A campus in stereo


It’ll be cold soon. The other night Cambridge Common was draped in a thick veil of smothering fog — one of those ethereal hazes that brings halos to the streetlights and prompts that little cold gasp right near the back of your throat when you breathe it in. I looked up at the sky and it was all just fog and moonlight, and somewhere in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but hear the warbling opening lines to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” that angular, bewitching guitar part that could only have been written in the still depths of an October night under the demon rays of a harvest moon. I hum the refrain and walk through the Yard.

The underclassmen seem to be throwing barely concealed parties — the lights flicker discretely but insistently behind drawn shades on upper floors, and those little bits of music trickle out — Dave Matthews for the conventional, the Doors or Pink Floyd to go with a black-light, some old Michael Jackson for those with either a commonplace nostalgia or an over-developed sense of the ironic, some Britney Spears for those who damn well couldn’t resist, and somewhere, just somewhere there’s that guy with the shelf full of Nik Hornby novels who snuck in the Replacement’s “Color Me Impressed” — that song about being in a room full of people and feeling bored, alone and still absurdly amused by it all — “everybody at your party, they don’t look depressed, and everybody’s dressing funny, color me impressed.” Maybe the Michael Jackson kid isn’t so ironic after all.

Walk to the T-stop and all the kids are dressed like every day is a Rancid show or something. I simply don’t have the heart to tell them that Sid Vicious died before they were even born, but I don’t think they’d care anyway ‘cuz all the buttons on their jackets are whoever is on Epitaph Records these days and you do have to admit that even though it’s not cool to like Green Day or the Offspring anymore, there’s something just crushingly honest about Weezer that keeps their popularity from being something to be ashamed of, or so it would seem from the shirt of the guy with the mohawk. “Only In Dreams” spins over and over in the back of my head — an unguarded hymn to that unknown and unrequited crush that might well be the common bond between me and the kid in the combat boots with the skateboard. The object of my 16-year-old affections probably just had less piercings, that’s all. This guy and I shoot each other inquisitive glances, reply with cautious nods, and I walk on.

Moving down the street a guy is playing blues on a battered resonator guitar. Although that “House” down the street is just another testament to an unrelenting attempt to turn the world’s most visceral music into a museum piece, the best blues has always been played on the street corners. John Lee Hooker, God rest his soul, probably used to sit on a porch somewhere before anyone had ever heard of him and just pound out a simple boogie chord over and over and over and tap his foot so hard that the already thin soles of his shoes were wearing thinner still and then he tapped and tapped and tapped and tapped them some more. And he probably smiled and grinned and laughed his deep laugh at the way that singing about feeling bad could feel so, so good. At least I like to think of him that way. I throw a buck into this guy’s case and look up at the sky wondering if John Lee might be up there, and whether or not the Elysian Fields look anything like the Delta.

I couldn’t listen to my radio for a couple days after September 11. And then I had to. And these days the song I just can’t get out of my head is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” There’s just something in the way that sax part hovers in over that curiously placid drum beat with all the muted party noise in the background that just seems to convey this tremendous internal tranquility in the midst of unspeakable upheaval. You listen to the frenzy of the Beatle’s “Revolution” or the grit-and-whiskey menace of the Stones and you can hear things breaking at the seams — our parent’s generation’s moment of trial bringing everything to an edge. But in the midst of all that was Marvin. Marvin, calm, cool, off in some beautiful space of his own. Sometimes when I hear that song, I feel like he can take us there, if only for a minute.

I make my way back to my room, rifle through some albums. A Tribe Called Quest reminds me that I’m not as funky as I wish I was, while the groove of the Meters makes me feel funkier than I look. The Cure grabs a neutral mood and shadows it with lush poetic melancholy while on a cold and rainy night Mark Eitzel finds a gem of love buried deep in the most brutal caves of emotional gloom. Bob Dylan crows a lullaby to the ghost of Kerouac, while Springsteen looks out across the steel mill and scans for Dylan, and a nation turns its lonely eyes to a few hundred kids with guitars and tousled hair.

And when the snows come in, a thousand songs will ripple across Cambridge Common’s velvety white face from my radio and yours. It’ll be cold soon. Stay close to your stereo.

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