For an Issue Two photo essay of the American night, we asked Warren Smith — who’s familiar both with America and with the night — to write an homage, a poem to youth and darkness and their possibilities.
Warren wrote an amazing free-form ramble — based on real life experience — from which we printed an excerpt. He spoke to us about his inspiration for the piece from a rented house in New England where he’s spending the fall.
What Youth: Talk a bit about the writing you did for Issue Two and the trip that you drew from, going cross-country with Dion [Agius] this summer.
Warren Smith: I think it’s the naïveness of when you’re young and you want to chase the night, and the idea of getting into trouble and maybe how romantic that sounds. That was definitely, like, all of my 20s, so it’s hard to nail it down to that one trip ‘cause I’ve crossed the country probably 15 times in my car and I think every one of them helped to bring that piece out.
When you guys made the drive in July, for the Fourth of July, what route did you take?
We took the 40, and that’s like the center [of the country]. I’ve done the 10 a zillion times but I’d actually never done the 40, so we did California all the way to Memphis and then down and into New Orleans and Florida and, where else…we stopped in some really weird shitholes in Texas, like Sturgis or something, Needles — we stopped all over the place.
Is there anything to see, or to do?
That route follows Route 66, which is rad because it’s pretty much a ghost town the whole way, you know, with that freeway making Route 66 obsolete and the economy and the financial crisis and all that shit, and the downturn. Those little towns are desperate, or they’re gone. And driving, you can get off the 40 and get on the 66 and drive through these seriously hollowed out towns.
Did you guys spend time along the way or just do a straight shot across?
No, we stopped quite a bit. We spent — probably the most memorable part was in Memphis, because I was born in Nashville and I haven’t really been back to Tennessee in 20 years or something. So I have a buddy in Memphis and we went and stayed with him for a couple nights, and that town is incredible. There’s so much soul and grit and music and grime and oh, it was just awesome. Dion’s never had fried chicken, so he had like the most amazing fried chicken I’ve ever had, and we went into the Stax museum, which, they say it’s one of the only soul museums out there that’s dedicated to all soul, ‘cause Stax was that old record label from the area. Like, Sun Records is there, you know, like Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and all those kind of dudes were a part of all that shit. There’s just so much history and culture there musically, it’s incredible.
It’s strange that, reading what you wrote and looking at the imagery of this piece, it sounds like debauchery and like there’s probably a good deal of heroine involved. But I know you’re a pretty clean guy and really normal. You used to not drink at all, even staying out all night, right?
Yeah, when I was younger I didn’t even know…I had no idea about changing your state [of mind] at all, you know, how your brain functions. I’d never even messed or played with that idea. So those were amazing moments because they were completely innocent. I would run around and dance in Hollywood until four in the morning totally sober and not even question it. Just for the sheer fun of it.
That’s unusual, “chasing the night” like you said, throughout your 20s, but doing it without substances.
Oh yeah, I mean, it’s more about being together running around with your friends. There’s a real sense that it was us versus them —I don’t even know who “them” is or really who “us” was — but hanging out with kids all with the same goal of, “What kind of trouble can we get into tonight?” There’s that sense of, “We’re young, and it’s us versus them.”
Is it different now?
I don’t know, maybe that’s why I’m in New England. Maybe I’m here to figure out what happens during the day instead of what happens at night.
It’s a good time of year to be there too.
Oh man, it’s so beautiful. The air, when you breathe in, you can just feel how clean it is. I love it here. I don’t know how it will be when it gets to be, you know, surfing in 38-degree water — I don’t know if I’ll be singing the same tune. But for now it’s awesome.
How long are you going to be out there?
I have this place rented until Christmas.
Read Warren’s piece, “Essence of the Night,” with photography by Kai Neville, in Issue Two of What Youth Quarterly — now available here.