The Clash. Social Distortion. Dead Kennedys. Patti Smith. The Ramones.
Punk rock is in Emily Black's blood. Her mother, Louisa, hit the road to follow the incendiary music scene when Emily was four months old and never came back. Now Emily's all grown up with a punk band of her own, determined to find the tune that will bring her mother home. Because if Louisa really is following the music, shouldn't it lead her right back to Emily?
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|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
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Altars. Saviors. Rock 'n' roll. I braved my fear of spiders, dust plumes as thick as L.A. smog, and the stench of dog piss that the last owner of the house had let permeate the basement to tirelessly search my father's record collection for my next holy grail. Sitting on that cold, dirty, painted cement floor in my blue jeans, with the Wisconsin winter creeping through the tired walls and windows of our house, I dug through crates of albums, feeling their perfect square edges poke between my fingers. The slap of plastic dust cover against plastic dust cover was so satisfying, but the best moment came when I found the record I wanted, slipped it out of its paper jacket and onto the record player. The needle skipped and skittered for a few seconds until it found its groove, the first chord scratching its way through the speakers, a catchy chorus reverberating in my ears. Earthquakes. Rock gods.
Music was in my blood. My mother left me with my father when I was four months old so she could follow the beginnings of punk rock around the country. Detroit. New York. L.A. We never heard from her again. Neither of us was resentful. She had her reasons. At least that's what I told myself.
Two months after she disappeared, my dad moved us from our tiny apartment in Chicago to Carlisle, Wisconsin, the small farming town fifteen miles beyond the Illinois border where he and my mother had grown up. When we first returned to the land of lush fields, acres of corn, and barns that sat fat and yawning at the ends of dirt roads, people talked. It was just that kind of place, a small, tight-knit community; any deviation from the norm was grounds for discussion.
Before areas were incorporated, when land was simply land, Carlisle was born of a general store that farmers flocked to from miles away. Back then, the men talked about their work while picking up seed and parts for aging equipment. Their wives came for cloth and the foods they could not raise themselves. They exchanged advice about family matters and gossiped about the other women who had asked them for advice.
As the years passed, the government bought up land to build roads, and corporations turned family farms into giant factory farms. People moved closer together, and from the general store sprung a main street scattered with businesses. Two miles away a food-processing plant opened. The sprawling community shrunk into a town made up of the farms that remained nearby and the former farming families who took jobs at the plant or opened storefronts. Side streets attached themselves to Main Street in a neat grid near the center of town, but farther out, roads meandered around fields. From above, the layout of Carlisle looked like straight hair parted in the middle by Main Street suddenly gone curly at the ends.
But everyone still knew one another. Everyone still gathered in front of the store or at the tavern to talk. No modernization would ever change that.
I don't want you thinking I'm from some completely backwoods town, though. I grew up with all the modern comforts: indoor plumbing, cable TV. What set Carlisle apart from urban areas was the way everyone clung to history. Not like this-war-started-on-this-date history, more like where-was-your-grandfather-during-the-blizzard-of-1921 history. From snippets of conversation, I knew who I was, who my family was, and how we fit into town lore. The most popular topic from the time I came to Carlisle until the day I left was the high school football team. The second most common topic was the people who didn't seem to care about normal things like football, the people who just weren't quite right.
Like Paula Collins, whose parents had both perished in a barn fire when she was sixteen. She inherited all the money they'd squirreled away and the land they lived on, and she never left, never married, never rebuilt that barn. Or Norma Lisbon, who was well on her way to being the town drunk even before her son, Eric, killed himself. After Eric died, her husband stopped speaking, became a total mute, and Norma was drunk, disorderly, and doing something gossip-worthy nearly every day.
Or like my family...
My parents, Michael Black and Louisa Carson, had created quite a scene in 1974, when they sped out of town on my father's motorcycle. As a teenager, I walked into many discussions about it at the local gas station and grocery store, but my favorite version, the only one I took as gospel, was the one my mother's best friend, Molly Parker, told me.
It was an unusually warm day in April when Michael and Louisa fled, Louisa's eighteenth birthday, and she made sure all of Carlisle knew that she was an adult and finally free to leave the tiny town that had smothered her with old- fashioned morals. My father concentrated on the drive, thinking the only way to save the girl he loved from all the anger that ate away at her heart was to help her escape. His black leather jacket and wild, coffee-colored curls made him look so dark he almost blended in with the road, which was appropriate because before Michael Black was seen in the company of Louisa Carson, no one in Carlisle had ever noticed him. As she had since she arrived in the town at the age of ten, the pretty but untamed doctor's daughter, Louisa, was the one causing the ruckus. Burning down Main Street on the back of his Harley, she held on to Michael with one arm, her bleached-blond hair tangling like corn silk in the wind as she turned dangerously in her seat to shout obscenities and shake her fist at Carlisle. Outside of Carlisle Groceries and Meats, a crowd of middle-aged women doing their weekly shopping and work-worn men picking up packs of smokes on their way to the job gathered to gawk at the spectacle. Louisa tugged off her black high heels and whipped one through the window of the grocery store, the other against the Old Style sign that flickered above the doorway of JT's Tavern. With that final act of aggression, she wrapped both arms around my father's chest and never looked back.
So, when my father returned almost three years later in a blue Chevy Impala with me, Emily Diana Black, asleep in the backseat, everyone had questions. They contemplated why he'd returned alone, wearing a wedding ring and carrying a milk-skinned baby with a shock of hair as dark as her last name, and blazing, green eyes that left no doubt she was Louisa's. They theorized about why Louisa had left him and wondered if I would end up as wild as she had been.
Molly overheard one of the many conversations in Carlisle Groceries and Meats soon after our return. As Molly put little jars of baby food into her basket, Mrs. Jones, wife of the store owner, openly discussed the situation with her customer, Sarah Fawcett. "Well, Michael had some of those hippie tendencies. That's probably how he ended up with that woman," she stated frankly, pushing the paper bag with Sarah's things across the counter to her.
"Oh, I remember," Sarah agreed. "Long hair, and that bike, of course."
"Yes." Old Mrs. Jones tightly clamped her thin, pasty lips together to give a dramatic moment of pause before she shared her vast knowledge. As one of the most well-known people in Carlisle, she considered herself the authority on every topic. "Michael was from a good family. Not a rich family like hers," she added snidely, "but the Blacks have lived around here forever. I don't know what he saw in that girl, but I'm sure she was a terrible wife, which'll drive even the gentlest man to his wit's end eventually."
Sarah nodded enthusiastically: at the time she was a young wife, seven months pregnant, and wished to prove she had the moral fiber that others from her generation, such as Louisa, lacked.
Molly emerged from the aisle and headed angrily toward the counter. Mrs. Jones continued, "I'm sure three years drained the rebellion from him..." When Molly slammed her basket down, Mrs. Jones paused and stared at her from wrinkly eye sockets, then finished her sentence. "Now he's back to raise his daughter right."
That was the consensus of the town. When my dad took work at the plant, people seemed to remember that he was the quiet son of a respected farmer, so they disregarded any of his remaining eccentricities, such as never removing his wedding ring, and the talk simmered down to a whisper until I reached my high school years.
My dad and I lived in a house that was big but cheap, weathered but solid, old but transformed by the rock 'n' roll energy that he and I breathed. My dad raised me on music. Our living room was a temple, plastered with posters of Bowie and the Rolling Stones. A framed, signed Beatles record hung over the stereo, which was our altar in the center of the room. A photograph of my mother sat on the left speaker, and an ever-changing stack of records on the right. My dad's taste ran the gamut, from classical to blues to punk to folk. Even into his forties, he amazed me by discovering the best underground bands before I did. Three records never left that stack on the speaker: one each by Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, and the Clash. The basement held crates and crates of other records, and as I grew older, that became the place I ran to immediately after dinner.
I knelt on that cold cement floor, dust clouds poofing up around me as I flipped faster and faster through the albums. "There has to be something good in here. Don't tell me it's all folk crap," I complained, craving noisy guitars the way other nine-year-olds hungered for candy.
"That's rock, too, Emily," my father chided from behind me, looking slightly disappointed that I wasn't finding nearly as much satisfaction in his old record collection as he did. His dark eyes drank in every album cover, mouth twitching with a memory, a line that wanted to be hummed, or words in the record's defense that would have been wasted on me.
"No, it's not noisy enough," I replied. I wanted something that you could feel in your throat when you played it loud, something that churned through your stomach and shook you to the tips of your toes. Something that scraped out your insides and made you want to dance without them. Just as I searched for the steepest hill to ride my bike down, I hunted for music that would provide the greatest thrill.
My dad's wavy hair fell across his brow as he laughed softly. Everything about my father was soft except for his hardworking hands. Just twenty-one when I was born, he still looked young, more like an older brother than a dad. However, since he stood over six feet tall, so much bigger than I was, I always viewed him as my protector. As tough as I acted, on many occasions I buried my tear-drenched face in one of his flannel shirts to be soothed by the sound of his voice or the thump of his big heart. Most important, he was also my playmate. He went along with my nightly exploration of the records, sharing in both the delight and the seriousness of my mission.
"It's gotta be noisy, huh?" He smiled impishly. His brown eyes sparkled like they were lit by stage lights. "Your mother would be proud of you," he said. The glimmer in his eyes changed just slightly; a sense of longing always emerged when she came up in conversation.
"Are any of Louisa's records around here?" I asked. I rarely referred to my mother by anything other than her first name. She was even more distant than the rock gods in Rolling Stone. I had nothing of hers but photographs. I possessed the energy and voices of my icons through their music, but I remembered neither about Louisa.
"Somewhere. I don't know if you're old enough yet," my father teased, scooting away from the crate to stretch out on the floor.
"Louisa left some records with you!" I exclaimed, my hair slicing through the air between us as I twisted around to look at him. I'd been asking that question since I was five years old, but he never answered. I knew I had to have those records. They would be my mother. They would let me know her voice, her thoughts, the stories she would have told me before bed. They would help me re-create the moment I knew I would never remember: the night she decided she could no longer ignore punk rock's summons and kissed me good-bye. "I'm old enough! I can't believe you've just let 'em rot down here, Dad! Damn!"
"Emily, don't swear," he scolded affectionately, leaning back with his hands behind him.
"I'm sorry. I just want them so bad...." I took a breath, imagining how I would finally create my own altar, how I would stack Louisa's records right next to the little stereo that sat across from my bed. "I just know they're so cool!" I exhaled, curling my dusty fingers in my long, tangled hair and then leaping onto my father. He sat up quickly to catch me.
"You are certainly Louisa's daughter." Dad grinned. "Nine years old and you want to make the windows rattle and the floorboards creak with blasting speakers." He slid me off his lap, stood up, and led me past his tool bench, the furnace, and boxes full of Christmas decorations to a little closet that I'd never looked in, certain it only contained bugs and mice. It was surprisingly clean, and up on the top shelf perched a red milk crate with about twenty records in it. My holy grail.
Play it harder. Play it faster. Louder. Harder. Faster. So loudhardfast that I forget your name. After all, did I even know it in the first place? Those were the first lyrics I composed myself. I wrote them the summer I turned fourteen. As a little girl I felt the music in my gut and in the tips of my fingers, making me want to sing at the top of my lungs and learn to play guitar as well as my father. When puberty hit, I started to feel music between my thighs. My legs stretched long and slim, and my hip bones jutted out. I dressed in vintage blue jeans so worn they clung to me without being tight in that trashy way the girls with big, ratted bangs at my high school preferred. My hair, still as dark as my name, hung straight and thick, dusting the middle of my back when I pushed it behind me. The only makeup I wore then was black eyeliner and red lipstick.
Every weekend I walked around town with Molly's daughter, Regan. Since I was a baby, I'd spent my days in Molly's home while my father worked. Molly treated me like the sister of her two girls, Regan, who was only four months older than me, and Marissa, who was four years older. My dad told me that Louisa would have loved it that I was best friends with her best friend's kid. Regan even looked like Molly, a tiny but feisty girl who stood a few inches shorter than me, the red highlights in her chocolate hair glistening in the sun as we prowled the streets of Carlisle.
Main Street had changed since Louisa made her dramatic exit sixteen years earlier. Two blocks beyond Carlisle Groceries and Meats a strip mall had sprung up where Main Street became County Highway PW, the speed limit jumping from twenty-five miles per hour to forty-five right in front of the entrance to the brand-new Wal-Mart. Regan and I spent our Saturday afternoons in that vast, brightly lit emporium of crap, shoplifting everything from sodas to candles to black bras.
On those treks down Main Street the summer before freshman year, I heard whispers of my mother's name. People talked because of how much I'd grown to look like her on the outside, but I knew that I was most like Louisa on the inside. I understood why she'd hated Carlisle. Like all small Midwestern towns, it evolved slowly. It lagged at least a decade behind when it came to any cultural advancement. As the rest of the country moved into the nineties, Carlisle hung on to 1979. The women still had badly feathered hair. The men who whistled at Regan and me from their battered pickup trucks still had Styx and REO Speedwagon blaring through the speakers. Louisa, who'd entered her teenage years in 1969, lived in a town still stuck in the fifties. Like her, I saw two ways to escape Carlisle: sex and rock 'n' roll. For the first time, I thought I heard my mother's voice inside of me. Play it harder. Play it faster. Louder. Harder. Faster. So loudhardfast that I forget your name.
The first guy I slept with was a musician. Sam thought he was destined to be the biggest rock god the world had ever known. I thought so, too, but hell, I was only fourteen. Back then, we spent our days at Wal-Mart and our nights at River's Edge, an abandoned warehouse three miles from the outskirts of town and just as far from the nearest farmhouse. Kids came from all over two or three counties to listen to the raucous, angry music that bands pounded out at the Edge, the closest thing rural southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois had to underground rock, and the only place where Regan and I could find cute punk boys.
The afternoon before I met Sam, as Regan and I slid black lace panties on in the fitting room at Wal-Mart, she shouted over the partition, "Tonight's the night, Emily. We're going to find you some sexy punk to fuck out at River's Edge." We'd made a pact at the beginning of the summer that we wouldn't enter high school as virgins. Since Regan had hooked up with a guy at River's Edge the previous weekend, it was my turn to seal the deal.
I zipped up my jeans and shouted back to her, "I don't care what he looks like as long as he's in a band." I was, of course, being somewhat sarcastic. He had to be in a good band.
"That's my girl." Regan laughed as we stepped out of our stalls at the same time. The clerk standing outside the fitting room, a plump woman with an overprocessed perm, gaped at us, horrified.
"You're Molly Dahle's daughter," she hissed at Regan, flecks of spit curdling her coral lipstick. "You better watch it or you're gonna end up just like your mama," she continued, wearing the look of a satisfied hog, "knocked up at sixteen."
Regan glared at the woman, her hazel eyes turning the color of embers. She dropped the clothing that we'd been pretending to try on and corrected, "Parker. It's been Molly Parker for eighteen years now. Let me guess, you were prom queen? Class of '74? And you laughed your ass off when my mother dropped out to have my sister. But here you are now, fat and old, and my mother is still as thin and pretty as she was back then. Not to mention she's happily married, whereas you...I bet you haven't gotten laid since prom night, you dried-up "
"Shut up!" the woman bellowed, cheeks flaring and watery blue eyes bulging. Wal-Mart shoppers from intimate apparel to housewares gawked.
Regan gazed innocently at her audience. When she wasn't glaring or cursing, Regan's size made people think she wasn't a day over twelve. She backed away from the clerk, acting shocked. "I'm sorry, ma'am," she said sweetly, but loud enough for the silent store to hear. "I thought the customer was always right."
Regan and I sashayed through the racks of clothing toward the aisle. I glanced back and saw the store manager storming toward the clerk. I had no doubt she would try to tell him whose children we were, but the beauty of the new Wal-Mart was that it was run by folks from outside of Carlisle and even attracted many of its customers from surrounding towns. At Carlisle Groceries and Meats, Regan and I had been watched since the age of five for signs that we were like our awful mamas. At twelve, when we got caught smoking cigarettes behind the store, it was attributed to the evil we'd sucked down in our mothers' milk. But the managers of Wal-Mart viewed us as their corporate offices instructed. We were customers and the employees were not to let petty, small-town gossip interfere with proper customer service. As the manager lectured the clerk about this, Regan and I exited without suspicion, new underwear beneath our jeans and purses stuffed with stolen makeup and lighters.
Still snickering, Regan and I trekked through town, passing houses with big wraparound porches, painted bright shades of white, yellow, blue, and red. Downtown Carlisle was the nicer part of town. Farther south, the sun-faded and boxy houses looked as if a major snowstorm would reduce them to a pile of waterlogged boards. Our families lived in the area in between. At the intersection of Main and Laurel, we parted ways. "Marissa and I will meet you at the Edge at eight tonight," Regan reminded me.
Of course, they were late.
My dad dropped me off on his way to play music with the guys from his high school band. It wasn't a serious project, but Dad joked that it kept him in touch with his roots and helped him escape my noise.
I waited for Regan and Marissa on the outskirts of what was used as a parking lot at River's Edge. Cars lined up next to the warehouse, their tires treading worn gravel, broken glass, and thick ruts of dirt. Where I sat, grass struggled to grow in gnarly tufts, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away from me, it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.
No one knew where the name River's Edge came from. There was no sign that a river had run anywhere nearby in the last century, the nearest being the Pecatonica, five miles away. Maybe it was the name of the company that once owned the building. Even my dad, who met my mother there eighteen years earlier, had no idea. But I enjoyed the rural tradition of legend, and River's Edge was steeped in it.
In the late seventies, when someone maybe the cops, maybe the electric company noticed that the warehouse was being used, they shut it down for a couple months. Then someone or maybe a few people bought the property. No one knew who'd done it because nothing at the Edge changed when it secretly reopened. Making it into a legitimate club would have meant security, controlling underage drinking, and taking a cut from the money the bands made. The mysterious owner just left an old paint can with a sign that said "Donations" on the wooden table by the door where bands put their flyers and sold their silk-screened T-shirts and low-quality demo tapes. We all kicked in cash whenever we could so the electric bill could be paid and the roof kept leak-free.
River's Edge ran like a co-op. Volunteers did sound and lighting. Bands scheduled themselves on a calendar backstage. There were three slots a night and rookie acts who didn't know anyone else to sign up with chose a random date and opened by default. Bands from farther away called their friends to be added to the calendar. It created an intricate underground rock network so appreciated by everyone that fighting was rare, despite the edgy, volatile nature of the music.
During my dad's time, the sound at River's Edge transitioned from folk to garage punk, and it managed to survive the plastic metal of the eighties. Punk rock still thrived when I started seeing shows there, music that shared some similarities with what was brewing in the Pacific Northwest at the time, but we played it faster, like our lives depended on it. I have no idea why my father allowed me to hang out there. He probably assumed I went to appreciate music the way he'd raised me to, not realizing that rock possessed me the way it had my mother. If he'd had any idea that I was getting drunk and checking out boys, he would have tightened the reins. But my dad was very trusting and I was very good at concealing things from him.
I took a swig of cheap, watery beer and squinted through the fiery red light of the setting sun, searching for Marissa's black Pontiac. Pollen tickled my nose and late-August humidity thickened the hazy air. I finished most of my drink before Marissa and Regan showed up. Regan stumbled out of the passenger's door with a half-empty bottle of wine in her hand. Marissa stepped out gracefully, a lit cigarette dangling from her bloodred lips. Regan and Marissa both wore the same shade of lipstick, but other than that they looked nothing alike. Marissa resembled their father, tall with sandy hair and aquamarine eyes, while everything about Regan was dark; she inherited the Native American features of Molly's father. Marissa stood fluid and curvy, possessing the elegant confidence that Regan and I hoped we'd find in our own bodies in the next four years. At the same time, Marissa was still bad-ass enough to be our idol. The black halter dress she wore revealed the phoenix tattooed on her left shoulder and her creamy arms, toned from years of playing bass guitar.
We were a mismatched trio. Although I acted like the third sister, I obviously wasn't. Paler than both of them, my skin exuded the spooky glow of a full moon. They were both lean and muscular, and I was bony. Truly, we were not a trio at all. Regan and I were the inseparable pair, and Marissa the kind older sister who provided rides, tried to impart wisdom, and sighed when we ran recklessly ahead, ignoring her.
"Good evening, Emily." Marissa reached through the window into the backseat of the car for a beer. "Help yourself to the good alcohol," she added, noticing the Old Milwaukee I held.
I set down my can and stood up as Regan loudly slurred, "Tonight we're getting Emily laid!" She chucked a box of condoms at me, which were most likely the rightful property of Wal-Mart.
I rolled my eyes and threw the box back at her.
"That's all she's been talking about since we got in the car. Having some regrets about sleeping with that drummer last weekend, Regan? Need someone to share in your misery?" Marissa teased, her cheeks rising with her smile.
Regan stuck her tongue out at her sister and bent down to retrieve the condoms. "No, I just want her to get it over with. The first time's no good anyway. It's like opening a wound."
Marissa chuckled, rounding the car to meet us. "How would you know, Regan? You've never had a second time. Maybe it's always like that."
Regan raised her bottle of wine, uncoiled one of the fingers wrapped around the neck, and jabbed it in her sister's face. "How do you know, Marissa?" she mimicked. "Maybe I screwed that drummer twice."
Marissa shook her head wisely, her long hair shimmering. "If you had any more sexual experience, you would know that no teenage drummer could do it twice in an hour. Besides," she added with a giggle, "I know you overheard me saying that 'opening a wound' thing a couple years ago."
Regan blushed indignantly. "Shut up!"
"Oh, Regan," Marissa sighed, "you'll learn. You're both too smart to end up little groupies." She patted us on the tops of our heads in a motherly fashion and started toward the large, gray building. I watched her black high heels clicking steadily through the dirt and imagined that they were just like the pair Louisa had furiously thrown as she exited Carlisle. I wanted more than anything to combine the cool dignity of Marissa with the uninhibited rage of my mother. And I was convinced that Regan was right, that I would just have to get rid of my virginity to do it.
The opening chords of a fast punk song reverberated inside the warehouse. Feedback sizzled like lightning flashing across the darkening sky, beckoning us. I grabbed a fresh beer from the car and linked my arm with Regan's as we strode toward the entrance. She took a big gulp of wine and pondered her sister's words. "We're not groupies, are we, Em?" she asked, sounding somber.
"Nah, we're just bored."
Regan's enthusiasm was quickly renewed. "So, you'll let me pick out a guy for you tonight?"
"What the hell," I agreed, swallowing half the beer to catch up with her drunkenness. "You'll probably pick a better one than I would."
"Great!" Regan squealed. She ripped into the condom box and handed me a strip of them. "You'll need these, then. Better safe than sorry!" I pocketed them as she pulled me through the wide doors of the warehouse. "When I find him, I'll give you a sign."
Signs were the only way we could communicate inside. No one really monitored the noise level at River's Edge since there were no neighbors to complain. The warehouse had great natural acoustics. Across one end stretched a stage, built back before my father's time. It was ridiculously large, allowing bands that shouldn't have been performing outside of their own basements to feel like they were playing at an arena. The stage was located near a side door, so equipment could be unloaded easily. The small backstage area had a dingy, olive-green couch and a few raggedy chairs. Throughout the warehouse, ladders on the wall led to a catwalk that snaked all the way around the inside, eighteen feet above the floor. Sometimes kids climbed up there and watched the band, legs dangling through the metal rails. They dared each other to dive into the thrashing crowd below, but no one ever did.
Audiences ranged from twenty to two hundred kids. Regan and I always scanned for faces we recognized from school. A crew of three older boys, all of whom wore the same leather jackets and spent lunch smoking in the parking lot, showed up semiregularly, but it looked like everyone else was at the game football, basketball, baseball, whatever season it was. The kids at River's Edge arrived in groups of three to five. Like us, they attended rural high schools filled with guys who donned Packers jerseys every Monday and chicks who wore their boyfriends' varsity jackets with miniskirts or too-tight, acid-washed jeans. At school, multicolored hair, shredded and patched clothing, and studded, spiked accessories stood out like a neon billboard in the middle of a cornfield would, but at River's Edge those things blended right in.
By my senior year, when some of the local bands had begun to make names for themselves, more people started showing up some of them from as far away as Milwaukee and Chicago to see the legendary place where those country kids had gotten their start. They were probably disappointed to find it was much like any other club on the inside dirty and dark, the concrete floor covered with that slimy mixture of ashes and beer and we were the same group of kids found at any rock show. After all, it was the nineties. Just because we lived in the sticks didn't mean we were completely cut off from subculture. We just took more shit from our neighbors and classmates for looking strange.
The crowd thinned at the back of the warehouse by the main doors, but the area up to fifteen feet away from the stage was packed with sweaty, bouncing bodies. Regan barreled in, shoving burly guys twice her size out of her path. She liked to be right up front, getting slammed into the stage with the rhythm of the song. For some sick reason, I enjoyed being trampled and bruised, too. It was another phase that Marissa said we'd get over soon enough. Unless she really loved the band, Marissa stood at the back, splashing her drink on anyone who stepped on her toes. Since she played in July Lies, one of the best bands in the area, Marissa was queen of the scene. Regan and I could have shared her glory, but we liked to get hot, sticky, beat up, and dirty with the masses.
That night, however, Regan dove into the crowd on a mission; I knew she noticed him when I had. Sam's band was playing when we walked in.
I'd never seen or heard them before. They had a dumb name, Dead Smurfs or Mikey's Mom or something like that, but Sam was definitely practicing to be a rock god. His guitar hung low so that everyone could see his bare, tattooed chest. He had unwashed, blond hair that picked up the color of the lights. He thrashed a chord so hard that a string snapped, lacerating his finger, and he let it bleed. His voice was guttural and sexy. The music was fast and loud, just the way I liked it.
I pushed through the pit, grabbing at Regan, who always danced with her elbows swinging to knock away all the bigger bodies threatening to crush her. She threw her arm around me in a sweaty embrace and then shoved me in front of her so that I was standing directly in front of Sam. Entranced by him, I couldn't even tell if he was genuinely a good musician or if he just knew how to manipulate acoustics and energy. All I saw was that he oozed sex and danger. Regan agreed. After two songs, she pelted him with condoms, which she must have drunkenly decided would be a good sign.
I whipped around, mouthing "Bitch!" at her. She laughed hysterically and pointed over my shoulder. I turned back to see Sam smiling down at me, his baby-blue eyes thirsting for fame.
It wouldn't be the last time I was deceived by a rock god, but it was the only time that my disappointment was unforeseen. Of course, I hadn't expected or even wanted romance, but I had craved at least the pleasure of pain. I thought Sam would touch me with the raw power he used to play guitar. I thought he would kiss me and leave bruises on my skin as black-and-blue and dangerous as his voice. And I thought he would be able to satisfy the burn between my legs that surged every time I heard a distorted guitar. I slept with him because we worshipped at the same altars, because he oozed frenzied, furied rock energy, because I knew I could absorb it, make it mine. He thought I loved him for his inevitable future rock-god glory, but I had no interest in watching from backstage or vibing to the records he made, gleaming with gratitude that I was his muse. I thought that if we fused together, the world would screech like an amp so charged it caught fire. But it wasn't anywhere near that good.
I waited for him behind the stage and he made a beeline for me. After he introduced himself, Sam kissed me hard, shoving me against a steel beam. He tasted like stale beer. He bit my lower lip before thrusting his tongue into my mouth and exploring it violently. I dug my fingernails into his bare back and raked them down, feeling his skin splinter like weak wood. The scratch would become my trademark, the signature I left on every guy I hooked up with. He moaned into our kiss and I felt his pleasure vibrating down my throat and into my stomach. Sam pulled his hot mouth away from mine just enough to whisper, "Let's go outside."
Behind Marissa's car, we tumbled to the ground, pulling our T-shirts over our heads and tugging off each other's jeans. Night had fallen while Sam's band played, but the moon lit the sky. Our nakedness was protected from the eyes of others by darkness, though we could still see each other clearly. Sam rolled on top of me, hands groping greedily, stripping off my underwear and then his own as he sloppily sucked on my neck.
"Whoa!" I firmly planted my palm against the Celtic cross tattooed on his chest. "Condom?"
"Right pocket of my jeans," I demanded.
"Oh. Good," he mumbled, scrambling backward and rooting through the pile of balled-up clothing at our feet.
Yeah, thank god for Regan. No matter how hot and heavy the action, I wasn't about to risk babies or STDs.
When he finally got the thing on, he climbed back on top of me. Then he was inside me. I closed my eyes waiting, at first, for the powerful, hungry feeling I'd felt in his initial kiss. After a few minutes, I opened one eye, still expecting, at the very least, the bleeding ache that Regan had mentioned. Nothing. It didn't feel like dancing while getting bruised by shoulders and elbows and knees. It didn't even feel like drunkenly screaming along to my favorite song. There was nothing raw or even energetic about it. The only thing remotely musical that I could compare it to was tapping my foot. The band inside butchered an Iggy Pop song. As the tone-deaf singer wailed, "Can you feeeeel it?" I wondered the same thing. And the answer was, "Not really."
I opened both eyes to see Sam thrusting into me in a way that was so not rhythmic that I doubted whether he'd ever heard music, let alone played it. His eyes squeezed closed, brow furrowed in intense concentration. I thought briefly that maybe I was in so much pain I was numb, but then I felt bits of gravel and broken glass digging into my butt. His sweaty hair fell into his face; the moonlight that trickled through it made it look translucent, as fragile as a spider's web. That's when I saw past the grimace on his face, the tattoos that he'd probably conned someone into giving him, and realized how much he resembled a little boy. He was probably two years older than me, but his inevitable lack of experience still didn't justify my disappointment.
I groped behind me for the beer that I'd left nearby, praying for a swallow of lukewarm backwash to alleviate my annoyance. Sam's breathing got faster and more labored, like he was working really hard. He pressed his cheek against mine, his chest rubbing against my black bra, which he hadn't even bothered to try to remove. I felt his leg muscles twitch and then he collapsed against me, leaving me with the impression of a dying fish.
When he finally rolled off of me, I quickly pulled on my jeans. Sam sighed. "I'm going to write a song about you," he murmured.
I stifled my laughter with the beer can I'd found. Before he could make any more embarrassing statements, I got dressed and walked away. My idea of rock gods had been ruined. They were nothing more than little boys wearing stolen scowls. I knew that the next time I saw Sam play, I would realize his songs sucked. He would be nothing without his rock-god hair flying, his arms flailing, his chest dripping sweat, and his intense eyes zeroing in on every girl in the audience who believed him to be raw power. I would notice that he couldn't even play four chords. And most important, I'd know that the sex wouldn't even last through three songs.
"Maybe he was just really bad," Regan said, peering sympathetically at me as I lay stretched out in the backseat, reveling in my disillusionment. The wind blew in from both her and Marissa's open windows, and I hoped that the smell of dirty barns was cleansing me of the scent of Sam's sweat.
"Well, regardless of that, I learned one thing. No guy fucks like they sound when they're onstage or blaring at top volume on your stereo. And I'm sure this knowledge will change my life," I quipped cynically.
Regan winced. "I swear I'll pick a better one next time."
"So will I," I said with a laugh.
"You girls need to do what I did," Marissa chimed in. She turned down the original version of "Gimme Danger" that I insisted she put on so my memory of the song wouldn't be tainted, and met my eyes in the rearview mirror. "Start your own damn band!"
Regan and I fell silent, but as the car sped toward the same part of Carlisle Louisa had blazed out of, I knew we both were thinking that Marissa was right.
Copyright © 2008 by Stephanie Kuehnert
Reading Group Guide
1. Describe Emily, Michael, and Louisa's passion for music and how it influences their lives. Consider in particular the equally negative and positive transformative power music has over Emily and Louisa. Does Michael also experience transformation, or does he remain unchangeable? What is his role in the Black family dynamic?
2. On page 37, Michael advises his daughter, "Don't end up like her, Emily. Don't search for the music in other people. Play it yourself." Is he just talking about forming a band? How does this advice illustrate the different trajectories of Louisa's and Emily's lives?
3. Emily rejects anything that threatens her romantic image of Louisa as a tough but ethereal creature following the music wherever it might lead her. Identify some of the moments that challenge this image and analyze Emily's response.
4. Even in Emily's hardcore world, there are expressions of true love. How does Regan respond to such emotions? Do you think Louisa and Michael experience true love, given the way each responds to their relationship? What about Emily?
5. What is it about Johnny Thompson from My Gorgeous Letdown that causes Emily to open up to his advances? Despite moving in with him, she still fights the idea of their being a couple so fiercely. Why does she hate "feeling attached?" Do you think this feeling is specific to Johnny, or is it bigger than that? What does Emily ultimately realize about their relationship?
6. Colette tells Louisa that the worst thing she's done is not killing Eric Lisbon, but leaving her baby girl. Emily later echoes this sentiment when she finally meets Louisa in the Greyhound bus station. But Louisa remains unconvinced. Do you agree with Colette and Emily or with Louisa, and why? Compare the damage done by Louisa's abandonment of Emily to the effects of Colette's "dragging" her daughter, Nadia, "toward all [her] dreams that just wind up being nightmares."
7. On page 156, as Emily and Michael argue about her decision to move in with Johnny, Michael says, "If I say no, you're just gonna lie to me, aren't you?" He ultimately doesn't try to stop her, effectively giving her permission. How do you think his hands-off parenting style has affected Emily throughout the years?
8. Throughout the novel, Emily insists that Louisa's abandonment hurt Michael, but not her. Why does she cling to this idea? What does this denial provide her with?
9. Emily generally refuses drugs out of a strong desire to avoid becoming another "rock star cliché." What finally brings drug abuse into her life? From Emily's point of view, why do you think some clichés (such as the heavy drinking and defensive attitude) are okay while others are not? How does Emily's drug use parallel Louisa's?
10. People constantly remark that Emily has Louisa's deep green eyes. What else do these women have in common? How are they different?
11. For most of the novel, Emily is so wrapped up in the reality she thinks she's creating that she remains oblivious to important things, such as her growing reputation as a groupie slut among the River's Edge crowd. What else does Emily miss, and why?
12. Emily has always wanted answers, but when Louisa offers her the detailed letters she's written over the years, Emily refuses the notebooks. Why doesn't she want to read them? What, finally, gives her release?
13. In the end, was it really the music that brought Emily, Louisa, and Michael together, as Emily always thought would happen? What do they each realize in their brief meeting at the bus station? Does the ending feel open-ended to you, or does it imply something about the future of the Black family?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The re-emergence of punk rock in America and various offshoot music scenes form a framework on which this story is hung. Create a timeline of the music as it evolves over the course of this novel.
2. Both Louisa and Emily make multiple trips across the United States, one looking for absolution, one looking for answers. Trace the Black women's cross country trips on a map using two different colors to create a visual representation of the places they've crossed paths unknowingly.
3. Visit the author's website at www.stephaniekuehnert.com and listen to the mix CD she's made to go along with this novel. Try making your own mix CD out of the various songs and bands that are mentioned in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone to take to your next Book Club meeting. It'll set the mood and keep your ears tuned to the lyrics to pick up some of the author's influences.