Song Memory

Some say love…

On the way home from Seattle last night, I heard The Rose on the radio. Yeah, Bette Midler, the whole sappy thing. Though it was the first time I’d heard it in 25 years or so, I remembered every word by heart. But that wasn’t the amazing thing (internalizing music lyrics is one of my superpowers). The amazing thing was how vividly it brought back a memory of people I have not thought about since I was in college.

I lived two lives in high school – one at my private, academy-style school which was in the affluent suburbs of Minneapolis, and the other with the local kids who all went to my nearest inner-city high school. At the time it was known for being over crowded, full of deadbeat, failing, pregnant-teen, druggie delinquents, which is probably why I went to the private school. Their hall guards were infamous, and several of my friends would bolt out of class before the bell rang, light up half way down the hall and try to hit the exit door before May, the bitchiest hall guard of all, caught up with them. I can still hear her voice yelling at my then boyfriend, “Raj, get out of this school with that cigarette!!” And by the time she had finished the sentence, he was across the street, off school property, smiling a huge smile, hollering back, “See ya tomorrow, May!”

Yeah, they were trouble, but they were fun, so I hung with a tight group of them through high school. The group that I ran with was primarily made of latch key kids, often from single parent homes or in many cases, completely absent adult supervision of any kind. Saturday night parties at Lonnie and Shawn’s place were frequent because no adults lived there or ever showed up… except that one time when their uncle joined us after supplying the vodka and cigarettes.

One of the things I learned at that time, from this group of people, was that since their family arrangements were fractured and unstable, they trusted and leaned on each other very deeply. Mike always needed food and never had a dime, so he’d show up and entertain with his verbose stories in exchange for Poptarts and Twinkies. Not sure he ate otherwise. Johnny lived alone most of his high school life. He had a mom, but I think she was in and out of rehab, and he had no siblings. Johnny never had to be anywhere. If no one else was around, Johnny always was. That group of people was his home, and he’d often bum a dollar or trade for what he had in his pockets so he could buy a Snickers and a smoke for breakfast at the 7-Eleven before heading in to school. He played guitar and had the best rocker hair – long and all ratted out, and occasionally smashed on one side from bedhead. I only ever saw him wear one set of clothes. A bandanna was tied over the torn knee of his jeans, and even in Minnesota winters, he wore only a jean jacket. He quit going to school around 10th grade, but hung in the neighborhood and began working on friends’ cars for money. Suzi was a gorgeous, buxom, platinum blonde, who played cosmetologist. She carried a huge, leather purse-bag with makeup, hairspray (it was the 80s), and an oversized mirror. With a deep alto voice, she was bubbly and gregarious, and always knew where everyone (and the party) was. Wherever we went, we looked like the hair bands of the 80s, thanks to Suzi. It was like a little, mobile family of teens and I loved being a part of it.

Ginny was quiet, demure, dated my brother for a little while, and had a beautiful singing voice. Jen was my friend down the block. She just wanted to be in the middle of the attention, her natural theatrics flowing out everywhere we went. She was most likely to hang out my passenger window hollering knock-knock jokes at people on the street. She preferred to be with the group instead of going home because she was beaten most times she did go home. She also spent a lot of time in foster homes, so she would disappear for months at a time, then show up back at home again, and reappear in our group. I had a car – a ’66 T-bird with fuzzy dice on the rear-view, no seat belts, and too much guts under the hood. When Suzi got in the front seat, she’d always turn on the radio and push through all the stations, then say, “I always expect this car to play music from the 50s… it should do that!”
“Suzi Q, you’re a mess,” someone would reply from the back seat. It was a compliment.
In public we were stoic, attempting to stay under the radar (except visually, of course), but alone in our group, we were dramatic, playful and comical. We were a mess. A fun mess.

It turns out that this group, which was known by the student body as, “The Metal Heads” because they all did the big hair, 80s metal music and everything that went with it, was also the group that laid claim to theater performances in school. It’s probably the only reason they showed up in school at all. You can only be truant so many times before they wonder why you’re at play practice, but weren’t in math. 

During my senior year, they were doing Godspell for the spring musical, and I caught up with them in the theater one day at the end of rehearsal. Ginny finished singing By My Side, and they wrapped for the day. The audio team had some technical details to work out before performances, so they asked someone to stay by the microphones and recite lines so they could do sound checks.

Suzi, her bright red lips and fluffy, platinum hair shining at the mic, began singing, “Some say love…..” Before the phrase ended, Jen and Ginny were there, adding perfect harmonies and all the words with deep, bleeding feeling. “Some say love, it is a razor…” It was like they were singing to each other, confessing through song, how strong their friendship bonds were. I sat in the front row, completely rapt, since I had never seen this before, and I remember the feeling in my chest as they finished to jibes and sarcastic applause from the stage hands and audio guys. Because it was high school. We were usually stoic. “I say love, it is a flower…” But this was theater, it was allowed, and they let it out. It was beautiful.

A couple months later I went to college and moved to another neighborhood. Jen tried community college,  but ended up in the system after picking up a shoplifting habit. Raj started working fast food somewhere, and I never heard from Mike, but Johnny went to Hazelden. Several times, apparently. Suzi picked up a heroin habit after getting pregnant with twins at 17, then miscarrying. Or that’s what I heard. But it was, for that short time, beautiful.