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.

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