Ana Ng and I Are Getting Old
228 · 10 June 99
A Reunion Soundtrack
It's my ten-year college reunion this weekend. My class was big enough, and I was anti-social enough when I was part of it, that I basically expect to spend the event stumbling around muttering "Who are all these people?" to myself, and occasionally running into somebody who lived next door to me freshman year, about whom all I can remember is that they seemed to become increasingly or decreasingly attractive according to a then-mysterious algorithm that I now realize was mainly a function of how much sleep I'd been deprived of. I'm resigned to this. I'll remember a few people, and I probably never even met the rest of them. Either way, if they haven't been on my mind very often, over the past decade, then it can't matter too much whether I remember their names now. At any rate, the people I meet at the reunion are not likely to change my memory of my college experience materially. Except for the few I've kept in touch with, our lives together took place a long time ago, and if they (and I) seem different now, I'll just assume we've changed.
Billy Bragg: "A New England"
I grew up in Texas, then I came to Cambridge to go to Harvard, and here I still am. The first two records I bought in Cambridge, literally the first day I spent here, were Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy and Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, both of which I'd been searching for in Dallas for months, without success, and I think I knew, by the end of that first day, that I'd found my proper home. Many of the songs I cherish most, even some of the ones I've written myself, are ones that form compelling arguments for things I don't believe. My best theory for this phenomenon is that I measure my real beliefs against the most attractive avatars of their opposites, although I imagine anybody who bothered with a semester of psychology, which I didn't, could offer a less appealing explanation. "A New England"'s key refrain goes "I'm not trying to change the world, / I'm not looking for a new England, / I'm just looking for another girl", and I used to sing it to myself in the frequent interludes between romantic candidates, but of course the horribly presumptuous truth is that I do want to change the world, that I'd actually rather change the world than find a new girl, if that was the choice, which is why, although I haven't done either, I focus so much more effort on the former than the latter. Bragg is an activist masquerading as a romantic, too (or is it vice versa? I always forget), so I've come to think of this song as a joke he and I share. "Scholarship is the enemy of romance", goes another of his songs. For the girl I'm looking for, they're synonymous.
Kate Bush: "Running Up That Hill" / Pet Shop Boys: "West End Girls"
Scholarship and romance intermingle in my memories, too, and so many of my memories of college are also memories of girls I knew ("Women", several of them would have interjected, testily, but in these recollections I am always a boy to myself, so the women are always girls). These two songs will forever be my soundtrack for S., my freshman-year girlfriend, the first because brainwashing her to love Kate turned out to be the seed of my fanatical devotion to Kate (the musical relationship lasted, the personal one didn't), the second because the Pet Shop Boys were S.'s favorite musical diatribe, in a way her correlate to my experience with Billy Bragg, only in this case she'd discovered them before they became popular, and then had to endure their subsequent overexposure. The two songs share a certain methodical diffidence, despite nominal dance-worthiness, such that while we were going out, hearing either one at a drunken, pointless party would remind me, smugly, that our relationship was based on a deeper connection than all this gyrating. Predictably, the relationship lasted no more than a couple months, while the gyrating is presumably still going on today. I recast the songs as anthems of noble loneliness, for which I have more use anyway.
The Neighborhoods: "WUSA"
The other signature anthem of my freshman year was the Neighborhoods' pounding, uncluttered "WUSA", which might well have been ironic in some way, but I never studied it closely enough to find out how. I loved it mindlessly, shouting along with "You're tuned to WUSA!" like I was doing my part for the War Effort. The song drove one of my roommates nearly crazy, although oddly, that's the roommate who stayed with me for our sophomore and junior years. My second freshman roommate, a kind, gentle boy from Argentina who had signed up to come to Harvard under the misapprehension that it was ensconced in some bucolic, secluded valley, was driven crazy, generically, by what seemed to him to be an undifferentiated blur of 4/4 rock songs, which he referred to as "chiga-chiga music" (he once begged me to put on something other than chiga-chiga music, to which entreaty I responded, having not yet understood what he meant, with Black Sabbath's squarely chiga-chiga "Turn Up the Night"). My third roommate, a malevolent grinning idiot the rest of us despised, showed no sensitivity to music at all, and owned exactly one cassette, which he put on only when he wanted the girl he was with to have sex with him, which is why, to this day, I cannot listen to Andreas Vollenweider without feeling ill.
Scruffy the Cat: "Land of 1000 Girls"
Scruffy the Cat were the second Boston band I got to know, this time in somewhat excruciating detail, as my sophomore filmmaking class assembled a group documentary on them. We watched This Is Spinal Tap several times before starting the project, to avoid duplicating its ludicrous excesses in our extremely serious documentary, but in the end the lives of the band members were not nearly picaresque enough for the sobriety of our film to be in any danger. I don't think we began the project under an illusion that the lives of minor local rock stars were going to be bracingly glamorous, but we weren't prepared for quite as much quiet pathos as we got, either. We ended up calling the film "Take Me Away", after the chorus of "Land of 1000 Girls" ("Take me away / To the land of 1000 Girls", and the way Charlie Chesterman would sing it, the second line trailing off as if all he really cared about was escape, it seemed like World of Discount Coats would have been an equally acceptable destination), and the one section of it I think we got right was the exit montage we put together for the song to play over, brief moments from the members' daily lives, unremarkable individually but cumulatively affecting, which I guess is how moments, and lives, usually are.
Jane Siberry: "The Taxi Ride"
My own sad anthems, on the other hand, are never anthems of escape. The one my sophomore year hinged on, especially the frayed conclusion of the Spring semester, after I broke both wrists during the final night of editing the Scruffy the Cat film and had to dictate all my exam essays, was Jane Siberry's ethereal "The Taxi Ride", one of the definitive songs to play at five in the morning, in my book. "I've called a taxi", she explains, "It's coming at dawn. / I said send the best one; / It's a long, long, lonely ride / To find the perfect lover / For your lover." I've never been in this situation (I've only broken up with two people in my whole life, and the closest I came to finding either one a replacement was helping the second one find a condo so she could move out of our apartment), but it's unmistakably my sort of predicament, or at least the kind of predicament I like to think I'm susceptible to, taking on a thankless task no reasonable person would ever ask you to do, out of an exaggerated sense of loyalty or moral symmetry. I suspect I'd rather be poignant than content, which may be part of why nobody's ever taken it upon themselves to ride around the city in a taxi at dawn trying to find me a new lover.
The Icicle Works: "Understanding Jane" / Jon Astley: "Jane's Getting Serious"
The grand romances of my middle college years were almost all grimly unrequited, the longest-running one being my pursuit (in the sense that the Pacific Ocean "pursues" California, by patiently ebbing back and forth in the state's vicinity, in the vague hope that it will spontaneously collapse into the ocean's embrace) of a spooky, enthralling girl named Jane (which is an adequately anonymous first name, luckily, as this anecdote wouldn't make any sense if I called her J.). These two songs arrived just in time to spare me from having to buy a Jefferson Starship record, and they both appealed to me, like "A New England", because whatever problems my crush on her demonstrated, at least these weren't two of them. I understood her just fine, and she wasn't, sadly, at all interested in getting serious.
Meat Puppets: "Paradise"
Junior year my social circle revolved around a group of seniors (part of why I don't remember more people from my own class, obviously), whose common room, despite being dominated by a couch so dilapidated that nobody would sit on it unless the lights were off, became, most nights, a sort of over-analyzers' dream salon, in which you could not hope to participate until you learned to use the terms "reify", "varietal aesthetics" and "co-opted by the system" with assurance, and realized that the Frankfurt School wasn't a fencing academy. I've stopped thinking about reification much (although this is probably because I design software for a living, which means, just to show you I can still do this if I have to, that I don't need to reify reification because my profession is actually based on routine reification), but varietal aesthetics (an abstruse way of saying "being yourself") and system co-opting (one of my relatives just sent me an old "local boy visits exotic lands" clipping she unearthed, for which my Texas hometown paper called me up at Harvard and interviewed me, in which I am quoted as saying that I couldn't see myself ever having a "nine-to-five-type" job) are central concepts in my philosophy. Background music for this ongoing debate was usually provided by a radio geek from the room next door, the erratic boyfriend of one of the hostesses, and as I remember it, it consisted mainly of music whose style I didn't even recognize, much less their names, although probably none of it was really any more obscure or obtuse than the Meat Puppets, whose twangy, bleating "Paradise" is now enough to conjure up the entire scene in my mind like I'm peering at it through a View Master.
The Three O'Clock: "Her Head's Revolving"
The only specific argument from this series that I remember in toto was one about the role of politics in rock music, in which J. (one of the three women who lived there, but not the one I wanted to go out with, and not the one I should have wanted to go out with) advanced the position that art should always, and only, be judged on its political content, which I countered with the contention that although art with actively offensive politics could be dismissed on combined political and aesthetic grounds, art with no political inclinations of any kind could still be appreciated for purely aesthetic reasons. That is, for J. aesthetics was a product of politics, where for me the two were mutually reinforcing, but separable. I don't think I was ever going to sway her, but it occurs to me, looking back, that maybe somewhere in the vast history of art there's a better example for my case than the Three O'Clock's surging "Her Head's Revolving", a resolutely inane song that I still quite like, but which sounds something like heavy metal performed by ceramic dolls, an under-appreciated style that may have confused my point.
The Bears: "Fear Is Never Boring" / Hüsker Dü: "Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope"
The last crush from my junior year (actually, there was one more, but the only musical association I have with her is that she was friends with the members of Squirrel Bait, who I never liked) was an intensely brilliant but equally self-destructive girl named V., whose personality aberrations mostly weren't the ones in the Bears' springy "Fear Is Never Boring", but the song's sense of pervasive menace fit the girl well. Her grounds for turning me down were, and I don't recall her exact words but they were in no way euphemistic, that she was a bad person and would make me unhappy, which in fact may have been true, but she liked Game Theory, which would endear anybody to me, and I did manage to drag her along to see Hüsker Dü on their Warehouse tour. The cauterizing effect of two hours of Bob Mould's searing guitar noise did not, sadly, prove sufficient to close her wounds.
The Chameleons: "Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In)" / The Lucy Show: "New Message"
Somewhere around this time I quit my menial part-time job as an unarmed security guard, and took a new one teaching SAT prep classes to spoiled suburban high school kids, a change whose two cardinal virtues were that I no longer had to wear brown polyester pants and a clip-on tie (so that you can get away from an assailant who grabs it, the dispatcher explained in apparent seriousness), and that the pay was significantly better. Increases in my discretionary income always mean increases in my record buying, and if records were narcotic, I think this is when we'd say my problem started. The first two signs of dangerous mania were buying an import copy of the Chameleons' What Does Anything Mean? Basically on no other basis than that the song title "Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In)" sounded cool, for a then-exorbitant twelve dollars (at the time the most money I'd ever spent on a single record; surprisingly, ten years and an enormous amount of money later, my single-record high is only up to fifty, spent for an original LP copy of Tori Amos' early record Y Kant Tori Read), and liking a brand new song I heard playing in the record store, asking what it was, and being told it was "New Message", by the Lucy Show, which I already owned.
The Housemartins: "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death" / Hunters & Collectors: "Do You See What I See?"
Near the end of my junior year, it dawned on me that my education and my patience for being educated were running an extremely close race. I could no longer stand lectures, I was beginning to resent being asked to read books I wasn't planning on reading already, and I insisted on working something I actually cared about into any assignment I was given. I have a feeling this made my papers better literature, and perhaps even better scholarship, but it didn't improve my grades. One of my such first tours de force was a paper about internally-consistent moral systems called "Why I Like Cary Grant Better Than Kant", in which I claimed to refute, using a combination of Nietzsche and The Philadelphia Story, the complete moral systems of Kant, Hume and Aristotle. My TA threatened to flunk this, and I don't remember why he didn't, but I do remember feeling strangely vindicated when I later ran across a passage in Also Sprach Zarathustra that almost exactly matched the text of the Housemartins' song "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death", as if one convergence between popular art and academic philosophy ratified all the others. The most ambitious follies, though, were invariably the projects I did for Professor Stilgoe, who must have encouraged it somehow. By far the most ungainly was a multi-media critique of social infrastructure which I remember opened with an aesthetic tirade against the use of the color yellow for street markings, and went on to implicate suburban complacency, via somewhat out-of-context quotes from a large number of rock songs that deserved better, one of which effectively accused Hunters & Collectors' redemptive "Do You See What I See?" of virulently hypocritical resignation. That no longer seems quite right, but if you're going to look back on your crazy ideas, I think the crazier they were the better.
The second semester of my junior year was not a peaceful few months. It got to the point where I had so much work to do that I would regularly wake up screaming, as if I'd fallen asleep only by accident and was now six hours late for something critical. It shouldn't be that surprising, then, that I empathized with the Pixies' frenetic Surfer Rosa so strongly. I remember sprinting back and forth between my room and the Harvard Lampoon, over and over again because the two were directly across the street from one another, scrawling a running journal in the Lampoon's message book of how awesome each song on the album was, and how superfluous the record rendered everything else in popular music. I don't listen to the album too often any more, because it reminds me of that manic state much too vividly, but it's immensely reassuring, when I feel harried now, to put it on and remind myself what dementia was really like.
Pat Benatar: "Sex as a Weapon" / T'Pau: "Sex Talk" / Vigil: "The Celiba Sea" / Cyndi Lauper: "The Faraway Nearby" / Guns 'N' Roses: "Sweet Child O' Mine"
I did make a few real dance-tapes during college, for use at Lampoon parties. I was bad at it for several reasons, one being a tendency to include songs scolding party-goers for behavior I didn't approve of, which encompassed quite a lot. My judgmental masterpiece was probably the Benatar/T'Pau/Vigil anti-sex triptych, deployed at a party attended by a large contingent of Wellesley sorority girls, whose punch line, the labored puns of Vigil's track, was underscored by the fact that "The Celiba Sea" is almost wholly undanceable. The second reason I was bad at dance tapes is that I insisted on including songs I liked myself, which had the right structure to be danced to, but which nobody but me knew, which misses the point that dancing is more psycho-social than bio-chemical. Cyndi's bouncy "The Faraway Nearby" was among the more well-intentioned of these experiments, but nobody ever gave it a chance. The only reliably successful characteristic of my dance tapes was that they always included "Sweet Child O' Mine" at the right time for a communal air-guitar break.
The Adventures: "Drowning in the Sea of Love"
After a lot of unreturned crushes, my sophomore and junior years, my senior year some friends broke down and recruited me a new girlfriend, an adorable sophomore I ended up going out with for nearly two years. My favorite astoundingly dumb romantic gesture from this relationship, as she was leaving my room one dizzy morning early on, was bolting over to the stereo, putting on this Adventures record, and cranking the volume way up, so that just as she passed under my window, on the way back to her own dorm, the opening a cappella "I'm drowning in the sea of love!" poured down on her embarrassed head.
They Might Be Giants: "Ana Ng"
As love songs go, though, "Drowning in the Sea of Love" is pretty blunt. My favorite love song of all time, and the #1 song and opening track on the #1 album from my top-ten lists for 1988 (the first year I compiled them, and my last full calendar year in college), is "Ana Ng", They Might Be Giants' convoluted elegy to a perfect soulmate you've never met. I think they meant it sardonically, as in "Yes, your perfect complement exists, but statistically, you'll probably never meet them", but I persist in thinking that the song, itself, might defy the odds and bring them together, and thus that singing it is not a statistician's pessimism but a devout romantic's inextinguishable hope.
Game Theory: "Throwing the Election"
With hope comes waiting, though, and one of my favorite songs for the wait, also from my 1988 top-ten list, is Scott Miller's ardent plea "Throwing the Election". Its final line, " I've got a feeling the votes are in and I got none, / And all I want is one", can be a prayer for either companionship or self-respect, I think, and it seems to me that the great secret of epic melancholy and perhaps all sad pop music is that romance and self-respect can each be so easily be converted into the other. If you don't understand yourself, you aren't ready for a substantial relationship; but if you're comfortable with yourself, you'll be patient in the search for others. And if you can think of a hole in that theory, I don't want to know about it.
'til tuesday: "Coming Up Close"
And since reunions are restarts, my imaginary reunion soundtrack can end only one way, with the song I played, ceremonially, every time I returned to school from breaks away. Freshman year, my living environment was effectively only a desk in the corner of our common room, my computer and my stereo sitting on it, a box of records holding up each speaker, one drawer full of school work and the other full of letters from friends, but Aimee Mann's voice, singing "Everything sounds like 'Welcome Home'", was enough to make that all the space and community I needed. Fourteen years later, and a mile or two across town, I have real walls around me, and I've now lived in this city longer than any other. I shouldn't need these songs any more, shouldn't need to fixate on women who wouldn't inhabit my images of them, or once-close friends who have scattered, or dead philosophers or dead movie stars. So many songs, since then, and so many years; these old ones should have no power left, or the years they represent should be lost and irrelevant. But put these songs on again, and they still do everything they ever did. I've forgotten a lot of names, but I remember all the questions I thought were important, and every old note still asks one, and I still want answers. It seems to me, as "Coming Up Close" plays again, perhaps this time welcoming everybody else back to Cambridge, since I no longer have to leave home myself, that the answers may be fifteen years long, or twenty or seventy, spread across time, not space. Maybe we can't solve our problems by racing forward, we have to expand our field of vision until suddenly we see the edges of something we've been staring at all along. We have reunions, and play old records, because our world shrinks a little with every thing we forget.