Dear Teenaged Me,

Beatles and me001.jpg
A portrait of the writer as a young man. By Dan Bacich

 

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.

Love,

Much Older (Little Wiser) You (Carl)

PS: That hope to die before you get old? Stupid notion. Discard it now.

Jason,

By the time your iconic album covers for Jade Tree Records were in print, I’d already decided to become a graphic designer. As a teenager, I loved the concept of being in the art world yet was not the greatest hands-on artist. I lacked the depth of imagination present in those who make art for the sake of art, plus the practicality instilled in me as a child of working class parents didn’t allow me to entertain the notion. Put that in a jar with the inordinate amount of time I’d spent at a computer and shake—you’ve got a graphic designer.

My dream was to move to New York City, live/work in an impossibly large, bright, slightly disheveled studio space and art direct a magazine. (Weren’t we all at least a tiny bit inspired by Raygun back then?)

To make that happen, or so it seemed at the time, art school was a must. RISD was my top choice though self-doubt prevented me from even applying. (Talk about being your own worst enemy.) The Art Institute of Pittsburgh was less risky, less expensive and allowed me to return to my hometown for a couple years.

Truthfully, it didn’t matter much to me where I got started. I knew what to expect: me being relatively anti-social, listening to music, going to shows and learning design. Maybe, MAYBE, I’d make a couple friends through our mutual love of music, which is exactly how I found out about The Promise Ring. Someone told me they were fond of 30• Everywhere, and before I heard a single note, the album art reeled me in. It used color sparingly yet deliberately. It had WHITE SPACE on the cover. Clearly it was holding something back and I needed to know what it was, so I bought it.

On the first few listens, my focal points were “Everywhere in Denver” and “Red Paint.” I’d spent prior years predominantly listening to punk and uptempo indie, so the subtlety of something like “A Picture Postcard” was initially lost on me. Ever determined, I kept at it and over time the nuances of each song captured and held my attention.

Part of what kept me going back was the artwork. I was determined to make sense of something that looked so refined and beautiful. It sounds like I’m being overly dramatic, but I was at a fork in the road. Old self—high school student and stubborn malcontent—was part of this scene:

before.jpg

New self—aspiring to be a graphic designer with a good eye—wanted to be in this scene:

jg3.jpg

So I obsessively listened to 30• Everywhere followed closely by Nothing Feels Good and explored albums on different labels with similar aesthetics (and therefore, in my mind, a related sound).

It was like passing through a door I never knew existed; a turning point for which your design work and music were a critical catalyst. This was where I fit in, if not immediately than at least I finally knew where I wanted to be and with whom. I felt compelled to take my education to the next level and transferred to RISD with the help of a scholarship, where I used your style as inspiration for one of my first projects:

IMG_0727.JPG
Note the use of geometry, white space and sideways text blocks.

With broader knowledge of the music and design industries, this was not unlike the work of Peter Saville for Factory or Mark Robinson for Teen-Beat.

marc-robinson.jpg
Marc Robinson’s work above. Is there a need to show Saville’s? Most are at least somewhat familiar with it (for New Order in particular, or the ubiquitous Joy Division cover ripped off by Disney).

You too spearheaded the look and feel for a small music genre that touched fans on a very personal level. Whether they realized it or not, your aesthetics contributed greatly to the overall concept of their favorite music.

Thank you for inspiring me aurally and visually. My trajectory would have undoubtedly been different (and likely less interesting) without you.

Hugs,
Christine

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Everywhere In Denver

Between Pacific Coasts

A Picture Postcard

Dear Mr. Byrne,

Hello! This letter in is regards to the spoken words of the 1980 track “Seen and Not Seen” on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. This letter is also about lowercase-a art.

My belief is that art—I’m including books, movies, music (live and recorded), fine art, architecture, dance… probably not street art—is an existential wayfinding system for us to navigate and understand the universe. Or at least that’s what good art does, lord knows bad art can blindfold us and point us towards a ditch. Good art can take us over and direct our attention, like the fungal parasite that takes over ants’ heads and turns them into zombies.

Flashing back.

When I was younger, my parents would occasionally drive me to the record store after soccer practice. In the fall of fourth grade, I clomped cleats-first into The Wherehouse in Fresno, CA, shinguards sagging, and picked out Remain in Light. A year before, an uncle had given my brother and I his sun-yellowed, dashboard-melted cassette of Fear of Music, and when allowances allowed we expanded our Talking Heads collection. The ‘digital masks’ cover was instantly appealing, and I liked the upside-down A in the title (thanks, Tibor.) At home before I was called to dinner, I popped in the tape and my eyebrows were instantly raised. Ha ha – whaaa, what was this? It was instantly bewildering, but entrancing.

There are too many ideas in Remain in Light to mention, but the concept that wedged itself deepest in my psyche, without me really being aware, were the words to “Seen and Not Seen.”

Image_01.jpg

Maybe we can change our faces. I liked that idea.

Image_02.jpg

We can change our personalities.

I thought about the digital masks on the cover. What were they for? Had Talking Heads changed their faces? Did they change their personality change to fit the new appearance?

I thought about faces a lot when mine went to shit four years later. Heavily unkind skin on my face and body put my personality into retreat. Crazy acne had made it difficult for me to look at myself and I would go days avoiding the mirror. I grew my stupid floppy hair out so it would cover my eyes, and a fragile ego fell under the spell of self-loathing 90s alt rock. Teenage dismay oozed out of every engorged pore, oxidized by tears and multiple rounds of accutane. I mostly stayed indoors when I wasn’t at school, making drawings and playing guitar. Any time I caught a glimpse of myself I could only think about how badly I wanted to see something other than what I was looking it. Something in the Paul Newman – Robert Redford continuum would be great, thanks.

Image_03.jpg

Flashing forward.

Medications and the march of time pulled me out of the worst of it in time to leave home and head to college. I left the west coast for the witchy weirdness of Providence, RI, a place where no one knew me or what I used to look like. There was a moment on my first night in the dorms, sitting on the edge of my bed, paralyzed by indecision – I wanted to stay in the room and hide, I wasn’t able to shake the darkness by myself. It felt like sleep paralysis, being unable to move a muscle on your own accord, stuck in your body. A wonderful individual from Ohio who became a dear friend burst into the room to invite me out, and I jumped up. And at that moment, a concept popped into my head that I didn’t remember ever learning:

You can change your personality. You don’t have to stay the way you are.

Oh – and you can maybe change your face, if you concentrate real hard on it for long enough.

In that moment, I was able to willfully flip an internal switch from introverted/sulky to extroverted/excitable, and I haven’t gone back. I learned to appreciate my face, and I’m very happy that there is someone special who seems to like it too.

Thinking back now, I can’t help but ask – did you, David Byrne, ever envision a scenario in which a child takes the thesis of “Seen and Not Seen” and applies it to his life, over the course of two decades? Would I still look the way I do if I never encountered this song? Would I have been able to shift my personality? Is ‘force of will’ a real thing? Is there anyone else born in the early 80s who has done this, and if so, what kind of results are they getting?

Thanks for listening, and thanks for the good art. I’ve experienced the world through a Talking Heads-shaped lenses for many years and enjoy the vantage. I haven’t even gotten to the ongoing significance of “Don’t Worry About the Government” and the line ”I’ll be working, working, but if you come visit I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important.”

Love,
Wyeth

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Seen and Not Seen

Tentative Decisions (CBS Demo)

Big Business (Live 1983)

Dear Mssrs. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman:

I didn’t have cable television growing up; we lived in the middle of the woods with a driveway longer than the cable company’s ability to bury a line up its length. My brother and I were relegated to what we could get to come through the rabbit ears on channels 3, 6, 10, and our beloved PBS station, WHYY. Sometimes, if it was raining and particularly windy, or, weirdly, one of us was sick, we could catch grainy movies and syndicated Gilligan’s Island reruns on channel 17. It was on fuzzy station that I squintingly watched 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Incredible Mr. Limpett, and a little film called Mary Poppins.

We started taping it halfway through, hastily shoving a blank videocassette into our pop-up VCR, about the time Mary, Michael, and Jane meet Burt in the park and are admiring his paintings, not quite believing what we were watching (and no, I’m not referring to Dick Van Dyke’s accent or make-up). By the time Mary and Burt were dashing through “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” I thought I might never watch another movie again. You know how there’s those drama kids in high school who live in Phantom of the Opera t-shirts? You two were my elementary school Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Richard and Robert, the music you wrote together and separately was the soundtrack of my childhood. Shortly after that jolly holiday with Mary, it seemed like you two were everywhere. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Snoopy Come Home, all those Winnie the Pooh movies… you were everywhere my little ears turned. The premiere of The Disney Sunday Movie on channel 6 in 1986 really ratcheted up your exposure in my little world, but it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I put it all together with a little help from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

My older son was pretty obsessed with old-fashioned race cars when he was three, but I had no idea what I was getting our family into when I innocently dropped a Chitty Blu-ray into my Amazon cart close to Christmas. We watched it on Christmas day. We watched it again on Christmas night. We watched it again on Boxing Day. And so on. A friend made him an old-fashioned racing cap and upcycled a set of pool goggles to resemble driving goggles. We watched Chitty while he wore those. Sometime close to his fourth birthday, he slipped on one of the toy race cars he used to line up down our long hallway, cutting his lip on a heating grate. While we waited in the ER for him to get stitched up, he climbed up on a bench and gave the entire waiting room a performance of his own Chitty revue.

I, too, got pretty obsessed with Chitty (I also have a bit of a thing for Dick Van Dyke, to add another layer to this whole thing); my husband and I routinely quote it (a slight squeeze on the hooter is always a good safety precaution); and now both of my kids point out “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” cars whenever we see a classic car out for a Sunday drive. It’s a masterpiece because of you.

I was so saddened to learn that Robert had passed away in 2012. I have no idea, but I want to believe the funeral was joyful, filled with music and love, reuniting old casts, and everyone sang “It’s A Small World (After All)” at the end. It only seems fitting.

It’s A Small World (After All)

With love,
Jenn

Dear Bill Stevenson,

In the early 90s, there were few better places to discover music than the used cassette section of Record Connection. At $3 a pop, this was a cost-effective method to keep your ears busy in the pre-streaming era. I managed to dig up Fugazi Repeater, Bad Religion Against the Grain and NOFX Ribbed before finally stumbling upon one that really clicked: Descendents’ I Don’t Want To Grow Up.

After my first listen, I was hooked. A single and love thirsty teenage girl, I nearly always flipped to side two and started with “Silly Girl” and fell in love with Milo before “Good Good Things” ended. I listened to him in the morning on the bus, on the way home from school and eventually in my car. Milo was the perfect counterpoint to my nerdy, somewhat angsty art girl persona. He sported the thin, bespectacled, slightly disheveled emo look long before it came into fashion. He was in a really cool band yet somehow managed to seem accessible. AND HE SANG ABOUT GIRLS.

descendents-bonus-cup-then-smiles-bill-stevenson-chris-shary

“I think about you every night and day, and when I could have asked I let it slip away. I’ve got to get to know you, but I’m so afraid. Well it’s so hard to be a friend and be in love this way.” COME ON! How could I resist? Maybe someday, I thought, a guy like Milo would fall in love with me.

ID2

So why is my letter to you, Mr. Stevenson, and not to Milo?

Descendents are one of those bands from which I never felt compelled to disassociate myself (I’m looking at you, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy). It’s a badge of honor to be a fan. People who like Descendents like them with all their heart—not only nostalgic gals such as myself but actual punk dudes.

I’ve always wondered why that was the case, and a recent viewing of Filmage answered my question. You are the man behind the magic. It seems almost obvious that someone with your passion and energy would produce music that stayed with me for decades. You poured everything you’ve got into the music and are deserving of all your loyal fans (and particularly the one who brought you back to health). My fandom has reached new levels, and I even bought my baby girl (and a friend’s baby boy) an I Don’t Want To Grow Up onesie.

IMG_1347

So, now that I have your attention, here’s a quick anecdote:

In 10th grade, I participated in a class trip to see Macbeth at a local playhouse. Jackie sat next to me on the bus. Jackie was captain of the soccer team, tall, thin, peppy and blonde—everything I was not. Did she want to talk? Even though I was weirdly excited someone actually wanted to sit next to me, my walkman and trusty I Don’t Want To Grow Up cassette were waiting for me.

Jackie didn’t exactly want to talk, but asked if she could listen to my music on the way back to school. Considering the contents of my walkman, I politely warned her that it might not be her thing. My warning lead to her increased curiosity so I set it up for side two (of course) and reluctantly handed it over. After side two ended, Jackie seemed a bit nonplussed and asked “Do you really like listening to stuff like that?” Perhaps she thought I was pretending in order to be different. I was not, and I’d let her into my world exactly long enough to feel exposed, embarrassed and wondering why I didn’t bring a different cassette with me. What about the Cranberries—something I enjoyed that was safe, feminine and mainstream?

I could feel my face getting red and my self-consciousness increasing by the second. Would she tell people what happened, ensuring that my classmates continued to see me as an outcast? Most likely yes, and although it stung like hell at the time, the very thing that made me an outcast as a teen makes me special(ish) now. A Milo bobblehead sat on my corporate desk for years. Everyone who came in asked who it was, and I was delighted to tell conservative men in dark blue suits all about the Descendents.

me-n-milo

Descendents are a reminder of how happy I am to be unlike everyone else, and for that, Bill Stevenson, I owe you a great big thanks.

Much respect,
Christine

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Silly Girl

In Love This Way

Good Good Things