Applying New Language to Memories

Why Buick Audra wrote a concept album about Massachusetts.

I travel back to Boston about once a year on tour, sometimes twice. I prepare myself for days in advance. I make a list of what I know to be true of myself today; I keep it close. I take note of which people I can call if I find myself in a state of panic. Once I’m there, I make no social plans, I don’t stay with family, and I don’t tool around town visiting where I used to live or hang out. I drive to the venue, I eat nearby, I play, and I leave the next morning. I smile and hug the people I know; I do my level best to perform under what are — for me — extreme emotional conditions. I engage in light conversation with whoever shows up, but ultimately: I’m on a clock. I’m surviving, and there’s only so long you can be in that mode without doing serious damage to yourself.

For years, I didn’t ask myself why any of this was true, why Boston was so difficult for me. I just accepted that it was and planned accordingly. I also couldn’t remember some of it. People would message me from time to time and talk about things we’d done together or things I’d said, and while the stories sounded like me, I couldn’t recall much of it. I forgot entire people altogether. To be clear, I am a person who can still remember my first real boyfriend’s mother’s birthday (February 28). I can remember what I wore to my first ever concert (Blondie) at age five — and it’s not because there are photos; there aren’t. I know all the words to songs I hate. My mind holds onto things, including some I wish it didn’t. But much of Boston had either been erased or put somewhere dark. I did a lot of nodding and agreeing when people invited me to reminisce; I learned that light laughter can make you look like you’re on the same page. But if I’m honest, I didn’t know what any of them were talking about. I never got the page number, and I couldn’t see the page.

My band’s booking agent, an affable man who lives in Boston but is from elsewhere, once said to me, “Someone said you used to live here, said they used to know you.” Friendship Commanders were mid-load-in on a very hot day in Allston, having just arrived to play a small festival that our agent was co-producing. I said, “I did, for kind of a long time. But I have a hard time coming back here.” To his credit, he appeared to understand. I’m not even sure I did. Luckily, there were amps to haul and merch to set up. Tasks are good when you’re barely getting through it. They give you something to do. I would be long gone in 18 hours; I could worry about the “why” of it all later. Some people never do, and that was almost true of me.

The first internal rumblings about what had happened in Massachusetts occurred during an inventory of lost female friendships in my life. I was doing the inventory with a trusted confidante in Al-Anon. On a list of a couple dozen names, two stood out as unapproachable. Frightening, even. One of those names belonged to a woman I had once called my best friend, and with whom I had shared a band in the Boston days. I had not written or spoken her name aloud for years prior to doing the inventory. She was adjacent to people I would eventually make amends to, but she was in a column entitled “absolutely not.” And even during that work, I wasn’t willing to dig any deeper into the story with her. I didn’t have the extra emotional bandwidth.

The next time I would glance back at that time and place came about a year and a half later, when my longtime friend Marc Orleans died by suicide. That season was acute, and his loss was unmooring for me. It caused me to look back for longer than I would have otherwise. And without the structured guide of a list, I let myself remember.

I was moved back and forth between the Boston area and my actual hometown of Miami and few times during my childhood and adolescence. The last time I was moved to Boston, I was 16 years old. It was the summer before my junior year of high school, and I spent it sleeping on the living room floor of my friend’s dad’s house in a suburb of Cambridge. I’ve always had access to those memories as they’re largely positive. It was around age 19 that the story got remarkably foggier, and by the mid-20s, there were huge gaps in both time and events. Still, some of it came back as I grieved Marc’s life, our friendship. I met him when I was 19, where the fog began, but I found that if I spent enough time with the almost photographic images my mind held of him, I could see other people, places, and things. And I started to write music about it.

The first song was angry. It addressed the nonsense flowery vocabulary that I had wasted on people I used to know there. Even with a small amount of recall, the regret was instant. Next, a different kind of remorse emerged, and this time, it was about what I hadn’t said. For every “I love you” I had flung at a person who hadn’t earned it, I wasn’t certain I’d ever told Marc how deeply I cared about him, that I was so grateful to have known him, and that he’d made me feel at ease. Ease is rare for me. As a survivor of childhood abuse and abandonment, most people make me feel something from uneasy to self-protective at first blush. But that had never been the case with Marc, and I hadn’t told him in time. I called that song “FAIL,” in reference to the lines, “And we fail a little at a time, we fail who we love.”

I kept going. One by one, the songs showed me what I’d once known but long forgotten. Eventually, one delivered a clearer picture of the woman whose name I had avoided speaking for about a decade. She was the first person outside of my parental figures to injure me on a level that made me wonder if I was defective to the point of being unlovable, unknowable. And worse, when she ended our years-long friendship and collaboration because I had dared to challenge her control, she started a social destruction campaign against me in the Boston music scene. I got to hear that I was “out” from all kinds of people — and some of them had been thrilled to tell me. The shame caved me in, and over time, it was too much to carry around. So, I buried it. 

The songs allowed me to see it again, and to finally name the damage. In addition to her, I saw all of the surrounding characters who watched it happen, who saw a woman seven years my senior condemn me for no discernable reason, and who didn’t say a thing. Lonely. That’s the word. It was devastatingly lonely.

What the musical body of work revealed, was that it was unsafe to be different in Boston. I spent incredible amounts of energy trying to blend in, something that’s been difficult all my life for a number of reasons that include my first name and my perspectives. But in the particular circles I found myself between, it was expected. Agree, assimilate. And I failed. Over and over, I failed. And then in the nick of time, I got the message, and I left.

Now, I see the leaving as lifesaving, though I wouldn’t have called it such back then. I would have played it down, made it swallowable for everyone else. But I know better today. There’s only so much gravity one can take before they eventually lie down. That realization was huge, leveling, and very, very blue. The song on the album that honors it is aptly titled “BLUE.”

When the record was fully written, my bandmate Jerry Roe and I drove up to the mythological land of Massachusetts and recorded it with our longtime collaborator, Kurt Ballou. Blessedly, his studio is in Salem, a town with which I had no previous memories. I got to make new Massachusetts memories that week. And the first song I tracked guitars for was one called “HIGH SUN,” about the excommunication and following events. In the dead of winter, I told the truth about a long-ago summer. As loudly as I possibly could. 

And so began a bold new chapter. 


Italicized text from MASS: Essays on Memory, Language, and the State of Massachusetts, releasing in tandem with MASS by Friendship Commanders on September 29, 2023. Pre-orders are open.

(Photo Credit: Jerry Roe)

Friendship Commanders is a melodic heavy duo from Nashville TN comprised of vocalist/guitarist Buick Audra and drummer/bassist Jerry Roe. The band recently released two new singles, “Stonechild” and “Your Reign Is Over.” The new singles follow their Spring 2020 EP, Hold On To Yourself∫, and were mixed and mastered by the same team of Kurt Ballou and Brad Boatright. While there is a sonic through-line, “Stonechild” and “Your Reign Is Over” cover new territory for the band. The music still occupies a heavy space, but the vocal presentations and energies vary, as do the subjects.