Notes of Nostalgia: “American Music” by the Violent Femmes

It’s that time again. I’ve got a bug in my brain to start a new series: Notes of Nostalgia. This time it’ll be installments of songs and/or music videos that conjure up stories from my past. Mostly they’ll be true but don’t be surprised if, on occasion, I manufacture something I simply wished had happened and the song that best captures that imaginary moment.

The first song, which is probably the epitome of a hot summer day song (like the ones we just enjoyed here in Seattle), is “American Music” by the Violent Femmes (VF). First take a gander at the visual candy that VF created to accompany such a great song and then I’ll relate to you a little tale of my young, nerdy and somewhat solitary early-teen life.

I was on a school bus in Washington D.C. and “American Music” was blaring on someone’s Walkman, the volume cranked up for everyone to hear through cheap plastic headphones (we’re talking headache-inducing, stab you in the side of the head-type headphones). The sun was shining brilliantly and the bus windows were pushed all the way down so we didn’t broil in the mid-day sun. Hundreds of miles away from home and I was without parents to watch over me for the first time in my life. I was on a week-long youth leadership retreat run by HOBY (Hugh O’Brien Youth Foundation). Up until this point (and for several years following), I had been making my way, awkwardly, through life with few social skills and even fewer friends. Early on in the trip, however, I’d managed to make a few acquaintances as all the kids on the bus were in similar circumstances… sort of. Several of them had already gone on this trip the year before and so felt much more at ease; it was pretty obvious who those kids were.

Either way, I’d become pals with a guy named Charlie. Along with my growing awareness of how awkward I was simply hanging out with other kids, I was also acutely aware of how unappealing I was to the opposite sex and how appealing they were quickly becoming to me. Charlie was particularly adorable and to my disbelief was the closest buddy I’d made so far, along with a red-head who’d gone to the retreat the year before. Fast forward a few days; you find me sulkily standing alone in a museum gift shop looking at the other corner of the room where Charlie is holding hands with the fiery-haired girl. I wasn’t mad, just wishing sadly that I wasn’t quite so awkward and my glasses not quite so thick.

Every time “American Music” comes on the radio, I still see Charlie’s adorable face smiling back at me as we take one of those goofy pictures where you hold out your camera (filled with film, it was the old days after all) and hope beyond hope that your smile doesn’t look dorky, you don’t have a booger hanging out of your nose and both your faces are in full frame. They were, and I cherished that picture for years.

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