I am six years old, and sitting with my parents in the living room, watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Dad makes fun of their hair and all that Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, but Mom thinks theyre kind of cute. It doesnt matter—I cant hear my parents anymore. I am lost to this new world. I am smitten. This music explains everything I dont understand, in a language of hooks and minor chords and want.
The next day, in Chips basement, in lieu of guitars we hold tennis racquets and baseball bats and we lip synch to Meet the Beatles. Chips parents are divorced—he gets everything he wants. We play this album over and over. We close our eyes and imagine teenage girls, screaming for us. We shake our heads and go Whooo.
On my first and only date with Sally Brown I am decked out in white Beatle boots, white bell-bottoms, white belt, and a silk purple shirt with lapels that flap in the wind like elephant ears. We are going to see Neil Diamond. Love Neil Diamond! Since Im in the seventh grade, and Sally is in the ninth, Mom drives. In the back seat, Sally crosses her legs. Shes wearing fishnet stockings. Love fishnet stockings! I am prepared for a night of rocking. In my sweaty, tiny hands, I clutch a handheld plastic tape recorder. Heres my plan: I will tape the concert and on the way home, in the dark, Sally and I will listen to these songs, and she will put her hand on my leg.
Thats it. Thats the extent of my fantasy, but thats enough for me.
Inside the Salem Civic Center, the lights go down, and here comes Neil Diamond in his spangled shirt and his tall stiff hair, and his tight, tight pants. Sally borrows someones binoculars and whispers, Mmm, he has a really nice build.
I know! I say, and Sally gives me a look. She smokes cigarettes! She crosses her fishnet-encased legs! She blows smoke rings and whispers the words to I Am, I Said, and, slyly, I reach over and touch her kinked-out hair because on TV they always show men touching womens hair, and Im thinking that this is part where Sally Brown will French kiss me, but: no.
I dont like you that way, she whispers, fiercely.
Later, in my room, I play back the tape. The sound quality is horrendous. But in the lull between Shiloh and Sweet Caroline, I can hear Sally Browns voice: I dont like you that way.
I French kiss my pillow, for practice, and imagine a cooler version of me, in the dark, cupping Sallys weak chin, and saying, Try harder, and then, this kiss, this kiss.
Two years later, at the Three Dog concert, I drink a bottle of Boones Farm Apple Wine—one of Americas finest green wines—and make out with Angie Mandela for one hour straight. We kiss and everything else fades away. On stage, Three Dog Night rocks out with One, Celebrate, Mama Told Me Not To Come, Easy To Be Hard, Joy to the World—a soundtrack to the love that I imagine Angie feels for me by now.
When the lights come up, Angies chin is pooled in drool. My drool. I wipe it away with the sleeve of my blue jean jacket, but the damage is done.
Lesson learned: when you kiss, dont forget to breathe occasionally, and dont drool all over your girlfriend.
In the parking lot, Angie and I hug, but its ruined. We sit on the curb and smoke and wait for Angies sister. We dont talk on the ride home.
Hate Three Dog Night!
Tenth grade: Humble Pie is rocking the Roanoke Civic Center, and I am wasted on tequila, and crying. Huge, gaping cries, and nobody knows why. My sorrow is a mystery. People try to help. Older fans, concerned, tap the shoulders of my friends, Tom and John.
Is that little girl OK? they ask.
Im not a girl, I wail, although, to be fair, my hair at this stage looks like Veronica Lakes.
Youre kind of a girl, Tom says.
Humble Pie plays I Dont Need No Doctor and I wander away, to smoke and cry some more. John follows, but leaves when the police arrive to carry me home in their car. They carry me inside—Im slung over the bigger guys shoulder like a drunken bag of sand. I curl my hands into fists and try to assault the policeman, but he only laughs.
Easy there, tiger, he says.
Inside my house, my father holds me upright, fully clothed, under a cold shower. My mother watches, afraid and miserable.
A few minutes later, I am soaked and throwing up all over the bathroom floor. My father, mother, and the policeman look at me. I am diseased, a punk, a disappointment. I can see myself in the policemans shoes. Everything is spinning, and Im shaking on the floor like Brian Epperly, the epileptic kid in my third-period biology class.
At the prom, on the fast songs, the girls dance with each other and the boys drink spiked fruit punch in the corner of the gym. We have promised our dates that we will dance all the slow dances tonight, and why not? Slow dancing, at its finest, is filthy and sweet at the same time. We are seniors, and theres an undercurrent of sadness and loss in the way we hold each other tonight. Soon, we will scatter away from this town, and some of us will never come back.
The Royal Kings played on the stage under the pulled-up basketball backboards. My girlfriend, Julia, and I sneaked outside for a smoke. We stood on the putting green behind the gym in our bare feet, and we smoked and kissed and held each other. We knew it was over between us. We could hear the band playing a slow song, an Eagles song, The Best of My Love. We flicked our cigarettes into a puddle by the green, and we slow danced behind the gym. No grinding. We held each other the same way, years later and with new partners, wed learn to hold a baby: with absolute care and concentration and tenderness.
Ten years ago, Julia strapped her children into the car seats behind her, and drove to the Mick-or-Mack grocery store. A drunk ran a red light and plowed into Julias car. Her children lived, but Julia died, and at her funeral, a bald man in a gabardine suit sang The Long and Winding Road and Julias husband, a good man, held his youngest daughter in his lap and pushed the hair back from her eyes.
Youve seen us: old guys, old guys at concerts. Old guys with artless, struggling hair. Old guys with pooched-out stomachs and bags under our eyes. Old guys with beer and bourbon and age-inappropriate clothes. Youve seen us in basements of used record stores, smiling at the feel of an album in our hands. Do we love the music, or do we love the way we used to feel when we heard these songs that have, somehow, turned into old songs?
Its private, a private joy and sorrow. Its pushing the carpet back and dancing all night to the Four Tops, and its a rainy morning in bed, with Neil Young playing low, and the person you thought would never leave, beside you, close.
Years go by, and one night you step outside and walk for miles until youre walking down a street youve never seen before. Its getting dark and neighborhood dogs bark at you, this tubby shadow walking down their street. The first stars of evening shine dully overhead. Its late summer, and cool enough on this night for screen windows. In this world, families still gather around picnic tables and fill paper plates with fried chicken and watermelon. In the near distance, someone is having a party. Summers almost over. You keep walking, and in time you hear Al Green playing on someones stereo. Al Green is singing Lets Stay Together, and this song is the best part of you. Stand still. Tell the dogs to settle down. Listen up. Somewhere somebody is dancing to Al Green in a moon-washed kitchen. And a woman you dont even know is driving alone on a dangerous highway, tired from the long drive, and mouthing the words to this, her favorite song.
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