I argued with myself on posting this, and lost. It's TMI, pure ugly catharsis. Probably won't be up long. At least it's better at the end. Not seeking anything with it.
A few months back, a Family Guy rerun introduced me to the term "yacht rock," aka "dad rock," or, as I learned it: "soft rock." Peter is whisked to a happy place upon hearing Bob Welch's solo recording of his older Fleetwood Mac song, "Sentimental Lady." I recalled it from the radio back in the day, though I couldn't claim to know - or perceive - the lyrics. Not to worry, they're not very good. And the album, French Kiss, is also better left imagined. Still, that particular recording is...effective. Affective. Buckingham's arrangement and the post production are sublimely transformative of "meh" material. The lyrics could be a cornbread recipe for all I care. That sound is a blanket of stardust, and I am snuggled, tell you what. Wish it were eight minutes long.
Not having heard it in forever, I immediately went to YouTube (along with numerous Family Guy viewers). The AI there recommended "related" videos. Thus it began. A playlist. A private, indulgent, embarrassing, guilty playlist. Of it I will say only that track one is Player. And me without a yacht. A dinghy, even.
"Sentimental Lady" charted in 1977. I was ten. My cousin and I were just months apart, the oldest kids. Above us were only adults; the three youngest were over 35, the rest a generation or two further removed, and all conservative and old-fashioned in disposition even for their ages. Our car radios only seemed to pick up "soft rock," "oldies," and Country. Oldies aside, there were America, Carly Simon, Charlie Rich, Debby Boone, 5th Dimension, Dionne Warwick, the Carpenters, those new Billy Joel and Barry Manilow kids. "Chevy Van," "Wildfire," "Blue Bayou" (Ms. Ronstadt, if you please), "Wichita Lineman," "Here You Come Again." For reasons too tenebrous to go into here, I had burrowed into Classical and Big Band, so in my room were Grieg, Brahms, and Artie Shaw. No, not for me the disco, the KISS, the new punk thing. I listened to both Engelbert Humperdincks. My pop-pop crooned Al Jolson, and fried scrapple and muskrat to his Ray Conniff 8-track tape. My uncle wanted to leave my aunt for Connie Francis. We watched Lawrence Welk, Hee-Haw, and The Donny & Marie Show.
While the taxonomy of "yacht rock" can be debated, I'm particularly enamoured of a specific subspecies, all under a bell curve with limits at 1970 and 1982. Mostly guitars and electric pianos, string sections a plus. Mostly not rockin'. In this milk crate is no disco, soul (well, there's David Soul), metal, folk, protest, novelty, prog, dance, or ambient. Some of the artists normally classified as "yacht" aren't to be found: Ambrosia, yes, Toto, no; Gary Puckett, yes, Al Jarreau, no; Seals & Crofts, but not Hall & Oates. Likely to do with the stations selected and approved for me circa 1977. This was the pop music that shaped my primordial self, before I really listened to lyrics. Before I was introduced to The Beatles, The Who. Before New Wave. Before Like a Virgin and Thriller. Before Colour By Numbers, Synchronicity, Suzanne Vega, Faith, Tracy Chapman, Vivid, Now and Zen, Control, Document, et al. This yacht-ey stuff formed the baseline soundtrack for adulting.
My top secret, ultra-private playlist currently stands at 87 songs, in no meaningful order. More will be added as I'm reminded. But that's not what this post is about. It's about what happens as the music runs.
I'm not dropped into my 10-year-old brain as expected. I don't think about waiting in the station wagon with my dad and brother for Mom to finish up with "her doctor." I'm not running around the yard dodging dog poop, not begging to stay up on Easter night to watch The Ten Commandments, or five months later the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. I'm not making Rube-Goldbergs out of clay and Tinkertoys, practising the piano, nor wondering whether my elementary school music teacher will leave her new husband for me. No.
Instead, I'm downloaded into a younger, often thinner, less bald iteration of my adult self. My 20s and 30s, grazing the early 40s. 1988-2007. My lonely, miserable, confused, depressed, angry, childish adult years of social binge drinking, skirt chasing, periodic poverty, world-blaming, and passive-aggressive lashing out. An incel in the offing. A lost, sad, fearful, vaguely creepy, untherapized, misfit underachiever.
That man obsessed over approval and belonging, over people, mostly women, mostly old or current love interests, many unrequited. People I ached to know better, and others I wished I'd never met at all; these sets weren't mutually exclusive. But “people” was something I was terrible at, so mostly what I had to pore over were the missed chances, misread expressions, fights, breakups, confessions, disappointments, shocks, hurts, and humiliations. Angry rants, tearful apologies. Yearning. Jealousy. Theatrics. There were good memories tossed in like raisins, and relationships I would have given a toe to reignite, but even the best were poisoned with unrelenting sturm und drang. I inhabited a junk shop of moments in various states of disrepair. That house, that restaurant, that room, that highway, that town, that party, that day, that weekend, that trip, that tree, that shirt, that remark...each a precious, broken souvenir to rub featureless, or a memento to mourn over, like an urn.
Oh, the countless mistakes to erase. That tantrum because I couldn't win at Othello. That tennis racket I broke on a tree because I couldn't complete a pregame warm-up exercise. So many more outbursts of rage. The terrible things I said, and believed, of people. The unevenly knotted string of short-lived relationships. The very bad choices. That one time I drunkenly hit on a woman at a bar. And maybe one other, though it remains uncertain how much of that was invented by my pals. That time I threw up on myself at a bar. And the couple other times. And in someone's car. And out the open door of another car while it was moving. Sleeping it off in someone's den, rec room, living room floor, or porch. All those jokes about me and Red Death. All those invitations that dried up. All those hours driving drunk home alone from some dive or microbrewery, sometimes more than an hour at a time, through fog or snow on winding, hilly, country roads, sometimes on the interstate. That time one of my best friends wrote me off permanently because my drunkenness ruined her anniversary.
It goes on. It got worse. There are things I'll simply never admit to aloud, that I try not to think about even today. Maybe a few I was too blitzed to retain. Apologies I wouldn't have the balls to make even if the opportunities magically arose. Apologies would seem futile, anyway.
I trashed the first half of my adulthood, wrecked it and left wreckage behind. I had bailed out of school, kept a shitty job, was estranged from my family (which is, in truth, the highlight of those years), moved every 9-12 months, saved no money, totalled two cars, thought about nothing but trying to be happy and loved, but proved utterly incapable of making decisions or behaving in a way that would get me there. Others of similar age and academic achievement, folks who had escaped my orbit, were earning doctorates, winning Emmys, writing for newspapers, having kids, putting out records, touring Europe, teaching, filing for patents, owning businesses. I was waking up in a crust of my own exuding on a secondhand sofa in a trailer at the back of a Mennonite dairy farm wondering how I could get into the heart and pants of that new outbound sales rep at the office. Spoiler alert...
Compared to some folks - folks on the news, say - my escapades were tame, dare I say trivial. I never struck anyone. I never stole, broke into anything or any place, set anything ablaze, tried to hurt or end myself, lost a mortgage at the track, nor did anything criminal beyond speeding and habitual drunk driving, though the latter is obviously horrible and it's outrageous I wasn't caught sooner. I didn't do drugs harder than mixed drinks. I never disappeared down the oubliettes of violence, jail, addiction, disease, homelessness, any of that. These garbage years aren't the stuff of television movies. They aren't tragic, just pathetic. Sad and stupid, in the "wow, wasn't he third in his class?" sort of way. In the cautionary-ancillary-character-tale-in-a-movie-about-recovering-alcoholics way, and the she-always-dated-these-sorts-of-losers-until-she-learned-to-value-herself way. In the grow-the-hell-up-already way.
Undiagnosed, unmedicated depression, abyssal self-esteem, and childhood and anger issues are the eleven herbs and spices here, my friend. Which is no excuse, just the explanation. Others faced down their emotional problems; I celebrated mine, wooed them, got them shitfaced, fucked them in the dark and promised I'd never, ever leave. I raged and pitied myself, then patted my back for my endurance, my righteousness. I absorbed my faults. I dared anyone to take them from me. The Venom to my Eddie Brock. Take me or leave me. But please take me. No, leave me. Better yet, leave, but wish you could take me. You know, the way I do you. Isn't it better that way, us always longing and hurting and never needing to work at it and still not closing the door all the way? Nevermind, you just don't understand.
But, weirdly, Rob-boy's Complaint is also not what this post is about. Not exactly. It's true, merely contextual. It leads to the bit about a habit I got into amid it all, because of it all. A hobby of sorts. A balm.
I drove. Sober, I mean.
From 1991 through late 1999, I lived either with crummy roommates in decent places or alone in isolated rural shitholes at the top of my meagre price range. Going "home" after work wasn't a pleasant notion. So most every evening I would leave my 9-5 and drive for 4-6 hours, mostly over southeastern PA: Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, Lehigh, Berks, Lancaster, Lebanon, York, and Dauphin counties. Delaware State as far as Middletown; later, as far as Milford. When I had to visit NJ for some legitimate reason, I'd come back the long way, covering four or five counties there. One Saturday afternoon, I went out for Burger King drive-thru, and on impulse didn't come back until Sunday night, after zig-zagging around PA, and avoiding toll roads. The town of Susquehanna, near the NY border; Clarion; Altoona; Lockhaven; Three Mile Island; York; Mount Hope; New Hope; Millersville. All associated with heartbreak of one kind or other, with grudges, missteps, regret, and longing. Later, after an LTR with a woman in MD, I added Harford, Cecil, and Baltimore counties to my routes. The backdrops of mental movies where I relived, redressed, and re-imagined things as they "should" have been.
Driving became a second job, something to do alone instead of playing a game or watching TV. A bizarre form of stalking, or maybe more like haunting, akin to going to see the house you grew up in though it had changed hands four times since. The people on my mind weren't even around anymore as far as I knew. I wouldn't stop anywhere, circle a block, or even slow down, linger, or necessarily get within a mile of a particular spot. Sometimes I didn't even know a particular spot. Just moving through the landscape was enough. Ah, Lititz, where so-and-so-I-crushed-on worked part time at the General Sutter Inn during her senior year, before I knew her. Next up, Manheim, and that diner a few of us went to on our way to the PA Ren Faire that one summer, that trip where I was the fifth wheel who wouldn't be dislodged. French Creek, a really good camping trip with friends who were friends no longer, noting drunkenness above. Other nights I'd just go pass places I once got falling down drunk while pining for or, hilariously, trying to impress someone - the Reading airport's wings joint, Shillington, Quarryville, Jennersville, Collegeville, Perkasie. Good times, good times.
Sometimes it was, in fact, good, if bittersweet. One Christmas Day, spent alone, I wanted to see snow. I lived in Cochranville at the time, and had to go as far as State College to spy small white patches in some scrubby copse off 322. The radio stations played goofy music. The skies were grey, but the air dry. The roads were almost empty. In truth I felt some measure of contentedness, and decided I'd found a new tradition - snow on Christmas, always. I haven't spent one alone since, which is good news, though I do feel I let my new tradition down, like returning an adopted puppy.
The driving wasn't therapy, but it was treatment. A controlled space, alone, anonymous, answering to no one, no need to explain or feel guilty for the wallowing. The focus needed for driving prevented a complete inward turn. Some days it was entirely pleasant. Little different from sitting home drinking, but different enough. Funny, I never got into that; all my drinking was social. But these long sober drives were good. Soothing. Somehow a bit less lonely than the four walls waiting at the end. As I said, a balm.
Though the MD LTR added territory, it also reduced my time (not the desire) for driving while the LTR was on. And it helped get me a little better at relationships upon my return to PA (this boast would surprise or amuse some folks I knew around this time; the relationships lasted longer, anyway, and didn't explode the way they used to, so that was a step, yes?). This homecoming was not long after 9-11, so things were weird “out there” on the road, in the country. Gas prices rose, and my job got more demanding. I also earned more, so my home wasn't so much a shithole. With less opportunity and reason to spend the money, the driving tapered off. Once a week, a month, a season. I started therapy in earnest in 2007, in the dusk of yet another failing LTR. By 2008 the impulse for drive-time had dulled. Single again, I returned to social drinking. And, at last, a long overdue DUI.
And we're finally getting closer to what this post is truly supposed be about, and what that playlist really evokes.
By the fourth or fifth song, I'm getting nostalgic for the road. By the tenth, I'm fighting the urge to open Google maps. Then I succumb. By the 20th, I'm sad in that old familiar way, and very - I'd wager "too" - comfortable with it. As the songs roll, I'm revisiting the self that was already sentimentally revisiting this music at his highest and lowest, at his most naive and self-delusional. I'm 30, 35, in the car on Rte 23, somewhere between Phoenixville and Marietta. I'm a passenger in that safe place where I can just think what I want and feel like shit and don't have to justify it and no one's bothered and there are no consequences.
I'm reminiscing about reminiscing. (Inception!)
Meanwhile, my partner of ten years is in another room unaware that I'm shooting myself in the aorta for the sport of it, and that the engraving on the barrel reads, "PLAY ALL." Thankfully, my little wormhole, my Einstein-Rosen binge, collapses quickly once the music's off and I'm back in her presence. And I don't indulge this often. I can quit any time I want!
An exceptionally dumb part of this dark nostalgia for darker nostalgia is that none of this music was even playing while I was on the road. I had a few Paul Simon, Sting, and Tori Amos tapes on heavy rotation. I'd tune to alternative or college stations. One of these drives is when I first heard Nine Inch Nails ("Closer," and I lol'd the whole way through it). Worse, most of these playlist songs have nothing to do with the original memories or events. I never made out with anyone to Climax Blues Band or Roberta Flack, but that's what I wanted on the radio as I breezed through Shamokin.
These songs would play in my head because I grew up associating them with the sorts of experiences I was reliving. Leo Sayer's 1977 "When I Need You" was not to be heard when I fell for so-and-so in 1988. Yet, even though I was into Billy Joel and Bonnie Raitt at the time, and she was into Violent Femmes and Les Miserables, and she could barely stand me and we never got close to going out, and I dated other people, and she stopped speaking to me in 1991, conjuring an imagined relationship from West Chester in 1988 while driving past Schwenksville in 1997 with Ben Folds on the radio, what I heard was Sayer. The sound of the generation before me is the sound of my adult feelings filtered through my childhood and adolescence - the soundtrack I always thought should have been there. Not sure that makes a whole lot of sense as written, or at all, but there you go.
This is my island playlist from that time I was stranded on a large but isolated mass of volcanic moody badness. It took years, but I built a raft and caught a trade wind. I don't want to go back. But, in fact, secretly, sometimes I do. That was Home for a long-ass time. I remember every leaf and stone. Sometimes being miserable in an old way is attractive. Sometimes the familiarity, the certainty, beckons. A flyover is enough. Well, maybe stop for a bit, lunch on the beach. That's okay, right? Wasn't this the premise of Rescue from Gilligan's Island?
That's the depression speaking, of course. I know that. It's one thing to reflect, another to revert.
And that brings us to the catch. I'm not that guy anymore. I remain absurdly sentimental, and my depression is genetic, neurochemical, and therefore always skulking about somewhere, a stowaway stealing from the galley. (My raft had a galley. So sue me.) Still, I'm not him. Therapy, experience, perspective, a different class of social circle, all have done their jobs. I can't always fix my mood, but I can parse it. Now when I think about so-and-so A, or so-and-so's B through Double-Zed, or this-and-that, when I drive these roads in my mind, my longing isn't for old flames, but for resolution.
I want to wipe the slate. I'm over the heartaches, but not the embarrassment, the guilt of being a bad guy, the shame of being disdained or regretted. It sits in me, sometimes a stone, sometimes an acid stomach. I get sad that so-and-so's are left with that soiled image. I want them to remember me differently, to know that I made it off the island. It's not about connection anymore, it's about redemption, pride. That's better, yes?
Now the most maudlin part. I think. Hard to be sure after all this.
The ragged, seeping exit wound is the therapized now-me's realization that: these people don't think about me at all. We haven't seen one another in 10+ years? 20? 30? I was irrelevant to some even then, I know that now. All this emotional labour and mire isn't for naught just because reconciliation is impossible, but because I'm alone in wanting it. For all the scars I imagine I left, or the stupid humiliations from which I may never recover, I'm a blip to folks on the other side. Would so-and-so remember me smashing that tennis racket? Sure. Does she ever think about it, wonder what happened to that guy? Nope - why on earth would she be holding onto that? Does so-and-so recall cutting me out of her life after my drunken stupidity? Certainly. Does she think about it when driving past the old office we shared? Why - we've been strangers five or six times longer than we were friends. Does so-and-so regret knowing me? Her, definitely. How often? Best guess: next to never. Does anyone have a laugh over me failing to finish "Danny Boy" one sodden night at the Epicurean? Magic 8-Ball's sources say no.
Maybe the final hurdle in therapy is acceptance: that I could have done better, that apologies are all anyone can give or expect, that not all bridges can or should be rebuilt, and that some things will never be fixed or fixable. And especially that I simply wasn't the fixture in people's lives that they were in mine. If I ever get back to therapy, this/these will be at the top of my legal pad.
And after? Perhaps the greatest questions would remain: with acceptance achieved, what will come of this playlist? Would I ever again feel the impulse to drive through Leola or see the Reading pagoda? Will I get maudlin to Bread or Paul Davis?
One thing's for sure: you can pry the Carpenters from my cold, dead, tear-stained hands.