Well, okay, it wasn’t just him; Douglas Adams had more than a little to do with it too, but that’s another story.
It was 1982, and I was a freshman in high school. It was typically tough, as those years often are; but it was perhaps a little harder on me — not because I was a burgeoning pubescent, but because I was a weird kid, a bisexual kid, growing up in a town that was anathema to weird kids and queers, and I was more or less bereft of good close friends right then.
In eighth grade, just the year before, I had watched in horror as my best friend humiliated me in front of a lot of guys. Sitting at the cafeteria table at lunch one day, we’d got onto the topic of PE and how I hated to be naked with the other boys. (I know; it’s ironic today. But I was thirteen then and very, very body-shy. When you’re still hairless and growing on pudgy, it’s amazing how intimidating it can be to be surrounded by guys who have developed, who have all the growth and expansion and enlargement and everything else that happens more or less always, but always unequally, to boys between the ages of eleven to fourteen.)
Anyway. We were on the subject, and I don’t remember why he did it, but I remember what he did. He took out a pen and paper and said, “This is what Warren’s penis looks like,” and drew a sad, deflated little squiggle on the page. There was much laughter, and I looked at him. How could you? He didn’t seem to care.
Adults sometimes say, “Kids can be cruel.” I think they’ve chosen to forget these kinds of moments, or maybe they never had them; in any case, cruel doesn’t begin to cover it.
It’s stunning to realize, in just a few moments, that the kid you’d spent many happy summer days playing with was not your friend at all any more. It’s stunning how quickly trust can be murdered.
I was on the recovery from that and from the breakup of my folks’ marriage at about the same time I discovered Thomas Dolby. This was back when MTV actually, you know, broadcast music videos.* His big hit was “She Blinded Me with Science”, and I liked it immediately because it was quirky, funny and just a little bit sexy.
As Hannibal said to the senator, love the suit. Actually, I affected the round-eyeglasses look for a number of years after that. True story.
“Radio Silence” (link; embedding is disabled for this one) I liked too, mostly because of its strange but effective musical hook. I loved the hell out of the video.
I didn’t feel left out, for just a little while. I mean I loved SBMwS immediately, and so, apparently, did the rest of the world. The makers of Shasta soda even did a fine little homage to the song — and Dolby’s video style — with a :30 spot for their diet cola line:
It was cool, see? It was cool, and I loved it, and that meant I loved something that was cool and enjoyed by everyone else. It didn’t mean I was cool; I understood that. But for a while I was on the avant garde. (Later analysis from another friend: “You like white soul.” Well, okay, but WTF is that? And will it get me laid? Answers, respectively and retrospectively: I don’t know, and no. No, definitely not.)
What I still don’t quite understand is how Dolby got flagged as a “one-hit wonder”. He had at least three major singles from his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless; and to my ear his followup a year later, The Flat Earth, was beautiful. It sounded nothing at all like TGAoW. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before — just as his first album did. Granted, at fifteen I had a naïve palate; but I was quite aware of the Beatles (my history with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is yet another story for another time), the Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, and not a little classical. Dolby was a fine transition from the Police to the Talking Heads, not that I’ve ever left any of them behind.
In ’89, when he released Aliens Ate My Buick, he did it again, surprising me with the range and creativity of his talent. Before I left Milwaukee, one of the last things I did was stand in my 24th floor apartment living room, looking at the lights of the city winking placidly below me, and listen to his “Budapest by Blimp”.
He did it yet again with Astronauts and Heretics in the early 90s. One of the prettiest and most hauntingly yearning songs I have ever heard, “I Love You Goodbye”, was on that album. It still makes me weep. Listen to it. God, that’s a lovely, sweet sad tune.
I suppose his 80’s apogee was with the Howard the Duck soundtrack. I know, I know — the movie is universally vilified, but I think mostly by people who haven’t actually seen it. It’s awkward in some places, and really only works best when Howard and Tim Robbins’s character get to interact with minimal directorial finger-diddling … but hey, Lea Thompson, in her twenties, in lingerie.
I was eighteen. Nuff said.
But that was then. Actually, most of that was then. Much of that then was, however, later. What I’m interested in was the little slice of now I inhabited then, from about 1982 to 1983. (Hang in there; you’ll catch up in a moment.)
Sure, there were others, such as Men at Work, Flock of Seagulls and most notably Duran Duran; but I like to think that, in one way or another, my first kiss was with Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson. Hey, man, the others, they didn’t mean anything. No, really.
As you might have inferred from my sweet little opening reminiscence, I was a fairly desperately lonely kid for a while there. Looking back, I can see that I was more or less suicidally depressed, but not like these modern kids nowadays with their eyeliner and their black clothes and their emo stuff and their facetweeting and their netscaping; oh no, I was quietly, intently, deadly serious. Suicide. Feh. You kids today, you don’t have a clue.
Parents: It’s not the demonstrative ones you have to worry about. It’s the quiet ones, who plod daily through their lives and hang on in quiet desperation, that you have to be careful about. Try to sleep with that knowledge.
What I loved — and still love — about Thomas Dolby is that, for the year or so when I needed it most, he provided a platform for weird, quirky kids like me to feel stable on. He gave me a little place that said, basically, it was okay to be strange. Being strange had value; it had purpose, or at least it wasn’t meaningless.
I wasn’t meaningless.
To a fat awkward weirdo struggling with his sexual orientation in a podunk town full of bigots and rednecks, in the days before the net or the web, that wasn’t just a message. It was a lifeline.
I really did love him for that. And I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am to know that his first two albums are now re-released as remastered prizes with enough bonus tracks to make the extended Lord of the Rings DVDs look done on the cheap.
I don’t listen to these albums to feel young again; I would never want to go back to that time in my life. My non-god, it nearly killed me the first time around, and I mean that. The only thing that kept me from killing myself in those days was that I was afraid God would send me to hell for doing it. (That is not a joke.) Dolby’s music gave me something to listen to for a while, a bit of solace, something to help me forget why I wasn’t killing myself.
No, I listen to these albums because I can still hear, even now after all these years, the humor, intelligence and beauty that, for a while, was one of the only things that kept me alive in a daily nightmare of betrayal and self-hatred, back when I was fifteen and lacked the perspective to understand how quickly and entirely life can change, that what’s hideous today might eventually become a memory.
In these songs I still am touched by the resonance of the unhappy kid I was, yes. But I’m also moved today by the vitality of the life I probably would never have had, if not for this music, and I remember what it was like to put the Walkman headphones in my ears and feel the beat resound into my head when I had so desperately little else to hold on to.
Thanks, Thomas, thank you. I believe you helped save my life back then. I have always loved you and I always will.
* I don’t know how my mom afforded the cable bill, but she did. Thanks, Mom.
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.