First off, I need to tell you that it gets better. No, really. A letter to one’s teen self often starts off with that tried and true sentiment, because it fits. It’s real. Writing decades later, I know things improved, but you haven’t discovered that yet. It won’t be better all of the time; there will be both good days and bad days, awful times and celebratory times, and all the shades of experience in between. But you make it through. I’m you, writing to you from more than forty years in the future, so yeah, you survive it all. Not unscathed, possibly not quite intact, but you make it.
Ah. I’m getting ahead of myself. The perils of hindsight.
It’s January 17th, 1977. A Monday. You’re a senior at North Syracuse Central High School, but there’s no school today. The weather outside is frightful, and everything is cancelled all over Central New York. As you look through your window at the quiet suburban street, you see that the frigid elements have transformed Richardson Drive into a chiseled sculpture of ice, its frozen beauty both breathtaking and dangerous. On the radio, WOUR-FM is giving away a free James Montgomery Band LP to the first caller who can identify the U.S. city that was home to the first traffic light; some memory of visits to your sister in Ohio compels you to call and say CLEVELAND!, the correct answer. The album is yours–Happy Birthday, Carl! This is how your 17th year begins.
It’s a scary time all around you. That same day, killer Gary Gilmore is executed in Utah, the first time that the death penalty is carried out in the U.S. in nearly ten years. Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer and Governor from Georgia, will be sworn in as President in a few days. And you’re going to college soon, sooner than seems possible, far sooner than you’re ready, yet not soon enough to meet your need for something–anything–positive to happen to you.
You’re lonely. You feel alone, in spite of the presence of a family that loves you, and a smattering of friends with whom you share some good times. Is it teen drama? Is it clinical depression? Is it both, or neither? The vantage point of four decades gone has not clarified the answer in my head. Nor could anything I say now at 57 have any real meaning for you at 17. The twisted, uneven path before you remains only yours to tread. Tread carefully.
You have music, and it helps you. Your favorite group is The Beatles, and that will never really change. Your current affection for Boston and Fleetwood Mac will abate somewhat over time, but you’ll remain a steadfast fan of The Monkees, and your burgeoning interest in The Kinks will grow stronger. You’ll still like KISS, though they won’t remain at the very top of your pops for long.
But, within the next year or so, you’re going to hear two groups who will join The Beatles as your all-time favorites. You know The Ramones, that group you’ve been reading about in Phonograph Record Magazine? Yeah, that’s right–the scary guys with the leather jackets, and the songs about sniffin’ glue and murder and similar fun in the sun. They frighten you now, but once you finally hear them? You’re gonna start calling them The American Beatles, the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me, young man! Just wait. You’ll see. And then just over a year from now, you and your friend Jay Hammond are going to see a local band called The Flashcubes, and you’re going to feel like you’ve just seen God.
You’re going to mature, but you’re not going to mature all that much. I wish you would, or could. The music you’re listening to right now, all that Beatles and British Invasion stuff, plus Sweet and The Raspberries and about a billion others, are going to dovetail with the punk rock you’ve been reading about, and it’s all going to come together as Your Music in this crucible of 1977. Pretty soon, you’re going to hear a band called The Rubinoos, and you’ll think Heaven formed them just for you. You’ll hear The Sex Pistols, and think that your notion of what is and isn’t rock ‘n’ roll is due for redefinition. You’re going to forsake The Bay City Rollers, briefly, but you’ll come back to them almost immediately.
In later years, you’re going to develop an appreciation for some pop sounds that might not be relevant to you just yet. I know you don’t really care about The Who; you will. I know you don’t like The Beach Boys, at least not the way you like The Dave Clark Five or Paul Revere & the Raiders, but someday, you’ll regard The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as the greatest album of all time. Yeah, even more than that Christmas gift you got last month, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Believe it or not! You’re going to like David Bowie more than you do now. You’re going to like Bob Dylan less. If I recall the timeline, you’re almost ready to start hating The Eagles. You’re going to discover Stax; you’re going to discover reggae; you’re going to discover rockabilly. And you’re going to discover a name for your favorite music, the music you’ve loved the most for the longest time, but never thought about what to call it; it’s called power pop. Power pop is going to be almost like a religion for you.
Before this year is done, you’re going to write your first article about rock ‘n’ roll music. You are going to write many, many, many more after that, over a span of decades. You’re going to get pretty good at it, but you’ll come to bristle whenever someone calls you a rock critic. (The only exception you’ll ever make will be when you’re thumbing through a book one evening, and discover that you’ve been quoted, as in “according to rock critic Carl Cafarelli.” Yeah, you’ll make an exception for that one.)
A little over a year from now, you’re going to give up on comic books; you’ll come back to them after college. You will not marry Lissa DeAngelo, nor will you hook up with Suzi Quatro. Sorry, man. But you will have girlfriends. In fact, a girl will seduce you, rather eagerly, in the not-too-distant future, and I don’t intend to spoil that surprise. Later on, you’ll meet a young woman with whom you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, and she’ll feel the same way about you.
You’re going to keep on making mistakes. You’ll say things you regret, you’ll do things you regret, and I wish I could prevent all of that. But I can’t, and I shouldn’t. Because fixing even one of those bad, bad things could divert you from the path that leads to your greatest joy: your daughter. Your daughter is something else, man, and just being her father will earn you more pride and fulfillment than anything else you will ever do in this life. You won’t even mind that she becomes a better writer than you, because all of her accomplishments make you happier than you can even imagine now.
And you will share a love of music with your daughter. You won’t like the same kinds of music–let’s not get crazy–but music will fill every fiber of her being, just as it fills yours now.
Keep listening to your music. Keep reading about new sounds. Keep faith in the sounds you already know and cherish. Keep writing. You’re gonna get published. You’re never going to make much money at it, but you are going to find people interested in what you say, and in the way you say it. I know you lack confidence in yourself, but I know you believe in your writing. Others are going to believe in it, too.
Very soon now, you’re going to write a short story that reads like a suicide note. It’s just a story; I know. I know. There are people you know right now–at least three of them–who will choose to end their own lives, and will follow through with that fatal decision. You can’t save them. You will look back and wish you could. You will look back very often and wish you could have done…something. But it is within your power to save yourself. You can do it. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already proven that you can do it. It will not be easy, but you will succeed.
You’ve been listening to Sgt. Pepper. You’ve been singing along, It’s getting better all the time. It will get better. You will have triumphs, perhaps modest ones, but you’ll feel that elation nonetheless. You will also battle depression. I can’t promise you the paradise you crave, because it ain’t coming. But you’re going to have a good life, marred by disappointments, devastated by tragedies, yet still a life worth savoring, a life that will touch the lives of others in, I hope, mostly positive ways.
Oh. And you’re gonna get to see The Animals and The Searchers and The Kinks and The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Tina Turner, The Beach Boys. You’re gonna get to meet Gene Simmons, and he’s going to be an absolute dickhead to you. You’re gonna see The Monkees. As I write this, it looks like you’re gonna see Paul McCartney. You’re going to ask Ringo Starr a question at a press conference, and he’s going to answer you. You’re going to see The Ramones nine times! You’re going to see a bunch of acts you haven’t even heard yet, like Prince and The Lords Of The New Church and The Bangles. There’s a lot of music ahead of you.
And this year is crucial. Everything starts for you in 1977. Keep your head held high. You won’t get the reference just yet, but keep your head held high. Your life will be saved by rock ‘n’ roll.
Much Older (Little Wiser) You (Carl)
PS: That hope to die before you get old? Stupid notion. Discard it now.