Sunday, September 20, 2009

Easy Listening

Somebody I know has teased me that my posts on this blog are very 'emo' -- presumably meaning that I emote, that I talk too much about emotions. So maybe I should be witty and ironic and acerbic and euphoric or something? If I am 'emo,' then it's probably because I try and generally avoid writing about the events in life, focusing instead on my (ahem) aesthetic preferences. But ... it's hard to write about one's preferences and not allude to how one feels. Which I guess leads to emoting. Hmm.

So ... I thought I would every explicitly emote in this post. Emoting about music is usually about remembering. It is usually about nostalgia. It is now 1.30 am, a suitable time for remembering. I'm listening to "Saudade" by Love and Rockets, the beautiful instrumental that closes their first album Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven. No specific memory associated with this album but vague images that run through my mind. The front of an apartment complex on Boyett Street. Being young. Being too young. Being skinny. Having a crush on a girl who didn't have one on me (until much later). Lying on the couch falling asleep during the day with a Calculus textbook opened on my chest. My roommate buying me a pack of cigarettes. A time that is most definitely not today. Not today at all.

Here is an excerpt from my rock'n'roll book about that time:

In Texas, there was either Austin, Houston, or Dallas to go to. The latter was the furthest, and therefore infrequently visited. But there was a memorable trip in the spring of 19_, memorable not because anything particular happened, but because on the drive there, as I was lazily watching the vista of the scenery move by from my passenger’s seat window, I saw a rainbow set, almost like a colored architectural (drawing) implement balanced over the horizon; in the foreground a cemetery with gravestones raced by until the headstones strobe-lighted through my brain into an image that I’ve never forgotten. Later, I wrote a poem-song called “Rainbow Cemetery Freeway” for that one memory—of movement and death and loneliness that I felt on that trip to Dallas.

Nadeem had some old friends from __ who went to school at the University of Texas at Arlington. This was a little “town” located right between Dallas and Forth Worth. There’s nothing remarkable about any of these three places—although Dallas would figure a little bit in my life in the years hence: several times I flew kites over a suburb of Dallas. Nadeem had a friend who lived in Arlington whose name was Pappu, an incredibly skinny dude who dressed like a punk. He wore black all the time, made up his hair, had lots of piercings, and seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time making himself look good (which he did). We would always be late for shit, ‘cause Pappu was doing his hair. I looked positively suburban next to him. He put in some serious time with his sartorial eloquence. Well, Pappu had an album he was playing at the time, "Meat Is Murder," by a band I had hitherto not heard of, the Smiths. It sounded like warbling to me, definite signs of warbling and moaning. I was nearly ready for the Smiths, but not quite so. However, we heard the album dozens of times that weekend while smoking cigarettes and sitting outside his apartment.

Pappu had a gorgeous white chick for a girlfriend who also wore black all the time. One time I was sitting on the steps outside their apartment. Nadeem and Pappu were somewhere else. It was just me and her. She put on 'Meat is Murder' yet again. She said it was the only thing she could listen to. We sat there smoking cigarettes and not talking. This was a recurring theme in my American Adventure. The soundtrack, the cigarettes, and the silence. It was like being placed in freshly fallen snow on the side of a highway after a car accident that didn’t really hurt you that bad.

Pappu was later killed in a carcrash. I'm not sure what happened to his girlfriend.

There were other more deeper trips into Americana. On my first spring break out of College Station, in the late '80s, I went to visit my sister at her school, Wellesley College near Boston. I took a flight out of Houston, via Newark, and landed in Boston. It was the first time that I had been in the north, or indeed anywhere outside of College Station in America. She came and picked me up and first we went to Harvard Square. It was cold. We stopped at Au Bon Pain and we had some hot melts-in-your-mouth croissants, a food I had never tasted before, and actually, have not tasted since. No matter how many croissants I have eaten since that day, I have never been able to secrete the same juices of joy in my mouth as that winter day.

My sister had been in Wellesley for a little over a semester now, and I’m not sure how she was adjusting to it, but it seemed clear that life wasn’t exactly easy for her in terms of money, school, social life, etc. Wellesley was this beautiful isolated oasis in the middle of nowhere, with the most picturesque backdrop one could imagine, especially in the winter—with wide lakes and tall pine trees and distant forests and gliding hills and mysterious pathways that led off to shaded hollows. I met a few of her new friends while I stayed in her room. I remember the big hit on the radio at the time was a song called “Easy Lover,” a duet by Phil Collins and the former lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire whose name I can’t remember now. I wrote many (love) letters to S__, sitting in my sister’s dorm room. I don’t think S__ ever replied to them. My sister did her best to take care of me, but I think I was a lost case. I was right in the midst of my deep chasm of feeling lost, just having come to America, so it must’ve showed on my face.

While at Wellesley, I decided to go visit an old friend who was a freshman at Brown University. __ was the ex-girlfriend of my ex-best friend. She was beautiful to look at, maybe a bit too much, and I was never sure why she was so fond of me at the time. She really devoted a lot of care to our friendship over the years but it was that first trip that cemented something new. I took a Greyhound bus from Boston to Providence with my bags, not really knowing where the hell I was supposed to meet her. I remember leaving the Greyhound station in the bitter cold with two heavy bags walking around the city trying to look for a small college building where I was supposed to meet her. I walked for miles, finally convinced I was lost. My shoulders hurt. I didn’t have her phone number either. I sat down on a corner street and huddled up in the bitter cold as night fell and it was snowing. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I walked to the campus of Rhode Island College. Amazingly, out of the blue, she showed up in a friend’s car, leapt out of nowhere and hugged me. They took me back to her dorm, where __ immediately told me to take a shower because I smelled bad. I don’t remember the rest of what we did. But I do remember that I smelled bad. Later, after a couple of days, __ hugged me goodbye and we began writing letters regularly to each other, her chronicling her tumultuous love affairs and me chronicling my imaginary ones.

Throughout that trip, I had a small walkman (remember those?!) with me and a few cassette tapes. One of them, stolen from Shammu, began with the song “I.G.Y.” by Donald Fagen—a beautiful, lilting, and absurdly cheesy song if there ever was one. Except, listening to it just made me more wistful, and eventually pitifully nostalgic for “what a beautiful world it used to be.”

"I.G.Y" remains an oddity. It's one of the few songs I've ever heard that is about the euphoric joy of expecting a bright future. The narrator is a kid in 1957 (hence the International Geophysical Year or IGY), just after the launch of the Sputnik satellite into space. And he's excited. He's excited about going to space, about the new space age upon us. The song might as well have been written for me as a ten year old. It's weird that as you get older, the songs that often move you are the ones you remember as a kid, the ones that are willfully discarded as lowbrow (or worse, middlebrow) by the arbiters of good taste. But, really, who could resist when Fagen sings:

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free.

Donald Fagen -- I.G.Y. [mp3]

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