Published one year ago this week in my memoir Fragments. My mother’s birthday was last week. I totally forgot.
Dark, haunting, haunted.
Repetitive, chromatic – evoking angst, possibly fear.
Lyrics shouted from a distance, from the bottom of a ravine.
Chanting, mumbling, confusion.
Chest tight, stomach in knots.
Eight complex songs, each fantastically crafted. Taken together, a masterpiece.
It’s beautiful and ugly. It leaves me depressed and anxious.
Pornography by the Cure.
I listened to this album nightly for several months. As my mother died. She was sick, and then became sicker. My father more and more desperate. Medical intervention increasingly experimental. Me, scared and sad. Drawn to the music that matched my mood. I put it on the turntable, volume low. So low I had to strain to hear it. And I fell asleep. Night after night. Resigned. My life would change.
My mother would die, but I soldiered on. Booze helped: gallons of it. Doubles, triples. Water glasses. Straight gin over ice and olives, think about the vermouth. That’s a martini. No brain activity, no memories. A few hours of peace.
Flashback: Sixteen years old, leaving the hospital with my dad. My mother admitted, surgery scheduled for morning. Radical mastectomy.
Me: “Is mom gonna die?”
Dad: “No, she’ll be okay. She’ll live at least until you’re out of college.”
Me: Relieved. That seemed like a long time.
Prophetic? A lucky guess? An accurate prognosis? She died six years later. Just a few months after my college graduation. Forty-nine years old. Three years younger than I am now. A short life. She completed the hard work of raising three boys to adulthood, and then her steady decline. She missed the rewards. The freedom of an empty nest. The pride in productive, self-reliant children. The actualization of the career she began when we were in our early teens. The joy of welcoming grandchildren into the world. The financial security my father has enjoyed for the past twenty-some years.
Pornography became the soundtrack of my life. It invaded my head and stayed there. My nightly listenings lingered through the next day. A clattering, pounding, cacophony of drums and noise. The aura of the album is depressing. The lyrics, nihilistic. Pornography was a constant companion. A distracting din. Blocking the pain of losing a parent, a friend. Comforting me with its repetitious rhythms and melodies.
In time, I moved on to angrier music. Morphed from resigned depression to rage. Speedmetal and Hardcore. Beating myself up. Slam-dancing and stage-diving in half-empty clubs in decaying D.C. neighborhoods. Secondary bands that no one remembers. Me, electrified and powered by the driving beat, liberally dosed with alcohol and caffeine – or cocaine or crystal meth.
Over the years, my stereo components died, and I didn’t replace them. I could no longer play vinyl. Pornography was destroyed with most of my records in a basement flood. Forgotten as I moved on. My growing CD collection skewed towards the punk bands of the Seventies and Eighties. And the hard-driving alt-rockers of the Nineties. And of course I re-purchased the rocking classics from my youth. The arty, depressing sound of the Cure completely bypassed and ignored.
Into my thirties, my drinking never slowed. Beer and Jägermeister. A bar-fly, a regular on the D.C. hipster bar scene. Music bars, pool bars, beer bars. Wild, drunken nights accompanied by a soundtrack of live music or amped up jukeboxes. My rare quiet nights at home: a book and a bottle of wine, maybe two. Life was a nightly alcoholic haze regardless of my activity.
In my forties, finally sober. Still drinking, but not getting drunk. No longer in D.C. An escapee from city life. Settled down in small-town America. Starting a family. Now buying MP3s from sketchy Russian websites. My musical tastes expanded: alt-country girls, those melodic singer/songwriters with something interesting to say. The roots-rock and the Fifties pop that heralded the coming rock and roll revolution. The hippie and folk movement of the Sixties and early Seventies. Even some rap and pop.
And then I remembered the Cure. I remembered Pornography. One of a handful of perfect albums in history. Strong and consistent, beginning to end. In rare company: The Clash’s London Calling, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions. Maybe the Beatles’ Revolver – a top pick by everyone else – the songs are all great, but they don’t fit together well.
Listening to Pornography, twenty years later. Thumping and moody as always, infectious. An album to play at work in the early morning. Cranked up on my computer speakers at 6:00 a.m. Knocking out routine tasks in the office all alone. Jittery from coffee and a two-hour drive. Still commuting to my job in D.C. Pornography stayed in my head, stayed there all day. Eventually, I realized, I felt like crap – agitated. I studied Pavlov in college. I understand conditioned response. But it took months to realize that Pornography was leaving me depressed. Taking me back, over and over, to the worst moment in my life.
I can’t listen to it anymore. Not even a song. Thirty years since my mother died, and Pornography still has this power over me. One song and the album is in my head for days. Leaving me distracted and sad. Recently, I was talking with a friend about music. Pornography came up, and I’ve been hearing it ever since. Not the whole album, not even a whole song. Just one lick, over and over. Crawling under my skin like a parasite. Bringing me down. I wish I could listen to it. I wish I could forget it. Pornography was a friend when I needed one. But that relationship is done. Now it’s just a reminder of death.