*unofficial lyrics to spoken-word portion after the song taken from the mwY reddit*
I see myself in the reflection of peoples’s eyes
Realizing what they see may not be even close to the image I see in myself
And I think I might actually be more afraid
I feel like they know the story
I saw a bear floating in the river and thought it was a fur coat
Twelve years ago, I stood on the shore
Jumped in and grabbed the coat
And the river is rushing toward a waterfall
And my friend stood at the shore and shouted to let go of the coat
And swim back to land
I let go of the coat, but the coat won’t let go of me
In any case please let me know if there’s more I can give you
If nothing comes of it, then just know we are grateful
The pendulum swings back.
I don’t know much about Paramore for a person writing about a track on a Paramore album credited simply to Paramore. But that’s okay because Aaron Weiss, guest vocalist and writer and frontman for mewithoutYou, has the envious ability to transform stories into his life, his life into stories. Though essentially functioning as a reverent tribute track to Paramore’s career (seen in stolen lyrics and references to the pop punk band’s oeuvre), in “No Friend” it seems like Weiss cannot help himself from turning a simple guest track into another emotional outlet. This isn’t unprecedented for the man. Weiss’s early, early 2002 guest vocals on Norma Jean’s “Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste” are obvious analogies to his romantic troubles; his 2014 appearance on Say Anything’s “Push” reflected the mature adult realities of family and mental health. I believe it’s fair to say that even Weiss’s secondary works reflect his mindset and function as parts of the mewithoutYou canon.
“No Friend”’s harshness has given me pause. There is self-righteous wrath in Weiss’s voice that hasn’t been heard since at least 2004’s Catch for Us the Foxes, veering closer towards his debut record A->B Life which admittedly was an angsty, power chord-heavy generic hardcore album. His yelling sounds less like a catchy musical effect and more like a genuine beg. You must understand: Weiss has presented himself as on a quieter, increasingly theological trajectory for the past fifteen years. He never mellowed out, per se, but just opted to dive headfirst into religion and philosophy rather than continue writing about failed relationships from years past. This wasn’t an easy trick to win an audience of Christians, as Weiss quickly progressed from Sunday School lessons to rejection of the self, universalism, and the nature of reality. He perhaps rejected the fame and fortune of his peers by going down this path of artistic purity. While his band is a phenomenal group it’s been clear that Weiss’s openness is what gives them definition. I, like many others, found much of my love for the writer in his numerous thoughtful, heart-felt, unafraid of looking uncool interviews of old. I, like many others, experienced the absolute pleasure of sitting down after a performance with the sweaty, tired, bandana-clad singer and picking his brain for an hour. This has been his gimmick. Famous and approachable. Fashionable and homeless. The high-minded man of the people.
So how in the world do I deal with hearing, “I’m no savior of yours, and you’re no friend of mine”? How do I reconcile my admiration of my favorite author with the request, “Throw your pedestal of stone in the forgetful sea as protection from the paper-thin perfection you project on me”? And how does a man who just spent fifteen years in near-monasticism earnestly claim, “Back when I felt most free I had a butcher’s heart and no one thought they knew me”?
Let me tell you a story. It’s not a secret, but very dear. Last November I met Aaron for the third time (the first in 2010 was for a quick hug, the second in 2011 was for an extended talk prompted by my own girl problems). As it was the night after the presidential election Aaron posted to Facebook an open invitation for a post-show Salat prayer. A few people gathered for him, but I was the first applicant. He had to pack his gear first and get everything loaded into the band’s trailer, so I got to wait outside. He’d walk by occasionally and always check if I was still joining him. I was, I was. He knew my name and he treated me as a special individual, and even though he understandably forgot me in the five-year interim he acted as if we had never parted. We prayed together. Our shoulders touched on the rug. As the group dispersed and he gathered to leave I sprang to get a private word with him for a quick moment. He slung his arm around my shoulder and asked, “Yes, brother?” I teased him about being one of the few to see his shameless Joyce references in his latest album and then I asked for a picture. As I waited for Snapchat to focus I saw his tooth smile turn to a neutral expression for my image, a deliberate sabotage I speculate was in reaction to public celebrity suddenly interfering with private intimacy. We waved and departed. But still, he put his arm around my shoulder. He called me his brother. He invited the people, brought the rug, found the alleyway, taught the method. He provided and I received, as has been the case since I was a teenager in my basement bedroom with a CD player and a curfew.
What I realized in 2016 that I didn’t in 2011 is how much this takes out of a man. This love, this kindness. The joy of being a decent person can add much (including, dangerously, an ego problem), but these measures of fan appreciation remove time and thought and experiences from any other thing. In that five-year interim Weiss was married and had a child. They joined the band for the tour. His every moment with me was another second removed from his family. He revealed to me that he truly wanted to visit the pinball arcade nearby but didn’t, for he found the praying more important. He revealed that his band was ready to leave and hit the next town. “My driver’s waiting so let’s make one point crystal clear: You see a flood-lit form, I see a shirt design.” When I watch old videos of Weiss talking theology, I no longer see a genius or a holy man. I see a kid younger than my younger friends repeating some basic philosophy and Biblical values to maintain an aesthetic. That all said, the guy’s mind is brilliant and he has introduced me to more beautiful works and avenues of thought than I care to admit, but he was a kid, man. Musical talent aside, he’s another guy. He’s any guy. Maybe he’s even me. But is that assuming too much?
Some months ago I was pedestaled. I felt my weight cracking the foundation. I heard endless compliments. I was such a special guy, so kind, so smart, so generous. Sure, I appreciated the words but began noticing a tone of helplessness from the speaker that placed on me unnecessary burdens. Rather than my alleged abilities inspiring another to perform in equal measure it was merely understood that I had some special nature or aura that gave me supernatural qualities. The speaker of sweet nothings never saw this as a muscle or learned technique, and they just guessed they didn’t have this own capacity within them and therefore never tried. As a strange result I felt my own goodness unappreciated. Because my actions (as a friend, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on) were attributed to mystic forces around me or within me, my hard work, along with my inherent tit-for-tat selfish motivations for a friend of my own, was never complimented. I became an idol, and on a pedestal anything can be an idol.
Weiss is, as he says in “No Friend,” sleeping in the bed he’s made. His actions have led to expectations, and the acceptance or rejection of these expectations lead fans to elation or disappointment. But Weiss, at least up until 2015’s Pale Horses when this modern thought began, never let on to the emotional, mental, physical toll it has taken on him after fifteen years of being the relatable hero young, confused kids always want to talk to for an hour after a dancing, screaming, exhausting performance. And just like Weiss’s musical capabilities, he has been performing, always. In every interview, every guest track, every handshake or prayer or dumpster dive. It would be unfair to say I don’t actually know anything of the man – I do. It would also be unfair to say he’s harboring some dark and repulsive secret – he probably isn’t. But I must respect, as must we all, the fine line between public and private and the lack of knowledge I do have. Everything has been provided, the humanity is just an art piece. A drawing’s not an artist even when an artist draws himself.
The resentment in “No Friend” has the adverse effect of making me only more grateful for the kindness Weiss has provided me. It reshapes his image from a holy man to a man who may offer you his time or friendship or love due to his own volition. This is how all of us operate. None of us are saviors. And when we talk big, when we call for togetherness or join hands in communion, when we impress potential mates with charismatic hijinks or beautiful poetry or stories of religious experience from thousands of years ago the truth is that we’re not doing much more than repeating all the people who came before us.
And yet in the spoken-word portion of the song, after the official lyrics end, you hear an admission and apology. “I let go of the coat, but the coat won’t let go of me. In any case please let me know if there’s more I can give you. If nothing comes of it, just know we are grateful.” Aaron Weiss is a great man, but he’s not any greater than you are.