And you give yourself away

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Birthdays are a funny time when you hear from people you never hear from; often people you have never heard from or actually talked to in your entire life, thanks to the wonders of invasive Facebook (of course it is only invasive because I let it be).

A guy with whom I had no actual acquaintance in junior high (and even less in high school), never sharing so much as a single one-on-one conversation but perhaps shared a handful of sarcastic group conversations, mostly arguing the (non-)merits of U2 (with whom I was abnormally preoccupied as an adolescent, steeped in the mania of the freshly released Joshua Tree album), popped up in my Facebook messages.

Back in junior high, my then-best friend and I were certifiably obsessed, and preached full-on religious zealotry like televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at their zenith: Deliver U2 to the ignorant heathens: “THROW YOUR MONEY AT THESE IRISH LADS!” (I find these ‘lads’ in their past-middle-age incarnation to be rather sanctimonious, just as they were then – but a 12-year-old girl can’t see shit through the rose-colored glasses and distant, mystical music that plays silently when you mentally mythologize the Irish in any context.) That’s not to say that I don’t find The Joshua Tree to be an end-to-end marvel of aural achievement – only that my interest in U2 as a group dissipated along with most of the persistent drilling of teenage madness. Never again have I been as fervent a defender or ardent fan of anything, despite my wide-ranging passion for music. Perhaps after the U2 period, I moved fluidly into a ‘Madchester’ and shoegaze phase, but the musical palette continued to expand (and continues to this day), so U2 is a kind of speck on the horizon, even if they were the spark toward painting that multi-hued horizon. (And are, apparently, atop the list of anodyne sounds programmers report listening to while they work.)

But the point, though, was that this barely-an-acquaintance guy, who seems as an adult to be a genuine, cool and lovely person, but who had seemed in our youth, however vaguely I ‘knew’ him, like a too-cool, textbook-definition total dick (but this may well have been surface-level bravado; how many times have I written about the surface versus what’s underneath? We were all assholes at times, me included.), wrote to wish me a happy birthday and added: “U2 is still touring and playing the Joshua tree album, I was wrong in 8th grade and you were so right.”

In some weird way, I was touched, and this (here I am laughing) ‘vindication’ of my aggressive passion (he and his friends slagged off U2 at the time, but I don’t know if that was just to be contrary the way teenage boys are when they don’t have any idea how to actually communicate) was like its own happy little birthday present.

Meandering memories with The Stone Roses

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Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Don’t these times fill your eyes
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars, they burn below me
Are you all alone?
Is anybody home?

It was 1990, and I was in the full throes of my short-lived but passionate anglophilia. I tried to remake my suburban American life in the shape and form of something entirely different, and what better way to make anything new and beautiful – and most importantly – different – than through music? What different sound could I find that could firmly establish this otherness without the freedom to go be a part of some otherness? These were slow times when overexcited teenage musical discoveries were like hard-fought battles with near-exclusivity the spoils.

Lucky for me, I had been obsessed with reaching out into the wider world through my penfriendships, and exchanged letters with Peter, a bricklayer from Durham, England. I will never be able to express the mania, madness, joy that washed over me when his parcels would arrive, filled with cassettes (!) of exactly this otherness I had desperately sought. The first tapes he sent: The Stone Roses’ first – and in fairness near-only – album (the second could never live up to that debut). It transformed everything. He continued to send me more tapes of everything that characterized the ‘Madchester’ scene and other music from the same period. I felt like I had stumbled into a goldmine into which only I had access (it was a while before America was fully on board, and even if enclaves of people embraced this music, it was not as though it made its mark on my community).

I distinctly remember a day, walking home from a PSAT or SAT practice test (or something like that – a Saturday morning sacrificed to standardized testing, in any case), with “Made of Stone” playing on my Walkman. Is it overstating it to say that everything seemed different to me after that time? In some way, it was. It was – even if other friends adopted the music and we shared it – an assertion of my own tastes and identity outside of that of my friends. The first step toward something different. Sure, that something different did not turn out to be moving to England, which, in my youth, I long believed I wanted to do. But it was a big stepping stone to figuring out tangibly that there was a much bigger world out there with a lot of different kinds of people in it. Some of them were working as bricklayers and writing letters to fawning American girls. Some of them were making music and going to raves in a depressed late-80s Manchester.

Today, returning from Manchester, where I spent a few days with my brother seeing The Stone Roses reunion, seeing the iconic Haçienda transformed into apartments and generally taking it all in, I am starkly reminded of how I felt, how it was, to feel such intense feelings about music, about the sense of place (the sense of wanting to be in a different place). It’s been 26 years since I walked through the streets of the town where I grew up, overcome by and elated at this new sound – these new possibilities.

Today I am wandering the streets of Oslo, bound by sun and a few clouds, wondering in some way how I got here. In life, that is. Scandinavia was nowhere on my radar back in 1990, and yet this is where I feel happiest and at home. And listening to the Roses as I walked around the sun-dappled Oslo train station and opera house, I create new and very different memories around these same songs that carried me through suburban American streets and experiences. The songs are the same but are no longer the ones that made me feel lonely but understood – and held the promise of different ‘othernesses’ – and now hold this bittersweet nostalgia in every note and word.

Of course with nostalgia there is also the past – whatever happened to the northern boy bricklayer Peter, who introduced me to all of this and spoke in an accent I could not begin to understand? My best friend from that period, too, where has she gone? I thought of her so much as I wandered Manchester and saw this concert we would have killed to see when we were 15. I know neither she nor I are the people we were then, but the heartstrings were pulled. Hard.