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Pollywog Stew (1982)

I never knew the Beastie Boys did straight-up punk.

Licensed to Ill (1986)

“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” was impossible to avoid.  The video was on heavy MTV rotation, and I disliked the Beastie Boys for many reasons:  shouty lyrics, frat-boy antics, low-level homophobia.  Of all the things to fight for, I thought, why is partying first?  But the biggest reason was that hip-hop wasn’t on my radar; I was twelve, and only making the transition from Top 40 to Euro synth-pop.

Paul’s Boutique (1989)

At Barnes & Noble, I spread all the alternative music magazines I could find in front of me on the table so that everyone could see how alternative I was.  Even though Paul’s Boutique got plenty of positive press, my antipathy towards the Beastie Boys had evolved into indifference.  They were mainstream, I thought, and to hell with the mainstream!  I was too busy with the review of the latest Peter Murphy album and the up-and-coming Nine Inch Nails, who I suspected might get big.

Check Your Head (1992)

R___ had a poetry class with me.  He wore baseball caps backwards and was in a fraternity:  in other word, the type I associated with the Beastie Boys.  And, sure enough, when I delivered a copy of my workshop poem to his dorm, there, on the floor, was Check Your Head.  Mark Strand took a liking to R___’s work, much to my dismay.  Strand held up phrases of his for us to examine:  a crumb of soap.  Grandmother slurping soup.  I wondered, How was this possible?  Strand gave me a C, and I retreated to the Baltimore raves, where frat boys hadn’t yet infiltrated.

Ill Communication (1994)

In X-Force #43, Rictor (a mutant with the ability to create seismic waves) takes his teammate Shatterstar (a warrior from another dimension) to the Limelight to teach him about human feelings.  When Shatterstar hears “Sabotage,” he notes the atavism of the song, how the bass rattles his bones.  When a young girl tries to dance with him, he runs away, wondering what it would take to make him feel human.  Years later, he and Rictor become lovers.

Hello Nasty (1998)

Ad-Rock apologized for his past homophobia in a letter to Time Out New York.  “There are no excuses, but time has healed our stupidity,” he wrote.  “We have learned and sincerely changed since the 80s.”  He takes it a step further in “Alive” when he raps “Homophobics ain’t OK,” while wearing a fuzzy powder-blue jumpsuit.

Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011)

Adam Yauch passed away from cancer about a month ago.  A friend in Brooklyn told me about passing a beauty salon that had a hand-written sign reading ‘R.I.P. MCA.’  I didn’t know what it meant, my friend said.  Neither did I.  Adam Yauch, to me, was not MCA but the founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories and vegan Buddhist.  But, rewatching the videos, I realized how Adam Yauch is inseparable from MCA, the way I’m inseparable from my 80s self for which I have yet to apologize.  There he is dressed like a scruffy 80s motorcycle rocker; then again with short-cropped gray hair.  There he is his delivering a gruff rap about beer; then again criticizing disrespect towards women.   There he is, still fighting.


The camera doesn’t record memories as much as it creates them.  These moments can now not be forgotten:  the naked and drug-addled being escorted to the medical tent; a man wearing a sparkly Star-Spangled outfit, puffing from a furry bong the size of a hockey stick; the woman on-stage who says, petulantly, “But I wanna see Mick Jagger, goddammit.”  Throughout Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones watch the footage, as if it holds clues to their own memories of their 1969 North American tour, which ended at the infamous Altamont Speedway concert:  what did they see?  What could they have done?  They listen to a radio call-in show recapping the Altamont concert, with Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, one of the Hell’s Angels, giving his side of the story, and afterwards, Charlie Watts says, sardonically, “Well done, Sonny.”   When the film reaches the moment when Meredith Hunter gets stabbed in the back.  Jagger asks to see it again.  The Moviola freezes on a knife blade flashing in the air.  Then Maysles winds it backwards, and Hunter pulls a gun, its shape visible against a girl’s crotchet dress.


Memorializing one’s life has become ubiquitous.  Video clips, photographs—with these artifacts, we can rifle through our memories, parsing their significance.  What did this moment mean?  Nowadays, you can’t go to a concert without someone hold up his phone for the entirety of the performance.   What will he remember of it?  How does he re-live the experience?  Does he sing along?  Are his eyes dazzled by the strobe lights, the smoke machines, the trembling of his own hand?


I saw Skinny Puppy on their Too Dark Park tour.  The stage featured rubberized trees that, in the light, looked wet with slime.  Faces were twisted into the bark.  Behind the band, a back projection showed a loop of atrocities:  war crimes, Lucio Fulci clips, animal experiments, Microsoft Windows 3.0 graphics.  At one point, the lead singer, Ogre, was tied into a chair with medical tubing and and ‘injected’ with neon fluids.  His bandmates strapped metal stilts to his arms and legs, and for the duration of the concert, he loped around the stage, a Goth giraffe.


I still have the t-shirt from the concert, a stippled close-up from the album’s cover art:  a demonic, tentacled face.  It’s the only physical reminder I have of the concert, and I’ve stopped wearing it.  The image has started to crack and flake away, and the black of the shirt itself has faded to a dingy gray.  And to be honest:  I can hardly remember much of the concert itself.  Much of what I ‘remember’ was provided by other sources.  But I’m sure it happened that way, anyway.


In 1991, Skinny Puppy released their Tormentor single, which featured the track “Harsh Stone White,” recorded live in Denver.  I imagine I can hear myself cheering, clapping, begging for “Worlock,” and I can see myself, the only skinny Asian 16-year old at the concert, skirting the mosh pit, inching my way up to the stage, and my 37-year old self, now sporting a mohawk for the summer, crosses his arms and says, Well done, sonny.

A car salesman gave Matthew and me an exegesis on the origins of ska.  Ska, he said, originated in Jamaica in the 1960s.  This original wave of ska gave rise to rocksteady and, later, reggae.  From reggae, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, by cutting and looping master tapes, developed dub.   The second wave of ska, also known as the Two Tone Revolution, came in the late 70s in the UK, and blended punk elements into ska.  Dancing to ska was known as skanking.  The third wave emerged in the US, during the 1980s and 90s.  In Philadelphia, he said, there’s an annual Ska Blowout, which takes place at the Trocadero.  Do you skank? I asked him.  No, he said.   Matthew listened quietly.  All he wanted was a checkerboard front license plate for his new car, and I had said, Someone’s going to think you’re a rude boy.


The Harder They Come suggests that two things keep the poor in Jamaica from breaking out in open rebellion:  music and ganja.  In one scene, people pick through the refuse at the dump, triumphantly holding up a carton of eggs; then, in another, they dance at a club, losing themselves amongst the rhythm.  Still later, they smoke spliffs the size of a baby’s arm.  But these trades are controlled by the police and the military, and when the police cut access to them, the tide turns against Ivan, singer-turned-criminal, the film’s hero.


In Amsterdam, I was five miles into a 20-mile bike ride when I got a flat and had to walk my bike back to the rental station.  Tired, frustrated, I decided to go to a coffee shop later that evening.  There, I was presented with an extensive menu.  Each item had an accompanying picture, the buds and leaves in infinite variations of green, from silver-tipped and sage-like to a dark, dusky green.  I couldn’t decide:  harsh, grassy, smooth, velvety, graceful.  What was this, a wine bar?  Not to mention, I was giggly:  this was my first time!  I decided on a brownie with whipped cream, whereupon Matthew had half, because, after all, it still was a brownie.  We both fell asleep soon afterwards.


In a recent visit to Colorado, I noticed neon-green crosses advertising the dispensaries that had sprouted up across the state.  Then I remembered:  Oh, it’s medicinal now.  Our close friends, H. & J., have a grower’s license and grow a small crop in their yard.  J. didn’t sell but kept it for home use.  The trick, she told us, was to continually prune so that buds emerge.  Many people claim that cannabis elevates your consciousness, but I wonder:  does it sharpen the mind or blunt it?  Whom does it benefit in its structure of money and power?  Does it foment revolution or mollify it?  J. gave Matthew and me a Mason jar of homegrown — all-natural, organic — and a metal pipe with which to smoke it.  I hid it in my parents’ house, behind some books, like a teenager, rebellious and wicked, as if this were really something to get excited about.

In the early 1980s, Madonna optioned American remake rights for Cleo from 5 to 7, and on a French television program years later, Agnès Varda compliments her, describing her as “a natural-born actress” and a “genius at adaptation.”  But the remake never happened.

If it had, Josh would have seen it.  Josh, my best friend, worshiped everything Madonna.  I enjoyed her music but was tepid on her films, whereas Josh owned all her albums and had seen all her movies — even surefire duds Shanghai Surprise and Body of Evidence. When Badlands played its heroic 45-minute marathon of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” Josh danced the entire duration, raising his arms Peron-style during the chorus.

The remake fell through, Madonna says, because Varda wanted to maintain a loose, improvisational style, but the studio demanded a script before they would fund the film.  Madonna says to Varda, “I should have done it the way you wanted to do it.”

For the two years I lived in D.C., Josh and I were inseparable.  He drove a powder-blue Crown Victoria, which he referred to as “the hoopty.”  We lived frugally and wildly, filling up on $1 Whopper Jrs. before wreaking mayhem at Soho Coffee, or Georgetown, or LBJ Park.  Freedom was a parachute, and the real world approached slowly, a dream growing moment by moment.


Josh and I had an ancillary friend, Nicky, who preferred the spelling “Nikki” because he that’s the way a star would have it.  ‘Nikki,’ short and chubby, with curly, dirty blonde hair, liked thin Lycra shirts that, when worn, stretched and became sheer.  I never heard him perform, but he always talked about working with this producer or that producer, and Josh and I humored him, equal parts teasing and exasperation.

At the turning point of Cleo from 5 to 7, Cleo sings “Cry of Love” in the presence of her composer and lyricist.  They appreciate her emotivity while attributing her tantrums and tears to her diva complex, never understanding the deeper currents and fears running beneath.  They might as well roll their eyes:  Women!

One warm evening, the Josh, Nicky and I were walking up 17th on our way to Cobalt, which had an Thursday night 80s dance party.  On the street was a fortune teller at a fold-out table.  Come on, they cajoled, get your palm read.  I relented.  For $5, the woman told me:  You work with computers.  Something with science or math.  I thought:  You’re only saying that because 1) I’m Asian and 2) because I don’t buy your bullshit.

Cleo from 5 to 7 starts with color footage of Cleo getting a tarot card reading.  Varda explains that the color indicates fiction:  trying to predict the future is fiction.  The black-and-white?  That’s reality.  That’s now.

A few years later, Josh sent me a CD.  We’d begun our long separation and estrangement — our lives now in black and white.  I don’t know where he lives today.  He included a note:  “You are one of the lucky people in the world to own this rarity!”  It was Nikki’s demo CD, a splash of past color for lives going forward in real-time.

Sometimes after we’ve left a place, Matthew will pat his pockets and exclaim, “I’ve lost my keys (or wallet, or checkbook)!”  For a few minutes, he panics, but he always calms down when he finds the misplaced item, usually in an overlooked pocket.  The agitation is probably not good for his heart.

When I realize I’ve lost something, I give it up as gone forever.

Not far from our exit on I-95 (but still too far to turn back if one of us has forgotten something), a billboard displays the current Powerball jackpot in bright yellow letters, like a digital clock.  Every Thursday and Sunday, the number goes up or down.  I’ve never see the change, but I wonder if it’s like those train station announcement boards which flutter through every number until it reaches the correct one.

We tell ourselves, If the jackpot gets above $100 million, we’ll buy a ticket.  We repeat this as the number reaches 115, 132, 150, each time forgetting about the previous promise to buy a ticket.

When the newspaper runs stories about lottery winners, the winners’ material circumstances (truck driver, single mom, elderly widow living in a trailer) are always mentioned.  The winner inevitably thanks God.  In Le Million, when Michel strikes it rich, he doesn’t thank a higher power.  Instead, he dances with his neighbors in a long serpentine around his studio.

The losers are too numerous to warrant their own stories.  Some commentators call lotteries a regressive tax.  It’s the poor who buy tickets, and those funds funnel their way into government coffers.  Less charitable commentators call lotteries a tax on the stupid,but those commentators usually aren’t truck drivers, single moms, or elderly widows living in trailers.

When the Houston lottery reached a pharaonic two hundred thirty-seven million, some of Matthew’s colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts formed a pool.  Everyone who put in a dollar would get part of the split.  (This is how we know that Michel is the virtuous one; when it’s unclear whether he or Prosper holds the winning ticket, he offers to split the winnings.  Prosper says no way.)

Over 80 people joined the Houston pool.  The organizer, an older African-American security guard, made a multi-page photocopy of all the tickets.  On the day of the drawing (perky announcer, ping-pong balls guided by the airburst of God), we flipped through the sheets, striking out page after page.

Given astronomical odds, buying 80 tickets is statistically indistinguishable from buying one.

Buying one ticket, however, is a 100% improvement versus buying none.  When Powerball recently reached 160 million, I stopped into by the newsstand near the University of Delaware and bought a ticket:  my chance to link hands with my creditors, to sing “Le Million!” 160 times.

I didn’t lose the ticket.  Matthew placed it in the hands of the bronze Buddha in the living room.  In a minor act of sacrilege, I lit a cone of incense and prayed for a winner.  That week, on the billboard, the number went up again.  No one wins.

The Magic Flute starts with a montage of faces, audience members waiting for the curtain to rise.  The close-ups encompass all ages, races, and genders, and I expected to hear “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” instead of Mozart’s overture.  Bergman returns the camera to one cherubic, red-headed poppet, but the others whip by like the faces of people waiting on platform as the subway pulls away.  Bergman doesn’t shoot the faces directly, but from a slight side-view, as if the camera were in the aisles.

My senior year of high school, I volunteered as an usher for the Denver Center Theatre Company.  My duties, once every three weeks, usually a weekend matinee, were to guide ticketholders to their correct seat.  I memorized the layout of the two theaters:  the Stage, a traditional semi-circle, and the Space, with 360° seating arrangement.

In the tiny usher dressing room, we were to put on red polyester vests over our white shirts (the rest of the uniform:  black pants, black shoes).  The vests were stored in a wooden box, and the other ushers – housewives, doyennes, other high school students; retirees — and I fought over the few vests sized for human beings.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not a fan of live theater.  I volunteered to fulfill the community service requirement for National Honor Society.  Volunteers also received a season’s subscription, but I never attended a single show.  Instead, I gave the tickets to my parents, who watched some and passed the others onto their friends.  I saw only glimpses and fragments of the shows, standing by entrance, waiting to lead latecomers into the back row ‘you-should-have-been-on-time’ seats.

Books and films, at least, have the appearance of permanence, but live theater is an inherently fungible art.  Its qualities fluctuate, dependent on the so many people:  playwright, stagehands, actors, director.  I wonder, sometimes, if I derive can pleasure reading the script than seeing the script performed:  a perverse form of auteur theory.  The printed page will always the same text, the film will replay in the exact way it did before.

I’m not, however, entirely immune to live performances.  I recently saw a performance of Madama Butterfly (the most frequently performed opera  in the United States) in Wilmington and, despite being seated behind a support column that obstructed half my view, I held my breath during the climactic note of “Un Bel Di Vedremo.”  But,, if anything, this emphasizes the ephemeral quality of theater:  you can only experience a chord progression, a particular phrasing once.  The next day, the timbre shifts, the tone changes ever-so-slightly.  There is no final product; each performance is a revision.  After its 1904 debut, Puccini reworked Madama Butterfly four more times.

After Fanny & Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement from film; he would henceforth concentrate on the theater.

I wonder how Bergman would have staged Madama Butterfly.  A stage saturated in crimson — costumes, backdrops, lights.  Instead of a steamer, a Norwegian icebreaker.  Pinkerton as God:  Lover, Savior, Disappointer.  The auteur who abandons His creations and is too cowardly to revisit them.

Tonight was the harvest moon — what the Vietnamese celebrate as Tết Trung Tu.  When I was young, the signs of Tết Trung Tu were unmistakable:  the invasion of mooncake containers at Asian supermarkets, gold foil banners hung across doorways, increased visits to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple.  When my family had our post-temple bowl of phở, out past the lot crammed with awkward Vietnamese parking jobs, the lion dancers (mostly students from a nearby tae kwon do academy) did their thing, undulating, thrusting, flicking the switch to make the lion’s Tammy Faye Baker-like eyes blink.

My sister told me about celebrating Tết Trung Tu back in Vietnam:  she and my brother made their own paper lanterns.  There were none of these pre-made ones, she said.  After dark, they paraded with the other children, lanterns tied to the end of a stick, a little piece of captured fire.

Last year, Matthew and I bought our lanterns (not home-made, alas) from two eager young girls fundraising for some Asian community center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown — I’m not sure which, since I’m a bad Asian.  The lanterns were mounted to chopsticks, and each had a tealight taped to its interior.  They were cheap, of course, but as they dangled off the edge of our porch, they insisted on their own beauty.

By 7:30, the moon’s glow had spread behind the houses across the street, a soft phosphorescence, like a jellyfish’s.  We sat on the brick stoop.  I made tea.  Matthew reviewed notes for tomorrow’s class.  Neighbors returned home and parallel parked.  We waved to them, and Matthew called to them by name, but if they saw our lanterns, they said nothing; maybe from where they were, the lanterns’ colorful aureoles couldn’t compete with the devouring streetlamp in front of our house.

As we sat, we shared a mooncake.  Buying them was almost a Pavlovian response:  Oh, look, September.  Mooncake time.  We bought two boxes:  one was a tin with the picture of what looked like a fancy hotel lobby; the other was a box lined with cloth, each mooncake in its own tin adorned with a kitschy portrait of a Chinese courtesan.  We skipped the green tea flavor, the mixed nuts, the pumpkin paste, and the red bean in favor of pure lotus paste.  (No salted egg yolks, however; Matthew finds them gross.)

And then we saw the moon.  We may have missed its low-to-the-horizon ruddiness, but when it appeared, full and bright, it seemed to have sprung from nothingness.  We blew out the lanterns and carried in our teacups.  I went upstairs to watch Autumn Sonata.

It’s said that Tết Trung Tu is a celebration for children.  Parents who have been too busy harvesting crops to play with their children use the festivities as proof of their affection.  Maybe Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman could have used some mooncake time:  tea; glowing lights; a warm, silent evening; a stray gray cat, strutting along the porch, demanding nothing more than a little attention.

Orlando, from Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, on the nature of cruises:  “This is the funny thing about sea voyages:  after a few days, you feel as if you’d been sailing forever.  You feel you’ve always known your fellow voyagers.”

David Foster Wallace, from his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” on the same subject:  “The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will…. That they’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun.”

Frank Conroy, on his cruise, as quoted in “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”:  “We entered a new world, a sort of alternate reality to the one on shore.”  And, when asked by Wallace why he wrote that:  “I prostituted myself.”


Who hasn’t dreamed of dining with Astors and Guggenheims in gilt Grand Ballrooms?  Dancing to the orchestra; clinking champagne glasses; chewing very, very slowly as not to distort your face while eating.  I’ve suggested a gay cruises to Matthew before, but he takes one look at the brochures, fraught with glossy men who have gestated in tanning oil, and says, “Are you kidding?”  I try to convince him that every cruise will feature an opera competition in the boiler room — but no dice.  He suspects — probably rightly so — that we would most likely be roped off on deck somewhere, like Serbian refugees.

But cruises as a sign of class status have disappeared.  But the democratization of sea voyages isn’t a bad thing, per se — it’s allowed, for instance, people like my parents to travel.  And though they may be the targets of Wallace’s good-natured scorn (retired, prone to videotape and photograph every little movement), they’re still my parents.

Their first cruise they took spun them through Central America.  They retruend with a fist full of photographs and t-shirts for the whole family.  Did I want the nautical flags under the word Panama or Panama: Puente de los Americas?  I chose the former.

I looked through the pictures.  The first was of a tiger.

“That was at the lunch buffet,” my mom said.  “It’s made out of cheese and chocolate!”

The next was an Arcimboldo-style spread.

“All fruit!” she said.  “Every breakfast, you can have all the fruit you want.”

Then came pictures of the bath towels folded into origami animals:  a swan, a snake, a giraffe, a lobster, a lobster wearing my father’s glasses, my mother sitting next to a towel lobster wearing my father’s glasses.

“Never the same animal once during the whole week,” my father said.

“Where’s the Canal?” I asked.  “Where are your pictures of Belize?”

My parents looked at each other and shrugged — “Did we tell you about the midnight buffet?”

Right around the turn of the millennium, you couldn’t walk into a mid-to-high end home goods store — Anthropologie, for instance, or Pottery Barn — without being pummeled by Bebel Gilberto.  Her light, summery voice became simpatico with overpriced textiles and gewgaws, and store managers piped her into the atmosphere the way some automatic bathroom air fresheners pump out blasts of lilac and freesia.

Oh, Brazil, you’ve given us so much in terms of rhythm and fruit:  batucada, guarana, funk carioca, caipirinha, capoeira, açaí, — not to mention naked soccer players.  But I wonder if it galls to have a large part of your culture presented mostly through intermediaries.  For instance, long before Bebel Gilberto exploded on the scene, I had been listening to bossa nova as filtered through Europe.  It was Brazil processed by trip-hop beats — the more accessible version.

Maybe this is what’s happening in Black Orpheus:  a French director’s film about Brazil, as channeled through a Greek myth.  This is the exotic made palatable — everyday is Carnaval!  No one misses an opportunity to beat out a rhythm on an overturned plastic pail, people move through the streets in conga lines, and even children can play the guitar well enough to raise the sun.

A more recent criticism of Black Orpheus comes from a little-known autobiography entitled Dreams of My Father, in which the author recalls watching the film with his mother:  “I suddenly realised that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

I can’t say that I disagree.  As a good post-colonialist and strategic essentialist, I struggle with how Asian (particularly Vietnamese) cultures are represented in film and in literature.  It gets tiring trying to assert individuality in the face of archetype and expectation.  Marcel Camus has all the best intentions:  vibrant colors, expressionistic lighting, enough gold lame to catch a whale, Breno Mello shirtless at every turn.  But for all its beauty, Black Orpheus still seems reductionist.  The favelas:  they’re not so bad, if you ignore the occasional firebombings from jealous girlfriends.

So I leave it to film critic Peter Bradshaw to explain how it’s important to remember one’s own context in relation to the film.  It’s a matter too, perhaps, of refusing to be satisfied with the Muzak in the atmosphere exhorting you to consume and discovering, instead, with where a more authentic beauty may reside.  Consider:  receiving something in a processed form may spur a person to discover its more ‘unadulterated’ forms.  I graduated from the pleasant-enough Germans Mo’ Horizons to Otto, Joycé, and Celso Fonseca.  Who’s to say that being exposed to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá via Marcel Camus won’t lead to a full immersion in João Gilberto and Caetano Veloso via Walter Salles and Hector Babenco?  Heck, all the Portuguese I’ve learned has been from bossa nova songs.  Felicidade!

As I watch (or re-watch, as the case may be) the movies for this project, I usually only make it through half of any given commentary, since the time starts getting out of hand.  But I re-watched This is Spinal Tap, then listened to the entire commentary with the lead actors.  It’s a testament to the film, as well as the pure entertainment value of hearing Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer riff of one another.  And this is coming from someone who’s never cared for heavy metal — or rock ‘n’ roll — much at all.

(Currently on the headphones, Battles, Mirrored.)

I had most of my exposure to heavy metal at an early age, in middle school and high school.  I listened mainly to the radio, and every now and then, a track slipped onto the airwaves.  Quiet Riot, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Guns ‘n Roses, Skid Row — ambassadors from a louder and shreddier world.  I viewed them then as I view nipple clamps today:  sure, I know people like it, and, sure, I know it’s a different lifestyle.  I can also understand why it’d be popular, but I, myself, would simply prefer not to be exposed to it.  My eardrums, like my nipples, just can’t take much punishment.

But during middle school, one of my best friends was a metal head.  Her name was Jenny, and she had frizzy brown hair that only semi-poofed away from her head.  They were like a pair of wings that hadn’t yet fully deployed.  We weren’t friends that hung out after school or went to movies together; instead, we were the “in school” friends who’d sit near each other during class and pass notes back and forth.

My own musical tastes had not yet ossified:  at the time, I still took piano lessons, and classical music made up the majority of my listening repertoire.  I had made tentative steps in other directions — my brother, for instance, had years before to pop-soul — but I never pursued these avenues.  (True story:  a few months ago I woke up with Maxine Nightingale’s “Lead Me On” stuck in my head.  I had to look it up the next day.)  What heavy metal knowledge I lacked, Jenny filled in for me.

On the cover of her spiral notebooks, she faithfully reproduced, in pen, with appropriate shading and thunderbolts (if necessary), various band logos.  “Who’s Stryper?” I asked.

“Stryper.  You know Stryper,” she said.  Her fingers formed the metal salute:  the thumb and forefinger in an L, the pinkie extended.  “To hellllll with the devil!” she sang.

She wore concert black t-shirts with iron-on decals of Poison album covers, the colors so bright they might have been radioactive.  She told me about the episodes of Headbangers’ Ball that I had missed on MTV:  “Last night, it was ‘Rockin’ with Dokken.'”

This was the first time, perhaps, that I realized that music was not merely something you listened to — it was an identity.