like I was about to collapse like a swooning nineteenth-century debutante, the first verse of the song began and I was screaming just as loud as (realistically, to an obnoxious degree louder than) everyone else in the bouncing, swaying crowd.

And so, the perfect night was growing more and more perfect with every song I had imagined for years I would one day bear witness to in real life. Now, they weren’t just the band I sifted through my parents’ CD collection to find. They were right here, in front of me, showing me what humanity was capable of. 

And then it started to rain. 

That could’ve been it, but the funny thing about Ohio and Ohioans (did I mention the Breeders are from Dayton?) is that they will never - under any circumstances - allow themselves to inspire disappointment without first exhausting every effort of their being against it. So lovely Kim, lovely Kelly, lovely Justine (who’s actually from England, but that’s not the point), and lovely Jim ran into the lobby of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and set up the most rag-tag version of a set they could pull together before the crowd went crazy. 

A hush fell over the crowd as Kim began the first line of the last, arguably most sentimental and heartbreaking song on the album. “Drivin’ on 9/You could be a shadow…” Kim’s sister and fellow guitar player, Kelly, frantically switched back and forth between the instrumentalists with the one microphone the venue had provided. There wasn’t time for a full keyboard set-up, so she simply held her phone up to the mic and played the keyboard app herself when keys were needed. It was one of the most bizarre and subsequently heart-wrenching moments of my life. 

And it happened in Ohio, half an hour from the bed I crashed into that night and lay dreaming about distorted guitars and iPhone keyboards. It was as if the entire state was telling me I had made the right choice - that I would really find a home here, and that the people would be the best part of it all. It couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.


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