Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Heart is In Neutral

The wind is whipping at my shirt and nothing really hurts.

I was standing still. And everyone else was moving.

Not just moving. Spinning. Faster and faster.

It was summer. And they were scattered to the winds. While I was still there. Subletting a room in a four-bedroom apartment on the edge of campus on the third floor in a building that looked like it had towers.

I had an on-campus job at the library (an eleven-minute walk), where there was enough work to keep one person busy for five or six hours. So naturally, they'd hired four of us. I spent a lot of time writing letters to the girlfriend I stupidly convinced myself was the love of my life. I missed her like crazy and somehow knew that things were all about to change (and not for the better).

It was this summer and I was listening to Tom Petty a lot. But I also had a mesmerizing tape of an album my friend Eric had -- by a bizarre band from Boston called Private Lightning.

[At this point, I'd usually have a YouTube clip. And these songs were up on YouTube a month ago, but they've vanished. So please go listen to them for free here on Rhapsody. I'll wait.]

Private Lightning formed in the late 70s and never quite fit in. They combined new wave sensibilities, arena-rock vocals, AOR guitars, hippie-prog lyrics, and cheesy synths. And, as if that weren't enough, they prominently featured an electric violin. On paper, there's no way that should've worked. In fact, there's no way it should even be listenable.

But Private Lightning gradually built an audience in and around Boston. So before long, record company scouts were wooing them and a bidding war erupted. They signed a seven-figure deal with A&M, convinced it was the right move because of the way A&M had broken both Joe Jackson and the Police.

But the record company didn't like the band's choice of producers and brought in someone else. They band hated the mix of the album, but were excited to have the songs released. And in 1980, the record finally came out (and got quite a lot of airplay in New England).

A&M, which promised a huge promotional push and lots of tour support, found themselves instead concentrating on new records by the Police and Joe Jackson (both of which appeared at the same time as the Private Lightning album). Something had to fall through the cracks, and it wasn't about to be Joe Jackson or the Police. So the Private Lightning album died without much fanfare.

Demos were recorded for the second album, but A&M had lost interest and the band was dropped. The album went out of print (and stayed that way for more than 25 years) and the band broke up.

And I flew to see the girlfriend and got dropped as well.

I came back to my sublet room on the third floor. I walked the eleven minutes to and from the library. I wandered around after work and tried to interact with people, but everything looked like I was viewing it through some kind of opaque, viscous liquid. I wrote more letters to the (now ex-) girlfriend, but didn't send them. I took long walks in the middle of the night, then came home, showered, and walked the eleven minutes to work at the library. There were only a few weeks left to the summer, but it was like time had stopped. My last day of work, I made it to the library in only three minutes (maybe my watch was fast, maybe time really was broken -- I'm still not sure what to believe).

And I listened to my cassette copy of the Private Lightning album that summer until I wore the tape down to a ghostly whisper. The songs sounded like a desperate missive from another world:
My heart is in neutral, this motionless summer
I write all these letters to drop in the mail.
In the cool of the evening, I find myself restless...

The song loops back on itself in the second verse, moving forward while echoing the first verse inside every new line. "What can I do?" the band asks, "I'm so lonely for you."

When my friends returned to campus and I moved out of the sublet, they were eager to talk about what they'd done and where they'd been over the summer. I couldn't explain anything about my summer. I found myself looping back between their lines, searching for meaning and finding none. Weeks later, I still felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. They'd all moved forward and moved on... while I was standing still, watching my heart slowly break apart and spill out all over the floor.

Years later, I can't tell you who else lived in the apartment where I sublet that room. I can't even remember who I sublet it from. But every note from that electric violin is burned into my soul -- and each song brings me back to that summer.

Last summer, Renaissance Records finally released the Private Lightning album on CD, complete with 13 bonus tracks -- demos from what might have been their second album.

And Steve Keith, the band's bassist, has posted alternate mixes of many of their songs here.

Check out "Physical Speed" at the above link.


Anonymous said...

Loved this band way back when.

There's a version of "Physical Speed" where they changed "AM radio" to "FM radio."

I don't know why - it changes the meaning and isn't as evocative.

asiangrrl said...

You have such a melancholy sweetness to your writing. I really...resonated with this post. You could have written it for me.

steve2k2 said...

Hey thanks for the great write-up, loved it. We fully agree with the other comment that was left here. Changing it from AM to FM was a stupid idea put forth by our management and the record company as being more 'hip' - we should have never done it. AM was the way to go - Steve. Check out my new song, Politically Corrupt

Anonymous said...

You know what happens when your heart is in neutral? Your engine revs way too high. :(