I was nerdy and obsessed with music, looking for escape and lost in my imagination. She was tough and sexy and careless.
I don't know how it started or why. She called me one night and told me she was getting high and blowing the smoke out her window. (To this day, I'm not sure why she told me that.)
I told her I was listening to the radio and reading Dostoyevsky. (I told her that because it was true.)
The outlines are blurred now, but some details are clearer than ever. During the first snowfall of the year, in front of the candy store whose owner would soon be arrested for selling drugs, she told me she wanted to run her own hair and nail salon and change her name to Jewelie. I wanted to keep from laughing when she mentioned that.
Before the internet, before MTV, before MP3s, people used to listen to the radio.
And briefly, in the late 70s, a band called The Sports sneaked onto the radio in the U.S. They sounded like a smoother version of Joe Jackson or Graham Parker. I didn't know at the time they were from Australia -- they sounded like dozens of other bands being packaged as "new wave."
But they'd figured out a sure-fire way to get radio play. They wrote a song about radio. It was one of the oldest gimmicks in music (but also one of the more effective ones). Then they took the gimmick up a notch and recorded dozens of customized versions of their radio-centric song, replacing the second "the radio" from the chorus with call letters of radio stations in the top media markets. The stations who were name-checked couldn't wait to play the song (and sometimes edited the call-letter shout-out to use in station-identification spots.
Ironically, I'd heard the "normal" version of this song on the cool radio station near where I lived. Months later, the more top-40 oriented station (which wasn't nearly as cool) started playing the "special" version of the song and I wondered if the band knew how uncool that other station was. (Probably not -- they were in Australia.)
My relationship with "Jewelie" didn't last long. We had little in common and she was always picking fights with me.
She drove an ancient beige Buick covered with rust spots and filled with fast-food wrappers. The tires were bald and the brakes squealed and she always drove too fast. The radio in the car was broken and she'd never bothered to get it fixed. The rust and tires and brakes I could understand, but not fixing the radio was a complete mystery to me.
A few weeks after that first snowfall, a heatwave settled into New England, turning the white ground cover slushy and gray until it disappeared altogether. It got cold again, but didn't snow for a while. And sometime in those cold days of waiting for more snow, "Jewelie" called me because she was mad that I didn't have any friends in prison. She yelled at me and dumped me over the phone, then complained that I had the radio on in the background. The station was playing the Sports at the very moment when she asked me "who listens to the radio anyway?"
Me. And everyone I knew.
But not her.
Our other problems would have been difficult to solve... but that one was impossible.
10. "One night there was a girl there." Probably there were girls there before that night. Maybe that girl was there on some previous night. But all good pop songs begin with a girl (and in the logic of the pop song, time begins anew when a girl appears).
9. "For some reason, she..." Girls are strange and wondrous creatures. Men and boys will never understand them... We know that they have reasons for what they do, even if we'll never know or fully comprehend those reasons.
8. The way the horn parts echo and complement the vocals in the last verse. Yeah, this technically starts before the last 30 seconds, but it continues and intensifies as the song draws to a close.
7. Stretching out the first syllable of "somewhere" in the line "She said 'why don't we go somewhere?'" It would scan better not to stretch the syllable. It would match what went before. But when your entire life changes, everything suddenly seems different and when you look back, the moment of change elongates in your memory.
6. The internal rhyme of "So I passed her her coat, that was all that she wrote." Again, when your entire life changes, the rhymes can quicken. And once your life changes completely, what's the harm of adding an extra line or two to the verse?
5. "That was it for the radio bar." Because when your life suddenly changes and you have purpose, you no longer need to waste time childishly like you did before.
4. The false ending. Is there anything sweeter than a fake ending in a power pop song? (Please reference "No Matter What" in your answer.) The only thing that would have made this better would be a split-second of complete silence before the drums kick back in.
3. The joyful continuation of the song. Because even though the days of the Radio Bar are over, that doesn't mean you can't slam into the chorus one more time with all the gusto that encompassed every second you'd spent there over the years.
2. The percussion in the last chorus. Similar, but much more pronounced than what went before. Listen carefully and you can hear a prominent triangle.
1. A slight stretching of the last word. Not as big a stretch as "somewhere," but still enough to add another half- or three-quarters of a syllable to the word "bar." Because clearly, this is a place that was important -- not as important as the girl, of course, but important nonetheless.
Life & death are things you just do when you're bored...
We were sitting listening to a John Cale record. And I explained that John Cale was the guy from the Velvet Underground. The one who wasn't the chick drummer. Or the dead guy. Or Lou Reed.
The other one.
And she stared at me with those green eyes. The kind you could imagine yourself falling into and drowning. “What if,” she said, “there’s no such thing as fear?”
“But I know there’s fear. I’ve experienced fear. Fear and I are on a first-name basis.”
“What if that’s not a thing?” she said.
“That’s not possible.”
“What if it’s just a story? Something we tell each other?”
“Then it’s the worst and stupidest story in history.”
My father once said to me “What will happen if you lose your job and your car is stolen and you don’t have insurance and there are wildfires that make your allergies act up and you can’t breathe and the Chinese fire nukes, and you have to live under a railroad trestle?”
And I said the only thing you can say to something like that: “No problem. I’ll jump onto my magic unicorn that poops money and ride off taking shortcuts on double rainbows to a magic valley where everything is wonderful 24 hours a day.”
“But what if there is no such thing as fear?” she said again.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. So she continued. “What if fear is taking the worst thing that hasn’t yet happened and suffering through the consequences of it before it happens when you don’t even know that it’s going to happen? What if fear is a process that only exists in your mind that keeps you from enjoying the life you want?”
“I don’t know. What would that mean for all the things I’ve feared for my entire life?”
“It means they crumble into dust. And blow away.” Then she smiled.
And I realized it also means not being afraid of drowning in those green eyes.
The Iditarod starts today. Or Tomorrow. Depending on how you look at it.
The race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage today. Mushers and "Iditariders" go 11 miles through downtown Anchorage and out into the woods on ski and bike trails.
About 15,000 people come out to watch the mushers live. It's packed shoulder to shoulder downtown, but if you move 10 blocks away the crowds are much more spread out. And if you go into the woods where the bike trails are and the locals hand out cookies, hot dogs, and pastries, you can go a few hundred yards in between clumps of fans.
There's a lot you might not be to know watching the event on TV. The first thing is the total will and concentration of the dogs -- their controlled bursts of energy and the quiet intensity of their breathing.
The second is the complete and total joy of the mushers. (As much as this comes through on TV, it's a million times more intense to see it live.)
The third thing is how happy the crowds are. Yes, this is a weird event with its own customs and rituals, but it's also an event that fans can feel is theirs. Mushers mingle with fans freely in a way that's unimaginable for the top competitors in any of the larger professional sports.
Today is just for fun.
No one keeps track of today's times because they don't really count.
The real race begins tomorrow in Willow (about 70 miles away) and the winner will likely arrive in Nome 9 or 10 days later.
It's hard and it's cold and it's long. And the people and dogs who run this race are amazing and disciplined and tough.