The Other Columbus: Last night a punk band saved my life
On Pet UFO, chance discoveries and the lifelong friendships formed by stories of salvation
My father died when I was 21. He and my mother divorced when I was still very young, but he remained in my life. We were not close when he passed away, but I was there at the end. And, contrary to how many of us use the internet, that’s about all I feel compelled to say about him to a bunch of digital strangers. What I really want to talk about begins at the end of that account anyway.
After my father passed, I began to think about death. To be clear: I did not fixate on it or want to die or experience suicide ideation. I just started thinking about how I was likely to die. At that point in my life, both of my grandfathers had passed from cancer. When my father died, things started clicking in my head about The End. I began to wonder how I might go. It’s an unpleasant puzzle to ruminate over, especially in your 20s, but it gave me an odd peace of mind. I figured if I didn’t step in front of any buses or fly anywhere, I’d likely give way to cancer in my 60s. It wasn’t any weirder to me than reading a daily horoscope or playing with Tarot cards, but my friends hated me bringing it up so casually, so I kept that math problem to myself.
At this point, I must amend a previous statement. I am going to tell you now about the one and only time I seriously considered killing myself. It will not be as dramatic or overwhelming as these stories tend to be, and it involves no actual attempt, but you should know that moving forward.
In my mid-20s, I experienced a soul-crushing heartbreak. It was totally my fault. I was a horrible boyfriend. Worse, there was nothing I could do about it. It was a classic case of realizing what you had when it was too late and hurting others in the process of figuring that out. Coupled with the fact that I had no life goals or direction — despite having a job at the library — things seemed particularly bleak.
At one point in my emotional freefall, I was as low as I can recall ever having felt (and I had leveled several life-altering disappointments against my family name by then). I felt trapped by both my circumstances and my actions. I was not only unsure of what the next day would bring, but unconvinced that I deserved to find out. So, I started to think of ways that might make that a reality. I’d already made an uneasy peace with how I might die, so moving up the timeline was a quick course correction.
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I always turned to music as a salve during emotional distress, but in that moment none of my staples helped. I was too far gone for regular-strength mixtapes. The pleading of Prince didn’t work. The tearful religion of Sade gained no traction. Going in the other direction and looking for something to hurt with, the Geto Boys in the driver’s seat didn’t take. So, I did what I did best: I dug. I dove into the Main Library’s music section (which is where I worked, so I had time to shop around) and finally came down on a couple of CDs by a group I had seen in the stacks but never listened to: Pet UFO.
Pet UFO was a Columbus band that almost got a career in the majors, but it didn’t happen. They released two albums: My Name is Esther Cohen (1995) and Pigasus (1996). And on that low day I said, “Why not?,” ignored the low-budget album covers and checked them out. This was back when you could still burn your music to a CD on your computer, hack up a cover with a paper cutter and give it to your local librarian to have it entered into the system. I scanned the song titles: “Tub Cheese Omelette”? “Big Flatty”? “Washington Ave”? I had to know what those songs were about. I drove around the library to the back of Topiary Park and parked on Washington Avenue. I figured if a band had written a song about a street, and it was right there, it should be listened to while parked on said street.
I had a passable appreciation of punk — we would nod at each other across the room at parties — but Pet UFO was better than almost any punk band I had heard at that point. The songs had a serious groove, with bass lines made up of all the notes I liked. Unlike a lot of punk bands, the singing had a genuine and intentional musicality. You could tell the lead singer could actually sing and wasn’t just yelling to cover up for a lack of chops.
All of this should have made the lyrics easier to understand, but it didn’t. A lot of the songs had a doubled lead vocal, but that was a studio invention. The lead singer was actually a lone woman, Souci, singing against herself, going from mournful murmur to howling in four seconds flat. The duality didn’t quite approach what one would call traditional harmony, but my God if it didn’t sound like a lost and broken spirit recognizing a distant Black cousin.
People often say music saved their lives but are rarely specific about what that rescue looked like. Apparently, there are two versions of the sentiment: the hyperbolic version that simply means one really loves a given artist/album/song and it is making them feel something powerful whenever it comes on, and the true-story version. For me, Pet UFO is the second. I kept listening to those two albums over and over, trying to decipher the lyrics, and then trying to figure out what they meant. This went on until the sun started to set, and then at home all night.
At some point, the CD covers had been replaced, so there weren’t lyrics to reference. I had to catch the lines in snatches, and Souci wasn’t making it easy. So I made a determination, followed by a decision: These albums had something to tell me, and I would set aside any ideas about ending my life until I figured out the lyrics. About three days later, I still hadn’t cracked the lyrics, but I no longer harbored any feelings of suicide. Having that task was enough to pull me out of that place in that moment.
Years later, I met the singer in another city, under a different name and circumstance. I was in Chicago for a meeting of poetry slam organizers and she introduced herself to me as a former Buckeye. Not too long after that, it was made clear that she was the singer who, through her confounding-yet-welcoming lyrics, had saved me from myself. We have been dear friends ever since, which is how stories with people who save your life should end.
The first song on Pet UFO's first album is “Razor Burn,” and it has the following repeated line: “Please God make me patient.” It’s sung in a way that leaves room for an interpretation that goes “Please don’t make me patient,” but I’ve always been too shy — or scared — to confirm it one way or the other. In any event, I took it as a sign to stick around. I owe those records, those indecipherable lyrics and the band’s guardian angel of a singer my life.