Why The Cars Matter More Than The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
1981. The seventh-grade boys of Dag Hammarskjold Junior High want to be scholars. Which is to say we drag rock records backwards on our turntables, listening for the devil’s name. At our long lunch tables we debate the true meaning of ZOSO. I spend my Saturday mornings at the Route 18 Flea Market, the crushed blossom of my allowance money stuffed into my jeans, hunting for the perfect three-quarter sleeve concert shirt. We want to understand rock and roll, but we don’t.
We want to understand girls, starting with the seventh-grade girls of Dag Hammarskjold Junior High. They are Abha and Alicia, three Andreas and three Barbaras, Dawn, Debbie, Debra, Diane, Donna, Eleanor, Elizabeth, Ellen, Emily, Emmy, etc. There are eight Michelles, three Sandras, two Wendys. Their surnames are tinged with the exoticism of the next shtetl over, or the flat plains of a Middle America lying between us and Disneyland, or an ocean’s divide. Their names attract us like magnetic north. We have been led to understand, even promised, that one day we will pry underneath their names and shoulder them aside, replacing them with our own.
I want to understand the girl who died though in the future won’t remember her name. It was something rare that caused her to convulse after her mother gave her aspirin for a headache. Then she died. I’d had headaches before. My mother had given me aspirin. But this girl died. I want to comfort her huddled group of friends as they stand in the outfield. Today, they are allowed to stand and not participate. The gym teacher does not reprimand them for their lack of hustle. None of us, me or the other seventh-grade boys of Dag Hammarskjold, has any idea how to comfort these girls.
We seek wise men, masters. My father sometimes gives advice through the locked doors of my bedroom. Just leave it alone, he says, and it will go away on its own. But fathers are no masters—they are fools in the haircuts of the last decade. The masters we need are in eighth grade, ninth grade, high school. Some of them even come from the Vo-Tech, the place my mother warns me I will wind up if I don’t improve my grades. Boys like these can be found at the edges of parking lots—Movie City 5, Brunswick Square—or at the entrance to the storm drain called the Hellhole, or in the woods between subdivisions where sometimes burnt cats are found, where a certain tree we’ve tried to locate is said to have a Pentagram carved into its trunk and is stained red as if it’s been wiped with blood. The boys who can instruct us wear dark denim jackets and plaid shirts. Their hair is long and falls over their eyes, or it’s buzzed into glinting mica on their scalps as if they’ve been recently treated for lice. The cruel masters we desire call us Fag Hammarskjolds. Even the older boys from our school call us this. They sell us ten-dollar bags of oregano that burns the back of our throats when we roll it into crooked joints. These boys cough up yellow mucus and spit at our feet. They flick Marlboro reds at our sleeves and grab our bikes. They roll our bikes into the ditch below the Hellhole so that we must wade into the muck to retrieve them. We go home to our mothers, pushing our twisted bicycles, calling each other fag. Calling each other homo.
Here is a boy I know, another seventh-grader, but with a wisp of moustache, with perfectly feathered hair parted in the middle, who slathers on deodorant in the locker room or else, he tells all of us, he’ll have massive B.O., who wears, dangling from the zipper of his puffy coat, a ski-lift pass from Vail, Colorado! He claims to have seen Valerie Bertinelli on the black diamond. His name is Eric or Jay or Gary. Among us all, he is the first to have been Bar Mitzvahed. I wasn’t invited, but heard there was a Monte Carlo theme, a roulette wheel, actual chips like in A.C. You could trade these for candy at the end of the night. There was a Viennese table with mousse in little cups which—like something out of a dream—were made of chocolate and could be eaten.
It’s this boy—Jay or Eric or Gary—who brings a cassette to school and urges us one by one to listen, holding one foamy circle of his Walkman’s headphones to our ears.
I don’t mind you coming here, and wasting all my time…
I refrain from placing the rim of my ear on the disk. The gray foam bears traces of yellow. J/E/G secretes. His chin and cheeks are covered with shiny acne. In the Boy’s Room, he pinches spirally worms of puss from the blackheads on his nose. His Adam’s apple is sharp and hard—you could crack a walnut on it. He smells of an uncle’s cologne and the space I share with him as we listen together, connected by a thin arch of plastic, is one of the most intimate I’ve known. J/E/G whispers along with the words. When the singer, who I’ll later come to know is Benjamin Orr, sings the line again, I don’t mind you coming here, and wasting all my time, TIME!, J/E/G doesn’t miss a beat.
We take our allowances to Sam Goody, we take our allowance to Crazy Eddie’s (his prices are insaaane!), we take our allowance to the Record Setter on Route 18. We buy The Cars. We buy Candy O. We buy Shake It Up. We take the albums to our bedrooms and carefully slice through the cellophane with our Swiss Army knives. We shimmy these records from their sleeves and lay them on our players.
The Cars’s songs are constructed from the arcane materials of the fifties and sixties, but strung over the top like a web of Christmas lights are beeps and blips that sound like our Ataris. The Cars sing almost exclusively of girls and women, but from an impossible distance, from across a void filled with loneliness and failure. We recognize this void. The Cars don’t ask anybody to squeeze their lemons till the juice runs down their legs and if they were to do this, nobody would. The Cars are not hippie gods who drink from leather bladders filled with hot, red wine. They don’t trash hotel rooms, they don’t bite the heads off of bats. The girls they sing about are our Karens, Michelles, and Leenas filtered through fantastic sunglasses. They sing of the girls as we imagine they are when we can’t see them, when they are in their rooms at night brushing their silky hair, or at the Carolier Lanes, skating in circles with others like themselves, in bright tights and glitter makeup and those big, mysterious sweaters. Might the girls of Dag Hammarskjold swoon the way the women on the covers of The Cars’s albums do, their heads thrown back, elbows jutting, the backs of their hands pressed to their hot foreheads? When we imagine the girls of seventh-grade, the ones we see every day, hunched under the weight of their backpacks, shuffling the halls with us, we imagine them lying back on the hoods of Camaros, white light glinting off their red lips.
The Vargas pinup on the cover of Candy-O appeals to my father. Nothing wrong with that, he says. You know, my father says, he used an airbrush to get that smooth effect. My father asks to hear the music, but after a minute, maybe two, he crinkles his nose and leaves my room. I ask for and receive an airbrush for Hanukkah, but it’s harder than it looks to make a woman like that. I am ashamed and disgusted with the results of what I’ve tried, and all of it—the airbrush starter kit, the little pots of paint, the guinea pig-sized compressor—is abandoned.
The girls in Cars songs wear perfume and tie ribbons in their hair. Their eyes are of porcelain and of blue. They have nuclear boots, and drip-dry gloves. These girls run around like paper dolls, pretending it’s fun. All these things are vaguely of our world. In the meantime, Reagan and Brezhnev sit inside of their well-appointed rooms, contemplating annihilation.
On the album sleeves, and in the pages of Creem magazine, we find photographs of The Cars. They are a dream come true because they are ugly, except for Benjamin Orr—he’s blonde and sort of sultry. But he’s like the good-looking kid who hasn’t realized how good-looking he is yet and so continues to hang around with the awkward kids. Later, we will recognize that Orr sings all the love songs. Ric Okasek sings the nervous ones, hiccupping like Buddy Holly.
We purchase Cars logo buttons at the Record Setter and pin them to our coats. When I visit my cousin in the City, he notices the button. “Oh, you like them?” he says, in the world-worn voice of one several months advanced in age. “You should listen to Roxy Music. Eno’s where Okasek gets half his ideas from, anyway.” My cousin from the City takes me up to his rooms and plays The Ramones. He plays “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll. He plays Suicide 1977, which I don’t much like, and think he probably doesn’t much like, but we listen since his older cousin gave it to him. All of us have older cousins in the city. We go home from visits with mix tapes rattling in our jacket pockets, full of wonders: The Damned, The Smiths, The Feelies, The Buzzcocks, The Specials, The Replacements, The The. Most of these bands are broken up already or have put their best days behind them, but we don’t know this. When I’m finally home in my own room, after hours of my father cursing the traffic on the George Washington Bridge and the New Jersey Turnpike, and cursing the accident that closes an entire lane so that it takes a half hour just to move from Exit 10 to Exit 9, it isn’t the mix tape I play, but the suite of songs from “Double Life” to “Since I Held You” on Candy-O.
On the cube-like benches between the Chess King and the Starcade, a group of seventh grade girls assembles. They move constantly, circling each other in the careful way of cranes. They talk in strident tones and look at their own fingernails. They pull from all sides of a Hot Sam soft pretzel, breaking it apart, dipping the pieces into a plastic cup of orange liquid cheese. At the Chess King, the clothes are all red, white, and black. I can buy a white blazer with zippers and a red and black paint splatter pattern on the lapels. After purchasing the jacket, I leave Chess King with the jacket on its hanger, protected with plastic, passing the girls who do not look up from their pretzel. Though this jacket is not unlike what Ric Okasek wears in a Creem photo spread, by the time I get home I realize I can never wear it. It hangs limply in the closet forever.
Our lives continue. In high school, the song “Drive” allows us to construct a scaffolding of meaning around the quick glances of a shy girl we pass on our way to home room every morning, to whom we will never speak. Transmitted like a holy thing through the yeasty haze of a college party, “Shake It Up” causes me to rise from a beery stupor off a corduroy couch, to proselytize. I hold my hands up, plead for attention. Listen to this solo, I beg. It’s actually two solos in a row. The first is a nitpicky tribute to the origins, to Chuck Berry, followed immediately by another one that’s just for the kids, you know, for the girls who want to dance and throw their hair around. The circle of partygoers regards me, amused. After a few moments, I leave the room.
In 1989, Rik marries Paulina and this seems like a verification of something, a dream made real. When we wake up in dorm rooms, or hotels, or inside of musty tents, with the objects of our own obsession, we feel like monsters, like terrific apes with squirming dolls in our giant hands. When the objects of our obsession awaken and blink at us, when they pull the sheets back and permit us to gaze upon their bodies, their nipples and moles and funny kneecaps, we say, “Hello again.” And then the decades shamble forward.
What can I say about us, the seventh-grade boys of Dag Hammarskjold Junior High? We are bankers, anesthesiologists, documentary filmmakers, spongers off our aging parents, activists, good guys, total fuckwads, managers of high end retail stores—we are breeders and we are queers—we are men who drive to work with boxes of donuts to share. The things that were once sacred are mostly lost. Except there isn’t one among us who, were she to show up now with the crackle of ozone in her hair and the suede blue eyes, would not leave with her if she were to say, “Let’s go.”