Music becomes the apogee of these transcendent moments of personal understanding. It anchors itself inside us as a permanent reference point, coupling data and emotion. It is what separates the sentient beings from the mosses and slimes…it is what gives our existence its sad beauty.
And what gives our existence meaning? Love. But what of the days before we knew what that meant, before we could sit and comprehendingly compose a description of this particular strange foible? Back then, it wasn’t conceivable. Everything was new, even when it felt old. Love…what was love but the little adventurous furtive encounters you had to beg and plead for from your high school girlfriend. These were the days when it was inconceivable that a woman would ever look up at me with raw submission and beg with her eyes. A boy becomes a man when he first makes a woman respond that way, and then has the respect to acknowledge what it took for her to let herself be that vulnerable.
Picture it, I am a boy of nineteen, I know little and understand less. I meet a girl on the subway who says she is from New York. I tell her I’m from Chicago. We agree it is quaint that we met in little Boston. She goes to New York for the weekend, I go back to Chicago. That Tuesday she calls me…invites me to a club.
We get high, go dancing at Axis. There is nothing more effortless. She leaves with me, we go to my dorm room. I begin to play the Cure’s Disintegration. With that simple act, I begin to compose the soundtrack to my personal lovemaking with a piece that rooted itself there, sliding in and mutating and proliferating as easily as if nature had intended it to evolve there in that very place. But, ironically, only the music is sensuous, only the music I lust for. The girl is just there, and it is awkward, if not entirely pleasing. I do not remark the sex, only that it felt as if I had just masturbated. Later I realize that is because we, for a brief period of time that lasted about two years, became one person. Tracy would become my first true love, the first person to nearly kill me.
Music accompanied our every adventure: Sex and X in a weekend shithole studio in Alphabet City, $500 a month for a place most people wouldn’t want to die in, while Uptown on 82nd and 5th are six unused rooms in her families part-time apartment. LSD romps on the Esplanade while friends tried to knock over building with the lasers they saw erupting from their fingertips. The House of Love, Faith No More, Prince and Madonna, the B52’s and REM, The Ocean Blue and The Mighty Lemon Drops, Lloyd Cole and Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello. And there was this little band called World of Form that I happened to have started that was just celebrating it’s first airplay on Boston radio, along with their local competition Yo La Tengo, Letters to Cleo, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a little impish thing named Juliana Hatfield who fronted the Blake Babies, and this arrogant shit named Evan Dando who fronted The Lemonheads. Me and Tracy walked through this effluvium like Made Guys, untouchable in our own little sphere of irrelevance. Ah, the beauty of ignorant youth.
When it was all over, she had shown her true face. She slept with everyone and she lied. She lied like it was her sole purpose on earth. Or she would brag about her random threesomes as if I should be proud of her, but I knew better…I knew it was only confession. The last time, I waited all night for her. I had a kitten my mother had given me in an attempt to replace Tracy. For the first time I really looked at the kitten. It was helpless and in love with me. Tracy came home and I threw her out of my life. I cried for three days straight, and don’t remember the next six months that followed.
The cat is still with me. As is the music that played behind our schizophrenic waltz…
But before Tracy, there was one person who made me look at the world from the other side of my mind. When I met Menz everything I knew or thought I knew changed forever. And it was sad to think that had I not been his roommate, I probably never would have spoken to him solely because of his appearance.
He was well informed, articulate and absolutely captivating when he spoke, which was good and necessary because his physical appearance did much to keep the general populous at bay. He was very thin, had long stringy, greasy brown hair, a big nose and dark circles under his eyes. He always wore an Olive green Army Issue coat, dark blue jeans and sandals, like some schizo bastard offspring of a Vietnam POW. Menz was free, and because of it he was a social outcast. He had a gall I could never approach. He was wildly passionate about marijuana reform and other fringe political movements, went door to door with MASSPIRG (a job for the truly desperate or truly obsessive), and led rallies of three and four people at times. He may not have had much to bitch about (owing more to the fact that it was the late ‘80’s and no one cared about much than the idea that there was nothing to get riled up about) but he knew what made people angry. HE made people angry, just by the way he looked, and the contempt he showed for society on a moment-to-moment basis. He was an eighteen-year-old kid who knew more about the world than anyone I knew except Howard Zinn, and the University had run Zinn out of town on a rail the year before.
On his desk were stacks of small notebooks with rubber bands stretched around various pages. He had one small dufflebag of clothes, a milk crate of vinyl records, and scores of boxes of books, mostly by Beat writers, South American revolutionaries and Zen theorists.
Menz was my fifth roommate that year. I had driven away the other four, I believe by inadvertently climbing into their bed while drunk, while they unfortunately were occupying the same space at the time. On the surface, this young man was my antithesis, and I believe I envied him almost immediately for his freedom. He didn’t appear to be affected by anything, while by comparison I was a teaming bundle of repression. It wasn’t that. He was all too affected by things, I was just to wide-eyed stupid to comprehend them at the time. The vapid shit I was into, he couldn’t grasp.
Menz immediately recognized my naďve obstinacies and my Midwestern, corn-fed WASP neurosis, and set himself to deconstructing who and what I was. He was fascinating, and I credit him with introducing me to many habits I have integrated into being, everything from how to roll a joint properly to which direction to clean vinyl records, or how to annotate a book, or how to lace up jump boots. Stupid little things you find yourself aping when in the presence of perceived greatness.
Like Hemp. Menz told me, “Hemp is the single most versatile natural substance on this planet, and unfortunately is the victim of wide scale propaganda.” At this point he reached into one of his boxes of books and tossed some pamphlets at me that had the word N.O.R.M.L. emblazoned across the front. Without a beat, I sat up eagerly and said, “how do I join?” Menz laughed, and his reply was characteristic, as was his method. He acted upon each and every monobrowed, narrowcast impulse that came out of my Prep-school engineered mind. He spotted the artist, like Tracy, and began to mold him.
“Easy there, Frat Boy, this isn’t a ‘social group. This is about the reform of laws that prohibit the widespread growth, sale and implementation of the Hemp plant in the free market.”
Menz wasn’t one of those idiots who thought legalizing pot was just about getting high. He proceeded to tell me the history of the Hemp plant and the lengthy, derisive campaign waged by tobacco plantation owners during the colonial years who wanted to outlaw hemp so that they could get the land on which the hemp was growing. He was also well versed in the universal applications of the hemp plant.
I got up and put on a Grateful Dead album because I assumed it was some universal social panacea. Wasn’t it the universal social language of the pothead? I was such an idiot! When I turned around and saw the expression of advanced nausea on Menz’s face, I knew immediately I had done something wrong.
Because it was 1988 and because there was all the nostalgia about the Sixties going around and because I fed into it, because I didn’t know what else to do, had no identity but that which my vapid prep-schoolmates permitted me to have, I suddenly overnight became a “deadhead” even though I had been to one show in my life. But it was even worse. I didn’t even do the whole Deadhead thing properly and stop bathing or grooming or washing my clothes, no I was one of those idiot Preppie Deadheads who wore tie-dyes and acid washed jeans and Sperry Top Siders.
L-O-S-E-R…WHAT’S THAT SPELL????
“Jesus,” he said, “you are some Frat Boy. What’s next, ten guys with baseball caps and beers in plastic cups come popping out of the closet singing ‘Uncle John’s Band?’”
“You don’t like the Dead?” I said, shocked.
“Do you?” was his reply?
It struck me as peculiar, but very quickly I believe I understood. In two words he managed to succeed where everyone else had failed. He was asking me if I knew why I listened to the Dead.
It suddenly occurred to me that I did not like the Grateful Dead, that I had been pretending to like them because everyone I knew listened to the Dead. It also occurred to me that they probably didn’t like the Dead either, that it was like some gigantic wave of mimicry and mass-delusion sweeping through America’s youth.
If I had to answer as to why this happened I would have to say that we had this unavoidable need to associate with the political hyperacuity of the Sixties because our parents had it and we didn’t. All we had was fuckin’ Reagan and the goddamn Republicans, and Wall St. and junk-bonds and cocaine and Bright Lights, Big City and Culture Club and Duran Duran and parachute pants and breakdancing and Michael Jackson when he was still black, and LA Law and the idea that there was some inherent realism in a John Hughes movie and the worst thing that could possibly happen to the planet was either Nuclear Annihilatin by the Soviets or the return of Disco.
And the closest thing we had to a political cause was some obscure fascistic oppression going on to a person whose name I couldn’t pronounce in some equally obscure country hanging on to the equator by its fingernails that we heard about through Sting or Bono. And the only thing close to a Woodstock we had was Live Aid, and instead of the Chicago Seven we had the Iran-Contra hearings and what the fuck was that? We liked the Sixties because in 1987 People magazine did a retrospective on the Summer of Love and in ten short pages managed to trivialize the most definitive decade in our country’s history. People liked the Dead in the Sixties because they actually stood for something, when Haight-Ashbury wasn’t listed with the San Francisco Office of Tourism. We liked them because, for some reason, we felt obligated. It wasn’t because of the music. It was because of what it meant to say, “I love the Dead.” It was a euphemism for one’s budding social conscience that was fighting for expression in a beliefless era. Life just didn’t mean anything in the Eighties. It was a hollow, plastic, high-gloss, materialistic, conservative nightmare bordered on all sides by sheer indifference, indifference that led to the proliferation of Aids, crack, and Lionel Ritchie, the greed that led to securities fraud, deficit spending and The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the sheer, irrational terror of the Great Red Menace that allowed us to turn our heads as our leaders dealt drugs and arms, took our money and built mountains of missiles, ostensibly to protect us.
And all the while they kept telling us life was just like Cosby and Family Ties. It was all so cut and dry. We were the best, everyone else was inferior or they were Communists, and this was the path you followed and no questions please. We had no dissention, and the only Revolution we knew was a band from Minneapolis fronted by a guy who had a thing for purple. Because of that, we listened to the Grateful Dead and we smoked pot and talked about the “glory days” that occurred just as most of us were being born. We were desperately looking for a cause to give our lives meaning, desperately needing to have some major social catastrophe like Kent State or Altamont or Bobby Kennedy to wake us all up and let us release our pent-up apathy.
But it would never happen. The Sixties happened because no one planned them. They were an inevitability brought about by a time of mass identity crisis and social trauma. In the Sixties, we had an unwanted war to contend with and we had no idea who or what we were; In the Eighties, we were smart enough not to publicize our police actions, and we were defined to the minutiae. We were choreographed. By then we thought the Sixties were just like an episode of The Wonder Years.
My mother often said, “We didn’t have time for “the Sixties.” They just happened. We were too busy working and trying to have a family. Who had time to run around being political?” But in the minds of their children, that was about all there was to do. Somehow, history forgot about day-to-day life.
In my next breath I released all my disillusionment. I looked at Menz and said, “now what do I do?” He understood completely. He got up and went over to my music rack and pulled out all my “Sixties-political-music-I-listen-to-because-I’m-supposed-to” and dumped them in a heap in the middle of the floor and began jumping on them like a PCP freak trying to stomp out an imaginary fire. He looked like a caricature. It was absolutely terrifying, but I was too awestruck to say or do a thing. When he finished I looked down at this pile of broken plastic, magnetic tape and shiny mirror fragments, and I thought about how long it had taken me to obtain all of it, and how quickly it was all destroyed, and how cleansed I felt by it all. It was a metaphor that would pervade my life for years to come.