I knew his music – everyone knew his music. I had some of his songs in my iTunes library. Occasionally they’d crop up when I shuffled through my 80s playlists. And I still have the copy of Purple Rain (on vinyl) I got for Christmas 1984. He was like a relic of that childhood long gone.
After losing Bowie in January we all thought that was it; the One Big Death we’d have to face this year. Then they all started dying. Maurice White. Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey. Not even a third of the way through the year 2016 was becoming the Year Everyone Died.
Then came April 21. We’d just lost a genuine piece of Rock Royalty.
Shock gave way to sadness. And confusion. Not so much “why him, why now?” but “why is this one so hard?” I may have owned Prince Songs, but I owned Bowie Albums. More than a dozen. But Prince’s death was hitting me in a way Bowie’s did not. And I couldn’t figure out why.
And then it hit me.
1984. The year of Purple Rain. You couldn’t escape him. Not on MTV, not on the radio. Not even in elementary school. He was an androgynous alien dropped into white-kid 80s suburbia with the impact of one of those atomic bombs the Soviets were threatening to drop on us at any moment. Like it must have been for a different group of kids a decade earlier when Ziggy played guitar.
1984. Reagan’s America. Mulroney’s Canada. Thatcher’s Britain. Growing up then we knew we were living on borrowed time. We weren’t going to see 1990, let alone 1999. There was even a TV movie about it the previous autumn that burned its nightmare into our impressionable brains. We could look around our clean, tree-lined suburb and picture the devastation of the mushroom cloud.
Then he arrived. Not in a spaceship – on a motorcycle. He was different. He was weird. You could look at him, you could study that Purple Rain album cover or that video for When Doves Cry and wonder … who was this guy? Was he black? White? Was he even a guy? We didn’t know – all we knew was Let’s Go Crazy was rock and roll distilled into its purest essence jabbed through our sternum to roar through our veins and feed our impressionable young minds.
He was everything we thought a rock star should be.
He got me through some rough times. A move to a country and a city and a school I couldn’t stand. Where I’d feign sickness just to avoid one day of it. Where some days I’d make myself too sick to leave the safe confines of my home. But any time Raspberry Beret or Kiss popped up on the local top 40 station the clouds would part for a glorious moment and I’d feel whole again.
I moved. I moved on. We all did. By Batdance we wondered if it all hadn’t been a joke. We found Grunge and flannel and angst. Prince went on doing what he was doing only he wasn’t calling himself Prince anymore. He was always there, making music, touring, making news from time to time. We thought he’d be with us forever, in the background, occasionally popping up on our radar when we’d hear I Would Die 4 U blast from an anonymous radio. And, of course, we did make it to 1999, and you couldn’t escape that song written and released 20 years before. It was like despite all our fears of our impending nuclear obliteration Prince knew in the end we’d be alright.
When he performed at the Superbowl, I watched. We all watched. I still knew the words to every song he performed. You didn’t have to own his albums or listen to his music with frequency to know those songs. They were etched into our 80s kid DNA.
Now he’s gone, and we mourn him and celebrate him, but deep down we realize all our rock stars are leaving. There will never be another Prince or a Bowie. Music isn’t valued anymore. Money (and the lack of it) is the motive. So is social media outreach. So are Facebook likes. Rock and roll is fading from the airwaves, like a weak radio signal as you drive out of its radius, flickering out before going to static. Alternative rock is too fragmented to make a difference. Rap and hip-hop have gotten boring. Pop is disposable more than ever. We’re living in the future Warhol predicted. Everybody’s famous; especially the ones who don’t deserve to be. Our 15 minutes are almost up. Our rock stars are dying off. Soon our radios, our Spotifys, our streams will be filled with the voices of ghosts.
We mourn him because he was the last of the rock stars – the genuine, no-holds-barred, unapologetic rock star. No-one who came after could come close. By the late 80s earnestness was in. By the early 90s nobody wanted to claim the title. And by the time the new century rolled in everyone wanted to be a rocks star but the ship had already sailed.
I realize now that I mourn Prince because with his passing, that small, too-brief piece of a childhood he provided the soundtrack to is gone with him.
Until I put on Purple Rain, and it comes roaring back on the wings of crying doves.
I moved around a lot as a child. By the time I was 12 years old I’d lived in 8 different cities and two different countries. I got very used to (and very good at) making new friends and even better at saying goodbye to them. In fact, my entire childhood is pretty much compartmentalized, with memories tied to a specific place and time, and those memories extend to TV, music, movies, comics and so forth.
For the longest while I thought this was normal; that everyone moved with the frequency we did. Then I later realized that my life was the exception; my friends were kids born in their city or town and grew up there and would very likely remain there for. They were lifers; I was just a face and a name passing through, staying put for a short time, then one day I was gone and my face and name would fade from their memories. I doubt many, if any of the people I went to school with in Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro remember me at all. I was the anomaly, not them, and while I once liked the excitement of new cities, new homes, and new schools, over time I came to hate those moves. I came to hate having to say goodbye. I wanted stability. I wanted a sense of place. I wanted a home, not a house.
Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man
I bring all this up because I’m at work on my next project, a novel largely inspired by the years I lived in Brockville, Ontario (roughly 1986-1992). While wholly a work of fiction – it’s a horror/sci fi/mystery hybrid – it’s still drawn from the reservoir of memories of my years in that town. It’s about many things I experienced there, and after I left. Mostly it’s about saying goodbye.
It’s been quite the experience so far. Like opening old wounds. Sure, you remember the good but to create real drama you have to zero in on the bad. I’m taking my mind places it hasn’t gone since, well, since those darker days. It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been necessary. Both the good and the bad have given me fuel, but so have the mundane moments; shooting pool, hanging out at the arcade, renting crappy horror movies form the local video store. Those moments that seem inconsequential at the time that take on mythic importance so many years later.
When I lived in Brockville I hated it, but I think every teenager hates where they grew up. It was boring, it was stale, and I felt trapped. Even when I got my driver’s license and my first car I felt tethered to home like I was attached by a big elastic. Just when I thought I’d achieved freedom there was something to snap me back. Had I lived someplace exciting like Toronto or New York I’m sure I’d have things to complain about them too, but age changes things. Your memories of that “miserable” time become more golden. You realize that, while they were far from what some would call “the best years of your life” they were special, they were meaningful, and they mattered because they made you the person you are now. Your work ethic, your personality, all of it formed in that blast furnace called High School. It was when you made the decision, conscious or otherwise, to be the person you wanted to be.
Unsurprisingly, if you know anything about me, music has been a great gateway to those years and memories. The infamous box of old mixtapes that inspired Mixtape have come in handy here, as have the assorted yearbooks, photo albums, magazines, notebooks and so on that have been following me around for almost 30 years. Unlike Mixtape, this new project has that element of the fantastic that hopefully means a wider audience than the ‘musical memoir’. It’s very different from Mixtape but shares a lot of its DNA. If you take the cast of my comic and all of a sudden dropped them down into Invasion of the Body Snatchers you essentially have this new thing. Like Mixtape, it has unlocked old memories and opened old wounds. Much of my dislike of those years is because that was the period my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. It was not a happy time. There was yelling and arguments at the dinner table, on outings, even on one infamous birthday celebration (mine). I couldn’t wait to get out of there and when I did I never looked back or went back.
For a while, anyway.
In college when people asked me where I was “from” I never had an easy answer. “Directly” you could say “Brockville” but it wasn’t where I was “from”. When you lived in 8 cities over 12 years you can’t say you’re really ‘from” a certain place. I still saw people from Brockville, and remained friends with them through some of college but we were all moving in other directions. New friends, new horizons; those old familiar faces reminded you of the person you were not the one you wanted to be. So for a very long time I buried Brockville and those years deep, until a good fifteen years had passed since I said my formal goodbye. That story has been documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you. I will say that once I started to plumb the depths of my experiences growing up I became a much better writer. I had a POV, I had a story, I had a voice that was unique yet familiar. My experiences weren’t so different from many others whether you were from Providence, Rhode Island or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Monroe, New York.
One of the great tragedies in life is that we grow up thinking we’re alone and that nobody anywhere understands our problems or what we’re going through, only to learn well after the fact that on every street, in every school, in every town small and large there were people our age going through the same things we were. You can’t help but be haunted by your past and the memories you have of that long ago and far away land. Whether you realize it or admit it, it’s a part of who you are. And I think by embracing the past, warts and all, you stand a much better chance of navigating the present.
If writing is therapy I suppose this new project is mine. Especially being a father now I’m trying to come to terms with the person I was versus the one I am right now and the one I hope to be. To teach my son how to be a better person than his father is. To show him that despite a world that seems dark that there are joyous moments to behold. That even when he’s upset or unhappy and wishing he lived anywhere but here (wherever that will be), that in time it’ll be a lot easier to remember the good moments than dwell on the bad.
So that’s it. Now take care of yourselves. I have a novel to get back to.
Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse
I don’t know what compelled me to look it up but this exact week 23 years ago I began college life.
Well, to be exact I was a week away from beginning classes – those started right after Labor Day. The week before I was settling in to my room at the residence, met my roommate, my floor mates, and did the usual stuff; registering for classes, picking up textbooks and so on. But I was still … I don’t know if haunted is the word. Maybe still tied to home, my friends, my previous life. This was a week and a time I had been looking forward to for the previous five years – I was entering Film School – but I was still feeling conflicted. Worried. Scared.
By June that year, I’d settled into something of a comfort zone. As one of those kids who never quite fit in with any group, by my senior year I had fit in … with the other kids who didn’t fit in. We weren’t preppy, we weren’t nerds, jocks, burnouts, or stoners. We just … were. If you were to look at us you’d see the Doc Martins and flannel shirts and think “grunge kids” but that was just how we dressed and that was before Alt Rock made its mainstream splash. We were maybe more “artistic” than the norm, but not enough to be considered one of the “artsy” crowd. We were average, and average wasn’t a bad thing. I think you’ll find most kids that age fit into the category of “normal, average types”.
So after the previous four years of High School (this being at a time when HS in Ontario was grades 9-12, with Grade 13 being part of the Ontario Academic Curriculum or “OAC” – basically if you had plans to attend a university you needed Grade 13/OAC – 6-8 credits to qualify for University. There were no SATs – just OAC), I settled in with a group of friends – guys and girls – into the same stuff as me; music, movies, the culture of the day. That group fluctuated from time to time, but when you got down to it the core was me, Elliott, Moira, Janet, Nathalie, Jill, Andy, Anthony, and Charles. Guys and girls not romantically linked, though Elliott and Moira were a couple for a spell. As for what we did … mostly we hung out. At one or another’s house, on the beach, by a bonfire. A large group of us went to see The Pixies in November 1991, and again, the entire group much went to Lollapalooza 1992 en mass. For the first time in a long time I was at ease in my own skin. But once we graduated our summer began, it felt like we were living on borrowed time. We had summer jobs so only really got together on weekends, and sometimes at the place of one or another’s employment. I worked at the local newspaper, on the assembly line. Basically, the newspaper you had delivered to your home began there (hot off the presses as they say). Then it went down the line where people stuffed the day’s advertising inserts in, it went through a machine that wrapped the bundle in plastic, then it reached me, who ran the machine that tied the papers into bundles to travel down a conveyer to a waiting car. Those bundles in turn were delivered to the kids mostly who in turn delivered the individual papers to the homes on their route. It was about as exciting a job as it sounds.
We were all around town, but we weren’t. Our schedules didn’t overlap much. Parties, movies, hangouts were increasingly infrequent. It was like we knew we were drifting apart but didn’t want to admit it. There was always going to be more time, right? But we all knew with every day we were closer to that inevitable parting of the ways. June turned to July, and by the approach of August, shit, as they say, began to get real.
Lollapalooza 1992 hit Molson Park on August 5. After the show ended I stayed in Toronto because on August 8th I had a one-day orientation at Ryerson University – my university. I got to stay in the residence, meet a lot of the Residence Supervisors and kids attending that fall. I met someone who was in the same program as me, also named Brad. I got the lay of the land and the campus, but by the time I got back home I realized in just a few short weeks I’d be back there and it would be my home for the next eight months. It seemed like the inevitable was crashing into my life much faster than it ever had before. Summer had dragged up until that point. Now it was accelerating.
Those remaining weeks were a blur. Buying bedding, buying supplies, things for my dorm. In a pre-internet age that meant my electric typewriter, my stereo and cassette tapes, my posters, my portable TV. It meant leaving a town I couldn’t wait to get out of, but found the closer moving day got the more I wanted to stay. To crawl into bed and cocoon myself in it and never come out. To be 18 for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong; I was excited. I mean, this was Film School, which I’d been dreaming about for years. Not just any film school but The One everyone wanted to get into – the one that only allowed 50 new students a year. I was one of those students. I was lucky. This was my future, right on my doorstep. But that meant having to say goodbye. To my town. To my friends.
And on the last weekend of August – Aug 29-30 – I said goodbye.
I’m not sure who’s idea it was, but someone realized that two of us – Nathalie and myself – would be leaving Sunday, as we were both attending Ryerson, and our classes began a week before the other schools’, which meant orientation began a week earlier. And we knew this would be the last time the whole group of us would be together at the same time for a good number of months. What we didn’t know was it would be the last time that group would be together in any place. What did we do? We went to Andy’s and hung out in his basement like we had countless times before. Drank, snacked, listened to music, shot the shit. But a countdown that had begun with months and dwindled to weeks and days was now measured in hours. My dad was driving me to Toronto the next morning and he wanted to get an early start so I think I may have been the first one to leave. There were no group hugs or tearful goodbyes. I think we’d all convinced ourselves that things wouldn’t change that much. Charles, Elliott, and Moira were going to university in Toronto also so we’d still see each other a fair bit (and did in that first year, but even then that faded like most friendships). Soon enough I was back in my car, back on the road, back to my house. My room was all but packed. The shelves looked barren, given everything I was taking with me had already been loaded into the trunk of the car.
We left at 8am the next morning. I said goodbye to my mom, my sister, our dog. My mother managed not to cry until we were pulling out of the driveway, and I’ll admit I got a little misty eyed too. We drove the three hours to Toronto, dad helped me carry stuff up to my room, we grabbed lunch nearby and he told me how proud he was – that I was only the second man in the Abraham family to go to university after him. We parted ways and I went back to my room and when I closed the door and sat there I realized I really was alone. Then I unpacked.
The years that followed – 1992-1996 – would go on to be some of the happiest of my life. I forged friendships both personal and professional that remain to this day. I still work alongside people I met that first week of university. When I visit Toronto I still see many of them.
That was 23 years ago.
Right now kids the age I was back then are trekking off to university, leaving home for the first time. Some just said goodbye to their friends and promised they’d stay in touch. And maybe they will – with social media can you really lose touch like you used to? But there’s something about when goodbye really meant goodbye. I think it made us cling to those moments a little tighter because each other’s lives weren’t a text message or Facebook post away. I think to say goodbye to childhood you really do have to say goodbye.
I don’t want to sound like another aging Gen X-er going “in my day things were better” because they weren’t. But in an era where things weren’t videoed and documented like they are now I feel like we held onto those moments a little more because we couldn’t revisit them with the click of a button. When they were over they really were over. I have few regrets about those years, and that place in my life. Sometimes I miss that town, those basement parties, and those faces. Some I’ve managed to reconnect and stay in touch with. But if there is anything I do wish is that there were photographs of that last party and that last night together. It only exists in my memories now; of a night twenty three years ago when that group of friends came together for one last hurrah, and then say goodbye so our lives could truly begin
But sometimes you have to recreate the memory you lost
In March of 1985, I was living in Toronto. Scarborough, to be exact. We’d been there around three years, having moved there from Edmonton in April of 1982. I was 11 going on 12, and relatively happy with life. I had friends, I had a house I liked in a neighborhood I loved. We even had a swimming pool. Naturally that had to change and it did with the announcement from my parents that we would be moving yet again, this time to a place I’d never even heard of, and to a different country. We would be moving to Greensboro North Carolina.
Up until then, we’d lived in Ottawa, Barrie, Thunder Bay, Mississauga, Vancouver, Edmonton, and now Scarborough. I thought that was just how people lived. The idea of growing up in the same house, going to the same school with the same people for years was as foreign to me as the United States, but we would be making the US our home for the next two years. That was the plan; my dad, an employee of Imperial Oil (that’s Esso in Canada, Exxon in the US) was being loaned out to a company called Gilbarco, a manufacturer of gasoline pumps and dispensers, whose head office was in Greensboro. This assignment was to last two years. At the end of those two years we would be moving back to the same house, to the same neighborhood, and I would be starting High School, picking up where things left off with friends. So I’d be skipping Jr. High in Toronto while attending it in Greensboro. We didn’t even sell our house in Scarborough; we rented it, to the family of one of my classmates. But come Summer 1987 we were going to be back. That was the plan at any rate.
I was actually looking forward to it because of the temporary nature of this move. That it wouldn’t be permanent. My family and I spent our March break that year in Greensboro so my parents could house hunt, and so my sister and I could see the city we would call home for the next two years. It was nice. It was clean, and my parents wisely bribed us with some cool toy purchases, one of which I still have sitting on my office shelf:
Pictured: My bribe
But I had made some very good friends in Scarborough, some of whom I’m still friends with 30 years later. In the movie Stand By Me, adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) ends his recollection of that summer of 1959 with the statement that he never had friends like he did when he was 12. That pretty much was the case for me. And when you’re looking down the barrel of 2 years away it seems like a long time. In hindsight not so much; and when you’re in your 30s or 40s, that’s definitely not much time at all. My parents assured me and my sister that the two years would pass before we knew it, and we’d be back in Scarborough before we realized it. That also was the plan.
So I’ll admit once we got to Greensboro I was seduced. The climate was warm, if a little dry, and while we were landlocked our condominium complex had a pool, which made the summer heat easier to handle. I was also getting more into comic books by this point, and the discovery Greensboro had a couple comic shops meant the passage of time would be a little easier to handle. There was also the malls (plentiful), the arcades (ditto) and most importantly the toys. There was a Toy City (think Toys R Us without the Giraffe) in the strip mall a five minute walk from my front door, and the day I walked in there and saw shelves laden with toys I didn’t even know existed, well, I figured Greensboro wasn’t going to be bad after all.
Then school started. And everything came crashing down.
Let me tell you a bit about Charles B. Aycock Middle School.
Short version: I hated it. Long version: I really hated it.
First, it was way on the other side of town. Despite the fact there was a Jr. High close enough to my home in the northern part of town that I could walk to it, being at the tail end of what was known as the Desegregation Bussing era. This meant that kids from the more affluent northern part of town were sent to one of the less affluent schools in the southern part. I absolutely hated this for no other reason that I had to ride the bus there. And for some reason my bus was on a schedule where mine was the last stop to be picked up, and the last one to be dropped off. So in the mornings I had to fight for a seat, afternoons I had to stay on the bus until the very end, and was the last student to be dropped off, close to an hour after school had ended for the day.
Trust me, it was a lot further than that. Memory doesn’t lie.
[Note that route was the direct one from our house to the school. The route we actually took zigzagged all the way up from the school, though today I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. It took 45 minutes, that’s all I can remember.]
Second, owing to North Carolina coming in near the bottom of recent national educational standards, the school board decided the best way to correct that was to double down on homework, workload, and classes. We began class at 8:30, and our day was packed. I think we had seven or eight periods, all of which (for me anyway) meant crisscrossing the school, one end to the other. Back and forth, carrying all my books with me because I only had something like 3-4 minutes to get to each class. We got a whopping 30 minutes for lunch, then back into it. As someone who was coming from elementary school in Scarborough where you had one teacher to a Jr. High where you had many, it was like being taught how to swim by being dropped into the deep part of the lake. By 3:15 pm I was exhausted, and still had 7-8 classes worth of homework.
So all of that meant I was not a happy camper. After having what was relative freedom in Canada where I could walk or bike to school – the one close to home – I was bussed across town to a school I hated. And rather than make the best of a bad situation I doubled down on misery. I decided I wasn’t going to make friends, I wasn’t going to join any clubs or extra-curricular activities. What was the point in making friends when we were moving back to Canada, where my real friends were, in a couple years? By age 12 I had gotten tired of saying goodbye to people. Two years is a lifetime to a 12 year-old, but I knew I could do the next two years because I had no choice.
So I got home, got my homework out of the way, and retreated into my comics and toys, and dreaded the next day of school. I lived for weekends because that meant I wasn’t in school. But by Sunday evenings I was back to dreading it. I even had developed something of a nervous condition. That clenching fear you sometime get in your stomach? I haven’t had it since I was maybe 14 but back then I had it all the time, and it all had to do with school.
My parents were worried too. They even talked about pulling me out of school and hiring a tutor, but it was decided that school was just something I would have to endure. And lest it seem like I was living through some Dickensian nightmare, my parents did help by signing me up for karate classes, two nights a week and the occasional Saturday. Thatwent a long way to boosting my overall confidence and helped me work out some aggression at an age when I had a lot of it. They also drove me to the local comic shop once a month so I could buy the latest books, and we went to one of the many local malls once a week or so where I could get a book, see a movie, buy a toy, or just unwind. We also did a lot of weekend excursions to places like Asheville, Winston Salem, Wilmington, and vacationed a bunch of times in Myrtle Beach. Were it not for school I would have to say I really did enjoy North Carolina. But not during school. Never during school.
I also had the radio. I began listening to it obsessively. It was your typical Top 40 radio. That meant Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, Bruce Springsteen, Duran Duran (who I was already familiar with), and the occasional David Bowie and Simple Minds tracks. It was all pretty generic; you were guaranteed to hear a particular popular song once or twice a day, but as this was before the era of Clear Channel there was just enough eccentric stuff that slipped over the corporate wall to make things interesting like Paul Hardcastle’s “19” which was, well … this:
So, I had comic books, I had music, and if you know me or my work at all, you can see this as something of an origin story. And hindsight being what it is that’s a pretty accurate assessment, especially when I think of one song, and one person in particular.
3:15 pm Monday to Friday was the happiest moment of the week (doubly so on Friday, quadruple so on long weekends and Thanksgiving and Christmas and March Break). That was when the dismissal bell would finally ring, that’s when we’d run to our lockers to drop off what books we wouldn’t need for homework, and that’s when we beat feet to the fleet of busses parked out back waiting to usher us home (in my case 45 minutes later). Our bus driver was a 20-something named Roger. He had a deep southern accent, and referred to everyone – boy and girl – as “Dude”. “Hey dude, what’s up dude, good day dude?” He also had a boom box parked beside him. Monday thru Thursday he’d have it tuned to one of the Top 40 stations because he wisely knew that music would keep the kids on the bus relatively under control. But on Fridays, he’d play some of his favorite tunes to gear us and him up for the weekend. That means I heard this song once a week, every week, from September thru May 1986 when classes ended for the summer.
Now I mentioned the strip mall earlier. The one with the Toy City? That mall also had a movie theater. Not a first run, but not a rep either. Basically once a movie’s shelf life ended, before it was whisked away back to the studio vaults and eventual home video release 9 months later, it stopped in one of those theaters (the other being on the other side of town). Shows were only a dollar, so on many weekends I would go there on a Saturday afternoon, pay my dollar, and go watch a movie. The Goonies, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Back to the Future, Young Sherlock Holmes, Weird Science, Commando – they’d play for weeks, if not months; as long as people kept coming to see them they’d stay – I think I saw BTTF a total of five times before it left that theater.
Anyway sometime in April of 1986, the movie of the week was Pretty In Pink. Like most 13 year old boys I harbored a crush on Molly Ringwald.
Yes. Yes she is.
So I went, down the street, to the theater, armed with my dollar, on a Saturday afternoon. I paid, took my seat and watched the movie. I wasn’t too conscious of how many people were in the theater but there was a relatively sizeable group. Anyway after the movie I went outside, and who did I see standing there, also having exited the theater, bur Bus Driver Roger? He was there with what must have been his girlfriend, and she was talking with one of her friends but he saw me and I saw them and I said “Hey Roger.” Hey Dude, was his answer. I went on to tell him I rode his bus and he said “Yeah, dude, you’re the last one to be dropped off. Bummer, huh?” I don’t remember much else of what we said, but I had to ask him and I did.
“Hey Roger, that song you play every Friday when we leave school? What’s it called?”
“That’s Ready Steady Go” by Generation X, dude.”
I told him I liked it a lot, but I never heard it on the radio.
“Then you need to listen to better radio, dude. Not the top 40 crap from Greensboro, but the station from Chapel Hill, dude. WXYC 89.3. Signal is way weak in the daytime but at night it comes in a lot clearer, dude.”
I muttered something like “Yeah, I’ll do that”. Roger left with his girlfriend, I left for home, got to my bedroom, closed the door, turned on my radio and began searching on the FM dial. I landed at 89.3 or thereabouts and could hear some music, but it was faint, with a lot of static. I raised the antenna and it came in a little bit clearer, but nothing great. After dinner I think my parents must have rented a movie because around 10pm I went to my room to read, and listen to music. By now night had fallen and when I turned on the radio the music came in nice and clear. And that was my introduction to the music found Left of the Dial. Bands like The Replacements, REM, Talking Heads, U2, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division. Thing is I didn’t know their names at the time; just the songs, and over the years (and in some cases decades) that followed I would rediscover them. on Much Music, on CFNY, on MTV, on Spotify. Even recently I’ve found songs I heard 30 years ago but lost, finally unleashing the power of the internet to rediscover them.
That was April 1986. Around the same time my dad came home with a surprise. We were moving back to Canada a year ahead of schedule, having just been offered the job of President of Gilbarco Canada. But we would not be moving back to Scarborough; instead we were bound for a town called Brockville that my dad claimed was “near Toronto” (but was in fact 3 hours east of there). Once I finished Grade 7 at Aycock I wouldn’t have to go back there again ever. And when we moved in August that was the last time I set foot anywhere near Greensboro NC. Things changed. Plans changed. But after having survived Greensboro I was better equipped to manage the little curve balls life throws your way.
As for Roger and that bus, the only thing else that stands out was the last trip I took on it. It was the last day of school, we had early dismissal, and I knew it would be my last time taking that ride and that route. With each stop, with each group of kids who god off, I knew that was the last time I was ever going to see them. As we neared the home stretch, and it was just me and Roger I made a request; “Ready Steady Go. Can you play it again?”
And Roger grinned: “Any time, Dude.”
That was the last time I saw Roger, and the last time I rode that bus. 30 years on I do think about those years with a little more nostalgia than I did at the time (the blessing and curse of advancing age I guess). I did hate being there, but in the end it, like most negative experiences, ended up being good for me. And I even managed to make some friends at Aycock. Unfortunately, I can’t remember their names. My time there was too brief, and the span of years since then has grown long.
But Roger? I’m never going to forget that dude, or that song.
If you’re a regular reader of this infrequently updated blog – or better yet a reader of Mixtape – you’ll know I’m a firm believer in the ability of music to change your world. The right song at the right moment in your life can have repercussions that echo through your entire life. This is the story of one of those songs that still echoes.
So it’s 1992. My birthday to be exact. Note I didn’t say “happy” birthday, because this one wasn’t. Generally I hate celebrating my birthday because who on earth wants to celebrate getting older? Most years I won’t even acknowledge it. But this year in particular sticks out because it was my last birthday “celebrated” at home. This was senior year of High School and I was heading off to college that fall. Of course in the moment I wasn’t sure that was going to happen because I had something of a problem, namely I thought I was a talentless, worthless, and doomed to failure. My Big Plan was to go to Film School. Everyone thought that was a bad idea. They thought I should be realistic, that I should have a backup, that a career in the movie biz was incredibly difficult and who was I to think I could succeed in it when so many others more talented than me didn’t? they told me I was just not good enough or talented enough or hard working enough to ever make it.
And I believed them.
Plus, this was also at a time when my parents were fighting and arguing, near constantly (the news that hit me later that year – at Christmas, naturally – that they were separating wasn’t really a surprise). On the birth day in question, while opening my presents, something set one or the other off and soon enough they were yelling at each other while I tried to enjoy my birthday. But, I didn’t and rather than confront them, or ask them to keep their B.S. to themselves for just one day, I left. I got my coat and keys, hopped into my car and drove off. I had a dinner invite, and a party to go to later that night but I blew those off and just drove to nearby Kingston by myself, grabbed dinner by myself, drove around by myself, drove home by myself. Naturally I was listening to music – my mixtapes – but the song this is about wasn’t on those.
That was my birthday, February 21, 1992. The End of Silence by The Rollins Band dropped four days later, on February 25 1992. But it would be a while before I picked it up.
I first saw The Rollins Band at the first Lollapalooza festival the summer before, where they had the first slot of the day. The unenviable opening slot; first in the afternoon to a half-empty stadium. Not that they cared; they brought everything they had. And while I liked them, nothing indicated just how important this band and singer were to become in my life.
Low Self Opinion was – I believe – the second single off the album, so it didn’t appear on my radar until later that year, just before I graduated. By then that miserable birthday had been shoved off onto the corner where I keep all my other unhappy memories. I managed to graduate with pretty good grades, and shortly thereafter I found out I had been accepted into the Film Studies Program at Ryerson University. So to set the scene; I was looking forward to college, I was frightened of leaving home, but mostly I was looking forward to moving to Toronto already. But there was still some unfinished business — Lollapalooza 1992 was approaching, and I was trying to cram in as much fun into that summer as I could before college began and shit got “real”.
To me (and frankly, to everyone) college represented a chance to reset the clock and reinvent myself. Really it’s one of the few chances in life you get to become the person you want to be. But doing that is more difficult than you think. You can maintain the illusion for a while but that old you – the real you – is still there lurking in your shadow. And while I knew who I wanted to be I also knew who I was. That angry, lonely kid who still felt he was destined to fail.
And then one day in June I heard it. More appropriately I saw it. I watched. I listened. I hopped in my car, drove to the local record store, and bought the album. Because the person that song was describing was me to an absolute T.
[Do me a favor, even if you know it, please click and listen/watch this video below before continuing]
It was freaky how accurately it described me at that time. Because I had been alienating myself and everybody else. My self-ridicule, my continued suffering in silence, my brushing off of friends and parties, my generally treating people like shit so they’d feel the way I did, which was miserable. Hearing this song, listening to it over and over again told me that I wasn’t fooling them – I was fooling myself. And slowly but surely I realized that while I had no control over who I was, I could control how I was. And I knew that if I carried the baggage of that person to college I’d end up being the same person I was thru high school.
Was it easy? No. Was I successful? More or less. I still have those moments of feeling inadequate, of feeling like a failure, but they don’t last nearly as long as they used to, and when they do come I usually get over them off and move on. But success is built on the foundations of your failure. Like a pyramid, the base is large and wide, chock full of disappointment. The next level is slightly smaller, and the level above smaller than that. All the way up those failures get less and less and pretty soon you find yourself standing at the summit, gazing out over a whole different looking world.
If I tally up Rollins Band performances and spoken word performances over the years I realize I’ve seen Henry Rollins more than I’ve seen any performer ever, and spanning over two decades.
But the most important show — to me anyway — was on August 26 1992, six months after The End of Silence, six months after that disastrous birthday. Only a few short days before I departed for college, I saw the Rollins Band in Ottawa. And as the band tore through their ferocious set I reflected on how much had changed since the last time – the first time – I saw them only a year before. And it was the first time I really knew that I would be alright.
I now live in New York, and have been writing movies and TV and comic books and now a novel, all full time since early 1999. All those predictions that I wouldn’t make it fell flat. That’s not the first time people have bet against me and lost, but I’m still here, and in its own small way that song was responsible for putting me here. I’m successful, obviously, but not so successful that I forgot what it’s like to think you have nothing to offer to anybody.
I still listen to Henry Rollins too. He’s more or less retired from music, but he still does spoken word tours, hosts a radio show on KCRW in L.A. And he has an excellent podcast along with friend and assistant Heidi May called Henry and Heidi that is my weekly listening ritual (and you can find that on iTunes)
Now I’m not saying that this song or any song is the be all and cure-all for whatever’s ailing you. If you’re really dealing with severe depression, you need to see someone about it. But for me, the right song at the right moment told me that I wasn’t alone. That what I was feeling was felt by countless others at some point in their lives. And Henry probably felt it because he wrote and performed a song that ended up changing this kid’s life. If there is a song that has that effect of saying “things aren’t that bad. I can change. I can make it better” then hang onto that song for dear life and it’ll always be there for you when you need it to.