It's funny, isn't it, how you can never really explain what a song means to you? I was thinking of this the night the X reunion came to town, and I was waiting for them to come onstage. I was thinking of how much this band means to me, or more accurately, had meant to me 15 years ago, when I was in college and the Los Angeles group with its rapid-fire punk roar was as new and as raw as everything to me. I was waiting for the show, anticipating the rush, and I started looking around at my friends, people who had come into my life in recent years and made it warm and whole. And I was wondering how this music hit them, how it fit into their lives and their memories. And if they could ever know how it fit me. I stood there in the darkness anticipating certain lines that had reverberated between my ears years ago, waiting for my chance to once more scream out what at the time had seemed like the only honest statement possible. "The world's a mess, it's in my kiss," ran one refrain, the two singers howling in despair and desperate love. "Last night everything broke," ran another in flat declaration of the scraping-by of urban life. What else could I add?
Those songs -- that album, "Los Angeles" -- came out during my first year away from home, coming to my consciousness as I finished my freshman year, and they hit me like oxygen, like tequila, the way all things intoxicating and thrilling do when it's all new to you, when everything in life is pretty much your first time. Yes, I'd had sex already by the time I arrived in Cambridge with my trunk full of books and my parents in tow, and I'd done almost as many drugs by then as I was ever going to do (although I certainly didn't know that then nor would it have been my choice). But this was different. This was life on my own. Communal living, sure -- first in a dorm, then in a succession of group houses, summer sublets and the kind of awkward shared situations where you find yourself asking, one morning, "Is this strawberry jam house strawberry jam, or is it personally owned?" and the next stealing your roommate's shampoo because it's Pantene and smells so much nicer than your own Suave Ultra. But life, without parents, without the years of expectations and memories that had defined me. This was the real thing.
You ever get the feeling that the rocks by your stoop are so beautiful you want to lick them? That you could just grab the tree branches and eat their new leaves whole? Yes, we were smoking a lot of hash then, in my college years, but the euphoria went beyond the buzz. I'd come from suburbia, a nice enough place in its way, but now I was in the city (a quiet bookish and occasionally leafy city, it is true). I wanted to experience all of it.
Sugarlight, we're addicts. Why do you think we came?
He's pasting gold leeches on my arm ...
he's open throated.
I don't think I asked for pain. Some people do, I know, but I think I really had had my fill -- two crazy siblings, one of whom would take his life two years later, had made my home life as scary as I could want. Scarier than either of my parents could deal with, certainly. So much had been experienced, and so much more smoothed over -- the screaming, the ambulances -- that I didn't need to look for more trauma to imprint myself with independence. I was looking, instead, for validation of my experience. Like so many of my colleagues (as I would find out years later), the pretty perfect girls who cut their arms in order to feel themselves alive, in order to witness their own blood, I needed something loud and angry that would give voice to the screaming in my head, those cries remembered and suppressed. I needed music that was faster and harder than the screaming to siphon all that out, to take the pressure off. To reassure me that, yes, it had been real. It was still real. I was real.
I needed punk music to free me from my own constriction. From, as I put it at the time, suburbia. I found, in the lyrics of bands like X, that anything could be plainly said. Everything could be said.
No one is united
all things are untied
perhaps we're boiling over inside
they've been telling lies ...
This was a good thing, a profound thing. But waiting that night for X to come back, I found myself wondering how it translated. The best one can ever hope for, after all, is similarity of experience. You get by taking it all on faith. That your best friend also heard that song the night she found her boyfriend in bed with the neighbor. That your buddy who fucked the British guitarist tuned it in on the radio when he walked out, at 3 a.m., after eating whatever was left in her refrigerator and not saying goodbye.
Someone clean to chew on
a wife that no one likes ...
And I stood there, humming to songs that the DJ wasn't playing, and I told myself things are better now, so much so, and yet there was something from that time I wanted to recover. And so I told the friend standing by my side how much I loved the song I could hear in my head. I sang her the lyrics, even played a little air guitar and trilled out a drum fill, but it didn't work. "You don't have to answer me, you don't have to call me back," I tried singing to her. I could hear the keening harmony, insistence of guitar played so loud and over and over the night my housemate cut his wrist. "Your phone's off the hook ... but you're not." I could still feel the exhaustion, and the practical thoughts that took over -- that cold water would be best for the blood on the wallpaper, that the rest of the mushrooms were in the freezer in case we wanted to flush them, in case calling the cops became a necessity. If the bleeding started up again. If he woke up crazy again. I told my friend once again about that night, about that long sleepless night before X first came to town, about my housemate's crisis over his sexual identity and the odd calm competency, learned from my crazy home, that surfaced once he had come down and gone to sleep. I told her about cleaning up blood. But all she heard was a story and a song sung off-key. That was years before, life was so much warmer now -- I had my friends right there, people closer to me than I'd ever thought I'd have. But I missed something: Call it urgency. I wondered if hearing this band again would take me back, would take all of us back, and if we would meet in that fast, high wail. I waited for the show to begin.