Thank God for the music. And, truth be told, for my friend Ruby. Otherwise, well, I just don’t know.
Ruby wasn’t her real name, by the way. But it’s the one the guys in the band knew her by, so it’s the one I’ll use here.
This is what was happening: My father had a stroke when I was in junior high school. It left him paralyzed on his right side, and aphasic. He knew what he wanted to say, but all he could do was make sounds. Three, to be precise: ay, oh, and shit. That was it. He "spoke" in three-syllable spurts: "Ay, ay…aay!" He said shit the same way. Sometimes it was endearing. While watching something funny on TV, my father would chortle, then murmur to himself, "Shitshitshit." As if to say, "How about that!"
Mostly, though, it was a horror show. Because of the stroke, he couldn’t read (which he’d loved), nor could he write. And of course he could no longer work, drive, hunt, fish, fix cars, or build a house from scratch. My father had always had a low threshold for frustration, so you can imagine. The harder we struggled to divine his meaning, the angrier he got. And the louder.
My mother, a former operating room nurse with a history of depression, coped as best she could. My father was in such bad shape immediately after the stroke, some people suggested she send him to a facility. "I’m sorry," she’d say. "As long as my husband has his faculties, I cannot put him in a home."
I was 12. I stayed in my room and listened to a lot of records.
I also read and watched a lot of old movies on TV, holing up with Lou Reed, Bette Davis, David Bowie, Evelyn Waugh, the Beatles, MAD magazine, the Marx Brothers…a mental hygiene routine I still recommend. I also listened to the radio, in particular to an irreverent late-night FM talk show host named Alex Bennett. Alex’s favorite band was the Kinks. The first album of theirs I bought was because of him. The compulsion that followed was purely my own doing.
For those of you not familiar with the Kinks (and trust me, even if you think you’re not, you are), they were a British Invasion band whose lopsided but profoundly influential career spanned more than three decades. Tip of the iceberg: "Lola," "You Really Got Me," "A Well Respected Man," "Waterloo Sunset." In spite of their many hits, there was an air of the underdog about them — which made the Kinks that much more appealing to misfits like me.
Madness is always more fun when it’s a folie a deux, and Ruby was the perfect partner in crime. It was 1976; we were 15. She too loved the music of the 1960s that made us both wish we’d been born a bit earlier. One day after school, I played her one of my favorite LPs, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and that was it. She began mainlining Kinks music as greedily as I did, and wanted just as badly to get close to them.
We figured out a neat trick: Bands do a sound check the afternoon of a show, so not only did you get to watch them walk into the building (in broad daylight, with almost nobody else around), but listening from just outside the stage door was like getting a whole extra performance. It was choppy and private and thrillingly unslick, with lots of starts and stops and guitar tuning and drum trills and talking and arguing: lead singer Ray Davies counting off into a number from their latest LP, which they still needed to rehearse; bits of other groups’ songs — a window into what the Kinks themselves were listening to; Ray’s brother, lead guitarist Dave Davies, tearing up the opening bars of the Doobie Brothers’ "Listen to the Music."
Ruby was a few months younger than I was but looked 10 years older. Lean and tall, she had light coffee-colored skin and green eyes. She was a knockout. Although she’d found attention from men startling and hurtful when she was younger, she now played to her audience, enhancing her already striking looks with swaths of perfectly placed blush and impeccably layered strata of multicolored Madeleine Mono glitter eye shadow. A network TV makeup artist once offered Ruby a job. Seeing as she was in the eleventh grade, she had to decline.