10 March 2009

Getting the Knack

A three-room apartment, the embodiment of claustrophobia. Somehow there was never enough light in that place--it was as though the eternal gray layer of city dust filtered out pure light, as well. Four of us lived there, with one bedroom shared by myself and my older brother, and the living room's pull-out sofa the designated domain of Mom and her boyfriend (we called him a stepfather, for propriety's sake). There was a pervasive unease about that living room, because it was the site of unpredictable outbursts by my stepfather. Usually these were late-night, though not always; typically they were provoked by alcohol; frequently the blasting verbal barrage would be followed up by slaps, punches, or outright hurls of my mother's birdlike form from one side of the small room to another. How she never broke a bone remains a mystery. If there were bruises, she managed to conceal them and retain her 9-to-5 secretarial post without anyone being the wiser.

Incredibly, considering the dearth of space in our home, the single bedroom was rarely entered by my mom, and never by my stepfather. It was lighter in there, and it had a magical escape pod: the back window. No ordinary window, this was a prewar portal about five feet tall. Its width perfectly cradled my sitting form...thus, I would sit at my sixth-floor perch, big Radio Shack headphones clamped on my head, staring out over the patchwork roofs, sparse trees, and sidewalks of Astoria, Queens. Behind me was a scuttled scrap pile of domesticity. Ahead of me was the world of my neighborhood, shimmering in dusk light or glinting in sunshine. My senses were wide-opened by this window vision: breezes nuzzled me; interspersed trees popped a brilliant green into the grays and browns of city life; I smelled other people's food, sweet outdoors air, the occasional hint of exhaust...

...and what did I hear, planted in that window, gazing and escaping? Well, in 1979, among many of my favorite artists, I heard the Knack. And the Knack became the shining sound of my freedom.

My heart lifts even now when I think of Get the Knack. I had long since established myself as a Beatles fan, and suddenly a band of my era was building something new and edgy on that familiar power pop foundation. That made me feel championed and upswept into my own hopeful now. The album's packaging was slick black-and-white, with its black portions gleaming just like the inner circle of vinyl. The band photos and even the rainbow Capitol record label mimicked the Beatles' heyday, at once parody and homage. As such, this LP was easily dismissed upon its (admittedly hyped) release; I recall many jaded critics and even my own brother giving it the one-handed brush-off. That only fueled my ardor. Not for nothing did the band title their second album ...But the Little Girls Understand. The men didn't know, indeed.

Plunked onto the turntable, the Knack's sound was percussion-driven and propulsive right from the get-go. (Bruce Gary was vastly underrated.) Berton Averre's guitar rang clear, banging and clangy. Prescott Niles' bass bottom was thick and supportive. And there was Doug Fieger's indelible voice, by turns bratty and manly. He teased, yearned, scored. The band's lyrics conveyed impatient sexuality and a simmering anger that spoke volumes to my 15-year-old thwarted self. I had a knowing inside me that was--I can say now--deeper than many of my peers'. Forged by my home's strife, perhaps, but also by my voracious reading habit and my writer's sensibility. I gathered shreds of learning and quilted them immediately. And oh, I wanted wanted wanted.

A fatherless girl (my stepfather was a straw man, and my own father long disappeared), I craved touch, warmth, and companionship. I wanted to learn someone else's ways, and thereby, to believe there was a better life to be had than what was behind me in that apartment. I wanted to be understood, surely, but even more so, I wanted to understand someone else completely. Immerse. Leave.

As such, I was governed by crushes that burned hot at the front of my mind. Not unlike the Knack's protagonists, who sang things like:

I don't expect you to understand
The thrill I feel when I hold your hand
But this is something I never planned
You're thinking of me as just a friend
My heart is breaking, I can't pretend...


I don't want much, uh-uh,
I don't wanna be her boyfriend forever...
I just wanna...touch


She's gonna take you by the hand, lead you to the promised land
She'll make you weak and out of breath, feeling like you're done to death
Oh, I wanna hold you
Oh, and then enfold you....
She'll be pulling the string
But she'll tie it in a knot before she'll give you anything!

(Yeah, go ahead, replace the she's with he's. Worked for me.)

I listened and memorized and craved for weeks. And then I experienced a Knack-engineered moment that was transcendent.

The place: my friend D.J.'s garage. D.J. had what most of us Queensites lacked: a full-sized, freestanding house. Its two-car garage had been made over into a 1970s extravaganza of a wood-paneled bar, complete with pool table and a real pinball machine. As I think back, I can't understand why I didn't just buy a sleeping bag and move in. But whenever I could, I would loose the tether of home and hang out in that den of easy laughter and play.

We were a crowd of friends, back then, each with our own demons to wrestle (again, something I can say now...then, I might have wondered, but mostly never considered it). Among us was a boy I desired mightily. He and I were friends on an intellectual level--not to sound overstuffed, but we discoursed about poetry, politics, and religion along with our pop-cultural musings. Yea verily, I had crushes abounding, but he was my strongest focus, the catch I strained to yank into the boat.

D.J. was a man of disco and cheesepop, but somehow one afternoon as we gathered in celebration of Labor Day, Get the Knack was successfully slipped into his boom box cassette player. Wooo! As a pool game lazily unrolled, and the conversation with it, I rocked around the room to the first few cuts on the album (no single among them, yet I knew them each by heart). Cut number five was the first resting moment, a true ballad that I had taken to heart with desperation, always pining for this crush-boy:

I don't know why I never said it before
I dont know why i waited so long to be sure
but I...everything's humming,
Something is coming, maybe tonight....
Funny to think I had to clown and pretend
You never knew I saw you as more than a friend
but I...come hold me tighter, come make it right,
maybe tonight, oh maybe tonight....

Of course I knew every word. And for some reason, I dared myself to sing this track out loud, there among my best friends. It felt liberating...and far more so, as I heard crush-boy's voice singing with equal fervor alongside mine. My heart raced and my mind wobbled, but I stayed cool and sang it out with him.

Did he touch me that night? Well, no...not for a couple of years, at that, and even then only fleetingly. But it didn't matter, and it still doesn't matter. That song has silken threads woven around it to this day. You could say, I started to grow a wing right then, in D.J.'s garage. That would be entirely true.

Freedom. I'm indebted to the Knack for helping foster that. And I escaped, oh yes...largely unscathed, and fully myself.

There's a further Knack-related coda to this story. How many of us have the good fortune to gather new best friends in our full-on adulthood? I know it hasn't happened often for me; after the safe haven of D.J.'s garage and the all-embracing arms of college, I haven't connected with many people. Adulthood's definitely had more of a lonely cast about it, which I guess accompanies responsibilities like dinner and paycheck and nurturing. Not so much freedom to be discovered in those, moreover.

Well, five years ago, I came to know a group of wonderful women on, of all things, John Mayer's fan club message board. (I'm sure my family's memories of that year involve the staccato tapdance of my PC's keyboard as I kept up with messages and tales from all over the U.S., literally from friends I had not met.) One by one, these women had been meeting up at concerts (where, I might add, they managed to score amazing seats right in front of Mayer). Those meet-ups were then retold on the board, and they sounded exhiliratingly fun. I dithered for awhile about whether I should head out on a Mayerventure...and in so doing, crest years of fear about airplane flight. 'Cause to be sure, Johnny boy wasn't hitting up the state of Maine.

In September of 2004, one of our friends tragically lost her husband to a horrible industrial accident. The Mayer friends banded together as we had been doing for other sad situations among us, sharing messages of support on the boards. From our disparate locations, we each began crafting quilt squares to express our feelings and share love with Mary Ann. Later that fall, the quilt was to be delivered in Chicago.

Never been to Chicago. Hmmm. And one of the Mayer friends, Karen, was a southern Mainer who wanted me to fly out with her. We had never met in real life, despite our relative geographical proximity. I knew she had recently lost her mom and was really looking forward to a little escapism after a sad, painful year. I pondered for a few days, and did not manage to persuade Karen that maybe we could drive...? No, she said firmly on the phone, we are NOT driving halfway across the country in December. I guess the train...? NO.

So...I gave in, leaping into quite an unknown. We flew. Got to know each other through revealing conversations, crammed next to each other in commuter jets. On one of the flights we were seated at the rear, and after we landed, there was a lull in the crowded line waiting to disembark.

"Let me out," I sang impatiently under my breath.

Karen was right alongside me. Her deep brown eyes went large, and then she smiled knowingly. She sang back: "Let me out, come and get me out, 'cause I've been stuck in for too long."

Now it was my eyes that bugged. That was the opening lyric of the Get the Knack album, a jaunty ode to, yes, escape. It turned out that Karen had accompanied her own emergent adolescence with the selfsame soundtrack.

We'd been enjoying each other's company, before. Now, we were insta-bonded. Karen is the Lobsta with whom I've since ranged all over the map in search of microbursts of freedom, to decorate our motherhood lives. And because of her, I found the innate bravery to fly south to New York multiple times the following spring, caring for my mother in her final illness. Karen always knew exactly what I was feeling...a gift that still hasn't stopped giving.

I was moved to write this by the generosity and artistry of Doug Fieger and Berton Averre, who've friended me on this amazing planet called Facebook. Thank you, thank you, for also knowing exactly how I was feeling, spanning three decades and going strong.

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