Literature

Luke O’Neil Found Fresh Hell in the Suburbs. But What Exactly Did He Leave Behind?

In his second book, Lockdown in Hell World, he reflects on leaving Boston mid-pandemic, and watching it slip away.


luke o'neil lockdown in hell world

Photo of Luke O’Neil performing at Great Scott courtesy by Adam Parshall | Book cover art provided

Back on a random Friday in November of 2019, I walked out of Great Scott for the last time. A whole bar full of us had shown up at the Allston mainstay to celebrate the success of Luke O’Neil, the writer and Boston contributor who had just published his first book, Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American dystopia, a collection of essays pulled in part from his popular newsletter.

I didn’t know it was the last time, of course. None of us had any idea what was coming by then. But given that a dispute with the venue’s landlord didn’t break Great Scott’s way, it ended up being one of my more significant “lasts” in pre-COVID Boston, a version of the city that is gone forever.

Now, a year and a half later, O’Neil is out with yet another book, a follow-up called Lockdown in Hell World, which he wrote while sequestered inside a house he bought in the suburbs just as the pandemic really kicked in. And he tells me the setting has given him plenty of space to view what’s happened to his city, and his beloved haunts, from afar. He does not like what he is seeing.

“I was planning on being really depressed and bummed out to be away from Boston, but that sort of existential crisis I was planning on having was robbed from me. In a way, it was comforting and kind of bitterly ironic. Like, I planned on missing the city, but the city really isn’t itself anymore. So it was a slower, gentler landing,” he says. “People always say the city is decaying or losing its soul. And even understanding that that’s always an overstatement, I think it might actually be real this time.”

Readers of Lockdown can expect to find many essays written with a similarly bleak lens, on everything from the healthcare system and the media to a dust-up with his MAGA-loving neighbor. But as with all of O’Neil’s work, there is a refreshing, raw honesty to this level of unvarnished pessimism, and a kind of gallows humor best appreciated by people suffering through something horrific—which all of us, of course, are. Sometimes when a pandemic causes half a million preventable deaths and causes irreparable harm to the things you love, you don’t want to see the bright side.

Still, there is a lot of heart in this book. Like in the excerpt shared below, in which O’Neil takes a look back at what Great Scott has meant to him over the years, all the people from his old hangouts he can’t wait to hug once this is all over, and the way even the best memories inevitably dissolve.

Take a minute to mourn with him, and buy the book here.

I Miss Those People Very Much

I remember the first and last time I went to Great Scott it’s just the few hundred times in between I’m having trouble keeping track of.

The first time would have been twenty years ago this summer. It was an aggressively average frat bar then not the iconic indie rock club it would soon become and I remember it being terrible and exhilarating but maybe that’s just in the way that everything is terrible and exhilarating when you’re young. I did not particularly like it at the time it would take a while for that to change.

My friends and I lived across the street in an apartment that smelled like a marmot had pissed all over the rug because that’s exactly what had happened with the previous tenants. There would be fights outside on the corner almost every weekend this being the DMZ between Boston College and Boston University and I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out what they were about but I’d still go in sometimes anyway because it was right there across the street as I said and the apartment wasn’t very comfortable on account of the roaches all over the sink that had migrated over from the Pizzeria Uno next door and the fact that I slept on a random mattress in the living room I had rescued from the sidewalk.

No one really worried about or knew what bed bugs were back then I don’t think or maybe I was just twenty one and disgusting.

The last time I ever went was in the winter just before the pandemic for the release party for my first Hell World book which was about how capitalism destroys everything and nothing good can stay. The last song I heard there was “Glacier” by my dear friend and sometimes bandmate Aaron Perrino who performed at the release.

It starts so pure

Yeah we dream big

Something happens

Something changes

Like a glacier

That slowly melts away

The hopes we have

Corrode and it starts a tidal wave

“It is with a heavy heart today that I announce that Great Scott will not re-open,” long time Great Scott manager Tim Philbin posted on Facebook in May. “For 44 years Great Scott has provided entertainment and more than a few beverages to a loyal group of customers. From its inception in 1976 as a local bar featuring blues and folk performers to the 1980s and 1990s as a beloved college dive featuring cover bands and DJ nights, to the 2000s and its emergence as one of the best live music venues in the city, Great Scott has meant many things to many people.”

“Through it all we’ve aspired to be a good neighbor to our community and a friend to all who walk through our doors. There is a sign that still hangs in the venue from the establishment that Great Scott replaced. The name of which was Brandy’s. That sign reads ‘Where Incredible Friendships Begin.’ I’m glad we never took it down because it explains Great Scott better than I ever could. Take care of yourselves and each other.”

It wasn’t the first beloved institution in Boston to close because of the economic fall out of the pandemic and it won’t be the last but it’s the one that has hit me the hardest. Even after we’ve moved away I always assumed it would be there waiting for me when this is all over.

I’ve been trying to think about some of the best and worst nights of my life many of which began or ended at Great Scott and I simply can’t narrow it down for some reason it’s like there’s too much static to cut through to find a clean signal. It’s like spending a gorgeous day in the ocean many years ago that you generally remember fondly and trying to call to mind right now one specific single wave that buoyed you and a second wave that knocked you over. After a while all the waves become impossible to differentiate from one another and it all flattens out into sensory noise.

The lease for the bar is apparently not going to be renewed by the landlord my other friend and the man mostly responsible for turning Great Scott into what it is Carl Lavin told me. The family who owns the building owns so many other buildings man. When you own that many buildings it’s never enough buildings I suppose. Some people spend their lives accumulating real estate and others spend their lives accumulating memories of experiences with friends in shitty bars and then you don’t even get to hold onto them for very long on the back end. Unlike real estate memories depreciate in value over time it’s a huge fucking rip off.

After a fundraising effort it looks like they may be able to reopen in a different location at some undefined time in the future when we feel safe to congregate again which is hopeful news but it won’t really be the same. Nothing will.

It’s hard for me to remember anything now due to we’ve outsourced most of our memories to various devices many of which are no longer even accessible to us. Lost memories on lost memory drives. Most of the memories I have of my life can only be pulled up by a sort of mnemonic tool both in the form of a photo and when the photo is no longer available to me I usually lose the memory too and I guess it just goes on like that until we stop remembering anything at all. Just yesterday we were looking through some old things and we found a black and white photo my grandmother must have taken forty or fifty years ago of the old dilapidated farmhouse I grew up in and she wrote on the back in this shaky little handwriting in faded blue ink “SAVE THIS PHOTO” because I guess even then you needed to document things for them to remain real for as long as possible. I saved the photo though and now I am thinking about her and now she’s real again.

I looked at my phone and I saw two toddlers embracing each other in a forest north of Miami and two thirty something women embracing each other in a bathroom mirror on an island west of Oakland and a room full of people singing every word to a song by one of my favorite bands at a show I had tickets to but couldn’t bring myself to go to and a Christmas tree and a woman eating dumplings in Chinatown and a friend sharing a photo of himself when he was young and another friend sharing a photo of himself when he was young and then when the news of Great Scott dying from a cocktail of Covid and capitalism came out I saw a video a friend posted from the very show I was talking about not going to which was Piebald. In the video they’re singing the song that encapsulates almost everything about this part of my life for me.

“Long nights, hard times, everything that makes you feel tired . . .”

I really wish I had gone to that show now. I fucked up. I fucked up a lot mind you but that is among the more recent ones.

I had to ask some friends to remind me of things I should remember about the club. “First day of spring barbecues on the porch,” one said. “Being so coked up and wanting to vomit watching other bands eat McDonald’s from across the street,” they said.

“[One old friend] getting a beat down outside.” “[Another old friend] punching out the dude from [famous band].” “[Another old friend] standing outside smoking with us and then he just . . . died, like eyes rolled up and passed out on the sidewalk. It was weird. A bunch of scumbags trying to figure out what to do, but also being coked up and too nervous to move.”

He didn’t end up dying to be clear.

“Getting kidnapped by FSU because they thought I was [our other friend].”

Starting to think maybe I did too many drugs and that’s why I don’t remember anything? Hmm, no it’s the other stuff I wrote in here probably. The passage of time shit. Waves and so on like I said. Prettier stuff than brain damage.

I remember loading in to play shows at Great Scott with my various bands over the years and the light shining off the checkerboard floor in the late afternoon sun and the smell which was not as bad as most clubs! Not as bad as marmot piss anyway I can tell you that for sure. I remember the feeling that something could happen not what actually ended up happening specifically but the feeling of anticipating whatever it was it turned out to be.

Then there were of course many times when it just kind of sucked being there being out being anywhere at all it wasn’t all hedonism and magical fairy tales about the power of friendship and community or whatever.

Our old bands were all going to take over the world. We didn’t of course but we were going to. I remember playing with and watching so many other local bands here who were great and could have done something but didn’t for all the reasons that things don’t work out the way you planned them.

Actually I take that back about “could have done some- thing” because being part of a local music scene is doing something it doesn’t need to lead to anything bigger than that it is in and of itself an accomplishment. Imagine playing a show for anyone anywhere with all your friends there and people actually care at all? What a gift.

We wrote a song back then called “Not Feeling It” for a record called Life Outside Our Walls and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately under quarantine because it was about being trapped inside a small room afraid to leave and expose yourself to anyone else. If I recall correctly it was actually about cocaine paranoia when I wrote it but that’s a pretty safe bet for all the songs we played back then.

That wave metaphor from earlier reminded me I was watching a video this morning called “Carribean Ocean Waves at Night for Sleeping” to try to fall back to sleep with my mind at peace and I read some of the comments like I often do and here’s one near the top: “Sitting here drinking wine thinking about everything I should have done. This pandemic makes me think about how we really never have the time we assume we do. Gotta complete goals faster gotta do what you want with your life. Every moment every second.”

Michelle and I were trying to list off some of the most memorable shows we saw at Great Scott over the years last night but it’s impossible it’s like asking someone to name some bands they’ve heard of. Uh . . . Where do you start? It’s like . . . name some books you’ve read.

You could take a stab at it sure but listing off just a few feels like a failure of sorts like an inability to rise to the occasion because if you narrow it down to this or that it necessarily excludes so much else. I was trying just now to remember some of the fifty or however many it was shows I played myself there in various bands over a decade plus and I can’t do it either they’re all the same.

I remember the bile in my stomach before a show worrying no one will come and the sort of disappointment I felt when I realized people were actually going to show up because then I had to try hard.

When I close my eyes and picture Great Scott I keep waking up in the bathroom. It was a shitty bathroom to do drugs in to be honest the stall barely locked and the line was always pretty long particularly on Friday nights for The Pill the long running and greatest dance party in Boston in my lifetime and the night where I made most of my best friends in the Boston music world many of which I am still close to to this day. I don’t particularly miss those friends right now during quarantine because I can talk to them and text them or dial them up on the video conference but all the other people the people I barely cared about or did care about but not quite enough to make it an official friendship? I miss those people very much.

Alvvays. An early show by them is jumping out at me as I think about this. Glasvegas too for some reason. I wonder why I remember those ones more than the others. Probably because I still have pictures of them. Passion Pit. Piebald. MGMT. Nothing. Pup. Pianos Become the Teeth. Speedy Ortiz.

I asked my friend Tom just now to remind me something about those early days in that shitty apartment across from Great Scott.

“My favorite story about that place besides the marmot piss was when they were trying to show the apartment before we moved out, and I was unemployed, you worked nights and Raj was on summer break from school and they came by at like 11 a.m. and we were all just lounging around in our own filth and their contempt for us was so palpable.”

Also he said “you burned a hole in the rug one time because you were lighting money on fire.” I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember having any money to spend never mind light on fire but it was the 2000s I don’t know what to tell you.

Sometime a few years after I moved out of the roach apartment and was living in the maggot apartment down the street with like seven other people and showering in a backed-up tub full of brown water Carl Lavin told me he wanted to turn Great Scott into a rock club and I said good luck with that idiot or something like that probably nicer than that. I didn’t think it was going to work and I wonder if he ever remembered that the following three hundred or so times I stood next to him over there at the far end of the bar where he kept his laptop and checked his fantasy baseball scores or whatever it was he was doing. I’d peak around the corner to catch a minute of whoever it was who was playing. These guys are actually good I’d say to him when it was true which was more often than you might expect for a little rock club like that. These guys are actually pretty good.

I imagine they’ll be putting in another bank branch or some dog shit in the Great Scott space soon because once this is over the pre-pandemic gentrifying and homogenizing forces already long conspiring to destroy anything with character in Boston and Allston in particular will have had their way. It will be right across the street from the other fancy bank branch that’s already there right now and someday no one will tell any stories whatsoever about going there for their banking needs. They won’t even have any memories to forget like I did.