No one can be 17 forever. We only get one shot, only one summer.
But what if you got another chance to go back there — maybe not as a participant, but at least as a witness?
“We never grew out of counting the days 'til the last class, the final test. Our little leagues gave way to borrowed cars, black guitars, fragile hearts, misdemeanors, repeat offenders and stolen kissers,” read the liner notes of Matt Whipkey's new album, “Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989.”
“Penny Park,” one of the best rock albums I've heard, promises those things you remember from your teenage years: summer fun, theme parks, open windows on May nights, couples skates and that girl you spent a summer longing after.
Whatever happened to that girl? The album tells that story.
And, no, “Penny Park” isn't a misspelling. Penny is a girl and the star of the story, much of which takes place at a familiar former Omaha amusement park.
Though we see it through the eyes of Penny (and an unnamed narrator that's into her), the record is a slice of Omaha history and, more importantly, a slice of all of our young lives.
Songs on the double album (available in double pink vinyl) have titles such as “Water Slide,” “Roller Coaster” and “La Festa Italiana” and mention the Royal Grove, the Royal Terrace ballroom, bumper cars and other imagery that will conjure up memories of summers past for anyone who had a childhood full of such things.
After a melodic intro that mirrors carnival lights and merry-go-round music, the record begins with the line, “School's out. Summer 1989.” They were the words that Whipkey wrote as “the thesis statement for the album,” he told me.
Over lunch last week, Whipkey told me about the album and its characters, which he plans to revisit at some point. (We talked for a bit about The Hold Steady, a band that often uses characters to tell its stories.)
“It's about relating to people's experiences,” Whipkey said, explaining that it's easier to understand the themes when you see them in the narrative.
A few years ago, Doug Kabourek of Fizzle Like a Flood wrote a themed album about Aksarben, and Whipkey mentioned that a record about now defunct Peony Park would be really interesting. Eventually, Whipkey decided to take on the project on his own, though he features many collaborators including Tara Vaughan, Rebecca Lowry of All Young Girls Are Machine Guns and his bandmates from The Whipkey Three — Scott “Zip” Zimmerman and Travis Sing.
“They are as good a rhythm section as a guy could want,” he said, adding, “They're money in the studio.”
From its theme of summers lived and now lost to its album art, it's a complex listen.
A lot of work went into the album's look, for the album art (a vintage Peony Park shot from the Durham Museum's collection) to the inserts (a glorious photo of a messy bed full of stuff from 1989) to the handbill for Saturday's show (made in a classic style of photocopied handbills for shows at the Royal Grove and Ranch Bowl).
You can go into the album and simply enjoy the melody of “La Festa Italiana,” lines such as “meet me tonight by the waterslide” or the shimmering riff of “Teenager.” Or as I have over repeat listens, you can dive into little details about the characters and their journey, from the narrator pining after Penny to, years later, spotting her in the crowd at the Howard Street Tavern.
Though talk of theme parks and being 17 forever may dominate the album, it's by no means music about escaping and living a perfect life. These characters are regular people, and their story, in the end, is much like we've all experienced.
You don't end up staying a teenager. You move on. The girl does, too. The theme park gets torn down. Nothing lasts forever.
“It ends with Penny drunk and crying in the parking lot of Hy-Vee and on her second marriage,” Whipkey said. “I didn't want her to have a completely magical or completely tragic ending. This way is more normal.”