I WANT YOU.
It was the kind of thing I thought I was dying to hear from *Billy, my high school boyfriend—the one who won me over with a vintage Dick Tracy lunchbox and mouth full of perfect teeth. Phrases like that showed up in the pounds of poetry he wrote, words so intense, I was never sure if he was declaring his undying love or slipping into despair, but whatever. It was romantic. And we were in love. So I wanted to hear that phrase from him, right?
Right. Unless Elvis Costello sang it better.
“I can’t say anymore than I love you. Everything else is a waste of breath. I want you.”
Billy and I loved each other but we loved records more. When Elvis sang “I want you,” there was no doubt that he did. The way he struck that first guitar chord struck my heartstrings, too. And the lyrics! If there was ever a song about longing, this was it. I mean, Elvis wanted that girl, had to have her, until, in his words, she killed it. The feelings, all the feelings! Billy and I had them, too. It was like Morrissey said – dying next to someone you love not only doesn’t suck, it’s actually kind of “heavenly.” It was the stuff modern-day Romeo and Juliet stories were made of, and we were into it. Even Crowded House had people practically doing face plants for each other in “Fall At Your Feet.” Although I think Neil Finn could sing about cornflakes and they’d sound tragic.
Billy worked at this amazing independent record store and I spent almost every day after school leafing through British imports, standing by life-sized cut outs of Robyn Hitchcock, gobbling up new releases. He was two years older than I was, a scandalous high school graduate, but his insanely good manners made up for it with my parents. And when I bounced into the store after school, he’d be waiting with the new etched Marc Almond 12-inch or some rare Smiths B-side a collector had unloaded that morning. “Listen to this,” he’d say, putting it on as I leaned against the counter, nodding my head. Grateful that someone understood me, the way my heart beat. How I loved who and what I loved more than anything. I was a free thinker. A beginner. Music had given me a taste of life. And I wanted more.
Billy continued to woo me with records and captivate me with a vast knowledge of music
that wasn’t yet mine. It was sexy, the way he waxed philosophical about some obscure
German band one minute (Can) and analyzed New Order lyrics, the next. On his days off we’d take our love for music to his room where we floated on his waterbed and made out to Japan. Or Talk Talk. They were watery bands, full of synths and drums, and created the perfect soundtrack to our kisses. Even the guitars seemed to be in sync with the waves that were happening below us and within us. I wanted to have sex but wasn’t ready, and he probably was, but was a gentleman about it, anyway. At night, after his parents went to sleep, we made out on the couch until our lips were numb, black and white movies playing in the background. Hepburn. Cagney. Bogart.
My life was broken up between the times I was kissing and the times I wasn’t, which
eventually led to my downfall: mono. Overnight I was struck with a high fever, glands the size of Texas and a fatigue so intense, I couldn’t even hold up my head. Kissing was out of the question. But so was seeing anyone, since this flu on steroids was massively contagious. I took to my bed, waking only for sips of Sprite and worried murmurs from my mom. I wouldn’t have wished this on my worst enemy – that girl from middle school who turned gym class into misery – but I wished I could stay awake for more than five minutes at a time.
Those first few weeks blended together, a mix of dreams and care packages, stacked by the door. Friends kept in touch without touching me, but it was Billy who provided the perfect soundtrack. David Sylvian’s “Secrets of the Beehive” scored my delirium. And The Jesus and Mary Chain were practically made for malaise. Our love was still there, but those records – not Billy – were my constant companions. I laid in bed, letting Bowie’s Sound and Vision box set serenade me, allowing Bauhaus to remind me that things could always be worse. These artists fed me in ways strawberry Jello with bananas couldn’t. The ache I’d felt for Billy had been replaced by a longing to leave my room. I wanted to be in the world, again.
I gauged my recovery on whether or not I was strong enough to get out of bed and turn over a record. And the day I stood and watched Love and Rockets spin without my legs giving out, I knew I was back. Billy may have showered me with music – and I was grateful for that – but in the end, it was David Bowie who nursed me back to health. When I returned to school for half days, it was with the air of a weary traveler. The record store – and Billy – welcomed me back with open arms, but I found my gaze wandering to the new releases, aching to hold the new Stone Roses instead of my boyfriend’s hand. “Our song is on,” Billy said, turning up Crowded House as he stood behind the counter, waiting for me to lean on the front of it. I did it, out of obligation, but I didn’t bob my head. Sure, it was still our song, but now I had new ones, songs that didn’t involve him. I was different now, more grown up. Disease had matured me, like someone going through battle. And everyone knows that no one, not even your blue-eyed boyfriend, can go there with you. But Peter Murphy can. I had proof.
My knowledge of music was a pond compared to his ocean, but it existed. I was just as voracious about the bands we loved, but now I had bands I loved – and the confidence to claim them. I went to college and we stayed together for a semester, but the whole thing was destined to fall apart. I mean, Billy was still at the record store, now sending me CD mixes, and I was an hour away, meeting new boys who liked different music. It was the time of Nirvana and Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction. British imports didn’t hold the same appeal. Neither did letting someone older and wiser show me the way when I was capable – and ready – of finding the way, myself. It was a trend that would continue through many boys – and even more bands. Who I loved and what I listened to were inextricably intertwined. I don’t know if it was the mono, or if it had always been in me, but that ache that I felt for a new love was often the same whether it was a man or a record.
When I heard Elvis Costello on KCRW the other day, I was immediately taken back to Billy, his steady hands as they gave me the twelve-inch version of “I Want You.” Bright red with Elvis on the cover. I let it wash over me and Elvis’ voice reeled me in, first. So emotive, it almost cracked. And then it was the Hammond organ, chords so thick and vibrating, my insides stirred. In the years since I was with Billy, I’d played in a ska band,
several garage bands and a soul band. The Hammond was my instrument of choice – and then the Wurlitzer Electric Piano – but that wasn’t why I was feeling what I was feeling.
It was that song. Billy. Remembering a time in my life when my longing for a boy turned into a longing for music, which turned into something bigger.
I want you. I want you. I want you.
It was never about a boy or a song. It never had been. From Elvis’s first few notes to that gig I played last month, it was about me. As it turns out, longing, in its very best form, is actually about me wanting to know myself.
But if David Bowie can help? I think I’m okay with that.
* Not his real name. Not even close.