There's an especially engaging essay entitled "I'm Just A Love Machine" in comedian Bob Smith's new Way to Go, Smith! (Rob Weisbach Books). The essay reevaluates friends' high school yearbook inscriptions, and Smith professes amazement at how much forgotten information is contained therein.
As a writer who constantly recycles his adolescence, I'm conscious of a tendency to present a heavily edited, flattering image, crafted through years of prose. So what sublimations might a document from 1985, my senior year, reveal?
In pursuit of such a touchstone, I excavated treasured mix tapes from teenage pals. But uniformly, they seemed to disclose more about the folks who'd made them than about me. So instead, I e-mailed Paul, my childhood best friend (if grown-ups can use such superlatives), asking if he'd retained any cassettes I'd cobbled together for him way back when.
He soon shot back track listings for anthologies with names like Difficult Music, more music occasionally of an avant garde nature but sometimes just a little offbeat no hardcore (of which he noted "the vibe on this one is like being abducted by aliens or drowning. . . ."), and Art Trash Youth Anthems. But the one that seized my attention was the less pretentiously entitled Assorted Pleasantries. Among other songs, it includes:
*"A Town Called Malice" and "English Rose" by the Jam. The former recalls that in the early '80s, MTV not only still played videos, but worthwhile ones that reached remote suburbs. The latter, meanwhile, confirms that my first boyfriend's efforts to convince me Paul Weller had more than one good tune in him had sunk in . . . two years after our break-up.
*"Pills and Soap" by Elvis Costello. Taken from 1983's Punch the Clock, an album my friends and I checked out of my hometown public library; other influential titles we discovered going untouched in the stacks—and eventually stole for our own permanent collections—included Patti Smith's Horses, Lou Reed's The Blue Mask, and Sylvia Plath Reading Her Own Poetry. No, we weren't a cheery bunch. But I hadn't forgotten that.
*"Hero Takes A Fall" by the Bangles. Did I honestly like the Bangles? Apparently so. Probably because a) they were worlds better before doe-eyed Susanna Hoffs seized center stage, and b) three years after the fact, I was still smarting from my first broken heart, courtesy of a cute, conniving, and ultimately cruel new boy in town. To this day, "Hero Takes a Fall" makes me smile at the realization he's probably long dead from a drug overdose.
*"Sleepless" by King Crimson. Since Walkman headphones were all but surgically sewn to our ears, cassettes were the preferred medium in my circle. Recognizing this trend, Warner Bros. Records issued Survival Sampler, a tape-only compilation featuring bands essential to our identities (the Cure, Depeche Mode) sandwiched with new ones we promptly added to the canon (the Smiths, Scritti Politti). Though I wouldn't fully appreciate Robert Fripp till summer of 1985 (when someone played Discipline's "Matte Kudasai" as I floated, stoned, in a swimming pool under a starry sky), this was my introduction to King Crimson.
*"One Day in Paris" by Martha and the Muffins. Bargain bins prompted us to gamble with our limited incomes. 1981's This Is the Ice Age, by the Canadian outfit responsible for "Echo Beach," was one such purchase. I imagined Europe as a safe haven where my earrings and David Bowie T-shirts wouldn't provoke the ire of passing jocks. Lacking the initiative to actually make such a trip, I opted instead to play this bittersweet paean to the City of Lights daily as I trudged between classes.
*"Tattoo" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Junior year I'd landed a job at a local video store. Not only were they amused by my towering Howard Jones hairdo, they paid the unthinkable wage of five bucks an hour! Now shelling out four dollars for an import 45 didn't seem the least bit frivolous (even though I should've been socking away clams for college). This 1983 "Dear Prudence" B-side, which Tricky covered to great effect for his Nearly God album, remains a favorite.
But what does it all mean? "With most of these tracks I don't think you were trying to say where you were or who we were so much as what moved you by whom at that point in time," concluded my buddy Paul. "We believed in the redemptive, transformative, and self-preservational [sic] value of pure creativity and art. We could know from these songs that a) there were other weird, alienated people out there; b) some of them were brave and had bands; c) there were no limits on what such secret music could attempt; and d) as long as 'A Town Called Malice' makes your feet move, you ain't dead yet."