Friday, April 24, 2009

Self-Discography #10: "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" by Sinéad O'Connor

I am driving the freeways in, out, and around Portland at 1 a.m. on a blissfully warm night in the spring of 1990. My hand is balanced on the window, cigarette burning like a beacon, me mentally willing it to attract someone, anyone who feels as utterly fucked up as I do at the moment.

I head north on the I-5 almost until I hit the Columbia River, exit and re-enter the freeway to head south, cross over the Fremont bridge, zoom past downtown and loop over the Willamette River, north again to I-84 to head east, out of the city. I will smoke more, and glance at the burning paper and tobacco, and I will let the tape of Sinéad O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" flip over in the Ford Maverick's car stereo--the music slightly distorted by hiss and static caused by a faulty speaker.

I am not even sure how I am staying in the lanes at 65 miles an hour. I feel like I want to take my hands off the wheel and let the car explode off the asphalt, sail past the railings of a high bridge, explode into flames. But I can't will myself to do it. I can only sing along to what I am hearing and mentally plan my escape to California for the summer to live with my sister and her friends--a move, I tell myself, that will at least temporarily end feeling as I do now.

Nothing Compares 2 U

It was a moment made possible by an event some three months prior. I'd gotten home late from work at the movie theater and was in the basement watching "120 minutes" on MTV when the station premiered the video for "Nothing Compares 2 U." So ubiquitous now, nearly 20 years later, it's hard to recall the gut punch of watching Sinéad O'Connor's face in extreme close up as she transformed a mediocre Prince song into a flat-out lovelorn dirge. What's not difficult to remember, however, is the mental connection I made at that moment to the song and the album, which I bought two weeks later.

It was March of 1990 and I was 16 years old. I was in a relationship with a girl who was undoubtedly one of my best friends and should have only been a friend. I knew what I wanted more than anything was to have a boyfriend instead, and hated myself for the lie I was perpetuating. I was stuck living at home, fighting with my mother. And I felt trapped in an endless cycle of being afraid to hurt anyone, while willingly hating myself for all that I seemed unable to say, let alone do. My father had only been dead for four years. I was barely past the stage of being suicidal. I had, in many ways, changed my life more completely than I thought was possible for my age.

And in sweeps a nearly bald young woman who may very well have a nervous breakdown on camera in front of me, simultaneously vulnerable and steely--angry, maybe a tad angsty, and, yeah, sad: the one thing I was terribly afraid to admit that I was.

Feel So Different

Putting the tape on for the first time after I bought it, however, I was a bit taken aback by the overall tone of the album. "Nothing Compares 2 U" had been nothing in comparison to some of these other songs. And for maybe the first time, I had the thrill of recognition ... the distinct feeling that there was a reason I was hearing these songs now.

"I started off with many friends. We spent a long time talking. I thought they meant every word they said. Like everyone else, they were stalling. And now they seem so different."

Delivered in the middle of "Feel So Different," these words formed the jumping off point for me. Shedding my upbringing by going to school across town, having to consciously shed everything I'd learned in order to become different--to escape.

"I should have hatred for you, but I do not have any. And I have always loved you. Oh, you have taught me plenty. The whole time, I'd never seen all you had spread before me. The whole time, I'd never seen all I need was inside me. Now I feel so different."

Only five minutes into this album and I heard only words about leaving my childhood behind and acknowledging that the death of a parent had irrevocably changed me--made me something that I felt was somehow more purposeful, more acutely aware of the world around me than so many others my age.

I Am Stretched on Your Grave

If that wasn't enough, then the simple words "I am stretched on your grave" would drive it home. But drive it home in an audacious manner--a James Brown beat married to an Irish poem, topped by a Gaelic fiddle swirling into the night. I would join Susan later in the year at The City nightclub, upstairs in the so-called "goth section" to perform a mock Irish jig to the outro of this song. If anything, though, it told me of what would be possible if I stopped listening to what people told me I should do. It also made it OK again to cry about this death that I still felt. I could turn it into some kind of modern noir. Really, it was grieving. But grieving could have its own audacity that I had not known was possible.

The Emperor's New Clothes

I could never know what it must have been like to be 22 years old with a baby to deal with while the world started to know who I was. But I knew the feeling of being unable to grasp exactly what I wanted while, at the same time, being convinced that there had to be a way to get through this on my own terms.

"How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21? There's millions of people to offer advice and say how I should be. But they are twisted and they will never be any influence on me."

"I will live by my own policies. I will sleep with a clear conscience, I will sleep in peace. Maybe it sounds mean, but I really don't think so."

When can I finally say, "I am gay"? When will I know how to sleep through the night? When will I no longer feel like I am not doing enough? I want the clarity to say, "This is how it is. This is who I am." But it's funny how having almost no money of your own, an alcoholic mother, a dead father, and a year of high school left will make you keep your mouth closed, even when you dream of opening it every day.

You Cause as Much Sorrow

"I'm full of good intentions, like I never was before. It's too late for prevention, but I don't think it's too late for the cure."

This is the song I listened to so much during my late-night drives. The escapades that killed half my gas tank and made me run out of cigarettes, driving me home to have to face the mausoleum quality of my bedroom. Which left me too alone again with my thoughts. I hated what the song tried to impart to me--namely the entwined feeling of hating my father for dying and leaving me alone in this empty house with my mother, while also realizing that if it hadn't happened, maybe I would not be be turning into the person I was becoming:

"I never said I was tough. That was everyone else. So you're a fool to attack me, for the image that you built yourself. It just sounds more vicious than I actually mean. I really am soft--yes, tender and sweet. ... Why must you always be around? Why can't you just leave me be? You've done nothing so far but destroy my life. You cause as much sorrow dead as you did when you were alive."

This chorus would inevitably make me cry in my car. But I was never really sure if I was simply feeling sorry for myself or trying to make sense of too many things at once. And I am still not sure now. If I listen to it on the right night while driving the looping Los Angeles freeway system, it still brings tears to my eyes and I have to blast the song, roll down all the windows and scream it into the wind, letting it rob the words of any strength beyond this metal cocoon.

The Last Day of Our Acquaintance

Is this the end of a love relationship, a friendship, or is it simply the exodus of my sister and brother from the house we grew up in?

And how do I tell a girl who has been so amazing to me, who's been intimately aware of all the fucked up shit in my life and helped me wade through it, that there's something not right? How dare I do that to someone like her? It was all I could think. I was sometimes the protagonist in this song, and sometimes the object about whom it was written. The duality cut deeply. "I know you don't love me anymore. You used to hold my hand when the plane took off. Two years ago there just seemed so much more. And I don't know what happened to our love."

And yet, I did know.

Just like I had to admit that I was angry at a dead man for leaving me behind, I had to admit that I knew that the warmth of friendship and love I felt for this person had absolutely nothing to do with carnal desire and it was neither of our faults for the fact that I had no way of expressing it until now.

I would move to California in a matter of weeks and kiss my first boyfriend and understand the exquisite burn of stubble against my face. I would know that I had to figure out how to come to terms with this and how to talk about myself to others.
Right now, however, all I had was the feeling of loss, and the feeling that I was the bad guy, even though I didn't want to be.

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

I didn't know it was possible to even utter these words.

And on the album, this song sounds like one big exhale... a breath and prayer released simultaneously. I rarely listened to it all the way through. But when I did, I saw myself on the road, still. It would be dark. I would be on the highway, driving fast enough to catch the coolness of the breeze in the summer darkness. I would be leaving all of this uncertainty, heartbreak, and anger behind. I would be sure of what I was doing.

Of course, it wouldn't exactly be true. But, a year later, I would, indeed, drive the highways across the country, leaving Portland--and one spent cassette of this album--behind me. I would still drive with a cigarette between my fingers like a glowing beacon of sorts. I would not be sure of what I was doing next. There would be deliberateness about it, though. I would feel like I had no choice; it would be purpose unto itself.

That was all that mattered.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Questions You Find You Are Asking Yourself on April 9th

Now that the Los Angeles Times has written about Glass Beach, how can I go there?

Wait, how can I not go there?

And what is it I like so much about sea glass, anyway?

Now that everyone else is growing a beard, should I just shave mine off?

Why can't I find that Lisa Germano album on vinyl anywhere?

I'm not going to have waves of wrinkled skin on my back when I'm old, am I?

Am I!?

What's with this inability to get back to work on the book, let alone this blog?

Do I need another snack?

Should I go get more water?

Does the full moon really have any effect on me?

Should I be thankful so many musicians I like aren't popular, even if it means they can barely feed themselves?

When will the lambs stop screaming?

Have you ever watched animals make love, Frank?

When can I have a yard to grow vegetables in?

Do I rent the house in July or save for the trip in September?

When can I have a drink?