The first time I ever heard the music of Chan Marshall (better known as Cat Power), an old friend had sat me down in front of V for Vendetta (the 2005 film) to study my reaction to its moral ambiguity. We were in our early-mid twenties, just reunited after several years, and he’d deliberately eschewed watching nostalgic touchstones from our high school days in favor of this. I think, having become intimately acquainted with the blotchy underbelly of city politics, he’d begin to fancy himself a V of sorts – ruthless purveyor of ugly truths and exactor of deserved vengeance – and me an Evey: callow, reticent, but unwittingly possessed of a boundless, even dangerous potential energy. When Marshall’s nearly unrecognizable version of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found A Reason” began playing on V’s jukebox, he prodded me gently on the knee and said I should learn to sing it. To me the lyrics sounded a bit too much like some sort of resigned surrender, an exhausted agreement to finally obey the long-resisted directives of a relentless cult leader – so I didn’t agree. But he was right to realize it would have suited my singing voice.
Oh-oh, I do believe
In all the things you see
What comes is better
Than what came before
-The Velvet Underground / Cat Power, “I Found A Reason”
As long as I’d known him, my friend had test driven different identities. Ex-Christian hippie kid with Peter, Paul and Mary records. Goth adjunct with hair dyed black, then head abruptly buzzed clean. One day a Monk-like neurotic in latex gloves who told folks he was scared of germs. For Halloween: an American Eagle prep in khakis and a puka shell necklace, likely cribbed from one of his many siblings. Lip-glossed boy slut one year, bearded leather-jacket daddy another, just because he could. Tragically, the wedge upon which fortune’s wheel landed was rural Masonic fish-fry Republican, which for all I know was the default all along. It would be presumptuous of me to claim otherwise.
Now I’m listening to Marshall again – a copy of her relatively rare Myra Lee album I just purchased during a long weekend in NYC. I bought it, along with the Velvets’ self-titled, at the Flatiron District’s historic Academy Records, having forgotten until a moment ago that “I Found A Reason” was even a connection between the two acts.
As I listen, I am back at home and nearly sick from eating too much brunch. This gorge comes after days on the go, on sidewalks and subway lines, eating only morsels at a time. Meanwhile, Marshall is caterwauling (no pun intended):
I AM NOT WHAT YOU WANT
like her stomach has been empty and aching for years.
On my last night in NYC, in bed by ten for an early flight out, I finally got down to delving into one of my Christmas presents: the memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney fame. It caught me totally off-guard. I associate rock memoirs with a sort of loud dysfunction, but the dysfunction Brownstein recounts is so quiet as to be eerie, even ghoulish. A gay father that prior to his mid fifties didn’t even have the vocabulary to name himself, and a mother so lonely and hungry for affection that she endeavored to starve herself into oblivion. This dynamic so all-consuming that the family dog wasted away of neglect. As someone with the inclinations described in a previous entry, it hit me like a narrowly-avoided worst case scenario, one with just enough familiar signifiers to be really chilling. (Brownstein, mind you, counterbalanced these displays of self-annihilation by eating heartily and burning it off effortlessly while playing sports, taking up more space, becoming more brash and performative, and finally perfecting a sneering contempt.)
Likewise at the end of my trip I was reminded that, on the very night of my return to VA, the troubadour Suzanne Vega was to perform very near my hometown – a weird legacy-act-meets-Podunk situation that years ago would have been unheard of. So, wary as I was of getting home and then turning right around and taking a long drive at night, I jumped on it and bought myself a ticket. There was a longing, after being far-flung, to give myself the whiplash of going back to old stomping grounds.
On the drive down, as is my wont, I listened to Nine Inch Nails, a high school staple that over the years has remained a recurring motif. I opted for the Still EP and was surprised to find that, after years of feeling like “Something I Can Never Have” was too much of a whiny adolescent anthem for me to enjoy it in the present day (my friend had prized the song in his period of anointing Reznor his god and picking his AOL screen name accordingly), Trent’s broken, petulant wails took on a new resonance. I thought of Brownstein’s dad, his years of suffering a nondescript itch and then discovering, from being in chat rooms with other married closeted men, who and what he was, and that he wasn’t alone on earth. His feeling out different varieties of masculinity by hosting a motley parade of male boarders that made his living space more motel than family home. Brownstein’s choosing, charitably, to feel less abandoned than happy for him, happy he finally had an identity at the age of fifty-five. I decided that, though I’m still very much figuring myself out at forty, and I feel restless and vaguely irritated much of the time, it could be a hell of a lot worse.
A couple minutes into the Suzanne Vega show, despite growing increasingly spacy from sleep deprivation, I knew that in coming I’d made the right choice. Sitting there in my recently purchased t-shirt that doubled as a map of the New York subway system, I chuckled as the announcer introduced “And now, FROM NEW YORK CITY, Suzanne Vega!” (I hadn’t known that Vega was from NYC).
Billed as it was as “an intimate night of songs and stories,” it quickly became apparent Vega would regale us with cheeky personal anecdotes, including romantic ones. The opening song spoke of feeling like the sort of person inherently destined for discontent; another one-two punch of songs both regarded the same long and lean, nomadic boy she’d had a brief but torrid fling with at eighteen, then bemusedly reevaluated fifteen years later, at the height of her indie popularity, when he took her out to lunch. Though I couldn’t relate to the (apparently) hypersexual nature of their relationship, the particular phenomenon of continuing to lose and find the same person over the course of years – the illogical ache, the tendency to construct fantasies in order to fill blanks – was palpable, raw.
Homesick for a clock
That told the same time
Sometimes you made no sense to me
If you lie on the ground
In somebody’s arms
You’ll probably swallow some of their history
And the boy in the belfry
He’s crazy, he’s throwing himself
Down from the top of the tower
Like a hunchback in heaven
He’s ringing the bells in the church
For the last half an hour
He sounds like he’s missing something
Or someone that he knows he can’t
Have now and if he isn’t
I certainly am
-Suzanne Vega, “In Liverpool”
Vega said, with an older/wiser eye roll, that The Boy had given her his bandana, and that yes, it happens she still has it. My friend, as a graduation present, gave me his shaved hair in a Ziploc, which I ultimately did not keep. From a practical standpoint the shave was probably because he got bored of all the blue-black dye – but if Evey from Vendetta is any indication, the exercise in baldness may have also had been linked to issues of control and to overcoming fear. Having coincidentally developed severe alopecia in the years since, I can say that, not only could a more superstitious person easily blame my friend for some sort of voodoo (is joke!), but also I can confirm that overcoming the taboo of being a vital young person saddled with a bald head in our, erm, special culture does demand a certain fearlessness. That said, I try not to think about the fact that the letter in which I finally told my friend about my hair loss seems to have marked the turning point at which he stopped writing back. Granted, this may have been for a whole host of other reasons – but there’s no way to know. Still, in my experience, there’s no regret when living the truth.
I AM NOT WHAT YOU WANT
I AM NOT WHAT YOU WANT
Serendipitously, Vega covered Mr. NYC himself, Lou Reed. Even though her audience banter had discerned that many in the room were out-of-towners, it was still a trip to hear her proclaim to a blue-collar southern city: “Get ready to take a walk on the wild side,” then launch into the song’s legendary yarns of folks on the rainbow spectrum. We all sat rapt in a blanket of darkness, politics undiscernible, one type of baseball cap indistinguishable from another. People clapped along. Of course, allowances are more easily made for widely acclaimed classic rock songs – and do people even listen to lyrics, anyway?
Despite being an introvert, I’m a loud person (“you’re projecting,” my friend used to admonish me, half smiling, in restaurants), with impulse control issues, given to radical self-disclosure. Brownstein’s drive to make an increasingly unmanageable racket, to the point of becoming a riot grrrl pioneer, is relatable to me. So I often wonder at what turning points others decide to diminish themselves. I can’t name someone else’s truth anymore than they can name mine; yet what niggles me is when people actually seem to have things better figured out when they are kids, still angry, still kicking against perceived injustice – then later retreat (regress?) to grayscale conformity. Of course this is me speaking from a place of relative safety, as the ways in which I deviate from the norm are not outwardly visible. Especially now, I would do well to remember that these concerns are often matters of survival.
Everywhere I look, you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be
-Nine Inch Nails, “Something I Can Never Have”
There’s a vignette I think about, probably too often: the one time my friend deigned to ride with me in my parents’ minivan, in retrospect an improbable scenario I’d imagine ranked among his worst nightmares. We’d all seen a theater performance and something came up (the details are hazy) about whether one could tell the gender of a playwright from their writing. As I recall, the parental angle was to suggest that, duh, of course you could. My friend, on the other hand, indignantly protested this assumption and was thereby deemed humorless, intolerant.
On the drive home from the Vega concert, awash in dark interstate and feeling more and more catatonic, I queued up 2014’s Hesitation Marks, an album I have no history with in relation to my friend. Though oddly upbeat in places and a nod to Reznor’s funk-infused, Prince-inspired roots, themes of resignation and the surrender of identity abound, and in ways that seem conversant with his earlier works like The Fragile. In one song an uncharacteristically major-key “goodbyyyyye” is delivered with saccharine layers of vocal harmony that I hear as dripping with sarcasm – the speaker’s placidity a self-delusion he succumbs to by choice.
Wish me well
Something else, something else
It’s just the world
-Nine Inch Nails, “Everything”
Years ago, when our relationship had become strained and unpleasant and I was giving him distance, my friend left me a voicemail.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you needed…
…but I love you anyway.”
In the years that followed, I grew increasingly cynical about this incident. I chalked it up to, at best, a holdover of teenage theatricality in a couple of dramatic twenty-somethings, and at worst, just another manipulation in a long line of chess moves.
Reflecting on it now – I’m not sure what to think.
I AM NOT WHAT YOU WANT
According to Vega, The Boy had confided over lunch that his then-girlfriend had sized Vega up. The girlfriend had pointed out that, in contrast to nostalgic songs about The Boy – “In Liverpool”, “Gypsy” – Vega had also penned “Solitude Standing” – which suggested a very different personality than the others. “She’s not even like that,” the girlfriend had concluded re: the more wistful output of Vega’s that had fed The Boy’s ego.
I suppose that is me acknowledging that, at its core, this whole entry amounts to lot of speculative nothing. We think we know people, but memory is flawed and wishful.
That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better […] Those songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now. […] Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain.
-Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl
On the other hand: intuition is a tough thing to shake.
Compelled as I typically am to fill the emptiness that follows travel, I crammed in yet another concert before returning to work – this one in my own backyard. I came across this display on the bar, and it felt apropos.
I’ll be the girl who sings for my supper
You’ll be the monk whose forehead is high
He’ll be the man who’s already working
Spreading a memory all through the sky
-Suzanne Vega, “In Liverpool” (again)