Ocean Avenue

It’s the night before my first day of high school, and I’m feeling some feelings. Anxiety. Curiosity. Nostalgia for what I’ve left behind. Excitement for what’s to come. Just 12 hours from my first day in a brand-new school, I don’t know whether I should be scared shitless about diving into the deep end, or reveling in the anticipation of everything that comes with a new start. I know I might lose myself in the great big unknown I’m journeying into. But I also know that there’s opportunity for growth and reinvention and self-discovery waiting somewhere out there. And so, I’m staring down the first day of the rest of my life and trying to sort out the good from the bad. It’s enough to drive any 14-year-old boy mad. Thank goodness, then, for the soundtrack, which might just be the only thing keeping me sane.

I’m fond of saying that my favorite traditions are music-related traditions. I love marking different points of the year with different songs, or albums, or playlists. Holidays; anniversaries; seasonal shifts; specific runs or drives; daytrips to certain places. All these things, for me, can be tied to specific musical cues that become rituals or traditions. Every year when it gets warm enough for a windows-down car ride, for instance, I am, by personal law, required to take a drive with Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit playing very, very loud. It can’t be summer until I’ve done precisely that.

My favorite musical tradition of all time dates back to that Labor Day evening in 2005, right before I headed off to high school for the first time. I’ve always held that there is no melancholy quite like the melancholy of the last day of summer when you’re young. It’s a bit like the peculiar sadness of a Sunday evening, when you know that you have to head back to work or school the next day, but wish the fleeting freedom of the weekend could last a little longer. Except for that, in summertime, as a kid, the freedom does last a little longer – so long that it seems it might last forever. I’d felt that peculiar melancholy before – the mix of sadness at summer’s end and anticipation for the start of something new. But I’d never felt it quite as strongly as I did that day, when it seemed like I might be at the end of what constituted my true “childhood.” It felt momentous in a way, and it needed a soundtrack to capture what I was feeling: the end-of-summer ethos, the melancholy, the finality, the excitement. No one album felt fitting, so I made a playlist.

From the first time I heard “Ocean Avenue” on the radio at the beginning of summer 2004, Yellowcard were summer personified. That song was all sunshine and clear blue skies and waves crashing against a pristine, sandy beach – a beach probably full of beautiful people sunbathing and enjoying each other’s company. To this day, when I hear that song, I can close my eyes and be transported to that same idyllic vacation dreamscape – a place where summer never ends and youth springs eternal. The funny thing about that read on the song, of course, is that “Ocean Avenue” does eventually collide with the end of summer. On the song’s bridge, the protagonist leaves town and has to say some pretty painful goodbyes – which, as you grow up, is almost inevitably what the end of summer eventually brings. On that early September day in 2005, I fixated on that bridge and the way it seemed to capture everything I was feeling. I wasn’t leaving town – I wasn’t even old enough to drive – but I felt like I was leaving a version of myself behind, and a version of my friends, and a version of the life I’d lived up to that point. And so, when it came time to make my “end of summer/end of youth” playlist, “Ocean Avenue” had to be the leadoff track.

More surprising, to me, was the closing slot, which I gave to another song from Ocean Avenue. Up until that point, I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time with “Back Home,” the big, bittersweet finale to Yellowcard’s breakout album. Ocean Avenue, to me, was mostly about the singles: not just the summer euphoria of the title track, but also the grand romantic catharsis of “Only One” and the surf-slam head rush of “Way Away.” That day, though, I for gravitated to “Back Home” and the way it seemed to translate an end-of-summer beachside sunset into something that could be put through a speaker. I hadn’t lived enough life yet to understand the extremely painful coming-of-age moment being described in that song – that of being thousands of miles away from home and missing your friends and family so much that you start second-guessing every choice you ever made that took you away from them. But when Ryan Key sang about sunny days and cloudless skies and what you love being ripped away before you get a chance to feel it, that seemed apt for the melancholy I was feeling as the sun set on another summer of absolute freedom.

Every year after that, on Labor Day evening, I made a point of setting aside an hour or two to play through the same songs and revel in that same unique sadness. As the years went on, the mix evolved. It expanded beyond that initial “freshman class” of songs – those two Yellowcard cuts, plus Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” Counting Crows’ “Miami,” Dashboard Confessional’s “Age Six Racer,” Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” and Jimmy Eat World’s “My Sundown” – to include more than two dozen end-of-summer anthems. In 2006, Dashboard Confessional’s Dusk and Summer album demanded some big revisions to the playlist. In 2013, Matt Nathanson and John Mayer both dropped perfect end-of-summer songs (“Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” and “On the Way Home,” respectively) that earned slots in the hall-of-fame. And in 2020, Taylor Swift provided the COVID-era with the summer bummer staple it needed in the form of “august.”

No matter how old I got, though, that original set of songs retained their singular magic. From sitting in my childhood bedroom and scrawling thoughts in a journal, to driving off to college for the first time; from worrying about summer reading assignments, to pining over a summer crush who left town; from the late August day in 2010 when I realized I was in love with a girl, to the late-August day three years later when I asked her to marry me. So many crucial, load-bearing memories from my life are tied up in the last days of summer, which in turn means they are tied up in these songs. I’ve said before that I always feel closest to my past self at the end of another summer, which by default means that I never feel closer to my past self than I do when listening to this particular set of songs. In a track that never got officially released, Lori McKenna wrote that losing summer tends to bring about “…not much looking forward/A whole lot of looking back.” For me, looking back at a summer after the fact eventually became more or less the same thing as looking back at all the summers, from all the years of my life.

I suppose that’s the magic of Ocean Avenue as a whole, and why it still holds on to all the weight I felt inside its 13-song tracklist all those years ago. As a deeply nostalgic person, there are a lot of albums I love in part because they transport me back in time to a specific chapter of my life. Good albums take hold of a few days; great albums get to encompass a few months, or maybe a whole dang year. But the best albums morph with you over time. The memories you have with them aren’t tied to one moment, because you keep listening to them and they keep collecting new little pieces of who you are and who you were – like a snowball rolling down a hillside and getting bigger and bigger with every passing second. Ocean Avenue is one of those albums. It’s not just one summer, or one Labor Day night, or one leaving-town goodbye. Instead, it’s all of them, from 14 to 32 – and, I’d presume, for years still left to be written.

When I listen to this album now, it’s like flipping through an old photo album. I see all those end-of-summer memories, from youth to adulthood, whenever I hear the opening strains of “Back Home.” I think of friends I lost touch with whenever the bridge of “Empty Apartment” hits. I think of the friends I never lost touch with – or the ones I found again, years later – in the sad, sunny optimism of “Miles Apart,” a song about keeping people close to your heart even when they’re nowhere close to you physically. And in “Way Away,” I hear the eons-old, always-repeating story of coming-of-age – the story of getting older and leaving home in search of something more. Sometimes you find what you’re looking for out in the great big wide open. Sometimes, you leave this town and run forever. Sometimes, you wander back home with a brand-new understanding of how much you love that place – an understanding that really can only come with distance and absence and time. “Back home/I always thought I wanted so much more/Now I’m not so sure.” I’m one of the ones who left and then came back, which means that when I listen to Ocean Avenue now, it’s in the same town where I made all those memories with it all those years ago. Maybe more than any other album, it’s music that I tie to this place I get to call home – and to summertime, when that place is at its very best.

It’s summertime now, which means Ocean Avenue is back in regular rotation once again. It also means that the clock is ticking toward another end of summer, and to the personal reckoning that milestone always brings for me. 18 years ago, that reckoning helped me come to terms with the fact that I was missing the days that were gone and scared shitless about the ones I was going to have to face. I’m a grown up now, but I’m still missing the past and fretting the future – just in different ways than I did when I was 14. Lucky for me, when I get into one of those moods where I feel like the best things are behind me and the future might be a trainwreck, I’m never far away from an album packed with choruses that sound like sunshine and guitars that sound like tidal waves, or from a place off Ocean Avenue, where we’re all still sleeping all day and staying up all night.