“Spitting in a wishing well”: On music and adolescence and memory.

By | May 18, 2010

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The Murmurs

I am having a moment.

I’m hoping to capture this moment here, while I’m having it, and while this semi-embarrassing flood of memories is untainted by my having overthought and reassimilated them all into something that actually connects to the now. Much of what I write here on this blog could be classified as memoir, and I am occasionally asked how I manage to be so candid and transparent about my life. Part of the reason is because I look back on these things with the distinct impression that they happened to someone else. The person I was in high school became a stranger to me when I left Florida; the person I was in college and then grad school did the same when I succumbed to reality and went to work for a living. In fact, I am not so different now — I am still thoughtful, introverted, outspoken, strong-willed, occasionally arrogant, and unabashedly fond of a spotlight. I spent much of my formative years figuring out ways to reinvent myself into a new casing for the same set of characteristics I’d always possess, like a catepillar who could only ever become a series of pupae, and never the butterfly of his imagination.

Later, I’d decide that transformation was overrated. I gave up (yes! gave up!) trying to become something I wasn’t — academic, artist, femme fatale, muse — because what I am is interesting and unique and remarkable already. This is equally true of you, whoever you are. Sometimes it’s okay to give up. To borrow from Rachel Maddow’s commencement address at Smith College this weekend: some dreams are bad dreams.

My moment began as a conversation on Facebook between some friends from high school, which inspired a pulse-quickening memory, which provoked research, and which ultimately evolved into time travel via the insane capacity of the internet to collectively remember things we’ve forgotten. There is backstory: when I was sixteen I decided that nearly everyone who went to my high school was terribly boring, not least because no one knew about the music I liked (never mind, for now, that I liked the music I liked to some extent because no one else knew about it) and the music I liked was, at the time, the single most important thing in my life. In retrospect my taste in music was hardly distinguished so much as it was intentionally obscure. At any rate, I went to every all-ages show I could afford — someday I’ll tell you the story of realizing a guy in the mosh pit at a Bad Religion show was in my class, and the devastating dismissal I received when I attempted to chat him up about the show in the hall at school the following day — searching for someplace different to belong. I was too soft and brainy for the punks; I wasn’t angular or awkward enough for the goths. What else was there?

I discovered The Hot Moon Cafe via a guy named Jason, whom I met on the internet.* It was a DIY-flavored coffeehouse, a ramshackle improvised affair that looked like something a clutch of displaced bohemians might have assembled via dumpster-diving whilst squatting in a strip mall. Though today I’d likely give such a venue the side-eye, at the time it was the most perfect place on earth, a unique oasis of invention and acceptance where all sorts of local musicians, poets, artists, and other experimenters could assemble and be relatively assured that no one would laugh at them or their efforts — or at least not out loud, or at least not in their faces. This isn’t to suggest that everyone there was talentless or a hack; that would be inaccurate. But we were terribly young. And most of us — certainly I can speak for myself — didn’t really know what we were doing.

Many of the finer points of those days are lost to me. I can’t remember the name of the guy who owned the place, though I recall what he looked like, and the same goes for many of the employees. I can remember the feel of the spaces, the motley assortment of mismatched chairs and tables, the local art on the walls, the graffiti, the mug I preferred, which was heart-shaped and years later I realized began its mug-life as a receptacle for a Pick-Me-Up Bouquet. I was there often enough, several nights a week, for awhile, to have my very own mug, yes. Today, for the first time since the 1990s, I suddenly remember this guy**, who worked at Hot Moon and in whose bedroom I first saw DOOM — yes, the video game, you thought I was going to say something else, but tell me you are not surprised that I remember where and when I first saw the fucking mother of all first-person shooters. Today I remember the woman who played acoustic shows consisting of her own songs mixed with multitudes of Melissa Etheridge covers. Today I remember this band***, a regular fixture at Hot Moon, with whom I even once traveled, with another friend or two, up for a road show somewhere in the north of the state, though I can’t for the life of me recall where. One of these friends was a year or two older than me, and she published zines about music. Remember zines? Midnight sojourns at Kinko’s making copies? Casual competition over who could discover the best new music first, and get credit for spreading it around? I remember social struggles and sadness and people who were my friends and then who suddenly weren’t, for one reason or another. There were no fights, not that I recall — but there were currents and eddies, and we would swirl around one another for awhile before peeling off and drifting somewhere else.

Wednesday nights were open mic nights. I read poetry. Yes. I read high school poetry, embarrassing, trifling, self-righteous, loud. I did! No, there’s more: I sang. This gentleman, whom I’ve not even thought of in a decade prior to today, played guitar so I could sing The Murmurs’ “You Suck” as loudly as possible (I know, I know, I am flushing with embarrassment even now) and, if I recall correctly, the occasional Violent Femmes song. Like everyone else mentioned here, I rediscovered this guy this morning via the time portal that is Facebook, and he looks exactly the same as he did sixteen years ago, and is somehow simultaneously incredibly attractive — how I failed to notice this at the time baffles me. We live too much inside our heads, as teenagers, don’t we.

It was at Hot Moon that I impulsively kissed a boy I didn’t know in front of a table full of people. I was terrifically innocent and physically-insecure, back then — so mired in the years of loathing my body that it was inconceivable to me that anyone could find me attractive. I look back now with my eyes wide and a wry grin: my god, I was a fucking eunuch! But it was all right, and it probably kept me out of trouble. It was at Hot Moon that I met out queers my own age for the first time. It was, indirectly, Hot Moon that spurred me on to Boston for college, a strange city far, far away from my known world, but where places like Hot Moon were plentiful, and where the bands I liked regularly came to play.

I also remember the newfangled girl-fronted music that was cropping up around then, and even today when I hear some of those songs, that forgotten teenager wakes up a little. I remember hearing Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know” for the first time in the parking lot of a Miami Subs at 2 o’clock in the morning, the radio DJ announcing it as a new song that was “probably inappropriate” to play during the day. I remember seeing Morrissey for the first time in the video for “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” on 120 Minutes (thus began a long and predictably tragic love affair with Morrissey and The Smiths). That teenager persists, when these songs materialize over the speaker systems in department stores or reworked as television-commercial soundtracks.

The hell of it is: I’ll never outrun that girl, no matter how much distance time piles between us. When I remember these things it’s like a reluctant homecoming, to a place where I know I’ll never live again, a person I tried to leave behind. No, I haven’t made peace with certain chapters of my youth, no matter how forthright and plainspoken about them I may be here. Some things still aren’t settled. Some things I regret, some things I have forgotten and stubbornly remember, and some things I wonder if others remember or stubbornly forget. Did I make an impression, back then, and what was it? Who was I? I’m still not sure.

A few years after I’d left Florida, when I was a junior in college and living in Boston full time, I ran into a guy from my high school, and though we were on friendly terms we were nowhere near close enough for me to call him a friend. He was surprisingly happy to see me, and after we exchanged the basics of what we were up to, he said, “Wow, man, I always thought you were so cool in high school.” I was astonished and blew past the compliment to get the hell out of there. I couldn’t imagine that anyone in my class thought of me as “cool”; at school I mostly felt isolated, resentful, the fat girl the popular athletes launched spitballs at. It’s true that the more time I spent at Hot Moon, the more confident and less affected by classroom drama I became. I knew I had somewhere to go. I had a community, out there, at Hot Moon and beyond, full of people like me, who cared more about album release dates than football scores, and more about self-expression than social gravitas. I was now awake to it, and if I had to follow it straight up the east coast to Boston I would.

So that was the moment I had this morning, this unexpected tsunami of adolescent flashbacks dating prior to the great divide, half my lifetime ago, when I left South Florida for cooler climes. Though I did find plenty of like-minded friends in my new home, I never did find another Hot Moon, but then you can never recapture that sparkling delirium of your first love. And you wouldn’t want to.


* This was around the same time as Worst Date Ever, though luckily Jason was my own age and a vast improvement on Worst Date’s many… inadequacies.
** In fact, right now as I am writing this I remember that when I skipped the prom, I went to see his band play at Hot Moon instead.
*** Their whole 1995 album can be downloaded under Creative Commons at that link, and as a result of the CC licensing may well be used as bumper music in a future episode of Fatcast.

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