Our 2003 Dashboard Confessional Cover Story: The Crying Game

For the past few years, Dashboard Confessional have been a relentless cult phenomenon, with fans who fill large arenas, bond online, and memorize painfully intimate songs as if they were smash hits. But who is the man behind Dashboard? Where did he come from? And why do kids break down in tears at his concerts? Now a new album backed by big money will try to make the cult go pop.

Chris Carrabba is dressed in black, with a skate-company baseball cap pulled low over his huge, dark eyes and a hood cinched tightly around his head. You’d think he was safe. But not in front of these kids. They saw him coming a mile away.

“Chris! Chris!” they yell. A chubby boy asks for an autograph, and two skinny girls, bordering on hysteria, tug at his arms. Soon he’s surrounded. One cynic asks if Carrabba is in ‘N Sync and gets hushed. A boy with glasses says, “Chris, we have something to show you.”

“What is it?” he asks patiently.

“It’s a snake,” says the boy, thrusting a wiggling green lizard underneath Carrabba’s nose. From the parking lot, the mothers of the eight-and-nine-year-olds smile and laugh. It’s like this whenever “Mr. Chris” shows up.

It’s a November evening in Boca Raton, Florida, and Chris Carrabba is walking the breezeways of J.C. Mitchell Elementary School, where, in the days before becoming known as Dashboard Confessional, he worked as director of the special-education after-school program. Carrabba is small and birdlike, yet he moves among the swarming children with confidence and patience. He remembers each child’s name and never pulls away from any of them while he’s speaking to his former colleagues about adult concerns (like mutual friends in rehab).

Though the cult of fans who live, die, breathe, make out, and IM to Dashboard Confessional’s music are considerably older than those who surround him here, Carrabba’s attitude toward them is markedly similar. “You should never ever talk to kids like they’re kids,” he says later while driving to his mother’s house nearby. “You talk to them like people. You think they don’t know what’s going on? Adults are so jaded by the world that we think we understand it. At least kids get the fact that they don’t understand it yet.”

With his good looks, aw-shucks demeanor, and wrenching, unsubtle acoustic songs (“The Brilliant Dance” begins, “The painful realization that all has gone wrong / And nobody cares at all…”), Carrabba, 27, has become the wary poster boy for a musical movement. Labeled “emo” in an attempt to link it to a particularly heartfelt strain of ’80s hardcore punk (which runs, in some form, from Rites of Spring to Weezer), the Dashboard phenomenon is a 21st-century movement all its own. It brings hardcore’s extreme emotional purges into suburban bedrooms and major concert venues. In the process, Carrabba has created a personal cult of Tori Amos-like proportions, but with a decidedly folkie bent. For a generation of young music fans weaned on videos extolling Cristal-spilling excess and coming down hard off the sugar rush of teen pop, Carrabba is the first musical star they see as accessible. He’ll hang around concert venues before a show and linger for hours afterward, not leaving until every fan has had his or her interaction.

“Kids get to share this together,” Carrabba says. “No one has to feel embarrassed. I’ve watched people crying at the shows, and no one inches away—they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve cried at this too.’ And I know what that’s like. There are songs that have saved my life.”

Through tireless touring and the savvy, deep-pockets promotion of California indie label Vagrant, Carrabba will soon earn a gold record for 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, and he’s the first artist without a platinum record to tape an episode of MTV2 Unplugged 2.0. He even won an MTV Video Music Award last summer. His new album, tentatively titled A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, is due for spring release, with help from major label Interscope, which reportedly made a 49-percent investment in Vagrant. Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, who has boosted the careers of Tupac Shakur, Limp Bizkit, Eminem, and others, is now a mentor to Carrabba, taking his calls at all hours and flying on his private jet to see Dashboard shows.

“There are too many people’s egos invested in me for [this album] not to go platinum,” Carrabba says. “But none of that matters—it’s already passed the test of me liking it, and if it flops, it doesn’t mean that it was bad, just that it wasn’t universal.”

Carrabba is being allowed to make his own mistakes to a degree unheard of on a major-label level. Rich Egan, head of Vagrant and Carrabba’s manager, allows him total control over both product and message. And while on tour with Weezer this summer, when Carrabba wanted the Interscope flunkies to stop glad-handing him—poof!—they vanished. Even MTV execs have been reduced to quivering fanboys. “Dashboard are so positive, so communal, it’s unprecedented,” gushes MTV2’s Alex Coletti. “There are thousands of kids who know every word without any radio play—and I was singing along with them.”

Conceived in 1999 as a solo side project to exorcise some demons in private (away from his band, Further Seems Forever), Dashboard Confessional is now Carrabba’s calling. His painfully intimate songs have become gospel for more and more fans, as Dashboard’s popularity has spread much like mono did in the 1950s: through intimate contact between mouthy teenagers. There are hundreds of websites and message boards devoted to Carrabba’s relationship status, haircuts, religion, and weight. But a more important barometer of his fans’ devotion can be found on Livejournals and blogs, where legions of kids interpret their feelings and daily experiences through Dashboard song titles and bits of lyrics. For every copy of a Dashboard record sold, at least five more are burned, and countless MP3s are traded like virtual mash notes.

“I first heard Dashboard almost two years ago on a message board and downloaded some songs,” says 17-year-old Danielle Pelton of Ontario, Canada. “I brought the CD, and it made me want to cry and smile at the same time. It was one of the first times I felt an emotional connection to something.”

Adds Whitney Chatterton, 15, of Asheville, North Carolina: “I’ve had a lot of family issues, and I relieve myself by locking myself in my room and putting on Dashboard. Britney and Christina suck—they’re always happy-go-lucky and annoying. With Dashboard, it’s all stuff that someone has gone through, and it’s amazing to hear him express it.”

Dashboard are more of a band these days (guitarist Johnny Leffler, bassist Scott Schoenbeck, and drummer Mike Marsh round out the foursome), but Carrabba remains its proudly broken heart. His lip-quivering anthems—”Living in Your Letters,” “Again I Go Unnoticed”—transform typical teenage turmoil into sing-along group therapy. His breakthrough song and video “Screaming Infidelities” is the ultimate prom anthem for kids who don’t go to the prom (“As for now, I’m gonna hear the saddest song / And sit alone”).

Just 18 months ago, Carrabba was penniless, crossing the country in a run-down van. But these days, he’s exuberant, speaking about the more than 40 songs he’s written for the new album—from alt-country to Beach Boys-style pop. “I’m aware that this is a flash in the pan and isn’t going to last forever,” he says. “But I think I can survive the hype machine, because my fans have given me such a wide berth to be everything I want to be. They still see the same things, however the songs are presented. I can’t change the way I act just because I’m in magazines. I’ve always been an awkward person. I don’t want people to pay attention to me—just to what I do.”

At Dashboard shows, everyone sings along with Carrabba at absurd volume. When he takes the stage, his first words are usually “Are you guys ready to try one?” There is no shame, no judgement, no restraint. Carrabba runs his voice ragged and lets a roomful of fans find theirs.

“I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, but the plan was always to affect people, to connect—with anybody at all,” Carrabba says. “Music is for everyone, and there should never be any elitism about it.” There are some moments on The Places that are difficult to listen to—the wounds too fresh, the emotion too obvious. But young people, still learning about their own capacity to feel, drink it in like so much spiked Sunny D.

As with anything so overtly sincere, many have scoffed—Buddyhead.com, the Walter Winchell of punk, once even linked Carrabba to the Taliban, and Jason Oda, creator of the Dashboard-mocking Emogame.com, decried him as a “one-man Backstreet Boy.” And Carrabba’s polite and polished public persona to his newly acquired major-label backing and there’s plenty of ammo for a backlash.

But thankfully even Carrabba can laugh at his own teary-eyed, soul-baring image. “I had an idea to do an entire video dressed up like the ‘Visible Man,’ where you could see all my insides,” he says. “But no one would understand that I’m kidding.”

There is something odd in the sight of a 27-year-old man leading a crowd of people a decade his junior in a refrain of “We’re not 21 / But the sooner we are / The sooner the fun will begin” (from “The Swiss Army Romance”). But that song is perhaps the most touching in the Dashboard canon—the one time Carrabba stops raking himself over the coals and gently cautions others. All summer, he performed the song solo in arenas in front of 12,000 Weezer fans. They responded in kind, singing the final refrain of “We grow up fast” while Carrabba let the teacher in him return with the words “Don’t grow up so fast.”

“I wrote that song when I was 23,” he says. “It’s about how normal it is for everyone to try and be something they’re not. Why does there always have to be a golden goose? It’s a chance to share what slim wisdom I have and say, ‘Slow down. What’s the rush?'”

But the truest connection between Carrabba and his fans is when they’re emotional equals, as on 2001’s So Impossible EP. In the course of four songs, Carrabba tells the cinematic story of one night at a high school party, from nervous flirting to sweet payoff.

“There’s nothing greater in life than sitting in a car full of friends and a Dashboard song comes on and everyone starts singing along,” says Melissa Chavez, 18, of Downey, California. “I kind of feel like I’m in a movie. And then a thought comes into my head that this is living.”

It’s possible to travel almost a mile in Boca Raton, about 45 miles north of Miami, without ever hitting a road—you can just cruise from one shopping center parking lot to another. There’s a local paper called The Happy Times Monthly that bills itself as the “good-news newspaper”—reporting only uplifting stories, like the one about a charitable woman named Twinkle Rudberg or the one about a tabby named Luke who was rescued from an exceedingly tall tree.

Yet Carrabba is at home in these unhurried, chipper surroundings—the university he left after three years, Florida Atlantic, is across the stress from the high school he attended; he lives five minutes from his mother. He’s stopped at the the bagel store for an autograph, and it turns out to be a girl who had Carrabba for a camp counselor a few summers ago. He recently caused a mini-riot at the mall when he tried to sneak into Abercrombie & Fitch on a Saturday to visit a friend working there (an act akin to the Pope trying to duck into a Sunday mass in the center of Rome). Carrabba insists there’s nowhere else he’d rather live.

“Oh, I hated it at first,” he says of the move from his hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut, at age 16. “That is, until I realized you could skateboard all winter—from then on, I was in my glory.”

Though raised by a single mother, Carrabba comes from an enormous family and carefully explains who is married to whom, showing off pictures of engagement parties in Connecticut, raising his voice on the cell phone to tell his grandmother that he’s featured in this month’s issue of Guitar World Acoustic magazine.

“So many of my fans come from similar situations, broken homes or whatever. And I think that makes us more appreciative of family, of romance, of what we do have.”

He takes a breath.

“My family keeps me honest. There’s nothing any critic could say that’s worse than what my [younger] brother [Nick, who maintains the Dashboard mail-order business] says when he doesn’t like a song.”

I ask him if there have been any songs that Nick disapproved of.

“Yep.”

“Which ones?”

“They didn’t get recorded.”

On “Am I Missing?”—the best of the latest Dashboard songs—Carrabba meets his typically surging self-doubt head-on, with a new finesse, answering every one of his repeated questions (“Is there anything worth waiting for? Worth loving for?”) with a gentle, keening refrain of “I’m home.”

With his just-say-no drug policy and his one-beer-or-so-a-week habit, Carrabba is the kind of rocker you’d want to bring home to Mom. He’s also the kind of rocker who wants to bring you home to Mom. And so I’m sitting on a deep, cozy couch in Anne Dichele’s modest Boca condo. There’s a framed ’80s McDonald’s bag on the wall (a relic from the year the family lived in Mexico and had to make do without Happy Meals) and a beautiful baby-grand piano—a present from her son. As Carrabba paces across the white rug, cell phone pressed to his ear, his mother—slim, pretty, dark-haired—yells, “Christopher! I told you to put that down!”

Dichele’s been taking acting classes for fun this week. (Carrabba recently “retired” her from the daily grind.) “I knew he was going to be doing this from the day he was born,” she says proudly, “but I always worry about his interviews.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I think it must be boring for you. He’s not very rock’n’roll, is he?”

Carrabba’s own apartment won’t be appearing on Cribs anytime soon, though there is the requisite DVD collection (The Original Kings of ComedyDogtown and Z-Boys) and barren refrigerator. The only personal touches visible are the cardboard cutout of Sarah Michelle Gellar and a patio converted into a portable studio. In front of the TV is a paisley couch with cloth covering frayed cushions—it used to be his mother’s, but after writing nearly every Dashboard song while seated on it, Carrabba took it.

“This is where I’ve been spending all of my time,” he says, stepping over a tangle of wires and onto the patio. He has produced friends’ demos and written and recorded tons of new songs. Yesterday, he taped a rough cover of Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio” just because he could. He’s writing short stories on his new iBook simply to see how they turn out, and later he’ll force me to “collaborate” with him on his first-ever techno song (using a freshly purchased synthesizer and drum machine), called “Sad Robot Heart.”

Carrabba’s attitude is a return to the days before the dark periods that fueled Dashboard. Through his teens and twenties, he careened from band to band and style to style. In Boca Raton’s community of retirees and snowbirds, the ’90s punk scene wasn’t oppositional—it was recreational. There was a cheerful underdog mentality that infected the bands that emerged, including New Found Glory and Legends of Rodeo. Since the only people in attendance were friends, everyone sang along, right from the very start. Carrabba explored his fun-loving side in the Vacant Andys, and his penchant for questing bombast from Further Seems Forever.

But his own songs—those deeply personal ones about euthanized relationships and dead relatives—almost never got an audience at all. It took the urging of a friend who had a fledging record label to convince Carrabba to release his first Dashboard Confessional music in 2000, a bare-bones album called The Swiss Army Romance. He hitched onto some hardcore shows, and it was there—alone, emoting on a stool in front of jacked-up Hatebreed fans—that he found his voice. Audiences fed off Carrabba’s anguish and threw it back. Hundreds of converts rushed home to email friends about what they had just seen.

The songs Carrabba recorded one year later for The Places were bitter, brutal, and immediate. “Dashboard originally came out of a time when I was really stifled,” he explains. “I was holding things back, not dealing with my feelings or expressing myself at all. So when I finally did, it came out like a force.”

But he insists that he isn’t just some sad guy with an acoustic guitar. And early demos from A Mark, a Brand, a Scar bear that out. The probable album opener “Carry This Picture for Luck” is a stroll through the beaches and bleachers of his Florida memories; and the peppy “Hey Girl” is a shy come-on for bookish Livejournal addicts. But the album’s centerpiece is the bleak “This Old Wound.” Over a hushed, descending guitar line, Carrabba picks over his unhealed scabs once again, wondering about the long-term health prospects of someone who cheers up others with his misfortune (“And everyone watched me waste myself / And everyone cheered at last / And all of them found it comforting / It’s better it’s me than them”).

“It’s the darkest song I’ve ever written,” he says, “and it’s about as literal as can be. I was having a day where I was like, ‘How am I ever gonna get over this stuff?”

Despite his fans’ hankering, Carrabba is loathe to discuss (on the record) details of the various women and situations that have been inspired his songs—just know that the “hair” that was famously “everywhere” in “Screaming Infidelities” was red and really difficult to remove from his car. He fights to protect the privacy of those close to him, fearful that they’ll feel like song fodder.

Carrabba struggles with the notion that Dashboard isn’t really for him anymore—it’s for the increasing number of kids who strain to get a piece of him. Shy and self-critical, he often gets more from simple fan interactions than the fans themselves. But as his celebrity rises, so too do meaningless requests for autographs and Polaroids, for photo shoots with DMX and the Dixie Chicks. Can his relationship with his fans—in many ways, his most successful relationship ever—be stretched this thin?

“There are times when I think that by performing these songs I’m just finding new things not to get over,” says Carrabba. “It seems really stupid sometimes.” He flashes a wry smile. “I can’t tell you how many people who are close to me say, ‘How can you feel so much onstage and let yourself feel so little in real life?’ But, that’s my protection, my armor. I used to write long letters and just leave them undelivered.

“Now I do this.”

IMPACT

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