I had a crush on him. This guy who lived in my neighborhood. At 14, three years between our ages was an ocean of time. I was immobile, homebound; he was 17 and had his own lowrider pickup truck as well as a penchant for adventure. Most of the time, when I got to be around him, I would automatically like anything he liked, just to keep the conversation going. But he was easier for me to agree with than anyone else; he was the first musician I ever met in the wild.
Back in the burgeoning days of Windows Media Player, which predated iTunes, the times had shifted away from mixtapes and waxed preferential to burning CDs created from playlists one compiled on his or her home computer. This boy showed me many new songs that made their mark, but chief among them was a song featured on the first CD he ever burned for me.
He pulled up to my mailbox, handing me a little sleeve with an unmarked CD contained inside as I opened the door and slid sideways out of the passenger seat. Eager to discover, I thanked him and hurried up to my front door as his truck sped off down the street, deeper into the subdivision. Passing our silent little dog, Buster, who came to greet me at the door, cocking his head as I whizzed past him; I bounded up our staircase and into my dark room with the shades drawn. I shut the door, grabbed my bright yellow Discman, and snapped the fresh CD into the slot, careful not to scratch it as I set the player down flat on my billowing comforter. The first song began…
"I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I've been told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns and stumbles and falls brought me here
And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it every day
And I know
That I am, I am, I am, the luckiest."
I sat on my bed, listening to a voice I would later learn to be that of Ben Folds, singing a song that changed my life, called “The Luckiest”. I sobbed. Between each deep heave, I covered my mouth to try and stifle the sounds and to not scare the rest of the house. But each phrase felt like a painless puncture wound, a bloodletting, a catharsis of a young, as-yet unborn artist. But truly, I believe that it all changed for me with one song, one songwriter, and me, in my teenage bedroom, bawling my eyes out. To this day, one phrase in “The Luckiest” still makes me cry, completely involuntarily, each time I hear it:
"And in a white sea of eyes, I see one pair that I recognize."
I didn't understand then what those words meant to me, or why they bore such a deep, irrevocable impact; but now I do. With that line, I knew that I wasn't alone in this world. I had one way, one defining characteristic that would make me stand out from the rest of the crowd, and a way I could find others who saw the world like I do. From that point on, I knew the impact music could have on someone, because of how it made me feel right then. Venturing out into the world, I would find others who had the same look in their eyes as I do. I would find the musicians.
As C and I went furniture shopping this weekend, I've thought back on the way my teenage bedroom shaped the person as well as the artist that I am today.
As an introvert with the occasional affinity for stage lighting, I spent a majority of my time, especially middle school, in my little carpeted cube with the door consistently closed. I had a bedside table with a 90’s era clock radio; a plush bed; a desk; and a mirrored armoire. All of those pieces, except for the desk and radio, are now in my parents’ latest home, in the bedroom in which I sleep each time I visit.
In my early teenage years, as the days came to a close, I remember sitting propped up against a mountain of pillows, resting against my headboard, a notebook on my lap, listening to Coldplay songs and writing the lyrics down as I heard them. An English geek since 5th grade, I would analyze the songs like poetry, noting rhyme structures (Were they slant? Perfect? Internal rhymes?), uses of alliteration and assonance, and underlying story structure; determining the cast of characters that lived within the song.
Just before sleep, I would jimmy with the ancient clock radio, searching for the signal of the weeknight broadcast called “Delilah”, a female DJ somewhere further north who took general calls and played requests from a predominantly adult contemporary catalogue, i.e. Bryan Adams. I loved listening to Delilah, her smooth transitions into songs and her effortless banter with guests, excited to hear the next request from a crowd of unnamed listeners that were just like me. It's a big reason I gravitate towards someday doing radio, or perhaps podcasting, in the future.
My room is dark, the horizontal blinds across my one window in the corner slanted down, just a soft series of bars casting on to the thick shag carpet below. I'm on the ground in the space between the wall and the limited light; my headphones are on. I'm listening to a band that my dad and I were introduced to by a family friend, Counting Crows. This song by them, however, was one I found on my own:
"Fading everything to black and blue, you look a lot like you'd shatter in the blink of an eye
But you keep sailing right on through
Every time you say you're learning, you just look a lot like me:
Pale under the blistering sky
White and red, black and blue
You've been waiting a long time…"
It was the very first time, in my young adolescence lined with leaden feelings and searing longing, that I ever heard a song so perfectly describing depression in a way I could understand. Feelings were not much discussed in my house, and music was a way for me to commune with someone else, who for once had reached out to me. “Black and Blue” captures the way images can form in one’s mind; how a person can look into the mirror, feeling absolutely beaten up by the world, and start to see the black bruises form on one’s arms and face, yet they will seem completely unaffected to the outside perspective. It felt like a guilty pleasure, listening to that song. The acknowledgement of the darkness inside was the opposite of an escape for me. It was presence, there in that quiet moment in the corner of my room, body sunk into the thick strands of carpet, tracing lines and circles one way, one color of carpet against the rest, and then back, following the same path, so that the colors again married, disappearing like they were never disturbed.
As a teenager in the 2000’s, the second decade of my life commenced with a parade of boy bands and female pop stars. The second half of those same ten years were a swift and jarring counter to the first, directly contradicting the bubble gum, Pepsi-flavored artists that dominated the airwaves. “Emo” was born; it was not quite punk, not quite grunge. We as a society had irrevocably perceived the value of regular showering, using hair products, and rocking statement accessories to give all of that up now. Instead, bands who rocked hard and possessed shiny, voluminous locks bombarded MTV and VH1, jangling their many bracelets against their pick guards and re-applying eyeliner between the main show and their encore.
There was one band, however, without the spectacle, the big hair, the zippers, and the black glitter nail polish. There was also a song by that band featuring just a guy and his guitar, called “I'll Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie.
"Love of mine, someday you will die,
But I'll be close behind;
I'll follow you into the dark
No blinding lights, or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
And illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, Then I'll follow you into the dark."
I had my homework before me, sitting at my desk on a school night with just the light of my small lamp reflecting off the stark white paper, when this tune came on the (and I'm not kidding about this) American Eagle Internet Radio station I was listening to. I was a big fan of the current alternative music that AE featured in their store, and I even found a ton of great artists while listening to the media player one could stream from their website, from Keane to Cat Power. But when “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark” came on, time stopped for me. All I could do was set down my pencil, staring off into the surrounding blackness created by the glare of my beaming desk lamp. You couldn't pause the player, but you could hit rewind JUST before the song ended, and listen to the same one again. I must have hit that button 30 times. To this day, I still think it's one of the most well-written songs I've ever heard; it captures the realistic progression of love and partnership throughout one’s life. I knew then that even if I believed I could never be happier in my young, passionate, but fleeting relationships, even if I felt validated and accepted around some men, somewhere deep inside of me I knew what real love could feel like. Two people, standing side by side, without the fear of something trivial, or even death, to break the bond they share, forged somewhere unseen but wholly felt. A duty, a promise, a pleasure.
As I lay here now, in my bedroom far, far away from the one that brought me so many changes and new discoveries, I feel lucky for that space that I was afforded, so that I could learn more about myself, and who I was meant to become. I thank my parents for that yellow Discman, that comfortable bed, that traceable carpet and the sturdy wooden desk where I rested my head next to that computer, listening to the same love song over and over again—so that I might know what real love feels like, and rest easy someday once I’d found it.
I roll over onto my side as C clicks off the light.