February 19, 2013
Upon hearing these lyrics, my father, Sidney Spitz, then forty-four, took his sneaker off the gas pedal and slowed the copper-colored Mustang abruptly.
One trailing motorist honked loudly from inside her black Datsun, then sped past us. Another did the same and also gave us the finger. My father, squinting in his rearview mirror, stuck his left hand out the window to wave those still behind us around. He hit the hazards and lit up a Kent King.
“Why are we slowing down?” I asked.
I’d just turned seventeen. It was the late winter of 1987. I looked behind us. Had I missed something important in my fretting about math, girls, and whether or not the Russians loved their children too? These three things sometimes had me sleepless by day and would contribute to sleepless nights in front of reruns of Family Ties well into the following year. We were on the Long Island Expressway—operative word “express.” Go fast. Get home in time for Sunday dinner and 60 Minutes and an early bed. Do not reduce speed unless . . .
Punctured tire? Bloody cat? Were there cops? Sometimes there were cops.
My father got into trouble. I knew his temper. I had it too.
“What did he just say?” he asked.
“What guy, Dad?” I was pleading now.
It seemed this was an internal problem; a soundtrack predicament. I’d selected the cassette. It was the playful indie duo They Might Be Giants’ self-titled debut. The song was called “Don’t Let’s Start.” It was my property. And I’d chosen to share it as we passed time in traffic.
“I don’t know.”
Other cars continued to dust us as he rewound my tape, grimly.
“Everybody dies frustrated and sad and . . . ”
Unsatisfied, he rewound it further and more violently.
“No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. Everybody
dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.”
The old man shook his head.
“I thought that’s what he said,” he muttered and ejected the tape. If there had been a button on the dash that would also eject me in my all-black uniform of baggy sweater, vintage raincoat, skinny black Stephen Sprouse trousers, and clown-shoe sized John Fluevogs, I think he’d probably have pressed that as well. The sweater was already controversial. Sid’s mother, my “Grandma D,” for Diane, knit it. It took her longer to make than all the other unsolicited pieces of winter-wear combined, and there’d been dozens over the years….
…In the classified section of a Rolling Stone, among the ads for “I Heart Pac Man” stickers and E.T. fan club membership offerings, I once saw an ad for custom T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of writers—Kerouac, Camus, Hegel, Kierkegaard,
Eliot, Tolkien, Sartre, Poe—along with silk-screened T-shirts with portraits of
James Dean, Elvis, and John Coltrane, writers mixed in with rebel rockers. This was a revelation to me. “More Great Faces!” the ad announced. Writers could be like James Dean? Writers could have “Great Faces” too?….
…That was 1983 or so, when my old man was still in his late thirties. By 1987, the time of our They Might Be Giants–blighted Sunday outing, the blow had long taken a toll. I guess if you have a kid (which I don’t), once the drugs and the life begin to make you feel tired and the hangovers grow harder and harder to recover from, you begin looking to that kid to revive your dying dreams, the ones your own parents invested you with. On these last few drives, my father would sometimes park his Mustang in someone else’s driveway; a rich family in the “Back of Lawrence,” where great lawns, not just white fences, separated the houses. “Look at that,” he’d say as we idled and trespassed.
“You could have one of those some day. If you work hard enough. Anything you want will come to you. You understand. If you want it, you can get it.” I always nodded but I didn’t buy it. His values weren’t mine. They weren’t even his, but they were very much the dreams he needed in place to keep from disappearing into that shadow-world of the track, and the choking failure of middle age. My dreams weren’t born in the fifties and sixties. I didn’t care about having a house or a car. And I didn’t think everything was going to be alright, and Utopia was graspable, or life was fair and the good willed out.
I would not be my father’s second chance to experience any kind of triumph beyond the race track, nor was I content to function as his courier or tether to the straight world. This was the late eighties, and I was full of indie rock, loneliness, fear, and rage. If I had a dream at all, it was that the coming decade I would finally be permitted to explode.
When I first told my father that year that I wanted to be a famous writer, he replied, “Like Anne Frank.” We were both teens, both Jews, and both wrote diaries, but I was thinking about Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs, who’d been name checked in R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Thanks to bands like R.E.M., U2, and The Smiths, I’d started to respect pop music as serious stuff and suspected I’d somehow come to use it in my writing. At least two dozen songs had already changed the way I saw the world forever; ones I can remember first hearing and then thinking, “Well, what could be the same now?” I won’t give you the full list, but here’s a partial one: “Fish Heads” by Barnes and Barnes, “Money” by the Flying Lizards,
“Warm Leatherette” by The Normal, “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren, “White Horse” by Laid Back, “Ghost Town” by The Specials, “Pull Up to the Bumper” by Grace Jones, “Da Da Da” by Trio, “Go” by Tones On Tail, “A New England” by Billy Bragg, “World Destruction” by Time Zone, “Controversy” by Prince (pretty much everything by Prince), “Thieves Like Us” by New Order, and “Din Daa Daa” by George Kranz. “Don’t Let’s Start,” by the two buttoned down Johns of They Might Be Giants was not on this list. The
first time that I heard it I loved it, but I can’t say it changed anything. I never would have imagined that it would be this particular song that would, in a matter of second, finally set me on my own road; away from my father’s path, his past, his habits (but not his vices) and most importantly, his Manhattan.
“I asked you a question,” the old man repeated a second time as we drew closer and closer to my mother’s house in Lawrence.
“That everybody dies frustrated and sad? And it’s—good?”
We were on Rockaway Turnpike now, near the Sherwood Diner, a chrome spaceship trimmed with neon and full of firemen, cops, coaches, and Jewish
American Princes and Princesses dragging steak fries through gravy or sipping tall Cokes with lemon. I’d be home in less than five minutes. I had togive an answer. We passed over the tracks by the graveyard that peered ontomy first public grade school (who builds a public school next to a boneyard,anyway? ). My father never pulled into the driveway of his old house anymore.There was another car there now, permanently. There was another man in hisold bed. He lingered on the street like a taxi. We stared up at the house. Thelights were on in the kitchen. Supper was probably warm. My mother waspeering through the window, waiting to make sure I was okay, that he wasn’treturning me to her with a gambling problem or a social disease.
“I don’t know,” I finally said.
He was relieved that I didn’t seem determined to act on this mode of thinking but I was only forswearing. I believed it completely. He patted my shoulder, then put another Kent King in his mouth and punched the lighter. He reached into his pocket and handed me a $20 bill. This wasn’t a reward so much as another part of the ritual. Sure as I always took an overcoat (even in the summer), I walked up that drive with twenty bucks for lunch or gas or sometimes to go right back into the city on Monday afternoon when I should be in “Introduction to Philosophy” class. Manhattan was philosophy instruction, and art history, and physical education.
I grabbed a cigarette too, as I sometimes did. I liked the taste of the paper covered filters, and they reminded me of him when he sometimes disappeared into the South or the Midwest. We’d never have another one of these post-divorce Sundays. This would be the last of them.
The lighter popped out. Phuttttt.
He handed it to me with a look that seemed to say, “Smoke if you’re gonna smoke. Don’t just play with the thing.” The metal was hot, and I could feel my cigarette end crackle and a dazzle of blue smoke fill my mouth. I exhaled and handed the lighter to him. It was still glowing orange. I nodded a thank-you and took another drag then spoke.
“But I think it’s a really good lyric.”
He frowned as I blew my smoke out over the lawn and pulled my book bag, full of about a dozen cassettes (XTC’s Skylarking, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptian’s Globe of Frogs, The Dead Milkmen’s Big Lizard in My Backyard), tightly into my ribs. This was the first time that an opinion I had about a rock-and-roll song had any consequence at all. I didn’t know it at the time, and it would be another decade before anyone paid me to be one, but from that moment on, I was a writer. Like Anne Frank, and Kafka and Kerouac, Sartre and Camus, Lenny and Lester, and Charlie Barnett, like anybody but myself. That would take even more time.
Marc Spitz has written and produced numerous novels, plays, and biographies, including We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (with Brendan Mullen), How Soon Is Never: A Novel, Bowie: A Biography, and Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue. His writing on rock ’n’ roll and popular culture has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, Maxim, Uncut, Nylon, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, and the New York Times. He blogs at marcspitz.com. Spitz lives in New York City.