As a music writer, I’m not really qualified to write about what’s happening in music. I mean, I can describe a beat as thumping or driving, or a guitar as jangling or distorted, or whatever, but I don’t really get music. I can’t play anything, can’t hear much technicality in the songs I listen to. I recognize harmonies and melodies and things like that, but I don’t know what I’m talking about when I’m asked to listen to music for anything other than its emotional impact. I’m still not entirely certain what exactly a chord progression is, but I am pretty sure that I can write well enough about how a song feels. (For MTV Hive, I occasionally write posts for the site for a section called Listen, where they premiere a new song by an artist; my write-ups are usually about what the song makes me see when I close my eyes, or what it makes me think about, or what I want to do while I listen to it. I just can’t write with any credibility about what the actual musicians are actually doing while they’re playing the song.)
But those things — what a song makes me think, or what it makes me want to do, or what it captures about how I want life to feel when everything is just a little bit more alive and visceral, or the things I’d forgotten about that it makes me remember — I am pretty in tune with.
(2,000 words about a Cure album from 1996 and being a teenager to follow.)
Anyway. I was at the Austin Record Convention this weekend, digging around truly disgusting boxes full of records that should have been kept in much nicer condition, hoping to find things on my internal checklist of albums I love that were not pressed in great quantities, because the music I love best — 90’s/00’s/10’s rock and hip-hop — was all put down in limited runs. (Biggest disappointment: I passed on a lovely copy of Under The Pink by Tori Amos, because the dealer was asking $48 for it, and I felt like a jerk trying to offer $30 for it, even though there’s a copy of Discogs for $35; also, a different dealer had a copy of Recovering The Satellites by Counting Crows for $40, which is about $60 less than the average price on the Internet, but I already own a copy, which is a very specific and strange sort of disappointment.)
What I did find, though, was a copy of Galore, the second singles collection from The Cure. (The first, Staring At The Sea, I bought when I was 14 and have carried from apartment to apartment to house to apartment, a dozen or more times, for more than half my life.) It’s rare, too, and it was $20, $55 less than the cheapest copy on Discogs. I’m bragging now about my skill in finding 90’s records that nobody besides me cares about, but I really was quite proud to find a companion to my beat-up copy of Staring At The Sea.
As part of my ongoing quest to listen better, and be quieter and less hurried and distracted, I’m trying to just sit and listen to music for a few hours a day. I have a record collection I’ve spent a fair amount of money on (and the system that it plays on, hoo boy), and there’s something inherently disrespectful to music to think of it as something that I hear with half-open ears while I refresh RSS feeds or play Drop7 on my iPad.
So last night, I listened to Galore, which contains a number of Cure songs that I haven’t thought about in a long time. The last album the collection compiles is Wild Mood Swings, a scarcely-loved album that I bought on my 16th birthday, the day it was released. Back then, a CD or two a month was as much as I could ever afford, so everything I got received a lot of airplay on my little CD system. I have a much greater attachment to Wild Mood Swings than most people do, I think, as a result.
(I also have a very strange relationship to The Cure, in that they were one of my first favorite bands — I broke up with my first high school girlfriend in a note passed between classes that quoted extensively from “A Letter To Elise” — but I disowned them when I was around 17 and got really into Henry Rollins, who made fun of them a lot. The band’s early records really are pretty untouchable, I can safely admit now that I am not trying to impress Ol’ Hank from afar, but it’s also true that the later albums, including Wild Mood Swings, sometimes border on self-parody.)
Right now, I’m not listening to Galore. I’m listening to Wild Mood Swings in its entirety, thin mp3s on my tinny laptop speakers. “Treasure” is on now, and it’s one of the best songs from this era in the band’s career, genuine and sad and not overwrought. But it’s one of the few songs from this album that I can hear with the ears of someone who is discerning about music. Most of the album, I hear what I remember about being sixteen.
The second song is called “Club America.” It’s a dumb song, I guess, about vapid party scenes. But there’s a line in it, where Robert Smith sings about buying drinks for people, and he namechecks a drink with a girl’s name in it, and man! It’s a quick shock to being at a New Year’s party as 1996 became 1997, my junior year of high school, with a girl whose name was the same one as the one in the drink. She loved The Cure too, was all goth-y and stuff, and we were not friends; in fact, we were mostly the opposite. I can’t remember why now. She had dated a few of my friends, and I remember that I didn’t trust her for some reason. I imagine I must have felt threatened by her.
Years later, in fact, I would find her on MySpace, because she was friends with a few people I was also friends with; I sent her a message apologizing for being a jerk to her a decade earlier, and she never responded. I’m open to other opinions on this, but generally, I think that a person should not do this: if you were a bully to someone in high school, trying to soothe your guilty conscience by contacting that person out of the blue many years later is probably not something they want, need, or deserve. For you, it is an easy thing, maybe one tinged with the specter of being hard — “Oh, I need to own up to my behavior!” — but for the other person, it may be traumatic. The sight of your name now, as they’ve built a life in which you have no influence, is probably not going to be pleasant, and your apology is unlikely to have any real impact on their life. It’s for your own benefit, not for theirs, to ease whatever shame comes up when you are reminded of this person, when “Club America” comes up on shuffle. But that shame is important, a thing that should appear on occasion — rare occasion, most likely, the once-in-a-blue-moon of you feeling the urge to listen to a Cure record that you forget exists until actively reminded — in order to keep you from acting that way again.
So we were not friends, and I regret how I behaved toward her for most of high school. But that one night, on New Year’s Eve, we were close — not like that — because we’d had mutual crushes on other people, and those two people started dating that night. It was high school stuff, obviously, but she and I went off to sulk together, a little bit of genuine time. We talked about The Cure, and this album, and this song, and she talked about how much she liked that Robert Smith sang her name in any context. I’ll never try to talk to her again, of course, but if she ever does think back to the people who were mean to her in high school, and she remembers me, I’d like to think that maybe the hour or two when we were on the same side comes up, too.
Oh, but there were other things. The year that followed that New Year’s party, I lost all of my friends. I mean, I didn’t lose them — I knew where they were — but they all started doing drugs, and I didn’t want to, and I left that group of people. It was hard, but I ended up landing with a group of dudes who I worked with at a pizza place. They didn’t listen to bands like The Cure, which probably also helped me distance myself from the part of myself that loved this band, this album. These were not good people, certainly not back then at that age, and there are no songs on Wild Mood Swings that remind me of them. But we did all go out one night and throw a brick through the window of one person’s car that was parked at the house where my previous group of friends hung out; a couple of weeks later, we went to that girl’s house whose name is sung in “Club America” and threw paint all over her driveway.
They didn’t do drugs, though, so I would go with them when I was invited, which was not every time. We’d play poker after work sometimes, too, and they’d hatch these plans. If someone from the group wasn’t there, everyone would talk about the things they didn’t like about that guy, and I would try to pretend that I didn’t know think about what they said about me when I wasn’t there.
Just so you know, boys do those things, too.
I gave up, eventually, and found better friends. It all seems like it lasted forever, in the way that high school does for everyone, but now that I know how short it all lasted, it’s funny to think about. I didn’t listen to Wild Mood Swings much in the years that followed. But then there was “Jupiter Crash,” which I was reminded of by a girl when I was 21.
It’s funny, because she loved that song, which was five years old and from a mostly-forgotten Cure album at that point, and I’d forgotten it except that our story reminded me of a different song on the album, one that I heard last night as I sat on the couch listening to the copy of Galore that I picked up for $20 at the record show. That song was called “Strange Attraction,” and it was a single, maybe a mild hit somewhere in the world.
Five years after Wild Mood Swings came out and the girl whose name is sung in “Club America” and I spent an hour or two being kind to one another, I had experienced a bad breakup and then was shocked to meet someone else. It happened online, the way that things sometimes do, and she found a LiveJournal that I’d kept back then. The way she flirted with me online made me feel special after a breakup that was fairly devastating at the time, and after a few weeks, she made the hour-long drive to visit me for an evening.
It didn’t go well, and the song “Strange Attraction” popped immediately into my head, even though I’d not listened to it in years. That song is about a woman who romances the singer through letters and cards and notes in the mail, winning him over until he agrees to meet her. Once they do, it all ends immediately. He hears nothing from her for months, before she informs him that “it seems reality destroys our dreams, I’m sorry.”
The morning after the girl who drove to visit my had come, her LiveJournal quoted “Jupiter Crash”: was that it? was that the jupiter show? it kind of wasn’t quite what i’d hoped for, you know.
The coincidence — of her quoting from a song on an album I hadn’t thought of in years, which had a different song that summarized my experience of what had happened — seemed striking at the time, because coincidences like that always do. But “Strange Attraction” actually made me feel a lot better.
Because it couldn’t have just been me, and my fault, and my awkwardness, if it had happened to Robert Smith. It wasn’t pathetic of me to be so taken with a relative Internet stranger if he’d had a similar experience that had moved him to write a song about it. It didn’t mean that this, my first time believing that I’d find someone else since the breakup, was my last hope, because these are all just stories, all just songs for someone else to sing. I’d never cared for “Strange Attraction” before, because of how weirdly specific it was, but years later, that made it so reassuring.
And these are just stories, just the things that sit around in the weird parts of your brain, the tiny bits of personal history that are easy to forget. The time that a girl I’d been cruel to for no reason became my friend for a few hours; the reason why I shouldn’t have tried to assuage my guilt years later by offering a lazy apology she had no reason to accept; the shitty friends I’d made and the shitty things we’d done; the way songs reappear in your life and sound very differently because of the context of them; all of these things get lost so easily, because who has time to dwell on them? They are the past.
But sometimes. When I hear songs I haven’t heard in a very long time, which are still so easy to tie to those parts of the past that could otherwise be lost forever, because they haven’t been re-used or revisited or re-imprinted with memories from all of the things that happened since, they come back. And it’s nice when they do.
I don’t know if I’ll be listening to side four of that copy of Galore very often. It’s probably better that way.