My husband and I were at a basement bar in Detroit, waiting for Lori Carson to show up and play some songs for us. Lest that make us sound cooler than we really are, I should say that we arrived in a recently-vacuumed Saturn, were not wearing vinyl or Adidas platforms, and weren't having a very good time. It's a testament to the brilliance of Lori Carson that we were there at all, since downtown Detroit is about as much fun as Beirut. On our way to the club we'd already witnessed two large coed streetfights, one featuring gun-waving, and had to stop at the light by the closed, condemned but still vaguely populated mental hospital, and we basically wanted our moms. The Austin Powers soundtrack was on its third go-round, competing with the bass from the Luscious Jackson show in progress on the main floor of the hall. I was just finishing my second vodka and tonic and thinking hard about whether to have another and also about the fact that a third drink used to be a no-brainer. I was also smoking cigarettes, something I rarely do because of cancer and whatnot, and they were starting to make me feel sick. Lori was running late, and I found myself hoping nothing hideous had happened to her on her way to the gig. This was not an arrive-in-a-white-limo kind of deal; she could be driving a rental car down a one-way street for all I knew. I sighed at this distressingly mom-like thought and turned to John. "So am I basically a dork?" I said.
He looked wary-was this a question along the lines of "Did my butt look bigger in the other pants?" "I'm not sure what you mean," he said.
"I mean I used to be much better at this stuff," I said, waving my drink and cigarette at him.
"Welcome to the club," he said. He frowned a little. "Is that cloves I smell? I can't believe kids still smoke cloves." I remembered the myth of my adolescence that clove cigarettes are perfectly harmless to the lungs. Also that they are really, really cool.
A pretty girl in a little black dress walked by wearing an obviously illegally procured over-21 bracelet. She had bobbed hair and red lipstick and looked bored. "That was me ten years ago," I said to my husband. "I was that girl."
"I know," John said, smiling. "You scared the shit out of me."
Being that girl is actually a lot of work, which is why I eventually gave it up-well, mostly gave it up (I do own upwards of thirty lipsticks). You've got to have your hair gel and your thigh-high black stockings and your lighter, which you never use because the boys you hang out with think it's the height of seduction to light a girl's cigarette. Since I was basically a nervous wreck the entire time I was that girl, I also needed plenty of liquor, which I would steal from my parents. Unfortunately, they didn't keep much normal booze-scotch, gin, vodka-around. My father, a college professor, had a lot of Middle Eastern graduate assistants who gave him bottles of liquorice-flavored stuff at Christmas. All of it sat in our liquor cabinet along with the whiskey my mother had once used to make Irish coffee and the Grand Marnier she cooked with. My strategy when going to one of the few clubs that actually enforced the drinking age was to take just a little from each bottle, mix it all together in a flask, and hold my nose while I got drunk in the restroom. Oh, I oozed sophistication. Then I would feel calm enough to go out and be that girl: varnished, friendly but detached, waiting for something to happen that would pull me out of my own head for two seconds. Which is not to say that it wasn't fun being that girl. For someone like me-bookish, devastated by a B-minus, so afraid of disaster that I procured birth control a good four months before I even remotely needed it-it was perversely liberating to be admired for my outsides rather than my insides. Even now, when Regular Girl is on the blink, fed up with grading papers and recycling bottles, it's tempting to send Other Girl out to fend off students, telephone solicitors, guys who don't get the meaning of that little gold band I wear. But I try to resist. She works hard, but when that girl goes she takes all my energy with her.
John and I sat for a while, sucking on the ice from our second drinks, and watched the little children pass by. It was amazing how similar they were to their late-eighties counterparts. There was Bleached-Blond Guy with Elvis Costello Eyeglasses, and Overweight Gothic Girl, and Bowling-Shirt Boy. There were lots of Morrisseys. It was a strange crowd, actually, because Lori Carson makes music that is grown-up in the best sense (by which I don't mean the VH-1 sense): naked, low-key, unabashedly pretty but often too thorny for verse-chorus-verse arrangements. I have an admittedly screwy sense of what has mass appeal, but if these kids were in any way like me and my club-going friends, they couldn't have much use for Lori Carson. For one thing, Lori Carson has what we would've called normal hair, straight and shoulder-length with no signs of burgandy Fanci-Full rinse or fried ends, and this alone might have made us dismiss her as one of Them. Also, she plays an acoustic guitar-ack, we would've moaned, it's like Woodstock! Most of all, she would have seemed just plain uncool-too willing to admit to feeling geeky, unloved, borderline nuts.
But then, it never really was about the music in my club-going days either. I'm afraid I can sum up the essence of what we were listening to in three little words: the Thompson Twins. It wasn't all that bad, but for every Smiths there was a Gene Loves Jezebel, for every New Order a Sisters of Mercy. Which all seemed fine until an older friend starting slipping me tapes of the Replacements, and the Go-Betweens, and Tommy Keene. "This sounds like it's being played by humans, " I told him. He nodded, passed along some real oddballs like Robyn Hitchcock and the Housemartins. I started skulking around in a Walkman. I noticed that the Hoodoo Gurus sounded like they were enjoying themselves, and that Tommy Keene didn't seem to care how needy he sounded, and that the Housemartins were comfortable writing gospel-inflected ditties about Karl Marx. It was, in short, the sound of people who were interested in things-in girls or trains or fish or memory. The Replacements at that time seemed to be interested mostly in drinking themselves to death, but it felt true to me, and pure. My own inner geek-the eight-year-old who published a newspaper out of the garage and tried to learn Chinese just because it looked hard--started to wake up, and though I spent another couple of years doing drugs and dating keyboardists, my heart just wasn't in it anymore.
"I bet these kids just wandered down from the other show," I said to my husband.
"Those two didn't," he said, pointing to two young girls planted by the little stage. One of them was holding a bouquet of perfect pink tulips, stems in a glass of water to keep them fresh. "They've been there about two hours. Haven't moved."
I started watching them. They couldn't have been older than eighteen or so. They might have been a couple; it's sometimes hard to interpret the hand-holding of teenage girls. And they remained in place for another hour, until Lori made it to the stage. By then perhaps forty of us were standing up close, most of the crowd having faded to the recesses of the room, and my heart seized when the smaller and darker of the girls offered up her flowers. I found myself practically praying that Lori would notice them, and would be kind and gracious and give them the moment they wanted. She did, and she went me one better by being surprised and gracious. Then she started playing, and I stopped thinking for a while. But it was hard not to stare at those two girls, rosy and excited, pulled out of their own heads in a way I could never quite manage back then and have to struggle for even now. I don't know what they were responding to-the music, Lori's fairly luminous physical presence (i.e., her babehood), or each other. Maybe they were zonked on horse tranquilizers or mystery cocktails from dad's liquor cabinet. Whatever. They were totally uncool, and absolutely perfect.
Released: April 28, 1998