Thursday, January 10, 2008

How Soon is Now

This piece has been garnering rejection letters from some of the finest literary publications in the land, and since a thread about The Smiths: The Songs That Saved Your Life came up on one of my usual Internet haunts, I thought I'd post it here.

When I first heard “How Soon is Now?” in 1986, I caught maybe my first glimpse of Art’s ability to capture the way adolescence’s torrent absconds with your life. My hormonal years were in off-track suburban Louisiana, so the few of us looking for sensation outside of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Miller Genuine Draft caught everything secondhand and six months late. My friends and I all attended a loose teen youth group thing at the Methodist Church, which mostly involved us lounging around the gym and parking lot of the church, trying to get some off of the Methodist girls. Ours was a Catholic town, so we already had some outsider chic. It’s me and you against the Pope, baby. We had heard of The Smiths through intercepted channels from nearby hipper New Orleans, but the message had yet to be transmitted directly to our outpost until one day, my friend Scott procured a dub of Meat is Murder.

As I sat in his mom’s Toyota, Johnny Marr’s pedal-board Buddha machine blaring out the tape deck, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I’d heard that these Smiths were the kind of band one could base your life around, and it sounded fey and whiny to me. I didn’t want to be one of the thugs parading around my high school in a Bon Jovi half-shirt, but I was not going to hitch my wagon to “whiny;” I had enough trouble as it was. I was about to write it off , then those opening ten seconds of “How Soon is Now?” came on, and I felt the hole open up beneath me.

It’s like when Persephone, the teenage wastrel daughter of the Greek harvest goddess Demeter, was one day screwing around collecting wildflowers, when in a rumble and eruption of earth, Hades, the king of the hell bearing his name, stormed out of the ground and stole her away as his bride. She’s the classic ultimate teenage casualty. She is an innocent question waiting for a horrible answer. We however, were carefully listening for a knock from that door beneath us. Morrissey, who is often mislabeled the great rock poet of sweaty awkward teen love, offers some rather sophomoric lines in “How Soon Is Now”, but lines that have all the exposed heart of a tear-soaked diary page or a sticky Hustler shoved under the mattress.

I am the son and the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar

The gods charged in guns ablaze to rescue Persephone but it was revealed that she ate a few pomegranate seeds found in the underworld and these were things she could never give back. The gods ruled that she must remain his bride for a season per year, and during that time is when winter blankets the earth with death, since as any teenager with a soiled reputation can testify, once you participate in wickedness, you can never go back. I’m sure Persephone thought “Hey! I don’t even like pomegranate seeds” but it was too late. The white canvas of her purity was forever smudged, and the surge for her protection subsided like the pressure behind a dam when the plug is pulled. We wanted to bear that smudge is the worst possible way.

I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular

At that Methodist youth group, we were predominately awkward virgins, stumbling around the gym looking for a dark corner, both logistically and metaphorically, and secretly glad the place was well lit enough for there to not be one. We weren’t quite cool enough for drugs. We weren’t cool enough for anything. This lousy Methodist church group was about it. That ROAR though, it triggered something in us, something we had to leave the path and seek from the dark.

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?

We had abandoned the Methodists and their tepid teen talks and lock-in’s for paths of exploration. Back among the warehouses and oilfield detritus in the faded industrial part of town (its industrial bleakness was about as Manchester as you could get in south Louisiana); there was a gigantic empty oil tank. A ladder spiraled up the outside of this rusty thing leading up to the rim, like a narrow pass snaking up a mountain. One we reached the top, we beheld the event horizon – a gaping black hole, stinking with standing water and rust. It was the impenetrable void that, all of a sudden, had become available to us, aching for us.

I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everyone else does

We were still trying on our new manhood, our wet wings not yet able to get us off the ground and surely not able to save us after such a fall. I wasn’t a particularly dramatic, death-seeking type, but I knew right then I wanted to throw myself in there. It was the allure of the abyss, the desire to have your last scream stream out like a banner behind you, like the tail of a comet on its way back out into space, like the wailing roar from Johnny Marr’s guitar. It would be a totally fucking Smiths way to go out, one that would be whispered in dull lisps in suburban bedrooms for generations, under James Dean posters stolen from the mall. Maybe they’d play “How Soon Is Now?” at the prom in tribute. While I was up on that catwalk, rolling a hypothetical teen suicide plot around on my tongue to see how it tasted, a voice from across the deserted street shocked me awake. “Hey! Y’all come on in here!”

There is a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you

Thankfully, it wasn’t a cop. I had an enormous, consuming fear of being arrested. I had been picked up for shoplifting two years before and before releasing me to my devastated mother, the cops told me that if I ever was picked up for anything else, I was going to jail, and, my mind fed with television’s version of the law, believed them. It was instead a big-haired woman in a tank top and LSU boxer shorts and earth shoes (this was the fashion in the hinterlands circa 1986), standing in the doorway of an old warehouse bearing the name The ____Company; whatever had once occupied the ____ had long rusted off. “Y’all come on down here if you want.” We went.

What we had stumbled onto was a gay disco that operated just off the grid. Having been called “faggot” non-stop throughout my academic and social career up to that point, I felt at least a taxonomical connection to these people. There were a few gay people at our high school in varying degrees of openness, but our little cadre of mock new wavers passed for gay in the pedestrian definition – trench coats, pins on our jacket, not into sports. Inevitably, my friend Duke would get publicly dubbed a fag wherever we went, and in short order, get decked for it. As we entered, my friend Scott and I glanced at each other and asked “Is that New Order?” as “Blue Monday” throbbed along with the makeshift lightshow over the empty dance floor. It was like finding evidence of a Starbucks on the moon – a welcome site in unfamiliar territory. We had assumed ourselves to be the only people in the area with knowledge of New Order and were shocked to discover we were but a small part of a much larger machine that did.

We tried our best to not appear too creeped out by the place. I saw a couple of the guys that hung out at the donut shop I worked at the previous summer. The bartender sold us drinks, the DJ played songs we wanted to hear, and we felt dangerous and sophisticated For the most part, the patrons there were nice and left us alone, much more congenial that the usual crowds we encountered that beat us up for being theoretical faggots, not to mention that this crowd was miles cooler. The homosexuals were definitely a step up from the Methodists.

We went back a number of times, thinking our presence there was hardcore and dangerous on our part, and a mere amusement to the others. It wasn’t until one night that one of my donut shop guys was buying my friend Jamey drinks over and over. We had asked for “How Soon is Now?” and the DJ had it and we all hit the floor to perform some made up bat cave ritual dance to the song. It was glorious. “Dude! This guy keeps getting me drinks!” Jamey said with incredulous glee, draining one screwdriver after another. I thought that the novelty of us being there was two-way, and the bubble of criminally vulgar shyness was pierced when Donut Guy came up to Jamey after the fourth drink and said “OK, so are we gonna go back there and fuck or what?”

So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry and you want to die

That roar again! Neither Archimedes nor Sir Isaac Newton had ever possessed quite the look of instant realization on their faces that registered in Jamey’s right then, and he bolted out the door. It took us a second to realize what had happened and we fell in shortly after him. I glanced around for one last look, rightfully deducing that we would not be coming back here when I caught the eye of one of my classmates in a booth near the wall, sitting on an older man’s lap. It was quick eternal eye contact, like you get when two trains pass and you see someone vividly for an instant on the opposite train. In the car, Jamey vacillated wildly between hilarity and panic, but I was stuck on that kid’s face. I didn’t tell the rest of the them about it, because 1) I didn’t actually know that kid’s name and 2) correctly predicted a new temporary homophobia was about to occupy our group. One we got past the parking lot, we drove home in silence.

When you say it’s going to happen now
But what exactly do you mean

So why was Persephone out by herself in the fields? As the product of the dodgy incest of Zeus and his sister Demeter, she had no set seat in Olympus. All the gods wanted a piece of this young maiden so Demeter hid her away to be watched over by nymphs in the wild away from the raging cocks of heaven. And nymphs are not exactly renowned for dedication to duty. Being middle-class suburban kids, we were kept from danger in our nice neat subdivisions with fake aristocratic botanical names and all it did was make us seek out whatever abyss we cold find. How we managed to escape drugs is undoubtedly a testament to our lack of cool.

See, I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone

As far as I know, none of us ever ventured back to the club. I drove by there on a long weekend home from college and found it empty, with the giant oil drum sitting collapsed and crumpled next to it, that spiral treacherous catwalk now a twisted spine poking out of a carcass of rust. That kid had come up to me at school at lunch about a week after I’d seen him at the club with an awkward “How’s it going.” And the conversation went as far as that. I think we both knew how things were going. His path, as I pictured it, was too dangerous for me, mine was too cautious for him and we left it at that. All these paths converge and the yellow bricks turn to cracks in the concrete for everyone and we are walking down well established paths that a million others just like us have walked and will walk again behind us, all paths that lead us to the nothing we are due to inherit. We all hear that same rumble under our feet, that same roar when some realization is forced upon us. We are sons and heirs of nothing in particular, needing to be loved, just like everyone else does.

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