As we wandered the aisles of Wacko, looking at traditional old school tattoo-themed air fresheners and incense holders in the shape of Ganesh, the silly twang of Shonen Knife came piping through the store’s PA. Immediately my neutral mood soured and I mentally blocked the rhyming babble of those women from my mind. My ears would hear it, but I wouldn’t allow my mind to register it.
I glowered and pulled my son along by the words, him shrugging me off violently every time I tried to grab him by the hand or the arm to continue our exploration of the shop. My husband glimpsed my mood. “What’s going on?”
“I just cannot deal with this,” I muttered.
“What? With what?”
“This…music,” I closed my eyes and sighed painfully.
My secret is that music moves me emotionally to such an extent that a few years ago, I was really experiencing a nervous breakdown, or a healing crisis, or a spiritual awakening– whatever way you want to paint it, I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t look at people on the street without imaging the pain they were in. I couldn’t hear music with lyrics without being plunged into the narrative. I couldn’t even sleep without waking up every 45 minutes, not sure what my internal antenna was picking up on, but I know that after months of work, I learned to ground myself: To eat animal protein, to grapple on dirty mats, to allow myself to think negative thoughts (I was so entrenched in the yogic principle of ahimsa, I couldn’t even think something negative about someone without staying up til 3 or 4 in the morning, meditating on what a horrible person I was) and now, I no longer listen to just classical and kirtan. Now I can listen to rock music again.
I started making peace one decade at a time. I started processing my feelings of disconnection and rejection from the mod (and ska) scene. A music that pulled me out of depression over and over again. I feeling of elation when we stomped our feet during the chorus of Who songs, the rage and betrayal I excised listening to angry women through the Supremes and the Flirtations. The connection I found when we donned our best vintage dress clothes and sweat and screamed and smoked and drank til all hours of the morning. But I’m not friends with any of those people anymore. That most of them, I didn’t even know their last names. When the lights came up at the club or the drugs wore off at the party, no one wanted to go catch a movie or a bite to eat. I knew a lot of people, but did I have any friends?
I pieced together my strange childhood which looks normal on paper– moving a lot, bullied and teased, solace in music and books, taking what was probably a penchant for introvertedness and forcing myself to become an extrovert because the teasing stopped hurting when I started shouting epithets back. Leo Sayer, Thelma Houston, the Village People, these artists make me feel like a kid again, when it was normal to have psychic powers and to wear costumes on the street. When the world was a big disco ball and everyone had big hair and open arms.
The 80s were easy because of my husband. My burgeoning personality had a lot more to do with rejection than with acceptance, but imagine how empowering it was to find acceptance and a community from rejection. Punk, death rock, ska, new wave… even hip hop, these subcultures thrived on rejecting the masses and determining our own labels and social hierarchy. Because my husband was there with me, we like so many of the same bands, and we were always in and out of each other’s lives, it doesn’t hurt (anymore) to hear the Cure, the Smiths, Siouxsie, the Specials, Black Flag, Depeche Mode. It reminds me of when I had real friends– who were there through everything– broken bottles, tear-smeared mascara, ripped tights. We had a tight group that got bigger then more intimate every minute.
The 90s have been hard for me. Hearing Shonen Knife, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile reminds me of the world I thought I’d create. If the 80s was about finding community, the 90s was about making our own world. I really thought I’d do something amazing– be an actress, a rock star, a writer, a director. Finding the DIY scene solidified all that. From the 80s being a consumer and a collector, to being a producer in the “we’re all equal, do your own thing” scene. But to really be “anything you want to be,” as the adults told us in the 80s required talent, discipline, dedication, and connections. I did a little bit of everything and not enough of anything. I painted, drew, played guitar, drums, sang. I did improv comedy, played roles in friends’ films, held a boom mic, I created zines first to try to make friends at Gilman Street via jokes and collages, then to expose my frustrations and love for friends and lovers and missed connections. But I was always small potatoes, which is fine, because I thought that “one day,” things would change.
So listening to 90s reminds me of the years that I didn’t know my best friend’s real name. So many people had made-up last names and you didn’t know where they were from and what their story was but you knew how they ate and how they voted. The mod scene and its own judgments– how as a girl, you were supposed to be pretty and cool, while being loud and writing zines made you too punk but you could not be denied because of your impeccable taste in records… I never stopped listening to Britpop and soul music never stopped making me smile and hit “repeat” when my favorite Edwin K. Starr jam came on. But I couldn’t deal with the punk side of the 90s. The fact that I always hoped one day I’d meet a boy who’d understand and appreciate me. That I’d find that one talent and make it work so I wouldn’t have to get a day job. That I never wanted to have my face plastered on the walls of some kid’s bedroom, but I wanted to be able to go some place and have people I didn’t know know me. I wanted to make my mark and live the punk rock version of the American dream.
But now, I’m making peace with it. With the realization that nostalgia is the bitterest pill because it reminds me of the hope I once had for my life, and now my life is profoundly different than how I imagined it to be– I’m not an actress, a director, a rock star, a punk legend. And for years, I’ve been working on accepting life as it is. Through mindfulness, I have learned to focus on the beauty of the hills in the distance while stuck in traffic. It all sounds so new age-y and vapid, but I have learned that when I’m mad or frustrated with my son, I just catch my breath and look at how beautiful he is. How he may be back talking but he’s using words in a way that conveys clear communication. When I’m mad at myself for eating something I know I’ll pay for later, I slow down my chewing and let the saliva liquefy the substance so I can taste it better. So my life is all about acceptance and the 90s was all about rebellion and the true, clear belief that things were going to change.
I teach at my old high school– I realize that I am a product of the wall-to-wall carpeting of the suburbs and that I love the city, but I want to raise my child in an environment as good or better than my old neighborhood– where you could ride your bike without fear of broken glass and you could make a weekly visit to 7/11 for a slurpee. You could go to public school and maybe be picked on–but that you face reality of the injustice of the world, instead of being coddled by some alternative education. I work a day job because I never had the connections to make an alternative career work– some money here and there but nothing to buy a house, a car, organic groceries. I never found that dream boy– that mysterious boy I wanted to write letters to because I felt so lonely and misunderstood. Instead, I have known my husband since high school and he knows me better than anyone else. I love “our story” but it’s like finding an old dress in the back of your closet you didn’t realize still fit and looks amazing, rather than buying an awesome new dress from a shop you and only you have discovered.
One way I’m dealing with the 90s is through zines. I dealt with my insomnia by throwing myself into my writing, and I found that editing huge bulks of text calms me (whether it’s through student essays or my own writing). Printing on cardstock with my Gocco machine prevented my nightly anxiety attack (always occurring somewhere between 5 and 6pm and lasting until 5am). And through zines, I have met amazing people and have reconnected with old friends who have that same love and distance from what we were a part of, but mostly a ton of new people. In the 90s, good writers were few and far between (admit it!) and zinefests were incestuous and more about the afterparty at the bar, but now I would say 2/3 of the zines I trade for are amazingly written, thought-provoking, unique, fun. Zinefests attract thousands of people– people with their kids in strollers, old punks, new teenage writers, bearded comic artists, waify poets, and more bespectacled cute-dress-wearing feminists in their late 30 and early 40s than you can shake a phallic stick at.
And then, the punk record store I volunteered at is having their 25th anniversary. When I thought about that place, I remembered the negatives– how much I hated the Make-Up, how the grumpy boys at the new records table would give you the hairy eyeball if you came back to ask about a release date, how the punx took advantage and made everything dirty and scabied and messed up the place with their savage disregard for respecting how cool that space was. But then I started flipping through photo albums and started liking people’s posts and comments on Facebook. I remembered how many cool people I met through the space, how many rad shows, how many fun parties, how I pretty much chose to remember the negative because I wasn’t as political as everyone else and it made me self-conscious. But now, I don’t care. I’m that meat-eating middle-class girl from the suburbs, only now I’m in my 40s, and I can probably handle the judgment and the ribbing more because there is no denying that I embody all of the evils that they accused me of. So I started inundating the closed Facebook group with photos and memories, and I know I’m over-posting and over-sharing but it is helping me make peace with a time that I used to look back at with shame– oh my god, that hair– but now I’m remembering how fun it all was, as long as you didn’t wear leather to a vegan potluck, and you had friends to hang out with to talk trash while some horrible band was playing.
Reading Kim Gordon’s book has made me listen to Sonic Youth’s discography in chronological order. And while I used to hate their early stuff (I became a fan during Daydream Nation when they “sold out” yet I still consider “Washing Machine” to be their ‘new album’ because I fully stopped buying new music in the late 90s), it’s soothing to wash dishes to their droning noise now. And “Brother James” reminds me of loneliness and teenage angst but I can listen to “My Friend Goo” and appreciate how it used to make me bop around, instead of getting triggered so hard with negative nostalgia that I’d have to listen to an entire Pablo Cruise album to cleanse my mental palate. Though I have to admit that I didn’t have cable tv in the 90s and pretty much rejected all mainstream media (I only saw Jurassic Park when I started teaching the book in 2003), so I didn’t know that Sonic Youth had so many awful videos. I just went on a Youtube marathon yesterday and I don’t think I would have been so dedicated a Sonic Youth fan if I knew their vision of “Sugar Kane,” compared to my own version (remember I thought I was going to be a film maker so my own vision of my favorite songs was infinitely better than the lame videos I would catch on 120 Minutes when I was back visiting my parents). Oh my god, 100%. Good lord. I thought “Kool Thing” was the best when I was a teenage kid who was confused by all the Nirvana fans surfacing– “Wait, these guys look like heshers but think like punks. I don’t get it.” But now I read that it was all satire and tongue-in-cheek, but still, what’s up with all the horrible storylines that look like home movies set to music? That’s why up until recently, I didn’t watch any movies about punk subculture– Times Square, Dogs in Space, RepoMan or any documentaries like the Punk Singer or the Year Punk Broke or Decline of the Western Civilization. I lived “Dirty Boots.” I don’t need to watch the awkwardness and weirdness of my life in a video from the comfort of my couch.
The 00s, I have no beef with. The music reminds me of my son, and if he didn’t make it out of that hospital, I would– if I didn’t kill myself first– be a big, sore, opened wound if I heard Radiohead, Cold Play, OutKast, Amy Winehouse, etc. but because he didn’t die, I love to hear those songs and think about wearing velour jogging suits and getting judged by the conservatives at Ralphs for producing my WIC coupons. I think about the desert and psychedelia and photography and off-roading and Mexico and India and flip flops and my heart is wide open.
So when I say, “I can’t listen to this.” and I smack the power button on the stereo, it’s no longer because I’m the elitist I once was. It’s because the song is pulling something out of me I’m not ready to deal with, yet.