This is a love letter from me to you. Why? Because you deserve one. Because I miss you. Because it was just Valentine’s Day. Because I need to know what it was in you that always demanded an audience, that so craved connection, that sought relief in everything from loud music to medication.
I created names for you. For the purposes of this correspondence, you’ll be Reject, Romantic, Rebel, Rebuilder, and Reflector. These are mostly for my convenience. I’m providing a retrospective structure here, but you were always you.
We had a chance to catch up a bit when the family was together at Thanksgiving. Some of you love making an appearance when I’m home for the holidays. (Rebel, I’m looking at you.) Still, with the parents and siblings chattering, it was hard to grab a free moment for us to shoot the shit. It’s OK. I express myself better in writing anyway.
While loosely chronological, this is not intended to be a comprehensive history and to be clear, I don’t want catharsis. This is a letter of endearment, not therapy. You did what you could with what you knew then, so I don’t blame you for past missteps and mistakes.
How could I? What was yours is mine.
* * *
Reject, I love you kid. I know school wasn’t easy. Sports were scary and, let’s be honest, not a great fit for that flat-footed, awkward body. Remember in 6th grade when you shook dandruff all over the desk like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club? I do and it was hilarious. (But a little sad too.)
Before you found your place among the freaks and ghouls, you attempted to infiltrate the in-crowd. Once, you hitched a ride to a preppy party locked in a trunk when the car was full. Who does that? I mean, outside of the John Hughes movies you memorized. It was like you were going for extreme self-effacement. I suppose you figured if you belittled yourself first, they couldn’t get you—a reliable form of misfit self-protection.
The bright lights of the stage promised escape and you ran to them. Our stepfather reminded me how during 8th grade graduation they nearly dragged you off with a cane. Remember how thrilled you were watching Into the Woods and West Side Story? Then they gave you the title role in the local production of A Charlie Brown Christmas but it felt like a backhanded compliment. Still, you took the strokes where you could get them.
Like so many outsiders, Rock and Roll wooed you away from the theater. The Stray Cats, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and all the other acts you witnessed in sweaty clubs only confirmed your need for attention. No matter how good the band was, that was your space they were occupying. The only way to claim what was rightfully yours was to climb up there every chance you got.
So you went for it: traveled from drama clubs to rock clubs to recording studios and finally onto the page. The mediums changed but your hunger for recognition remained constant. You were relentless and I respect that.
* * *
Romantic self, admit it: there was satisfaction in the pain of yearning. Unrequited love and self-pity were your first narcotics. How you pined for Shana Goldberg all throughout grade school, suffered through interminable tales of her handsome summer boyfriend, offering advice, condolences, sympathy. Secretly, you cursed the lucky son of a bitch.
Later, you left letters for Hillary at the candy store where she worked. A lot of work went into that cursive.
In high school older punk girls drove you around. Their car interiors reeked of leather jackets and menthols. You never even smoked a cigarette; proximity to their cool was enough.
It couldn’t have worked out with Jessica; you were in 8th grade and she was a senior at a nearby Catholic school. Somehow you got her to go out with you. It was the late ’80s and you slow danced at a Faith No More concert. Things ended when Jessica left for college in the city and you started high school.
Rhonda flirted and gave you a colorful Band-Aid in your bedroom before relegating you to friend status. Ryan was a safe male college crush. (It was the ’90s and everyone had to have one.) But let’s be honest, that was more of a mutual clothing admiration club based on an affinity for white belts, Chelsea boots, and 7-inch hardcore singles.
* * *
Rebel, it was tough to express yourself at a private Jewish day school, especially when you wanted to look like a cross between Bryan Adams and a member of RUN-DMC. But you always had your own thing going fashion-wise. You still cribbed from The Breakfast Club, only now it was fingerless gloves as modeled by Judd Nelson.
You started getting in trouble too: wandering away from youth dances without permission, lighting toilet paper on fire with hairspray, drawing all over yourself in anticipation of future epidermal projects.
Remember the year you dressed up as David Lee Roth for the Purim Carnival? That was fucking amazing. That was you doing you. I think of Diamond Dave as a Sherpa on your journey from misfit to grown mensch.
Rebel, I’m not mad at you. At summer camp, before 7th grade, Reject promised he would never do drugs. Then, on a windy Sausalito hill with our buddy Dan and two stoner friends, we unconvincingly inhaled from a joint two or three times. We know where it went from there. Suffice to say, that youthful pledge went unheeded.
Somewhat horrific and not worth glorifying, your years spent in addiction shaped who you’d become. You remain locked in that college apartment along with the attendant euphoria, lethargy, mania, shame, and compulsion. Stand still a moment, so I can get a good look.
I’m just glad I’m around to write this letter.
* * *
Rebuilder, we’ve kept in better touch, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be left out of this Valentine’s love fest. Over the years, you have surprised me. I’ve seen you scared, square, reactionary, gullible, hungry, eager, lost, impulsive, obsessive, compassionate, funny. It was a struggle to repair your life after you smashed it up.
You finished college—which wasn’t a given during the lost years of self-abuse and indifference. Then you found yourself a little fallback career as a teacher, just in case rock and roll didn’t work out. Like I said, full of surprises.
You couldn’t stay off that stage, though: hundreds and hundreds of performances, from grimy clubs to stunning theaters. If you wanted to prove how seriously you took music, point made. Eventually, you got those tattoos Rebel wanted and saw a few of Reject’s dreams come true. You even met Yoko.
* * *
Reflector, I see you: sitting on your comfy couch, drinking artisan coffee, looking back. Never unwilling to do the ugly work of self-reflection, you must have gone through thirty journals over the past twenty years.
But you look good, Reflector. I like the gray. The wrinkles you worked so hard to give yourself at age nine (so you’d resemble Harrison Ford) settled in nicely.
You’ve got a wife you adore. I’ve seen how you look at her. She keeps you in check when you spin out, which is a less and less frequent occurrence. Our mother was right: you never had trouble making friends. Even after a cross-country move and a handful of relocations that pool has only grown in width and depth.
So, you’re back in school now. After all those indie albums and music composing gigs, you decided to do the writing thing, huh? I’m just kidding. Your best material comes when you lean into what scares you. You’ve always been that way.
It was never quite as simple as having the eyeballs on you; you had thoughts to articulate. Songwriting worked pretty well for the most part, though it became a bit of a party trick after a while, striving to create the perfect confection on demand. Playing in front of audiences (even scant ones) fulfilled some of your needs, but after driving hundreds of thousands of miles you were spinning your wheels.
Now it’s you guys and me and the words. We can’t hide behind volume, fashion, pretty melodies, or someone else’s vision anymore. It’s up to us to dig in and stick with the work until it’s right. I think we’re capable. And if I didn’t come right out and say it: I love you guys.
Let’s not go this long without talking again.