Fool enough to almost be it
Cool enough to not quite see it
Something Chris wrote about wondering whether contemporary couples still had “their song” started me thinking about just how important songs have been in my life, and in the construction of my own personal identity. And of the complete impossibility of choosing a “favorite song.” A sort of one-size-fits-all for the rest of my life… I have songs for seasons, friends, enemies, places, moods, times, and so on. I can tell you precisely how any one of the thousands of songs I own fits into my life, and precisely how it doesn’t. And so, as you might expect, on most days I am completely unable to describe which is my “favorite.”
It’s a question you get a lot. “Oh, you like music? What’s your favorite band?” Or, “Oh, so what’s your favorite song (or, what are your top five songs)?” And so on. These questions are impossible in their simplicity, and frustrating in their casualty (I still support you, Jewel. Even if Kurt Loder says the word is “casualness,” or that the better phrase would be “casual disregard for…”, you give me the word that rhymes, and that means I love you.). Some people seem to have acquired the concept of “desert island” discs. If it were up to me, I’d sit in a cargo container full of batteries and cds – what good’s sand, anyway? But if you were to put a gun to my head, or somehow make it impossible for me to ever have more than one track, then I’d go straight for “Mayonaise.” (1) Not an extended version. Not a live version. The original – no more or less.
As I’ve written elsewhere, this was the song that woke me from the long sleep of childhood. The first song that dirtied my face a bit, and gave me a whole new set of colors in which to dream. When I started this website, I spent a lot of time thinking about a play that I had been writing (“The Years I’m Missing.”) It’s sort-of biographical, and a lot of it has to do with the years and things that I’ve talked about on this site already. Without giving too much away, as I hope one day you’ll be able to see it, a considerable amount of the play is dedicated to this initial moment of discovery. Allow me to back up a bit…
My father was my first DJ. I listened exclusively to his music, and learned to see and think in all the colors of his palette. No bands existed beyond his universe, and so there were many ways in which we could relate and understand that were possible through this shared experience. As is often the case with life, though, things soon happened to complicate matters. The first cd I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper. I liked the Beatles partly because my dad did (his favorite was “Revolver”), and partly because it seemed popular with the people that I liked at Boy Scouts. Honestly, what group of white, suburban middle-schoolers hasn’t spent at least one bus ride singing Beatles songs? I bet it’s about the same as the number of progressive-liberals left in Kansas. (I know the second makes it sound like an “imaginary number,” but the answer is zero.) Anyway, as it happened, my father was rather fond of this album, too, and we spent a lot of time listening to it. I couldn’t quite comprehend why he’d cry at “She’s Leaving Home,” or why we both gravitated to “A Day in the Life,” or why we both hated “Lovely Rita,” but it worked – and it was also the first time I articulated anything that entered our shared musical vocabulary.
This changed after the Econo Mix. I had become completely bewitched by the memory of sitting on the floor (or porch) of Discovery (2) and listening to Mike’s unusual record collection. So much bewitched, in fact, that I completely forgot to bring my treasures back to the “conversation” I’d been having with my father. And this is where the digression really begins…
I’ve thought long and hard about the reasons why I felt disaffected and disenfranchised growing up. I used to really love pinning it all on the horrible snobs of the town I moved to when I was in Seventh Grade, but that’s really just the sort of nonsense I tell myself when I want to have a “them” to fight against. And, I guess, one that I can’t ever win against (it’s less romantic, right?). But that’s not the truth, and it has nothing to do with a song saving my life. It, in fact, has nothing to do with my life anymore. (3) So, when I think back about everything that happened, and the way things changed, I know where the truth lies – “Mayonaise.” I first heard it, as I told you, at camp. And I’ve talked about how it opened my eyes to a new world. But what it also did, and what’s critically important, was give all those strange feelings of adolescence a course to follow. My love, and life, lay in this song. It was simultaneously exultory and elegiac, and it seemed to come from deep inside. (It still does, in fact – only now I know that it does far more than “seem.”)
Eddie Vedder talked about how Michael Stipe could put things in your soul with his music, things you never even knew you could feel, and that’s what this song did for me. For me, it all crystallizes in one verse:
No more promise
no more sorrow
no longer will I follow…
Can anybody hear me?
I just want to be me…
when I can, I will…
Try to understand that when I can-
And yeah, just in case you’re listening, it’s right where Bill’s pickups howl before the final line. It’s perfect – real Aristotelian catharsis, you know? And it’s in that moment that I resign not to follow – to fight my own way, and to try to take the world on my own terms. I never strove to blend in (though I sometimes wish(ed) I could), and I don’t really want to. It seems, as I get older, that I want a lot of stuff that’s pretty common – that it’s all biological milestones, physicals, insurance, and the Six O’Clock TV Hour… but I would never want those things at the expense of the ability to feel the discord in a song like “Mayonaise.” (And I hate them when I even suspect that I do.) And this song convinces me of this every single time that I listen to it. It is the one. The single song that will save my life until you play it at my funeral. (And you’d better. So you know, I want you to pick up my coffin at the moment the guitar solo finishes, and that’s that. My only, final wish. (4) If you have time, though, “Muzzle” would make an awesome song for the occasion, too.) (5)
If I have to, I’ll haunt you for the rest of time if you play Celine Dion at my funeral. Really. And I’ll sing that Whitney Houston song from… actually, that’s a good enough threat right there.
So “Mayonaise” marked my point of spiritual departure, and it also marked the moment that I set my childhood, and my father, aside. At least musically (though, sadly, one tends to follow the other). I made friends with like-minded music fans – not because I necessarily liked all of them, but because they saw the same beauty in distortion that I did, and especially because their eyes closed, too. And I think that’s really where I gather my best evidence that the alienation that teenagers feel, and others I suppose, is related to the formation of individual aesthetic tastes. I had no time for anyone who didn’t like “Mayonaise” (I only seldom do now, but there are usually good reasons), or for anyone who used phrases like “turn that down” and “when’s the next Ace of Base record coming out?” My shell has been hardened by this song, and I am forged in its chaos.
Which sounds just a bit sophomoric, eh? I had heard the song for the first time in 1992, but I didn’t own a copy of “Siamese Dream” until the summer before my sophomore year of high school (1993). By this time, “Social Growling” (my first “band”) was “underway” (We had a bongo player, a bass player, a kazoo player, and a concept album. We rocked). I wanted nothing more than to find a way to make sounds like this one. Over time, and for years since, I’ve come to regard Siamese Dream as one of the three best rock records ever. (The other two? That’s a story for later…) I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I got the album at the mall. My mom bought it for me from a Sam Goodie. Yep. When I got home, I squirreled away in my room and listened to it over and over. I was shy about playing “Mayonaise” (Didn’t want to wear it out. Ha.), but positively in love with “Disarm” and “Soma.” By this point, “Pisces Iscariot” was nigh, and I wanted to “catch up” as quickly as I could. (I knew “Gish” existed, but I was very focused on the moment.) (6)I pored over the liner notes, and tried desperately to decipher just what it was that was going on. I looked online for guitar tabs, scoured magazines for interviews, and went looking for both singles and vinyl. It was my first experience with musical obsession.
And it’s the strongest. I recently paid an enormous sum to be able to see the Pumpkins “reunite” at the Grand Rex in Paris. (Tenth-row center. Worth it.) I saw Zwan, and I saw Billy’s solo tour, but this will be the first time that anyone in the public will have heard Pumpkins songs live for seven years. This is as close to a living, breathing religious experience as I am like to get. And it comes at the perfect moment, as I’m struggling with an unfocused dissertation, feeling a bit out-of-place at school, detached from friends, and a variety of other angst-inspiring conditions. (Where’s that Nirvana t-shirt, anyway…) When I was discovering music, the experience of going to a truly great concert was life-changing. I have epic stories about every part of the concert-going experience from literally hundreds of shows, and each seems to give me something different to reflect on.
And though it may seem just a little bit teenage, and a whole lot like I’m failing to confront my problems like a responsible person, I know the truth: that it’s sufficient simply to know that I’m “old enough to always feel this…”
- Interestingly, I experienced a similar experiment once in Peru. While doing some charity work there, a bunch of us were staying at the beach. We had a tape deck that ran off of car batteries, and only two tapes: “Greatest Hits” collections of The Police and Bon Jovi. After four hours, these are the greatest albums ever made. Really. [Back]
- The question: “What sounds allegorical, but isn’t” That’s just what the place was called. Sometimes, also, “Disco.” [Back]
- Ok, fine, I’m totally psyched that I’ll get to go to my ten-year reunion and mention to certain teachers who claimed I’d “never amount to anything” that I ended up going to Oxford and Cambridge. I’m still not much, but I have a lot of debt – which means I’ve been up to something, right? [Back]
- I realize, of course, that this may necessitate not holding the funeral in a church. I’m all right with that, if you can’t find a hip priest who likes “classical music.” [Back]
- I’ll never feel good about the fact that my father’s niece played “Freebird” at his funeral. Partly because I didn’t have a lighter to wave in the air, but primarily because it’s just so beyond clichÃ©, so uncouth, that you can’t help but be ashamed to think that people might think you contributed to this event. I’m sorry, dad. We all kinda, sorta like Southern Rock (in much the same way that we kinda, sorta like late-night talk shows), but I really wish I could have done better for you. If it were up to me, you would’ve had “Brothers in Arms.” Sorry. [Back]
- Oddly enough, the first time I ever saw the Pumpkins on TV, apart from the “Today” and “Disarm” videos which were in heavy rotation, was the interview they did before the 1993 Video Music Awards on MTV. Kurt Loder had a great conversation with them about the upcoming album, and they collectively mocked a rather drunk Courtney Love. Brilliant. (Actually, for the best bit of Courtney bashing, watch her sit with Madonna. It’s genius.) [Back]