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Joan Didion wrote in her elegiac memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality, even as we push it away.”
These are hard, true words, friends. You see, we are young, and we think the lines on our faces will come with a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of contentment that comes with a lifetime of memories and deeds. We see our elderly faces smiling as we point our rocking chairs west to watch the sun fall behind the horizon. This is not what happens.
The more we live, the less the past means to us, and the more we grip onto life like lock-jawed pit bulls. And so we cheapen life by trying to forget death. We no longer believe that our past experiences were unique or important or meaningful. It is not unhappiness, necessarily, but desperation. Nothing seems to matter, and then we die. Of course, there is an exception to all this, something that will bring me peace as the life fades from my body, and that is the time that my friend Ricky hit play on what was the greatest frat playlist ever created.
I’ll never forget it. The event was our annual “Peanut Social,” a dated case race that added the essential ingredients of hundreds of pounds of peanuts (to be hurled at your competition as a form of distraction) and protective eyewear. When I asked the social chair about the music for the night, he said only, “Ricky’s got it,” and I was both surprised and a little excited. This was not the sort of thing Ricky worried himself with. Ricky was odd, but not off-putting. A dryly-hilarious guy. He would cover his entire room in wrapping paper during Christmas. He showed up to a “two-piece” social completely naked, save for the towel over his shoulder and one flip-flop. The only “hazing” he ever took part in was making the pledges perform original single act plays. He frequently wore a hat that said, “Take this job and LOVE IT.” Everything excited him. His attitude was infectious. So it made sense that when Ricky asked to make the playlist for our case-race social that we had to see it through, but we had no idea if it would just be a mix of bluegrass and Kidz Bop.
Finally it was time to go, and the room was restless…already drunk…eager. Ricky stood on an elevated table with a couple massive speakers behind him, plugged in his iPod with Kubrickian detachment, hit play, and put his hand over his heart. Out poured Whitney Houston’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” from the 1991 Super Bowl. Keep in mind, this was pre-Whitney-being-dead, so at the time that recording was a forgotten relic. But Christ, did it put us in a space. Eyes frosted over, there wasn’t a peep from the room, and we knew at that moment that we weren’t partying for fun or to get laid, but for the greatest nation on Earth, in defiance of those who dare try to take away our freedoms. And when Whitney’s vibrato faded, and our souls were swelled, Ricky hit us with “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue. That’s right. The National Anthem into Motley fucking Crue. George Washington’s corpse probably popped the top of his nailed casket with a powerful erection. The guitars cut like razors, the bass punched me in the throat, and the whiplash from swelling national pride to four-on-the-floor party anthem gave me the kind of clarity of purpose that only exists in the five seconds after I orgasm. This night was fucking on.
The Crue gave way to “Born in the USA”, which gave way to the Cheers theme song, which collapsed into “World’s Greatest (Radio Edit)” by R. Kelly. Ricky was rolling, and he was repurposing songs we didn’t even know were party jams: “Stay” by Lisa Loeb came on and the room exploded at the bridge. Des’Ree’s “You Gotta Be” made me want to call my parents and all my ex-girlfriends. “Little Bird” by Annie Lennox blew the roof off the joint. I couldn’t stop fondling my date’s breasts, and she couldn’t stop shoving her tit-fat deeper into the small recesses of my palms. It wasn’t even sexual – it was like we were children, playing at adult love and in the process finding something more adventurous and innocent than love could ever be. Of course there was “Don’t Stop Believin’” but somehow it felt new to me, I had never heard synth line arpeggios that majestic, nor had I ever heard the tale of small town boys and girls told with such empathy. It was no longer the cliché at the end of a bar mitzvah; it was a moving tribute to chance encounters and the random magic of life. When “Always be My Baby” by Mariah Carey came on, we were practically heaving, trying to breathe in as much life as we could, so desperate to sing along to the “doo doo doo DOOO” preamble. There were other songs, some bangers, some ballads, and I could go on song after song, I remember them all and I couldn’t even tell you my niece’s name – but what I remember most is a sustained feeling of ecstasy. People danced on tables until the peanut oil made them fall and most of the beer was poured, not down throats, but on heads. Not one, but two songs by Steve Winwood were played: “Runaround Sue” followed by “Cecilia.” I’m certain at least one baby was born that night, and no one showed up pregnant.
You see, Ricky got it like few of us do. The thing about a great playlist is not just the songs themselves, but the pacing, and the audience’s understanding. There’s something awful, nee, insulting about the guy who hooks up his iPod to just play Skrillex, or Kendrick Lamar. Shoving un-dance-able electronica down everyone’s throats does not validate your progressive taste in music. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Kendrick Lamar album is sublime, but are we in a frat basement face-fucking a thirty-rack of Keith Stones, or are we at a Brooklyn listening party sipping Trappist Ales? A frat playlist composed entirely of rap is the last refuge of the insecure white male. Listening to aggro hip-hop about hard lives and growing up poor does not hide the fact that you “summered” somewhere. Look around you. There are three minorities at this party. Two of them are Asian. Even the one black guy has a house on the Vineyard. You are not 2 Chainz; you are 1980’s Billy Joel. You’re wearing Bonobos. You have a monogrammed money clip. Embrace your life, friend.
Be like Ricky, who was so removed from what anyone thought, so distant from the tastes of an era, he was practically autistic. But, like Rain Man counting matches, Ricky had a mindless brilliance. He wasn’t living on the same plane as the rest of us, and for one night, we all got elevated to where he was. For one night, I could feel the heart in my chest pumping viscous, dark blood in rhythm. For one night, I knew my own mortality and all its meanings. Death was an inevitability I embraced, friend, because life, in all its fiery glory, was happening right in front of me.
And for one night, Joan Didion could go fuck herself.