There was a time when Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut was the only album I listened to for an entire calendar year. Literally. That seems like an exaggeration, an overreach of the figurative use of “literally.” It’s not. I was ten during the summer of 1997, when ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ took over every radio station on Earth, and by the time I was 11 – and after pilfering my dad’s copy of Third Eye Blind – the album had effectively taken over my listening life.
It’s difficult to articulate how much I’ve listened to that album and how interwoven it is with the fabric of my personal identity. I spent my formative years – when I sat on the precipice of adolescence, beginning a never-ending existential crisis of self-discovery – listening to it almost exclusively. Third Eye Blind is light and cheery on the surface and dark and tormented beneath; those layers and that depth were incredibly appealing and important to me at a time when I was starting to learn about my own depth as a person.
Art is a mirror and as I grew and changed, I saw myself reflected more clearly in Third Eye Blind than in anything else in my life. In it I found more than just some semblance of understanding or solace; I found the same violent emotions, the confusion and isolation, that felt so prominent in my own life. I found a voice – both sonic and lyrical – that was as odd and broken and magical as I felt. I found myself.
That discovery – that there was something beyond my fingertips that I understood and that understood me – was critical. An awkward kid, I struggled with the complexity of growing up, especially with the crossing of that adolescent threshold over which everything becomes suddenly new and beautiful and painful and strange. I didn’t know how to process the changing infrastructure of my life and when it came to interacting with my evolving peers I was maladroit at best. For a long time I was lonely and confused and uncomfortable in my own skin. In my self-doubt, I leaned on Third Eye Blind, burying myself in its rhythms and patterns. Throughout my ungainly growing pains I endured the hazards of emotional awakening by telling myself that even though I had never been so alone, just as Stephan Jenkins intoned on my favorite song, I had never been so alive.
At a middle school dance I managed to build up the courage to talk to the girl on whom I had a devastating crush. Lacking confidence, I spent most of the year assuming my affections would remain unrequited and thinking of her every time Jenkins sang “I see you searching for something I could never give you.” Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that when the time came and I was finally ready to make my move, my anxiety left me tripping over my own words, unsure of what to say. She asked me about myself and the only thing that seemed worth mentioning was my love of Third Eye Blind. When she told me she liked the New Radicals I tried to explain that I didn’t just “like” Third Eye Blind. That I loved it. That it was me. Needless to say we didn’t talk much after that; instead, our brief non-relationship served as my initiation into heartbreak.
(I may have lost the girl, but I did sing ‘Jumper’ – over a voiceless karaoke track, as it were – at the school talent show. So that’s something.)
Later that year my parents very spontaneously decided to take my sister and I on vacation to Mexico. We came home a week later to find my grandfather, who pet-sat for us, pointing out a small growth on the neck of Ollie, our dog. In the afterglow of our beach vacation, relaxed and refreshed as we were, this seemed inconsequential, something a veterinarian could easily remedy. It wasn’t. Before the week was done I found myself in the backseat of my mother’s SUV as we took Ollie to the vet’s office for the final time. I sat next to his prone figure, stroking his head and quietly singing ‘The Background’ through my tears. “Everything is quiet since you’re not around,” the song begins, “and I live in the numbness now, in the background.” In a small and sterile room, my parents and I stood, our hands on Ollie, as he was put to sleep.
It was one of my first brushes with death; suddenly the mortality and loss that Jenkins sang about on ‘The Background’ seemed impossibly real. After that day with Ollie, I didn’t listen to ‘The Background’ again for a long time. But I still listened to Third Eye Blind constantly, almost exclusively. As I began exploring the perilous and invigorating depths of adult emotion, experientially learning about love and loss, I needed that record as much as I ever had. And so every day, as I sat in my room playing Final Fantasy VII while listening to Third Eye Blind on repeat, I’d get up every fifty minutes or so and skip ‘The Background’ before it could start. I couldn’t bear to hear that song anymore. But I couldn’t bear to stop listening to Third Eye Blind either.
As I got older I listened to each new 3EB release obsessively (from here on out I’ll be referring to the band as 3EB to avoid confusion with their self-titled album) and it always felt like the band’s efforts stayed strangely in line with my own personal development. When Blue arrived I was in junior high and both the album and I were weird and sullen and moody. Out of the Vein, with its craftily refined hooks, carried me and my developing sense of self-confidence through the end of high school. When Ursa Major showed up in 2009 it was malformed and ill-finished and ultimately disappointing at the same time that I was embarking on a series of uninspired career choices, having just entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession. Anti-mimesis and all that.
3EB’s most recent releases, the full-length Dopamine (2015) and the EP We Are Drugs (2016), are polished. Both releases lean heavily on nostalgia, asking listeners to indulge in a craving created by age and distance. That nostalgia is effective, to a point. When I listen to both of these albums I smile and nod because they have my voice – the voice I used when I was a boy, when I was learning how to feel and breathe and live. They sound the way memories feel, in a way, with how they hearken back to this whole other person that I was and for whom I feel an irresistible kinship but who I no longer am. And that last clause is important: despite their modern flourishes, Dopamine and We Are Drugs rarely invoke the person I am today.
The result of this nostalgic flavor is that my relationship with these newest 3EB installments is almost paternal. If the older 3EB records feel like me, then the new 3EB material feels like my child: in a way, it is me – an image of me from another time – but it is also a unique thing that I experience from a slight distance. In the moments when it struggles, I blush and feel embarrassed, hoping that no one else is listening. When it’s good, I want to be proud because all that I’ve poured into this band over the years feels justified. I also want to hold it close, to never let go, to never share. It’s all too personal.
People often talk about the albums that changed their lives, but I would never put Third Eye Blind on such a list. When it came into my sphere there was nothing to change, no preexisting material to augment – and then I loved that record and it was my life. In a very real sense, it is sometimes difficult for me to establish where 3EB, especially Third Eye Blind, ends and my nostalgic sense of self begins. In fact, I can’t help but think of 3EB as my band and of Third Eye Blind as my album, things that are indisputably personal but only for me. This band is mine – my past, my person. And maybe it is. But not exclusively. It also, weirdly, belongs to everyone else who has ever found themselves in it.
That’s not an easy truth to accept. That anyone else could have a deep relationship with these things – things that are so personal and intimate, so closely tied to my very sense of being – seems incomprehensible, no matter how incontrovertibly true. And as bizarre as it sounds, this – my connection to 3EB and Third Eye Blind – is the realization of the unstated promise of fandom: that what a band or actress or artist is offering is special not because of what it says about them but because of what it says about you.
My grandfather, the man who had found the growth on Ollie’s neck, died in 2007. During those last few months, when his health was rapidly deteriorating, the song ‘Blanket of Ghosts’ – by Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue – helped me to cope with his impending death. It’s a potent song about mortality and weakness and grief; it was a fitting palliative for my college-aged self. But loss has a way of stripping us down to the core, so maybe it’s not surprising that on the drive home from the funeral I didn’t listen to ‘Blanket of Ghosts.’ Instead, I listened to ‘The Background.’
It had been eight years – since that ride with Ollie in 1999 – since I had last listened to it. It was a strange experience, hearing it again, like hearing a song for the very first time but finding that you know every rhythm and every word. But then again of course I still knew every moment of ‘The Background.’ After all that time spent braiding together its sounds and my life, I had come to know the beats of Third Eye Blind as well as those of my own heart. They were practically the same thing.
My experiences with 3EB and Third Eye Blind are specific but they are not unique. Everyone who cares about music has some similar set of histories and personally significant moments. Yet I don’t know that we can ever really understand what music means to someone else, in the same way that it may be impossible to ever truly know anyone else at all. We can’t set foot in one another’s minds, where the deep, dark truths live. We can’t know exactly how someone else’s experiences have bound them together. But I think it’s important that we try to communicate those experiences all the same. Because if we don’t tell our stories, we doom those deeply resonant internal melodies to fade, eventually, into silence.
That telling is not without consequence, though. In writing this I begin to wonder if maybe, by obliquely sharing these personal truths, I’ve betrayed some core part of myself that takes pride in isolation and impenetrability. Does sharing something personal inherently mean giving it up, to some degree? Or, perhaps more importantly, if I have built something so personal – me, namely – out of art that was made by someone else and is beloved by countless others, did I even have something private to lose in the first place?
I have to believe that communicating some part of myself is not deleterious to that part. But I also have to believe that the experience I had with Third Eye Blind was different than the experience anyone else could have had with that album. It must be possible to become who you are by leaning on the works of others and it must be possible to communicate that experience without losing it. Because if not, where does that leave me in this empty nest?