‘Modern Vampires’ in New Mexico
I have fallen in love with Vampire Weekend several times. The first I can remember was in the backseat of a minivan when “A-Punk” came on the radio. There was “Holiday” a few years later, which I’m pretty sure I first encountered on a TV advertisement — corporate America had by then well clued in to the selling power of indie-pop — and later “Diane Young,” which came on at a seafood restaurant near my home called Yellowfin, just after I spilled a glass of water into my mother’s lap. But the time that remains clearest in my mind was more recently, over the winter holiday of 2015, clutching Modern Vampires of the City in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For the last few years I’ve spent my winter holiday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My grandparents on my dad’s side moved there about a decade ago, chasing fulfillment of my grandmother’s only partially tongue-in-cheek adoration of cowboys and my grandfather’s belief that he might become one. They have not been entirely unsuccessful.
I was twelve years old on my first visit West, and I went alone, wearing a dorky “unaccompanied minor” badge on the flight, feeling quite irritated in the forced company of a too-uppity (and thus, I assumed, condescending) flight attendant. When I arrived, my grandfather took me to a range to ride horses. He put on a heavy dark brown Western-style hat that I hadn’t seen before, with a silver Aztec figurine fixed in the center, and as he stood foreground to the biggest mountains and the wildest horses I’d ever encountered, I was filled with a sense of pride for his newly-donned cool. My grandfather was a cowboy. I was the grandson of a cowboy.
While he discussed whiskey with the range holster, I approached the backend of a large stallion, causing the animal to kick back promptly and then step down on my leg, removing a not insignificant portion of the skin of my inner calf. As grandmother later bandaged my limb, she asked me if I had ever heard of Billy the Kid.
The trips lessened as I aged, and by the winter break of 2015, now a freshman in college, Santa Fe was taking on newer themes. The old ones were still there: I still had a starry eyed view of the mountains and the air tasted just as crisp as it always had. But the youthful unequivocal adoration I had for my grandparents was falling away in place of a more sober understanding. As a child, the foreignness of their home and the fascinating aesthetic they cultivated precluded any possibility that they, too, were just people.
We were spending the holiday at their Santa Fe home because it was the conciliatory measure arbitrated between my parents and my grandparents. My parents thought Santa Fe was fine so long as they didn’t have to fly the two thousand miles from east-to-west to see it. My grandparents had assumed, in their move, that we would just come to them. When my visits began teetering off, my grandparents started to feel the distance, and it became a point of serious contention.
Modern Vampires of the City was the first album I listened to on the plane from Detroit to Albuquerque, finally finished with my first semester at college. The months had been strange, new and above all exhausting. I was desperate for relaxation in a scenic, familiar place. I needed to decompress from the intensive identity recalibration that comes with beginning somewhere new.
The songs of Modern Vampires provided a similar familiarity. I’d been in love with “Step” since it came out when I was in high school, sitting in the violin section during orchestra rehearsal singing the glittery riff on Pachelbel’s canon to myself while a heavily dandruffed conductor shouted words at me I didn’t process. It’s a beautiful escape of a song. The melody sounds like a wedding but the lyrics are as wry and adolescent as can be, speaking to a youthful angst I clung to. I only understood “Ya Hey” in a vague sense, but felt like it’s confusion in belief was also my personal one (it never exactly is, of course, but music has a way of being easily bent to your own experiences). I listened to it in the car home from Yom Kippur services, and found that homophone, “Ya Hey” for “Yahweh” (an informal Jewish name for God), infinitely clever.
I read a review of the album in Pitchfork at the time that said something along the lines of “Ezra Koenig is smarter than you.” Yes, the “you” was an all-encompassing one, and I took it personally. But after listening to Modern Vampires I couldn’t deny that it was definitely true, and I had a mixed up sense of worship, envy and adoration for the eminently cool and eminently smart frontman. These songs were complicated, but funny, but effortless.
Albums have a way of adapting to the moment when you’re listening to them. While on the plane, Modern Vampires recalled for me — with rosy colored glasses — car rides years before. It became a travel album in that moment, and I listened to it in car rides everywhere in New Mexico that week.
Santa Fe was less familiar, though, than I had hoped. At Michigan I was being exposed to insidious new feelings and ideas. I nodded less thoroughly at the dinner table as my dad’s family voiced, over roasted asparagus, opinions I found intensely questionable: about Black people, the overweight, the unmannered, the homosexuals. Had they always spoken this way? I told myself they were well intentioned. But aged liberalism can come with a casual (and sometimes not so casual) sneer, one which can easily blossom like a carrion flower, filling the dining room with the putrid stench of prejudice.
So I’d leave the dinner table after a thoughtful conversation on why gay people should not be so “loud,” why people dressed like this or that (so much black!) and why young people these days had no manners and run to my phone for solace. I scrolled through images of my friends, salvaged via smart phone the life I had thousands of miles away in Ann Arbor — a life with people my grandparents would, without hesitation, call “weirdos” with a good hearted, judgmental laugh — and I realized that I would never feel quite as comfortable as I had in my early years in Santa Fe.
I ran to Modern Vampires too. When Koenig sang of a trip across the country with a sense of finality, I felt the words were my own journey: “A gardener told me some plants move / But I could not believe it / 'Til me and Hannah Hunt / Saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix.” I felt like I’d seen those vines and willows. And I felt the homesickness of Hannah Hunt, crying in Santa Barbara on freezing beaches while the New York Times is torn to pieces. I longed for the east again, the place I’d once been so happy to escape for for Santa Fe.
I started to resent the old image I had curated when I was a younger boy on those trips, who wore Sperry Top-Siders, spoke of blond haired women and had no reservations about celebrating Christmas as a kid with a Jewish mother, dark hair, dark eyes and a very Jewish nose. A switch in my head had been flipped. I was no longer checking myself at the door when I entered their home, ready to put on a more appeasing and palatable persona.
I began to resent the West. I couldn’t help it. My unchecked dreamy teenage mind had its sights set, now on a different horizon: to New York, the big and strange city I’d known since I was even younger than my first visit out West, the city my mother’s parents immigrated to as children; to Brooklyn, where my grandfather lived; to the Borough Park streets my western grandmother had said were intolerable, gross… dirty (how could anybody live there?); to the strange, often queer clubs in the lower east side that I entered at eighteen and nineteen with an ID that read “Maine”; clubs that felt, somehow, more welcome to an illegal teen than my own Christmas dinner table out West; to the city on the cover of Modern Vampires.
All of these feelings wrapped into how I processed the album then, and it became the sounding board where I vented my frustrations. In those tracks was the eastern aesthetic I desperately wanted. These songs were proclamations that life did not begin and end in Santa Fe.
When I listen to Modern Vampires now, that winter holiday is wrapped into its meaning. There are newer meanings too. And there will be more in the future.