Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser.

14 May

(They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 1 and 2.)

1.

I knew Beck’s “Loser” was special the first time I heard it. The guitar is so distinct and pure, the drum machine and loops and the superb, mystifying lyrics. Despite the numerous records and the shifting, mercurial sound, Beck wouldn’t make a song as perfect again. Sometimes you get it right the first time. It came out in 1993. I was 16 years old. It was one of the first Buzzclips, back when MTV still had musical cache and when the label alternative meant something. Although I was characterized by punk and power pop, some of these early alternative bands made the cut. Beck was one. Tool, strangely, was another.

My sophomore year of high school, I started hanging out with a handful of juniors: Chad B., Tim H., and Matt W. They introduced me to a lot of things. Tim lived in a little side room off his parents’ house, and we spent a lot of time in there. He was an artist and a poet, he listened to Pink Floyd.

I knew Matt from soccer. He was hilarious, caustic and disparaging, an old kvetch in a young man’s body.

Chad was honest, sincere, yet mysterious. He lived nearby[1]. He had a mystical slant to his thoughts.

I don’t know why, but they liked me and included me in their group. They brought introspection, poetry, oddball literature and drug music into my life. We spent our time driving around town or hanging out at Tim’s. Wild man Robert (I’ve mentioned him before) often came along. (Jeff and Chris had their first girlfriends.)

One night Chad and I drove an hour out towards Alabama to go to a party at Braden Rogers’s house. Braden’s name means nothing to most people reading this, and I didn’t and don’t know him well. But I feel an enormous debt of gratitude towards him. When I was fourteen, just a fifteen months earlier, he saved my life.

2.

Like all high schools, Pensacola Catholic had some bullies, those ’roided up, prematurely muscled assholes who stalk the hallways looking for hair to pull and faces to smash. Some bullies drape their immense self-loathing with mean-spirited, always close to violence joking (a dude named Clayton operated in this mold, sort of like the joker, laughing maniacally while inflicting pain); some bullies are simply transferring their unhappiness from their homes; and some are just vicious and violent and mean. Chance W. was this third kind of bully. He had huge pectoral muscles when he was in tenth grade. He had three o’clock shadow at 15. He was rich and strong and rotten to the core, an unfeeling, nasty shell of a person. Most people from those years at Catholic have some story of a Chance encounter. This is mine.

One day Chance and two other sophomores named Neil and Tony came up to me in the lunchroom. “That’s him,” Tony said.

“I hear you been talking about my mama,” Chance said.

I looked around. I was over six feet tall and I weighed under 150 pounds. I was a walking skeleton, scrawny and under-muscled and absolutely not a fighter at all. I minded my own business. I kept to my friends. I had no clue what was going on.

“That wasn’t me,” I said. I tried to walk back to my table.

“No, I heard you were talking about my mama,” Chance said. Neil and Tony smiled and nodded their heads.

“I swear I didn’t.”

After lunch I went outside to wait for the bell with a kid named Cody. Chance and the others followed me. Where the teachers were I had no idea. Chance continued with his bullshit. The day was warm but not hot, and the interior quad was small. A little group formed. I continued with my protestations of innocence, but I was feeling exposed and threatened.

Then Chance shoved me and, remembering all the idiotic anti-bullying literature and after-school specials, I shoved him back. Cody took a deep breath and took a few steps back. He was terrified of blowback.

Chance swelled up right in front of me like some cartoon villain. He puffed up to swing. Time stopped. I had no skills to fall back on. I had my bony hands in fists and thought, Well, here comes your first thrashing. I was afraid, but there was a tinny little internal voice saying, How bad can a beating be?

Then Braden appeared.

“Nah, man, leave him alone. He’s cool.”

He pulled Chance aside and cooled him down. I waited. The bell rang. I didn’t move. Chance came back over. “So you weren’t talking about my mama?” he said.

“No, man, no,” I said.

He let me go.

I had known Braden from middle school. But we hadn’t been friends, and I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I didn’t really speak to him after that, either. But I felt and feel an immense debt of gratitude to him. I wasn’t cool. I had nothing to offer him. He protected me because it was the right thing to do. And, well, I’ve always loved him for it.

(As for Chance, he would later infamously kick Devin Kennedy in the face! after Devin and Peyton fought in front of half the school, and Peyton had knocked Devin down. Chance had nothing to do with the fight and didn’t know either of them very well. He told me later in a rare moment of candor, and I’m not making this up, that he was pissed because “they both fought like pussies.” We were at a basketball game, the only two upper grades students in attendance, and I was wise enough to sort of nod my head, a very minor betrayal of my values, and in retrospect, totally worth it. Chance didn’t mention our little dust-up and I was happy to let bygones be. Later that year he slapped me in the back of the head at a party. Chad ushered me out before I did anything stupid.)

3.

Back to Chad in his little white Honda and our late night trek to Braden’s house party.

We got there late, close to ten, and stayed under two hours. It wasn’t our kind of people. There was a bonfire and the others were mostly hunters and fishers and outdoorsy types, Alabama folk, good country people. The antithesis of Chad and me, basically.  Braden was there in full country regalia, camouflage and a hunting cap, the kind of vibe I would have mocked on another person, but suited him just fine. I didn’t speak to him, not really, but I wanted to hug him and say thanks. I never did.

Chad drank too much and I had to drive us home. I drove cautiously, just at the speed limit. We ambled along some forgotten highway in the country, surrounded by immense black trees and the gray night, the kind of evening that feels like it could go on forever and ever.

The whole car ride we listened to “Loser” over and over, some twenty times. We both sang along.


[1] I still know him.

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One Response to “Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Salvation Songs, part 7: The Fear | simoneandthesilversurfer - April 14, 2014

    […] (They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 5 and 6.) […]

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