I Write in My Diary Only What I Want You to Read
192 · 1 October 98
Juliana Hatfield: Bed
If we marry, it will be remarkable, but for none of the simple reasons, I fear, that it should. The story does have its share of timeless qualities. We met at a party, a concert actually, when I was in college. I thought you were striking, even alluring, appealing in a delicate combination of evident strength and apparent frailty, but there weren't instant sparks. I walked away, might have left early in fact. That could have been our closest encounter. But we lived in the same city, and our circles intersected. Some of my friends kept track of you. My senior roommate's girlfriend's brother was in a band with one of your best friends. Once or twice, when we crossed paths, I saw something sparkle in one of your eyes, something that made me wonder, and perhaps should have made me act. But I didn't know you well enough, or I was afraid of something, or I distrusted anything I wasn't afraid of, so I never said a word. Over time, with nothing to draw us closer, and statistics asserting the improbability that we were moving in exact parallel, of course we drifted further apart. What few things I heard about you, every year or two, were distributed evenly among admirable nostalgia for what might once have been our shared world, discouraging hints at how much distance our divergent paths had so quickly put between us, and the kind of details you only nod at, without having enough context to judge what their significance might be. I don't think I would ever have forgotten you, but eventually I might well have resented you, turned you into a symbol of wrong choices, however subtle. But before you could retreat beyond retrieval, you did a set of small, surprising good things, perhaps great things, not for me, which would have been too easy, but for a friend, or half for a friend and half for her mother, touched their lives, together and apart, and so changed mine, indirectly, and I'm sure without meaning to. For a day or two, when they needed an angel, you were an angel, and I could never look over your head, after that, without seeing the trace of a halo blurring across the background against which you moved. But although that changed the way I saw you, and reestablished nominal contact, it wasn't what drew us together. "Thank you for guiding my friend's mother out of a panic; would you like to go out with me?" is perhaps, in the grand scheme of pick-up lines, underrated, but it's one I was never unselfconscious enough to deliver (and it's at least two pages too concise). What this transcendent gesture did accomplish, though, was get me close enough to you, and receptive enough, to pay attention, which it's hard to claim I really had, before. And whether it was destiny or merely timing, our resulting conversation turned out to be the one we both most desperately needed. We didn't have answers for each other, and we weren't necessarily asking the same questions, but our disparate questions were expressions of the same anger and confusion, and the answers they demanded, were they to exist, would address the same elemental doubts. And that is the structure of my idea of fairy-tale romance. It is low on glass slippers, and wouldn't gross much as a movie, but if you build your real world like a movie, it goes all black at the very best parts. Where the movie says "And they lived happily ever after", my version says "Now we can begin the investigation in earnest". I'm not sure how your version goes, word for word, but your eyes suggest that it shares sense. It will take us a while to find out. If we marry, it will be because in examining each other's dreams we each discover that part of our own has been missing.
But before we can marry, before we can even have the first dinner conversation to supplement profound, but abstract, philosophical resonance with tangible details like whether your parents are still married and what you were doing when you heard that Kurt had shot himself, before we can find out the first digit of the calculation to determine if we are compatible, we have to overcome one logistical obstacle. Only one, but it towers over us, between us, tall enough to cast shadows in both directions at once. You see, according to most measures, none of this story, none of the slow drift-apart-and-unexpectedly-rediscover tale that I would cherish retelling for the rest of our lives, no matter how much it bored other people, none of it counts. The rules require reciprocity, and this is all one-sided. You don't even know me, and so whatever I've come to feel for you, by definition, however deeply I seem to feel it, cannot be real. The concert where I first saw you, in a college dining hall, no more than a dozen people gathered around a trio without even a stage to stand on, was your concert, when you were still with the Blake Babies. This must have been after Nicely, Nicely, your first record, but before Earwig. I don't believe I introduced myself. It's true that one of my roommates, later, went out with the younger sister of then-Lemonheads-bassist Jesse Peretz, who took the photographs of you on Hey Babe, but you can probably connect half of the total strangers in the universe to each other without needing more links than that. Whatever status you had in my life, beyond looking adorable in torn jeans, you owe to the presence of the songs "Cesspool" and "Lament", from Earwig, on a mix tape that my girlfriend, when I got one, played daily through a long Cambridge winter. Each Blake Babies album after that I liked less than the one before, I think because you sounded progressively less frayed, and your solo albums continued the trend. After a while I stopped buying them.
But then you changed the life of one of my dearest friends. This not only doesn't count, it's three generations removed from counting: The friend I mean, My So-Called Life protagonist Angela Chase, is a fictional character, and naturally a fictional character can't be a real friend; you didn't help her because you cared or knew anything, either, you were just a guest star on one episode, appearing as an exhausted guitar-playing angel who imparts a useful Christmas lesson; and most obviously, the impact the things you didn't do had on me didn't change the fact that you still didn't know me. But the longer it becomes since I saw Angela, the more intently I try to invest the few living legacies of the show with her spirit, and your new album, Bed, came out during a temporary drought in stray Wilson Cruz and Devon Gummersall cameos, so I bought it in a fit of need, hoping it might somehow remind me of the song you sang in that episode, and thus of how we learn to recognize love in each of its disguises.
And it's only here, as I listen to Bed, expecting little more than a jolt of wistful association, that the plaintive, hopeless crush I've developed on you suddenly explodes into evidence. This is a significantly barer and more aggressive record than your other solo albums, and one whose appeal is thus more akin to the Blake Babies', at least superficially. Your passionate unsteadiness on the early records is what I liked best about them, so the sound of this record is probably enough for me to like it, but it can't explain the magnitude of my manic fascination, and can't explain why I reach the end of it consumed with the feverish desire to spend twelve hours pacing the banks of the Charles with you, or sitting in the Trident Café with one shin leaning against your calf, arguing about whether different members of the Spice Girls require different amounts of irony to appreciate, or whether it's insane to live in a city this cold, or whether my insistence that smoking equals suicide plus procrastination is a fundamental failure of compassion or not. I spend a frightening amount of time and energy learning to love records, hundreds of them a year, and virtually never react this way. I adore Tori Amos' new album, and Liz Phair's, and feel strong emotional bonds to them as artists, but not much attachment to them as people. If I somehow found out their home phone numbers I might memorize them for the novelty of it, but I'd never think of using them. If I found out yours, on the other hand, I suspect I'd spend forty-eight hours standing motionlessly in the middle of my living room with my cordless phone in my hand, trying to think what words I could say, were you to answer, that would have any infinitesimal hope of not sounding deranged. This is crazy and pathetic, patently. Never mind that you don't know me, I don't know you, either, not on any verifiable level. You could be married, attached, gay, you could have moved to New York two months ago, you could be repulsed by people whose thumbs bend backwards, you could be in rehab, you could be unbearable. I don't tend to read articles about musicians' private lives, so about all I know about yours is that we were both older than the average when we lost our virginities. You tell a lot of stories in these songs, but there's no reason to assume the people in the songs are you, or that the stories are yours. I've got seven Kate Bush albums I must have played a thousand times each, and I don't feel like I know the first thing about her.
But your songs don't sound like hers. Kate always sounds like a storyteller changing characters like costumes, but you sound like you've lived every word you sing. I know it's wrong to draw conclusions, but at least tonight I can't seem to stop myself. I set aside, for forty-one minutes, everything I learned in high school English about separating the author from the narrator, and allow myself to believe that there is no level of indirection here. And if this is what you meant me to do, then I do know things about you, after all. I know, from the churning "Down on Me", how weary it makes you to be around glib, impervious, perpetually polarized people, how alien their sunny, indifferent equilibrium feels. I know, from the halting, muttered, mesmerizing "I Want to Want You", like a Cheap Trick anthem with every streak of machismo sandblasted off, the lonely pain of finally accepting that you can't be happy with anybody who isn't essentially haunted. The growling, furious "Swan Song" not only tells me your concept of revenge, far more harrowing than Alanis' in "You Oughta Know", but also demonstrates how little emotional distance rock-and-roll turbulence affords. "Sneaking Around", which reminds me at once of Rush and Stevie Nicks, as if either ever had a low-fi period, is an admission that a dishonest relationship is untenable to you, even if it's only dishonest in the other direction. The daunting lullaby "Backseat" says how little you ask for from the world, your variation on Uma Thurman's "Good night, sweet girl" from Beautiful Girls, and how close to expiration you are without it. I don't know who "Live It Up" is addressed to (maybe the best rock song you've written, I think, and one that exposes everything that I personally dislike about the MOR pseudo-alternative mush that this week, to me, Semisonic seems like the embodiment of), but "Hold on to your jewels, / You can hock them later" is a kiss-off I'll cherish. I spot the crack ("Are we going to kiss on the mouth / Like I read about?") that betrays the ego basking of "You Are the Camera". I hear, when you qualify "You're too young to die in a double suicide" with "with the wrong guy", in the beautiful, Elliott Smith-ish "Running Out", that you understood Angela's magic, after all, and don't shy away from the dangerous truth that we can commit to bad ideas so whole-heartedly, and maybe not only when we're young, that the strength of our belief can make them worth dying for. "Bad Day" is the quiet, fervent hope that somebody will wait out your vilest nihilist moods, and remind you why they're worth returning from. And the lilting, expansive "Let's Blow It All", although it seems unlikely that you'd have heard Liz's whitechocolatespaceegg before writing it and deciding to put it last, seems to me like an inspired response to her "Shitloads of Money", proof that there is an earnest alternative to her semi-ironic greed. Even the music itself seems dense with confessions, to me. The opening feedback squall is half warning and half apology, somewhere between clearing your throat and clearing the room. The constant vocal doubling, like you don't trust yourself to sing anything loudly enough with only two lungs, gives the music a systemic hesitancy that matches the lyric uncertainties. The mislaid drumbeat that ends the album, sliced off like you were about to do another song but then abruptly thought better of it, is a fitting non-resolution for a record that isn't intended to resolve anything.
Which leaves, unanswered, the question of what this album is supposed to do. Not that it has to do anything. If you lived in Budapest, and all this album's syllables were only notes to me, I'd still love it. Not only are these your most vibrant, intimate songs, it seems to me, proof that intimacy and volume are not necessarily linked, but I think that this record, gripping and propulsive without being stentorian, is also a welcome reminder that there's a feminine rock-and-roll tradition, which you share with other Boston bands like the Breeders, Belly and Salem 66, that is distinct from the masculine one, and which retains its viability no matter how many people like Hole, Sleater-Kinney and PJ Harvey attempt to redraw borders elsewhere. You've made a wonderful, dangerous, bleak, enchanting album. Possibly I should leave it at that. But I'm not going to. For a night, at least, a little rain rustling through the leaves of the tree outside the window of my study, the first temperature-drops of New England autumn belatedly limbering up, I'm going to let myself think this album has a specific, literal purpose, which is that it's supposed to reach me. I'm going to pretend there is a sense in which Bed is meant, as in a sense is this column I write, as a complicated personal ad, a painstaking attempt to represent yourself in a way that a person to whom you would be attracted, and only such a person, would find irresistible. "How hard can it be to speak clearly?", you ask, in "Backseat". It can be very hard. Of all the things your words could say, after all, only one of them is what you mean; it's the easiest thing in the world to let a sentence slip into its own nature, and express, elegantly, something else. And, for all I know, that's happened in these songs; and, for all you know, it's happening in these sentences, too. But just pause, for a second, and imagine, what if it isn't? What if you and I are meant for each other? Some two people must be, so why not us? You're daunting, but I want to be daunted a little. We take enormous chances when we reveal our weaknesses in public, even more so our strengths, and the dividing line between admirer and stalker can be thin, but what is public art but a net cast into the void to try to snare kindred souls? After enough nets cast, returned empty, what do you do if you catch something? Issue it a restraining order? If that's the only option, then what did we think we wanted? If I met a woman at a party, and learned about her all the things this album tells me about you, I would ask her out. If she liked what she'd learned about me at the same time, presumably she'd accept. The problem is that I've spent the last three years, single, not meeting people like this at parties, and then going home and hearing their voices in my speakers, or reading their dreams in their books. I keep dismissing them, but it's finally occurred to me to wonder if that's correct. The process is more cumbersome at a creative remove, but if letters used to be fast enough, even carried across oceans in boats, then the slow conversation of art should be easily as responsive as we need.
Whether it would work or not is another question. I'm sure you could learn as much about me from 191 weeks of nominal music reviews as I've learned from your records (I write songs, too, but they're very bad, so we'll save them for later in the relationship), but I have no way of guessing whether you'd like it. In person we might drive each other crazy, or more disappointing still, just go nowhere. But then again, we might be perfect. Our first date might last a week and a half, oscillating back and forth across the city to keep our houses from getting lonely, and so I can call in sick from my home number, since my employer has caller ID. We'll drive to Connecticut and surprise my parents on a Saturday morning, despite having not slept since Wednesday, and collapse in the middle of what was supposed to be a game of Trivial Pursuit. We'll pick the first suburb neither of us can remember the direction to, and attempt to enroll a fictitious daughter in its elementary school. We'll buy back all the promo copies of your records that gutless DJs dumped in used-CD stores, and bribe Harvard Square skate-punks to try to sell them to Japanese tourists. I'll convince you that Carrot Cake can be an ice cream flavor, and you'll teach me to enjoy tapas restaurants. Twenty-four hours are a lot, if you use them all. The sparkle I saw in your eye could have been illusory, but I didn't make it up. You won't know what you see in mine until you look. And how we meet is only a beginning, anyway. If we marry, it won't be, no matter how insufferable we become from telling the story this way, because I loved your record and you loved my review (not least because I haven't really written one, at least not yet), it will be because of a thousand other things that words fired into the void could never anticipate. It will be because we were desperately lonely, but all our other friends were already taken, and the idea of trying to cram our souls into fifty-word classified ads seemed self-defeating. It will be because we were both looking for someone who didn't know what they wanted from their lives yet, but who couldn't think of any prouder way to describe themselves than sharing their notes so far. It will be remarkable, not for any of the simple reasons that make Romeo and Juliet and Griffin and Sabine variations on the same story, but because the spaces between Romeo and Juliet, and between Griffin and Sabine, are well lit, and the spaces between you and I are dark. And no matter how often we howl at it, we're not used to the dark howling back.