I am on the road, a brief visit to Chicago for a family event. I love traveling alone. I am not so great at traveling with others, but traveling alone lets me unhook for a while. I get on the plane and lose myself in music and books for a while and, a couple of hours later,get off somewhere totally different.
Sometime during my year of traveling prodigiously, when I was moving back and forth to Chicago so often that I no longer had to think about what to put in my suitcase, my plane reading of choice has been memoir. Mostly musician memoirs. I think it started when, on one of my first trips back to Chicago from New York, I ended up sitting next to the editor of Pitchf0rk. He was reading the new collection of Ellen Willis’s Voice columns, Out of the Vinyl Deeps which, coincidentally, I had just picked up for the trip but had accidentally left it on my desk on my way out. I was brand new at editing at the time and somehow that conversation with another music editor made me feel a little bit more like I knew what I was doing. Musician memoirs are a bit of protection, if only because they remind me, while in the middle of change and strangeness, of who I am trying to be while allowing me to disconnect from my innate awkwardness and pretend I’m somebody else for a while. Somebody cooler.
For this trip, I chose to pick up a memoir of someone I used to know. Not well, but enough. And a long time ago. We went to school together, and I knew him through a good friend of mine with whom I’m still in touch. I should have seen this coming when I saw my friend’s name on page 1, not to mention his photo in the back, but I know half the people in this book and it’s weird as hell.
The plane was packed. The guy behind me smelled so badly of whiskey (on a 9 am flight)that I felt like I was getting drunk along with him just by breathing. He pounded bloody Marys all the way to Chicago. In front of me, a small unhappy baby was wailing and wailing, sending up an occasional chorus from all the other babies on the plane, shrieking in solidarity at the injustice of air travel (I feel your pain, babies. All of it.) But somehow I lost myself in this book and while I felt a bit dirty and cheap for reading it, partly because it’s not a great book and suffers from the usual name dropping of this kind of memoir (although not as much as some and in a way that strongly suggests an editor’s hand) but mostly because it feels a little like picking up someone else’s diary without permission — I couldn’t stop reading.
The memoirist writes about people I know, about concerts I went to, about events I was a part of, but his perspective is totally different from mine. He has photos similar to those I have in a box somewhere under my bed. I can’t argue with the accuracy — it’s all incredibly familiar but also different and odd. And I can’t put it down.
A long time ago, I read an interview with the memoirist in some zine or another. The interviewer asked him about his musical inspiration, about how he came to do what he did and he told the story of a favorite teacher who had given him a Bowie record so he could tape it when he was too poor to buy his own copy. His favorite teacher was mine too. He didn’t give me Bowie. He gave me Philip Glass and introduced me to John Cage and French New Wave film. The teacher doesn’t make the book but while I’m reading I’m thinking about how he may have saved the intellectual well-being of dozens of disaffected suburban teens. He changed my life in ways I wouldn’t understand for years.
At 30,000 feet, when I’m seeking to lose myself in the beautiful anonymity of a plane, I am reading a page that is forcing me to look back at my childhood, at the things I didn’t notice and the things I didn’t fully understand. I find I’m reconsidering my own perspective on the things that happened. When he quotes my friend on a topic I have actually discussed with him, I am there in that minute, even though I wasn’t actually. And suddenly I’m not sure sure if I’m losing or finding myself.
Somewhere under the bed, with the photos, are copies of the school paper I used to work on. The memoirist and I both wrote poems for it. His were cliched angst, full of things that I thought I wanted to experience. Mine were empty pretty words. Nothing special. But there they are, sharing a space, a couple of pages after a review of a concert he played in that I attended. I remember the agonizing embarrassment of that page. It looks different to me now and I wonder what it means.
As I sit on the plane reading, one of the memoirist’s songs comes through my headphones. The babies are gone. The whiskey man is gone. I am drawing a map in my head between where I am now and where I used to be, the dots spinning out from a place I lived long ago but am wondering if I ever knew.
A long time ago, I was on my way to a required school assembly with the other law-abiding citizens when suddenly I stepped out of line. The idea of a pep rally in the school gym horrified me. My feet gave out in the music department and I ducked into a practice room where I found myself face to face with the memoirist. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. “Hi,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Neither am I.”
“I hate pep rallies.”
“I have to go.”
“Do you want to go?”
While that idea may have occurred to the feet that walked me out of line, it hadn’t occurred to the rest of me. I was too embarrassed to stay. I backed out of the room. But I didn’t go to the rally. I found another practice room and started banging out riffs on the piano,repetitive arpeggios, feeling a little exhilarated for breaking a rule that probably no one cared if I observed.
I’m not sure I ever spoke to the memoirist again. I moved away a few months later. But the moment stuck with me, maybe inspired me to pick up a book years later to see where he ended up. I’m not sure the book is going to really tell me that, but it may have told me a little something about the person I used to be.
Back on the plane, I turn the page. We’re landing in ten minutes and I want to finish the chapter. I wonder what happens next.