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Anchored in a Storm / Christmas Lights

from My Life's Work by Ben Seretan



I first saw the movie Stop Making Sense with a big group of people on a dark night in the fall in southern California, in a house in the upper crust part of town, tucked back from the water and nestled one one of the gently ascending mansion dotted roads where the houses are demurely obscured from Pacific Coast Highway by the natural, beach-adjacent flora (I lived in a townhouse at the time choked off the intersection of three highways, my Dad was still living in a cul de sac near an upscale mall at the edge of a city park). It was at our buddy's house. He died 3 years later under tragic circumstances, made the New York Post, and fucking feeling it with a slight blue glow from the TV highlighting the edge of his face is how I'll always remember him. There were maybe ten of us there, all huddled around and squeezed up against each other's calves, there being too many bodies to fit on the couch. I might remember blankets, really warm and sweet. I knew some of these people but they were my friend's friends, people he knew from before we met in high school. We wound up there, somehow. We hadn't planned on it originally but I believe I had just gotten my driver's license and the gunmetal Saturn sedan I was allowed to drive may have taken us there. I remember it as one of the first true moments of spontaneity at that age - we could go over there even if we hadn't planned on it originally, I don't have to check with my parents, and as long as I'm home by midnight everything should be fine (the other moment of spontaneity was the first time I ever drove myself to school - I realized halfway through that I could take whichever route I chose and got summarily got extremely lost, wound up on an island, and was 30 minutes late to class with a shit eating grin on my face). The other thing is that I went to a very small high school - I think 400 people total - so on this dark night at my friend's friend's house it was exciting, here were people I didn't have classes with, here was one person I think I had talked to on livejournal once but I couldn't dare confirm that, here were people whose interactions and sexual tensions were a mystery to me. It was really exciting. And the movie - they all loved it. I think everyone else had seen it before - in a memoir version of this they would discover that I had not seen it and seek to immediately rectify the situation, dragging me by the arm over to the house and slapping the DVD in the player. And I loved it, too. I had heard the Talking Heads before but I didn't really get it at all, not until I saw David Byrne come out with that boombox, not until the dance with the lamp, not until the backup singers sang beautiful perfect harmonies in their matching grey step aerobics outfits, not until Alex Weir did his crazy, floppy-wrist guitar shit. I had been very seriously playing in a band that never gigged, just played all the time in our friend's sunken living room, white walls white carpet, and I had no idea that that was what a band could be. Was, had been already, was available for repeat viewings. My band and I covered Burning Down the House and I wore a suit at the only show we ever played at a real venue.
Around the same time, I think in the spring following, there was a big event hosted by the English department in my high school's gym. Something that involved showcasing writing and music being played over the loud athletic soundsystem they used for basketball games. My favorite teacher - maybe not the *best* teacher per se but certainly one of the weirder and cooler humans to ever assign me homework and maybe the first I ever remember treating me as an intellectual peer - was in charge of setting up and I was there early for some reason. He sang a song with my band once, at the annual battle of the bands, a song called "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother." We used to hang out, have lunch occasionally in his classroom. He once showed me a VHS tape copy of something that his old bandmate had sent him (he was in hardcore band with Moby, btw! Yes, that Moby! Moby posted a photo of them on his website once, I've seen it) - it was all footage of that band the Plasmatics, taped-from-TV footage of Wendy O. Williams jacking off a sledgehammer and lighting a car on fire. I just did a quick search on her and I guess she died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. How awful. She was so screamingly alive in that footage my English teacher showed me. According to this website I'm looking at she wrote the following in a letter to her longtime partner: "I don't believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm." But I don't mean to write about the freedom to take one's own life. What I wanted to write about was this: I walked into the gym that day to say, I think, what's up to my teacher and, wouldn't you know, he was blasting the Talking Heads, specifically "Born Under Punches." He was dancing, there was no one else around, I kinda joined in, and when I said something about how cool the synthesizer was he told me "that's not synth, that's fucking ADRIAN. BELEW!" He was feeling it. He had a little vest on. He died, too, but more recently. The last time I saw him we had gotten together with some old friends of his from Connecticut to jam at a shitty practice space in midtown. We had dinner at an Irish bar. We did covers. We did a really good, convincing version of "Tears of a Clown," and then I never saw him again. After he died I bought a copy of his book online. It raised many, many more questions about my friend's life than it answered. But let's not talk about that now.
I held that concert movie very close to my chest for many years, precious as a lock of hair (I should point out that True Stories is also Very Good and I still very much identify with John Goodman's character. When I realized the band Why? had sampled it for one of their records I really flipped. But I'm thinking about that other movie today, because I ran to the soundtrack on the treadmill this morning). I remember playing an unplugged electric guitar and trying to do the dance moves in my socks along with it in my living room on multiple occasions. There's one scene, I think it's "What a Day that Was," when the band is lit harshly from below, like they're telling a scary story around a campfire. There's one moment where they're holding this long, intense vocal note and their voices rise and rise and rise - always felt cathartic to me. Even before my two friends died. That's right. It's on "There's a million ways / to make things work out." That followed by "This Must Be the Place" always got me, always yanked out whatever obstinate tear was stuck. I remember watching it over and over again in my aunt's basement the first Thanksgiving I spent out of California. What was I thinking? Why did I move to where it was so dark and so cold? When I first met my friend I later formed a band with he was obsessed with the Talking Heads, too, but he told me about having half-naked dance parties in northern California with red wine and all his friends, blasting "The Name of this Band..." It felt like a different world. I had not yet embraced the bacchanalian. I was sheltered but intrigued. Later on in school they showed Stop Making Sense as part of the campus film series - of course everyone got out of their seats and danced, of course! And afterwards my girlfriend at the time asked if I wanted to fuck in the middle of the darkened soccer field. No one would notice, no one would care, but I had to decline. It was too much for me, but I felt so ashamed. Isn't that how it often goes, if you're me? You're ashamed if you don't but maybe ashamed if you do. When I was 22 David Byrne came into the theater I worked at to see a Cuban animated film but I hid in the concessions stand supply closet, feeling very strongly that I should not meet this person I idolized. Not in that way, at least. It turns out, also, that my coworker at that theater had an ongoing feud with him... Another time he was attending the same show as me - can't remember what, there were only 8 or so people in attendance and there he was - but I suddenly came down with food poisoning and had to leave. Jonathan Demme came in all the time to that theater, in fact that's how I did actually meet Neil Young (mentioned before? I forget, another time). Jonathan died, too, not that long ago. He was a nice guy, he remembered my name.


from My Life's Work, released August 30, 2018


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Ben Seretan Troy, New York


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