Track 6: Perfect Day

Perfect Day

Matthew Cheney

 

That moment: album — book — car ride.

How long ago now? Twenty-five years? Something like that.

It was (roughly) sometime between 1988 and 1991, which means sometime between when I was (roughly) 12 years old and 16 years old. Most likely 1989 or 1990. Most likely 14 or 15 years old.

Interstate 93 North between Boston, Massachusetts and Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Blue Toyota Tercel wagon, my mother driving.

Mass market paperback of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner tie-in edition).

Black Sony Walkman cassette player.

Soul Mining by The The.

§

Trips to Boston from my home in rural New Hampshire were special, because in those days before online shopping, before mp3s and Napster and Amazon (before the motor car, before the wheel), getting any but the most popular books and albums was difficult.

In those days, the most magical city block in the world was Boston’s Newbury Street between Massachusetts Avenue and Hereford Street. This was the block that housed two bookstores (Trident Booksellers & Café and Avenue Victor Hugo) and, like a heavenly sentinel on the corner, the many storeys of Tower Records.

My cousin in Chicago had made me a mixtape of music he liked by bands I’d never heard of, and I played it over and over, listening to it as I would have listened to alien signals from far-off worlds. I struggled to appreciate or even comprehend many of the songs, their elbows too sharp and their eyes too fiery and their manners too rough for my young and inexperienced ears, but I found my imagination captivated by one song in particular: “Perfect” by The The.

There was a jauntiness to the song, with its fast and steady snares, jazzy harmonica, warm trumpet solo, and something like a xylophone plopping away in the background. The lyrics were like nothing I’d ever heard. Aside from the irony-soaked chorus (Oh what a perfect day to think about myself…), the words grew ever more bleak as the song progressed: Passing by a cemetery, I think of all the little hopes and dreams that lie lifeless and unfulfilled beneath the soil… The world you once knew is being eaten up by rust… People say their prayers and some work hard; if you give them all your money, they’ll give you their hearts…

(There was something to the voice, something alluring. Male, but not macho. Cynical, yes, definitely; angry, too. But there was a gentleness beneath it, a sensitivity that drew me in.)

I nearly wore out the tape listening to that song so much. I spent hours trying to discern a few of the less clear lyrics — was it “What is there to fear from such a regular world” or “What is there to fear from such irregular world”? (Why I would think it was the grammar-defying latter, I don’t know, but I did.)

This was just one song, and after spending so much time with it, rewinding the tape again and again (always afraid the tape might break and the song might be lost), I had exhausted the possibilities of this four-minute tune. I needed more, and so on my next Boston trip, I went to Tower Records, looked for The The, and discovered they had made a couple of albums. I could only afford to buy one cassette tape (about $9, if I remember correctly; buying a $17 CD was unthinkable, since I usually only had about $20 for my Boston shopping sprees). Soul Mining included “Perfect,” and so that was what I bought.

On the same trip, I picked up a used paperback of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at Avenue Victor Hugo. At the time, it was one of the only PKD novels in print in the U.S. I had watched Blade Runner with my cousin in Chicago and had not really understood it. I thought the book might help explain things.

While my mother drove us home, I listened to my new tape and read my new book.

§

Six … five … four … three … two … one … zero…

The crackling countdown voice of an announcer is the first sound on Soul Mining. Then drums. Then the sound of a rocket launching, melding into electronic noises that metamorphose into music. Almost a minute of this.

And then that voice, the voice that had entranced me on “Perfect”. My response to that voice was one I would have a few years later to the voices of Trent Reznor and Tori Amos: an attraction deeply erotic, if not sexual. Suddenly I understood the old films of girls going crazy for Elvis and the Beatles. I had no idea what body this voice was attached to, but I was certain if I saw it and heard it at that moment, no matter what shape it took, that I would scream and shout. (A few years later, I got a VHS tape of The The in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and yes, I say, yes I knew what made girls scream and shout.)

Did the tape have liner notes of any sort? I don’t remember. It must have. I know it didn’t include lyrics, because I remember being frustrated at not being able to figure out some of the more mumbled words. (I’ve been stripped bare and nobody cares and alla pepple alla tonkto are no longer there…) It must have included some credits, though, and perhaps in those credits I saw that the name of the body that issued that voice was Matt Johnson. He shared my first name.

§

My adolescence could pretty well be summed up by the title of the first track on Soul Mining: “I’ve Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life)”.

I hated living in New Hampshire. When I was nine or ten years old, I read a story in the September 1985 issue of Boy’s Life magazine about the Museum of Modern Art, and I knew (immediately, instinctively) that wherever there was a museum like that was a place I wanted to be. The magazine’s reproductions of Picasso’s Three Musicians and Van Gogh’s Starry Night were pictures I stared at again and again and again, as if by looking at them I might somehow get myself to this place so far away from the world I lived in. I didn’t know why I loved them so much more than any other pictures I’d seen, I couldn’t express the excitement in any rational way. They were … different. They represented to me everything my own life lacked, everything prohibited and forbidden and unknown in the tiny universe I inhabited. They were not what until then I had thought people expected of art. They were free. They were freedom.

Soon after learning about the Museum of Modern Art, I discovered the writings of Stephen King. I was much too young for them, but it didn’t matter. Even though I didn’t understand a lot of what I read, the power of the storytelling and the thrill of the horrors whisked me away from ordinary life. Then I discovered science fiction, and my imagination expanded as I read stories by Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, Cordwainer Smith, and countless others, mostly in old anthologies from local libraries.

By the day of the car ride home from Boston, I had not read anything by Philip K. Dick. I’d seen references to his name, but didn’t know what to expect.

I opened the book.

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.

I read on and on, stopping only to flip the tape over.

“Perfect” was on that second side, and I expect I looked up from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as that song got closer. I expect I noticed at least a few of the lyrics of the song that comes just before “Perfect”, “Giant”, especially the words that get repeated over and over: How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself? Those words would have resonated with me and I would have thought about them because though they are the last lyrics, the song goes on for a few more minutes of drumming and wordless singing, allowing time for the repeated words to echo in memory.

And then came “Perfect”.

Except it wasn’t my “Perfect”.

Little did I know, but there are multiple versions of “Perfect”, and the one my cousin had put on my mix tape was not included on the U.S. cassette of Soul Mining.

I hated this new version of “Perfect”. The beat was slower, the drums had a fuller sound, the harmonica and xylophone-ish instrument were far less prominent, and the vocals were sometimes painfully lugubrious, as if the singer had swallowed a couple quaaludes before recording.

§

Though my disappointment with the album version of “Perfect” was intense, I liked the other songs enough to listen to my tape over and over again for years. Which song I loved depended on the day, the year, my mood, the weather. “This Is the Day” was often too happy for me in my adolescence, but the longer I knew this album, the more that song’s happiness seemed to me tinged with experience, its nostalgia nicely undercut by clear-eyed recognition of how the realities of a life lived temper the dreams of a life yet to be. You’ve been reading some old letters. You smile and think how much you’ve changed. Yes, oh yes. But then: All the money in the world couldn’t buy back those days. A strange sentence, no? It’s about what is truly gone, and there seems (to me, at least) some sense that maybe it’s good to let the past go — all the money in the world couldn’t buy back those days, nor would you want it to.

In subsequent trips to Boston, I bought more The The albums: first Infected, then, as they were released, the CDs of Mind Bomb, Dusk, Burning Blue Soul, Hanky Panky, NakedSelf, and then in 2002, 45rpm: The Singles of The The, which for the first time brought me the version of “Perfect” my cousin had so long ago given me. By that time, the mixtape had disintegrated, and for a few minutes, hearing the song again made my childhood more real than the present.

As much as I loved individual songs on the others, Soul Mining has always remained my favorite The The album, probably because it invariably takes me back to the car ride home and to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and a moment that in reality probably wasn’t all that different from many others, but which has come in my memory to stand for so much.

Soul Mining was the first music I heard that felt like it was written for me and about me. I had loved the sound of other music before and had listened obsessively to all sorts of things. But this was something different, a voice from within a self I didn’t even know was mine. Similarly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the first novel I read that didn’t just help me escape my world via imagination, but which helped me think of reality as something more mysterious and less imprisoning than I had imagined it before.

Though I don’t remember the exact year of that car ride, I know I was on the precipice of high school and in the midst of all the hormonal hell that is puberty. Nothing made sense in my mind or body. Desires were strange and discomforting — and worse than that, more and more I was faced with the fact that my desires kept returning to men. That was something that could not happen. That was death.

There was a time when I was the most homophobic kid in the world. I thought all gay people should be executed. I thought AIDS victims should be rounded up and killed. The thought of “The Homosexual” brought on nothing but nausea and anger and violent, violent rage. These responses had a few sources. Certainly, there was the culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the TV news routinely brought stories of AIDS. More than that, there was my father, who truly and deeply hated only two types of people: anti-gunners and queers. The violence of my hatred was smoke from the fire that was the fear of my own feelings, a fire threatening to burn me to ash.

I loved my father and thought he knew everything there was to know about everything. If the dirty, predatory, monstrous queers needed to die, then queers were the worst things in the world.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, I recognized that I was the worst thing in the world.

§

Soul Mining is an album full of secret emotions and terrifying desires.

This is the day your life will surely change, Matt Johnson sang.

“No,” I thought to myself, huddled in my bedroom, fists pressed to my forehead, queer tears threatening to scream out of my eyes, “today is not that day.”

Now, though, I listen to that song with pleasure. My life did change, and for the better, once I got away from home, once I put some distance between my father and myself, once I met other queer people, one of whom, in fact, turned out to be my mother.

And my father changed, too. Not completely, not like a sentimental movie with a happy ending and tears of reconciliation, but he discovered that his anger and hatred had destroyed some of the love he had earned in life, and he regretted that, and wanted to be different. I wanted him to be different, too, and sometimes he was, and sometimes I could recognize that, or at least recognize his struggle.

It’s tough to get over your childhood, though. Even as an adult, I sometimes fell into self-denying behavior because I still wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t a terrible monster, that I could in fact be normal, virile, masculine, a son to be proud of.

He really was always proud of me, though, even if I often rejected his attempts to show it. When I went through the house after his death, it was obvious. He’d kept every memento of me he’d ever had. His friends and customers told me all the great stories he had told them of my life. I had always been a presence for him, even at my most distant.

(“Perfect” spoke to much of my father’s life, too: The future is now, but it’s all going wrong.)

His last years were difficult ones, and I often thought he was depressed and despondent, as nothing in his life had quite turned out as he had hoped.

Except me. Though I had ached to be far other than I was, my father had never really wanted that for me, not really.

§

I listen to Soul Mining again. An album I’ve known for longer than I’ve known most of my friends. It evokes Rick Deckard and the mood organ and the androids and the electric sheep. I think of all the other Philip K. Dick novels I read afterward, the books that gave me a freedom I’d never experienced before, their titles even now a thrilling joy: The Man in the High Castle, Time Out of Joint, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian Time-Slip, A Maze of Death, Ubik…

Oh, how happy I am not to be an adolescent anymore!

How happy I am to have escaped the world of the late 1980s and early 1990s!

I escaped New Hampshire, too. I went to New York City to study playwrighting at NYU. I had hardly any spare money, but I managed to buy a membership at the Museum of Modern Art. I saw Three Musicians and Starry Night again and again and again.

The Avenue Victor Hugo bookstore closed. Tower Records closed. Its big building on the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury Street is now filled with luxury apartments.

Eventually, I ended up in New Hampshire again. Then left again after a decade. Then returned. I love the state now. I live in it on my own terms.

I turned forty this year. I published my first book, a collection of short stories called Blood. I dedicated it to my mothers and to the memory of my father.

I’m listening to Soul Mining right now.

I’m remembering.

Black Sony Walkman cassette player.

Mass market paperback of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner tie-in edition).

Blue Toyota Tercel wagon, my mother driving.

Interstate 93 North between Boston, Massachusetts and Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Home.

 

Matthew Cheney‘s collection Blood: Stories was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Conjunctions, Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, Weird Tales, Best Gay Stories 2016, and elsewhere. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on 20th century writers’ melding of fiction and nonfiction.

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