BY DAVE ALLEN Every show begins the same way: “We’re the Dismemberment Plan from Washington, D.C.” The history section of the band’s website provides a helpful elaboration: “The Dismemberment Plan was based in, and very much a natural result of, Washington, D.C.” It makes sonic sense: the Plan brought together the jazzy cut-ups and frenetic energy of Fugazi and other D.C. punk acts, the glittering synths and deep bass of go-go, the driving percussion and MC-like delivery that both styles featured, and made you dance to it. When I discovered the band, I was based in rural Frederick County, Maryland, over an hour from Washington, D.C. and very much a natural result of a disjointed upbringing in a military family. I bought “Change,” the band’s final studio album, on New Year’s Day 2002, when I was headed into my last semester of high school. The music on “Change” was spacey and ambient, yet beat-driven and funky, and the lyrics hinted at longing, frustration, and distance. Though I can’t say I was at a particularly soul-searching time in my life, I was enthralled.
I found out about the Plan from the year-end issue of Spin magazine, in which “Change” ranked 15th in the top 20 albums of 2001 and in which Andrew Beaujon grouped the band with other overtly emotional music acts (Dashboard Confessional, Weezer, and others) in a feature on the new wave of emo, or “nwemo.” (Beaujon graciously directed me to the original article and called this coinage a low point in his career.) I was a late comer, but their music had too strong a grip on me for me to feel like a poser. I trekked backwards through the group’s discography, and with that reverse trajectory, “Emergency & I,” their much-heralded 1999 release that received an even-more-heralded reissue on vinyl earlier this year, was next. I was heavily geeked out at the time on the weird textures and time signatures of Radiohead, so it thrilled me to discover that much of “Gyroscope” was in 7/8 time. I connected with the Plan on a much deeper level than with Radiohead, though. The lyrics on “Emergency & I” spoke of isolation, ground well trod by Radiohead, but made it sound so personal:
“You can’t say it, but I know that it’s in there / You don’t know it, but I know that you’re scared.”
“Sometimes I stand on my roof at night /and watch as something seems to happen somewhere else.”
It was something akin to musical X-ray vision; it cut right through me, even with its artful abstractions: “Obvious and lonely / A spider in the snow” — what’s a spider doing out in the snow anyway?
Still, I felt this disconnect from the D.C. scene that gave rise to the Plan. What little I knew of the city came from cultural outings with my family, mainly to plays at the Kennedy Center. The voyage to DC from my hometown, too far out in the sticks to even qualify as an exurb, involved an hour’s drive to a Metro station and a train ride of similar length. Strangely, transit drew me even closer to the band’s music: the chugging slow-down and ringing synthesizer hum at the end of “The City”—then and now, my favorite D-plan track—sounded like nothing so much as a Metro train decelerating. That’s how I arrived at my first Plan show in the summer of 2002, to which brought my album liner notes from “Emergency & I” for the band to sign — I landed singer Travis Morrison — and where I even bought a t-shirt just to support Fort Reno’s all-ages efforts. I was neither in nor of the scene, but the jubilation I felt at hearing these songs live cut down those boundaries.
I arrived at my second Plan show, the one that was to have been the band’s last show ever, the same way. It was cut short by rain, and Morrison explained that this wasn’t how the band wanted to go out. So they rescheduled, and the real last-show-ever happened September 1, 2003, days after I began my sophomore year of college in central Pennsylvania, with no car and no way of getting to DC for my farewell. By that time, I had found my way back to their earliest, craziest material, the spazzy stuff of “The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified” and “!” (yes, it’s just an exclamation point). I cranked up those records, bought some overpriced glory-days merch from eBay (old concert posters) and the band’s site (a oversized, bright red t-shirt emblazoned with a city skyline) and, like the persona etched by the lyrics of “The City,” I watched, and listened, as something happened somewhere else.
Last fall, when news of the reunion broke, a friend had just sent me the mp3 of a rare Plan track from an obscure late-’90s compilation; I joked with him that, through magical thinking, we had caused the reunion to happen. Though I never could have predicted this year’s reunion, I’ve been waiting almost eight years for this show; I missed the band’s two reunion shows, benefit concerts for a D.C. record producer’s ill son, in 2007. As thrilled as I am to hear the Plan this week, I once again feel a sense of remove. I’ll hear them in Philadelphia, a city vastly different from the one that birthed the Plan and a city I love but which, after living here for over two years, I feel I hardly know.
I still have my signed liner, though I don’t think I’ll bring it this week. Other connections have faded: I threw out my Fort Reno shirt a while back it was deeply loved but, after seven years, even more deeply frayed and I had my wife turn the XXL one into a pillow. I still have one from the “One Last Slice” tour, the farewell outing that was supposed to have wrapped up, with me in attendance, in 2003. It features a single slice of cake with oddly-colored frosting and letter-shaped candles that spell “PLAN.” It stands on a pedestal, out of place, isolated, a spider in the snow.