Where I Want to Be
When I was younger—though still a bit too old for it—I had a radio show at a tiny college station near the coast of Maine. This was in the early- and middle-aughts. I was a professor at this college, and it was called, our 90-minute program, “The Postpunk Show”—a good rubric, my co-host and I thought, inasmuch as it gave us license to play more or less whatever the fuck we wanted, so long as it appeared post-1976.
In five or six years of weekly Wednesday afternoon broadcasts I was heard, I’m guessing, by about three-dozen people. If there is a more exact measure of the levels of competence, sobriety, and professionalism I brought to the whole enterprise, I don’t know it.
It was great.
It was great because college radio is great—the malfunctioning machinery! the outré tracks! the earnestness and awkwardness and long delicious passages of accidentally dead air!—and about this there can be no disputing. It was great because the fact of the show, and the anticipation of it, punctuated the dreary academic routine, building in a block of time devoted to nothing but pleasurable amateurish indulgence. It was great because college radio stations are great, and you can never get to the end of the pleasure that comes from strolling among huge haphazardly archived collections of records and CDs, annotated each and all by past DJs, in brief post-it commentaries running from the rhapsodic to the caustic to the violently aggrieved. (“FUCKING FUCK YOU JEFF TWEEDY I SEE YOU MAN YOU’RE NOT FUCKING FOOLING ME,” is one I remember especially clearly.)
And it was great because I was, back then, a newish and not especially gifted stepfather, and each and every familial day found me failing—badly, humiliatingly—at patience and tolerance and what I presumed to be the very most rudimentary qualities of grown-up equability and ordinary goddamn chill. (Stepparenting is a complex and difficult endeavor; though I had precisely zero purchase on this fact at the time, it is, in this, exactly like any and every variety of “parenting.”) The harder days could feel like an exhausting sort of foot-race between exasperation (mine) and shame (also mine), and though we never spoke of it in these terms, or never quite, it’s clear that these outside-the-home hours worked as a little zone of refuge for me, a reliably recurring in-drawn breath.
It was great because, in my fade-out track, I’d always play something—“Tiger Lily,” “The Rollercoaster Ride”—for the girls, who I knew would be listening on their way to bed. These were my stepdaughters, whom I also loved, with whatever frayed and fearful incompetence, very much.
“Goodnight, girls!” I’d say. “Thanks to everyone for listening. This is Belle and Sebastian…”
Now, if you’ve ever had a radio show, there is a sweet little passage of microsociability you’ll likely remember. It’s when the next DJ, having arrived but trying not to get in the way as you close out your show, begins assembling lists, pulling out records with noiseless stealth, and generally making-ready, as you introduce and conduct yourself into the fade-out track. Your two shows blur into one another a bit in these moments, and you find that a low-watt, companionable, comradely sort of sensation travels between you just then. You exchange pleasantries, trade notes about some new release, give warning about a glitchy mic.
“Have a good show,” you say.
“See you next week,” they say.
It’s all very lovely, in its brief and incidental way. You do not, however, in the midst of these semi-scripted cordialities, have much reason to suspect that something quietly monumental is going to happen to you, that you will never over the course of years and years, manage to forget. You do not have reason to imagine that something will happen that will come hurtling back upon you every now and again, delivered most often in the cadences of a song itself so gorgeous, so spirit-seizing, that you’ll never quite be certain of the provenance of the sudden agitation that visits you then, the tightening in your chest, the sting in your eyes.
One day, though, this is exactly what happens.
On some indistinct winter Wednesday we were wrapping up, my co-host and I, tidying and gathering together the detritus of our hour-and-a-half. I’d wished the girls goodnight, cued up our concluding track, and after our sign-off the young woman with the show subsequent to ours had come in discretely, begun settling herself in. We did the obligatory pantomime, nodded silent greetings, gave little waves.
She wandered then into the boxy little studio, as we muted the mics, took off our headphones. And then, as this one lovely and lilting song began suffusing itself through the room, I saw her pause for a moment in frozen apprehension. She turned toward us, something quizzical in her expression.
Her face showed a complex recognition.
“You know,” she said, “this is probably my first memory.”
It was a small college, ultrasmall really, and though I’d come to recognize this young woman in the glancing way of adjacent DJs, I didn’t know her, hadn’t had her in class. I think she told me she was a Geology major? She had an aspect in no major way apart from that of her peers. She was bescarved, wore a great grey oversized sweater, had deposited beside her a lunky knapsack stretched to tautness by overlarge textbooks. Like a lot of kids at the college she had a striking quantity of self-possession—the equable bearing of someone considerably more mature than I had been at 20—though this was wedded in her, I knew, to an easy good humor, a readiness to laugh at the bleak winter weather, the battered soundboard, whatever.
And so we laughed a little, about how “This Must Be the Place,” that lovely and off-brand Talking Heads triumph from the early 80s, which had so ably accompanied my friend and I in our swoony adolescences, had been music for her cradle. We edged up the volume, began nodding together.
Pleasantries, cordialities, some genial laughs. A sparkling brightness played out in four-chord riffs, some keyboard vamps.
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s funny,” and you could see her riding back into some other precinct of memory.
“I must have been maybe two? I was on the kitchen floor, and I was playing with some pots and pans—you know? And my mom and dad were making dinner. They were moving here and there around me. And I remember this song came on and they, like—they started dancing.”
And just like that, all our sociable little jokes have evaporated. Nobody says anything and the song moves between us. We’re all held in place for a moment, a tableau called Listening.
And you’re standing here beside me, the speakers say. Never for money, always for love, they say. Cover up and say goodnight!
The recognition in her face shifts gradients, passes through different microphases of recollection—wistfulness, tenderness—resolves at last into a frank smile. “Yeah,” she says. “I remember looking, like, way up at them. And they’re singing the words to each other, and down to me. And, just… dancing.”
And maybe you’ve got stored away somewhere a more shimmering and faultless image of, oh, happiness—of love, and being loved, and of making out of that singular human alchemy a charmed and care-lit space for which home is only one of the words you might use. Maybe you have held in your heart some scene that, in its total radiance, matches even the radiance of this song, its New Wave heartlifttingness, the overspilling jubilation of the voice that cries out, And you’ll love me til my heart stops, love me til I’m dead! I’m not sure I do. Even today, when I try to tell this story, something stops my throat.
Please, some part of me starts to whisper, please be good to one another.
Inane wishes, pleas to no god in particular. Let no harm come to them, I think, ridiculously. Let them live forever in a world as love-bright as this one song, for its precise duration, fabulates into existence.
“That’s unbelievably sweet,” I say. Because this was me, there, and then, and I did not yet have a lot of words for the way the past might come splintering into the present, or the future might seize upon a given day, some stupid failing hour, and charge it with indelible significance. Which is odd, given how much enraptured time I spent in the company of songs like “This Must Be the Place,” and that precisely those cross-stitchings—of then, to now, to then—are among the things they specialize in.
And so I say again, fumblingly, “It’s just…it’s just truly sweet.” Because this was me, there, and then, and what the fuck else could I say?
“Yeah,” she says, “it was nice.”
Then her smile gets wider, and she shrugs, abashed a bit at this detour into bygone time. “I think it’s such a great song."
Peter Coviello is the author of four books, the most recent of which are Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs (Penguin, 2018) and Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism (Chicago, 2019). He lives in Chicago.