I’M A LITTLE age-obsessed. Last September, with no sufficient warning whatsoever, I turned 40. Forty feels wrong and unfortunate. It’s likely that my emotional maturity level is that of a 16-year-old, which is unacceptable when you’re technically an adult woman living in the real world. (Also, when you turn 40 your life is half over, which is weird, so there’s that.) Forty may not be old per se, but I’m pretty sure it’s the end of being young.
Growing up, when we (the now grayed Gen Xers) spent hours in our rooms listening to music, we did nothing else. Maybe we’d read lyrics and liner notes. Mostly, we were just listening. It was the olden times—when television offered three major networks, cable rotated the same five movies daily and we had heavy metal rotary and push-button talk boxes with long squiggly cords (and, later on, cordless telephones so big it was like holding a shoebox filled with cement up to your ear)—and there was no Internet. WE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE COMPUTERS.
Modern diversions and our pinballing brains leave little room for reveling in music like we did when we were kids with time on our side, waiting to be free. Daydreaming is replaced by obsessing. We wonder if, in some ways, we are not as free as we were when we weren’t. If we’re lucky, certain songs may help us focus—like, if we’re cooking, working or exercising (I’m guessing about that last one because I never do it)—but mostly, it’s all been relegated to background music. True listening often requires stillness. We no longer know how to be still.
Thankfully, there are certain songs, like these three, that make me feel the way I did when I first heard them, even though I’m old now and there are emails to answer, texts to send, appointments to keep, bills to pay late, apps to check, tabs that stay open, and a lot of work to do—including just trying to behave like a grown-up. Oh, to be young and idle.
In 1988, Billy was my first true love. We wore leather jackets, listened to bands like The Misfits and The Pixies and went to prom as an act of rebellion—me in a vintage black lace Goth dress, Billy in tuxedo pants tucked into 14-hole combat boots. We hung out with our freak friends and we all had sketchbooks for drawing when baked or tripping, or for crafting bad, bombastic poetry, practicing graffiti tags, or artfully transcribing quotes from song lyrics.
Billy and I had a pact that we’d each be the last person we’d talk to at the end of the night. Sometimes, early in the morning, after dad went to work, Billy would sneak over. In the hour before we had to leave for school, we’d be under covers, making out and feeling each other up. Then we’d lie there listening to whatever music Billy had turned me on to. All of this was as close as we’d get to being together all the time while still in high school living under the roofs of our parents. Maybe real punks wouldn’t dream of the future, but Billy wrote me a rococo poem about how our life would be someday, living happily in a house, not with a white picket fence, but with a barbed wire fence because fuck the man.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” isn’t punk, and it was recorded before even I was born, but it’s a brilliantly resonant song about a time when you were consumed by what felt like adult emotions in the face of all the practical constraints of being a kid. Uptempo, delivered with assurance and conviction, ethereal guitars, and Brian Wilson belting out knowing lyrics, the anthem is a feeling, a vibration. I guess the best songs are. If you have one solitary nostalgic bone in your body, this song will instantly resuscitate that teenagery feeling, even if only for 2 minutes and 25 seconds.
Some songs stopped you in your tracks. You couldn’t get away with not paying full attention even if you wanted to. That’s how it was when Jake played me the debut album by Dutch band Bettie Serveert the last time I ever saw him.
I was in college, fresh into my twenties, and coming to terms with the fact that I hadn’t the slightest idea if everything in life was going to be okay. One weekend, I visited Jake who’d graduated the year before and was living in a sprawling loft in Williamsburg—a harbinger of hipsters, as it turned out. In school, we’d long danced around each other with flirty jokes and coy, amorous gestures. Then we did it. He penned a love letter about camaraderie and courtship, but neither stuck. Exactly what went wrong is foggy perhaps due to the lasting effects of exuberant college drinking, selective memory and my advanced age, but I do have a cringe-inducing recollection of writing Jake a letter lamenting the ways in which we should be together, in love, but weren’t. Our friendship faded away, like they often do.
“I’m making you a copy of this,” he said. “You have to hear it.” He stuck a blank cassette in the tape deck, placed a record on the turntable, and started carefully writing down the song titles for me. I sat on the bed, knees under my chin, listening to the title track, “Palomine.” It was a four-minute quintessential ‘90s indie rock song about longing and connectedness, and I couldn’t believe how good it was. It holds up beautifully. It’s hard and audacious and full of raw power, but with undeniable luminosity. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated, pensive but not depressing, young but sophisticated, and full of pure, earnest emotion with sweeping guitars and otherworldly female vocals. “Palomine” conjures up the remember-whens, the what-ifs, the where-are-they-nows, the wish-you-were-heres, all that’s left behind, and all that still remains.
I assume every kid has a Led Zeppelin moment. Mine was in 8th grade with, predictably, Led Zeppelin IV, but it didn’t end there. In between The Misfits and The Pixies, my teenage soundtrack was peppered with Zeppelin songs perfect for sitting in station wagons while summer rain fell on the windshield or drinking in the woods at night with a pack of ragtag kids I loved.
When I was little I had a beloved book about Martin Luther King, Jr that opened with the story of Martin’s childhood friendship with the white boy next door. They played together every day until they were forced into segregated schools and, from then on, were forbidden to see one another. I always thought “That’s the Way,” was about that story. It’s a quiet, airy five-minute lullaby—sans drums, bass, Vikings and hobbits—with unexpected opening lyrics. “I don’t know how I’m gonna tell you/I can’t play with you no more/I don’t know how I’m gonna do what Mama told me/My friend, the boy next door….” Turns out the song is somehow about ecology and the way Zeppelin was often treated when touring the States or something, but it still alludes to a time when you were too innocent to fully grasp why things weren’t the way you thought they should be.
In the late nineties, long after Billy and most of my springtide companions had disappeared, I rarely listened to any of the old music anymore. But one night, when Susannah, who’d been my best friend since high school, came over to my apartment, I felt compelled to put on Led Zeppelin. “Whoa,” she said. “This is like when we were 16 and had sketchbooks.”