07 July 2012

Summer Tapes

The hiss of the end of a cassette tape as it spools out its pseudo-silence is as much a summer noise for me as crickets in the grass, box fans in the windows, cicadas in the trees. Lately it's been unbearably hot and humid (the answer to a friendly, drunken woman on a late-night bus who asked me a couple of times during a spell of March heat, "If it's like this now, how will it be in July?"), so even in the chill of my office I've been moved to revisit some of the albums I lazed and sweated through in summers as a teenager. Most of these were tapes of CDs I'd borrowed from the library and dubbed—foremost among them the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and an X anthology, Beyond and Back.

My music of summer is built on messy electric guitars. Fuzzed-out, thirsty, flapping frantically but in circles, thudding drums, vocals twitching with some sour desire. Each song on Surfer Rosa is a staircase the band flings itself down. The album buzzes with the useless energy that accumulates from staying inside all day, where it's slightly cooler, and not quite knowing what to do with yourself.

Violence seems preferable to such inaction; sex also springs to mind. The album starts with a tale of an infidelity whose course the narrator does nothing to stop: You're looking like you got some sun / Your blistered lips have got a kiss. Everyone I knew was spending their days together somewhere in the sun, it seemed; every fresh tan was a sign of betrayal, of fun to which I hadn't been invited. I saw my friends a couple of times a week, but compared to the vast social emptiness of the rest of my days it couldn't begin to fill my hunger for contact. One summer my boyfriend really was having an affair with someone, the rumor had it; for some reason I couldn't manage to care enough to believe or disbelieve it, though it was probably true since he dumped me before the summer was out. Loneliness is a powerful repellant, beads up uncontrollably from the skin.

I'd go anywhere with anyone at all. Ride out to Grand Haven to jump off the pier with some guys I sort of knew from the coffee shop. Tag along to parties that were all about drinking, despite the fact that I was straight-edge and terrible at interacting with people at parties. Buy some time by going on family errands with the friend whose car I'd planted myself in for the afternoon. Embark on some dates with an older guy who idolized Ayn Rand. (Complete list of what we watched together: tape of an interview with an elderly and quite charming Rand, Mullholland Drive, Quadrophenia, and a compilation of Depeche Mode music videos.) Most of this relationship took place in a setting that really did seem summoned from from the world of Surfer Rosa: his mother's house on a crowded outskirt of town, which she'd decorated with dozens of representations of the Virgin Mary. She and the Marys looked at me coldly when I entered the house for the first time; the other times we just slunk downstairs as she chatted in Spanish on the phone.

He stopped calling after about a week. Somehow that was okay, too—the Ayn Rand, after all. The next summer I learned that the reason for his sudden silence was that he'd had a psychotic break and been taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Were there signs? Not many. It's true that he'd asked whether, as a writer, I wasn't constantly worrying about people stealing my ideas. He'd also reportedly tried to set my friend's shoelaces on fire as a joke at a festival the day before we met, which I was willing to ignore because he wanted to talk about books and philosophy and go on dates with me.)

I'd come home from these wanderings late at night and often there were still a couple of hours to fill before I'd be worn out enough to sleep. I'd slide a tape into my Walkman.

The lyrics of Surfer Rosa are elliptical, and enunciation is not a core value of the style. What comes through is a preoccupation with hot weather and the Spanish language (Puerto Rico, where Black Francis had recently spent half a year), a disgusted sexuality tainted by thoughts of incest, and the summoning of violence upon oneself. "I'm the hard loser / You'll find me crashing through my mother's door / I am the ugly lover / You'll find us rolling on the dirty floor," goes "Break My Body." I lay on my mother's floor and listened, inking the song titles onto the J-card of the blank tape.

Given that I didn't have much money to buy CDs, I also didn't have much money to buy blank tapes, so I economized. Most albums were shorter than a 60-minute tape, and after one ended I'd start recording another on the same side. Because of this, my tape library forms a weird chain, like it's all one big box set; to listen to any one album in full you generally have to pop in multiple tapes. So The Pogues lead into Pavement's Wowee Zowee, which leads into Beyond and Back, which leads into Surfer Rosa, which, clocking in at 32:50, could almost fit onto a single side, leaving "Brick is Red" alone on its own tape. (Looking at this list you might think I was born no later than about 1980. But it takes time to catch up with the culture when you're coming into it as a teenager; I still haven't quite made it to the present, probably.) The hunt for the tape of "Brick is Red" to finish out the album gave that song its own crystalline quality—a more spacious, cooler coda to an overheated half-hour.

Where Black Francis had Puerto Rico for a site of doomy, semi-Catholic paranoia, X had Los Angeles, and the sense of doom there is more widespread. It's in the structure of things, in the water. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. Accordingly, where Surfer Rosa feels like an album of being stuck inside in the heat, X's early records are about being stuck outside in the heat among other people who don't want to be there any more than you do. I hadn't really earned the right to these sentiments as a teenager on summer vacation—again, I was appallingly greedy for human contact—and consequently it didn't get quite as deeply into my bones as Surfer Rosa, even as I appreciated the similar lo-fi aesthetic, the hard, semi-opaque poetry of the lyrics. Now, though, X is just the thing for moving around in the city and its steamy subway stations, when every rotten smell and accidental elbow jab amplified, everybody looking deranged and diseased as advertisements leer from the sidelines.

X joins you in these feelings, but they don't endorse them, either. There's some sympathy even for the sputtering hatred of characters such as the protagonist of "Los Angeles" (the heat'll do that to you), but there's a greater, more fundamental empathy for the down-and-out of all stripes. We don't want to feel this way. We'd like these crowds to cure our loneliness, but empathy is probably the best we are going to do. All that's to be done is to turn up the distortion, grab the mic hard, and sing.

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