Running around this afternoon getting ready for Holidaze ’09. This holiday season will take place largely in my car: First, a trip to Beachtown to see my friends there. Then I visit my grandma in her tiny Carolina town, and then trek on up to Pittsburgh. Finally it’s back down to Atlanta.
Then there’s the side-trip. Okay, so there’s this Ohio band that I’ve come to like a lot. It’s been about a year now of listening to them, mostly alone in my car. I’ve never seen them live, but people have told me that they’re amazing, and so I’ve roped my old friend from high school into road-tripping from Pittsburgh to Cleveland and back in one night to see them play.
To him, I’ve framed it as a sort of a for-old-times-sake high-school joyride–as if I’m an actual grown-up now like him, and not still seventeen just below the surface.
In my mind, it’s also about something else.
It has a lot to do with my lifelong tradition of unrequited musical love.
When I was six or so, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was at its pop culture apogee; there was that “Billie Jean” TV dance-number ; his hair had caught fire in that Pepsi ad; all that. A year and a half later—when the furor had died down, my sister got Thriller for her birthday. She seemed fairly pleased, but I remember running over to her and grabbing the record from her hands–absolutely squealing. I don’t know why old MJ’s music chose to hit me right then; it’s like the idol-worship phase in my development had switched itself on precisely that month or something. I do know that weeks before, I had dug out my parents’ issue of Time with the multicolor MJ portrait on the front, ripped the cover off and taped it up over my bed. It was my first pop-star obsession; I knew this and gloried in it.
In the years that followed, I never cared for New Kids on the Block, Color Me Badd or any of those other acts designed to entice ‘tween girls as my peers did. I had already had my falsetto-voiced, totally-unthreatening love: both four years before my time and two years after everyone else had.
I Know I’ll Never Be There/I Know What I Would See There.
When I was twelve, while my fellow classmates were improvising a capella versions of “Please Don’t Go Girl”* in the hallway, I secretly disdained them. My Michael Jackson days were also ancient history by then. I had found myself a real man…a real piano man. Maybe a year before, our local television station had aired a documentary-special about Billy Joel’s USSR tour. The special was about five years old then, but along with my older sister and her best friend, I watched, rapt; afterwards, I went upstairs and wrote in my diary, “HE is SO HOTTT!” describing in detail the way he had backflipped off the piano while his band backed him up on “Big Shot.” How he had read aloud and derided unfavorable critical reviews onstage before his adoring fans. How he ended every show calling out to his audience, “Don’t let the bastards get you down!” This…this was a complicated man.**
When my grandmother took me to Mexico that summer, I traveled from town to town with my walkman glued to my head, BJ’s early live album Songs in the Attic playing over and over again. I spent our time in Guadalajara and Mexico City mostly trying to fathom the apparent but entirely unclear mystery of “Streetlife Serenader.” (Full disclosure: I still like that song.) Later I stood, cheering in packed Pittsburgh arenas to see him play on his Storm Front tour (the album with that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” song).
Meanwhile, I was respected by real teenagers and adults for my choice. In Pittsburgh, everyone liked Billy Joel. In my hometown, Billy Joel is part of a religious musical trinity that also includes Bruce Springsteen (whom I always liked just fine) and Stevie-Ray Vaughn (whom I never liked–but as a Unitarian, I felt comfortable from an early age, picking and choosing aspects of my faith). I felt confident walking the streets with my homemade, puffy-painted Billy Joel t-shirt.
Problem was, I also had a smokin’-hot adolescent crush on the guy—not on the 50-something he was in 1989—but on earlier versions of him: the Innocent Man era 40-year-old with the curly brown hair and the soulful (I imagined) eyes. The mustachioed tough guy on the cover of Cold Spring Harbor. When I went to those live shows and saw that he could no longer hit the high notes of “Innocent Man;” (a younger backup singer did it for him); saw that he no longer flipped off the piano, it was disappointing. Where had my dangerous hero gone?
A year or two later (that’s decades, kid-time), my interest in Billy Joel had faded, although I can still impress my friends with a freaky knowledge of most of his lyrics. It took another decade to really remember the guy again and to both realize and consider the ego-driven paranoid bitterness that marked every single one of his lyrics (“Angry Young Man,” anyone?) as well as his actions elsewhere.
Maybe it was a reaction to that general mood that drove me to my next unrequited musical love.
1991: I had been born too late. I was dead sure this time. At fourteen, I lay in bed, wracked with dreams of Athens, Georgia, 1978. I was devouring the Rodger Brown book Party Out of Bounds, about the Athens music scene at that time that had featured an early REM, Pylon, and my band of choice…the B-52s.
The way I discovered Kate, Fred, Cindy and the others was unique: My father had subscribed us to Prodigy, the early internet service, and in turn, lonely, Social Outcasty Me trolled the service’s music fan bulletin boards (remember those?). That’s where I discovered a number of nice people across the country who liked the B-52s’. And I started to like ‘em, too.
I had paid vague attention when Cosmic Thing (that “Love Shack” album) came out the year before, but now I was listening to their earlier albums: Wild Planet and the S/T record and Whammy! This was unlike anything I had heard before. I told you this was Pittsburgh, right? Right. It is an earnest city. But this music! It was weird on purpose. It was not polished at all. It was unafraid. It was downright goofy; plus it rocked in a way I’d never before heard.
The night that I fell asleep halfway through the Rodger Brown book, I slept and awoke like a patient with scarlet fever; I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t really wake up. I gazed up at the vintage B-52s poster I had hung across the room. I dozed and dreamed that I was sitting in a bathtub of liquor in a wig in Athens, Georgia. I woke up, still staring at the poster, crestfallen, dozing, waking, heartbroken, thinking, knowing: Nothing like that will ever happen to me.
There were others besides the Big Three. In first grade, I brought my boom-box to school and blasted my father’s Meet the Beatles cassette across the playground; a popular girl said she would walk around with me if she could put her Bon Jovi cassette in the boom-box instead. As a toddler, it was Abba; introducing them to the girl who came over to dance in leotards together and then fighting over who got to be the blond one.
In my adult years, I’ve widened my horizons; I now also fall for bands that live in other countries, bands that have just broken up, and bands that never got around to recording an album. Unrequited, all.
This is why I’m willing to drive to Ohio. This is for Michael, for Songs in the Attic and Athens. This time, I’m gonna be there.
*That’s your New Kids on the Block, folks.
**Shudder. Should I even bother saying it? This was a bad, bad precedent.