Saturday, March 15, 2008

Self-Discography #1: "Songs From the Big Chair" by Tears for Fears

"They gave you life and in return you gave them hell."

I am sitting in my room after school--a day like all the others, in which few if any people have spoken to me. I am concentrating furiously on my homework, choking down any thought of the predicament I have found myself in, or perhaps helped create myself. I can't be sure of which.

The radio is on. Z100 in Portland is, at that point, my trusted source for new Top 40 music, and I take it as an escape from school, from any sounds coming from outside of my room. At nearly 12, I've already become an expert in compartmentalizing. Music often seems to be the only way I feel like I experience mental release--even if I am not making it myself.

And then there it is, a creepy synthesizer groove underneath minimal percussion and that opening line. It's a blatant call to arms to simply scream and yell about everything that's wronged you: "Shout, shout, let it all out/These are the things I can do without/Come on, I'm talking to you/come on."

In a pop song? On Z100? I didn't know anything yet about therapy. But I knew, instantly, that this was some form of release.

"Find out what this fear is about."

I make my mother take me to the store and buy me "Songs From the Big Chair." She's heard one of the songs from it on the radio and so she feels like she knows what it is she's purchasing. That makes my entreaties less necessary, even though she seems to begrudge spending money on the record.

Ensconced in my bedroom that night, I slip the record from its sleeve and put it on. I drink in "Shout" and then recoil from the jazzy saxophone opening of "The Working Hour." I remove the needle from the vinyl and slide the record back in to its sleeve, disappointed.

"There's a room where the light won't find you, holding hands while the walls come tumbling down."

But as the months roll on, anytime I am having a bad day--and, as my mother says, I seem to have a lot of them--I slide the record from its sleeve and put it on the turntable, letting the rolling drums of "Shout" and now the frenetic "Broken" and wry humor of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" fill the room--the latter a song that sounds sunny but is really more like a backhanded compliment, if you listen closely, which I do.

"It's not that you're not good enough, it's just that we can make you better."

I've discovered "Mothers Talk." It's a big, mean song. It's brash. It's forceful. It's full of odd stops and starts and a twisty bass line--a sonic fit that I want to turn into my own theme song.

And though I am getting angrier, I am also getting more adept at stuffing the anger back down my throat. In addition, I don't sleep much anymore. I have horrible nightmares in my room when I finally do drift off to sleep. I can feel heat from a fire outside my door and I can smell smoke, but I am trapped inside, the giant storm windows glued into the window frame, and I am too small to break it open and escape. I've been having the same nightmare almost every night for years. I've taken to sleeping in the hallway or stealing into my sister's room and falling asleep on her floor. I believe my room is haunted, but I don't say as much.

I get called sensitive at home and in the neighborhood. At school I simply get called a faggot. I both know and don't know what it means. I know now, as puberty has reared its head, that there is something alluring about any man in a Jockey underwear ad with hairy forearms. But I am blocking that part of my mind that puts two and two together. It's 1985, after all. AIDS barely has been named, and everyone I know casually assumes two guys having sex means they will die.

So, the word "faggot" is, to me, almost a way of people telling me I'd be better off dead. At first, I don't agree. Instead, I seethe. Every day, as I walk home from school, I invent scenarios in my head about the horrible deaths that will befall these boys. I know most of them will lead status quo lives and be boring and unimaginative. I know I don't want to be anywhere near them. I know I want to hold them by their ankles over a bridge and enjoy the sight of them falling hundreds of feet into the foment below.

"I believe that when the hurting and the pain has gone, we will be strong."

This song is jazz.

It's slow and woozy, as if this is the last song I might hear 20 years from now in a New York City bar where I happen to find myself on a rainy night.

I invent the scene in my head and then begin to write a short story about a man living in an unnamed metropolis whose only solace is going to watch a piano player at a bar.

It's boring and badly punctuated, but I fixate on the escape--of a completely safe place where a person can hide.

It's a common theme in the lame stories I write. I show them to my friend Tina, who is maybe, just maybe, as miserable as I am. She loves them, but often has odd critiques to offer: "Why don't you make that character a book editor?" "I'm not sure I believe this is New York." I may think "Well, yeah. I've never lived there," but I take her comments seriously, and I break out new notebooks and pens and try to figure out how I can make New York real without knowing it. Often, I end up making Portland the setting because it's just easier.

It's fall now and I am feeling more defeated. I want school to end, but I know I have to make it through six more months. I am not sure I can.

I am now being followed home on occasion by a boy from school who likes to walk 20 feet behind me and tell me how he is going to kick my ass, kill me, make me sorry I walk this way to and from school. I begin to loiter after school for no reason, watching for him to go home, or I bolt from the grounds as soon as the last bell rings, walking blocks out of my way so I can avoid him. I want to reason with him, but I know that won't work, so I often stay quiet. I think of the worst that can happen. I make it home unscathed. I listen to music. I do my homework. I don't sleep.

"Broken. We are broken."

Tina is probably my best friend outside of Amy and Leslie, whom I've grown up with and who function more like sisters, though I haven't been seeing much of either of them. We're both enamored of "Songs From the Big Chair" and "The Breakfast Club" and we're both totally melodramatic. We both write stories and have mothers whom we cannot stand. In essence, we are just like any number of working-class white kids across the country, though probably we have more aspiration and imagination than a large percentage. We also seem to have a lot of insight into our particular form of pubescent depression and she runs hot and cold. I feel like I am sliding downward as a result. I can't stand the "we're friends today but I am mad at you about something now" dynamic that seems to dominate between us. I take it seriously. I get offended easily. I alternate between really needing a friend and being completely pissed off by what I perceive as slights.

"I made a fire and, watching it burn, thought of your future."

"Head Over Heels" is ostensibly a love song and yet I can't interpret it that way. The line "Don't take my heart, don't break my heart, don't throw it away" pierces me because I hear in it everything I want to tell some of the people around me: "Do not take me for granted." And now it's now a huge hit. And that's exactly what they seem to do.

Maybe because I am so miserable, maybe because I only sleep four hours a night, maybe because I don't know what to do, the only logical exit strategy I have is to simply erase my existence. It seems to free my mind. I now debate this calmly, wondering bout the ideal ways to commit suicide. I make a list of preferred methods but I don't have access to a gun or prescription medication. That leaves my wrists. I begin practicing the motions of slashing them in the bathroom late at night, teasing the skin with the edge of the blade, thinking it's like any other skill--you must become comfortable with it and learn how to do it and then you can be successful.

"Found a brave new world."

I can't go through with it. I can't really look at myself in the mirror, but with a razor pressed into my flesh and forcing me to decide, I realize I have to see more of the world. I have to get out of this bathroom, out of this moment in time, just get out. This moment cannot last forever.


I don't cut that deep, really. There is blood, but there's barely a scar later. But I still wear a long-sleeved windbreaker every day to school afterward, both because of the weather and because I knew that if word gets out it might make me look crazy to everyone else--and therefore I'll probably get left alone. I like this idea.

Word, of course, gets out. My mother is called to school by my counselor to talk to me about suicide and depression. She is visibly upset, but, of course, completely clueless as what to do with me. She takes me home and talks to me for a while, never really digging too deep. We can't afford counseling of any sort, though it's recommended.

What hurts more is seeing how everyone in my family knows that I am in pain and yet remains unable to talk to me about it--as if we are a group of actors stuck in a play with no lines to utter. Only my sister has the will to tell me that I can talk to her about whatever is bothering me. In that moment we begin patching the adolescent tear in our relationship--she, almost 17; me, only 12. She's old enough to be able to articulate to me that she is not a fairweather friend, and that she knows what it's like to feel like there's no way out. But there is, she tells me: "You aren't going to live here forever."

I return to my notebooks and my stereo in my haunted room. Months on, "Songs From the Big Chair" still occupies the turntable. I will only learn much later that the title of the album is a direct reference to therapy, to "Sybil," to the many pock marks in the mind. But I recognize how weird it is that this quite dark album has become an MTV and Z100 staple.

The album closer, the mostly instrumental "Listen," is a song I've come to love. It doesn't seem to have a literal meaning aside from the few decipherable lyrics. It's simply about the song's atmosphere; for me, it is otherworldly. It floats between rock opera, Muzak, and film score, evoking a sense of closure, of moving onward, soaring up and out of the present.

At night, I lie awake in bed, rubbing my wrists lightly with my thumbs, and hum it to myself. It doesn't make the pain ebb, but it's become a form of meditation. I don't make myself any promises. I simply say that I will wait and see if this gets any better before I plot my next move.

"Self-Discography" is a series of essays on seminal albums and songs re-reviewed, recalled, and reimagined via the lens of my memory. It is said that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory. For me, it is sound.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Welcome Back!

Just a little note to say hello and welcome to Nice Limbo version 2.0. Thanks to some tricky maneuvering on Wayne's part, the blog looks a lot nicer and is easier on the eyes (at least I hope you think so). Shortly, I'll be posting some additional fun things to help kick off the makeover. But, for now, you'll just have to look at the weird color field at the top of the page until you're hypnotized.
Love, Mikel