Working on a novel for and about teenagers sometimes requires me to force my brain into a certain place.
A dark place.
A place I've been before, but not for a long time.
A place where moments add up to the formation of a person.
One thing I try to make sure of while writing teenagers is that they never come across as disingenuous or, god forbid, too mature. I want them to be messy. To feel lost and incomplete. Awkward and ostracized. I want all of the heart wrenching inadequacies of youth to be present on the page. Above all, I want my characters to gradually come of age. Naturally discovering who they are, as I have, as we all have. Accomplishing this requires me to actually remember what it felt like to be a teenager. To tap into and capture those truly special moments in life that make us who we are. In short, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past.
My teen years were heavily influenced by music and concerts. So, I want music to play a prominent role in the lives of my characters as well. I'd love to portray in some small way how important music is to someone as they come of age. Recently, a moment of inspiration came in the car when a song came on that reminded me of a concert I went to back in 1994. The memory of this moment stood out as special, because, while it has certainly blurred with age, it's still vivid enough that just hearing this song made me remember how I felt that night. I realize now it was a moment that changed me. One moment among many that add up to the formation of me.
I was sixteen and my heart had been broken a couple of times. At least one of these times I can remember like it was yesterday, while the other seems distant and unimportant (a topic for another time, perhaps). I lived in my bedroom, as most teenagers do. My walls covered in red paint with black trim earning it the moniker "Emily's Dungeon." My stereo was my lifeline and I played my music loud. My collection made up mostly of soundtracks on cassette purchased from local record shops with names like "Donna Jo's" and "Coconuts." Somewhere along the way I picked up It's A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads and it didn't leave my tape deck for months (for those who don't remember, that's a long time for a teenager).
I couldn't tell you where or when I first heard them. Most likely coming from my older sister's room, given that she had a much larger, much cooler record collection. I remember MTV was constantly playing the video for "Into Your Arms," but mostly I remember that their music made me happy. For a sixteen year old girl nursing a broken heart, that's no small feat. I remember smiling and singing along with lyrics like, "Alison's gettin her tit pierced" and "butterscotch streetlamps mark my path." And how I could relate now, in a way I never had before to lines like, "if I make it through today / I know tomorrow not to leave my feelings out on display." The beat was uplifting and in that little room where I lived nothing mattered but singing and dancing along.
It was my cool older sister that took me to the show ("My Sister" by Juliana Hatfield is another song that reminds me of this night). The venue was called 2nd Avenue and it was a small space and standing room only. Pretty much the perfect venue to get up close and personal with a band that you love. Outside I remember concrete all around us and a long line that formed against the side of the building. Standing there waiting to get in I noticed that most people were older than me. The funny thing was that I didn't feel like an outsider, which was quite a change for me at that point in my life. I was used to being the weirdo among kids my own age because of things that I liked. Being surrounded by people who were into the same band I was created this overwhelming sense of belonging. How we were different didn't matter, what we were there for that night did. It was the first time I'd ever felt the powerful camaraderie of live music and I was addicted.
I remember being in the second row and staring up at Evan Dando with a goofy smile on my face. One voice among many singing songs we'd sung alone a thousand times before in our cars and our bedrooms. And maybe the best feeling of all was having my sister right beside me. She brought me to this place, to this moment I would never forget. The two of us would go on to share countless moments like this in the years that followed, but this is one that stands out. It was one of those rare instances when the opportunity to occupy the same space as something I loved came during the height of my love for it. I suppose that's why their music still has the power to take me back there.
I saw one other show at 2nd Avenue (Violent Femmes) before they shut it down. It still makes me sad to think that it's gone. To think that people couldn't go there to see a band that they loved. To think that I can never go back there myself. Except when this song comes on, that is, and I'm back in an instant. Sixteen and inspired to write a scene for a novel where two teenage girls stand huddled together in the heat of a crowd, feet on the concrete, the beat of the band making their ears ring as they sing along to songs they know by heart. Although they may not realize it yet, they're in the midst of one of those moments, one that will change them. One they'll never forget.
"In the stone, under the dust his name is still engraved."