Imagine yourself in sixth grade. Recall the room: chalkboard, pencil sharpener, bulletin board. Images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln tacked to the walls. The smells of pencil lead, chalk dust, floor wax. Now remember your teacher: middle-aged, worn, most likely female.
Now recall your classmates. Perfect Girl, who sailed through adolescence, her skin clear, her hair perfectly feathered, her lithe body clad in Izod sweaters, Calvin Klein Jeans, and Dex boat shoes. Her grades were good without being too good; if she partook of sport, it was either swimming or track. Recall her male counterpart, who wore Levi’s and competed in downhill skiing or hockey. Remember all the kids in the middle, emulating Perfect Girl and Boy, identically clad in those awful deck shoes, everything about them middling: their grades, their looks, their aspirations.
Now recall the weird kids. The 17-year-old boy, dyslexic before anybody knew the word, hunched in his too-small desk. The pimply kid who never talked. The burnouts. The kid—often a he, but in this case, a she—who always had her nose in a book. This girl dressed badly, in Wrangler jeans and cheap sneakers. She needed glasses. She spoke little. She read whenever possible, keeping a book open in her lap even while her teachers spoke.
The other children, led by Perfect Girl, made vicious fun of her.
In writing this I am ambushed by memories, a cascading series of heretofore forgotten moments undimmed by time or distance. I am back in Detroit, where I lived until I was 17. I am ten, 12, 15 years old. I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to remember. My reaction surprised me: I expected to mentally crack my knuckles and knock out a sharp, witty little essay. But memory has its way, mercilessly recalling the girl I was, prone on the floor between her speakers. She was so very unhappy, depressed before depression was the disease du jour, seeking refuge in books and music, particularly the music of Pink Floyd.
Roger Waters’ lyrics exerted a certain hold on me, articulating something I could not and seizing my imagination, imprinting on it. To this day, I can recite all of Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here off the top of my head, a variant sort of savant. And I think it was this music, more than any book, that eventually drove me to writing.
You didn’t like school
And you know you’re nobody’s fool
So welcome to the machine
I grabbed to those words, or they me, and I held fast, waiting until I was old enough to escape.
I bought records with hoarded babysitting money until high school, when I got an after-school job paying $3.35 an hour. My record player was a 1956 RCA Victor originally belonging to my mother. In addition to a vinyl-flattening metal tone arm, this record player ran on tubes, which blew frequently due to constant use. A blowing tube announced itself as a loud buzzing sound over the music. Tubes were available at only one place: Lafayette Audio, an audiophile’s paradise of JBL speakers and Pioneer turntables. Diamond tip styli were set out under glass like so many glittering engagement rings. My father would take me—on his motorcycle in fair weather—and speak to the young longhair behind the counter, who would return holding what looked like a glass ampoule with a tiny wire inside. When I was thirteen, my parents bought me the stereo I use to this day.
To prepare for this, I rummaged in the study, where our vinyl resides on a low shelf. I pulled Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall out. Their sleeves are frayed, softened from too much handling. Both the outer and inner sleeves of Wish are held together by drying scotch tape. I tried to recall where and when I bought them. It must have been at Korvettes, a long-defunct Michigan chain store selling cheap clothing, car parts, and, all along the back wall, records. I would hop on my mother’s motorbike, a Puch with a top speed of 30 miles per hour, and zip down the street, helmetless and underaged. My shopping completed, I fitted my precious package into the bike’s red plastic basket and headed home. Once I pulled into the driveway only to find the basket empty. I turned around, retraced my route, and found Queen’s The Game in the middle of the street. Amazingly, the album was intact, but side two suffered. “Don’t Try Suicide” skips.
In those days, albums often came stuffed with posters. I don’t remember anything coming with The Wall, but Dark Side had the iconic prism poster, which adorned my bedroom wall for years, and Wish had stickers and a postcard, which I tacked to my closet door. I still have the stickers, stuck to the filing cabinets holding up the piece of formica I call my desk. Those stickers are at least thirty years old. Talismans. Flotsam from another century.
Pink Floyd spoke to my terrible loneliness, proof positive that my unwillingness to mimic my peers meant I was special, thoughtful, even—in my own silent way—subversive. Further, it held out a promise: If I only waited until adulthood, I would meet others who were like me. People who thought life, who were interested in what lay beneath the banalities of daily living. I would put on Dark Side or Wish and settle on the floor between the speakers, my mind a perfect blank, absorbing those words. They were a verbal protectant, balm, reassurance that the future would be better than the present moment. The idea that it might be otherwise—that the future would be more of the same—was too frightening to contemplate.
Though I listened to Wish and Dark Side constantly, it was the 1979 release of The Wall that really changed my life. It had what Dark Side and Wish, for all their greatness, did not: timing. It emerged exactly when I needed it. So few things do. I was twelve, in sixth grade, casting about, ever more desperate, for explanations of why I was the way I was and others were not. The Wall gave me those explanations. In the spare moments between school, study, and work, I lay on the floor with the stereo on, listening to Roger Waters scream at society. He effectively fingered all the things I found wanting: school, politics, relationships.
Only now do I realize how odd it was that an adolescent identified so strongly with The Wall’s themes of war and doomed romantic love. Certainly I had no experience of either—that came later. Rather, I was responding to Waters’ relentless excavation of the empty spaces, which I could not fill with the babble of my peers, a babble whose surface would change over time without ever plumbing any depths. My classmates would attend the University of Michigan or Michigan State and marry each other. They would get good jobs, buy homes in West Bloomfield, and have babies. Feathering would give way to perms would give way to mousse, deck shoes would be replaced by Reeboks, girls would sneak their mothers’ Danielle Steel books while the boys read nothing at all.
The Wall gave me the courage to fight back. When Perfect Girl upped her teasing campaign, making fun of my appearance and vocabulary, I threatened her with bodily harm. I was bigger than she was, and meant what I said. She was stunned into submission. So were her friends. After that, people left me alone.
I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
Don’t think I need anything at all
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall
Meanwhile, the nameless thing I’d carried about since childhood shaped itself into a black entity threatening to devour me.
Goodbye cruel world
I’m leaving you today
Goodbye all you people
There’s nothing you can say
To make me change my mind
Oh, the undeniable temptation of oblivion. It tugged at me, a darkly alluring escape from depression’s unremitting greyness. But even as Roger Waters railed about death, he yanked me back from the edge. If Roger Waters existed, if Pink Floyd existed, there was a tiny margin of hope, a filament of promise thinner than jeweler’s wire.
All I had to do was wait.
I listened to Pink trash a television set. Scream! Crash!
The satisfying sound of broken glass.
I am the only person I know who doesn’t wish herself younger.
In order to refresh my memory while writing this, I listened to Dark Side and The Wall. I did this in the car, driving to and from work. The days of lying prone are long past, sacrificed to the demands of working life.
The waiting is over now, childhood long past.
I don’t have Wish on CD, so I couldn’t listen to that one. I do have Rasputina’s Lost and Found, which I bought unheard on the strength of Melora Creager’s decision to cover “Wish You Were Here”. The phrasing is a little weird, but the music translates beautifully, achingly, to cello.
Listening was strange. I hadn’t done so in years, and the experience transpired on multiple levels: the middle-aged woman in a dark skirt and expensive shoes, driving her middle-aged vehicle to her sedentary, dull job as the old pain and loneliness welled up through an otherwise pedestrian workday; the old sense of subversive behavior, of being more than I seemed. All around me my fellow commuters were blathering on cell phones, listening to NPR, trying to out-blast other drivers with rap’s pounding bass beats. Nobody else, it seemed, was listening to songs about our tacit societal agreement to pretend that our collective behavior that morning was a worthwhile endeavor.
Then there was slam of those familiar lyrics, hitting me with a new force:
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day, the paperboy brings more
Look Mummy, there’s an aeroplane up in the sky
I survived. Dented, but alive. Along the way I met a few people I could talk to. Most have fallen by the wayside. Three are dead: Multiple Sclerosis, a bottle of Vicodin, a leap from a bridge. Others survived by caving: they sold their record collections, quit smoking pot, married dull people, reproduced. They joined the squash players and scrapbookers of the world, consumers, poor souls, of Paxil and Ambien. Others are casualties of time, distance, and force of circumstance.
I am able to keep the black monster in check sans medication, largely because of my husband, with whom I share a passionate intellectual connection. I could argue my marriage was a direct outcome of listening to Roger Waters during my formative years: he taught me what sort of man I wanted to marry.
And yet: I remain an intense loner. I view most of my fellow citizens with the same uncharitable mixture of scorn and dismay that I did in high school. So many of us behave so very badly, in ways large and small. So while my place in the world has improved since 1979, the world has not become a better place. Even Pink Floyd has fallen apart, prey to the squabbling I always associated with lesser bands.
Now 40, I remain happiest in my own company, listening to my brain’s mutterings. But I am careful. Madness, glinting like a new penny, is the flip side of solitude. (“Come on you target for faraway laughter / Come you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!”) And God knows the worms are everywhere, as are the lunatics and self-appointed judges. The woman who was the girl on the floor sidesteps them carefully, walking up and down, outside the wall.