Music teaches us that love can be a lot of things. Love is a battlefield. Love is all around. Love is what I got. Love is my religion. Love is hard—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 2007, Rob Sheffield published a book called Love Is A Mixtape and it was the worst. It’s not that the writing was bad or the story was tough to understand, but he appropriated a concept we all knew to be true and used it in the most dismal way imaginable. Love is a mixtape, all careful ordering and appropriating other people’s words and dissonant chords to make your own Frankenstein monster of kissing-in-thunderstorms and racing-through-airports and sex-in-dimly-lit-rooms. Even truer, a mixtape is love. It’s assembling the most personal collage of sound in the world, distilling the feelings from your head into some semblance of order so they can communicate a coherent idea, and maybe even a conception of love.
But Rob Sheffield. He wasted all that on a bunch of sad sack, frozen burrito-eating malaise that no one can call him on because the dude did lose his wife, and who wouldn’t be sad after that? But a volume called Love Is A Mixtape ought to be a work of joy. Music is discovery. It’s getting out of our heads to set a tune to every feeling we simple-minded humans can’t find the words to articulate. It’s agony. It’s orgasmic. But it’s never supposed to be sad. Not if you’re doing it right.
My parents brought me up on just the right Joni Mitchell-Jimi Hendrix-Paul McCartney-Smiths blend to recognize what different kinds of music could do, and that there was more than one good kind of it. Also, that there was a lot of horseshit surrounding it. When I hit high school, I started carving my own way, synched to the arrival of Nirvana to save us all. Nirvana and REM making “Losing My Religion” into a radio hit. Just think about that. A song that bundles questioning faith with unrequited love with a critical consideration of southern heritage, over a mandolin riff, played over the loudspeakers in shopping malls and Ruby Tuesdays. There are people who have existed who were cooler than Michael Stipe, but the list is shorter than most people realize, and sure as hell does not include Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake.
The year was 1995. The scene, the Shermantown High School Talent Show. Ballet. A duet to “Somewhere Out There” over a karaoke tape. A juggler. A badly flubbed Queen Mab recitation. Ronnie Jerkins, who actually was very funny, delivering a standup routine neutered by the principal’s censorship. And Courtney Oberon.
Courtney, a love second only to music itself in my life. Courtney. Love. A name perfectly timed—destined—for an era when Courtney Love seemed like royalty. A woman who could hang with Kurt. Courtney. Love.
Courtney. A senior to my sophomore. I’d noticed her in the halls, all flannel and torn up jeans, a pretty girl for sure, but I didn’t know a thing about her until that day. She accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and sang “Kid Fears” by The Indigo Girls with a rawer edge than Amy Ray ever broached. And I knew, after the second Hey little girl but before that first are you on, fire from the years? that I had heard the sweetest sound of my lifetime. I gushed about her afterward to anyone who would listen. Asked who this girl was and who sang the song and where I could find it. And just like the first time I listened to Nevermind or Highway 61 Revisited or London Calling I knew knew knew that I would never be the same.
But how do you follow up on a thing like that? I mean, Rivers Cuomo, Natalie Merchant—part of the reassurance of loving them is that you make them a part of your life, but never have to worry about being part of theirs. I could listen to “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” over and over and over again without the worry that I’d ever realistically find myself in a position of interacting with Billy Corgan.
But Courtney—whatever combination of divine choice and dumb luck and circumstance contributed—was in my orbit. Close enough that I could manufacture a situation in which to talk to her. But this was me. A kid who not only wore his headphones on the bus to and from school but in the hallways between classes and over lunch, not only to listen to music, but even when the batteries on my Discman had worn out, because I so badly felt an aversion to interacting with other human beings.
For all these reasons, I’ll ever understand how the astronomical odds of me sharing air with Courtney multiplied upon themselves to put us in the same hallway at the same time with no one else in sight. I had missed the regular bus, because I couldn’t get my locker open at the end of the day. She was carrying her guitar to her car in a worn black hard case with a Sonic Youth bumper sticker bent around one of the edges. And when the universe gift wraps a circumstance like that—a moment so perfect you can feel the sensation of beginning to hate yourself for the possibility you might let it pass you by—what choice do you have but to press stop, put the headphones down around your neck, and say something?
“You were really great at the talent show.”
Up close, she had acne on her forehead and I could make out that her big gold-colored earrings were patterned with little circles of frowny faces. Her hair wasn’t just red—she had chestnut-colored locks layered beneath, and who knew what the real color was. “Thanks,” she said, and that could have been it, except she went on asked me what I was listening to.
It was The Cranberries. Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? Their first full-length album, and their introduction to an American mainstream audience. It didn’t occur to me until hours later that that was the perfect album to have been listening in that moment. Citing Beck or Radiohead may have seen her dismiss me as any other guy with reasonable taste. But ta guy listening to The Cranberries wasn’t consumed enough in his own patriarchal norming to refute that Dolores O’Riordan was an amazing vocalist. And then there was the sheer kismet that Courtney had been picking away at learning “I Will Always.”
“It’s too one-note the way they sing it.” Her fingers were calloused from pressing against guitar strings. “That line when there’s nothing left behind could be so raw. I mean, it’s fucking literally about giving everything you have to someone and still hanging on in case they want to take more. In my version, I’m going to repeat that line over and over and get louder. It’s going to change the whole thing.”
I shuffled ahead of her in the hall and held the door for her. We got outside and I noticed how cold the air felt on my ears—really, it had been that long since I had been outside without my headphones on. I veered toward the curb where the kids who were late out of circumstance, and the kids who stayed late for yearbook and mock trial and things like that would wait.
“Do you need a ride?” Courtney asked.
So there I was. No change in how I dressed, or how I talked, or anything, and I found myself riding shotgun with the coolest person I knew. A contender for coolest person in the world—no, not Cobain or Janis Joplin, but someone who might become the sort of person worth mentioned in the same breath as them given enough time and the right breaks.
Courtney’s brakes squeaked each time she pressed on them and positively squealed when she had to hit them hard and fast, which happened often because she had a habit of tailgating or looking out her side window as if she were a passenger, not a driver. She drove a beat up Buick LeSabre, burgundy colored, and there were empty Diet Coke cans, apple cores and orange peels all over the floor of the car.
She was playing Grave Dancer’s Union, “Leave Without A Trace”—of course, my favorite track from that album. I kept trying to decide if it was coolest to strike up a conversation myself, be aloof, or sing along to prove I knew the song.
“If you’re into music, you should check out The Retrograde on Thursday night. There’s an open mic. Not too many people play, but everyone who does is solid.”
I’d heard of bands playing acoustic sets at The Retrograde. Mostly awful. The one thing worse than a jam band is a Phish knock-off band—a bunch of teenagers higher than kites who haven’t mastered their instruments sober. But Courtney. Courtney, Courtney, Courtney.
She pounded her horn to alert the minivan ahead of her of the light had just turned green. She was a city driver, I decided. Fast and brash and invested in constant forward motion. I respected that. As much I was content for this drive to last as long as possible, I loved the idea of something in this small, slow town that moved a little faster.
“I’m playing this week,” she said.
The Retrograde was downtown. Four or five miles from my house. I’d sold my bike the year before for CD money, so I’d have to hoof it—I couldn’t imagine asking Courtney to pick up.
It was a long way to walk. There and back. On a school night.
And it wasn’t the last time I’d take a trip—embark on a journey to be with her. The batteries on my Discman would die halfway there that Thursday. That shitty Proclaimers song about walking five hundred miles got stuck into my head. I forced it out. Willed in something to play down the journey, play up the destiny and the devotion and the perfection of aching calves and growing damp in the drizzle. “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Anna Begins.”
We went to college. Her first. In a high school with graduating classes of seventy-five, there were hardly ever more than ten of us that went away for school, but she went to Taylor—in state and a public school, but hours away by car with an objectively good music program. I got out of town, too, and narrowed the gap to a hundred miles between us.
I drove the hundred miles to come see her at her senior show.
We kept in touch—most of which was me stalking her AOL Instant Messenger away messages, waiting for moments when her hazy gray idol status transitioned to solid black, so I’d know she was at her computer. I only wrote her once a month or so, but she’d write back, and she never told me to stop. Along the way, I introduced her to Taking Back Sunday during the brief period when my sensibilities skewed emo. I mailed her mixtapes. For every two or three of mine, she shipped back a tape of her own, then CDs. CDs with Tom Waites and deep cuts from Sheryl Crow and occasionally an original song of her own. And Sarah McLachlan. Always Sarah McLachlan. Take the composite of every CD she sent me my sophomore, and the tracks encompassed the entire Fumbling Towards Ecstasy album at least twice over.
She didn’t invite me to her senior show, per se, but she posted all the details in an away message that stayed up all week leading up to it, and it fell on a Friday, and I couldn’t think of a single reason not to borrow my roommate’s car, pile those CDs into one easy-to-transport case, and hit the road.
When I got to her building, after I found a spot in a lot marked permit only, I was twenty minutes late. I could hear her singing from the far side of the doors of the black box theatre. I waited for applause before I entered—I’m not a complete fuck up—and then quietly took a spot in the back. The place was packed, as it should have been. Courtney had told me there were a lot of talented vocalists at Taylor, but not a lot who played guitar. There were more guitar players on the open mic scene, but not many great singers.
Each of these audiences had converged on her senior show. Kids in ratty flannel and ripped up jeans. Professors with beards and blazers. A bespectacled little woman in draping clothes who I recognized as her faculty adviser. Dr. Prowford, but Courtney called her Sil. She cat-sat for Sil when she traveled, and Courtney quoted advice she’d given her in emails and casual conversation.
I recognized what Sil must have represented to Courtney. I’d never met Courtney’s parents, and her older brother was one of a crew of burnout panhandlers who hung around outside Unlucky Neds on Friday and Saturday nights. But Sil trusted Courtney and believed in her and showed up when she was invited.
Courtney sang “Hold On.”
Track nine from Fumbling, an album I had assembled from parts, recognizing that this was the album Courtney was listening to, recognizing that I’d never fully understand or appreciate it until I put these tracks in their proper order and listened straight through.
Courtney started out a cappella. No guitar, just sitting on a stool all by herself through the lyrics, Oh God, if you’re out there, won’t you hear me? I know that we’ve never talked before.
Enter the guitar. Enter the repetition of key lines like am I in heaven here or am I in hell? and like this is gonna hurt like hell. Enter the crescendo. She was a master of dynamics. Pulling at threads. If a song is all noise nothing stands out, but start soft and draw the listener in on there’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and you can blow his mind when you get to to be a rock and not to roll. I bet half the people didn’t even notice her key change. Didn’t notice the way she inflected pray like it were a curse word.
I only got to talk to Courtney for a minute that night at the reception. There were so many people. So loud, and I had to get back so for my shift at my college’s radio station the next morning. But I stayed long enough for her to hug me. Long enough for me to name my favorite song. Long enough to tell her, “Hold On.”
We fell out of touch. She started bouncing between different zip codes—first LA, then Chicago, then Nashville, and probably a few stops in between. Every now and again, I’d look for her on MySpace after I heard that musicians were all on it, figuring she or her band would have to be there.
Finally, she sent me an email: Do you still live in Jasper?
It was hard to get a beat on what an email like that might mean. That one-line, one-question email that could have been late-night curiosity or a condemnation hinging on the word still, because, yes, I had taken a newspaper gig in Jasper, halfway between our respective college towns, and six years later, I was still there, a reporter/photographer/copy editor, not unlike my six jack-of-all-trade colleagues.
In a moment of serendipity fifteen years in the making, when I emailed her to say that I did still live there, she told me about the show she had coming up. She was opening for Maggie Fix and the Journeys—a pop act with vaguely alternative sensibilities, though they still skewed toward Top 40 cliches, like their best known single, “Love Is Hard.”
Still, when I went to the band’s website, I saw they—the band and Courtney—were touring the northeast, heading straight down 95, including a stop in Jasper.
So, I went to the show at The Rust Belt. I didn’t like that a bar. It always reeked of stale beer, and the men’s room didn’t have urinals but rather one big trough with Sharpie graffiti all over it with clever lines like Don’t cross the streams. There wasn’t much seating, either, in favor a dancefloor that was hardly ever more than half full. I’d called in advance about getting backstage privileges as a journalist, and had been informed there was no backstage.
Sure enough, when I got there, I spotted Courtney at the bar, sipping from a pint glass of water. I had the paper’s communal Nikon strapped over my neck, Stenopad tucked under my arm, a sky blue button up shirt only buttoned half the way up over a Green Day t-shirt in a clumsy attempt to look casual but like I still might be a professional. Courtney had a streak of purple in her hair and wore tight blue jeans and a black tank top.
She looked cold. Rubbing her hands over her arms. Maybe a little nervous.
I walked toward her slowly, trying to figure out what to say, what to do when I got to her. She had invited me. She’d be happy to see me right? I thought about ditching the camera. I could tell the guys at the paper that they’d said no cameras allowed, and they’d believe me. They wouldn’t care. There was only a fifty-fifty chance of photos getting used for a story like this anyway, especially in this shitty lighting.
Before I could change a thing, she saw me. She got up and she gave me a hug. She still had same smell—the same citrusy vanilla perfection she’d had back in high school. “I’m so glad you could come.”
I tried to stay positive—that it was me she was happy to see, and not just because I’d give her some press or as another body in the room. And there weren’t many bodies there. A hundred, maybe a hundred fifty people, tops. When Courtney got up to play I stopped at the merchandise table and bought one of her CDs—computer burnt, and labeled in Sharpie, plus a button with her name on it. I was hoping for a t-shirt, but the only ones they had were for Maggie.
Then Courtney played. All alone on stage, on an identical stool the one I was sitting at the bar, a guitar strapped over her shoulder, a mic stand before her. Behind her, there was a banner for Maggie, as well as The Journeys’ drum kit, bass, and electric guitar all propped up as if on display, as if to remind the dozens of us looking on that this was not the main attraction.
There was feedback from the speakers, so bad that she paused at one point mid-song, nose scrunched, then powered through. Most of her songs were originals, Inoffensive, but not exactly heartfelt or good by an objective measure. She sounded less like herself, more like Maggie Fix, more like some Natalie Imbruglia-Dido rip off. Then, dear God, she actually played “Torn” and it was as awful as you’d imagine. She only did one other cover, and I thought there was hope when she prefaced it by saying, “This is a Sarah McLachlan song,” it turned out to be “I Will Remember You”—the very worst of McLachlan, undermining all the ground Fumbling broke for her as not just another pop singer, but rather a woman with guts and strength and an acoustic guitar she wasn’t afraid to get vulnerable with. “Remember” got even worse when McLachlan rereleased a more saccharine version for her live album, Mirrorball, four years later, stripped down to exclusively its most cliché lyrics—the kind of schmaltz-pop that comes out and says everything that her previous work, when she was an actual artist, implied.
But I smiled and I clapped and I got drunk by degrees on well whiskey. When Courtney came back to me, her set done, I told her she sounded great, but she hugged me long and hard to say she knew otherwise.
Small consolation: it’s not like Maggie Fix was any better, even if another twenty people streamed in during her set.
After that, Courtney hugged Maggie. They congratulated each other and then Courtney dropped the bomb. She said she would see them tomorrow, because she was going to catch a ride with her old friend and crash with him. (Yes, it actually took a beat to register she meant me.)
Because there is, in fact, a God of sex and drugs and rock and roll, and I had prepared for this moment, cursorily cleaning my apartment. There was no hiding that it was a shithole, but before I headed to the show, I had transitioned it from my shithole to a place that was objectively shitty in its ticking radiator and exposed pipes and tiny surface area, but at least clear of mytuf empty pizza boxes, dirty undershirts and boxers, and old issues of Rolling Stone that I had recycled, piled into the bedroom closet, and stacked next to the TV as neatly as the bent pages would allow—all on the prayer that Courtney might find her way back to my apartment.
She asked if the Chinese joint a block from my place was any good and I told her I got their General Tso’s Chicken sometimes, and I guess that was enough of an endorsement for us to pull over. We got General Tso’s, but also beef and broccoli, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, lo mein, and fried rice. More food than the two of us could eat. Enough entrees that they gave us four fortune cookies, surely assuming that there had to be more people we were going home to.
I spread the day’s newspaper over my coffee table and we laid out all of it, our feast, and sat down on the floor beside one another, our backs to the couch.
She picked up a glossy piece of green pepper and seemed to study it between her chopsticks, and finally asked, “What did you really think of the show?”
I told her I thought she was better than Maggie Fix. I went on to offer exactly the wrong sort of kiddie-gloves explanation that the acoustics were shitty and the speakers were clearly shot—all of this equivocation and circumnavigation, as if I weren’t proclaiming it a shit show.
“This was supposed to be my big break,” she said. It took me a second to realize that she didn’t mean this show in Jasper, but the larger tour. “They said they wanted more of a pop sound, and that’s the only way I’d get a record deal.”
“So maybe you have to play the game,” I said. “Even Alanis Morrisette recorded drizzling-shits dance-pop before they let her do Jagged Little Pill.”
She kissed me later on. I think it’s because she always knew that she could—that I’d never turn her way. I packed the fridge with leftovers, wedging the containers in between a head of iceberg lettuce, expired mayonnaise, a gallon of calcium-enriched orange juice, and when I stood up straight, she kissed me, open mouthed and hard.
We got into my bed. Music wafted up from below. My downstairs neighbor always played music at night, always too loud. I usually gave him until midnight or so before stomping on the floor, exactly the curmudgeonly old man who might’ve done the same to me a decade before. But it wasn’t just the noise, but the shit quality of the music. No one was recording anything worth a damn anymore. I’d go onto the online forums for music lovers to see what they suggested and none of it—none of it!—resonated with me, just kids trying too hard, sounding too cutesy. Vampire Weekend with their strings and their piano riffs. My Chemical Romance trying so hard for something epic. The Black Keys, admittedly good, but I’ll be damned if I could tell one song from the next. I guess some of it was me getting old, and wanting to hear music the way I’d learned to hear it. But was that really so much to ask?
We didn’t have sex that night. I didn’t even get Courtney’s shirt all the way off before she’d stopped kissing me back.
On the verge of sleep, she asked if I’d fetch the fortune cookies.
There was just enough light from a street lamp outside my bedroom window to make out the little red letters from the little white strips of paper. She read, It is in great sorrow that we find greater happiness.
Then I read, The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. “These things are so stupid,” I said. “Do you think anyone believes them?”
“They’re universal truths,” Courtney tucked hers in her jean pocket. She was lying down, propped up on an elbow, close enough that I could feel the heat from her body. Afterward, I’d find her hairs in my bed. “You just have to figure out how to apply them to your life.”
I plugged half of my cookie into my mouth. It was too stale to crunch.
I wouldn’t see her again for five years—she wasn’t even on Facebook. I thought about writing her now and again. When REM officially broke up, or the first time I heard “All Apologies” on the oldies station. I started to write her an email about how we were getting old, or how maybe that was an idiosyncratic choice on the part of a single DJ because even though seventeen years old wasn’t classic rock, it admittedly couldn’t be called contemporary.
But I didn’t reach out. Since that last show, I’d met a woman on an online dating site, a couple years younger than me, who’d been brought up on Pearl Jam and had a college obsession with Elliott Smith, but identified first and foremost and a cinephile. She was good for me and we even talked marriage and kids and moving away from Jasper.
We were talking about moving in when I got this one assignment. Network TV, a reality show which pitted a cappella groups against each other. The paper wanted a thousand words, and at least I wouldn’t have to go out to the Rust Belt to get the story.
There was a bearded man who shared his group’s human interest angle—every group had a sob story. I remember him explaining his bicep tattoo. The words:
Love that will not betray you,
dismay, or enslave you–
it will set you free
They were lyrics from a Mumford and Sons song. I don’t have much against Mumford—or much for them. I do, however know that I lived through a period when not everyone hated Nickelback, and a half-year period when Creed may have been the single coolest band in the world. One of the many lessons of experience is that you give band a decade at least before you commit their lyrics to your skin.
The guy’s singing group performed a Mumford song, of course.
Then on to the next group.
And she was there.
The tour with Maggie Fix hadn’t been Courtney’s break and she’d never recorded an album, but she had found her way to this stage, one of the background faces and voices for a group I could only assume the network assembled of also-rans and never-weres. Dressed them up in black and blue and put them out on stage, all choreographed with toothy smiles.
That premiere episode they sang—of course—“Love Is Hard.”
Fucking a cappella. A bunch of smiley faces dancing and harmonizing in the most obvious ways possible to the most obvious top forty bullshit song choices the pinhead producers can come up with.
But on the bridge, something incredible happened. The soloist stepped back and for five seconds, Courtney had the lead. I’d know that voice anywhere. And for the first time, the lyrics to “Love is Hard”—even the fucking title of the song—sounded as though they might be profound. Maybe Courtney was right about fortune cookie wisdom—that it’s not about the words themselves, but how you interpret them, and there is universal truth in this world. The opening guitar riff to “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” doesn’t’ actually mean anything itself, and yet simultaneously means everything, packaged with the photos I used to rip from the women’s undergarments section of catalogs to stash in my nightstand, or the familiar weight of my old Discman in my hands, or the cinnamon-y smell my parents’ house still gets every December.
When I wrote up all of this in my review that night, I wasn’t so kind. I described Courtney’s group as not as bad as the rest of the pack, and made an allusion to any show about music, and giving so many musicians screen time, was at least at the top of a milquetoast reality TV caste.
After I was done, I opened up iTunes, and plugged in my noise-cancelling headphones. I lay back on my couch and closed my eyes and listened, first, to Nevermind, then The Bends, then the first few tracks of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness before I switched to Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Then I set to work. My first mix CD in years. I’d track Courtney down and get to her. I slid in “Love Is Hard” as the final track before I put in the songs before.
She’d know what to make of it.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of three full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books, Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, and most recently The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.