A Starry Night to Steal My Breath Away

Forty years ago tonight, on May 30, 1978, I graduated from Monroe High School in Monroe, Wisconsin. As graduations go, it was neither unique nor unusual, apart from being mine. I gave a speech at the ceremony, only the outlines of which I remember, as I didn’t bother to save a copy. My family was proud of me, and I smiled for the pictures. But what was going on inside of me was a secret I kept to myself, until I wrote about it years later.

I am looking back at a world that I know is about to change forever, and it doesn’t make me happy. I have lived in the same town and gone to school with the same people from age 5 to age 18. This life and those people suit me fine, I think to myself, and although I know I have to, I am not in a hurry to leave it all behind. I try not to let this feeling show—after all, just because I know I’m a geek doesn’t mean I want other people to know I’m a geek—but the feeling is no less real for being hidden.

I was writing obsessively that spring, about what I was doing and what I was feeling, but sometime in the next few years, I threw the manuscript away. I have, of course, mourned the loss of it ever since. I remember it as raw and confessional, although it’s more likely to have been overcooked melodrama, given the inveterate self-dramatizer I was.

In addition to writing obsessively, I was listening to a single album over and over: the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to Black and Blue when it came out in 1976. It contained “Fool to Cry” and “Hot Stuff,” both of which I had liked when they were on the radio, but neither of which had left a very strong impression. But I after heard the full album for the first time in 1978 (and made a tape from the vinyl copy I borrowed from the public library), it lived in the car with me that whole spring.

I liked the world-weary “Fool to Cry,” but the song that got the deepest into my head was “Memory Motel.” It had (and still has) some of the loveliest playing ever heard on a Stones record, but to a geek such as I, words always mattered more. “Memory Motel” seemed to me to be about a road that takes us farther and farther away from the ones we love the most—a sentiment square in my wheelhouse at that moment.

In that narcissistic way of teenagers everywhere, I was sure I was the only person who felt what I was feeling. Me and Mick, that is.

I got to fly today on down to Baton Rouge
My nerves are shot already
The road ain’t all that smooth . . . .

So long, so far.

On the seventh day my eyes were all a-glaze
We’d been ten thousand miles
Been in 15 states . . . .

No one was as reluctant to see it all end, I told myself. Everybody else seemed happy. Their happiness felt like an intrusion.

What’s all this laughter on the 22nd floor
It’s just some friends of mine and they’re bustin’ down the door
Been a lonely night at the Memory Motel

Forty years ago tonight, and self-dramatizing to the end, I made sure that “Memory Motel” was cued up and ready to play after graduation as I drove, alone, back out to the farm for the party I didn’t want to attend.

Later that night, a friend and I extracted ourselves from our respective parties so we could go to another. We rode silently through the Wisconsin night until I said, “So, what do you think?”

After a moment he said, “I want it all back.”

Turns out Mick and I weren’t alone after all.

You’re just a sweet old memory
And you used to mean so much to me

4 responses

  1. I made Black and Blue my lunchtime listen in honor of this post and the occasion it marks. Swap “Memory Motel” for “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (I’d purchased my first copy of Pet Sounds that March) and you’ve got my mindset of thirty years ago this weekend.

  2. Great piece. Have you been able to listen to the record much since 1978, and if so, how’s it play to you as an adult?

    1. I do listen to it now and then, and today I hear some of what critics didn’t like about it in 1976, and understand why it caused some British punks to coin the phrase “dinosaur rock.” But I still enjoy it—“Fool to Cry,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Memory Motel” especially, but also “Melody,” which is as bent in its way as “Hot Stuff” is.

  3. […] Wisconsin farm I grew up on. Forty years ago this summer, it was nearly time to leave that home, as I graduated from high school. (All these years later, there are certain memories from that time I’d rather not relive.) I […]

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