1. When I was a little boy, I had a clock in my room. It was a classic piece of ‘60s Japanese design, shaped a bit like a big pill with one side cut away, all sleek plastic and Plexiglas. I suppose you’d call it a digital clock, although it wasn’t, at least not in the way we mean it now. It didn’t have an LED screen, wasn’t computerized, didn’t run for years on a single double-A battery. It was a piece of machinery, my clock, and the numbers—printed on little metal flaps that rotated around a central drum—made a clean, pleasing clickas they turned. The passage of seconds was denoted by white lines on a spinning black cylinder behind a tiny window. I could study its workings for hours, and I often did.
The other thing my clock was was a radio. Though my father had an impressive-looking stereo and turntable in his office, I don’t remember hearing much music in our house. Alone in my room, though, I could listen to whatever I wanted. I loved roaming around the dial, less hearing than seeing the music as it coalesced out of the deep-space void of static, stations fading in and out as I turned the dial, carefully probing the airwaves for signs of life.
Music wasn’t the only thing missing from our household. When I was four, my mother had died suddenly, the result of being bitten by the wrong mosquito. Within eight months my father had remarried, to a woman who bore a striking resemblance to my mother. After she moved in, all the photographs of her predecessor mysteriously vanished.
Years later, after this wife too had passed, and with his own death waiting as yet unseen in the wings, my father told me that, at the time, he had been desperate to find a mother for me and my young sister. If I had had the presence of mind to recognize that mothers aren’t usually just found lying around, like nickels under parking meters, I didn’t mention it. I knew that he had tried his best with the tools he had been given.
After my mother died, I detached myself from the world. It was a nearly silent process, beginning the day my father returned home from the hospital and unfolding over the course of the next year or so. Later, when I saw the film 2001: A Space Odyssey,I found myself transfixed as Dr. Frank Poole, one of the astronauts aboard Discovery One, the spaceship headed to Jupiter, is sent kicking and waving in frantic abandon out into the tomb of deep space by HAL 9000, the murderous, creepily placid computerized brain of the ship. I was watching myself, cut loose and sent spinning, shooting farther and farther away as the people around me stand in mute silence, radios dead, unable to reach me.
That clock radio of mine would have been right at home on Discovery One;I wish I still had it. Where I grew up, in Washington, D.C., I could hear all kinds of music on that radio: Gospel, classical, all-day banjo fests on NPR (this wasthe ‘70s). But it was rock and roll that called out to me. Even listening on the single, tiny speaker of my clock radio, I was powerless to resist the crack of a snare drum, the metallized crunch of an electric guitar.
Weirdly, it was older music I was most drawn to. Though rock radio was dominated by “epic” and “meaningful” songs like “Another Brick in The Wall” and “Hotel California”, it was the short, sharp songs of the mid-60s that spoke to me. I didn’t really know what “I Can’t Explain” and “All Day and All of the Night” were about, but every time they played I found myself nailed to the spot. I didn’t yet understand the mechanics of sound, the way an electric guitar could drive an amplifier to the edge of feedback and then beyond, how magnetic recording tape could compress sound and gave it an almost liquid quality. All I knew was that these songs were pushing on a membrane deep inside me, the thing that kept me separate from the world outside; they stirred a hidden and very intimate part of my body that desperately wanted touching. These songs, beamed not only through space but seemingly through time as well, were proof of a life outside the walls of our dark, quiet household, a beacon sent from the ether to guide me to something new and hopefully better. But what exactly that might be I could not yet see.
2. By the time I turned twelve, things had stabilized, sort of. My father, having secured a caretaker for his children, had thrown himself wholeheartedly into a career in international law, often leaving for extended business trips to Europe and beyond. And my stepmother, stripped of both her independence and her career as a CIA analyst, was hurling herself against the bars of her gilded cage in desperation, furious at having been lured into marriage by a serial escape artist.
From the outside, that magical first house of ours seemed perfectly of a piece with its quiet, prosperous neighborhood. Inside, it was beginning to feel like more of a prison than a refuge. Relations with my family had calcified into an uneasy Cold War, eerily like the real-world one that seemed to have painted a literal bullseye over the city. Like our lovely house, from the outside, our family looked great: Successful lawyer, well-dressed, attractive younger wife, two bright children in elite private schools. It was a sham, of course; even in photographs, the raw venom in my stepmother’s glare is a red-hot warning for children and adults alike to keep their distance. And largely, they did.
As my absent father’s unwitting proxy, it was up to me to bear the brunt of this fury. In the early ‘80s, it was not unusual for parents to slap their children, or worse, though serious physical abuse garnered whispered judgements and surreptitious glances in our neighborhood. Being slapped across the face was one thing, but it was the never-ending backbeat of female rage that finally broke me. It confirmed my worst, most private fears, the ones that played out every night as I made a make-believe fortress underneath the blankets, hiding from the shadow-soldiers outside: That there was no real home for me, no refuge in the love and acceptance that had vanished along with my mother. That I meant nothing to no one.
Outside, events seemed to conspire against me as well. It was 1983—full-on Reagan—and though my political consciousness was feeble, I could tell that things were amiss. I didn’t know shit about politics, but I knew that I didn’t like the Reagans, their embrace of “American values,” which included closing mental health wards like Washington’s St. Elizabeth’s, or escalating the Cold War, which already kept me in a state of near-constant anxiety. I could tell that they didn’t actually love people, which seemed to be an important qualification for running a country.
Nancy Reagan was inescapable, her eerily wide grin plastered on that big head of hers. In my dyspeptic worldview she was the epitome of the tight-assed killjoy, a prim and self-satisfied cyborg masquerading as a loving human being. Her bold policy initiative at the time was to ask Americans to Just Say Noto drugs, and, naturally, I wanted to rise to the challenge. First, I had to find them.
3. Drugs, it seemed, were everywhere. On the news, where one evening I was transfixed by a segment about the burgeoning PCP crisis: Shaky, bleeped-out footage of a ranting, naked man running amok down a city street. On crappy crime dramas like “Beretta,” whose funky theme song (“Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow”) advised me “not to do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Drugs were everywhere but where I most needed them: Inside me.
Fortunately, I had an older half-sister—Kate—with the essential prerequisites: Access to weed, and questionable judgement. Though her relationship with our father was uneven, she was enough of a known quantity that I was allowed to visit her up in Boston over long weekends.
Kate was a bit of a dabbler. Smart as hell but unsure of where to put herself, she’d been casting about for a profession since grad school. At that particular moment she was an aspiring music journalist and had managed to penetrate the lower strata of the scene. She ended up writing a couple of articles for Spin, and that was about the long and short of it.
But more than anyone else, it was Kate who shaped the course of my musical life. When I was five, she had left all her Beatles LPs with me. I was an easy mark then: Lonely, curious, and too young to know that the Beatles were hugely popular, and therefore totally uncool. The songs were compact, economical marvels, their arrangements endlessly fascinating. What is a spindly, Baroque piano solo doing in the middle of “In My Life”? And even today, the thrilling, all-too-brief drone at the top of “I Feel Fine” raises the hairs at the back of my neck. That first recorded blast of guitar feedback inspired so many musical journeys, mine included.
For my first solo visit to Boston, she had located an all-ages show I could legally attend. So far, so good; I never would have asked my parents to take me to a rock show—nor would they have consented—so I was already one giant step closer to the music I had been chasing all these years. While I still loved the music of the ‘60s, my tastes had morphed to include what passed for “edgy” on rock radio, a somewhat regrettable blend of The Cars, Police, U2 and, weirdly, Rush. I knew that whatever Kate had cooked up was going to be great.
It was a Sunday matinee at the Paradise on Commonwealth Ave. Of course, I didn’t recognize the names of any of the performers, but that didn’t matter. Everything was so new, every sensation imprinting itself on my cerebral cortex for the very first time. It’s the scents I remember the most: I had never before known that the smell of stale beer could permeate an entire building, or that the bathrooms in rock clubs all smelled like equal parts urine, bleach, and vomit. My entire body tingled in anticipation; merely watching people handle guitars and test amplifiers was an exquisite thrill, and the electric potential in the air was a new, addictive taste in my mouth.
Once the band took the stage, though, the excitement drained from my body like a melted popsicle. They were a teenaged metal band, strutting boy-men with feathered peacock hair and Day-Glo muscle tees. Though I had never even been to a show before, I was nothing if not a snob, and I knew that these callow, suburban hair-rockers had nothing to offer me. Once they began playing, it was all over: Goofy, fist-pumping metal. We left.
Still, the hook was set. Having grokked that her nerdy, angst-filled little brother was not into 3rd-rate Judas Priest knockoffs, Kate dug a little deeper and found that the Lowgistics—a band she actually knew—were playing at a student union. They even had a record: An EP done up in classic new wave style, neon pink letters over a black geometric grid. They were the real deal.
It says a lot about my taste, or my lack of it, to remember how much I loved this night. I hadn’t realized what a difference the darkness made, that even though we were in, essentially, a cafeteria, the lack of light held my disbelief at bay, allowed me to absorb the music like I was drinking it. The band was a paint-by-numbers new wave four-piece: The requisite female singer doubled on bass, and the keyboard player sounded like he was slumming it on break from Berkeley. If I knew how rote the music was, though, I didn’t care. This band liked darkness—just like me—and the thinness of the crowd was only confirmation that this night was something rarefied, private, and special.
After the set, my entire body already ablaze with excitement, even more specialness awaited me. Kate and I were taken “backstage”—just another Linoleum-lined room, no hot tub or cocaine dispenser—where bored-looking 30-somethings, dressed in black, all big hair and clanking jewelry, smoked and drank beer from plastic cups.
Kate introduced me to her friends. She was—and remains—a loving presence, but I was uncomfortable being the little brother here. Family was something to flee, not embrace; cool people didn’t have baby brothers, or even parents. So, after an awkward introduction or two, I broke away and began to explore the room, such as it was.
It seemed like there were easily as many people inside as there had been at the show. The guys all hugely tall and skinny, in drainpipe pants and teased bangs; the women kohl-eyed and sullen. I made a mental note to switch to an all-black wardrobe, lose my remaining baby fat—maybe using one of those stomach-jiggling belts at my grandparents’ retirement community—and remember to look morose at parties. Cool. I got this.
I decided to try out some adult moves. Approaching the couch plopped in the middle of the room, I stood nearby it for far too long, searching desperately for some casual-looking shape to make with my body. Finally, I offered up that the performance had been “really great” to a woman who I was sure was the singer, but actually wasn’t. She sneered and blew cigarette smoke at me. I slunk away.
Meanwhile, from the other end of the room, a curious smell was wafting towards me. I had never encountered it before, but I knew in an instant what it was. A joint had been produced, and, despite the fact that I was without any shadow of a doubt utterly, hilariously underage, it was passed my way.
I wish that I could recall those first sensations of being high, now that so many subsequent thousands of hits since have obliterated that virginal toke. First the expanding bubble of weightlessness, wonder, and tingly numbness. Then, most importantly, the nearly literal absorption of sound into my brain that made music, already my most constant and trusted companion, into a tangible, nearly digestible object. Unfolding in half-time and impossibly precise in its magnification, the sensation of being high made it possible to break even complex sounds down into their subatomic components. Never mind that cannabis also rendered me an anxious, gibbering baboon; it gave me a sense of completion I found lacking in un-stoned life.
4. I returned to visit my sister periodically through my early teenage years. She had thrown me a lifeline, but when it came time to return the favor, I couldn’t give her the companionship she so desperately wanted. Each visit, I would stay just long enough to detect the red-hot electrode of anxiety running through her life, one half-dedicated to many things but never wholeheartedly to any single one. Made uncomfortable by the demand that I bond with her, or anyone else, I would flee back to Washington, each time with a stack of new cassettes taped from her collection of LPs.
Besides finding new music, the vital question was whether or not I would be able to get high. On weekdays, as soon as Kate had left for her job at a massive insurance agency, I’d desperately scrape the residue from her pipe, a simple and rather ugly block of wood that looked to have been made either by a toddler or a very high 19-year-old. Properly befogged by the bitter, stale leavings, I’d situate myself directly in front of the turntable and commence that day’s dig.
Kate’s newer punk and new wave albums sat uncomfortably alongside older records: the Byrds, Stones, and Yardbirds. Incredibly, they were a band she’d actually seen, though all she could recall was “They were loud,” which I soon learned was the only thing anyone eversaid about a concert in the ‘60s.
I was intrigued and a bit intimidated by the punk records. I had seen punkers back home, roaming around Georgetown in Doc Martens and aggressive hair. I was turned off by the idea of dressing in filthy, torn clothes, but the invitation to hear crashing guitars and people yelling curse words into microphones was a Siren’s call, one I could no more resist than I could ignore the daily urge to go abuse myself in the quiet coolness of the upstairs bathroom in my parents’ house.
Dropping the needle on side 1 of The Clash, the martial snare pattern of “Janie Jones” was a lightning bolt straight into my chest. I was right back in my boyhood bedroom, hearing the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” for the first time, transfixed by the gusts of feedback and wanting the thrill inside me to go on forever. The Clash didn’t sound like that, exactly, but the feeling was the same.
“Janie Jones” sounded raw, lo-fi, scrappy and pissed. And it was fast, come and gone in two minutes eight seconds, simultaneously the fastest and shortest song I had ever heard. In the rearview mirror of my mind, Steely Dan and the Eagles receded in a choking cloud of dust. For a moment, I almost pitied them, imagining the early days when they too were just scrappy young unknowns, before they had made it. Unable to attract groupies, they had probably had to resort to fellating each other instead.
Next up was the Sex Pistols. Of course, I had heard of them, and I was titillated by the obvious discomfort adults felt around even speaking their name. Now, studying the glaring yellow jacket of Never Mind the Bollocks, I felt excited and more than a little fearful. Was this the music come to kill all other music, to destroy timid, soft, middle-class me?
Sadly, or happily—I’m still not sure which—the answer was no. By 1983, whatever shock and outrage the Pistols had engendered had been absorbed into the mainstream, spit back out as the palatable new wave I was then actually rather enjoying. It wasn’t until the second song on the album, “Bodies,” that something clicked into place. Why? Because it made me laugh out loud. It was about abortion, and it was hilarious to stoned, 12-year-old me:
“She was a girl from Birmingham
She just had an abortion
She was a case of insanity
Her name was Polly, she lived in a tree.”
I was hooked. Even if I would never be a tough-looking, chain-wielding wannabe like Sid Vicious, the extreme “Fuck you” of a song about abortion—to this day I still don’t know if it’s pro or con—was a new intoxicant coursing through my veins, better even than the weak marijuana that amplified the densely layered guitars into a monumental wall of granite, implacable and utterly crushing in its impact.
I embraced both the Pistols and the Clash, but behind the superficially similar subject matter and fashion sense, the two bands were very different. Years later, a friend would make a perceptive remark about artists: That no matter their discipline or their material, one could always tell instantly if they loved people or not. Joe Strummer loved people. Johnny Rotten does not.
I listened to the Clash and the Pistols incessantly for a couple of years there, long enough that I knew every snare roll, every guitar lick by heart. But strangely, even years later, many of the lyrics remained a mystery to me. Sure, both bands were jacked-up and fast, the vocals low in the mix and coming at me as if spat from the muzzle of a machine gun.
But there was a deeper reason the words failed to stick: They asked me to dosomething, to get off my stale, middle-class ass and be an agent of change in the world. And thrilling though it was to imagine myself standing up for my rights, saying “NO!”to my government and fighting for justice, the fact was I never believed it was possible, because I never believed that Iwas possible. I wanted to feel the righteous, cleansing fury of punk, the pummel of drums and electric guitars deep in my body, but only if I could do it alone, safe, without other people. The music was touching me, asking me to step outside my cocoon, but I wasn’t yet ready to come out from under the blankets.
The Pistols and Clash were all about petulance and rage, emotions I was close personal friends with. But the Buzzcocks spoke to me on a different level altogether. Distinctly unnihilistic, they wanted true love, or at least a quick hand job, and they didn’t sound as though they’d smack anyone in the face with chains.
What’s more, the jacket of that first Buzzcocks album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, was blank perfection. There was so much to ponder in its nothingness, a metalized and fluorescent sheath that even on close inspection revealed not a whit. Even the band photo was cipheric; bassist Steve Garvey’s hair is jaunty and spiked, but the rest of the band could be an art-school theater group, or an especially hip janitorial crew.
The music was a clever, highly concentrated blast of velocity, come and gone in a blink. The sound was many notches below the “professional” recordings I heard on the radio, but so much more economical and immediate. In a handful of notes, Steve Diggle’s mournful and naive guitar solo in “Sixteen Again” says more to me than all of Eric Clapton’s recorded output ever would.
The band asked nothing of you, dovetailing nicely with my political activism, which pretty much started and ended with hating the Reagans. No one demanded that you fight for your rights, or that the queen fuck off. That’s not quite true; the band did want something, as an otherwise disinterested-sounding Pete Shelley made quite explicit: They wanted to fuck. For all the radio-friendly paeans to girls who were, somehow, “More Than a Woman,” nothing spoke to me more directly than the Buzzcocks’ brazen challenge, one I could only dream of issuing to a real live human myself.
5. It would take me a few more visits to penetrate to the furthest reaches of the stacks, where pay dirt was less thickly deposited among the silt. Even at that age I could see that Blondie’s Autoamericanwas going to suck, and that I didn’t really need to spend any time with Laura Nyro just yet. But one album exuded such an aggressive mystery that it drew me to it with magnetic force.
One side of the cover was a fairly literal painting of morning glories entwined in a chain-link fence; on the other a puzzling, lo-res photograph of wolves standing in a forest. The name of the band wasn’t any more clarifying: “Mission of Burma”? Did they mean “Mission toBurma”?
Dropping the needle only deepened the mystery: The lone, pealing note that opens the album—the song was even called “Secrets”! —was the sound of pure unease, a snarl chopped into molecules by a fast, warbling tremolo; then the band came crashing in with locomotive force. The song, essentially a single note, built itself up with oceanic purpose, disintegrated into a bewildering slurry—had the tape suddenly been flipped backwards? —and regrouped, only to pound itself into ecstatic oblivion, all in under three and a half minutes. So little, and yet so much had happened.
It would take repeated listens before I “got” Mission of Burma, but the depth of that album rendered each visit a new experience, and it still does. That record changed me, spoke to the mysterious place inside myself, the part of me that knew that the simple answers weren’t for me, but couldn’t yet see where they might be found.
I knew what excited me: Whipcrack drums, the mechanical growl of the bass guitar thudding through my spine, the exquisite chaos of noise and feedback shattering like candyglass inside my eardrums. My sister Kate had led me to this exalted place, but I was shoving eagerly past her now, out on my own, deep into where the rawness and the strangeness called out to me and not to her. Her dance with this music would prove to be a dalliance, another costume tried on and then discarded. But if I was hooked on the wildness, the mystery of these new sounds, there was something even more primal, more essentially human that I didn’t know I was missing. I found it, eventually, in an unlikely place.
I’d heard the Pretenders, and I knew they weren’t punk; more like a hard rock band with edgy taste in clothes. “Brass in Pocket” was so much better than most of what I heard on the radio, but the song didn’t necessarily speak to me. Now, holding that first album in hand, Chrissie Hynde’s dark-rimmed eyes blazed into and straight through me. Carefully laying down the needle on side 1, I was rocked back on my heels as “Precious” rammed into me like some wild, beautiful animal, all muscle and sinew and holy fucking shit, there’s no mistaking the words now, she’s singing about fucking, doing it on the pavement, in her bed, doing it all night long. I can’t be sure, but I believe my mouth literally hung open.
It wasn’t just the audacity of her lyrics, or her terrifying sexiness, or the fact that she was going to curse—or fuck—her way to liberation, backed by her tough and ruthlessly tight band, though of course that helped, too. The inside-sleeve photo of the doomed Pete Farndon on “Pretenders II” was the very essence of rock and roll, and I wanted so badly tobehim: Lean, leather-jacketed, and clutching a Fender bass. Of course, there was no way he was going to survive.
No, it was her voice that gutted me. That dark, wavering contralto penetrating places I hadn’t even know existed, the slow tremolo with which she played certain lines a prybar working into every exquisite crevice, no matter how carefully I had kept them hidden even from myself. When I got to the second-to-last song, “Lovers of Today,” I was destroyed:
“I kissed the eyes of my baby
I said dream dream dream dream
Baby all night long
Dream dream dream all the night
’cause all of the stars in the skies
Twinkle on baby’s eyes
All of the stars in the skies.”
Crying was the one act I had never allowed myself, not since that afternoon years before, my father returning from the hospital, stealing quietly into the house, coming up to his bedroom, where I waited in silence. I don’t recall any words passing between us, but I saw that he was crying, quietly, and something in me understood that it was my job to cry as well. And so, I did.
But after that day, I resolved never to let it happen again.
Now, the song finished, I was bewildered by the tears spilling unbidden from behind my eyes, a betrayal of my body as shocking and intimate as the ones I engineered alone in my bed, with increasing and alarming regularity. I knew that it was wrong, what I did to myself, but I felt powerless to stop. It was the only way I knew to feel anything, anything at all inside my body.
It wasn’t sex I wanted from Chrissie Hynde; that would probably prove fatal. This submitting to her voice was painful enough, making me squirm in discomfort, my eyelids clenched tight as if they alone could quell the hot grief running through my body like liquid mercury.
But I had uncovered a trapdoor, a whole wing in the house of my body I hadn’t even known was there. It would be many years until I dared to revisit it, at first merely standing by the door and steeling myself to enter, then taking tiny, hesitant steps, my footfalls raising little clouds of dust on ancient floorboards.
It’s still not an easy place to visit, this vault of grief, but it’s mine. Music helped me to locate it—piercing me, allowing tiny pinpricks of light to penetrate the gloom—but it couldn’t tell me what to do once I had found it. For that I would need to learn to trust in myself, to step past the old stories that told me it never works out, that I don’t deserve it, that I am nothing to no one. It’s up to me to inhabit it, to submit to the messiness and discomfort of feeling, the uncomfortable tears that now feel less like a bloodletting and more simply like my birthright as a human being. I am learning to live here.