Shortly after I wrote this blog post about Sean Nelson's place in pop immortality, Sean told us all that he had some news: He's leaving The Stranger (again) to take a new job in Nashville, Tennessee.
The staff had a private send-off party earlier this week that included such luminaries as Annie Wagner and Rebecca Brown and such activities as dabbing. Sean had never dabbed before. Seemed right, seemed good, watching the latest addition to the editorial staff, Lester Black, heat up a nail to a bright, bright red with a blowtorch so Sean (and me, and others) could freebase some cannabis. I no longer have a memory, so the following list is at best incomplete, but here are some of the best things Sean's written over his 76-year history at The Stranger.
• That time he interviewed a Honeycrisp apple. We used to have a column in the food section where we asked someone in the food industry three questions. One day at QFC, Sean had a different idea. The art seems to have disappeared online, but it was a photo of a Honeycrisp apple with googley eyes stuck on.
• That essay about It's a Wonderful Life. Sean originally wrote about the Frank Capra classic in 2001, because the Grand Illusion shows it at Christmastime every year. Headline: "It's a Miserable Life: The Abiding Darkness of a Capra Classic." He revisited that piece, and updated it, in 2016, a month after Donald Trump won the presidency. Headline: "End the Saddest Year of All Time with the Saddest Film of All Time." First paragraph:
Though I reject the notion that sacredness exists, the Grand Illusion Cinema feels sacred to me. It's the last of the small, lovingly shabby independent movie houses that used to run through Seattle like a seam of gold. It's in the University District, where almost nothing is good. One minute you're slogging past students, civilians, and Ave rats, and the next, you're up a flight of wobbly wooden stairs and into a tiny time warp.
• That time he wrote that Trump was going to win. He wrote it a week before the election. He got a lot of blowback for thinking this.
• That time he wrote about sports. Well, one sport. Soccer. The first sentence: "The average attendance for Sounders league matches at Qwest Field is 30,204." The second sentence: "People." The third: "In one place."
• That essay he wrote about guns. "Three days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, I fired a handgun for the first time." That's how the essay begins. It has an unforgettable turn about three-quarters of the way through.
• That time he wrote about Jim Henson. "I don't know what I could have been expecting, but when I came face-to-face with the actual physical Bert and Ernie in their little striped sweaters, mouths agape in a permanent smile, rubber ducky in hand, I was stunned into silent awe. It only took about five seconds before I burst into tears."
• That time he wrote the first thing The Stranger ever published about social media. In 2003, he wrote a piece about "Friendster, the newest trend in online extroversion, like LiveJournal for grownups." He set out to "see what had happened to make this dork colony sprout wings," and produced a surprisingly prescient piece of writing about the future we now live in.
• That time he wrote about his favorite thing about weed legalization. Headline: "Thank God I Never Have to Roll Another Joint." Here's a flavor:
I used to buy weed from a woman in Greenwood. She was sort of a Fagin-lite character, with a penchant for collecting stray teenagers—only instead of putting them to work as pickpockets, she would just let them crash at her house, hang around her living room all day, smoke her pot, and make her feel useful or loved or something. Her motives were opaque. Then again, I also never asked, because I didn't actually care.
• That time he wrote about Kurt Cobain. "The chief criticism of the new experimental documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son... is that were he alive, Kurt Cobain would hate it. This projection isn't relevant—since he's not alive—nor particularly damning, because, frankly, who cares? ... The whole point about Cobain, consecrated by his mirthless image on posters down the ages and reinforced dramatically in the film, is that he didn't like anything about himself for very long."
• That time he wrote a cover story about a cover band. Cover bands never get any respect. So Sean wrote 5,000 words about a cover band called The Beatniks. And we gave them the full cover treatment (see inset).
• That piece he wrote in remembrance of Aaron Huffman. They were in the band Harvey Danger together.
• That time he wrote a takedown of the collaboration between Metallica and Lou Reed. It was called "Master of Bation: Metallica Helps Reed Reach an All-Time Lou."
• That time he wrote about the Sleater-Kinney song "Sympathy." "No matter what your politics, no matter how good your band is, you will die, and only 'in the face of what we're most afraid of' can we ever know what we truly believe."
• That essay about Paul Simon. Headline: "Stop Pretending You Don't Like Paul Simon." Representative sentence: "It's hard to think of a hit song that paints a bleaker picture of life than 'Slip Sliding Away,' or any song so catchy that you can sing along with every syllable, mirroring every vocal leap, without realizing just how melancholy the words coming out of your mouth are."
• That time he told college students to drop out of school. "I know you didn't ask, but my advice is: Go ahead and quit. If you miss it, you'll go back. If you don't miss it, you'll be sparing yourself anywhere from one month to 10 years of miserable self-loathing, poisonous cynicism, and misguided finger-pointing."
• That time he regretted telling college students to drop out of school. After 14 years, he had come to the conclusion that the previously mentioned piece of advice was wrong and he recanted telling college students to drop out.
I have received more correspondence about that piece than any other article I've written in 22 years as a journalist. I still get e-mails about it. People have written to tell me it helped ease their anxiety after they, too, dropped out of school. People have written to congratulate me for articulating a vague sense they'd had for a long time that they were just sleepwalking through their college experience because they thought they had to. In a few cases, people have written to say the article was the last straw in their decision to drop out.
In every case, I say the usual things: Thank you for reading, thank you for writing, I hope everything is going well for you, etc. What I never say are a few things I find myself believing as years go by:
I take it all back. It's not that world anymore. Maybe it never was. Stay in school. Get a degree. Learn a trade. The world is a nightmare. The economy is fucked. Life is suffering. Your dreams don't matter to anyone but you. Your quest for independence and self-determination are an illusion born of privilege and a misbegotten sense of what "freedom" even is. There is no such thing as "living the way you want to live." What kind of asshole tells that to a bunch of children?
• That time he wrote about his family's connection to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Sean's grandfather played the Stage Manager in the original 1938 Broadway production.
• That time he wrote about David Bowie's last album, Blackstar. "Last night at 11:06 pm, I was walking home from rehearsal, on Harvard between Pike and Union, listening to Blackstar on headphones—song three, 'Lazarus,' wouldn’t you just know—when I got a text with the news that David Bowie was dead. It was, at a minimum, the 20th time I had listened to the album in the past week. The only reason I'm not listening to it right now is so that I can type this."
• That takedown he wrote of the Salinger documentary. "Far from obliterating his enigma with damning information and innuendo, the film only serves to fortify Salinger’s mystery. You’d have to be pretty generous to imagine that anyone involved was interested in doing that."
• That time he wrote about Seattle's emotional unavailability. It was a "welcome to Seattle" piece in the New to Town issue, and it went a little like this:
Now that you've been here for some period of time that is more than a week and less than a year, there's something you should know: The emotional intelligence of the city you have chosen for your new home is fucked.
The "we" that is currently processing your application will cancel plans without notice and never speak to you again if you complain. It will talk shit about you behind your back while being nothing but warm to your face. It will ignore your texts for months and then send you one that's like "Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, we need to hang out it's been too long." It will promise to come to your show and forget all about it before its coffee is cool enough to sip. It will borrow the shirt you like. It will not return it. It will fuck your boy/girlfriend immediately after and possibly long before your relationship ends. And it will do all of these things while swearing on all it holds sacred that friendship is the most important thing in the world.
If you've spent more than a few months here, none of the above will be news to you. You may be wondering why these conditions prevail. After 22 years of living here, I'd love to tell you the answer. But I can't. I can, however, tell you that everyone I know laments the way things are, even as we continue contributing to the problem. I can also tell you that the true friendships I've made here are deep and durable, and the good times I've had among the counterfeit ones are potent and memorable, too.
• That time he wrote a tagline for The Stranger that we still use today. "Seattle's Only Newspaper" was supposed to be a joke. It was written for our redesigned website in 2005. At the time there were several other thriving papers in town. But Sean has always had the gift of prescience.
In honor of Sean's distaste for internet comments, they're closed. Have fun in Nashville, Mr. Nelson, and say hi to Megan Seling for me.