1971: In Kindergarten, you participate in a “talent show” where you and Brian Clark lip-synch to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and the Beach Boy’s version of “Sloop John B.” You remember wondering at the time how much talent it takes to do such a thing, but somehow, you come in first. You also remember finding the words to “Joy to the World” ridiculous. Why would anyone have a bullfrog named Jeremiah who was “a very good friend of mine”? And how could that possibly relate to the world’s joy? Also, in thinking about “Sloop John B,” you, later that night, (after lip-synching to the line, “I threw up all of my grits”) ask your mother what grits are.
She tells you they’re something southern people eat.
“Yes,” you say, “but what are they?”
“They are a food,” she says. “A southern food.”
A food that makes you throw up, you think and you decide to avoid these grits if you ever have to encounter them.
A side note: While watching “Match Game 73” a couple of years later, you see the short guy, Paul Williams who sits next to Fannie Flagg and your sister says, “That’s the guy who wrote that stupid bullfrog song you like.” Actually, it was Hoyt Axton, but you don’t know that at the time, so you can’t correct your sister.
1986: You are with a dancer from New York named Janine. She’s beautiful. A dancer’s body—the first you’ve ever seen this closely. Ever felt. Out of your league, at least to your mind. She dances with some professional troupe in New York. She gets paid to dance. This seems beyond exotic to you. Where you’re from, people get paid to drive bread trucks and work in factories. She’s in town visiting her friend Heather, and the two of you meet at a party at Heather’s apartment and you and Janine end up fucking on Heather’s living room couch after the party’s over.
You make out for what seems like hours before clothes start coming off. One of you—you can’t remember if it was you or Janine—has put on side one of the 3rd Velvet Underground album and lifted the “repeat” arm. You have no idea how many times that side of the record plays, but you do remember hearing, several times, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Candy Says.” You are very drunk. You are also very high on some really wet and good hash that Janine brought from New York. You also smoked some opium with a friend earlier that night. You go down on Janine long enough to hear the same side of the record three times. This is after all the heavy petting that preceded the oral sex. The two of you may be setting a record for playing one side of a Velvet Underground album the most times in a row.
The record reaches the end, yet again. You hear the scratches at the end of the vinyl. The arm goes back to the start and the first track, “Candy Says” begins for what could be the twenty-fifth time that night. Heather comes out of her bedroom while Janine is going down on you. Your eyes are closed. You right hand is on the most finely-muscled bicep you have ever felt.
Heather screams, “I can put up with the sound of you two fucking all night, but if I hear one more fucking SECOND of the Velvet Underground, I’m going to kill someone!”
1975: You are nine years old. You have saved your money from allowance and mowing lawns and picking potatoes underage at Polaski’s Farm, and you have purchased Bruce Springsteen’s BORN TO RUN at the Sam Goody at the Mall (two towns over and impossible to get to on bike—but your father needed to go to Sears to buy some tools, so you got lucky and got to go to Sam Goody).
You look at the cover. Bruce Springsteen is cool. He’s got a guitar. Guitar players are cool—even at nine years old you know that much. And he’s dressed “like a homeless fucking hippie” according to your dad, who is a Narcotics Officer. By nine, you have already decided which way your judgment leans on the “homeless fucking hippie” vs. “narcotics officer” cool chart.
You take the album out of its plastic. You look at the sleeve, checking both sides. You see that Springsteen, on the front cover, is leaning on a chunky black guy you later find out is Clarence Clemons, his sax player.
You put the album on. Your sister—two years older and, by definition as a result, cooler than you—accuses you of going “straight to the hit.” What she means is that you ignore the track listing and you always go straight to the song you know and love from the radio. Which is true. You are guilty of this. But, this time, the hit, the title track, just happens to BE the first cut on the album. So you say to your sister, “No! I started the album on the first song. I didn’t go straight to the hit.”
She says, “The hit IS the first song. You would have gone to it first if it was the third song.”
She is correct. You would have. But you don’t admit this.
Later, while the sax solo on “Jungleland” plays, your dad walks through the room, where you sit cross-legged, listening to the album for the third time through as loud as your mother will allow. He stops for a second, listening. He says, “This guy’s sax player sounds like a cross between King Curtis and Duane Eddy’s sax player.”
You have no idea what he’s talking about. “I don’t think so,” you say, convinced that your father can’t possibly know anything about rock and roll.
He goes downstairs, grabs HAVE TWANGY GUITAR, WILL TRAVEL by Duane Eddy, and some record by “King Curtis and his All-Stars.”
“Listen,” he says. “This guy sounds just like them.”
You don’t want to give your dad, the Narc, the satisfaction. But later, while he’s working on a car down in the garage, you put on this King Curtis. Your father, you hate to admit, is right. Cool Bruce Springsteen’s sax player sounds a LOT like someone in your father’s record collection. This seems wrong.
Then you put on “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy. It’s one of the greatest sounds you’ve ever heard. How the hell does your dad know about this?
1976: Your parents, you will much later realize, actually have pretty good taste in music—especially compared to your Perry Como and Pat Boone loving friends’ parents. They have a lot of Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Phil Ocks, Eric Anderson and a bunch of great comedy albums, as well.
Plus, they have all of Carly Simon albums. You don’t listen to these, but you jerk off while looking at the covers several times a day whenever possible. NO SECRETS and PLAYING POSSUM being recurrent favorites.
Summer, 1986: Every Sunday morning (or whenever you wake up, which may not actually BE morning), you are hung-over and you listen to Van Morrison’s ASTRAL WEEKS. You are hung-over every morning of the week, but for some reason, Sunday morning is the only time you listen to ASTRAL WEEKS. It seems like the perfect Sunday hung-over music. If you have any coke left, you snort a line and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, while ASTRAL WEEKS plays in the background. You do this until Winter. The snow falls, the streets are white and fluffy at first, and then everything grows gray and gloomy and dull slush sits in the alley where you enter your basement apartment on Marlboro Street. Some Sundays, you play your guitar, which may or may not still have all six strings left from the night before’s show. Every Sunday, you listen to Van Morrison.
1981: A friend of your dad’s from college is visiting. He’s sleeping in your living room on the floor and your mother, clearly, hates him. It’s an awkward visit, as your dad is trying to talk his friend, who has just gotten divorced, into rehab. Your father’s friend has served in Viet Nam and did time in jail. He calls jail “the joint.”
You are listening to Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ LIVE AT THE SPEAKEASY. Your dad is in the garage working on a car and you and the friend are alone at the kitchen table.
Your father’s friend says, in a gravelly deep voice that kind of scares you, “What is this fucking noise?”
“It’s Punk,” you say.
“Punk?” he says, smoking the first hand-rolled cigarette you have ever seen in your life. “This is Punk?”
“Punk music,” you say. “They’re a Punk band.”
“Is your band a Punk band?”
You say yes.
“In the joint a punk is someone who takes it up the ass.” He laughs. “You take it up the ass, kid?”
The thought has never occurred to you. You’re fifteen and a slow developer. You’ve barely done more than make out with anyone. But you pick up on what the right answer for the scary man is. “No,” you say.
“Then don’t go calling yourself a punk. Punks take it up the ass. You tell the wrong person you’re a punk and you’ll be getting fucked in the ass, understand me, kid?”
Your dad walks in during the friend’s last sentence. “What the fuck are you talking to my kid about?”
The friend shrugs. “Some life advice.” He winks at you.
Years later, another band of yours plays a bar called The Joint. That night is also the first night (though it’s entirely a coincidence—the name of the bar and what happens next) a woman ever fucks you with a strap-on. She is the bartender at The Joint, and she drives you to her place while the band shares a room at some shit motel near the highway. She wears a vintage dress, fishnets and Chuck Taylors, none of which she has taken off, while you are naked in front of her.
Just as she starts to fuck you, you think about what your father’s friend said, you think of having met this woman in “The Joint” and that you are in a band that gets labeled in the press as “Cow-Punk”…you are a punk and you hear that gravelly voice say, “a punk is someone who takes it up the ass, kid”…you think of all these things and you start to laugh.
The bartender stops for a moment. “Are you ok?”
You are drunk. You try to stop laughing, as it seems inappropriate at the moment. “I’m fine,” you say, still trying to stop laughing. “Sorry.”
1973: For “Show and Tell” in 3rd grade, you bring in your father’s copy of Redd Foxx’s YOU GOT TO WASH YO ASS!You lip-synch to his performance (hey, it worked so well in Kindergarten). You get suspended.
The next week, you bring Tom Waits’ SMALL CHANGE album, which has a stripper with pasties on the cover. You are suspended again.
Your favorite song this year is “Everyone’s Talkin’” from THE MIDNIGHT COWBOY soundtrack. So you go to the public library and read about the movie. You like the name of the character Ratso Rizzo. There is a picture of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso. He looks cool.
For school, in the third-grade Halloween costume party, you dress as Ratso Rizzo. You slick your hair back with soap and your father’s VO5. You wear your dad’s raincoat with nothing on underneath. You walk around, hitting other student’s desks, the walls, the lockers, screaming “I’m walkin’ here!” in what you guess is a Ratso Rizzo voice (you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve only read about the scene, so you have no idea).
When the Principal asks you why you are naked under the coat, you say you thought that’s how perverts dressed.
He shakes his head. “Perverts?” he says. “A pervert costume?” He’s still shaking his head as he dials what you assume is one of your parents’ phone numbers.
1986: You are living in Holland and you’ve developed a Dilaudid habit. You can, most days, get enough to keep you high from a corrupt dentist your girlfriend Monique knows.
You spend day after day, nodding in bed, listening to a cassette tape that has The Dream Syndicate’s THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES on one side and The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album the other side. They may be two of the only perfect albums you’ve ever heard. They are, without a doubt, two of the most perfect albums to nod in bed to on Dilaudid.
This goes on, you and Monique alone in your room with this one cassette and your drugs, for maybe a month. When you finally leave your bed, you end up going to a party at some post-hippie commune some friends of Monique’s are having.
You black out. You have no idea what happens, but you wake up in the morning with no memory of the night before. There’s a guy from Brazil named Tony standing at the foot of your bed with an acoustic guitar, singing Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” in a thick Brazilian accent. You turn to your left and realize you are in bed with Anne—Monique’s best friend. This is a VERY bad habit of yours during these years. You sleep with a lot of your friends’ girlfriends. A lot of your girlfriends’ best friends. You have yet to learn that, even in an “open relationship” fucking the best friend never seems to end well.
Tony from Brazil keeps singing at the foot of the bed. Anne decides that this is, for some reason unknown to you, a good time to go down on you. You have a hard time getting into it, with this Brazilian guy singing and looking at you while your girlfriend’s best friend is going down on your semi-hard cock.
Anne stops for a second. She pukes all over your cock and then, with a groan, rolls on her side and falls back asleep. Tony keeps playing the Springsteen song. The puke is warm, but starts to grow cool on your shrinking cock and your thighs. It pools in your navel.
You are nineteen years old. You are starting to realize you have a taste for some sexual fetishes that many people think are weird. You are learning about things you enjoy that six months before you had no idea existed. You realize quickly, however, that having someone puke on your cock is not one of your new fetishes.
1984: Your freshman year of college. You have a dorm room with your own bed, but you end up sleeping with Melissa B. every night for a few months. Sleeping with—but not having sex. Melissa is a lesbian. But she’s single. You start as a friend who helps her with her guitar. You’re a better guitar player than she is, but she is a much better songwriter and singer than you are. She opens her mouth to sing and other people’s jaws drop.
At night, the two of you drink and play guitar. She’s a Beatles fanatic. You teach her all the early singles. You teach her the dual lead harmony parts on “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
With the lights out, you drink and smoke cigarettes and hold each other while the rain patters down on the roof of your dorm. You are young—you know nothing—and you wonder, sometimes, if the power of pure love (because that’s what you’re pretty sure you’re feeling) could make Melissa love you the way you love her. You will live many years beyond this and you may never have in your life fallen asleep in someone’s arms and woken up in someone’s arms as often as you do with Melissa. You’ll sleep with people and next to people, but you will never again this often fall asleep holding onto someone and waking up still holding them the next morning.
You know the smell of her hair. The pace of her breathing. The way her right hand tremors for no known reason while she’s deep in sleep. She lets you kiss her eyelids, but not her lips.
“We don’t want to get confused here,” she says. And you think, but don’t say, too late.
You play in a band called Junkyard—Junkyard sounds like every member in the band fell in love with the same Johnny Thunders records. Which is pretty much true. Even your originals sound like covers. Melissa plays in a band of four women who all dress in black and pale makeup and they call themselves The Bell Jars. Their originals sound great and even their covers sound original. They are the real deal, while Junkyard is not.
The Bell Jars have a show coming up at the Rat—a major club in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Melissa is worried about her guitar playing.
“You should play guitar for us,” she says.
You’ve thought of this. Her band is better than yours, but you could make their songs better with your guitar. You figure, without saying so, that the fact that the band is all-women could be a problem for you. “I wish I could,” you say.
“Seriously,” Melissa says. “Some labels and some A&R clowns are supposed to be at the Rat and I want us to sound our best.” She smiles. “You play the main guitar parts and I can front the band and focus on my singing.”
You feel enormously flattered.
“You’d have to dress in drag, though,” she says.
You’re drunk. Not seeing any repercussions of this. Plus, it’s for Melissa. You shrug. Say, “what the hell?”
“You’d play a set with us in drag?”
The band goes for the idea. And so you do it. The night of the show, Melissa shaves what little facial hair you have. She sits on your lap while she does your lips and eyes and cheeks. She tells you what a pretty girl you are and you blush. She dyes your hair black and cuts it hard along the bangs like the rest of The Bell Jars.
For your outfit, she picks a short black dress with black stockings and a black, one-piece girdle with garters for the black stockings. Your cock starts to get hard when she’s dressing you but if she notices it, she doesn’t say anything. At the time, you’re five foot eight and a hundred and thirty pounds. You’re skinny, though you remember thinking you were fat at the time.
You’ve played a few practices with the band (thankfully, dressed like yourself) and the sound is good. They ARE probably the best band in town, but you seem to make them even better. That night at the Rat, the show smokes. You feel weird, playing in heels, feeling the slip of the stockings in the shoes, the pull of the garters on the stockings, but it all seems to be going well and you have to admit, it’s kind of sexy getting to be all dressed up on stage next to Melissa, who you may or may not be madly in love with.
After the show, you break down your gear and you have to piss. You pause for a moment between the Women’s and the Men’s room, and you choose the Men’s room. You piss at a urinal—difficult around your girdle-styled garter belt, but you make it. As you start to walk out of the Men’s room a huge skinhead punk looks down on you and says, “Faggot!” He punches you to the floor. The bathroom tiles are cold. You have passed out on these tiles before (though never this well dressed)—they are filled with water and soap and piss and dirt. You get up slowly, your nose bleeding.
That night, at Melissa’s apartment, you are sill dressed up while she gently puts ice on your broken nose. She buys more liquor than you would have needed on a normal night, but you are in pain. Your nose is broken (this is your 5th broken nose—you know what a broken nose feels like and you have learned to fix them yourself in front of a mirror, which is what you do that night in her bathroom). After you straighten your nose, you nearly pass out. You can’t breathe through the nose–it’s too swollen to snort the blow that would help with the pain, but Melissa doesn’t use needles, so that’s out. She gives you her last three Percodans and she puts the ice on your nose and kisses your forehead several times, saying, “My poor, poor, pretty baby,” over and over.
There is talk, among the band, of having you join The Bell Jars. The talk ends with the review of the show in FORCED EXPOSURE, the most important underground ‘Zine at the time:
“Boston’s The Bell Jar’s are the real thing, thanks mostlyto frontwoman Melissa B’s incredible charisma and vocals and her songs that bring to mind if Joni Mitchell rocked like Paul Westerberg. She’s one-of-a-kind in a city of carbon-copy bands, and because of her, The Bell Jars may be Boston’s NEXT BIG THING.
“On the down side, it doesn’t help this band that their best looking chick is the dude who plays guitar in Junkyard.”
This doesn’t exactly ease your way into the band. Melissa still wants you, but the rest of the band vetoes her. The talk of you joining stops.
One night, holding hands in bed, listening to the rain outside and the Beatles on the stereo, you say, “I love you.”
She snuggles closer to you. You have slept together every night for the last 3 months, every night, except when one of you is on tour. There is a trust. A comfort you have never known. “I love you, too,” she says.
“No,” you say. “I mean I love you. Like in love.”
Rain. Music quietly under the rain. You hear her take a couple of deep breaths. “You know who I am,” she says. “What I am.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. You are holding her but now she’s turned away. “I love you more than I’ve loved anyone else. Can’t that be enough?”
And you could say, no, that’s not enough, because that’s what you’re feeling. But you feel like you’ve already stepped over some line. You lean your head into her shoulder blade. “That’s enough,” you say.
Not long after that, Melissa decides to take off for LA after the Bell Jars break up. She asks you if you want to come, but you’re scared. You’d only know one person, and that person would, you’re sure, be a star in a year or so. You’re afraid of being in a city you’ve never seen. A big city where you could be alone. And she doesn’t love you—not the way you love her. So, you stay.
One of the last things you do is teach her the Beatles’ guitar part on “Her Majesty.”
Around six months later—this is before the internet, before cell phones and email—someone says to you, “Did you hear what happened to Melissa?”
You expect to be told she signed a major label deal. “No,” you say.
And he tells you that she was raped and murdered in an alley after playing a show in LA, not long after moving there. You find out six months after it happened. You don’t know, nor will you ever know any of the details. Who did it. Where it happened. What exactly happened. You can’t believe she’s been gone six months and you had no idea.
There is no funeral you can go to. This will bother you forever.
You still can’t hear the Beatles for too long without thinking of her. You still leave the room whenever “Her Majesty” comes on.
You live your life in music. People ask you all the time: Beatles or Stones? Who would you rather listen to? You tell them, Stones—no contest—but you never really tell them why.