Autumn, 1991. A weeknight. Late. Let's say, two or three in the morning. This isn't a memory. But something like this must have happened. I dial the station’s number by heart in the dark—a few times, until I get through. “What are you doing up?” the DJ asks me. “Working,” I say. It’s not untrue. If I'm feeling nervy I get him to count off the songs in the queue. Then I hang up, hover my fingertip over the “record” button on my stereo, and wait.
I started making mixes when my family moved to Florida. I was twelve, and whatever impression I’d been doing of a non-melancholy child burned away, fast, under the white-hot glare of all that sunshine. All those swimming pools, all those blond ponytail girls. I couldn’t sustain the performance of being mainstream. There was nothing “cute” about me: I was a pudgy, wandering, poetry-writing tween with heaps of frizzy hair and a New Yorker subscription. Orlando was hell, as I far as I was concerned.
College radio was my salvation. Central Florida boasted two decent university stations—UCF’s, which came in fuzzy on my dial, and the one belonging to nearby Rollins College. Something of an insomniac, I’d stay up for the out-there shows, taking mental notes of playlists. Once I had a game plan for a mix, I’d begin the arduous task of calling in requests. One or two per night, toggling between the stations. “Indie” was just entering its heyday. We came of age together.
The mix I’m looking at now is titled Summer of Suck. Today, I see the title as ironic, because the summer of ’91 was the last one when things didn’t suck, not really. My sister was still alive. Our house hadn’t had half its roof ripped off by a tornado. My dog fell asleep every night with his head under my bed, and my late night mix-making wasn’t yet accompanied by the soundtrack of my mother, likewise sleepless, rearranging the kitchen cupboards again, and my little brother, in the next room, waking up weeping. In 1991 we were an intact, high-functioning family—not happy, that was never the case, but we went through the motions of happy family-ness and after three years in Florida, we had let ourselves believe in the motions, at least. Soccer practice. Swim practice. The table set for dinner at seven. Holiday parties by the lake. I’d even made a tentative peace with the blond girls—counted several of them as friends. We’d hang out at the mall together, or skip last period and go to the beach. I remember with pointless clarity the rinky-dink gas station on the way to New Smyrna where we would stop to buy cigarettes. I was tall and composed and so it was up to me to get the smokes. It made me feel necessary.
Summer of Suck begins with a statement of intent: “Blood and Roses,” by The Smithereens. Bassline, churning guitar and drums, and then--
It was long ago
Seems like yesterday
Saw you standing in the rain
Then I heard you say—
I want your love but it comes out wrong
I want to live but I don’t belong
I close my eyes and I see
Blood and roses.
That was the authentic me, the one with her Walkman blasting minor chords into her headspace as she made the journey—geographically short, psychically vast—to the back of our gated neighborhood for a Saturday night hang at Kim’s place. I’d arrive at her house and see Carrie and Ashley and maybe Nikki already inside, passing around a can of beer snaked from the fridge in the garage, and I’d study them for a minute or two, letting whatever song was playing wind to a close. Then, with great care, I would wrap my headphones around my Walkman, take a deep breath, and ring the bell. I felt—still feel—an awesome respect for people who don’t need a game face.
I didn’t spend the summer of 1991 in Florida. As usual, I went back to Colorado, to the camp I’d attended since I was eight. I loved camp. I was more in my element there, in the mountain air, among people I’d gone to temple with in Denver, who’d been on swim team with me at the JCC. That summer, though, an odd combination of circumstances opened a breach between me and my longtime pals. Just before leaving, I’d completed training as a lifeguard. I wasn’t certified yet—I wasn’t sixteen—but the training itself sufficed to get me hired on an emergency basis as one of the camp’s swim teachers. The job opened up after I arrived, when the girl who’d had it was sent home, either because she got mono or because she got busted with weed. Both stories circulated. I was still bunked with my usual crew, who were counselors-in-training, but I’d been elevated to staff and that made me different.
So that’s the “suck” in Summer of Suck: I’d gone to my place of solace, and found myself once again on the periphery, no longer one of my old gang, and too young, and too abstemious and virginal, to really be “of” the circle of college-age staffers. Game face, on.
The song on Summer of Suck that situates me in that place, and that time, is “A Message to You Rudy,” by The Specials. It was a cult hit at my camp—they played it at all of our Friday night dances. Thinking back on it now, I can’t remember anyone ever dancing to it; we must have all just stood around, singing along. My dog was named Rudy. Whenever I hear that song, it reminds me of camp, and it reminds me of being at camp, thinking of him. Everything I’ve learned since about ska and the London rude boy scene sits atop those associations, the thinnest layer of the palimpsest.
I wasn’t a keen fan of The Specials. You won’t find any of my most beloved bands of that era on my mixes—no Smiths, no Pixies, no New Order or Talking Heads. I preferred to listen to their albums whole. “A Message to You Rudy” was typical of the tracks on my mixtapes in that it was a shooting star—a song that had crossed the orbit of my taste more or less at random. I wasn’t above adding an old Billy Joel tune if I felt like it, or a hit single. “Everybody Dance Now,” by C+C Music Factory—that’s on a mix somewhere, jammed up (improbably) beside The Descendants’ “Suburban Home.” Music for running. The point was momentum.
Summer of Suck served a purpose, too. The most considered of my high school-vintage mixes, it was a memoir, written in thirteen songs.
It’s not until side two of Summer of Suck that we encounter Joe. Reprising both the sound and sentiment of “Blood & Roses,” this side opens with “The One I Love” by R.E.M. That track I’d plumbed from my copy of Document, and it plays the part of a long drum roll, heralding the arrival of Joe Axelrod, age 23, strapping recent graduate of the University of Chicago and my partner in “overnight duty” at camp.
Good night my love
Remember me as you fall to sleep
Fill your pockets with the dust of the memory
That rises from the shoes on my feet
I won’t be back here
Though we may meet again….
Those are the opening lines of “Washer,” by Slint, one of the post-rock bands Joe introduced me to. Twice a week, tented by the light of a lamppost, we’d sit together at a patio table, on alert for sick or mischievous campers, and we’d listen to music and read. I was making my way through Crime and Punishment, which impressed him. “It’s interesting, the way it’s structured,” I remember telling him. “Woven together, like a braid.” I brought a Throwing Muses tape to the patio one night, which impressed him more. House Tornado. We sat for our three-hour shifts and read and listened and talked. He was starting medical school in the fall; this summer in the Rockies was a vacation of sorts, a last chance to “let his hair grow,” as he put it. Unlike most of the staffers, Joe had never attended our camp—he and his girlfriend, Monica, had applied for their jobs together, on a lark. The only thing I can remember about Monica is that she told me that when I got to college I should wash my jeans every week, to keep from getting fat. I’m sure she had more interesting things to say. I just don’t remember.
Listen to me
Don’t let go
Don’t let this desperate moonlight
Leave me in your empty pillow
The sun will rise again…
At some point, one of those nights, I told Joe about my sister.
Lihi didn’t come to Florida. The last time I saw her, I was twelve—or, not quite twelve, my birthday was in a week—and I’d just returned from camp. She was in the hospital for some reason. She was often in the hospital for some reason. I didn’t make much of it at the time. My dad picked me up from the JCC, loaded my duffel bag full of dirty clothes into the car, and we went to Children’s in Denver, where my mom and my brother, then four, were waiting in Lihi’s room. What was my brother doing? I don’t recall. Lihi was lying in the hospital bed, strapped up somehow—I can see that, if I squint. She had severe cerebral palsy and it was nothing new, seeing her like that. What I do remember is the look—hard to read, but of a kind of anguish—on my mother’s face as she identified a fading hickey on my neck. About a week later, my dad and I packed up the car again and started our drive to Orlando.
“Wait,” Joe asked me. “Where does she live?” In Pueblo, I explained. In a group home. Lihi had gone there when I was ten. I told him about my mother nearly losing her mind, juggling a handicapped child and a new baby. I told him about the afternoons in our upstairs playroom, me in the back, reading mystery novels under the card table, Lihi up front on her mat, watching episode after episode of The Muppet Show. She loved the Muppets, I told him, and McDonald’s milkshakes, and watching me rollerskate, and she hated Donna Summer with a passion that was literally incomprehensible, as she couldn’t speak. When “On the Radio” came on the radio, she would scream. Joe fastened on the salient fact, which was that I hadn’t seen my sister in three years.
“Where’s Pueblo? Isn’t it close?” he asked one night. It was close-ish—maybe an hour from camp. “We could take a day off together and go see her,” he offered. “I’ll drive you.” I weighed the opportunity to spend a whole day with Joe against the horror of what he—what I—would see in Pueblo. The mewling teenagers, like the boy who rubbed himself on the TV. My sister, with her glazed, medicated stare. The group home itself, which was state-mandated clean, but which always smelled musty to me. After some prodding, I agreed.
The trip never came off. Maybe the idea of spending a day alone with a fifteen year-old girl started to seem sketchy to Joe—it certainly could have been seen that way. Maybe Monica wanted to do something else. Maybe I wanted to do something else. I can’t remember. I never saw my sister again. Why can’t I remember?
Summer of Suck is a short mix: A TDK 60, half an hour on either side. I can summon, without trying, the way both sides of the tape end. Side one concludes with a burst of fire: “Waiting Room,” by Fugazi, cut off about a minute in. I was pretty bad at making mixes. Side two finishes with three minutes of silence.
The last song on side two—the dirge-y side, if you will—is “Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem,” by Peter Murphy. I do remember, will never not remember, the first time I heard that song.
Colorado is famously dry, but that day it rained. The pool was closed, and I had to race to the boys’ end of camp to tarp it over. The storm turned biblical, and with no other option, I huddled, wet and shivering, under the awning off the boys’ bathroom. Then someone called my name: Joe, standing in the doorway of his cabin. He waved me in. I sprinted.
The cabin was empty. Joe had the afternoon off. He gave me a sweater to change into and a towel to wrap up my sopping hair. We sat on his bed together for an hour or so, careful to maintain a chaste distance. It was the last week of camp; soon, I’d be heading back to Florida and Joe would be off to medical school, to commence life as an adult. His hair had grown out. Stray curls fell over his eyes. We sat on the bed, and he played music for me. The storm passed. I was about to leave when he said: “Wait.” There was one more song he wanted me to hear. He said it reminded him of me.
Hot tears flow as she recounts
Her favorite worded token
Forgive me please for hurting so
Don’t go away heartbroken, no
“Who is this?” I asked. Peter Murphy, he replied.
Forgive me please for hurting so
Don’t go away heartbroken, no
The song played, and then it ended. I un-turbanned the towel and handed it to him. My head was still damp. Joe kissed the crown of it. “You’re going to be great, you know,” he said. I remember, in that moment, believing him.
Then I left. I went home, to Florida, and a few months later, not sure if I believed Joe anymore, I made a mix. Once I turned sixteen and got my license, I’d listen to it in the car, taking the curves too fast on Markham Woods road, and recollect his prophecy. You’re going to be great, you know. After Lihi died —oh god, that’s another story—I’d feed Summer of Suck into my Walkman and go for long nighttime strolls through our neighborhood, Rudy yanking on his leash, the happy families all around visible through their windows, haloed in the blue glow of their TVs. You’re going to be great now defined down to you’re going to be ok. The tape auto-reversing itself. You’re going to be ok. You’re going to be ok. I look at this cassette now and wonder: What does it mean that I have nothing to play it on anymore?
Summer of Suck, tracklist:
Blood & Roses, Smithereens
Pale Shelter, Tears for Fears
It’s My Life, Talk Talk
Getting Away With It, Electronic
Kiss Them For Me, Siouxsie & the Banshees
I Touch Roses, Book of Love
A Message To You Rudy, The Specials
Waiting Room, Fugazi
The One I Love, R.E.M.
Wicked Game, Chris Isaak
The Last Day of Our Acquaintance, Sinead O’Connor
Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem, Peter Murphy