“I recently did an episode on The Muppets! I could honestly say that that might be my favorite of all the jobs I’ve done. I want to go back and just shoot The Muppetsthe rest of my life. It was such a trip. It was just so funny to be staring at puppets and seriously talking to them. They don’t break character during a take. Like, if they mess up a line, they’ll just keep going in character. I’m not buying the fact that they’re Muppets. I’m seriously talking to them like they’re people. And the whole time I was really trying not to laugh, because it was just so hilarious.”
“I feel that, as humans, when we are scared and thrown into a position where we are not knowing, that’s when we learn the most. For me, lately, I’ve been thrown into some pretty scary places and things that are unsure and unknown. I’m learning more about myself than I have ever learned – that’s when you learn, that’s when you grow.”
“It’s the last day of middle school, and you couldn’t even wash your hair?”
I climbed into the front seat of Mom’s car, shrugging with a studied nonchalance that I could never quite summon when I needed it. “Wasn’t worth it,” I said out of the side of my mouth as I snapped the seatbelt shut.
School had let out early, and Mom had picked me up to take me out to lunch before letting me go home for the rest of the day. I found myself in my usual stance in the front seat, resting my cheek against the seatbelt and gazing out the side window. The two mulleted boys from my homeroom threw a Frisbee around on the front lawn, almost beaning a kid in the head.
Mom stretched out her arm and rested her wrist on the top of my seat. She tapped out a rhythm against the headrest supports. “My little baby’s going to high school,” she trilled.
“Not for a few months,” I shot back.
“High school will be better for you. There are more kids with your interests. People grow up, and you’ll find your – “
“Mom!” I interrupted. My ears were trained to the sound of a familiar riff. I lunged to the radio dial and turned it up a little louder.
“Sitting in for Mark Parenteau, this is Albert O-Positive,” the afternoon DJ intoned over the opening notes to “Say Goodbye”.
“YOUR GUYS,” my mom chimed in excitedly.
Albert O. was giving away tickets to see O Pos play with Mechanical Shark Head at the Edible Rex in Billerica to lucky caller number five. Even if cell phones existed in 1991, Edible Rex was an hour’s drive from my sleepy burg, and I sensed the bouncers would not have taken kindly to a scrappy fourteen-year-old seeking entrance. After a moment, the DJ just shut up and let the music play.
Mom and I were both quiet as the song began. The lyrics – “say goodbye to the past/you know these memories were never meant to last” – seemed prescient as Osterberg Junior High shrank in the rearview. I mouthed the words and swayed along with the pinging melody.
A fine coating of dust had formed on my O Positive tape collection. I told myself I was eagerly awaiting their next album, and I didn’t want to get sick of them. Though I tried my hardest, I wasn’t able to follow up my story on Boston’s finest with anything that felt like another “get”, and much of my eighth-grade year felt like a letdown after my interview with Dave hit the stands. If I was really honest with myself, I still felt a little embarrassed at making a bad impression on the band by being an awkward teenager. Meanwhile, the kids at school didn’t pay much attention to the budding Ellen Willis in their midst. Doing interviews was still the only way to get people to talk to me.
All those thoughts ran through my head until they became white noise. The lapse in conversation made me feel a special kind of alone that isn’t really alone…I was in the car with my song, a kind of bespoke aural security blanket that helped me get through some tough times.
Mom’s car glided to a stop at a red light. I looked out the window and saw a group of girls from my school. Erica, my school-appointed bestie in fourth grade, tread on the sidewalk closest to our car. For a split second we made eye contact, but when the walk light came on her gaze slid over me and she started crossing the street with her friends.
Mom shifted gears, then tapped me on the knee. “Your time will come,” she said. A moment passed, and she added, “I’m proud of you.” The light turned green and we were off.
Listening to a record you associate with a specific time in your life can feel like looking at a photo with a double exposure. In one exposure, you see yourself as you were and the hole the music filled in your life. You also see yourself as you are now. Hearing the music anew helps you understand it – and yourself – in a different way.
In the first exposure, I am thirteen. I tumble into my room, stepping on the heels of my sneakers carefully so as not to tear the pompoms off my anklets. A red tape-tag curls around my thumb, and I strum it as I kick my sneakers under the bed.
I catapult myself onto the mattress and rip the tape-tag from the envelope in one fluid motion. A cassette case is the first thing to fall from the envelope, shiny in a cellophane wrapper with a big sticker that says “Featuring the hit single ‘Back of My Mind’”. A pair of black stickers with a rainbow-colored O Positive logo flutters next from the envelope. I could feel a thick, rigid rectangle jammed at the opening, and I reached in and smoothed out a press kit with the palm of my hand.
Grabbing my walkman from the nightstand, I peel the cellophane down from the hole punched in the upper right-hand corner of the case, careful to preserve the sticker. Before I pop my tape in the deck, I remove the J-card from the cassette case. A collage of creepy marionettes and gelatin-print mundanities leers out at me from under florescent light. I unfold the J-card out to the next panel to find a photo of the band, taken somewhere on the harbor in the early evening. They stand shrouded in shadows at the end of a pier, lit at a low angle redolent of ghost stories. There’s Dave Herlihy on the far left, saluting the camera and scowling in proud defiance from behind granny glasses. Alan Pettiti, the lead guitarist, stands at the center of the group, stepping forward from the shadows. The low-angle lighting gives him a heavy-lidded look, like a gumshoe in a black-and-white movie. Drummer Alex Lob eyes the camera warily, as though he’s trying to divine the f-stop through the camera lens. Band factotum Dave Martin leans in like a closed parentheses, barely containing a smirk.
I fold the sticker into the J-card and slip the tape into the deck, clicking the Play button with my thumb. In the seconds before the music starts, I grab the folder and take out the photocopied press kit. My initial instinct is to lie on my stomach with my head in my hands, perusing the clippings as I listen to the album.
Within about five seconds, I rolled onto my side in a fetal clump. The press kit hits the floor in a confusion of photostated, stapled-together pages.
The song’s insistent rhythm draws me in. The steady drumbeat and bassline that establish the song tugged at me, and the discordant piano punctuation suggests an ominous mood. Ten seconds in and a choppy guitar line cascades over the rhythm track, sometimes racing the tempo and sometimes falling behind it. The inconsistent cadence of this solo sounds like Morse code, or like a helicopter circling overhead.
The vocal kicks in about twenty seconds into the song. In his honeyed burr, Herlihy intones a pair of couplets that deepen the song’s suburban noir mood:
A happy house is camouflaged in town
It took me more than two nights to get it down
All the wonders are going up for sale
They get high, and cannot stand to fail
Our street was lined with perfect little houses painted blue or brown or white or yellow, piped with primary-colored drainage pipes and decorated with matching flowerpots. The kids who resided within them lived among stable nuclear families. Either their parents were still married, or their mothers had the good sense not to re-marry loutish men. My mom wasn’t so lucky, as the neighborhood was all too aware.
Look closely through the loop and you’ll see an irreverent curl playing on my upper lip. The band’s lyrics – with their literary allusions – flattered my intelligence. This verse made me think of the opening lines of some Russian novel I read about in a how-to-write-fiction book I borrowed from the library. When did my safe-in-suburbia classmates’ favorite bands do that?
If you shift your gaze to the second exposure, though, you’ll see a suburban woman in early middle age, stopped short on a streetcorner. A veil of steam emanates from her mouth, obscuring her facial expression. 21 years later, I hear the verse with a poignancy to which I was too close to recognize when I first heard the song.