When I was a little boy, I had a clock radio in my room. It was a classic piece of ‘60s Japanese design, shaped like a big pill with one side cut away, and I loved 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 (it was the ‘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 ‘60s that spoke to me. I didn’t really know what “I Can’t Explain” was about, but every time it 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; they stirred a hidden and very intimate part of my body that desperately wanted touching. These songs, beamed not only through space but 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.
Outside, things were bleak. It was 1983—full-on Reagan—and Nancy was inescapable, her eerily wide grin plastered on that big head of hers. Her bold policy initiative at the time was to ask Americans to Just Say No to drugs, and, naturally, I wanted to rise to the challenge. First, though, I had to find them.
Drugs, it seemed, were everywhere. On the news, where I was transfixed by a segment about the blooming 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 I couldn’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. It was she who took me to my first rock show. The Lowgistics—a band she actually knew—were playing at a student union. They even had a record: An EP done up in classic early ‘80s style, neon pink letters over a black geometric grid. They were the real deal.
It says a lot about my taste, or lack of it, to remember how much I loved this night. Even though we were in, essentially, a darkened 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, but if I knew how rote the music was, 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 ablaze with excitement, even more specialness awaited. Kate and I were taken “backstage”—just another Linoleum-lined room—where bored-looking 30-somethings, dressed in black, all big hair and clanking jewelry, smoked and drank wine from plastic cups.
It seemed like there were easily as many people inside as there had been at the show. The guys all 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 and remember to look morose. Cool. I got this.
As I tried desperately for a casual-looking shape to make with my body, a curious smell wafted 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 now 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 itself in delicious half-time, 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 unstoned life.
The next morning, as soon as Kate had left for her job at a massive insurance agency, I desperately scraped 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 situated myself directly in front of the turntable and began to dig.
Soon, I was holding the Pretenders’ first record, Chrissie Hynde’s dark-rimmed eyes seeming to blaze 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 shit, she’s singing about fucking, doing it on the pavement, doing it all night long. I can’t be sure, but I believe my mouth literally hung open. In the rearview mirror of my mind, Pink Floyd and the Eagles receded in a choking cloud of dust. For a moment, I even felt a twinge of compassion for them, imagining the early days when they were unknowns, before they could attract proper groupies, and they had to resort to fellating each other instead.
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 to be him: 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 known 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. By the time I had crawled my way to the second-to-last song, “Lovers of Today,” I was destroyed.
I kissed the eyes of my baby
I said 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 eight years before, when my father returned from the hospital alone, stealing quietly into the house and finding me waiting in his bedroom. I don’t recall any words passing between us, but I saw that he was crying, 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 now 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 how to walk, 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.