Yesterday, I accidentally discovered that a friend of mine loves the same midcentury asthetic the same way I do. Not only that, but she and her husband love the same Exotica, Lounge, easy listening, Hi-Fi Souunds Of Tomorrow music that I love. I’m talking about artists like Esquivel, Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and their contemporaries.
I discovered this genre of music in the mid 90s, and fell in love with it instantly. I thought it was so weird that this guy I was, who loved punk and grunge and metal just absolutely fell head over heels in love with the soothing sounds of midcentury America. Around that time, I also discovered Squirrel Nut Zippers, Asylum Street Spankers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and their contemporaries. So I kinda lump my midcentury obsession together with those bands, even though they aren’t exactly Hi-Fi.
Well, it turns out that my friend and her husband did the exact same thing, and we never knew it about each other. Pretty cool.
I was inspired by this revelation to build a mega playlist that I could enjoy while I played arcade games last night (this is part of my self care routine, I tell myself). So I fired up the old Spotify + Sonos, and I got to work. I started with my KROQ Happy Place playlist, added a couple Exotica and Lounge playlists to the queue, threw in Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s Halloween playlist, and finally added a Dark Wave playlist to the whole thing. I shuffled it all together, and it was really great. I think it was like 2 days worth of music?
I’d been listening for like half an hour or so. I’d heard a deeply satisfying mix of Hi-Fi and classic punk, some new wave, even some of the Halloween stuff. I was enjoying the SHIT out of it.
I was playing Mr. Do!, as one does, when A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours, by The Smiths, came on.
Holy shit I loved this album when it came out. It was really important to me, when I was in high school.
I stopped playing and let the little dragons kill my Mr. Do! guy, while I listened to the music. Before I knew what was happening, I fell deep into a memory.
I remembered my first significant, meaningful, head-over-heels-in-love experience as a teenager, when I was fourteen, almost fifteen. She was older than me. I think she was a senior when I was a freshman. She was in a drama production with the girl I was dating (and by “dating”, I mean, “endlessly making out with because we were horny teenagers”), and I met her at the cast party for that show.
God, I haven’t thought about this in decades. The girl who was my nominal girlfriend at the time, on our way into the cast party, told me that she’d decided it was time for us to see other people. This blindsided fourteen year-old me. It turns out that there was some dude in the cast she wanted to hook up with, like you do when you’re a teenager, so she sort of … I guess broke up with me for that night, hooked up with this other guy, and then wanted to get back together with me a few days later. I was like, “you broke up with me to hook up with that guy. That’s not cool. We’re staying broken up.” And that was it.
Remember stuff like that when we were kids? How it seemed like the most consequential thing that would ever happen in our lives until the next thing happened to eclipse it, and now when we look back on all of it, with perspective, we’re, like, “Oh boy. LOL.”
So at this party, the girl I was dating pretty much ditched me, and I was kind of alone. Or, more accurately, I was totally alone. This woman (I mean, she was probably 17? But to 14 year-old me she was a woman, unlike the girl I was dating. I feel like this is offensive to say now, but at the time, it made sense) sits down next to me and just starts talking to me about stuff. She’s super kind, and within a few minutes, we’re talking like we’ve known each other forever. We spent the rest of this party just sitting on this balcony, talking about stuff I wish I could remember, until it was time for everyone to go home. She drove me back to my house, in her BMW 2002, and we listened to KROQ on the way. When we got to my house, she gave me a hug, and suggested that we should hang out. I didn’t get any romantic interest from her at all. I just felt like this person and I clicked for whatever reason, and I was totaly into being friends with her. I wrote down my phone number for her, she wrote down hers for me, and I went into my house, much happier than I should have been, considering that my girlfriend essentially dumped me on our way into a party and hooked up with some dude under my nose just a few hours earlier.
I’m not going to name either of the ladies in this story, but I’m going to call the girl who drove me home “Kara”.
Over the next few weeks, Kara and I became insanely good friends. She lived in an apartment with her mom, and we spent endless hours sitting on the floor in her room, listening to records. She is the person who introduced me to Violent Femmes, Siouxie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure, and The Smiths. I’m positive there were others, but those are the ones that I can clearly remember.
I should have told you this earlier: she was the first real goth girl I knew. She wore a Bettie Page haircut, had incredible style, and was ALWAYS totally put together.
I honestly don’t know what 14 year-old me brought to the table, but she saw something worthwhile in me that I didn’t, and she nurtured the hell out of that part of me. She took me to plays, she took me to art shows, she introduced me to the most interesting people I had ever met to that point in my life.
Once, when I was in my 30s, related a little bit about her to a friend of mine, who is also a giant nerd who married a super cool woman who is way out of his league, and he said, “She made you cool.”
I am not, was not, and never will be cool, but I appreciated the sentiment. She certainly got me as close to cool as I’d ever get. And she opened my world to all this incredible art and culture that I never would have found without her.
So one day we were listening to records, talking about The Stranger, which she had recommended I read, because I liked the song Killing An Arab by The Cure. She pulled out this stack of 12 inch singles. Each one had gorgeous art on it, photographs of old movie stars, it looked like, with a sort of silver tone over it all.
“I collect import singles,” she said. “This is my collection of The Smiths.”
I sort of knew The Smiths, because Strangeways had recently come out, and after hearing Girlfriend in a Coma on KROQ, I went to the Warehouse and bought the CD. But to that point, I hadn’t listened to any of their other records. The extent of my New Wave at that moment was Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, maybe a very little Tears For Fears. I was still mostly punk and (I know this is incredibly weird) Pink Floyd at that moment in my life. It makes no sense, then or now. But it’s where I was, musically.
I forget what was on her turntable, but she took it off, put the record back in its sleeve, and pulled out one of those Smiths import singles. I want to tell you what it was, but I don’t remember. I feel like it could have been Bigmouth Strikes Again, or Shoplifters of the World Unite. Maybe it was This Charming Man.
Remember the first time you heard some music and you thought, “oh my god they are talking about me. They GET me,” and it changes your life?
That’s how I felt about The Smiths. We spent the next hour or so playing all of her import records, and when she drove me home, we stopped at The Warehouse so I could buy Louder Than Bombs, Meat is Murder, and The Queen Is Dead. I remember that she threw a bunch of shade at Louder Than Bombs, because it was the American compilation of the import singles she’d spent considerable time and effort collecting.
Once I started listening to The Queen Is Dead …. wow. It was … everything. I was so sad. It was so lonely. It was so sardonic and biting. He sang about my story, about my life. Oh my god “I know it’s over”? “Bigmouth Strikes Again”? “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”? Holy fucking shit fuck fuck fuck are you serious how does this even exist. This album was taken directly out of that part of my heart I hadn’t had the courage to share with ANYONE.
Okay, real quick, I’m just going to take a moment to make meaningful eye contact with all of you who know precisely what I’m talking about.
I see you, and I just want to remind you all: we made it.
For the next year or so, Kara was one of my best friends. We hung out all the time. We drove around town in her 2002, listening to the music that I still listen to and love today. I don’t remember many of the things we did, but I clearly recall how she made me feel. She was a kind, caring, gentle presence in my life at a time when I desperately needed that person. She exposed me to art, to poetry, to literature, to all the stuff that ended up defining me. She helped me pour the foundation upon which my entire adult life is built. My mother had kept me in a box for my whole life, and Kara showed me that there was a way out of that box.
And then she graduated, moved away, and we lost touch with each other.
The whole year we were friends, I was just completely in love with her. She made me feel so good about myself. She took a genuine interest in me. She just made me feel special. She made me feel, without ever saying anything directly, like I wasn’t the unlovable, unworthy piece of crap my dad made me believe I was. In one year, she did more for my self-esteem than anyone else had in my entire life. And nothing even remotely romantic ever happened between us. I mean, I would listen to The Queen Is Dead on repeat and just fucking pine away for her to love me the way I loved her, but I never said anything because I knew that she was out of my league, probably not interested in me that way anyway, and I didn’t want to risk upsetting what was one of the most important friendships I’d ever had. If she knew that I would have crawled over borken glass for her, (and honestly, I don’t know how she didn’t) she never let on. She was just kind to me, and such a good friend.
I haven’t thought about her in 20 years. But when I thought about her last night, I missed her again the way I did when she moved away back in 1988 or 1989. It only lasted a second, but I felt it, hard, in that little part of teenage me who comes out from time to time and needs to be hugged.
I don’t listen to The Smiths anymore. After Morrissey turned into … what would we even call him, now? He’s such a dick. I can’t stand to hear his voice any more. He’s like kind of a fascist, he’s kind of a bigot, and he’s just gross and awful. Is he an incel? It seems like sad kids like us can go that way, if we don’t have someone to love us and guide us through it, if we don’t have a Kara. I feel like this man who wrote so many songs that were so important to so many of us who felt alone, and alienated, and unlovable, we felt seen and validated by his lyrics. And I feel betrayed by him, now. Like, how did that guy turn into this guy? It’s a giant bummer. And The Smiths was SUCH a significant and meaningful part of my life, I can’t just look past him and separate the art from the artist. Believe me, I’ve tried.
But yesterday, when my massive playlist kicked out one of the Smiths songs that I suspect was part of the dark wave collection I added to the queue, I didn’t skip it. In my head, I created this static warp bubble where 15 year-old me could sit next to me now, and we listened to The Smiths, together. I doubt very much that Kara ever thinks of me, if she remembers me at all. But when I was 14 and 15, my life was so much better because she was in it. Teenage me wanted adult me to remember her, how kind she was to me, and how she exploded my world with her music.
And when it was all over, teenage me felt kind of … soothed, I guess? I can’t explain that part of it. I feel embarrassed and awkward when I try, kind of the way teenage me felt all the time.
Kara is the reason I still clutch my heart when I see goth kids or theatre kids. I remember being them, and I wouldn’t have even known I was one of them, without her.
I will never know why she decided to come sit next to me that night. I was just a weird kid, in a house that was filled with weird kids. I wasn’t special. There was no reason I would have stood out among them. And yet. I like to believe she saw a fellow traveler, and she helped him get as close to cool as he was ever going to get.
I’m so sad that Morrissey is such a shit. I’m so sad that I can’t listen to The Smiths like I once did, because I just can’t separate the art from the artist in this specific case.
But I’m so glad that I heard The Smiths last night, and that it inspired me to build that static warp bubble. I’ve spent a LOT of time lately with teenage me, and he’s been telling me about a lot of his pain and trauma. It was so wonderful to hear him share joyful memories, from an otherwise really tough time in his life.
Kara will never see this, but I’m putting it out into the world, anyway: Thank you. I never told you how much you meant to me, but I think you knew. Thank you for being there for me, and for being exactly who I needed. Teenage me will always miss teenage you, and I hope that adult you is happy and healthy. I hope you have kids, because I bet you’d be the most amazing mom.