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Thirteen- BigStar

In terms of a hard number, Thirteen by Big Star may be a little dated. With the advent of faceless interactions through devices and and social media teenage romance has undergone a paradigm shift in recent years and real emotional intimacy probably occurs later and certainly differently than in the past. Back in the 70’s when I came of age our options were limited. Romance almost always started with catching the eye of someone either at school or in some other social setting like: CYO, a sporting event or hanging at the park. After glances had been exchanged it was mostly the job of the male to work it. For those more courageous than me that meant just going up and talking to the person or finding a phone number and making a call. Fearing the humiliation of rejection I mostly opted for an intermediary, a friend of the girl who I was giving or receiving the eye from to make sure I was interpreting the signs correctly. Tapping the friend gave you a little something to work with, which was always way better than anything I had: So, tell me, what exactly is your favorite Todd Rundgren album? Or, How much do you hate your parents?

Today, the old ways of working it have been momentarily been replaced by Twitter or Snapchat and will contine to evolve as technology changes. And, rather than the friend who served as an intermediary or a hard wired nerve racking phone call (which often included several courage building hang ups) or walking someone home after hanging out, kids today engage in an electronic courtship where you must be funny and charming through a device. Though the transmissions are instantaneous—the seeing, feeling, touching (and the eventual splitting up) is severely muted by this overwhelming technology. A phenomenon that makes me think of the great Johnny Thunders tune of cyber heartbreak, You Can’t Put Your Arm Around A LED Screen. Actually, the song is titled You Can’t Put Your Arm Around A Memory. Technology has even changed fleeting, hard to hold memories since there is usually an electronic record of relationships that can never really be erased unlike fading paper pictures or too easily lost hand written notes. As the father of young people and being a former young person myself—of sometimes dubious intensions—I’m all right with the changes and delays in courtship spurred by technology. And, maybe connecting with someone through technology does create similar feelings of swirling lightheadedness and affirmation (I know my heart skips a beat when I have a private DM). But, I have to think, as a guy who had to struggle to make eye contact and stumbled endlessly for things to say, some of the sweetness and dare I say—humanity is lost by the absence of cementing the deal eye to eye.

What does remain and is just as sweet and beautiful, whether the number should updated to fifteen or seventeen or later is Big Star’s ballad of pubescent yearning, Thirteen. Broken into three short verses to roughly cover the arc of an ephemeral teenage romance Alex Chilton’s soulfully tender voice is accompanied by a bass and slowly picked acoustic guitars. He starts with a few shaky questions, asking if he can walk her home from school, meet at the pool or get tickets for the dance.

This song dwells in the loaftiest dream sphere and always transports me back to that first one. Not the first girl that deflowered me—the first girl who both exulted and crushed me with her love. She was a sweet blond named Robin who read the dictionary and liked the band Chicago. Not only was Robin the first girl, but the first person really, who ever told me they loved me.

Both of her parents were dead and she and her younger brother were living with their cousins up the block from me. I don’t quite remember the circumstances of how we started dating, but it was the summer going into my freshman year of high school, which was extended due to a teacher strike. Probably like a month into dating she dropped the LOVE word on me. I still see her on the bleachers in the shadow of Holy Family School, looking away, the summer sun fading and then meeting my eye with a small smile on her face and saying, “Paul, I love you!”

I didn’t respond in kind, not because I was playing it cool or anything like that. I didn’t respond because the idea that someone could love me was a rather foreign concept. Not to be dramatic, but the three bed, one bath house with my parents and nine siblings I grew up in was not disposed to great expressions of love. As we tried to survive living on top of one and another love was something murky, maybe implied and shown through the hard work and determination of my parents, but never said. Being Catholic didn’t help either—love was an indulgence of God, not people.

Eventually I did say it back with zero understanding of what it meant or what I was getting myself into. All I really knew was this girl had done me a kindness, told me I was worthy of this much sought after thing that up till then was nebulous. But I grew into it and eventually wore it like a perfectly cut suit with huge 70’s style lapels. And when I finally said it back to her it wasn’t for any rational reason other than I loved that she loved me. It was just so nice to think this radiant girl had the confidence and faith to extend her heart and everything that came with it to me. It was like a princess stumbled by and for some inexplicable reason I was the frog she chose to kiss. And, on top of all that she let me put my hands all over her body.

Like the song which transitions in the second verse into more established, comfortable stage our relationship got pretty comfy as well. The narrator wants her dad off his back, they muse about The Stones song: Paint It Black and the common 70’s refrain of how rock-n-roll will never die. The verse ends with an appeal for closeness by way of the word inside—as in get beneath each other’s skin.

Sitting at this Formica countertop that separated the kitchen and a kind of a utility room at the back of her house we would drink tea, sneak cigarettes and listen to tunes, while her uncle sat in the front room and never said a word to us, let alone was on my back. A recovering alcoholic, with a wife on her way to being an alcoholic and two new kids to support on top of the five they already had, he sat in that front room smoking, reading the paper and watching TV. Occasionally, he would come into the kitchen to warm up his coffee, but never acknowledged my presence, which wasn’t that unusual for that generation or me. I already had a non-communicative relationship with my own father and this one just sort of fell into my lap with no effort on my part.

But we did get inside each other and listen to Paint It Black along with lots of other tunes. At the time the British band Supertramp was getting pretty big merging progressive elements with a rock sound that was considered innovative. Crime Of The Century was constantly in rotation at her house as was this filthy, but hilarious album of song parodies called Philosophical Bullshit by this new guy from Buffalo, named John Valby (look him up). Also in high rotation was The Pretender by Jackson Browne, which I loved from the second I heard it. Quiet and sensitive it was a million times more evolved than the KI$$ records I was listening to at the time. And, of course her favorite, Chicago, which had just put out a greatest hits album.

After barely making it to her house from school in one of the early December storms that would culminate with Buffalo’s infamous “Blizzard of 77” we were alone at the countertop kissing and listening to Chicago’s IX- Greatest Hits and the song Color My World was playing. After it was over she ran over and lifted the turntable arm and started the song again. When she came back she leaned into me and whispered I’ll always think of you when I hear this song. Filled with gratitude, but a bit uncomfortable with the idea of having a song appointed to me I kind of got lost in my own head for a moment. When I came back from my self-absorbed musings it was during the flute solo at the end of the song and it kind of annoyed me. A slow meditative song, okay, but a flute solo? I remember thinking, Really, this song . . . me? How about something with nuts like Supernova by Liz Phair, and those great lines about kisses as wicked as a M16 and sex that leads to a volcanic eruption?

Oh, wait, there was no eruptions, Liz Phair was like nine-years old and this song wouldn’t come out until 1994, some seventeen years down the road. Okay, okay, but a goddamn flute solo?

Like a lot of snap judgments though, I would come to feel differently about Color My World and that goddamn flute solo. It changed at this low rent “teen dance” at a defunct YMCA we attended with friends. The event was sponsored by some community organization and there was adult supervision, refreshments, but no deejay, so we got to bring all of our records and took turns spinning tunes. The Bee Gees, Donna Summer and disco was all the rage, but we were pot-headed rock-n-rollers which meant an empty dance floor while 2112 by Rush or Back In The Saddle by Aerosmith played. Only when slow songs like Telephone Line by ELO or I’m Not In Love by 10CC did the dance floor see action. And, once Robin got Color My World in the mix she pulled me out there where we assumed standard slow dance position with her head on my shoulder and her warm body pressed wonderfully up against mine. Through the long piano intro and the six lines of moony lyrics we just rocked back and forth until the flute came in and she lifted her head from my shoulder and locked in on my eyes.

Up till then I was happy to tell Robin I loved her, in reality though there wasn’t much conviction on my part and I probably was saying it just to say it. But, with that flute spinning so gently in the background and her eyes locked in on mine all of the sudden I felt all warm and was overcome with a rush of emotion. I could feel not only my pupils, but my whole being, dilate. Instinct screamed at me to abort, but I couldn’t and slowly as she continued to look into my eyes I felt all my doubts and fears slip away until I was totally defenseless. So blue were her eyes, so soft and shapely her lips, she was wondrous, beautiful, sweet, perfect and I was without any remaining options but to be head over heels in love with her. There was no rip cord to pull, no net to catch me, I had fallen and fallen hard. In the coming days my head would occasionally clear and I tried to regain some measure of control, but it was hopeless. All she would have to do was look at me or put her hand on my back or give me an unexpected kiss and I was without recourse, a zombie for her love and it was beyond great . . . for a while.

Yes, for a while it was great. Through the early part of winter we had a ton of snow days along with Christmas break, then at the end of January the infamous Blizzard of ’77 hit and we had another two weeks off from school giving us plenty of time to hang out and be in love. During that period her aunt, who tended bar during the day, and her uncle a Buffalo Firefighter, were almost never home. With all that snow people had to drink and public employees like her uncle during such an emergency had to be vigilant about public safety and collecting some pretty good federal disaster relief overtime.

Her oldest cousin who was just about out of the house, living with her boyfriend, always had the best weed and not only would get us high, but would leave us joints. And if you could tell me there was something better in this world at fourteen years old to have snow days as far as the eye could see, be without adult supervision, have warm cups of tea to drink, tunes to listen to, joints to smoke and the girl you were intoxicated with sitting right next to you letting you feel her up I would celebrate your transcendence and union with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ because you could be no other place than fucking heaven.

It was the greatest thing ever. Those long days of zero visibility and zero responsibility, just hanging and being in love. As is sometimes the case with the young and head over heels, I don’t recall saying anything monumental or hatching farfetched future plans (…after high school we’ll move to California and be Oceanographers…we’ll move to Alberta and buy a ranch…we’ll move to Huston and work at NASA). Never feeling special to or about anyone was new to me and in this vertigo I could do little else but be in awe of it. All I remember is the sound of Jackson Browne, her luminous aura and being incredibly happy.

Though time kind of stood still that winter and I would’ve been content to just look in her eyes, we got out and did things. We were, after all, still just kids in the midst of this rather remarkable snow disaster. To that end, we spent an incredibly fun afternoon jumping off an old car dealership’s roof that was maybe one-and-a-half stories high into these huge snow banks that were comprised of snow plowed from the lot and the roof itself. Under the weight of so much snow that winter even roofs had to be cleared. Neighborhood kids joined en mass and for a couple of hours it was outstanding fun. The old guy who owned the building eventually showed up and chased us away, telling us he wouldn’t mind if we all killed ourselves, but his liability insurance would skyrocket. All winter long we had fun dive bombing from roofs, but none really measured up to that first day. We also took distressing trips walking through streets narrowed by mountains of snow to the dollar show at the Towne Theater. We saw a depressing Henry “The Fonz” Winkler movie ironically named, Heroes about Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic- stress-syndrome before the term post-traumatic-stress–syndrome even existed as we know it now. We also saw Annie Hall, and I think we both agreed Woody Allen was kind of a douche, but we admired the sophistication of his and Diane Keaton’s relationship. We also spent a lot of time at the “Teen Center,” too. With the best of intensions the “Teen Center” was meant to provide positive social outreach for young people, but really it was just a warm place where kids could get together, smoke cigarettes, listen to tunes and make out. In other words, be the little assholes we were, but in warm place with tunes rather than on street corners or in the parks. Of all the things my favorite remained just being together at the Formica countertop in the back of her house.

But, as the weather thawed reality changed and so did our relationship. Thirteen also transitions with a prickly and fateful little solo and lyrics that possibly border on desperate or obsessive. In the very least they seem to imply overthinking or an insecurity that leads to pushing too hard, asking to be let in on private thoughts and to be an outlaw lover, quickly followed by an anxious declartion that he can go if the answer is no he can go.

With the endless amounts of days off that year I was sort of in shut down mode when it came to school. Robin, however, who was a year ahead of me, was putting effort into it and thriving. With both of her parents gone and an uneasy fit in an already crowded house that had its own problems she probably saw a very uncertain future and was smart enough to know she was going to need an education. Granted, my relationship with my parents was horrible and my place at home was tenuous, but both my house and my parents weren’t going anywhere. I didn’t have the urgency or foresight like Robin to see what was coming. I was in love and wanted to obsess on her and I wanted her to obsess on me. I wanted her to skip school with me, bag her homework, and just hang out forever. When she had the audacity to have different ideas or would give attention to something besides me I became petty and resentful. The combination of being helplessly in love and stunted emotionally was a toxic mix. I wasn’t content with being important or even the most important thing in her life; I needed to be the only thing.

I can’t remember specific words or arguments we had, but I suppose I was every bit the overly possessive, insecure, needy, pathetic little douche-bag we’ve all seen in a thousand bad teen movies. She tried to hang in there with me and see it through but it was hopeless, I couldn’t adjust to a reality where there was something beyond me, beyond us, and eventually she had no choice but to dump me.

As wondrous and high as her love made me feel, when it was withdrawn the depths of despair were equally as low and hellish. I was totally crushed and I cried for days and days. Not only did I cry, but I cried in front of my siblings and friends. It was unbelievably embarrassing and emasculating, but I couldn’t help myself. It was the most intense pain I had ever experienced and I thought it would never end. Never had I been hurt so bad.

There were a few things that saw me through, though. As is always the case the first thing was good ole time. Nothing worked like seconds turning to minutes, minutes to hours and hours to days. Before you know it you’ve put together a couple of weeks and you’ve stopped the humiliating crying though she still occupies every third thought and burns in the pit of your gut most of the time,

The second thing was a lack of self-importance. Don’t get me wrong, I had an ego and thought I was totally cool and knew everything, but that of course was mostly bluster. Though never stated the underlying and inescapable psychology of being from huge family like mine was that you’re neither special nor important. So when this implausible girl came along and made me feel so incredibly special and important it disrupted my psychological state and the natural order of my personal universe which largely dictated my insignificance. By dumping me that order was restored to its rightful state—the force was once again with me.

The other and biggest thing was I had a buddy from down the street who was a really popular guy and a great athlete. For like a year-and-a-half he was dating the hottest girl in our school. We all had dreams about this girl, but of course he got her and it seemed right that he did. As it turned out we both got dumped at almost the exact same time and early one evening we were up in my room commiserating about our troubles. I was still hurting pretty bad, but had accepted she wasn’t coming back to me. He still was hanging on and decided to give his girl a call. I tried not to listen, but I could hear her screaming through the phone to stop bothering her and to get over it. He was inconsolable and blubbered on like a little baby. It was pathetic. I never felt so bad for anyone in my life and I hated that she reduced this strong guy to a whimpering pile of tears. It was there that I was determined to put my own tearful baby shit aside and comport myself with some dignity and self-respect.

And, I did for the most part. Sure, I had my moments, like this one Friday night I walked to the Towne all tragic and alone and saw a movie. On the way home I ran into this kid from school that didn’t know my woman issues and he busted my chops mercilessly for going to the show spook, as he put it. I ended up having a few beers with him and his buddies that night and it was fun to just hang with dudes and laugh, even if it was at my expense.

Both Supertramp (Even In The Quietest Moments) and Jackson Browne (Running On Empty) put out new albums. I also moved on from the little stoner crowd Robin and I ran with and started hanging with some kids in my AP classes (which I would be kicked out of at the end of the year) and some guys I shot hoops with from the neighborhood Catholic high school. Eventually, I started to make out with girls at parties and have endless, but often unrequited crushes. It would be awhile though, before I took on an actual girlfriend again, but by summer I was over her.

Well, that’s not actually true. I don’t think you ever get over that first one. You might think this a bit of moony hyperbole, but aside from the death of my mother (and this was comparable) being dumped by Robin was the most emotionally painful experience of my life. I know, a little unconsummated eight-month fling when you’re fourteen years old with a girl—bunch of sentimental horseshit—right? But, as noted previously, my place in this world was pedestrian, at best. At home I felt unloved or was loved in way that was unrecognizable to me and I had the constant sense that I was just another undeserving mouth to feed and a huge pain in the ass. To varying degrees, there was a whole generationof kids like this who largely felt the same way. Then, this lovely girl comes along and affirms me. Tells me the nicest most handsome guy she’s ever met. She assigns me a song for all eternity, lets me put my hands all over her body. She fixes me tea and spends endless amounts of her time with me. Most of all she loved me in a very open and honest way that was completely understandable and great. That love she so kindly gave me was like an intoxicating breath of life. Nothing had ever made feel so good and once it circuited through my body I wanted more and more, until my need for it became unreasonable. I was so all the way in, so overcome when she cut me loose there was nothing to hold on to or catch me and I crashed hard.

That experience was so painful and intense that I’ve never ever gone into another relationship without consciously preparing myself for its demise. So much so I’ll occasionally even think about what life would be like without my wife or other people with whom I’m close, to remind myself that nothing is guaranteed and nothing lasts forever. To all of you romantics conditioned by the happy endings of TV and Hollywood, this is not some morbid preoccupation, this is good common sense and an act of self-preservation learned the hard way.

In the service of telling my little story I’ve probably glossed over Thirteen, a bit. While sonically beautiful the real power of the song is its ability to transport the listener back to that first one, that one who broke through and booted up your heart. And, though a fan of the song Alex Chilton, by The Replacements since the 80’s I didn’t really know Big Star or Thirteen until the internet age. And, before hearing Thirteen I probably hadn’t thought of Robin or what our little fling meant in twenty-plus years, but when the song pops up now it carries me back and I think, with utter amazement, about what a force this little slice of time and Robin was in my life.




Epilogue:

It was a dusky Friday night in the summer I was going into my junior year of high school. At a picnic table in Mulroy Park I was playing nickel-dime cards with my buddies, maybe having a few beers when one of my friends motions for me to look over my shoulder and says, “Isn’t that your old girlfriend?” Sure enough when I turn and look its Robin. Though I saw her around I didn’t hang with her crowd anymore and probably hadn’t spoken to her in the year-and-a-half since we broke up. But now she’s maybe standing twenty-yards away and is motioning to come to her. I look around at my friends, gather up my $2.00 from the table and unhurriedly make my way toward her.

Looking really good she asks how I’ve been and we exchange pleasantries before she gets down to why she’s here. She says she made a big mistake and wants to get back with me. Tells me she’s been watching and can see how I’ve grown. That everything will be great like it was before. You know, total bullshit, but she’s smiling and looks so great in the growing moonlight. And I’m weak and so easily manipulated by her compliments, but with my new defense system I manage to hold off, telling her I have to think about it. We talk a little more and when it’s time for her to go she looks me in the eye and then leans in and kisses me on the cheek. It took all my powers of resistance not to kiss her back.

She heads out of the park and I go back to the card game no doubt talking shit about how I’m so cool chicks just show up out of the blue hoping to get with me. Well, as the night wrapped at about 11pm a few of us were getting a ride with a buddy who had this old reconditioned mail truck with the steering wheel on the wrong side. And as we’re rolling down the avenue about a block from my street I see Robin on the corner holding hands with this dude—a dude too old to be hanging on street corners or to be with teenage girls. WHAT? My buddy makes a quick run-around-the-block and as we make a second pass I’m hanging out the window so you can’t miss the—Are you fucking kidding me?— look on my face. And, she just stood there with a tenuous grip on this guy’s hand and her eyes fixed on the ground, not daring to look up.

We pull away and I’m feeling, I don’t know what I’m feeling, maybe a muddle of hurt, a little ambivalence, maybe a little pride because I was right to resist her earlier. My teenage soul is all muffled and inarticulate. Best I can come up with is to deem her a slut, which garners instant confirmation from my friends. It’s what we do when we don’t understand—call them whores and sluts—but obviously there was a lot more going on with Robin than I could possibly comprehend.

Though I never gave it much thought, it’s now apparent to me that Robin was looking for something or someone to hold onto. So caught up in the gyrations of my own consciousness I never stopped for a moment to think about how tough her life must have been. No parents, no real home, always a burden to someone else. How rootless and alone she must have felt. A kid looking for something to cling to, something to believe in, something that wouldn’t go away. Seeing how she moved from propositioning me to this other guy in a matter of hours she must have been a little desperate and now, decades seperated from my immature teenage head, I can only feel compassion for her.

Staring down at the ground on that street corner I ever saw Robin. I heard, many many years ago, she had a family in Texas with that same guy. I don’t ever expext to see her again, but if I do I’m going to express how sorry I am for all the losses she had to endure in her young life. I’m also ask her if she’s ever heard of the band Big Star and the song Thirteen?

Bona valetudo et fortunatos Robin, wherever you may be.





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