1989. The year of the dramapocalypse.
It probably seems strange to anyone who knows me today, but prior to 1989 I had no real hope of being onstage. I’d been a mediocre singer in middle school choir, and that was about it. I’d had hopes of playing guitar in the stage band, but despite a couple years of guitar lessons I was pathetically unqualified. So I can’t really remember what led me to audition for L’il Abner, the spring musical.
But I got a part. Two parts, I think. I can’t remember what one of them was, but the other was an army colonel, and I had a couple of lines to say. The amount of time I had in the show was minimal; a few big group numbers, maybe. But the important time was the amount I spent at rehearsal, making friends, fitting in (which as a rule is not something I do), and turning almost overnight into a Drama Kid.
I’ve been onstage pretty much constantly ever since. Constantly. Next year, the musical again (Damn Yankees). After that, the fall play (Hound of the Baskervilles, John Watson), then the musical again (Anything Goes, Elisha J. Whitney). After that, the fall play (something you’ve never heard of, but the lead! the LEAD!), and then finally the musical AGAIN (My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Motherfucking Higgins). Theater had gone from being nowhere on my radar to being dots of light filling up the screen, one after another. I moved directly into the theater dorm at college, did show after show all four years. Then I took a break for about five years before one of my best friends and partners in theatrical crime introduced me to improv, and that was it. I’ve been onstage every month, often every week, since then. This year I will officially have been onstage for half my life.
It turned out that I had a lot more musical taste in common with my theater friends than I did with most other people I knew, apart from my best friend (and he eventually did Hound with us, eliding that distinction). This is when I first heard Bauhaus (freaky old The Sky’s Gone Out), and this is also when I got heavily into Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure. We didn’t have what you’d call a goth clique in our school; just a handful of individuals with incredibly good taste in stylish music and black clothing. I didn’t have the gracefulness, the style, the confidence, or the good looks to be one of them, but I wanted to be, and why not? They were some of the best people I’ve ever met.
One of these friends in particular had a huge impact on me in high school, probably more than he realizes. I’ll talk more about him tomorrow, but today I’ll just say that he accelerated my musical education considerably by bequeathing a number of his Cure tapes to me (some of the Banshees albums too, if I recall correctly). I got the sense that they weren’t quite his speed anymore, but they definitely were mine. I eventually replaced them on CD, but I’m pretty sure I still have at least some of them. I can’t even tell you how much they meant to me.
And of course, in 1989, THE Cure album dropped. You all know which one I mean.
The video for “Fascination Street” started topping the countdown on 120 Minutes pretty early in my Cure education. It was early enough that I was still getting used to that hair, that makeup, that voice. I didn’t love the song right away, but I was drawn to it, and liked it more and more every time I heard it.
I might even have bought the album before “Love Song” came out and apparently hit number two on the mainstream charts, a pretty big deal for a band that looked like this at a time like this. This means probably most people have at least a passing familiarity with this record, so I probably don’t have to tell you how stately and titanic it is, like some gigantic ship sailing through the night in a calm but steady rainstorm, in danger of sinking under its own weight but never quite going under. It’s icy and reserved at times, mournfully intimate at others, full of despair and regret but also intense, desperate, aching love.
Where Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me had been a carnival of different styles and moods, enough songs and approaches for at least two records, Disintegration was a unified whole, every song drifting seamlessly into the next. You might argue that the previous record was more interesting, but it seems clear that this one was more artistically successful. It’s one of those rare albums from which I don’t have a favorite song: to me the whole thing is one song with pauses.
I don’t listen to the Cure much these days. I took a lot longer to reach this point than my friend did when he gave me the tapes. But for years, they meant the world to me. I don’t know if it was the teenage depression that made me feel so much like these songs sound, or if it was the fact that of all the musicians I listened to and loved, I probably resembled Robert Smith physically the most.
But it was probably just the music. The 80s didn’t get much better than this.
The B-52s, Cosmic Thing
When this came out, I wrote a parody of “Love Shack” using the similar-sounding surname of my eccentric math teacher. It was very clever, at least for a 14-year-old. What was a little less clever is that I showed it to him. He read the lyrics while listening to the song, every so often giving those little exhale/laughs like the one David Byrne made at my “Buddy” joke. At the time I was just glad I didn’t get yelled at. Now I’m mostly mortified and hope it didn’t hurt his feelings. Maybe it’s tough to have hurt feelings while listening to the B-52s.
Depeche Mode, 101
The first set of Depeche Mode songs I listened to, after hearing “Pleasure, Little Treasure” on the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack. Pretty much everything you need from Depeche Mode is here on these two discs. The quality of the music almost makes Dave Gahan’s yelping crowdwork palatable.
Peter Murphy, Deep
This album always makes me think of the summer my family spent a week with my aunt and uncle in their beach house. I bought this on the trip down and listened to it repeatedly. It was in my head all day while I bobbed up and down in the water and scrunched the sand between my toes and shielded my eyes from the sun, and all night as I went to sleep, still feeling the waves buoying me up and down, up and down. It was in my head when I was shopping for a beach souvenir for my very first “real” girlfriend, and it was in my head when I came home, gave it to her, and found out she wanted to break up with me and date another guy. It was in my head after that, too, which eased the pain a bit.
- XTC, Oranges & Lemons
- New Order, Technique
- Love and Rockets, Love and Rockets
- The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week!
- Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love
- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
- Ian McCulloch, Candleland
- Throwing Muses, Hunkpapa
- Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels
- The Pixies, Doolittle
- Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation 1814
- Madonna, Like a Prayer