One of the worst things you can do to your heart is tell middle-schoolers what you love.
Watch their faces as you recite the poem or as the song plays, while you realize they're too young to care quite as much as you. They don't mean not to, they just haven't gotten there yet. We should teach them, I'm convinced, only our third-favorite things.
I've been team-teaching a Music and Lyrics class at a private boys middle school, and we asked a group of fifth-grade guys to bring in a favorite song and explain why it was important to them. We said we'd participate too.
I promptly went home and chose “Honky Cat” from Honky Chateau, which I might only know because it was what my dad knew. I sat and tried to imagine how I could possibly explain why it's perfect.
It's a losing proposition if you have enough invested in it.
And to represent the whole album, to sell it to adults? I knew this opportunity was coming, too, and that there was no way to do it enough justice. What if I'm too tedious and technical? If I break down the chord structures and the harmonies and diagram the magic out of Honky Chateau, will you shrug and listen to one song on YouTube, turn back to your go-to music, remain stubbornly loyal to other piano players, put on some perfectly good goddamn Billy Joel?
And if I get too desperate, too certain you'll feel the same way, will you decide not to? Will you get defensive like I sometimes do? I'm sure it's interesting, I'll say, thinking of all the stuff I'd wager is better, just like I'm still in middle school. Maybe I'll give it a try, I'll say. I'm sure it's worth listening to.
I stayed home from school and listened to my dad's records today. It's no less glorious a sentence than it was in the mid-90s, the last time it was true.
I remember lying in the dark, plastic space stickers greenly glowing, listening on the boxy CD-player/radio for the KIOW guy (North Iowa's Music, News, Weather, and Sports) to say I could stay a little longer.
The alarm turned the radio on instead of a buzzer and sometimes they were playing Madonna or Mariah Carey and I'd have to wait a while. The voice that read the listings was oddly nasal and supremely confident and sometimes we saw that guy at church or the Red Owl grocery store. It was always so awesome and so terrible when he told me it was only a delay.
When enough magic accumulated, enough to snow the porch door closed and to freak out even Midwestern Superintendents, I'd stay in my room all day. I had thick dark green carpet, and I'd sit on the floor and listen to records and organize my baseball cards. They had to go by team and by year in the plastic pages, and in a separate binder altogether if the card was weird or special or shiny or rare, or if the player had a famous enough name. I wanted to be able to pull those ones out later, find them again easily, show them to people, though nobody I knew was likely to be that impressed by a shiny tin-foil Ken Griffey, Jr.
During this memory I don't remember how old I was or what grade I was in or even if some of this is true. I just remember that I remember it, like a drug drip. Like an endless snowdrift climbing up a fogging windowpane. Like a dream, except that I nearly never recall those anyway.
Most of my childhood I remember the way I remember a dream, on the rare occasion I'm gifted one—not the whole linear plot, but just an occasional, spooky or beautiful, crystal and contradictory image or two.
Sesame Street wallpaper and a Speak and Spell and a turntable spinning 70s rock and roll.
I haven't even said much about Elton yet, though I feel like I've been humming and humming his tune. I've been terrified to write this, though it was the first record I thought of out of all five hundred. It was the first record I thought of out of all of them in the world. But I know I can't just sit here and quote “Mellow,” I can't just sit here and sing “Susie” to you and make everybody believe.
The three records I remember listening to are Honky Chateau, some type of story about Blackbeard or Bluebeard the pirate, and a Christian album that featured a song about Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree. Is it possible that those things are all from the same time in my life? Is it possible that I loved and appreciated Elton John as much as I think I did at such an early age, but that in high school I purchased Nickelback albums and performed them, singing into the mouth of a Coke bottle for the echo, in my room? Who knows.
I know I listened to Honky Chateau over and over and read the liner notes and learned the lyrics every time I was home alone and my parents wouldn't rent me a Nintendo. In my mind I found that particular record myself, and I think it's probably because my dad didn't put it into my hands, that he didn't insist (like I'm now insisting) that I can be so moved by it still. Maybe I'm lucky I stumbled onto this one on my own. Maybe I'm ruining it for you by telling you that it's magic. It's fine if you stop reading and wait to pick it up for a quarter at a Goodwill all on your own.
Later my best friend and I sang the record (well, this time an MP3) together loudly. Our favorite song, at least for a few days, was “Amy,” which makes sense. We'd have wanted by then to imagine someone slowly coming to love us even though they weren't sure they were interested. Somebody seeing something sexy in us although we were not anything like James Dean. We'd karaoke that punchy, perfect melody at the top of our lungs, believing we could change a crush's mind if we begged and blasted this song. All we ever wanted was a girl to wreck our dreams.
One of the worst things you can do to your soul is show the person you love something that changed and changes you and watch them fail to change too.
I told my middle-school students that I loved the album because I'd never heard the piano used that way before, jangly and pounding, and perfectly propping up such sassily golden vocal melodies. I told them I responded to the clever language, that I was already smitten by simile. One more thing that's probably bullshit but also pretty much rings true.
And one of the best things you can do to your heart is to be wrong from time to time. Luckily, nobody even talked about The Lion King. One of them tapped his foot and almost smiled. One of them said “Rocket Man” and one yelled out at the top of his lungs, god bless him, “B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets!”
I know making everybody love this is a lost cause. There are lots of lost causes we long for.
My school is shut down and my road hasn't been plowed yet; I've got nowhere to go. It's like trying to find gold in a silver mine. Trying to drink whiskey—ooooh!—from a bottle of wine. That's fine. I aim to sit here on the rug by my record player and pretend not to care what you think. Not in a superior way, but just because I do care; it'll be hard for me to bear if you can't quite see it. I'm going to pretend not to be confused by each person in the world that this doesn't speak to. I'm going to listen again and love, and revise the attempt, and I'm going to try.