Tag Archives: sadness

Randoms: On David Foster Wallace and The Hush Puppy

We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.

I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.

I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.

Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men[1]. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.[2]

Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. [3]

When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.

I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted.  Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.

And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do[4], for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.

DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.

For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.[5]

On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.[6]

So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.

“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.

The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.

I know what it means to hurt.

But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.

I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:

“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”

Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?

This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.

What the hell am I supposed to do about that?

And now, on a different note…

I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.

For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.

It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.

Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.

Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.

I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?

Well….

The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.

At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.

Then the entrees arrived.

Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.

That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.

But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.

The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.

The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.

I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.

So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.

What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.

Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.

Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.

Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.

Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?

Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.

“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.

“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.

“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”

She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.

“You want to-go box?” she asked.

No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.

At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.

“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.

I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.

This is a manager?

And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.

But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.

Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BrettRileyAuthor.


[1] I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.

[2] This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 [3] These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.

[4] Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?

[5] A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.

 [6] I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.

Songs for Divorce

Back in the early 1990s, my life pretty much imploded. I had gotten married just before my senior year in high school. The bride was the person I would point to as my “high school sweetheart,” whatever that means. Without delving too far into the details—a soul-wrenching undertaking that I shall save for other columns, or my memoirs, should there ever be any interest in my writing them—I can safely tell you here that our divorce knocked my world off its orbit. I have often said that we loved each other deeply but didn’t like each other very much. I still think that’s accurate, at least from my perspective. She was the first person I ever truly loved, and though our lives together turned almost unspeakably ugly, the death of our marriage destroyed my concept of “forever” and my faith in relationships in general. It took a long time and much trial and error for me to recover in substantive ways.

When I think about that time period, my memories are inextricably linked to my life’s soundtrack. I don’t remember exactly which books I was reading, what films I was watching, or what TV shows I followed, but I remember the music.

Often, after the latest kick in the teeth, I would get in my car and just drive. My piece of junk had no air conditioning, so I would roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hit the road, the wind whipping my hair as I banged my head and sang along, not caring who heard. Some of the songs appealed to me because of their lyrics. Others fit my mood perfectly through their tones, their tempos. Some did both.

When I think of that time period, these songs play on a loop in my head. It’s always in stereo, always loud. If you’re going through your own personal hell, you’ll probably find your own soundtrack, much of which might well be more contemporary or, possibly, more historically widespread. You might, though, want to consider the music that follows. Much of it will probably mirror how you feel. Some of it might help uplift you just when you need it most. In any case, for those who want to join me, here’s a little window into my past—my own personal songs for divorce, in no particular order.

The Singles:

1.         “What’s Up,” 4 Non Blondes.

“Twenty-five years and my life is still / Trying to get up that great big hill of hope / For a destination…”

I was not yet twenty-five, but with all my plans dashed to pieces, I identified with the struggle to reach one’s goals. I no longer had any destination in mind. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that the only possible destinations were jail or a cemetery. That sounds melodramatic, I know, and it was, but to my younger self, it was real.

“And so I cry sometimes / When I’m lying in bed / Just to get it all out / What’s in my head / And I am feeling a little peculiar / And so I wake in the morning / And I step outside / And I take a deep breath and I get real high / And I scream at the top of my lungs / What’s going on?”These lines eerily nail what I was going through at the time. In my life, I have almost never cried, not even when I should have. But during this period, I would often awake to find tears on my pillow. I sometimes cried while watching sitcoms. Sometimes the tears echoed the aching sadness I was feeling; sometimes they were expressions of a dangerous rage. But that need to get out of your own head, to scream, to hit something or someone—I could relate to all that. And for me, the words “What’s going on?” took on a special importance, because I honestly had no idea what had happened, how life had come to that point.

A lot of people dismiss this song, and the band that produced it, as an early-90s lark. As for me, I still remember how I felt back in those days, and when I hear this song now, I feel grateful that I can understand it in a different context.

2.         “Jet Airliner,” The Steve Miller Band.

“Goodbye to all my friends at home / Goodbye to people I’ve trusted / I’ve got to go out and make my way / I might get rich you know I might get busted / But my heart keeps calling me backwards / As I get on the 707 / Ridin’ high I got tears in my eyes / You know you got to go through hell / Before you get to heaven…”

A song with multiple personality disorder, “Jet Airliner” combines the desire to get the hell away from your current situation with the knowledge that wherever you go, there you are. The above verse of the song says goodbye to important people in one’s life and suggests that the speaker desperately needs a change, even one for the worse (rich or busted). I especially identified with the idea of going through hell to get to heaven; I desperately wanted to believe that something better lay in my future (spoiler alert: it did).

If this verse was all about leaving, though, the chorus reminds us that we can never truly get away from ourselves: “Big ol’ jet airliner / Don’t carry me too far away / Oh, Oh big ol’ jet airliner / Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay.” Take me away, but not forever. Let me leave and find myself again, but know that I want to come back. With my family, my friends, my daughter, and my work, I had too much in my life that I could never leave. Too much that I would never want to give up.

The need to go, the need to stay, pulling you in opposite directions, ripping you in two—I heard all of that whenever I listened to this song.

3.         “Already Gone,” The Eagles.

Every single lyric in this song—as well as its up-tempo, celebratory nature—appealed to me back then. It’s really a “screw you” song, and I needed a few of those. A couple of examples:

“Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky / You can see the stars and still not see the light (that’s right).” The image of a woman seeing but not understanding really got my blood pumping in those days. Not “woman” as in “women in general,” of course—I always pictured my ex. I believed that she did not understand me. I believed that one day, she would realize what she had given up and would look to the heavens for some answer to the question, “Now what do I do?” It was the same question I was asking so often, and the petty, revenge-seeking part of me really wanted to be there when the epiphany happened.

The verse that appealed to me most, though, went like this: “Well I know it wasn’t you who held me down / Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free / So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains / And we never even know we have the key.” Those lines were so prophetic that they sent chills down my spine. I knew that I had not been happy in our marriage, but I also knew that the decision to stay—or to leave—had been mine. I had been the key to my own liberation for all that time. Even though leaving cost me a great deal, it was still the right thing to do for everyone involved.

In my more upbeat moods, I listened to this song until the cassette broke. Then I bought a new one. I would repeat that pattern for most of the works on this list.

4.         “Black” and “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam.

“Jeremy” tells the story of an angry young man who erupts one day in school. It’s a great song, but it had little to do with me. I listened to it more during my divorce than I ever did before or since, though, mostly because of its ominous, angry tone. It fit my dark mood on most days.

“Black” was different. “Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin round my head, I’m spinning, oh, I’m spinning, how quick the sun can drop away” could have been written about what was going on inside my head on most days. But the lyrics that really drew me in were, “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky / But why, why, why can’t it be, can’t it be mine?” There were, you see, many days when I missed my wife. When I wanted to go back, even though I knew it would be the death of me, or her, or both. When I wanted to scream at life or fate or God and ask why my path had led me to feeling so lousy about myself.

When I wanted to revel in my own misery, “Black” was a great accompaniment.

5.         “Blew” and “School,” Nirvana.

I loved Nirvana from the first time I heard their album Bleach. That record contained several great tracks, perhaps most notably “About a Girl.” But in my time of emotional dying, these are the songs I repeated ad infinitum. There is nothing terribly thematic about either song, at least in terms of my own situation, though the refrain of “Blew” resonated with me: “Is there another reason for your stain /  Could you believe who we knew was stress or strain? / Here is another word that rhymes with shame…” I suppose it was that image of being stained, marked somehow, that I related to, though the seemingly throwaway reference to shame probably contributed to my fascination.

“School” never appears on any best-of lists, but its sheer simplicity appealed to me in a time of complex causes and effects. The lyrics are as follows: “Wouldn’t you believe it?  / Just my luck / No recess.” Later, the repeated line “You’re in high school again” give the whole track the feeling of a dark fever dream, one of those where your life doubles back on itself. There you are, back in high school (or grade school, or college, or your twenties, or whatever), doing the same things you used to do. You retain the sum total of your life’s experience, your knowledge, yet you’re covering the same ground that you never expected to see again—the road already taken.

Neither song completely adheres to Nirvana’s famous, Pixies-esque “loud-quiet-loud” aesthetic. Neither is particularly memorable compared to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the dirgelike “Something in the Way” or the eerie, nightmarish “Heart-Shaped Box” or the tinged-with-regret “All Apologies.” But both “Blew” and “School” found their way into my divorce rotation. Make of it what you will.

6.         “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” Motley Crue.

Look at the title. Remember that I’m talking about divorce. Do I really need to explain this one?

Let’s let the lyrics, about a good-riddance separation, speak for themselves.

“Seasons must change / Separate paths, separate ways / If we blame it on anything / Let’s blame it on the rain / I knew it all along / I’d have to write this song / Too young to fall in love / Guess we knew it all along / That’s all right, that’s okay / We were walkin’ through some youth / Smilin’ through some pain / That’s all right, that’s okay / Let’s turn the page…”

This one has an upbeat, poppy tempo—a departure from most of the Crue’s hair-metal jams, though not unheard of from them. It’s more of a kiss-off than anything else, and any divorce mix needs some of those. Plus, it references two awesome songs—the Crue’s own “Too Young to Fall in Love” (off their album Shout at the Devil, which should have been on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 100 Best Albums) and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”

Then there are these lines: “We were two kids in love / Trying to find our way / Thats’s all right, that’s okay / Held our dreams in our hands / Let our minds run away…” When I hear that, I can only nod and say, “Yep. That’s it.”

Of course, the song ends with, “Girl, don’t go away mad / Girl, just go away,” which is how I felt about my ex more often than not.

Incidentally, 80s hair metal is often unfairly maligned, sniggered at, dismissed by hipsters and music snobs. I don’t know why. Recently, someone giggled when my wife mentioned that we’re going to see Motley Crue in concert. I wasn’t around, but if I had been, I would have said, “Yep, they’re funny, all right. All they’ve done is sell millions of records, make tens of millions of people happy, influence thousands of young musicians, and make lots of money in the bargain. What have you done with your life?”

The Albums:

1.         Led Zeppelin, IV.

There is nothing here that lyrically spoke to me about my own life at the time. But sometimes I just wanted to be happy, and Zep always does the trick. I’m not sure I would want to live in a world where Led Zeppelin had never existed.

Why this album? Well, why not? You can’t really go wrong with Zep, but this is the one I played until the tape broke.

Think about it. The nasty, hard-driving blues of “Black Dog.” The pure heart-pounding joy of “Rock and Roll.” The esoteric weirdness of “The Battle of Evermore.” What some people think is the greatest rock song ever, “Stairway to Heaven.” The best Zep song that people keep forgetting about, “When the Levee Breaks.” What’s not to love?

When I felt optimistic, you’d hear this album blasting from my car as I drove down Arkansas backroads.

Of course, there was one album that, for whatever reason, served both kinds of moods:

2.         Nirvana, Nevermind.

The album that effectively ended hair metal as a music phenomenon. The record that made Kurt Cobain a household name, in spite of his own ethics and aesthetics.

Nevermind is one of those perfect albums, and one I’ve written about before. Of all the songs on it, I have a hard time remembering what “Lounge Act” sounds like in between listens. The rest are as fresh as the day I first heard them. I suppose the best compliment I can give the album in the context of this writing is that my horrible mood did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for it.

3.         Alice in Chains, Dirt.

During my divorce, on eight nights out of ten, I was either drunk, or driving really fast and seriously considering a hard right turn into the nearest tree or bridge abutment, or both. On those days, I did not want cheering up. I did not seek happiness. Call it out-of-control romanticism, that weird death-wish that so many young people seem to have, or a pity party. Both would be accurate. But when I felt that way, I sought out music that would reflect and enhance those feelings.

Dirt by Alice in Chains fits the bill. Understand that I love this one and the last record on my list because they are great rock and roll records. I still listen to them a lot. But they had special significance during my divorce.

Tragically, two of the musicians who made this record are now dead—Mike Starr, the troubled bassist who passed away in 2011, and Layne Staley, the band’s distinctive vocalist. He died several years ago. I have never really gotten over it, to the extent that I can’t yet bring myself to listen to the band’s new album. It ain’t AiC without Layne.

How about these lyrics from the track “Rain When I Die”? “Is she ready to know my frustration? / What she slippin’ inside, slow castration / I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me / Did she come here to try, try to take me?”

Or these: “Will she keep on the ground, trying to ground me / Slowly forgive my lie, lying to save me / Could she love me again, or will she hate me”?

Of course, the dirge-like “Rooster” is always good for your sad, angry mood. That goes without saying. It’s also arguably the album’s best song, and that’s saying something.

“Hate to Feel” is a full-throated shout of frustration and misery, perfect for those nights when even the stars seem to be laughing at you. “Angry Chair” is great for head-banging, steering-wheel-pounding moments.

The two songs I was most drawn to back then, though, were “Would?” and “Down in a Hole.” I present some lyrics for “Would?” below:

“Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way…”

These lines make up the chorus. They speak of covering the same old ground to no good end, of mistakes acknowledged, of the desire—the drive—to be understood. Of course, the chorus’s very repetition suggests that understanding never happens. Then there are these lines:

“Am I wrong? / Have I run too far to get home? / Have I gone? / And left you here alone? / If I would, could you?”

Did I make all the mistakes? Have I been wrong about everything all along? Is it too late to fix things? Is reconciliation possible? The song never answers these questions. Neither did life, at least not all at once. Sooner or later, I realized that the answers were no, no, yes, and no. And then all I had to do was figure out how to live with those answers.

“Down in a Hole” is perhaps the most appropriate song on the album for a divorce soundtrack, at least if you’re unhappy that your life has taken such a turn. Again, I’ll present the chorus, the lines that we hear more than any others:

“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave / Well you don’t understand who they / Thought I was supposed to be / Look at me now I’m a man / Who won’t let himself be…”

Self-explanatory, right? You can’t ask for a more fitting breakup song than this, at least if you’re a self-pitying kid who just wants to be loved.

So some songs on Dirt appeal to your self-indulgence. Others are good for moments when you’re just plain good and pissed off. But if you want darkness, you should seek out the final album on my soundtrack…

4.         Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine.

A lot of critics claim that The Downward Spiral is the best NIN album. Maybe they’re right. I also freely admit that NIN’s later song, “Only” (from With Teeth), provides one of the best kiss-my-ass lines in history: “You were never really real to begin with / I just made you up to hurt myself.”

But in many ways, Pretty Hate Machine kept me sane during those long, sunless months. Sometimes it didn’t make a lot of sense. The album’s opener, “Head like a Hole,” isn’t ostensibly about relationships; it seems more like an anti-capitalist rant, with its pejorative references to “god money.” But the pounding music is good for working yourself up into a lather, and the bridge and chorus fit bad breakups like a snug pair of jeans:

“head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve / bow down before the one you serve / you’re going to get what you deserve…”

If your ex is greedy, even the verses can fit.

As for the rest of the album, you can probably understand how well they work during a divorce just by reading titles: “Terrible Lie”; “Sin”; “That’s What I Get.”

How about these lines from “Down in It”? “So what what does it matter now / I was swimming in the hate now I crawl on the ground / And everything I never liked about you is kind of seeping into me / I try to laugh about it now but isn’t it funny how everything works out / I guess the jokes on me, she said…”

Trent Reznor might well have been spying on me when he wrote those lines. “I was up above it,” he wails, “now I’m down in it.” I know exactly how he feels.

“Sanctified” perfectly captures the helpless self-awareness, the bipolar tides that pull you apart: “Heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel / As she walks me through the nicest parts of hell (bitch) / I still dream of lips I never should have kissed / Well she knows exactly what I can’t resist / I’m still caught up in another of her spells / Well she’s turning me into someone else / Everyday I hope and pray this will end / But when I can I do it all again?”

Then, of course, there is the funereal “Something I Can Never Have,” and the line that perhaps best sums up the loathing you feel for all that you’ve let someone else make of you: “Gray would be the color if I had a heart.”

Those who knew me at the time can probably recall how well these lines fit: “You make this all go away / I’m down to just one thing / And I’m starting to scare myself.” I scared a lot of people back then.

When you have lived with someone for a long time and wake up one day to find them, or yourself, gone, you feel dislocated, as if someone picked you up and dropped you in a foreign country, the language of which you do not speak. Nothing makes sense. Nothing seems right. Yet everything still reminds you of what you’ve lost. Hence these lines: “In this place it seems like such a shame / Though it all looks different now / I know it’s still the same / Everywhere I look you’re all I see / Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be.”

Pretty Hate Machine punched all the right buttons for my darkest moods. Listen to it often, with the volume turned all the way up, during your next catastrophic breakup. Then go pet a puppy and look at a rainbow. You’ll need to cleanse your soul’s palette.

These are the songs, the albums, the artists, that saw me through what I might, in a moment of tremendous understatement, term a “rough patch.”

Now…if you have made it this far, you might feel like this essay (if that is the right word for this piece) is less developed than other things I’ve posted, other things you’ve read. Perhaps that’s true. Maybe it’s less revealing, less “important,” less eloquent. Maybe it’s thought-provoking and emotionally bare, but maybe it’s only one or the other. Perhaps it’s neither. What it will do, I hope, is lead is to these questions?

What did you listen to during your divorce, or your engagement, or that whirlwind six months between meeting the love of your life and committing to a full-blown relationship? What did you listen to after your mother died, after your first child was born, while he/she was growing in the womb? What made your playlist when you graduated medical school, got rejected from a graduate program, published your first poem? What music accompanied the ripping out of your heart or the greatest triumph you have yet experienced?

What makes up the soundtrack of your life?

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

 

 

 

An Old Poem #poetry

Here’s a short one I wrote WAY back after my first divorce. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but call it a look at one moment in time, lived in another life.

At Night

Sometimes I miss you
At night when the lights
Are out and I fail
To see who is not
Here though I still hear
Your breath

Missing the Kids–A Poem #poetry

Today I had to take my son and my youngest daughter back after having them at my place during their spring break. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for nearly twenty years, and it never gets easier. This is how it feels.

Non-Custodial

You wave goodbye as they drive
Away, already mauling video game
Aliens and tapping their feet to
The rhythm of a song you’ve never
Heard of, forgetting their promise to
Look back before they vanish this time.

Or perhaps you sprint madly for the car,
Slam the door and clasp the seatbelt,
Reverse gear down the drive and
Rooster-tail through gravel to the nearest bar,
Leaving them to wave at your taillights
As your façade collapses in their wake.

You cannot betray their belief in
Your stoicism, your ability to take
The separation with blank aplomb.
You must remain an optimist, the
Guardian of their right to devastation.
But you can never cry.

Instead you must spout cheerful platitudes
That echo false in your throat.
They might as well be slogans
Advertising incremental hells:
“Only two weeks” and “next summer”
And “before you know it” and “soon.”

If you say it long enough,
One day you might believe yourself.