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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Rock In A Hard Place

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In a living room in Kokomo, Jacob "Jeb" Lambert, Sam Thompson and Alex Jones laugh as the house mascot, Coty, finishes off a plate of spaghetti. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

It always takes a lot
Sometimes more than you've got
It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay
We all want the same things

What's it like?
At the top
You'll never know
God, the whip, that slung you down below

Try and fail try and fail try and fail
Fail

KOKOMO, Ind.--Michael and I arrived at a house in Kokomo to find a living room that only could have been put together by 20-somethings. Christmas lights dangled from the ceiling and posters of Superman, Black Sabbath and Frank Sinatra covered the walls. An orange sarong doubled as a window curtain.

In the next room, a makeshift music studio was no more lavish. An $8 mattress was pushed upright to block a doorway, and the walls were lined with misshapen carpet pieces that had been gathered from a dumpster and hung up in an attempt to muffle the sounds that were annoying the neighbors. The floor was a series of stains that ran together.

It was perfect. Nothing else would have seemed appropriate.

The music of the band Michael and I had come to meet is not tidy, it’s not clean. It is as gritty as the factory town where these three 21-year-olds grew up and which has been especially hard hit by the recession. The music, and the town, are like a workingman’s hands – callused and rough.

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Band members for The Sorely Trying Days wait in the backyard of a home in Indianapolis just before going inside to begin their set. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


One reviewer described their music as “the beautiful byproduct of the worst desolation in America.”

“This Kokomo origin story may sound unappealing to some, but trust me, STDs would not be the great band they are if Kokomo didn't suck as much as it does,” the reviewer wrote in Punk News. “This is Recession Rock and it is glorious.”

The band, The Sorely Trying Days, never set out to sing about current economic times. The word “recession” doesn’t appear in any of their songs. They just write about the world they see around them, the musicians said. And in Kokomo, that just happens to be a world of abandoned factories, buildings with broken windows and a generation that fantasized about escaping a place where their fathers found good wages in manufacturing but where jobs are now sparse.

For some youth, the lyrics are as much a chronicle of the recession as the news is to their parents.

The music is “generally a downer, and the recession is generally a downer,” said drummer Alex Jones. He said the band got its name from a children’s book, “a story about a man who has a lot of bad things happen. And we thought that was kind of us. It’s not like we dwell on the negative. I guess it’s just easier to write super downer songs than happy songs.”

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Alex Jones is the drummer of the group, The Sorely Trying Days. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

When Michael and I arrived at the house, Alex greeted us at the door. We next met his twin, Adam, the guitarist, and bass player John Rinehart. All three guys lived in the house together until recently. Alex had to move out to help his father, who is blind. Adam and John remain, living with three other people in a four-bedroom house.

Mattresses without frames are plopped on the floor of each room; one bed lies in a closet in the master bedroom. The guy who sleeps there will soon have to move out because he can’t find a job and thus cannot to pay rent. A note from him posted on the refrigerator says he’s selling his books and clothes for $1 a piece.

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Money is always tight at the band house. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Economic hardship is evident throughout the house. Ramen noodle packages, cheap and easy to make, are everywhere. The brothers said they mix the noodles with tomato sauce to make an Italian dish and with soy sauce to make Thai or Chinese.

The band members and their friends all come from working-class families and now either hold jobs in the service industry or are looking for that kind of work. Adam works at a health food store for $8 an hour. Alex plans to start a job in the cafeteria at an assisted living center, a position he found after looking for a job since January, when he and the other employees at a sandwich place were told the place was closing. John remains unemployed. He said he’s applied to local grocery stores, fast food joints and a Halloween supplies store.

“Everywhere I go, either they are not hiring or they will call in a couple of weeks,” said John, who has crystal blue eyes and pink hair that is a faded version of the “intense red” he dyed it. “Everywhere is always accepting applications, it seems, but they are not hiring.”

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The bass player for The Sorely Trying Days, John Rinehart, is jokingly referred to as the "heart-throb" of the band. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

We were standing in a backyard not far from a broken stereo, skateboard ramp and road block sign.

Look at all the broken stuff and it seems as if “We’ve got so much rage because of the recession,” Alex said. “It’s not like that.”

“The recession, it affects us in a more roundabout way,” Adam said.

The brothers and almost everyone they know have sold plasma to make extra money. And no one they know in their age group has health insurance, they said.

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Jacob "Jeb" Lambert reacts when he realized that a check he needed to cash for gas money was locked in a van and he didn't have the key. Sam Thompson is at right. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

On his cell phone, Adam has programmed the phone numbers of three collection agencies so he knows when they are calling to press him to pay for the knee surgery he had. Their numbers show up as: “Collection 1” and “Collection 2” and “Collection 3.”

“We’re not starving, Adam said. “We’re just getting by,”

"We're surviving," Alex said. “Survival Mode is the name of our album."

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Jacob "Jeb" Lambert and Sam Thompson help themselves to spaghetti made by John Rinehart. A more common meal in the house is Ramen noodles. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The brothers agreed to give Michael and me a tour of the city, so we climbed into a van littered with McDonald’s condiment packages, cigarette wrappers and dirty Tupperware dishes. A Red Bull can dangled on the rear view mirror next to a vanilla-scented air freshener.

“That’s Delphi,” Alex said, driving by a factory that looked abandoned. “It might have even shut down. The parking lot used to be packed.”

“As far as the mall goes, there’s been a lot of stuff closed down,” Adam said. “The Kokomo mall is empty.”

“It sucks living in Kokomo,” Adam said. “Everyone talks about getting out of Kokomo. It’d be nice to leave here. Maybe one day we’ll get out of Kokomo, hopefully.”

“That’s the rescue mission where all the homeless people go,” Alex said, pointing out the window. He added that the only business that has upgraded its quarters is the Goodwill.

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Alex Jones and his twin brother Adam make up two of the three members of the band Sorely Trying Days. They stand at the remains of one of the many closed factories in Kokomo. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Both twins said their dream would be to make money playing music, but they know that's unrealistic. Often, they don't even get paid for the gigs they do now, even when they have to drive to another state. The most they’ve ever earned was $110. Still, they said, they wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“What else are you going to do on a Friday night?” Alex said.

“I guess a lot of people associate having fun with making a lot of money, but that’s not really us,” Adam said.

That night, Michael and I followed the band to a house in Indianapolis, where they were one of three groups to perform. Their stage was in a small basement against a backdrop of exposed brick walls. Insulation and wiring dipped from the ceiling over their heads.

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Adam Jones takes a drink of water on a makeshift stage set up in a basement in a house in Indianapolis. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

With complete abandon, in front of about two dozen fans clad in t-shirts and jeans, Alex pounded on the drums while Adam and John screamed their hearts out.

It was perfect. Nothing else would have seemed appropriate.

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The Sorely Trying Days let loose with a blistering version of their song, "Survival Mode." That's John Rinehart on bass guitar and Alex Jones on drums. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

I wanna live fast, so I can die slow
I wanna feel my knees, scrape the floor
Everyday I'm waiting, for the walls to crack
Another knife to plunge, through my back

To think they call this livin
I don't need
Locked in survival mode
And I'm dyin slow

Thoughts laced with, everything I fear
Detached and wasted, getting worse each year
I'm on a wave of hate, to a mass grave
Never gonna hope, never gonna pray

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Alexa Camacho sings along with lead singer Adam Jones during the band's performance in Indianapolis. She knows all the lyrics because she lives at the house with the band. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 10, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
 
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