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At Fourteen

So I’m watching “Criminal Minds,” which I love because of the profiling part – I would love to have a job in which I had access to everyone’s most intimate, personal business. It wouldn’t have to be killers; I would be perfectly happy plumbing the depths of gardeners, ferry boat captains or veterinarians. I like to know what makes people tick, and I am limited to my own observations because the rules of polite society prevent me from asking the questions I really want to ask.

In the episode I’m watching, the impossibly beautiful Dr. Reed explains that the music that’s popular when a person is fourteen is “their music.” It defines them, he explains, no matter what they hear before or after. Although this information is, in the context of the TV show, simply a clue in building a working profile of the Piano Man killer, to me it is huge. I Google it, and it’s a “thing” that fourteen is, according to no less than The New York Times, “a magic age for building cultural tastes.”

I am as interested in figuring out my own psyche as I am in probing the depths of everyone else’s. I look up the songs popular in my fourteenth year, 1976, and I am horrified. It was a time when disco was not a joke, but the bread and butter of Top 40 radio stations. “Disco Duck” was on the list of the most popular songs of the year. Somehow, probably because I was a very serious cellist by then, living in a house in which pop music was largely ignored, I missed “Disco Duck.” I find it on Spotify and play it, well, the beginning of it, and satisfy myself that I was probably unscathed by that particular hole in my musical history.

There are other songs, though, that bring back memories of Levis cords, Earth shoes, feathered hair and roll-on lip gloss. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Take it to the Limit.” I think about the Eagles, who I never liked, and about the fact that I bought an Eagles album with my own money because Steve Maltby spent his time in Algebra I drawing alternative album covers with “The Eagles” in fat, curvy letters. I imagined that if I sat in my seat and hummed “Hotel California” he would overlook my frizzy hair and acne and recognize me as his one, true soul mate.

And then, because I felt so sorry for that girl that I was, so protective of her un-pretty, un-guarded self, I wonder about the possibility of going back and fixing her. I develop this plan in which I immerse myself in the music of 1976, let the memories come, and talk to the Ann who started high school that year. As if she were my own child, a dearly beloved creature struggling upstream in a world that made no sense, I will serve as a guardian angel and cheerleader. She was so totally lost, that girl, between a blithe, indulgent childhood and a future that appeared catastrophically bleak for those without silky hair and the ability to flirt.

The music thing is complicated. I rarely listened to “popular” music, even then. I listened to classical music most of the time, or The Beatles and the moody singer-songwriters who spoke directly to my soul. Joni, James, Carly, Jackson…they were my people. I am uncertain whether one’s “own music” is the music a person actually chose at age fourteen, or the music that waspopular at that time. I put on “I Write the Songs,” by Barry Manilow. Closing my eyes, I imagine a high school dance. For some reason, I can see everyone but myself – girls with long, perfectly feathered hair and lots of eyeliner and gloss are swaying in the arms of guys in bell-bottomed cords, and everything smells like bubblegum and Jovan musk. I try “Dream Weaver,” and I’m still not in the picture.

I look back at the article in the Times, and it says this: “’Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,’” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “’Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.’” This would seem to mean that the important music for me was what I listened to over and over again in my bedroom, based on advice from the friends I knew to be kindred spirits. It is not the stuff that played at dances, or on the car radio.

I start again with “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “Court and Spark,” by Joni, and “Fire and Rain” by James. I see myself, then, sitting on the floor in my bedroom in front of the record player with a pile of jackets, records and white paper dust covers strewn around me. I have a notebook, which is not as pretty as the Chinese silk covered diary I got in my Christmas stocking, but which has much more room for actual writing. I am thinking about the boy I love, who is my friend, but who is on the other side of some incomprehensible barrier. I yearn, I jockey myself into his car when a group travels to a movie or a concert, I sit next to him in the dark of a movie theater and listen to him breathe, imagining in some vague way how it would be to have him breathing closer, or with his head on the next pillow. I am writing poems for him, filling pages with words that release the worst of the pain for a while like a hit of something powerful but temporary.

Surprisingly, I am not as ugly as I remembered; I am certainly not as ugly as I felt at the time. I have thick, glossy chestnut hair, and a faintly exotic slant to my almond-shaped eyes. I weigh too much, but I am not, as I had recalled, monstrous. I have to decide, looking at my thrawn, adolescent self as she writes love poems in a Mead notebook, whether to tell her anything at all. My regression therapy plan is dubious, at best; if I lie around listening to Joni Mitchell and bucking up my fourteen year old self, it will violate the lesson I learned from Star Trek: when you go back in time, change nothing or Hitler will win.

I look more closely at the girl with calloused fingertips on her left hand, and, dear Lord, a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” necklace around her neck. If she does not suffer, if she does not lean into feelings as dark and endless as a moonless night, she will be a different person. If I tell her everything is really okay, that she’ll outgrow the acne and figure out her hair, that men will someday love her, she might change. She might morph into a confident, gum-snapping creature who stops writing and starts listening to disco. She might never discover Eliot Smith, “Lost in Translation,” or Colette. She might not write, might not need to write, and she might not feel compassion for those who suffer as she has suffered. She might not, after all, be me.

So I leave her there on the floor, knowing that the boy she loves is gay, knowing that her first real boyfriend will treat her badly, knowing that she will make some truly terrible choices because she hates herself with unshakeable certainty. The thing is, love her. I love her for every mistake she’s making as she rises to look in the mirror one more time, checking the constellation of pimples for signs of improvement, her eyes shiny with love for a boy who loves boys. “We Have No Secrets” starts to play after a pause and a scratch, and she sucks in her cheeks, piling her hair onto her head and then dropping her hands and releasing her face in an agony of resignation.

“I love you,” I say as I retreat, “I love you.”


Gigantour: In Which I Bang my Head Again

 Gigantour Poster

Last Thursday, I went to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Lest you should imagine a summer home for Henry VII, with crenelated turrets and a moat, the “Palace” is a gigantic indoor arena on the outskirts of Detroit. It is the home court of the Pistons, but Thursday night it was the venue for the multi-band, heavy metal Gigantour. Although I’m more of an Avett Brothers kind of girl, the tickets were a Christmas gift for my hard-rocking husband. It is not “my” music, but as I learned during my first metal adventure last summer, I am fascinated by the crowds, and, truth be told, I end up banging my own head as soon as I feel the vibrations from the towering stacks of Marshalls. Besides the which, if one only ever listens to music they already like they tend to become rigid and tedious.


On the cement balcony, a man tall enough to be classified as a giant, his height magnified by a perfectly groomed Mohawk, walked past me. “Smells like the chronic,” he muttered. It did. Like last summer’s Mayhem Festival, this crowd tended towards smoking of all kinds, and drinking ridiculously expensive beer. Unlike Mayhem, there were far fewer interesting costumes, and the emotional pitch seemed to be less religious pilgrimage than “I like metal and this is something to do in Detroit on a Thursday night.” The Mayhem attendees were, to a person, totally immersed in the metal life, from piercings and tattoos to the looks of rapture on their faces when a beloved band began to shred its way to musical nirvana. The Gigantour folk were more “regular” looking; the girl with purple hair and the guy with the Mohawk stood out from the crowd.

At the risk of sounding all snide and judgy, the Mayhem gestalt was a cross between London in the 80s and a Hell’s Angels gathering, while Gigantour’s was rather more monster truck rally.  The couple sitting next to me seemed to be on a date that just happened to take place in the middle of a metal concert – they missed the first two bands, she was wearing pearls and they seemed more interesting in trying to yell to each other over the music than in listening to it. They did not bang their heads. Since I heard both Mayhem and Gigantour in the same geographical area, I don’t know whether the differences were due to venue, musical offerings or the season (I suppose there might have been lots of piercings and tattoos underneath coats and long pants).

Gigantour I 

There were True Believers in attendance, though, and we could see them clearly from our seats, a mere four rows up from stage left. On the floor, penned like potentially dangerous animals, were those who came to mosh and crowd surf, the ones who knew all the words and held their arms high to give the two-fingered salute. The floor was only half full for the first band, grew during the second, and was in full swing by the time headliners Motorhead and Megadeth played. A mosh pit opened in one part of the floor, and was in constant, dizzying motion for nearly two hours. As if by silent signal, moshers entered the circle and spun into one another without infringing on the space of those around the edges.

Gigantour II 

At the same time, bodies began to coast from the back to the front, raised and carried by an ocean of hands and ending at the railing directly below the stage. There, a patient row of security men in maroon polo shirts caught them, righted them, and made sure that they were unscathed before opening the gate and directing them back to the fray. Although the majority of surfers were fairly small people of both genders, there were several male surfers who had to have weighed more than 200 pounds; I was impressed with the ease with which the Palace employees caught and lowered them before they washed up on the barricade, and even more impressed with the casual, business-as-usual way in which a group of middle aged men handled the phenomenon of crowd surfing. While they might, in private moments, have shaken their graying heads and muttered “if my kid ever…,” they were consummate professionals in the arena.

lacuna coil 

Although I tend to get distracted by the sociological stuff, we were there for the music. The first band, Lacuna Coil, was an Italian goth metal group with a female lead singer. There aren’t that many women in high profile metal bands, so that drew me in; her stunning vocals and the interesting, occidental flavor of the songs kept me engaged. Striding back and forth in her black leggings, high-heeled boots and fringed black leather jacket, Cristina Scabbia was mesmerizing. There was a kind of supernatural, melodic, witchiness about the sound that hinted at ancient, European mysteries. Due to some inconsistent information about when the concert actually started, Lacuna Coil had a relatively small audience, with listeners filtering in during their set; I think the latecomers missed something worth hearing.


The second band, Volbeat, was a surprise and a delight. The Danish band has a retro, rockabilly look and an onstage charisma that had me bouncing and banging in seconds. Although I expected a Danish band to be all blonde and blue-eyed, and to have the ubiquitous long hair made for dramatic head banging, the guitarists all had short, dark hair, with the lead singer sporting a slicked-back, shiny pompadour that flipped charmingly as he played.


I confess that I’m always yearning for a tune to go with the beat, and Volbeat delivered. bringing down the house by asking if “anybody out there likes Johnny Cash” and moving into a rendition of “Dead Man’s Tongue” that started out with Cash-like solemnity and then broke into a wild, percussive flight of fancy. At one point, lead singer Michael Poulsen spoke from the stage to a young woman in the floor area, asking why she was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. After identifying the boy next to her as her boyfriend, Poulsen asked why he hadn’t bought her a Volbeat shirt; when he replied that he didn’t have enough money, Poulsen reached into his pocket, took out a wad of cash and passed it to the couple. It may have been shtick, but it was great shtick. I can say with absolute certainty that I will, in the future, voluntarily download and listen to the metallic rockabilly of Volbeat.


The third set was by the legendary Motorhead, led by the eminence known as “Lemmy.” Every girl loves a bad boy (or at least I do), and Lemmy is the gold standard. It’s hard to find out how old he actually is, but given the fact that he was being fired from his first band when I was in the eighth grade, it’s safe to assume that he’s pushing sixty. Still, when he appears on stage in his trademark cowboy hat and boots to sing “Ace of Spades,” he’s dead sexy.


I had expected to like Motorhead’s performance best, because their punk-infused sensibility always reminds me of The Ramones. I did not, however, find myself carried away by musical magic. There was nothing wrong with the performance, but it all sounded kind of…the same. It’s hard to understand Lemmy’s vocals at the best of times, and the distortion involved in live performance made it impossible. I was, however, interested in the fact that Motorhead seemed to have a roadie who did nothing but replace cymbals as they were beaten to death by drummer Mikkey Dee, and by the incredibly long drum solo during which Lemmy walked behind a wall of amps and smoked a cigarette – our position four rows from the side of the stage gave us a perfect view. I take great pleasure in imagining him asking Mikkey, in his gruff, Scottish Lemmy voice to “be a good lad and come up with a solo long enough for me to finish a fag.”


The last band was Megadeth, who I had heard at Mayhem. Their performance was tight, compelling, and visually exciting. Although I had been standing on three-inch boots for nearly three hours, and was out very late on a “school night,” they made me forget for an hour that I was just another uptight, suburban mom. The musicianship was superb, from front man Dave Mustaine to the workmanlike precision of drummer Shawn Drover, but what made me smile and whip my middle-aged hair was the charm. All three guitarists moved to every part of the stage, playing to those of us on the sides, and they were the only band of the night to do so. Watching guitarists Broderick and Ellefson face each other, smiling as they shredded, I felt the warmth of hearing a band that seemed to be genuinely happy to be making music, to be making music with each other, and to be making music for us.

Mustaine 2 

Metal may not be my first musical love, but just like Mayhem, my Gigantour bottom line was that I felt free, in the best possible way.  The thing about most live music is that I tend to feel self-conscious trying to dance, to clap, or to “groove,” always aware that I’m just a tightly wrapped white girl trying to be all cool and capable of a little get-down. At a metal concert, all I have to do is feel the beat and bang my head, which I can totally do – at Mayhem, everybody was banging and whipping their dyed, Mohawked, dreadlocked hair, and at Gigantour I still felt that the amplified vibrations ran up through the soles of my boots and straight to my constantly moving head. I probably won’t bang it so much that I have to follow in the footsteps of Dave Mustaine and have surgery to repair my blown-out neck, but I’m enjoying it more every time…and you just can’t bang your head to The Avett Brothers.


Photo Credits: (Except for the blurry, grainy ones, which are mine).

Words and Music

Lately I have been thinking about lyrics and music. I posted the two as alternative choice on Facebook, and was surprised to find that the vast majority of commenters believed that music reigned supreme. (My brother,  for example, commented “Music. Duh”). I remained unconvinced.

It’s best when they work together, of course, when they dovetail so seamlessly that the words could not have been set to any other music and the music cannot be imagined with any other words. The Magnetic Field’s “Busby Berkley Dreams” with its dreamy, tongue-in-cheek retro lyrics and the purposely untuned and ancient piano. R.E.M’s “Nightswimming” with music that warms and encourages the wistfulness of the lyrics to make an atmosphere all hot, “quiet night,” with the photograph stuck to the dashboard of the car moving through the dark, moist heat.
If you had to choose, though, sifting through the universe of  songs that compose the musical warp and woof of your spirit, would you choose the songs that made you move unconsciously to the beat or the ones that spoke to your soul with words that you could have written, if only you could write like that?
Although I am annoyed by a stupid lyric, there is an ease, a primal sort of connection to certain kinds of beats; we all feel the pull of “Money, Money,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Tutti Frutti.” Consider, if you will, the lure of the late, great “Mmmm Bop” or the “Do Ron Ron,“ or that Swedish song called “Cobrastyle” that had lyrics to the effect of “gdang gdang diggy diggy.“ We feel our hips loosen and sway, find ourselves snapping, tapping, humming and bobbing our heads. It isn’t about lyrics; the lyrics are utterly ridiculous. It’s about music as a drug, the kind that catches you the first time even if you are only half paying attention, and makes you want it again.
There are Ramones songs that are lyrically uninteresting but I will listen to them back to back because of the way they make me feel tough and fast and alive. There is a song called “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club that had me at “hello,” although I can make neither heads nor tails of the lyrics. It’s slow, deliberate, but persuasive in a way that won’t let me go until it’s finished. It’s kind of a dirge, but a very naughty, sexy dirge that makes me think I could really just put on my studded boots and try a little heroin if I didn’t have to drive the kid to school. You would not quote these songs, or write the words out and tape them to your notebook, but they get to you.
Then there are those other songs, those that are poetry set to music. The ones that  give you mantras and take-away stories to hold close during storms. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, The Beatles, Ani Di Franco, and The Smiths have all given me words, literally, to live by. Joni Mitchell gave me this:
You’ve had lots of lovely women
Now you turn your gaze to me
Weighing the beauty and the imperfection
To see if I’m worthy
Like the church
Like a cop
Like a mother
You want me to be truthful
Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
And I need your approval
I feel the pain in Cohen’s “love is not a victory march/it‘s a cold and it‘s a broken hallelujah,” the matter-of-fact resiliency of Di Franco’s “what doesn’t bend, breaks,” and The Smith’s “for once in my life let me, let me, let me get what I want this time.” The words “Let It Be” are my most basic directive in life. They are mantras, those words, they are worthy of attention, and thought, repetition and analysis.
But every one of those songs with the lyrics that I hold close, read like poetry and secretly believe to be written just for me, have beautiful music. They all have music that fits them, not perhaps the brazen, addictive riffs of “Mmmm Bop,” but a quieter charm that seems at first like a supporting player but becomes as essential as the words to a patient listener. You may start out listening to Tom Waits’ “Martha” and becoming entranced in the story of old lovers reconnecting, but soon you will find that the music itself, simple, acoustic and repetitive, spinning out into a chorus warmed by strings, is perfect. Perfect and necessary.
As it turns out, I can get what I think is a syllogism out of this: all great songs have great music, and some great songs have great lyrics, but not all great songs have great lyrics. That means, I think that a) I should not give up my day job and become a scientist, and b) music is more important than lyrics. They were right. Even my brother.
There is, in the final analysis, no need to choose. I will turn up “Superfreak” and bang the steering wheel, or I will get lost in Roberta Flack and (if no one’s looking) I’ll get all misty eyed. I will love songs that perfectly marry music and lyrics, a category which includes most of The Pretenders, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, The Magnetic Fields, Talking Heads, and hundreds more that I’m forgetting. I will love songs that have ridiculous lyrics but make me want to move, like those of The Bee Gees, Herman’s Hermits, and Abba. I will unconditionally love Van Morrison, whose lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible but which make me believe that I am in receipt of a communication from a soul that is yearning to connect with my own.
I’m not done with this, quite yet. I don’t know where to put logocentric genres like rap and hip hop, or dance and club music that seems to be all about the beat, but what about “I Will Survive” which has some of the best getting-through-a-breakup lyrics ever written? What about country songs and folk ballads that are really all about the story, the John Deere green, the lost maiden with the raven locks?  This analysis may be the work of a lifetime. Next year at this time I will write off all of my iTunes purchases as “work-related expenses.” After my death, a massive tome will be published outlining my theory on thousands of tissue-thin pages with multiple glossaries and indexes.
A girl can dream.


In 2007, I became a Community Organizer. It started with a photocopy stuck in the handle of the front storm door, telling us that the City planned to construct a 10-story building two blocks from our house, a building taller than any other in town besides the University’s new football stadium. This out of place structure was to be accompanied by a parking structure, several smaller buildings, and twelve condos ringing the only green space available to our fairly urban children. In a market in which existing retail space and condos sit vacant, this plan was the equivalent of an iron fist aimed squarely at the solar plexus of my neighborhood

I had spent the past few years deeply involved in town-gown issues, serving as the poster child for permanent residents in the community, winning myself an etched crystal bowl and a moment on the podium based on my work with the transient undergraduate population. I liked that role – favored child of the City, doer of good, deliverer of brownies, and recipient of awards. Once I read that wrinkled piece of paper I stepped beyond that safe, warm, place into a life of gritty, adversarial activism.

I was no longer Mother Theresa; I had turned into Angela Davis, Bernadette Devlin, or Patty Hearst with her SLA insignia. I wrote editorials in the local paper condemning the project, and I researched. I found a neighbor with a similar level of time and lividity and together we organized forums, spoke at City Council meetings, met with the Mayor, the City Manager, the City planning staff, and countless groups of concerned citizens. We uncovered the past wrongdoings of the developer involved in the colossal public-private development partnership and publicized them on a web site. We made T-shirts, leaflets and yard signs. We dealt with neighbors who disagreed and stopped speaking to us, neighbors who thought we weren’t doing enough, neighbors who were apathetic, and City staff who clearly wished we might someday be buried beneath the cornerstone of the ten-story building. We were consumed.

For months from the early 2007 until the summer of 2008 I fought The Man using everything from conciliatory charm to scathing attacks in the media, and my private life was buried beneath a mountain of meetings, phone calls, and research. By the time we lost the battle I was exhausted and disillusioned. I had lost friends, strained relationships and seemed to have spent nearly two years of my life on a worthless pursuit.

The giant building was still going to be built, our park was going to be edged with privately owned condos, and houses in an historic district were going to be demolished to make way for a parking structure to support the vehicles associated with the offices, restaurant, hotel and whatever else was going to appear at the end of our street. The calls from the newspaper still trickled in, and I still walked past neighbors who gave me the gimlet, but I was done with it all. It was time to focus on things that did not create hypertension, insomnia and impotent rage. I had fought the good fight and lost, made my peace with the impending change, and moved on. After years of intense civic engagement, I retired. I quit all committees and groups, handed the ball and scepter of Neighborhood Association President to a fresh horse, and slipped into private life with a clear conscience.

Last week I got a call from the president of another neighborhood asking me if I could help him with their conditional re-zoning issue. He had heard that I might know something about that, and that I had been involved in “trying to get the City to follow its own rules” a few years back. I listened, I politely demurred, and I pointed him to folks who knew more than I did. He called a second time – wouldn’t I please speak at their forum? They needed all the help they could get. I explained that my issue had been different, that I knew nothing about conditional rezoning, and that I had been so battered by my last foray into Fighting City Hall that I had retired. He cajoled, and I felt twinges of guilt. What kind of person was I to fight only for my own causes, my own backyard, and refuse to pitch in to help someone else? So what if I had no idea what his issues were, and had nothing useful to say at his meeting? So what if I hate all meetings so much that it is a condition of my current job that I do not ever have to attend one? I said “probably not,” and hoped he would go away.

Yesterday he called again. I felt my gut tighten, and my pulse quicken. I hit the “Ignore” button on my cell. I have a funeral to do today, and I am guiding my son through the first week of high school. I do not want this in my life anymore. It is my nature to speak up, to question authority and to challenge the status quo; it just isn’t my whole life anymore, particularly when the cost is so high and the benefits are not apparent. I do not want to speak publicly about the bad behavior of the City I live in, particularly when I speak not from any real passion or knowledge, but merely as Experienced Rabble Rouser, Abby Hoffman dragged to a forum to speak about conditional rezoning issues.

More than four years later, the project still hasn’t broken ground, although many buildings are vacant as the result of the City’s early, exuberant rush to drive out long-time tenants and make way for the Big Show. At the moment, driving into town from the West, it appears that one side of the street is a thriving college campus and the other is a ghost town of empty buildings with sad, red and white banners promising “future” development. Maybe, through no fault of our own, we actually won the battle. Maybe the monstrous tower will never be built, another plan will be made, and the ghost town will turn into something appealing, appropriate and useful.

Maybe, just maybe there will come a time when I am renewed and ready to fight again, and I will throw myself heart and soul into some new fight. I will become, once again, a disposable woman whose energy is willingly offered up to fuel the flame of civic outrage. Today I will use my influence and my vitality to create a comforting funeral reception, help my kid get his homework done, and welcome my husband home from a business trip. I will focus inward, struggling to ignore the jagged noise of guilt that comes with refusing to save the world this time. I will organize only my own, small and beloved community.



Everything Louder Than Everything Else

I was banging my head. I was in a crowd of 15,000 people, feeling the bass squarely in my solar plexus and raising and lowering my head rhythmically along with the bearded stranger next to me.  Two seats over, on the other side of my husband, a young girl was banging so hard that her long, red-brown hair flew up and over her face and then off again with the beat. It was like a religious ceremony in some kind of chanting tribe, the amplified beat, the roared lyrics, and the plaintive wail of electric guitars. We were all united, not moved by lyrics that spoke to us, or by a Brahmsian strain of melody, but by raw musical power. It was my first rock concert, and it was heavy, heavy metal

Earlier in the day we arrived at the outdoor concert venue, stepping out into a hazy, muggy sauna of an afternoon. Walking towards the snaking line waiting for admittance we passed cars in the lot in which groups were drinking beer, playing music and getting hair and makeup done. “So you didn’t have to work today” said a shirtless young man in wide legged black pants suspended perilously from his hipbones.

parking lot
purple tutufuck yoututu girl

“Nah,” said his companion, older by maybe twenty years. “But if  I’da had to work, it would have sucked.” I saw tattoos, everyone had at least one, and many people were covered with portraits, Old English letters, geishas, cartoon characters, skulls, Harley insignias and names. There were mohawks, dreadlocks, fishnets, spikes, studs, and two young women in bikini tops and hot pants. It was not a crowd of the tanned and the buff; much of the exposed flesh was pasty and many midriff-baring tops sat above a soft blob of gut. There were tulle tutus worn with striped leggings, six-inch platform Converse high tops, and piercings through ears, tongues, noses, lips, cartilage and navels. There were undoubtedly other piercings beneath the tutus and skinny jeans.

arm tattoo


The air smelled like Axe, pot, concession grease, cigarette smoke and rain, and the crowd was both orderly and courteous. Behind us, a group of teenagers wondered whether there would be cotton candy, and one of them suggested that if there were, it should be black. A group of young men discussed women, and one of them, dismissed an ex on the basis that when he met her, “she had a nice fat ass” but we were then divided by gender to be searched, and I never learned the fate of the ass. Moving into the line of women, I caught the line “-your carpe diem shit ain’t going in my apartment.” Again, momentum separated me from what was undoubtedly a fascinating story.

Inside the gates, we saw t-shirt vendors, concessions, and prominent product placement for Rockstar energy drinks and Jagermeister. People carried (nine dollar) beers, and fluorescent cocktails in long glasses shaped like guitars. There were lots of shirts for sale, as well as jewelry, glass hash pipes, skull caps and “booty shorts,” and the canopies over the merchandise bore names like “Heathen Productions” and “Hate Wear.” I was in another country, a country in which people dressed in costumes, everyone smoked everywhere all the time, and no one was hip, ironic or clever. The day was about passion, about being with other people who understood this thing and didn’t judge anyone for being outside the mainstream. Anything went.


We caught the end of an alternative metal band, the only act with a female member, and my husband fell a little bit in love with the tiny, beautiful person who growled, screamed and swore like a trucker. (Everyone swore like a trucker). Meeting her afterwards for a picture, we found her gracious, charming and adorable. In the metal world, I was learning, a lot of the roughness is part of the show. These were not, contrary to the T-shirts, the language, or the skull-heavy album art, corpse-eating and soulless creatures of the underworld. They were working musicians wearing wedding bands, running back to the buses to feed their dogs, and looking worn out with travel, heat and the demands of touring.

Rob and Lexi

In the crowd watching  another band, a “stoner metal” group, a mosh pit evolved in the crowd. All men, including a guy in a wheelchair, the moshing was not the violent and threatening thing I had imagined. It was slow, graceful, as I had always imagined things whirling to the beat of the universal pull in “A Wrinkle In Time.” It looked like a kind of carefully laid out stage fighting, and I felt completely safe and unthreatened by the weight of a flying body. The participants, mostly shirtless, a mix of ages and colors, made eye contact with someone, moved towards them balletically and gave them a gentle bump before spinning away with the grace and deliberation with which they had arrived. Moving to another outdoor stage, the crowd became less mellow and a string of people with linked arms pushed their way past us as the lead singer began whipping up a frenzy, nearly toppling my big, solid husband. Deciding that we preferred the mellow stoners to the angsty pushers, we wandered away from the stages to find something to eat.

mosh II

It finally rained, and we snagged a table with an umbrella near the concession area. A family joined us, a mother and her two adult foster sons, her significant other and the girlfriend of one of the boys. The son sitting nearest to me had a magnificent tattoo on his elbow, a spider web radiating elegantly from the pointed joint. We talked easily, and the mother told us that she had all her ticket stubs from every concert she had attended, starting with AC/DC in 1980. She had recently seen Motley Crue, and taken her mother. Although her conversation was peppered with the f-bombs that had come to seem perfectly normal, she was charming, friendly, and was the kind of person who had earned the patent devotion of the two young men she had fostered and loved. Amidst the rough and unfamiliar terroir of the heavy metal world I began to see a clear pattern of exterior toughness that could not obscure the tender hearts of good people. This whole rotting corpses/fuck everybody/praise Satan thing was an optional but flashy part of a cathartic ritual, a ritual in which we were all able to participate even if we were seventy and wearing khakis and a Polo shirt.

back tattoo I

Around five, after three hours of wandering, listening and chatting with random strangers, we took our seats in the huge amphitheater as the vast lawn behind us filled with those who had not been quick, lucky or liquid enough to snag indoor seats. I watched a large, puffy guy with hair the color of cotton candy, and a man in his fifties with long, wavy jet black hair, and tattoos covering both arms. I wondered what he did for a living. I wondered what a lot of the people did for a living, particularly those old enough that they probably needed real jobs to pay for concert tickets, food and gas. Did they wear long sleeves, pull back their long hair, un-dread their dreads, and remove the studs and silver barbells from noses and eyebrows? I felt old, conventional and judgmental for wondering, but wonder I did.

Then the music began, and I was caught, entranced, intoxicated by my first time at this rodeo of sound and lights and thousands of people feeling the same beat at the same time. It didn’t matter, then, what anybody wore or did for a living; I felt the barrier broken between tourist and native and I was open to the universe as I bobbed my head sharply to the speeding beat of a bass guitar or moved my whole body forward and back, directed not by something not cerebral but by something primitive, not caring what I looked like, who saw me, or if I was doing it “right.” In the battle for my soul, the metal world beats the hell out of the Ironic Hipster community for letting me lose myself without self-consciousness or a shred of detachment. Often, I feel that I am slightly outside myself observing and taking notes for later; in the middle of a live Megadeth song I was pushed firmly back into myself, living in that place in that moment, experiencing an unexpected confluence of Buddhist “presence” and metal exuberance.


In closing, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, and that I ended the day feeling not that I had endured, but that I had been enriched.  I do not like or admire the hate-related messages written across t-shirts, or the bashing of Christianity (“Your God Can’t Save You Now”), but it seemed that that was the province of the young, their generational push-back, calculated to generate shock and awe. The older generations were mellower, unconventional but not driven to highlight their disconnect from the mainstream. The musicianship was beyond fine, the show was run like clockwork, and the bands performing on the main stage treated the crowd like cherished guests. When the lead singer of Machine Head singled out a grey-haired, balding and bespectacled guy (to whom he referred as “the old guy”) in a striped, collared polo shirt, exhorting us all to admire his head banging spirit and giving him two long moments on the Jumbotron, I felt a wave of warm, sweet pleasure. We were, for one night, a community, a family, no matter what we did the rest of our days. It was rough, it was loud, but it was good.

awesome dread girl


For Those About to Rock

Mayhem Fest Fans 04

I grew up listening to classical. There was no “pop” music aside from three or four Beatles albums stuck at the end of a row of records, and an assortment of Peter, Paul, Mary, Arlo, Woody and Pete. I heard Top 40 radio in the car with my babysitter from time to time, but learned early that music of that kind was what my parents referred to scathingly as “baby, baby, baby, wah, wah, wah.” My brother and I were raised attending classical concerts, and we understood the prohibition on fidgeting and the horror of clapping between movements. It was not torture. We were not unwitting pawns in a “Baby Mozart” kind of scenario; we were doing a thing our family did together. When we did not love it, we knew to scan the program for the length of each piece, watch our watches, and buck up.

In middle and high school I became a classical musician, and although I knew my Cars from my Eagles, I lived and breathed Brahms and Ives. I attended one “rock concert” in high school, a performance by Don Mclean. In my 49 years of life, that was my rock concert: a quiet, orderly group of people in a lecture hall listening to a mellow singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. When people say things like “I heard Aerosmith at Cobo in ‘78 – were you there, too!?” I know I wasn’t. I was at Don Mclean in the Erickson Kiva without a raised lighter, a dismembered chicken, a banging head, a mosh pit or groupies. No one peed at The Alamo.

My husband is one of those people who went to rock concerts, and can sling around names and dates with great panache. Last year he read a book by Dave Mustaine, lead singer of Megadeth, and became a true fan. Because I was not vigilant, because I did not heed the warning signs, this fandom means that for his birthday this Saturday we are driving to a big concert venue about an hour from here to attend an event called Mayhem Festival. Megadeth is the headliner, but there will be stages and stages of growling, hair-flinging speed metal bands. Godsmack! Disturbd! All my favorites! (She said with a sarcasm that was heavy, and possibly unattractive). The crowd will be heavily pierced and tattooed. They bang their heads, they know the songs, they raise their hands to make that sign that looks like the Texas Longhorn thing but isn’t. They have costumes for these things, particularly if they are women. I could not be more out of my element were I dropped from a plane into sub-Saharan Africa with nothing but a toothbrush and The Portable Walt Whitman.

So I am trying to prepare. I am listening to music we might hear there, a little Megadeth here, a little Straight Line Stitch there, as much as I can take at one time. I kind of like Megadeth, but I’m struggling with most of the rest of it which seems, honestly, to be the same piece of really loud, fast music with lyrics growled unintelligibly by someone livid and terrifying. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, and lyrics matter to me, so I make them up: “you took my peanut butter/you fucking S.O.B./if you weren’t my son’s father/I’d cut your tiny wee.” Stuff like that.

I am also troubled by the costume issue; it will be hot, and the things I wear when it’s hot tend to be cute A-line skirts with floral patterns. I have lots of black clothes, but little in the way of studs, leather, the shredded or the midriff-baring. I don’t think my hair is dred-able, I am still tattoo-less (despite my best efforts), and there is nary a silver barbell through my cartilage. I look very much like what I am: someone who belongs at a Sufjan Stevens concert. I worry about this almost as much as the debt ceiling.  I think about my clothes, and I think I will probably just end up wearing jeans, comfortable black footwear and a t-shirt. I will not be Cool, but I’ll be cool.

Finally, and this is a big deal for a self-conscious person such as myself, there is the question of what to do with myself while the bands are playing for hours, and hours and hours. In documentaries and still pictures from other Mayhem dates around the country I see arms raised, hair whipping, and moshing.( I am hyperventilating typing that word, “moshing”).  I do not know this music, I don’t really “get” this music, and I am not likely to roar when they play the intro to my favorite song. I want, as always, to be in-the-know, in-the-right, and one of the in-crowd, but it’s just not going to happen. I imagine myself flailing impotently for hours like the dancer who goes the wrong way and topples all the other swans. My plan at the moment is to do what I did when I was little and my grandmother took me to Catholic mass: watch someone who knows what they’re doing out of the corner of my eye and try to follow so fast that it looks like I know what I’m doing.

It will be an adventure. I will love watching the people as if I were visiting a new country, and I will strive oxymoronically to relax, get over myself and go with the flow of the day. I might bang my head, I might buy a tight, black Godsmack T-shirt and change in the bathroom, and I will undoubtedly ask 20 people about their tattoos. I might melt in the heat, it might rain, I might develop nerve deafness, and I might be involuntarily moshed.  I will take lots of pictures, and if I survive, I’ll write another post about what actually happened. Right now, I’m going to find my Portable Walt Whitman and buy one of those foldy toothbrushes.

Photo Credit:

Torch & Twang

Let’s be real, here. People who grow up like I did are not often country music fans. Aside from my mother’s odd taste for the sounds of the Grand Old Opry (acquired during her years at Wellesley, no doubt) I knew no country music unless it was from one of those “Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” ads that ran constantly on our local CBS station. Well, sometimes I caught a little bit of “Hee Haw” if no one changed the channel in time. Suffice it to say that “another somebody done somebody wrong song” was never my music of choice.

I like irony, subtly, and a literary lyric. Like my tea, I tend to like my music un-sweet, unless the sweetness is only one of many layers and has no cloying quality. There was a kind of song that made me queasy from the time I was very small:  “Baby, I’m a want you,” and “Cherish” come to mind. Well, and that other kind; the kind where a dog dies and is carried out to sea, or someone (or something) named “Wildfire” is apparently lost. There was a kind of broad, needy, whiny quality about those songs, and that Ick Factor seemed to exist in every country song I heard. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain?” Seriously?! Every song seemed to be a celebration of Good Ole Boys, brainless women who perpetually fell in love with (and were jilted by) Cads, and a blessedly unfamiliar world of tractors, church, and girls made to wear hideous homemade garments and/or sell themselves to feed their families. It was hyperbolic, sentimental and ridiculous.

Joni Mitchell sang “I wish I had a river/That I could skate away on,” and I knew exactly what she meant. I did not require her to explain that she was unhappy, why she was unhappy, or that she was unhappy because she had broken up with a guy named Jeff. I got it. I spent hours parsing Beatles’ lyrics for meaning (stymied mainly by my inadequate supply of psychedelic drugs) and posting lyrics I loved on my bedroom walls. “Skating away on the thin ice of a new day;” “I have become comfortably numb;” “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  The words were poetry, and they spoke to me, as good poetry does, in beautiful abstract tongues that offered me the answers to my adolescent problems if I was willing to do a little thinking. I had no truck with musical pablum.

In college, at the peak of my black-wearing, Marlboro-smoking archness,I took a break from my regular classical show and filled two-hours of radio with a mockery of country. I assumed a Southern drawl, used the name “Candy Memphis,” and played anything country that I could find in the record closet. I spun “Stand by Your Man,” and got my friend Wallis (who is really from Memphis) to call in live and request something called “This Bed’s Not Big Enough for the Three of Us”  in his more authentic accent. It was one of the finest mornings of my young life.

In the mid 90s, I met Cassie. She was the secretary in the law office below mine (I couldn’t afford a secretary), and we went to lunch together most days. She was a revelation to me, with her tough life story, her big wedding plans, and her propensity to dip her fries in her Frosty. She was un-ironic, an open book, untouched by cynicism or snark. Her fiance watched Nascar races and football games, and she watched with him. She had a cat named “Squeaker” and kept pictures of him on her desk. She read bride magazines, and went to blockbuster romantic comedies. When we took her car to lunch in the summer (my 10-year-old Honda had no air conditioning) we listened to country music.

By the end of August, I had fallen in love with country music. It wasn’t the old-style country of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty; it was the first wave of “new country.” I listened to Garth, Clint, Shania, Trisha, Lorrie, and Alan. I loved the sad stories, and teared up the first time the car was filled with the melancholy strains of  “Don’t Take the Girl.” I smiled at “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” I belted out “Friends in Low Places” and invited my (imaginary) drinking buddies to “Prop me up beside the jukebox” when I died.  With kd lang and Mary Chapin Carpenter as gateway drugs, I Went Country.

There was something I needed in that music, something about sweetness, and wholesomeness without edge or cynicism. There were songs about the joys of summer days, falling in love, staying in love, and raising a family that were some kind of balm for my single, 30-year-old heart. I remember sitting in my own car at the end of a work day, hearing Pam Tillis sing “Sweetheart’s Dance,” and bursting into tears. I didn’t really want to be what I was any more, I didn’t care about being cool and detached, I wanted a sweetheart. I wanted a sweetheart and a house with a porch, and a pie on the windowsill and a jar full of fireflies. I wanted Aunt Bee next door, and The Saturday Evening Post on the coffee table, and a boy who played baseball. I wasn’t necessarily going to wear gingham and call everybody “honey,” but I was sure as hell not seeing myself in a black suit with 3-inch heels and The Virgin Suicides as bedtime reading.

Within three years, I was married to my sweetheart, and the mother of a potentially baseball-playing boy (We tried, but I think that part of my fantasy life is over). I now have a house with a porch, and although there is rarely a pie on the windowsill…there could be. I have swung back to some kind of center, musically and personally; there’s a little Keith Urban and a lot of old Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson on my iPod, but it coexists with “Vampire Weekend,” “Spoon” and a little Jay-Z. I still admire the incredible voices of most country singers, voices that put Britney and Gaga to shame. I also admire the singer-songwriters who craft poems and set them to music in ways that are sometimes as sublime as anything I loved in my youth. I have choices, about what I listen to, and whether I’m feeling more Edie Sedgwick or Aunt Bee on any given day, and that’s part of what makes life worth living.

I guess something just had to give, back in the days when I Went Country. I don’t know that it happens to everyone, and it certainly doesn’t happen in a 120 degree car with Pam Tillis on the radio. I’m sure that during that 3 minute song I felt myself change. I understood something, I  took a leap of faith from the safe ground of self-protective cynicism to the unknown territory of admitting that I wanted something as common as a family and a home. I identified with that raw, patent need for love and safety that I had dismissed and mocked for more than thirty years. I would never, in my current incarnation, pick country music as my favorite genre, or even my second favorite. It might make third behind classical and alternative; then again, it might get bumped by classic rock. In a Tom Petty-George Strait smack down, well, never mind. All I know is that when I needed a catalyst it was there for me in all of its resplendent sweetness and spiritual generosity. For that I will always be grateful.