Listening to music can be pretty narcissistic. Riding in my parents’ car down highway 25 as John Fogerty croons his way through “I Heard It through the Grapevine” and desperately pulling together some connection between myself and the song. Trying so hard to conform my life around the top 40 hits about lost love or cheating or screwing up a good thing when 16-year-old me had never been on a date, let alone been in any sort of relationship. Fighting to justify myself or find solace from being the predominant loser at my small, private, Christian high school. Attaching fragments of memory to fragments of songs, lines out of context, themes melding with tone, pinpricks of understanding.
I show up to the square dance fundraiser for our high school because I’m a volunteer, but I don’t dance. The old man in the blue and pink plaid shirt leading the whole thing has a decades-old machine that allows him to loop music and make calls and teach everyone how to dance in those tight patterns. I watch him work, turning dials and tapping his feet as he talks, distracting myself from the humid warmth of dozens of bodies whirling in circles. Dancing, even a geometric dance, feels intimate to 16-year-old me, skin touching even chastely, eyes aligning, turning together, so I abstain even after my math teacher tells me to “get out there.” The girl with the red curly hair dances with the same guy for the bulk of the night, laughing and smiling in ways that probably mean much less than I want to admit, and I don’t have the nerve to cut in. So: I sulk in corners and ask to help with concessions in order to hide behind the blue counter and give people Skittles. They don’t need any help, of course, and later they call me out as a good volunteer when all I really wanted was an excuse not to watch her do-si-do with my best friend.
“I Put a Spell on You”
I start playing guitar as a way to learn bass when I’m 14. Guitar is a proof of concept and so I grind my fingers into black calluses playing clunky patterns on old strings. I don’t really understand keys yet, and I can’t play chords. I throw my head against a musical wall until I break through and finally get a bass, learn to play scales and blues riffs, hit my first barre chord on the acoustic without any dead notes, sing while playing a 3 chord progression. I take the acoustic to school and play in the closet under the stairs during breaks because I want to impress everyone as a moody artist and I want to continue to practice. I learn “Stairway to Heaven” and basslines by Flea. Then I learn them again, learn them better. My friends learn to play guitar too and progress faster than me and outdo me in nearly every way. I keep playing regardless because I want to do something. I’m aching to do something even though I have no idea what that is.
My friend who everyone says has dreamy eyes learns to play “Proud Mary” from a white guy with a lot of opinions at the lake house. It’s the day after we’ve spent the night there, and contrary to what classmates think, we mostly drank Mountain Dew and played guitar and video games. Dreamy eyes struggles to hit the rapid chord changes but gets to the long D major and rests there. This song is almost baffling for me. The chords move faster than some of the basslines I’ve written and actually make a melody, which feels antithetical to my narrow rules about what music should do. As dreamy eyes works on the song, I try to play the bassline on my acoustic, and the guy with opinions gives me a smug and annoyed look, like he knows I’m struggling with the “easy” part that he can nail without thinking. Dreamy eyes keeps trying until he gets a few of the chords right and then hands the guitar off to someone else while we all go outside. I try the song’s chords myself over and over but never get them right so I tuck the song away and give up on it for years.
“Bad Moon Rising”
Around the time that puberty and all its havoc comes around, the depression that runs in my family takes hold like a cold fever. At 14 and 15, I sit in my high school classroom floating in suicidal ideation, visions of ways I could die or hurt myself, and I build this stoic persona as a way to grab some of the control that I don’t have inside. One day, the girl in the lavender sweater creeps a mechanical pencil towards my pupil as a test of will. She doesn’t believe my stoneface and wants to show everyone I’m full of crap. I tell her I’m not going to flinch as she slides the pencil through the air, and I don’t. I don’t know if I don’t care about the potential pain or welcome it or if I just know that I can out-“chicken” her, but I don’t worry about her slipping and gouging out my eye even as the pencil lead touches my eyelashes. My best friend laughs and lavender sweater looks disappointed. My best friend calls me “insane” and writes a quote from me down in his notebook. Getting in the notebook becomes a benchmark of standing and antics in the high school, and despite myself, I rarely make it in.
It’s no one’s fault your town is small, that your house hides back in a suburb of a dying downtown and a Mexican restaurant and two video rental shops, that a small Confederate soldier sits in the “town square,” that the Walmart doesn’t even sell groceries and the Bumpers goes out of business because this town can’t support a Bumpers and a Sonic, that the gas station (you know the one) sells two Mellow Yellows for the price of one, that the storage closet where your basketball team works out is barely bigger than your living room, that the new gym floor was laid over the existing floor and makes your baskets half an inch too short which means your team shoots worse in away games, that the school dress code prohibits facial hair and teachers say boys should make better grades than girls because you’re supposed to be leaders, that all of your classmates go to the same three churches except for you (a non-denominational Christian), the Methodist, and the Pentecostal family, that the poorest part of town is downwind of the paper factory and primarily African-American, that the one time you drove into that neighborhood an older man stared all of you down and two cars escorted you out of the neighborhood because you only came to voyeur, that dreamy eyes got out of a ticket for going 55 in a 30 because he was the son of a prominent realtor, that you feel so alone sometimes that it makes you angry in a way you don’t understand even years later, that you won’t stay in touch when you all move away even though you know the bitterness hurts only you. It’s nobody’s fault.
Creedence Clearwater Revival are from San Francisco, which makes their Southern vibe all that more odd. They embrace the sound of the South, the feel of the blues, and the rhythm of the River in a way I never could. As a transplant, I fought being part of the South. I resisted the accent, refused to say y’all, and to this day still feel surprised when someone says they can hear that I lived in Mississippi for over a decade. Like Fogerty, I can put on a mask of Southern idiom and behavior, but 15-year-old me wanted nothing to do with being Southern. A place rife with tradition built on destructive Confederate myth, I still don’t know what it means to be from Mississippi, even though Mississippi would claim me if I asked.
I learn how to slap the tops of our high school desks with a ruler in a way that amplifies the sound and fills the classroom like aggressive white noise. Everyone hates it and dislikes me for doing it, but I don’t stop. Maybe it’s because I feel ignored. Maybe it’s that people stop listening to what I’m saying in the middle of me talking to them. Maybe I’m just being awful because I can. In either case, I hate slapping the desks for how it makes people look at me, but I do it anyway.
“Down on the Corner”
The bassline for “Down on the Corner” is iconic in a music store kind of way. It’s the sort of bassline you hear everyone play when they’re trying out basses or amps but aren’t sure what to play. We all want to impress, for someone to say, “That’s great, dude,” and mean it, for our efforts to add up to more than hours spent on a hobby we might end up letting go of eventually. This bassline is the first I figured out by ear, just playing along and picking it up. I’m a sight-player, meaning I play best by reading music or tablature, so this was a big moment. As I get the hang of the progression and realize just how simple it is, my dad walks by my room and pokes his head in and says that I’m “so awesome” because he knows that I’ve never played that before. I didn’t even know how much I wanted that moment until it happens and I keep chasing it for years to come, like a drug.
Wrangler Jeans once used “Fortunate Son” in an ad campaign for their jeans. I saw it on its first run before it was discontinued and at the time of writing this, I can’t find any version of it online to rewatch. I remember them only using the lyrics “Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh, they’re red, white, and blue,” and then cutting the vocals after that while attractive people ran around in tight jeans in trucks and the outdoors. They, of course, omitted the following line, “And when the band plays, ‘Hail to the Chief’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you.” Skewing a protest song into a patriotic anthem didn’t go over well with the general public or my dad. He grew up with the song. When he sees the commercial, he laughs for a while. Once I am in on the joke, I do too.
Lavender sweater tells us all she’s not into dating right now, that she doesn’t believe it’s something she should be doing at the moment. We all take this in stride even though 8 out of 10 of the high school guys want to date her, myself included. She lives almost an hour and a half away from our school and I never understand why she goes to our school in the first place, but she does. Our small school is academically advanced in certain subjects, particularly English and Math, but there are lots of good public schools (considering the education budget of Mississippi) and a glut of private schools in the area. In Mississippi, Christian schools and private academies came to be, in many cases, because of desegregation. If you can make your school “academically rigorous” or require an application or charge high tuition, you can segregate without much effort since wealth in the area often follows racial demographic lines. The old ache of an old wound. Some Christian schools, like mine, arose as a response to the “secularizing influence” of public schools. In the spring, lavender sweater stops coming and goes to the public school nearer her house, but we all see her again at a Valentine’s Day costume party with her boyfriend. We all feel a quiet defeat.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain”
I don’t know how to grapple with high school. I’ve been trying to write about this period for years with almost no success because how do you encapsulate a period with so much change and flux? I discovered my depression and deepened my relationship with Jesus during the same period. I couldn’t talk about high school without swearing for a while, laughed wryly at people who wanted to have a reunion, and realized how horribly I treated everyone. High school seems to be universally panned as a bad social experience for anyone not blisteringly popular, but usually for them, too. Some days I’m not far beyond the kid who sat on the stairs playing guitar before basketball practice. Some days I feel worlds apart from that self-important jackass. Some days I watch him through a one-way mirror with mix of compassion and regret.
“Up Around the Bend”
Dreamy eyes’s new car is having engine trouble, so he needs to drive his car to a dealership two hours away. He jokes that the car will explode on the way and I say I want to come with. We both joke about dying in a fireball and no one else laughs.
“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”
Dreamy eyes has a cabin on the family farm. It sits on top of a hill in the middle of the country near our rural town so it feels incredibly isolated. There is no plumbing and the only toilet is a seat nailed to a couple of boards stretched between two trees over a steep incline. We go out there as a group to play music and videogames and a lot of the younger guys come along. The friend who makes movies and the friend who plays drums are currently into restricting the veins in each other’s necks until they pass out because it causes a weird sensation, a sort of high, and the younger guys all want in. Only dreamy eyes and I don’t do this. After being choked out, the guy who lived in Russia as a missionary collapses on the lone bed in the cabin only to lie stunned for a few minutes until suddenly jumping up and screaming “My head! My head!” while bounding in circles on the bed. We essentially ignore him. I enjoy being included but everything feels like it’s happening at a distance. I want everything to be safe, ordered, good, and so much of this feels far away from that. I also have a creeping suspicion that I’m unwanted, only here as collateral damage from inviting the younger guys. When dreamy eyes and the guy with the black hair throw coals from the fire through a slit in the window, I get locked out of the cabin with them for the night and have to sleep in a car. I’m only annoyed because I know I won’t sleep and I don’t, but being excluded from the cabin almost feels like a kindness.
“Long as I Can See the Light”
My faith blossoms towards the end of my sophomore year and my suicidal ideation mostly goes away because of that. When I grapple with ideation in years following, I don’t always know what to do with the experience. Even when I want to die to escape the pain and be free of this broken body and with Jesus, suicide still feels like the wrong choice. Some Christians believe suicide to be an unforgivable sin, an ultimate distrust in God. In high school, I believe this and this makes me afraid of it, but as I grow in my faith and away from my ideation, I see suicide as another death, an escape that is not outside the scope of Grace. The more I understand this, the less I want to kill myself, but the ideation is never that far away.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
The girl with red curls gives my best friend hand massages in study hall. This is not a euphemism. For obvious reasons, nobody believes them when they say their relationship is platonic, that they are just friends. As a young white guy, culture teaches me that I own any women I find attractive, so I feel hurt by their affection but can’t explain why. Accepting that she’s not into me hurts in ways I don’t fully understand how to navigate, so I pine at my desk and hope for something that I should just let go of already.
“Have You Seen the Rain?”
Despite large sections of Scripture that address deep sorrow with compassion and understanding, depression is still chronically misunderstood within Christian circles. Being depressed in the church can be portrayed as having weak faith or hope in Christ and not as something like diabetes or heart disease, which you can exacerbate but can also exist independent of your choices. This misunderstanding sat inside me for years, making it hard to recognize the difference between my own decisions and what the disease was doing once the depression fell on me like a wave. So I blamed myself for my depression entirely, seeing every part of it as a choice I made or failed to make. As a Christian, believing that everything in my life is in my control is a tragic irony. However, the depression stays and it’ll take me over a decade before I forgive myself for having a mental illness and even longer before I finally get help.
On one Saturday in early fall of my junior year, I play the best basketball of my life. I score a few points, sure, but more than that, I am effective defensively. I nearly dunk, steal the ball, block shots, rebound prolifically, and take a charge facing the wrong direction. It’s called a foul on me but my coaches say they’ve never seen anything like it. We’re playing in a small tournament with two other schools, and we win both games. The tournament was originally supposed to be a standard four-team bracket, but when one team backs out, we play round-robin instead. Because we win both of our games, we’re crowned the champions. We go and get supper and play mini-golf, and then head back to the gym for the award presentation. When we arrive to accept our trophies, my head coach tells me to carry the championship trophy while my tall friend with glasses will receive the MVP award. I’m over the moon. However, when we finally get back from eating, they’ve already had the award ceremony before the consolation game to decide second and third place. Since we were all gone, one of the moms who drove us accepted it on our behalf. I hold the trophy briefly and then give it to my coach.
I got my driver’s license almost a year late. Because there was nowhere to go and my family didn’t have an extra vehicle I could exclusively drive, my mom had to force me to practice driving and eventually take the test out of necessity. Even then, I rarely drove places on my own. I was far more likely to bike around my small neighborhood and be chased by the neighbors’ dogs than cruise around town.
“Someday Never Comes”
Decades later you sit at your desk. You feel the first throes of the anti-depressant taking hold. You pray and cry because you didn’t remember. Is this what it felt like? Oh, God, you didn’t remember. Your past melds together and you finally find yourself in deep silence and stillness the likes of which you’d given up dreaming about. Yet even as a lifetime of this strangeness looms ahead of you, you feel profound peace knowing your ever-fracturing brain was never outside the scope of Grace, even if that Grace comes primarily through counseling and pills. Your cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, especially through the valley of the shadow of death.