In passing

huskerdu

GRANT HART (1961-2017): Lennon McCartney to Bob Mould’s John Paul in Hüsker Dü, the Beatles of SST Records. Grant had incredible command of a potentially wild voice, alternating between a molten bray and the loneliest boy in an abandoned room. He even looked brokenhearted sometimes, rattled in slept-in hair and yesterday’s clothes around a hopeful (if weary) smile. Labelmates the Minutemen gave punk its jazz-garde political fire; Hart and Mould, its volcanic emotion, with Hart on drums bashing its torment awake. A turbulent dynamic fueled a slew o’ albums between 1983 and 1987; although eventually swathed in major-label enhancements, plus an evolved sense of musicianship, their hooks penetrated flesh and their roar drew blood. Grant got the last word on the very last LP, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a mantra of crashing relationships and fresh-won independence called “You Can Live at Home.” Both he and Mould became prolific solo artists, with varying degrees of success but no diminished sense of urgency and purpose. After all he endured, only illness from within could bring Grant Vernon Hart down. 56, St. Paul, MN.

 

harrydean

HARRY DEAN STANTON (1926-2017): Harry Dean, Main Man, built of life, powered by habit. His continued mobility was an amused defiance of mortality. On an episode of this season’s Twin Peaks, the horizon-centenarian remarked, “I been smokin’ 75 years, every fuckin’ day” and chuckled through breath his vices should have ended in the ’70s. He was a character actor in only that his characters had names, but they entered scenes as Harry Dean Stanton, sucking face with space beasts, piloting a glowing airborne car, outwitting a murderous 1957 Plymouth Fury, sacrificing himself for the greater good, or taking slugs at bar’s end, hangdog gaze reliving movies you missed. A vision I’ve had since I was a kid: the apocalypse hits— Rapture, whatever — last human croaks it. Harry Dean rises to his feet, stuffs his half-combed jungle into a nearby hat, then ambles away, too rare and real to die. 91, Los Angeles, CA.

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Sophisticated Whoppers

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Last month my neighborhood Burger King underwent a cosmopolitan rhytidectomy, in accordance with mandates to transform such troughs into elegant gastronomy. McDonald’s has emerged in recent years from an extended postpsychedelic adolescence to embrace the Library of Alexandria aesthetic, while Jack in the Box, under direct orders from draconian CEO “Jack,” has jettisoned its staple blues and reds for a soothing Humidor Autumn. The desired effect, according to corporate literature, is contemplative chi, as opposed to “Holy God, this Applewood Bacon Cheese Fist is wrapping itself around my heart.”

Having never patronized a chic Burger King, I decided this morning to have it my way. On foot I passed the phantom of its children’s playset — the industry no longer caters to plebes. In its place stood a scale replica of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon complete with tanzanite wall, over which flowed a talkative Chianti stream. Occupying its drive-thru lane were sleek fleets of Google cars activated by smartphone apps. Four impeccably attired valets monitored the parking lot, sending any vehicle older than 2008 to a “VIP lane” seven blocks away.

The building’s exterior could best be described as futuristic neoclassical. Its sanctum, inspired by the parlor in Don and Betty Draper’s Ossining home, wallows resplendent in oaks and comfortable beiges. Posted advertisements no longer boast of “flame-broiled” or “flame-grilled” meats; they’re now “artisan-crowdsourced.” Six overhead flatscreens broadcast “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” with a corner space nearby to discuss the film with the shift manager, a former Harper’s editor-at-large. Wafting through the restaurant: Herb Alpert’s “Fandango,” on 180-gram vinyl.

I immediately recognized my counter garcon’s uniform as Yves St. Laurent. “Yes,” she confirmed. “They outfit us all.” “But what about grease stains?” I asked. “Those,” she said, “are flown in from Vienna.” She then apologized for the store’s wine steward, whose flight was delayed in Milan. “That’s fine,” I replied, and ordered the venison curly fries with a 32-ounce growler to go.

Because of the restaurant’s new decibel regulation, I saw only one other “broseph,” as BK calls us nonemployees: an older gentleman pecking at a laptop while seducing a mimosa. Sans prompt, he told me, “It’s a Dogme-esque novel about a man who’s smarter than everyone else but is too humble to share his rare gift, so he hangs out at Burger King, tormented in self-imposed silence, until a beautiful cashier who recognizes his shyness as intellectual superiority offers him her soul. I liken its tone to a Ferrari 458 speeding recklessly past the intersection of Huxley and Terry Southern, and crashing into an abandoned storefront that once sold steampunk fetish wear.”

Alas, I left before the BK book club convened in the alcove, but I’ll be back for the Appalachian dulcimer jam this evening. If you’re not too busy with the Taco Bell barrel tour, feel free to bro by. Bring your Konghou — and plenty of antacids.

O Adele

 

 

 

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O Adele

Marketplace fatale

Painted empress

Contralto divine

Watchful gaze from Target endcaps

Assorted displays, strategically placed

Exclusive bounties everlasting

Observing commerce

Participating

Surrounding

Dominating

Squired home in plastic

Anticipation

 

O Adele

Rolling Stone

Countenance vexed

Neck, Winsletian

Face scrubbed mortal

Thou speakest in voices two:

One wrings tears from august pearls

Cushions midlife minivan misery

Comforts captives lost between teenage walls

The other brays hearty

In Tottenham strains

The language of dockworkers

And washwomen

Rutting in puddles of porter

Splashed with tobacco

Stained in the blood of sailors

 

O Adele

Butter-lunged siren tart

Crestfallen

Skyfallen

Thine cradled words envelop

An ever-present current

As we shop for poinsettias

Purchase petrol and cigarettes

Scroll numbly through clickbait

Go Macho on the Del Taco No. 4

Splash ourselves in fragrance

Chase smiles in fleeting symphonies

 

O Adele

You sing of love

But does love exist without you?

O Adele

You sing of dreams

But are we not your dream?

Did we ever know 21?

Or feel the depths of 25?

Had we ever said hello

‘Til you acknowledged us in kind?

 

O Adele

Thank goodness you’re here

Our world is in turmoil

Our goodwill shattered

All hope is gone

Lead us

Guide us

Bring us home

 

O Adele

Wait

Your album’s not on Spotify?

Huh

Hm

Well

Fuck you, then.

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The Righteous Brothers: Mysti-Bliss at 2:55

Reportedly, Phil Spector, his hand-picked marksmen, and the two Righteous Brothers hammered through “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” from August to November 1964, and you know who was alive then? Not me.

I tried to coax some context from my parents, lowly adolescents at the time, albeit to no avail. They were woefully unaware in their microcosmic dioramas that Heartbreak History was going down in Los Angeles as summer tripped toward fall, which then slid into blizzards of promenades where they and other agog-orbed everybodies heard this song for the very first time, the paint still fresh and sweet. (I cursed their luck as I begrudgingly twirled partners to the pizza-box whimper of Bon Jovi, whose “I’ll Be There for You” nevertheless crowds my senses with the nectar of Doublemint gum, Aqua Net, and post-clutch expectations.)

My first “Lovin’” rush came through the pocket-comb prism of Hall & Oates, soaped down and hollowed out, a Xerox of a Xerox of pale-faced blue-eyed soul. A few years later it tumbled into the mitts of Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, et al; their “Top Gun” barroom mayhem inspired scores of off-key parrots shit-deep in cheap beer and Cupid-drunk on cheaper love. Does no one respect the classics?

O’ to’ve been a stealth intruder during Spector’s grandiose construction. To have witnessed the impatient Bobby Hatfield, the Brothers’ honey-toned half, demanding to know what he was supposed to do while partner Bill Medley sopped up all the tape, only to have Spector, that bargain-carpeted pipsqueak custom-fitted over a tyrant scumbag, allegedly riposte, “You can go straight to the fuckin’ bank.”

Phil was sure an asshole, but he was an asshole with ears. His techniques and omniscience were once beyond reproach. After all, the dude had been moving units with alarming ease since he was a 19-year-old nobody leading his Teddy Bears to No. 1 (“To Know Him Is to Love Him,” 1958).

And he was right about “Lovin’” too: Hatfield is strictly support for the first two minutes — a chorus-bolster — then his tenor breaks free at exactly the right moment, when his Brother can no longer carry the burden alone. “Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you,” Medley sighs, weary, lonesome, defeated. Into the breach steps Hatfield with the save: “If you would only love me / like you used to do,” pleaded with every last-ditch pine a pain can articulate. Spector’s Wall of Sound surge falls back to a light pulse and lets the duo do its thing.

The song plays well to both men’s strengths: Bill could testify, Bobby could beg. Who the hell with a heartbeat could resist such a combo of honest regret? When the two then rise in a back-and-forth call/response —“baby” to “baby,” “please” to “please,” trading “I need your loves” and “bring it on backs” — it’s just not fair.

But that’s not even the best part, oh, no. Spector & Co. reserve the goosebump payload for the 2-minute, 55-minute mark, after the voices have spent themselves and left an open gasp for a downpour of strings and a crash of drums, an airborne soul touching terra firma following a hopeful glance that became a yes that became a freeze-frame kiss. The same DNA comprised “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and any number of play-’em-agains bearing crescendos that carried crushes through many a suburban daydream. It was a Spector specialty, that heavy, narcotic pain, creating a lovelorn beauty unachievable in life, the musical embodiment of teenaged yearning. If only she could see me. If only she ever knew. If only I could ever express myself, she’d see that it was true.

The Righteous Brothers at 2:55 is that moment: a cocktail of heartache and hope. Bring back that lovin’ feelin’. It still hurts even now, despite the fact that I know it’s coming, as I’ve known since the song and I first became acquainted, back when I pretended sentiment was beneath me. I saw every girl then. I’ve seen every girl since. That tiny sonic hiccup and they’re all fucking there, a cruel parade of vanished futures. And then they’re gone, gone, gone. Dust, glimpses, ghosts.

Songs like this don’t grow old. They age with you, their import intact. You can hear them ’til they’re empty — examine their structures, plumb their mysteries, dismiss their formulas — but when you set them loose, they find you. They hit you where you’ve always lived.

As heard on The Essential Phil Spector (2011)

Selected Excerpts from Ken Burns’ 7-Part “KISS Army”

MICHAEL GAMBON (VO): “If I should fall in the heat of war, bury me not in the cold, grey earth. Let me go, rock and roll.” — Lieut. Francis L. Scurvy, KISS Army, 1979

KISS (1975 recording): “Baby gets tired, everybody knows / Your mother has to tell you, baby has to show / Yeah, yeah / Let me go…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): The Wabash River covers 490 square miles, carving a vein from Fort Recovery, Ohio, to Shawneetown, Illinois. Nestled between those points is Terre Haute — or “Higher Ground” — Indiana, so christened by 18th century French explorers for the way the land crested above yet simultaneously embraced the tributary. Their geological synchronicity was once both legendary and picturesque; authors and composers have quaffed of its inspiration. Gripped by the memory of a childhood along its flow, 40-year-old songwriter Paul Dresser, in October of 1897, published a paean, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” from the more bustling climes of New York’s Tin Pan Alley.

JOSH GROBAN (singing): “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash / From the fields there comes the breadth of new-mown hay / Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming / On the banks of the Wabash, far away…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): In January of 1975, music and culture would clash anew, just as water once caressed soil then joined the rush toward history. It was here in Terre Haute, long after Paul Dresser’s beloved sycamores were razed for empires of industry and suburbia, where young William Starkey and Jay Evans launched a tiny voice that would one day speak for many.

BILL MOYERS (journalist): It’s difficult to comprehend now, but in 1975, nobody who mattered knew KISS. Radio stations didn’t play them — wouldn’t play them, in fact — and only a small but dedicated fan base bought their albums. They’d had only two up to that point, anyway: KISS and Hotter Than Hell, which had come out the previous October and made barely an ripple on what Billboard calls the “Hot 100.” One can imagine the frustration these boys felt that their heroes were being ignored.

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: It has come to our attention that your station, WVTS-FM, has yet to feature KISS in its rotation. We ask that you address this oversight at your earliest convenience.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans, 1975

FRANK LANGELLA (VO): “Kind sirs: Thank you for your recent letter. I hope that my reply finds you both in good health. However, we have no plans to add KISS at this time, for it is felt among our staff that these ‘musicians,’ such as they are, fail to meet our exacting standards as regards rock and roll.” — Rich Dickerson, program director, WVTS-FM

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: We are disheartened by your refusal to honor our request, for we do not ask much. Admittedly, we are young, still clutched in idealism’s thrall, and perhaps men of your experience find our passions trivial and banal. However, we assure you that our dedication to this cause wavers not, and our ranks number far more than ourselves. We are, in fact, an army — a KISS Army, if you like — and through sheer stubborn strength and will, we shall prevail.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans

JACK BLACK (VO): “The first shot is fired. The first blood is drawn. A brainchild is sired: a new dawn is born. This summer is bound to be hotter than hell.” — Henry Oliphant, Poet Laureate, KISS Army, 1975

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (historian; reading from her diary): “On denim-bound binder, in fine ball-point, Doris etches the names of giants. Her devotion is such that she even knows their birth names. Chaim Witz. Stanley Eisen. Paul Daniel Frehley. George Peter John Criscuola. Their phantoms invade her chamber at night, a hot swarm of tongues, glitter, and tangles of hair. She imagines her Jiminy Cricket flashlight is the blinding supernova of a Polaroid Instamatic. ‘Take me, Space Ace,’ she gasps. ‘Enter my feminine galaxy. Baby wants it fast, baby wants a blast. She wants a rocket ride. She wants a rocket ride.’ ” Oh, my land and the infant Jesus, stop the camera…OHHHH

MARK STRONG (narrator): The tale of KISS is widely known, from Kabuki rise to Kabuki fall to Kabuki rebirth and triumph. To relay it even in passing is unnecessary. What of those legions in the dark, their numbers vast, their faith steadfast? This is the story of the not-so-silent millions, who would follow four men across four decades over all four corners of the earth.

(FADE IN, OPENING CREDITS)

KISS (1976 recording): “You’ve got something aboutcha / You got something I need / Daughter of Aphrodite / Hear my words and take heed / I was born on Olympus / To my father a son / I was raised by the demons / Trained to reign as the one / God of thunder / and rock ’n’ roll / The spell you’re under / will slowly rob you of your virgin soul…”

STEPHEN AMBROSE (historian): You’ve got to understand: 1975 was a very fraught period in American history. Vietnam was just ending. Patty Hearst was on the loose. At least two people tried to kill Gerald Ford, and they couldn’t do it. Gas and oil were sky high. Looming over all of this is the specter of the ’60s. Woodstock. Altamont. Cynicism. Then Nixon. Watergate. Darkness. The hippie dream had failed, and its carcass was beginning to smell. America was months from her Bicentennial, the celebration of a garish, tarnished lie. It was time to medicate. It was time for KISS.

KISS (1976 recording): “I feel uptight on a Saturday night / Nine o’clock, the radio’s the only light / I hear my song and it pulls me through / Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do / I got to / Get up / Everybody’s gonna move their feet / Get down / Everybody’s gonna leave their seat / You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City…”


JACK WHITE (narrator): It was in the city of Cadillac, Michigan, that KISS’ propensity for publicity reached full flourish. For one week in October of 1975, this quiet community of 10,000, located 179 miles from the cacophonous nerve center of Detroit, became the universe’s envied pulse, besieged by press, overwhelmed by madness, drowned in rock ’n’ roll.

JON HAMM (VO): “Dear Sir: As you know, we here at Cadillac High School have been big fans of KISS for a long time. Last year our football team’s defensive unit was nicknamed the ‘KISS Defense,’ and we went on to finish with a seven and two record. Since that time KISS has been the rock group in Cadillac. … I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to make a KISS visit a worthwhile experience for you. … Hopefully, we can work together and make these plans a reality. Our Homecoming will be ‘super’ just because of the KISS theme. KISS in person would make it an extravaganza.” — Jim Neff, teacher-coach, Cadillac High School, 1975

PERRY SUSKIND (Cadillac High School historian): The Vikings carried the KISS defense into the 1975-76 season and ended with a 6-3 record. The highlight that year, of course, was when KISS came to visit. They completely took over the whole city from Oct. 8-10, 1975, beginning with an Oct. 7 telephone interview for WATT-AM and ending that Friday with a helicopter departure from the football field. It was nothing short of spectacular: kids in KISS makeup, city officials in KISS makeup — I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a cat or two dressed to look like Peter Criss. The fellows received a silver key to the city and showered it in fliers: “Cadillac High — KISS Loves You!” Historic, just historic.

ED HARRIS (VO): “For years we have been trying to unite the student body and the faculty … KISS accomplished this in one night.” — John Laurent, principal, Cadillac High School, 1975

JACK WHITE (narrator): The growing KISS Army was on the march.

KISS (1977 recording): “I remember the day that we met / I needed someone, you needed someone too, yeah / Spent time takin’ all you could get / Givin’ yourself was one thing you never could do / You played with my heart, played with my head / I’ve got to laugh when I think of the things you said / ’Cause I stole your love / stole your love / Ain’t never gonna let you go…”

CASEY AFFLECK (VO): “Dearest Helena: My will to live is gone, my darling. The winter has been most brutal upon my body and conscience. I cannot bear its savagery much longer. The others are freezing, huddled against its cruelty. Morale has evaporated, along with what remains of our hopes. The size of our desires, I fear, shall not bear fruit when the time has come. I was plagued last night by visions of the inevitable, that this godforsaken line is for naught: that Cobo Hall has, indeed, sold out.” — Pvt. Steven Guernin, KISS Army, July 7, 1977

NATALIE PORTMAN (VO): “Dearest: I discovered your letter this morning. Although your woe pains me to my soul, I am confident that you will return to me, tickets in hand to a kick-ass show. And even if it’s not meant to be, we can take comfort, you and I, in life’s little pleasures: your Mustang, my lucky hat, our records, and a sofa built for two. Bear up, my love. This too shall pass. Remember to buy cigarettes and bubblegum on your way home.” — Nancy LaRose, July 7, 1977

KISS (1976 recording): “Beth, I know you’re lonely / And I hope you’ll be all right / ’Cause me and the boys will be playin’ / all night…”

Rebecca Black Puckers Up to Kiss the Zeitgeist

The ’Net’s aflame with scabrous analysis of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” but is any of it warranted? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, this deceptively imbecilic single has attracted streams of snark, scorn, and praise from detractors and supporters alike, all propelling the 13-year-old into the dimming limelight of viral fame and sending whores like myself scrambling for hits.

Like it or not, folks, Ms. Black is the Chosen One, the bridge between old and new media, the transition between structured celebrity and immediate global exposure. As Dr. J.F. Kincaid argues most persuasively in his essay “Liking Teen Pop Doesn’t Mean I Belong in Prison,” her computer-enhanced emphasis of “Friday’s” first vowel represents a new spoken language, one that knows not nuance and compensates for nonverbal communication’s over-reliance on the consonant. The calculated rise of stars like Justin Bieber has fast become a relic of packaging; what Ms. Black portends is a more accurate harbinger of the future. Her willingness to be this bellwether is nothing short of heroic.

However, we must first give credit to the Svengalis at ARK Music Factory for teaming Rebecca Black with tune-purveyors Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson in the first place. The potential for “Black”/“Friday” wordplay must have been irresistible: a reference to competitive commerce as well as, let’s face it, homage to Steely Dan, an obvious lyrical influence. In fact, “Friday” could well be considered an organic epilogue to “Black Friday.” (Messrs. Fagen and Becker could not be reached for comment.)

Clarence Jey’s catalog is lousy. with layers of musical tribute. His “Hello My Love,” written for California troubadour Cindy “The Great” Santini, is also, not coincidentally, the opening line of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23.” But here there’s no correspondence, just the immediate contact of gentle voice upon stirring companion. “Hello, my love,” Santini burbles with a helium vivacity compared to Sheryl Crow by writers prone to blackouts. “Been sleeping once again / Rise up, sunshine / It’s time to wake up / Stop your thinking” — valuable advice in a strife-laden universe or an editorial comment on George W. Bush’s governing philosophy. “Following you, following me,” she continues, invoking post-prog pop strategists Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins. Santini’s own recorded genesis, Making Sound (2010), is aptly titled, for that is exactly what she does.

“Friday” is similarly structured: chronologically, with morning spilling into another meteorological dazzler over Anaheim Hills, California. It’s the same sun that peeks through the windows of baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew and NFL legend Deacon Jones, no stranger to the pull of music-loaded Fridays himself. Perhaps he chanced to hear the song on local radio and thought about his reign with the L.A. Rams, when he sweated on the side through clubs with the band that would one day become WAR. But Carew and Jones are anomalies in this planned community; their equally prosperous neighbors are predominantly white. Ms. Black, despite her name, is no exception. She’s as wholesome as a teenaged Caucasian can be.

Yet “Friday” has more in common with Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” than it does Santini’s “Hello My Love.” Both are street-savvy narratives, albeit with minor, insignificant alterations.

Cube:

Just wakin’ up in the morning, gotta thank God
I don’t know, but today seems kinda odd
No barkin’ from the dog, no smog
And momma cooked a breakfast with no hog
I got my grub on but didn’t pig out
Finally got a call from a girl I wanna dig out
Hooked it up for later as I hit the door,
Thinkin’, ‘Will I live another 24?’
I gotta go ’cause I got me a drop-top
And if I hit the switch, I can make the ass drop

Black:

7 a.m.*, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends

(* Precisely one hour after law enforcement officials descended upon Ice-T’s home)

The only discernible differences between the songs are diet- and transportation-related (although the “Friday” video depicts Black rejecting the bus for a convertible — a “drop-top,” if you will — piloted by a tousle-mopped 13-year-old. Anaheim Hills residents are so wealthy that driver’s licenses are apparently optional.). Both awaken into peculiarly favorable scenarios. Cube’s involves a lack of harassment from authorities and peers, and is sweetened by carnal and corporate attention. For the younger Ms. Black, freedom from schools and parental supervision is enough. Both are also troubled by a sense of mortality; “Thinkin’, ‘Will I live another 24?’” Cube wonders, while Black noshes her Froot Loops and observes the hustle and flow. “Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream,” she later laments.

Time is a recurring theme, its aggravation abutting an effervescent chorus as release: “It’s Friday, Friday / Gotta get down on Friday / Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend.” In her very first song, this promising young chanteuse has sonically bottled the spirit of Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid.” Although not of working-class origins, she’s successfully married the struggle of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” minus the rock-star neener-neener, to the unshackled jubilation of Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” in ways not even Mike Reno in his finest headband could imagine. “Friday, Friday,” “weekend, weekend” — she says them twice to impart their weight, as if she can’t believe they’ve arrived. Or, perhaps as Dr. Devin Rexall has suggested in “Rebecca Black Can Count to Eight Days a Week” (Brain Matter Quarterly, Summer 2011), she’s countering the misery of “Monday, Monday,” by The Mamas & the Papas.

But even in her bubbly ebullience, she recognizes how quickly reality re-surfaces. “Tomorrow is Saturday,” she reports, glumly and correctly, “and Sunday comes afterwards.” All we can do is live in the moment, our friends on either side, embracing the Friday-ness within, as the best pop music has for decades. Because we all know what Mondays can bring.

The First “No” Is the Deepest

Man, that Facebook’s a ceaseless wonder. After reconnecting with distant relatives, old classmates, former paramours, half-remembered acquaintances, and cherished childhood friends, I’ve hit yet another nostalgic milestone: the first girl I ever asked out.

I was 15 then, and way behind the curve. I’d been on dates before — don’t be silly! — but those were usually parent-finagled scenarios to get me out of the house so they and their adult friends could guzzle brandy, smoke cigars, and lament the horrid backslide of education, politics, and the arts since 1969. “Heyyy,” pops could cajole, draping a fatherly limb across my skeptical teenage shoulders, “the Colsons have a daughter about your age…” By ellipses’ end I’d find myself at the cineplex, $20 in my fist and a virtual stranger at my side. There’d be wandering glances and awkward pauses as we desperately, nervously struggled through small talk, clawing for common ground. Oh, you like Mr. Mister? Cool. Want some popcorn to hide behind for the next two hours like a buttered potted plant?

Together we’d sit like Frigidaires, me duded up, slightly hopeful, her plotting quiet revenge against all of our parents. License to Drive would cut shadows into our sad charade. She’d watch Corey Feldman and Corey Haim do their ridiculous Two Corey schtick and wonder why, of all the available Cory/Coreys in the universe, she was saddled with me.

She was lucky, though, that I wasn’t actively pursuing her. ‘Cause I was utterly hapless with girls. To compensate for an otherwise quiet demeanor, my adolescent courting technique could best be described as suicidal. When I liked someone, I expressed my affection by mocking the shit out of her. That was my surefire formula: relentless ridicule. Plumb her pleasantries for puns, lob salvos and barbs upon contact, repeat until the subject falls in love.

Hey, it worked for my hero, Groucho Marx. In my hands, however, it proved surprisingly ineffective. One girl wouldn’t speak to me for five years. (Well, that’s not entirely true: late in our senior year, she directed a barrage at me that contradicted her status as an Honors student.) Prank calls weren’t endearing, either, unless you found tiresome rounds of Asshole Telephone sexy. My exasperating immaturity cost me a few potential friendships. Somehow, my actions weren’t seen as scampishly clever.

For a Lothario in training, my track record stunk. I’d had exactly one girlfriend by the tenth grade, a relationship I demolished with my loutish behavior. She was a sweet girl who deserved far better than my phony strut for however long she endured it. When we were 12, it felt like months, when it was likely only weeks. But it was a middle-school romance and oh, so serious. Florid, yearning origami jammed through locker vents. Long afternoon phone calls to listen to each other listening to music. Communication through song dedications: “This one goes out to Cory — it’s Toto, with ‘Stranger in Town.’” Making her cry ’cause I had to be a prick. A showoff. An icehouse.

She eventually got her revenge by forgiving me. But not before announcing to our junior-year creative-writing class that we’d once been “lovers,” relaying this information with an evil grin and eyes of playful malice. Touche. (She’s a Facebook friend now too.)

But what the hell. I’m leaping around the timeline. Focus, soldier; you’re a Professional.

This particular incident took place during my sophomore year of high school, late ’87/early ’88. The girl was in my Bioscience class. Quiet and intriguing. Naturally, my usual approach would not be appropriate. I was still young, but I was learning fast. Slowly dulling my vicious edge. Honing my filters. Cooling my dickish lean. I had to be delicate, do things right. This meant handling the situation as the private me — the dope who poured poems into notebooks and harbored dreams of writer-dom — and not the stumblebum knucklehead junior raconteur. I had to talk to her at school or call her at home, engage her as a human being instead of as a straight man, and ease, organically, into a formal proposal.

I suspected that calling her at home was the easiest option. No barking-sweat visuals to turn her stomach. But still it took three nights to summon the courage. My logic was sound, I thought. Monday was too early. Tuesday was too volatile. Wednesday was just right. Weekend plans would still be in limbo and, uh — well, it made perfect sense at the time. All that was left was to actually make the call.

I was an anxious wreck, kneeled over the rotary phone in my parents’ bedroom, door securely locked for maximum privacy. The cool drone of a dial tone hummed expectantly in my ear as my fingers tapped the black beast in thought.

You poor kids today will never know the beauty of the rotary phone, the anticipation as tumblers fell into place. It was the perfect agent of suspense. The numbers clacked and spun, giving me time to concentrate on potential outcomes. What would I do if a parent answered, a protective father type demanding my name, address, and intentions? Or maybe she’d answer, first ring, and catch me unawares. What if an answering machine picked up? Would I leave a message? What would I say? Would I pretend to be a wrong number? Disconnect without a word?

Too many options, too many question. So I’d hover over that final digit, quailing at the crossroads, rewriting history, until that angry chorus of “EH! EH! EH! EH!” sent me all the way back to the beginning. CLACKCLACKCLACKCLACK … CLACK CLACKCLACK …

After 700 attempts, I finally spun the orphaned number, largely out of sympathy. It looked so forlorn and untouched, separated from its tribe by a teenage pussy. Also, I’d compromised by then, vowing to hang up after three rings. Couldn’t say I didn’t try.

The tumblers settled. I was in.

One ring. OK.

Two rings. Almost there.

Th —

“Hello?”

Deep voice.

Father?

Shit.

“Uhhhh, hi!” I sang, whitening my delivery with counterfeit sunshine. “Is [NAME REMOVED] there?”

Pause. Interminable pause.

“Sure. Hold on.”

Muffled voices. Silverware? Dinner. Bad, bad form. Brush of phone on flesh and

“Hello?”

It’s her.

“Hey!” I shout for the benefit of neighbors six blocks away.

“Hi.”

“Hi!” I reply, as if trying the word out for myself. Then I realize “Hey!” and “Hi!” aren’t exactly exclamations exclusive to me, so I decide right then and there to be helpful.

“It’s Cory. From school.”

“Hi.” No discernible change in tone. Not cold, not glad, just mildly friendly.

“Hey. So, um, did you get that assignment done?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Oh, no reason. Just wondering. Science, y’know. Like, pshoo. Science.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m sorry, did I interrupt your dinner?”

“Yeah, kinda.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK.”

“Didn’t mean to be, y’know. Rude.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“Anyway,” I continue, finally seizing the reins to strangle this dying pony, “the reason I’m calling, actually, is because, well, y’know, I was curious. Would you maybe wanna perhaps, I dunno, go out sometime? Like Friday, maybe? Or next Friday? Or …”

I feel a surge of genuine shock course through the cord like Kool-Aid up a Silly Straw. Now it’s her to turn to stammer.

“Whuh — um. Hm. Sorry, but no.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just — ”

“No! No. That’s OK.”

“OK.”

“OK. Cool. Well.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I will, um — I will see you in class tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow, Cory.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up, sat on the edge of the bed. My first formal proposal, my first formal rejection. 0-1. Or 1-1. Why be a pessimist.

Honestly, though, it didn’t feel so bad. In fact, it was better than I’d expected. She was gentle, not at all what I’d feared — what I’d always feared: combative revulsion, angry denouncement, emasculating laughter, or outright physical retaliation at the very idea of socializing with me in a non-academic environment. It was not a harbinger of my future. It was just the word “no.”

And that, as they say, was that. We returned to class and, with the exception of an occasional bemused glance, never acknowledged what had happened. In fact, that Wednesday night exchange turned out to be the longest conversation we’d ever have.

She’s probably long forgotten it, but I carry that memory with a peculiar fondness. It was the beginning of the private me overcoming a self-conscious manufactured asshole. The process was long and painful, and I can’t say he’s gone completely — I’m still a sucker for well-laid snark; its pull is sometimes too irresistible — but I’m more civilized now and, might I add, an excellent lunch companion, so…

No? Well, maybe next time.