Past an auto parts store and a Mexican restaurant that will let you take cerveza to go for a big enough tip, down a lightless and still suburban street, smokers and latecomers limboed through a half-open garage door into a house, maybe stopping to snag some vegan cake from a surprise birthday celebration in the kitchen. Once inside, they headed right, down a wooden staircase and past a woman collecting $5 donations, to join a crowd of people stifling coughs and cradling cans of cheap beer, standing on top of decrepit couches, maybe glancing at the makeshift merch tables toward the back. (Pins ostensibly cost a buck, but were free if you bothered to ask.) Conversation was at a reverent murmur.
Most were New Brunswick locals, although Brandon Hayes, a spacey but enthusiastic 19-year-old, had made a five-hour bus trip from Boston. He didn’t have a place to sleep that night and planned to wander the streets until morning, he told me as he pulled from a brown-bagged bottle of Jim Beam. But his lack of a plan didn’t matter; he had to see this.
The mural behind Marissa Paternoster depicted the late actor John Candy either urinating or ejaculating neon-green Mountain Dew while surrounded by angelic kittens eating Doritos. Donning a black dress that matched her hair, she was ready to play as her solo project, Noun, with her friend Miranda from Black Wine accompanying on the drums. Brandon bounced on his toes, shook his dreadlocks, and pushed his way to the front of the semi-circle of space that constituted a stage. Opening bands had mumbled into their microphones, their vocals swallowed by the damp, cramped space. Paternoster was the sole exception. At around 9:30 p.m., in the bowels of the venue (dubbed Cooler Ranch), both the singer and her wood-finished Stratocaster started howling loud enough to wake the dead.
Paternoster, who is 26, collects tacky artwork from thrift stores and is obsessed with nuns. (The book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence is a particular favorite.) Her fingernails are so short they will make you wince, and the bangs of her bushy bob rest just above her eyebrows. She carries a red backpack with a patch that reads “Pro-Choice, Anti-Christ.” A self-described introvert, she prefers staying home with her tuxedo cat Earl, who is on an all-raw-meat diet. She goes to bed early and wakes up late because she’s depressed.
Apart from a friend’s birthday party played with her band Screaming Females a month ago, this was her first hometown show in a stretch. Police interference has crippled New Brunswick’s basement scene, and illness has crippled Paternoster. After canceling a slew of tour dates due to an unknown but chronic musculoskeletal condition, she was ready to push back against her body. In a sense, she’s always resisted some unseen force, garnering notoriety for her raucous guitar solos in an era populated by performers that specialize in tastefulness. She’s defied the limitations of her physical frame, too, even before her arms felt like they were being stretched on a rack and her legs perpetually felt like they had just run 25 miles. She’s 5’2″, according to her driver’s license, but the formidable bellows she conjures make her seem larger than life.
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About a month before the Cooler Ranch show, I was a pilgrim like Brandon. During my college years in Gainesville, Fla., house shows were de rigueur, and punk stalwarts like Against Me! and Hot Water Music were hometown heroes. I’d spent the entirety of high school listening to music from New Brunswick and its surrounding areas; one mediocre show would amount to an adolescence wasted romanticizing triviality, as startling as finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real, or that one’s parents weren’t a source of infinite wisdom on purposeful living.
I was also afraid of missing my stop. It was my first foray into Jersey. “You know what’s in New Brunswick?” a bespectacled veteran train traveler asked me. “Nothing. It’s a college town, and you’ll know it when you see it.”
He was right; it was hard to miss the transition. [...]