The Saddest Music in the World

This is the story of the saddest song I have ever heard.


Spring, 1989. It’s High School, and yours truly is something of a fuck up. Okay, maybe not a fuck-up; just socially awkward, not terribly good looking, not terribly exciting either. If there are your typical cliques in High School, your Jocks and Preps, your Stoners and Nerds, and Theater kids, you could find me safely outside of all of them. I have friends, and there is some crossover with all of the other groups, but I am pretty much content to be one of those people you pass in the hallway and know, but really don’t know a lot about.

Like most teens that age I’m not sure who I am or where I’m going. My grades are decent if not outstanding, coming close to being on the Honor Role but not … quite … crossing the line. I excel at English and History, but my Science and Math scores drag me down. I’m better at dealing with abstracts and not, you know, facts. The teachers generally put up with me, and the consensus is if I only “apply myself” I’d do much better, be happier, etc.  So not quite a fuck up, but not quite Ferris Bueller either.

Though I was a student of his teachings.

Though I was a student of his teachings.

If you were to ask me who my favorite bands were at the time, it would be a toss-up between The Beatles and U2.  I was still at that point where I wanted my taste to be mainstream, having yet to learn the value of being a non-conformist. Not because I wanted acceptance, but because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  I secretly liked bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, but I didn’t want to advertise it, because I was a teenager and that last thing a teenager wants is to be seen as “different”.  And at the time, The Beatles were pretty mainstream, almost 20 years after they broke up. It’s hard to remember now, but the mid-late 80s saw this huge revival in The Beatles, The Who, the Woodstock generation, as the baby Boom generation hit their 40s and were overtaken by this wave of nostalgia for their faded youth (much like a certain Gen X-er taps nostalgia for life 20 years back, in his acclaimed comic book series available here and here).

The Beatles were surprisingly popular at my school, which seemed to exist in a time warp anyway. Hip trends took a while to travel to smaller towns in a pre-internet era. We laugh at the clothing and hairstyles of time-capsules shows as Degrassi Jr. High and 90210, but that was trendy compared to where I lived.  We were almost Grunge before Grunge became Grunge.  The Beatles were an “acceptable” band to be into, and as my parents had a bunch of Beatles records in their collection, I had a leg up on fandom.  And it was one day as I was stowing books into my locker that I heard this feminine voice say; “Oh, you like The Beatles too?”


Needs no introduction

She was in my grade. She had been in my homeroom the year previous, but with an influx of students, we were split off into different ones. We may have had a class or two together, and while “friendly” we weren’t “friends”.  But she was cool and the fact she was talking to me about The Beatles made her more so.  Turns out she was a fan too.  And when she saw the beatles picture up in my locker, she knew I was a fan too.

And that’s how it began, us talking about music, and specifically The Beatles. How while she was more a fan of the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper-White Album-Abbey Road era, I was more a “middle period Beatlemaniac”, “middle period” being Help-Rubber Soul-Revolver. Her favorite Beatle was Ringo, mine was George. This was a point of contention because nobody picked George as their favorite.  As a small kid Paul was the man. As a teen it was John, and if you were a girl it was Ringo, because he was the funny one, and what teenage boys don’t get is girls like a guy who makes them laugh.

But for me it was George, because he seemed the less fussy one, like he was the first to see through the shallow nature of Beatlemania and decided he wanted more from life then to be in the biggest band in the world (a fact borne out by Martin Scorsese’s excellent Harrison documentary Living in the Material World).

Seriously, watch this movie. Watch it now.

Seriously, watch this movie. Watch it now.

So anyway we talked, a lot, about The Beatles, but about music and life and, well everything.  I thought about her constantly, wondering if she felt the same way about me. Of course I was still too much of a dork to actually ask her out, so I did what kids back then did in the day when they liked someone but were afraid to articulate.

I made a mixtape.


Foreshadowing …

I loaded it with a mix of songs culled from my parents’ record collection, some of my records and tapes, and ones I’d dubbed from friends.  There was some Rolling Stones and The Who, and Donovan.  I even threw on a Joy Division tune  to show I was edgy and mysterious.  And I ended it with the one and only Beatles song on the tape – the one she and I liked the most, and the one that most reminds me of this time.  I shall refer to it henceforth as That Song.  Rememeber that.

I worked on it after school over a succession of nights, so I wouldn’t overdo it or rush it, and planned to present it to her on Monday as “just a thing I threw together, whatever”.  Presumably she would take it and listen to it and realize she couldn’t be without me, because the “grand romantic gesture” was and I assume remains something teenagers still believe in, as they should.

That weekend, Sunday, I had just finished the tape when my dad dragged me down to our boat. Ours was a river town, see, and being on a river, one owned a boat if they were of the means to. And we were of means, though really we (or at least I) called it “my dad’s boat”. And being asked to “help out on the boat” usually meant one or all of us enlisted as crew while Ahab (I mean my dad) continued his hunt for the elusive white whale.


My dad.

So on this day, my job was to help open the boat and with brush and bucket, scrub the decks down, because the boat needed a thorough cleaning after sitting unused for the week since its last cleaning.  For a 16 year old, you can imagine how much this excited me. But despite being Ahab, I liked spending time with my father, who worked very long hours to provide for our family, and if he wanted some company while cleaning the boat, was it really any big deal?

Anyway we finished cleaning and the “reward” was to take the boat out for a spun through the area. We cast off and did just that, powering up and down our stretch of the St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands.  We were out maybe an hour, before turning around and heading back.  And as we cruised down the channel, we passed one of the many city parks buttressing the water.  And as dad drove and I stared out at the shoreline, I saw something.

I saw someone.  And you can probably guess who.

It was her; my Beatles girlfriend who wasn’t. And she was with someone else – a guy I knew from school – one of those faces you pass in the hall and nod to but never really talk to. They were sitting on a rock by the shore, holding hands … and kissing.

It looked nothing like this. NOTHING!

It looked nothing like this. NOTHING!

Ironically the fact we passed at the very moment their lips were locked meant neither of them saw me. They never saw my jaw drop and the color drain from my face. They didn’t see me as our boat continued past, and continued back to the marina.  But I saw, and it felt like a gut-punch.

I got back home, and in my room, picked up the mixtape I’d made. I popped it back into the deck, threw the radio on, and recorded Top 40 over it, both sides.  Good-bye Mick, and Roger, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Goodbye That Song — the Beatles song that was “our song” but really wasn’t.

Later I probably recorded The Replacements or The Clash or maybe even The Smiths over that tape, because I decided it was better to be edgy and angry, and to put up a wall around me rather than risk being hurt. I deliberately didn’t think about that tape or That Song when I saw the two of them canoodling in the halls, and if she wondered why I suddenly chilled to her she never asked and I never offered.

And if the idea that just maybe she found someone else because she’d tired of waiting for me to make my move crossed my mind, I banished it from existence like I banished that mixtape.

A couple months later I discovered The Pixies, and from there The ‘Mats, and from there Jane’s Addiction and RHCP and many more, and by then I was over The Beatles, and over her. The Pixies were and remain my favorite band, and now I’m not afraid to admit it’s partially because of that girl, That Song and that day.

That Song was “Penny Lane”.

And that is why “Penny Lane” will always be the saddest song I have ever heard.


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You’ve never heard of David Bowie or Duran Duran?!”

My babysitter stared at me like I’d just pissed on the floor after shitting the bed, all because we got to talking about music for some strange reason.  In a nutshell, she had professed her love for those two artists and I claimed, rightfully so, that I hadn’t heard of either of them.

In my defence, I was 9.  Now, had I heard of either David Bowie or Duran Duran at that age, it would have made me The Coolest Third Grader in the World. But I wasn’t a cool Third Grader; I was a Third Grader, whose sole concern was counting down the days until the next Star Wars hit theaters.  Hell, the fact I still needed a babysitter should have clued her in that I wasn’t up to date on what they were at the time calling New Wave.

I would be eventually. I write a comic book about music, the first issue and second issue of which are available right now (hint, hint).  But 1982?  No way no how did I know New Wave. I knew The Beatles, and ABBA, and Simon & Garfunkel, and Gordon Lightfoot, and The Carpenters, and the American Graffiti Soundtrack, because those were the 8-tracks my parents had in their station wagon.

State-of-the-art technology, said no-one ever.

State-of-the-art technology, said no-one ever.

Had I been 5 years older, chances are good I would have known Bowie and Duran Duran because 14 is the age when you start really getting into music. And sure enough 5 years later it was bands like U2, REM and The Pixies who were my Animotion-esque obsession.  But this wasn’t 1987 – this was 1982, and I had no clue about U2 or REM, who had just released their first albums, or The Pixies, who hadn’t even formed.  That said, were I five years older, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t have required a babysitter, and the conversation never would have happened, and I wouldn’t be writing this, and somewhere a snake would be eating its own tail.

Our babysitter lived next door. She was 17, and her name was Sheila (I think – the memory’s fuzzy). If I was to describe her now I’d say she looked like a 17 year old in 1982 would look. She must have been thrilled when we moved in, seeing me and my sister and thinking “score” because she introduced herself to my mom and said she babysat.  She saw a cash cow, not some dorky nine year-old who didn’t know David Bowie or Duran Duran.  So when I let the news drop, looking up from whatever Star Wars comic I was reading to say I was unfamiliar with the oeuvres of Misters David Robert Jones and Simon LeBon (and the brothers Rhodes*), Sheila (or was it Cheryl?) took it upon herself to educate me on the matter.

She left the house – actually left the house of the kids she was babysitting – went to her house and her room, took her stack of Bowie albums and the one and only Duran Duran album at the time (imaginatively titled Duran Duran), and charged back over to our house, asking where we were hiding our record player.

This was 1982. People had record players, maybe cassette players, and like my parents, an 8-track in the car.  Our record player was in the basement rec room (or “recreation room”, though to a 17 year old Bowie-Duran Duran fan that meant “where you keep the Bowie and Duran Duran records”, and to my parents it meant “that basement is a wreck with all the toys and crap everywhere, clean it you monsters”).  I have fond memories of that basement. Heck I have fond memories about that house, that street and that neighborhood. Like this memory, right?

State-of-the-art technology bla bla bla

State-of-the-art technology bla bla bla

Anyway, 1982.  We had a record player, and record albums, and Cheryl flipped through them out of what must have been morbid curiosity. She saw the American Graffiti Soundtrack, and The Shaft Soundtrack, and a Ray Charles Country & Western Album, and a Gordon Lightfoot album … I could sense her disappointment mount, like the disappointment you try to mask when at someone’s place and idly notice the Nickleback CD on the shelf and wonder if it was gifted to them, then notice the conspicuous lack of dust on the case and think “okay then”.

Anyway, Sheila (definitely not Cheryl now that I dwell on it) quit thumbing through our lame record collection, fired the record player up, pulled Duran Duran from its sleeve, and placed it reverentially on the turntable.  She flicked the switch and we watched the needle move over and drop onto the record. I prepared myself to have my mind blown.

It wasn’t.

Not that it was bad – the first track was “Girls on Film”, which everybody knows, and the second track was “Planet Earth”, which not as many know.  Now, if this had been Rio  things might have been different, because Rio had “Rio” and “Hungry like the Wolf” which are both great songs (and would come to define the early-mid 80s as much as MJ and Madge would).  But it was not Rio, it was Duran Duran by Duran Duran.

The object of someone's obsession

Wild boys

Anyway there was Sheila, bopping her head to “Girls on Film”, and looking at me to say “See? I was right, this is great, huh?” And I could only nod, semi-enthusiastically, as if saying; “Yeah they’re pretty good, can I please go to my room?”

No, I could not, because this was An Education in Modern Music from a 17 year old New Wave chick named Sheryl or something.  “Modern Music”, not “Modern Love”, which was a Bowie song that was released the following year, and is one of my favorite Bowie tunes.  We listened to the whole first side, and when she turned the player off and removed the record, I sensed freedom within my grasp.

“That was Duran Duran” she said. “Now let’s listen to some Bowie.

Sorry, but I couldn't resist

Sorry, David, I couldn’t resist …

Now this is where it gets hazier because I really couldn’t tell you which Bowie album she’d put on.  By this point Bowie was well into his career – 12 albums by this point in 1982.  So my guess is she started with his most recent, which was 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which included “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion”. I couldn’t tell you if those were the ones I heard, because by now what’s her face was playing selected tracks, trying and failing to get much of a reaction from me other than “yeah he’s pretty good”.  She had a few albums with her, and spun tracks from those as well.  Again, the memory’s fuzzy, but I can imagine it would have been anything from Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and possibly Diamond Dogs, because I remember hearing some “live” stuff (even though Diamond Dogs isn’t really a “live” album).  Again, it was all pretty good, but to a 9 year old, about as interesting as the Falklands War and Polish solidarity.

Believe me I wish I could say this was my musical awakening and I became the coolest 9 year-old in the world that day. But it wasn’t, and poor Sheila realized it was a losing battle.  She gathered her albums up and marched out of the basement, out of the house, back to her house to drop them off, then returned. By this point I’d gone to my room willingly, and I’m guessing Sheila went to see what my sister was up to because now (like then) I tend to forget I have a sister.

That was the last time Sheila (Cheryl? No, Sheila) attempted to educate me on Bowie or Duran Duran. She babysat us several more times, but she never brought up music, and I never brought it up either.  My parents let her and her other 17 year old Bowie and Duran Duran loving girlfriends use our backyard pool a few times, and I knew they were looking at me, thinking “stupid dork 9-year old doesn’t know Bowie. Or Duran Duran”.

Much later, on what would have been the last time Sheila babysat for us, I introduced her to the awesomeness that was Miami Vice. I had never seen an episode, but kids at school had, and with my parents away I knew I could lie to Sheila that they always let me watch it (because they didn’t).  She watched it with me, her eyes wide for a different reason entirely; “Your parents let you watch that sexual stuff?”   She was horrified, and I smiled a secret smile because here was something that I liked that she did not get. That made me cooler than her for that moment, like Miami Vice was cool in 1984.  Then it became uncool.  Then it was cancelled and Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas recorded albums which were terrible.

Yes, this was a thing that happened. It was the 80s.

Yes, this was a thing that happened. It was the 80s.

That was 1984.  Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was huge that year. Return of the Jedi had come out the year before, but by then I was no longer into Star Wars. In fact that summer I sold my entire Star Wars collection at a garage sale, all for the then princely sum of $110.00.  I still kick myself for being that stupid.  Duran Duran was big in 1984 too, and Bowie had experienced something of a comeback (not his first, not his last either) with “Let’s Dance” and “Blue Jean” and “China Girl”.  I remained as uncool an 11 year old as I was an uncool 9 year old.

But in the years that followed, every time Duran Duran or Bowie came on the radio, I knew who they were because of Sheila. So in that way she did score a victory for babysitters everywhere, making a dorky 9 year-old aware of Bowie and Duran Duran.  And it wasn’t long before I started paying more atention to music, and girls, and girls who liked the same music I did.

A 17 year old girl in 1982 will turn 48 this year, but I’m guessing a lot of Duran Duran’s 1982 fans are still with them.  Maybe Sheila is among them, married with kids, but still in love with Duran Duran and David Bowie.  I like to think that on rare occasions she maybe remembers 1982 and the time she tried and failed to educate a 9 year old in all things New Wave.  I’d like her to know that I did eventually become a fan of both Bowie and Duran Duran, and own many of the albums she brought over that day three decades ago.  So it wasn’t a total loss, Sheila; I did learn, eventually.