1985: Lay Your Hands On Me

The Thompson Twins were one of many British bands I liked in the mid-1980s. New wave music trickled into our neighborhood slowly, with a few songs seeping through on WYDD, a station that would play Pat Benetar and the Police, but sneak in songs like “Situation” by Yaz from time to time.

It was completely different from the gimme-three-steps, drinking-bourbon-out-of-the-Pepsi-bottle-in-the-back-of-the-van classic rock music that most other guys in my town were contractually obligated to like, and so I soaked up the new sounds.

YDD had “The 1260 Club,” an hour of new music every night where I learned about bands like R.E.M and Romeo Void.

They also had “Rock Over London,” a weekly show (hosted by Graham Dene) where I would often hear songs months or even a year before they’d ever be released in the States or played on the radio here.

These distances in time and sound have been rendered irrelevant by the Internet and technology, but at the time, London felt like it was a million miles away. To hear an hour of music, live from the source, was thrilling.

I’m a Thompson Twins fan — I liked them well enough — but unlike some of the music I’ve chosen for earlier entries in this musical memoir of mine, I didn’t select them, or one of my favorite songs from them, “Lay Your Hands On Me,” for this post because their music had a huge, grand impact on me.

I selected them because they were part of an ad I placed in a national magazine.

Star Hits was published in the late 1980s as a Stateside version of the long-running UK magazine Smash Hits.

(According to the Wikipedia link, the two shared content and articles. Ah, corporate synergy at work in the corporate 1980s!)

My sister Shelle’s teenage music fandom of bands like the Bay City Rollers was published on the pages of teen-girl centered magazines like Tiger Beat.

But Star Hits was a publication for the 1980s – as easy to read as USAToday, but with some real content and substance for the beginner music fan, both guys and girls.

It would be easy to dismiss something like Star Hits as a promotional rag for teeny bop bands, but they were really good about covering a lot of the bands of the day. They were the source for me to find out about Everything But The Girl, which to this day remains one of my favorite bands.

A rare Star Hits cover that did NOT feature Duran Duran.
A rare Star Hits cover that did NOT feature Duran Duran.

If I had my head in a magazine on those days (and there were many) where I skipped school to avoid another day of harassment or another ass kicking, it was probably Star Hits. (Possibly Soap Opera Digest, but that’s another story and another blog.)

Nestled deep in the pages of  Star Hits was a page for pen pals.

It was simple: you posted your favorite bands and your contact information, and voila, you had mail.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I started to send my pen pal request to Star Hits. 

I can’t remember every band or musician that I listed in my ad, but I know for sure Thompson Twins and OMD were on the list.I’d seen them live a few months before, and it was a great show. Probably Yaz and Alison Moyet, too, and perhaps Siouxsie and the Smiths.

After several letters to Star Hits, I was in.

Success! There it was, my ad (under a nickname), and a list of the bands and artists I loved.

I expected a few letters, but was stunned when our mailbox was soon bulging – literally – with letters. I must have received over a thousand letters that summer. Our mail carrier began to complain to my mother. Then again, he complained to everyone.

I learned a lesson from the responses to the ad: A majority of people don’t hear what you say — or read what you write – but instead see or hear what they want the conversation to be.

90 percent of my replies were from Duran Duran fans, or “Durannies,” as we called them.

HI I’M BECKY!!!!!!!! I LOVE JOHN TAYLOR AND HORSES….AND PURPLE IS MY FAVORITE COLOR. I HEART JOHN!!! DD ROX! 

Duran Duran was NOT on my list of preferred bands. Not anywhere. I’ve just never been enthusiastic about them. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends and been uninvited from weddings because of this personality defect, but hey, one musn’t compromise one’s beliefs!

The Durannies were early spammers, most likely writing to everyone who was listed in that issue, and those letters were another lesson that I learned early and remember often in correspondence, communication and social media: Cut through the noise and focus on the people who are really listening to what you have to say.

I did make some fun, interesting friends. There was Emily from Maine, Teresa from Missouri, Monica from Cleveland Heights, and Joanna from Laval, Quebec. These were all smart, funny young women, and their warmth and intelligence shone through in their letters.

(They also had great handwriting, which was pretty much a necessity for me to respond!)

I did also meet a few guys through the ad. I was pretty inexperienced in the meet-and-greet department, but pen pals allowed me to practice my game from a distance.

I remember the cute, quiet guy who was a DJ at a college radio station. He sent me vinyl copies of The Smiths’ “Louder Than Bombs” and a Siouxsie record, and we had a brief correspondence, which included a nice little flirtation.

As far as the ad itself, I’m foggy on the details, but I think my home address was indeed published as part of the ad (though I did use a nickname in the ad itself). It’s probably mind-blowing to think of someone doing that today. “Oh hey, I’m a teenager and living with my parents. Here’s my contact info. #kthxbye.” No one got hurt, though.

I eventually lost touch with everyone. A few of the girls ran for the exits when I told them I was gay, and they realized that their hopes for a long-distance boyfriend would never come to fruition.

I went off to college. My best friend from childhood went to a different college a year later, and when I eventually met his boyfriend, we realized that he’d also done the Star Hits thing, and may have answered my ad. Small world.

Technology has changed so much. I only need to open a browser to listen to music from across the ocean.

The One Directioners don’t need to share a live address these days – they can follow their “fam” on Twitter.

The music industry has changed in many ways, and I’m sad that to some degree, the sense of adventure and discovery has disappeared from mainstream music.

But it’s alive and well on YouTube and on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

For all the changes, the ideas are the same: Find interesting new music. Connect with other people who like the same things you do.

And watch out for the Durannies — and the One Directioners!

(Edited to add: I really need to see if I can find the ad.  I’m curious!)

Click here to check out other entries!

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The Black Arts: 2001

For some songs and albums, it’s almost impossible for me to not connect them to a specific time and place.

Even now, when I hear the Stereolab album Sound-Dust, it reminds me of the fall of 2001.

My friend Joey had introduced me to Stereolab a few years earlier, and I loved the mixture of pop sounds, space age lounge, and lyrics that were unlike any other band — some political, some satirical, some completely absurdist.

Fluorescences (released a few years ago on a compilation album) is one great example of the Stereolab vibe.

I bought Sound-Dust on the day it was released. I loved all of their work but especially Sound-Dust, which had a bit more of a traditional sound than earlier Stereolab albums.

There was also a sense of ennui and melancholy through all of the album’s songs, especially my favorite, “The Black Arts.”

There’s both a personal and a universal link connecting this song to a time and place for me.

The lyrics are very clear and obvious — a rarity for Stereolab — and tell a lot of the story on their own.

I need somebody, I feel so lonely,
Somebody to share my scarcity.
All cut from the world, unrelated

I’d just turned thirty, and while I’d successfully shaken my Jay habit, my life hadn’t changed in all the ways I’d longed for. I had a life, but it didn’t look like the one I’d designed for myself.

Surrounded, the world on top,
Disconnected, digging my soul,
Holding my breath to repossess.

I was still on the periphery of things, occasionally spending a night here or a weekend there in an encounter with the latest romantic contender.

And at some point, it hits you.

It became clear, when none of those men were permanent, when none of them seem to stick around, that you are trying to take the warmth and love and affection from each experience.

That maybe, somehow, the collection of hours and weekends and early mornings and late night booty calls can somehow be woven together like a crazy quilt, fashioned into a sparkly blanket to keep you warm at that 3 a.m. moment.

At that 3 a.m. moment when you are awake and alive and so aware of your aloneness in the room that it feels like a presence in itself. At the moment where you desperately need to trick yourself into believing that you chose this, that you wanted this feeling.

My heart (my brain), my heat, my sweat, my feet.
I need my bones and my blood too,
Need somebody in my body.

That was one connection to this haunting, gorgeous song.

The second was the event that happened just a few weeks after this album was released.

I was living in Pittsburgh then, and learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center when I arrived at work.

We sat, horrified, listening to the news on the radio, barely able to process any work among us.

9/11 happened far from us, but there was reason for us to be alarmed. The plane that crashed east of Pittsburgh probably flew over the house in which I grew up — as well as a few hundred of my relatives — before it crashed.

When I left work that evening, the roads were deserted; no buses were running, and NOBODY was on the streets.

For all I knew, there was a curfew.

I put in my earphones and walked home. As Sound-Dust played, I kept turning around, waiting to see someone, anyone, on the streets, someone with me, near me, to restore normalcy.

At one point, I left the sidewalk and started to walk down the middle of Liberty Avenue – a road that would have been filled with cars moving at the speed of light on any other day.

The sound of I need somebody rang in my ears repeatedly over those next days and weeks, and I saw people actually reaching out, temporarily letting down their brick walls, their icy masks to admit to friends, family and strangers that they were scared, that they needed someone to share their fears, share their scarcity.

It’s a gorgeous song, but not a profoundly sad one; it’s got an unusual framework, with parts of the song very dreamlike and soft, and other sections with a march-like beat, a movement of people rising up to prevail.

Policy of Truth: 1990

The thing to know, really, is that I was in love with him. Head over heels, light in my eyes, couldn’t see straight, couldn’t walk one foot in front of the other in love with him.

That summer, the summer of 1990, I turned 21. It was a time to be an adult, but I wasn’t even close to being ready to fly the nest on my own.

College was looking more every day like a bad decision, dropping dollar bills in a bottomless well.

I’d skipped so much of high school to dodge bullies and bullshit, and it turns out that if you miss huge chunks of high school classroom time? You’re, like, totally left in the lurch when it comes to college classwork.

I’d met Jay a few years before. He and I lived in the same dorm and watched some of the 1988 Winter Olympics together. I was Team Debi Thomas, and we watched her struggle to win the bronze.

When I met Jay, I read him as a nice, slightly dorky guy who made a lot of jokes and talked about his girlfriend. He was wearing a Wendy and Lisa t-shirt, which led to the start of an ongoing conversation about music. (Because really, then or now, who doesn’t want to talk music with a dude wearing a Wendy and Lisa t-shirt?)

1990 was an apocalypse for me. We often think of that word in terms of the end of the world, and perhaps for me it was the end of one world, the one where I was pretending to be people I didn’t know to please people who didn’t seem to care.

1990 was the year I came out to everyone in my world. My parents. My siblings. My friends. I may have told the clerk at the deli counter and the mailman. I mean, EVERYONE heard my declaration.

It was exciting and freeing, but freedom in this case was like a cannon firing me into a huge abyss of uncertainty. There was no really obvious template for what to do next.

It ended up being a very necessary time for the future and foundation of my life, and I appreciate it now. But it was an awkward mess to live through.

For one thing, I was as sheltered as a Kardashian from the real world. I’d held exactly two jobs by age 21, and the concept of money escaped me entirely.

My father entrusted me with a savings account with money for my fall semester. A semester that, after final grades were issued, I knew I was never going to attend, because I’d missed so much class I’d landed on academic probation.

I lit the match and burned the possibility of another try at the college try to the ground by spending that semester’s funds that summer. I basically celebrated my 21st birthday all summer long….until the river ran dry and the jig was up.

My father was in shock. My life was in shambles, and my friends were the refuge from the flames around me.

By then, Jay and I were neighbors in an off-campus apartment complex. There was almost constant drama around who liked who, was getting along with who, who loved who.

He hadn’t changed much from when I’d first met him, but the cliches about Cupid’s arrow? Well…I was looking at the same person, but suddenly seeing so much more.

At some point, with no advance warning, I fell for Jay. Hard.

The same qualities that had made us friends emerged in high definition. He was a nice guy. He was a smart guy. And good grief, he was gorgeous: Clark Kent with a side helping of Christian Slater.

That was the summer Depeche Mode’s “Violator” was released.

It was a moody, dramatic album for a moody, dramatic time. It seems like a blip now, but to angst and booze-fueled college kids, it was all Extremely Important.

I listened to it almost every day, several times a day, and if “Enjoy The Silence” captured the beauty and the joy I felt whenever Jay was in the same room with me, “Policy of Truth” was the soundtrack to the shame I felt (and would feel for most of our relationship) at the stupidity I’d shown in falling for my best friend.

You had something to hide // Should have hidden it, shouldn’t you?

Now you’re not satisfied // With what you’ve been put through

“Policy of truth” took on other meanings. That summer, Jay confided in me about his bisexual experiences. I was a walking ball of want for him, and it was during that summer that we had our first sexual experience.

It was completely one-sided. For me, he was the end result, the top of the mountain. For him, I was a friend and, maybe, at rare and random times, a buddy who could help him get that buzz out of his ears.

I don’t regret that it happened. I do regret that I was caught in a loop — and he was caught in it with me — for several years, a loop of love mixed with shame for falling for him, a loop of struggling for independence and then joining forces again. We did that so many times, living in seven different apartments together in seven years.

Never again // Is what you swore // The time before 

Yes, seven years. Bankruptcy, broken mirrors AND falling for your best friend all apparently take a person seven years to shake off!

And yet, I understand why it happened, and why the bond may have been so hard to tame (at least for me) into something more manageable, something healthier for both of us.

Jay was the first person not connected to me by blood or proximity who seemed to love me for who I was. As a friend, mind you, far less than the connection I was feeling. But still, he cared and acknowledged it. In public. Sober, even!

No one had ever done that before for me. No one did those sorts of things in our world, in the thunderdome of the Rust Belt, where men were made of stone and almost never dropped that expressionless mask.

It meant a lot to me to hear that validation, and stayed with me for a long, long time.

I think I did the same for him; I was the first friend who didn’t reject him when he started exploring his sexuality. I was the first person he’d met who didn’t expect him to stay as he had been in grade school, who didn’t want to keep reliving the past.

I suspect that’s why we kept crashing into each other’s orbit, why it took so long for us to brush off the dust and let things settle, why it took us so long to untangle the good DNA from some of the more painful parts.

I can’t speak for him, but for me, the power of that validation was utterly contradictory in my life.

On the one hand, I felt validation and self-worth. But sometimes, my fear of losing that connection overshadowed the relationship itself.

It got even more complicated as I watched him live his life from the sidelines. Being in love with someone, and then watching them happy with someone else, is a special kind of torture – one I willingly inflicted on myself, mind you.

The repeating cycle (which I like to call Lather Rinse Repeat) included, as hard as it is for me to admit, a fair amount of immaturity and jealousy on my part.

Jay got noticed by women and men wherever we went. When he spilled a drink on his pants at a party we attended, there was NO shortage of people who wanted to fix the mess – mostly by volunteering to help him out of his khakis!

Most of the time, we were a good team. But I didn’t always handle the natural ebbs and flows of our relationship well.

Jay wasn’t perfect — he could be mysterious and uncommunicative, and was prone to brief flashes of anger — but this is no itinerary of complaints. This was a no-fault deal. One of us was in love, and one was not, but none of it was anyone’s fault.

Jay mentions from time to time that the movie Beaches always reminds him of us. We watched it quite a few times back in the day.

But I have to confess, no disrespect intended, that I now loathe that movie. When you’re the wind beneath someone’s wings? Well, as the song says, it’s damn cold in their shadow.

I should have disconnected from the cycle earlier, but I didn’t think much of myself or my prospects at that point. I was willing to be cold in the shadow in exchange for the flashes of sunshine.

In Boy George’s autobiography, Take It Like A Man, he talks about a classic template of friendship pairings. I think he called it the “Sharon and Wendy.” Sharon is the beautiful center of attention, and Wendy is the chubby, schlubby best friend. I was SO the Wendy to Jay’s Sharon.

Never again was what I swore the time before, indeed. But I chose it again and again. We’d fall out, then we’d forgive, forget, be inspired, need a change from whatever place we’d last landed.

There’s a scene in Muriel’s Wedding that might explain the Lather Rinse Repeat of it all better than I can in words.

Friends Muriel and Rhonda have had a falling out. Rhonda – the force of nature, the Sharon, if you will – is stuck in her mother’s home (literally, as an accident has paralyzed her) with a group of mean girls from high school, people she loathes but is forced to be around in desperation in Muriel’s absence.

Then Muriel arrives and announces she wants Rhonda to return to Sydney with her. Rhonda’s mother and the “friends” are incredulous. “She can’t just barge in here and take you away!”

Rhonda looks around at where she is — a place she doesn’t want to be — and says, “Yes, she can!” They drive out of town, with conspiratorial laughs, looking forward to their next adventure.

And for me, that worked. For a while. Bur eventually, I realized I had to be the driver of my own adventures.

After several years of Lather Rinse Repeat, the pathways of our lives diverged with a finality in the late 1990s. It felt like an ending.

The spell had finally been broken, and there was a very natural sense of letting go. It was time for us to do our own thing.

I actually had a few other final paragraphs written here originally – tying up the narrative in a tidy bow – but the truth is, this is not a tidy bow kind of deal. 

For a few years, I was gung ho about putting my past into proper context. But for some things, that really isn’t within reach. It’s healthier to acknowledge it, appreciate it, and move on.  

The Name of the Game: 1977

NOTE: While some events happen much later, the song itself was released in 1977.

My memories of certain time periods are so sharp. Maybe it’s selective — as you age, your brain saves the memorable stuff and clears your mental cache of the irrelevant.

As the youngest of four kids, I didn’t always have a spot at the table, a voice in the conversation. So I became a really good observer, making mental notes, remembering dates and places and events. I was a journalist, a storyteller for my own world, even at a young age.

What I don’t have in that big memory box is anything about faith, about church, about religion.

There are quick flashes of memory here and there. The old ladies at the end of the street who held summer Bible study. They read verses to us that had been printed on small flash cards and, if you sat through the entire session, you got a Orange Push-Up pop.

There was the Christmas Pilgrimage through the center of town, the summer carnival on the sweeping grounds of the local Catholic church.

My sister’s wedding was my first time inside that church, and it felt like it was as big as St. Peter’s Basilica.

We weren’t exactly barefoot heathens running around our neighborhood, though some of my mother’s neighborhood adversaries might argue otherwise.

I wasn’t a stranger to God or to the teachings of Christianity. Beyond the Sunday School ladies, my mother was the main teacher. We spent hours talking about any number of things, situations where she’d walk me through moral reasoning, with her Bible as a reference.

But getting us together and going to church was not going to happen. She had doubts about the church experience, and told me several times that, at least in her experience, it was filled with people who loved you on Sunday and would turn their backs on you during the rest of the week.

And my father. Getting my father there would have taken a papal decree. Remember Mad Men? That was his professional life at the time. That big, giant mainframe computer that drives one of the copywriters crazy? He was one of the guys who fixed those big behemoths, and he was essentially on call 24/7. Church was almost always a no-go. Literally.

When I was 13, we had new neighbors for a year who were profoundly evangelical. I followed their son to a summer church camp. I have no memories of their teachings. What I do remember was a relentless admonishment from all the adults to bring in new members. It was everything.

They made it a contest. Bring in five new members, they said, and you’ll get a train set! I may have been a shoeless heathen, but something in me decided that the whole deal didn’t sit well with me, and I stopped going.

The more serious schism for me was the acknowledgement of who I was, and of my life as a gay man. In the 1980s, when I came of age, few mainstream Christian religions had an open door policy for LGBT congregants. Some individual congregations were advocating for that change in big urban areas, but those spaces were few and far between.

And if there was a church that put a welcome mat out, there was often an asterisk beside that Welcome: We love the sinner, but hate the sin. We’ll help you change. 

For most of the next two decades, the schism remained.

I had spiritual curiosity, and occasionally, something would transpire to shake off that hunger.

When I lived near Cleveland with my friend Jay, we went to a study group. The leader was a handsome, athletic young minister who could have been a ROTC leader.

He was the first person to suggest aloud in my presence what I had always believed in my heart: that I was a child of God, loved as any other. He spoke about other ways people had interpreted some Bible passages.

In the 1990s, during an earlier stay in Chicago, I explored alternative spirituality with several friends. They commented on the centering presence I brought to meditation and prayer sessions.

But still, faith felt like a dinner to which I hadn’t been invited — and for which I was woefully underdressed.

Music was often a sort of spiritual grace for me, and in the absence of something more defined, I’d throw my earphones on and take a walk, trying to puzzle together the mysteries of other people, the mysteries of the world.

In a library that has songs from every decade of the 20th century, I had some of the 70s pop songs I loved as a kid.

From “Godspell,” there was Day by Day, the song my babysitter sang to me. I had The Carpenters in that mix.

And, of course, ABBA.

The ABBA revival started in the mid-1990s and reached a peak with the emergence of ABBA music in the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding. (You’re terrible, Muriel.)

Their music was still on my iPod over a decade later, in 2005. Music often elicits an emotional reaction from me, but that year, I had an experience that was very unusual, even for me.

I was listening to Name of the Game, a mid-tempo song that’s written as a love song, or at least the song of someone tentatively reaching out to love.

Something aligned, in the music, in the lyrics, in the things that had been in my head and heart. I don’t know why, or how, but suddenly, the lyrics seemed to suggest another meaning, one that spoke to the questions about faith, about God, and about life that I still had.

After all, I was an impossible case….

It seems to me, for every time // I’m getting more open hearted

Was I talking to God? What the devil was happening?

What’s the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?

Tell me please, ’cause I have to know // I’m a bashful child, beginning to grow

At this point, I was doubting my sanity. And then the chorus kicked in again, and every single hair on my neck and back stood up on edge.

And make me talk, and make me feel, and make me show, what I’m trying to conceal

I was a few hundred feet from home, my face wet with tears, convinced I was having a mental breakdown.

Then I exhaled, and thought, maybe it’s time to start asking more questions.

That day was the start of a slow walk back to spirituality. I was wary of what was ahead for a gay man (and a shoeless heathen at that), so my journey was step by step.

I wrote an article about faith and LGBT people, and made a listing of all the open and affirming spaces in town.

I took a class that taught me about all the world’s religions, and learned that questions aren’t at all a bad thing; questioning is, in fact, the cornerstones of many religions.

I drew on a number of friends who had deep, rich lives in their churches, including several people who, in mid-career, had decided to become ministers.

Two years ago, I became a member of a church.

I’m proud to be a member, but you’ll forgive me if I end my descriptions there. I agree with James Baldwin that my faith and my beliefs are in an envelope marked Personal, and I’ll keep them that way.

I’m still figuring it out, but I think that’s rather the point, that we don’t have all the answers. Faith is about many things, and it’s about belief, but at its heart, it is also our map out of darkness, an attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Some study books and scrolls. Some sing hymns. And some play Swedish pop music.

Talk of The Town: 1981

Hey, ho, way to go, Ohio…..

It was early evening on the Ohio Turnpike, and the sun was getting in our eyes.

My sister Joni was behind the wheel, taking me from our hometown in western Pennsylvania to her new home near Medina, Ohio. We were cruising along in a light blue Datsun that sounded like a music box every time you opened the door.

Joni was a competitive driver, playing Tic Tac Toe with the eighteen wheelers on the road. The trucks were so tall that sometimes, they plunged us into darkness when they towered around us.

I’d been a sheltered kid. By the time I was 12, I’d only had three or four long trips away from home. Now I was going away for the whole summer.

This might sound like the beginnings of some Huck Finn-like tale, a coming-of-age story, the tales of a seventh-grade nothing that Judy Blume forgot to write.

But the reason for this new adventure, this new chapter in the book wasn’t as sunny as all that.

A few weeks earlier, on a Sunday afternoon, my mother had put on a blue muummuu with big red Hawaiian flowers, draped a cross held together by beads around her neck, locked the door to my parents’ bedroom, crawled into bed, took a handful of pills, and rested her hands on her chest.

That’s how she was when we found her, still breathing.

I remember standing in the doorway while my father and the ambulance workers tended to her.

I couldn’t look at her. They were saying she was going to be fine, but I couldn’t look. So I turned to face the wall. And that’s when I saw her artwork.

She’d moved the dresser away from the wall to block the door. She hadn’t written us a note, but instead, in the space where the dresser had been, she drew us a picture, in crayons.

She’d drawn the word “goodbye” and a grave with the name “Elizabeth,” an older sibling who had died before birth.

My mother had been physically ill, in some fashion, since I was a young kid. But since I was only a kid, I didn’t understand the scope of it all. I never knew her frustrations were anything more than an Erma Bombeck column full of sarcasm and fatigue.

Clearly, it ran deeper. She’d had a full breakdown. She was admitted to an inpatient mental health program. As the only kid still at home and under 18, I had to go somewhere. So off I went to Ohio.

Joni and her husband lived in a small town called Chippewa Lake. The town used to have a thriving resort town feel, and had been a popular stop on the nearby railroad. It even hosted an amusement park for many years. (YouTube has footage from the abandoned remains of the park.)

I was staying in the cottage where they lived, literally hundreds of feet from the lake. The cottage sat on the grounds of the huge, elegant restaurant where they worked. It had once been part of a grand estate.

The restaurant was owned and operated by two men. Outside of playground namecalling, they were the first two men I’d ever met, or ever heard of, who were publicly gay — and a couple, even, which seems astonishing in early 1980s rural Ohio.

On some days, I’d visit my sister at work and walk through the grand rooms, helping to roll silverware into napkins, or sipping an iced tea in the sunny grand room, while the other waitresses waved and walked by.

Other days, I’d walk a half-mile or so to the small store nearby, to pick up The Plain Dealer or Akron Beacon Journal — because I was a nerd and a news junkie, even then — and maybe an ice cream from the cooler.

I remember so much about the new sights and new sounds of that summer.

The strange old lady with the bright red hair — Dorothy Fuldheim — who did commentary on the noon news.

The noise that Joni’s dog Lady, an Irish Setter with a lot of energy and no common sense, made when she ran headlong into the lake and chased the ducks.

The snorting laughter from the backseat — from me — when my sister and her friends took me to the drive-in to see Caddyshack and History of the World Part I (my first “grownup” movies).

I should not have been enjoying myself, but I was.

I was worried about my mom, of course. But while it made me feel tremendously guilty, I was also enjoying the experience. It was all new for me, at a time where I really needed to break out of my cocoon and out of my own head.

When I hear The Pretenders, especially early Pretenders, it often reminds me of Ohio and of that summer. I heard Talk of the Town almost constantly that summer. (Was it WMMS? Another station? I don’t know.)

The Pretenders’ music always reminds me of Cleveland, of Pittsburgh, of my home. There’s some sort of unexplainable connection. Chrissie Hynde had left Akron for London and the rest of the world long before I ever heard her music, but there’s still something in it that makes my ears twitch.

It has a grittiness and uncompromising attitude, but a heart underneath – a description that fits many of us from that region perfectly.

I always remember the big clouds and the blue sky I’d see on the road while listening to Message of Love, or Back On The Chain Gang. It was a sure sign we were getting closer to Lake Erie, which Chrissie mentions in a few Pretenders songs.

When I went away to college six years later, it was another Pretenders song, My Baby, that was on the radio as we pulled up under those big clouds campus, watching the seagulls soar over the campus mall.

The summer in Chippewa also brought an awakening of another kind.

There was a picnic one evening late in the summer, not long before I went back to Pennsylvania.

I was with my sister and brother-in-law, and a few dozen of their co-workers. That evening, I had a great evening with a few of the guys at the party, who were joking with me and with each other.

It was a pretty remarkable thing, since I was a pretty socially awkward kid – or as the lingo of the day would put it, a total spaz.

The guys were talking about music, and while my sister’s crowd was more Rolling Stones and Eagles, these guys loved the Pretenders and Blondie, even some disco (a bold thing to admit in 1981).

There was a moment of recognition that night for me, the first time I was in a space where I could tell that someone else on the planet, someone who was an adult, was like me. That stayed with me for a long time after that.

The brotherhood between the men and the feeling of open affection and warmth, was something I would recognize and find again when I came out as a gay man. That night was my first inkling that it even existed.

The source of my mother’s physical illness, one that required surgery, was finally pinpointed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she was a brand new woman after surgery and recovery. She fought other physical and mental illness during her lifetime – the road was never easy for her – but her recovery signaled the beginning of some good times for her.

There’s one more Pretenders song that reminds me of her when I hear it.

I still have a warm spot in my heart for Chippewa Lake. We all went back to visit a few times; my mother came with us the following summer, when Joni’s first child was born.

I’ve been back to visit it as an adult a few times over the years. Like anything you see as a kid, it never quite looks the same when you’re grown. But like the memory of music, the memory of being there makes it worth the journey.

About Music | Sense | Memory

PART MUSIC, PART MEMOIR. 

Music has always been a huge part of my life – not opera, or classical, or the voices from the church choir, but the songs from the radio, from my first record player, from AM to FM to Sirius to Spotify, from MTV to iTunes and beyond.

This space will be digging into music and memory, because in my mind, those two things are almost always intertwined.  Hearing a piece of music is like having keys to a time travel machine for me; it just takes me there.

“I think the melody on the box will help me explain.”