Sometimes I find myself dreaming. And I know how that sounds, but I dream about home. So I’m dreaming about Detroit. But the Detroit I know doesn’t exist, and it never has. It’s a rose-colored heat-stroke of the brain and it all comes rushing back to me when I’m away. I get caught up in the fever of past-present-maybe Detroit all at once. Boarded-up houses and wheat line the neighborhood blocks, skyscrapers to the south. Steamy manhole covers and shattered windows. A Model T rolls down Gratiot next to someone carrying a boombox on a BMX bike. Wait for it.
I’ve heard that Justin Vernon once prefaced “Michicant” by saying it’s “about the things you can’t do anymore. So if you do you’ll be sent to West Michigan forever.” That’s probably true. I’ve never been to West Michigan, but I’ve also never known anyone who’s gone and come back. People drink their souls out of craft beer cans in Grand Rapids (we all have a high tolerance), or else they just fall off the shores into Lake Michigan. After all, no one goes to Muskegon for the beach.
The song begins with a twinkling. We’re all dreaming again. It’s soft and it’s warm and Justin Vernon says “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age.” I am all bones — always have been. They jut out, especially my hips. “Tender” always sounds the way my bones feel. He says, “Melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page.” If someone asked you what Michigan sounds like, would you say a lake? Maybe that clip-clip-clip noise the roads make. Roads are the notes, the Lake is the song. Young skinny dippers in June is the dream. “And the frost took up the eyes,” he sings. It feels like the lake freezes over in September. I haven’t played in the lake since I was a kid. The frost always comes before I can get to it.
My best friend came home from California, where I have never been. I hear there are palm trees there. I also hear that the leaves don’t change color, they just fall off, like they’ve given up. Driving on the highway, cracks in the concrete shot sound up through the car like lightning strikes. “I’m looking for the green,” he said. I looked too, but it was all gray and brown. We listen to “Michicant” and watch the black pines blur together.
The second verse is just as dreamy and faraway as the first. A bicycle bell appears and suddenly I am 12, peddling down alleyways. “Pressed against the pane / Could see the veins and there was poison out.” I’ll only only ever be that little boy with his head pressed against the windowpane, looking at the rain poisoning his summer days. That rain hurts, though. It’s always freezing, popping ice droplets against the sidewalk. “Hon’, it wasn’t yet the spring,” Justin Vernon sings. He’s right. That never comes until late May when the last of the frost melts and the ground softens up. And there you are, left holding your swim trunks in your hand on the porch while the snow buries your car and “Michicant” is horns and something else that sounds too far away.
Every spring, I feel like I’d never even seen an apple blossom before. They burst out, little pink explosions on the trees. All of a sudden, there are robins hopping all over the lawn and everything looks soaking wet. “Aiming and it sunk and we were drunk and we had fleshed it out / Nose up in the globes, you never know if you are passing out.” It’s Easter and my aunts are four glasses of wine deep, each of them. The twinkling gets louder on “Michicant,” a nostalgic wink and beat. “Love can hardly leave the room / With your heart.”
And your heart is still there, sweaty and eighteen, losing your virginity to a girl from Lansing in a dorm room so hot that the white-painted cinder block walls were wet. It’s all over and there’s frost on the windowpane of your heart and you just want to be home, naked and burning on the deserted lakeshore. “Michicant” was never about what you couldn’t do in Michigan. It’s about what you can’t do when you’ve left. You aren’t dreaming anymore. The song’s over. You’re really here. Is it how you imagined it? Wait for it.