Bennies From Heaven

ONE EVENING WHEN I was 15, I fell from a chin-up bar in our basement and landed on my head. In an hour or two I had a fist-sized swelling, and my parents packed me into the station wagon and set off for emergency. I lay stretched out in the back, oddly calm, watching the streetlights blur past. My mom and dad seemed both far away and just near enough. "Bennie and the Jets" came on the radio. I remember saying, "Turn it up." The song reached around me like a cathedral--measured piano chords curving into space, Elton John's tenor thinning and falling, the canned, echoing applause. "Oh but they're weird and they're wonderful," I sang to myself, and cried, just a little bit. The streetlights pulsed. I was happy, I think--the happiest I had been in a long while.

Why would a concussion and a pop song create so much joy? I wonder about that today, over 20 years later. No doubt there was some relief in the certainty of being excused, for a few days, from the relentless humiliations of junior high. But my relief seemed to have bloomed wider and deeper than such a small vacation from hell could account for. I remember my strange calm on that ride, and I'm pretty sure there was gratefulness beneath it--gratefulness for the care I was going to receive, and for the recognition, finally, that I had been wounded. I'd guess my younger self had waited years for that recognition.

We know most girls in the United States sustain enormous psychic damage between ages 10 and 14. I don't want to write here about charted drops in girls' confidence and self-regard, though; not exactly. I want to talk about a wounded girl experiencing a tune on the radio as a blessing. It seems to me that our fractured, compressed heroine, whispering along with "Bennie and the Jets" on the trip to the hospital, felt that song's intimate spaciousness, yearned for it, sang it like a promise she would keep some finer day.

"Bennie and the Jets," not coincidentally, concerns musical fandom, and especially the fan's adoration of an artist's wonderful weirdness. During junior high, I transformed from an average music fan into an obsessional one, from a suburban teenager whose favorite records gave her a whiff of provocative passion to somebody who came home from school and played the same song over and over until she'd wrung every last bit of juice from it. I think of that addiction now as a survival mechanism: So much of what I knew as myself--my sexuality, physical and creative strength, intuition--was actively derided at school; yet rock & roll named that stuff sacred, elemental.

An old friend recently pulled out her high school yearbook and read what I'd written to her there; she told me she only understood about half of it. The rest, she said, appeared to be some sort of code made up of references to songs, groups, and concerts. That made sense to me. It was code. And perhaps a code that even our teen selves didn't have the key for. Those superstars, those lyrics, stood for classes of experience that school not only didn't teach, but harangued against: open sexuality ("slut!"), iconoclastic wit ("attitude problem"), sensual spirituality (we had that Bible for beginners, Young Life). I had no words to even think about missing those sorts of basics--no language to talk about how my body by then felt like more of a problem than a joy, or how diminished I was by years of learning through rote memory. No voice but music's gutsy reach.

Around the time I cracked my head, Helen Reddy had a hit single out, a "Delta Dawn" knock-off called "Angie Baby." Sleazy with overwrought strings, the song depicted a "crazy girl" so into music that she sucks a neighborhood boy into her radio and keeps him as her secret lover. It's a straightforward song--even the part about trapping the boy--but the feeling it recalls in me is confusion. I think on some level I knew that "living your life in the songs you hear on the rock & roll radio" was not going to satisfy me, knew that projecting my own embattled creative and sexual energy onto pop stars and then devouring their products was not going to fill the hole inside where that energy used to live. But I didn't know how else to save me.

A few weeks ago I went to see Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. The director has divided the film into chapters, each one introduced by a color-treated near still-life, a title, and a loud '70s rock song. Near the middle of the movie, just such a magical scene came up, along with the first inexorable chords of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and one word: "Faith." I swallowed once, and then I was crying, and trying to hold back terrible, wrenching sobs. Because I had been wounded. Because I had been resourceful. Because I am starting to keep my promises.

 
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