No Secrets

Carly Simon: No Secrets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I get so tired of all the honesty.
Shut up, will you? Kiss me.
Wouldn’t a fight feel good right now?

I’m always hurting someone. I’m always sorry.
Pet your cat. Eat your breakfast cereal. Sail through life.
I feel the loss before I’m even out the door.
I drop my key through the mail slot.
The words I wish I could take back, the intentional hurt, the beating, the slap in the face, the punch in the gut, the gunshot through the heart.
I miss you.

One more, sure. One more drink. One more make-out session. One more condom wrapper torn open with your teeth. Fuck it.
No umbrella, no raincoat, no car, no cab fare home.
I’ll wear the same clothes to work tomorrow. No one will notice.
I’ll sleep under my desk. I’ll shower at the gym. I’ll get breakfast at Starbucks.
Beer breath, saliva thick, sucking my dick, sweating, humid, sticky, summer, mosquitoes in the room, blood stain on the sheet where you smacked one dead, the buzz of a neon sign, the tick of a loud clock, unfamiliar sounds.

When you close your eyes, I get to stare.
You open your eyes, you catch me staring.
You smile.

Fire escape

Ohio Players: FireI’VE PUT OFF POSTING about the Jewel Chakra, that fiery source of power at the gut, I realize. I could chalk it up to being busy and not having the time, but I think it’s also true that I don’t feel so secure in this place, the power center, and I feel similarly insecure in my writing about it. Power can be a scary thing. I feel like I have power, but that I don’t trust myself to exercise it—something to work on.  

Here’s what I think: If I were totally free, I would be so powerful and unafraid, there is no telling what I might do. I feel the strong, solid center, guarded deep in my gut, seemingly fresh and new since it has so rarely been used, a precious jewel, old and unpolished from having observed for so long, sidelined soaking in knowledge and experience all these years, a decades-long gestation, and just now beginning to emerge, late, better late than never.

I see an advantage to having waited this long, my wisdom ripened, ready to eat, juicy and sweet, dripping, running through my fingers, over my hands, down my arms as I offer up this fruit, wanting to share it before it spoils, overripe. I am eager but without panic. Now is the time to let this power shine. Now I have the tools to wield it skillfully, to control my anger and judgment, my jealousy and pride, my impatience, my irritation. Now I find power in pure love and patience, compassion, kindness, calm, and appropriate gravity.

My thoughts and impulses take shape in there, fetus-like, growing, developing into a coherent being, capable of breath and life on its own once it pushes its way out into the world. I tread carefully, still, but my preparation bestows the confidence to lie exposed and vulnerable, knowing I am in good hands, the hands of a midwife, incongruously my own hands holding me steady, nurturing, keeping me from falling or freezing or from punching someone in the face.

The Boxer: Simpn & GarfunkelI have never been a violent type, never a fistfight in my life. The closest I ever came was childhood fights with my tough-nut sister, a year younger than me, pulling hair, biting arms, crying a lot. I learned the mechanics of it as an adult in boxing class at the Y, skills I had never known, was never taught, skills still never used in real life, but nice to have under my belt for the confidence they give should it come to that, bashing back, the powerful snap of a hard punch.

A friend talked about the sex she had the other night and how she couldn’t get into acting out the hardcore discipline, slapping the other girl hard across the face—she could do it, she said, but it didn’t feel right. And I said I couldn’t do it. I have tried. I can’t smack someone, playing, not hard enough for it to seem real, so not in the way they want—not like I mean it, because I don’t. Rape fantasies, extreme power plays, pain, humiliation, whips and slaves, dogs and horses and pigs, cops and robbers, a gun to the head, a sharp knife edge, a boot to the neck, none of it holds appeal. Life is hard enough without that shit.

All these fantasies, ways to escape from reality! Give me mindful presence. Give me eyes open and paying attention. Give me reality. (This is why I don’t drink, in case anyone was wondering.)

But here’s a power I can get behind: the power to ask for what I want, to tell him what I want to do, to free myself to express what I keep locked down, to say “I love you” in the throes of it all and not care what happens next.

Meditating on the Jewel Chakra Jewel: Pieces of You

I feel warmth swirling through my body, enveloping me like a blanket, a hug, a furnace. I feel some melting happening, drops sizzling on the hot stones, and am surprised to know I am still frozen in places I would have guessed had long ago thawed. I catch a glimpse of the power I harbor and know if I were totally free and in my power, I would be happier, free from fear, fear of the fire that warms me but that also threatens to burn.

I fear the hot energy of anger, of the fight, preferring the coolness and calm of the lake deep in my lower body, the even-numbered chakras comfortable resting places, landings on the Kundalini stairway; the odd ones seeming, well, odd, unfamiliar, intimidating, uncomfortable. The peacemaker in me doubts the fire, not to be played with; the controller in me wants to keep it contained, clear-cutting a break, locating the nearest exit in the event of emergency, the fire escape.

What might I unleash if I give in to it? I go there in my mind sometimes, to a place where I assert my wants, my needs, without second-guessing. I imagine myself acting without fear, and I see the fruits of my freedom. I jump off the cliff and know my wings will open to catch me, the parachute unfurling as I glide free and safe and exhilarated.

I go a step further and actually do it once in a great while, boldly asking for what I want, approaching the stranger, speaking my mind. It always works out. I always feel better afterward, so why don’t I do it all the time? What holds me back? I know enough at this point to be able to trust that I won’t do something stupid.

Led Zeppelin: PresenceMistakes are one thing; the disasters I imagine, the irreversible, irreparable harm I must unconsciously imagine (otherwise why hold back?)—these are fantasies, mind-creations never to see the light of day. Action is karma; it ripens upon me no matter what. I might as well have some agency around it all, might as well take part in this life, take the wheel and guide it, with or without the map, getting lost, hell, flipping and rolling the vehicle. This is life.

Sexploration

Do You Want to Sleep with Dave X Robb?I’VE BEEN ENJOYING my Writing from the Chakras course, which is now half over. As last year, I wanted to post something every week; also as last year, I have not kept up. But I will still post something from every week, every chakra. So, here is a belated sexploration from week 2 (and a link to last year’s), the Sexy Chakra.

In thinking about how I wanted to spend my time that week, I felt a bit overwhelmed, the good ideas spilling out of me, swirling in my head way faster than I could get them down on the page. It’s where my and my fictional characters’ deepest problems, worries, and longings reside. It is a place of celebration and joy, too, and I wanted to express that, to not get hung up on the negative side.

Both sides were important to me since I could see how both were embodied in the single idea of feeling so deeply in touch with my innate sexuality—the joy that it brings, groundedness in true connection, wild intimacy, and knowing another on a deep (maybe the deepest possible) level; and, at the same time, the immense sadness of having lost something so long ago, the sorrow of a long journey back to innocent loving, giving, pleasurable touch and understanding (and how that loss is echoed in the AIDS epidemic, no small thing). The incredible wastefulness of it all, the time lost, and the mental anguish endured still boggle me.

I have spent a lifetime trying to get back to that feeling where sex is all good, where there is no shame, no hiding, no deception, no trickery involved in pretending or fooling the other person into falling into what you both wanted from the start. Yet, even with all the thought (and writing) I had invested in this, the years of experimenting and experiencing, living and giving in the most loving, open, vulnerable, exposed way I knew how, I struggled still.

I am still working my way back to a time when there was no shame, no hurt, no judgment, no loneliness, no danger, no loss. I still look for that feeling—I’ve had glimpses of it—of completeness, of contentment and satisfaction in knowing that I am loved, I am seen, really seen, and that everything is all right.

Dave X Robb pretending to be deadDanger: Sex unsafe

Sex has always held an element of danger for me, whether it is the imagined danger of transgressing or getting caught or going to hell, or just of going somewhere I’ve never been before, a not knowing—there is some excitement in that kind of danger.

There is emotional danger, the risk of rejection and disappointment, of not getting that phone call back after what you thought was pretty good sex and a nice connection. The suffering of trying to repeat a happiness, combined with the suffering of trying to find it in the first place, can be enough to make even the strongest among us doubt the wisdom of trying at all. A lot of people give up.

Even during the happy time, it can be hard to banish completely worry over whether the happiness can be sustained. Like the erection I’m afraid of losing before the condom is out of the package and unrolled, these things can easily become self-fulfilling sadnesses.

And what if it does work out and I get a relationship going? Do I take the risk of talking about difficult things or do I instead avoid rocking the boat of my good fortune, thereby all but ensuring the relationship’s demise? Is there anything more demoralizing than a breakup?

Then there are, of course, physical dangers. It occurred to me some decades into my sexual life that I almost always choose partners with bodies smaller than mine. How’s that for a control issue? I chalk it up to not ever wanting to be in a situation I can’t get out of (and no handcuffs or ropes either, thanks, unless I know and trust you). Similarly, I seem to always be aware of the location of the nearest exit in a relationship.

Dave X Robb's first California IDThere is the physical danger of AIDS. Having come to the party a little late, my sexual awakening coincided perfectly with the national shutting down of sex. It felt like one of those big, heavy metal doors being rolled down over the front of a shop, and I’m left there standing on the sidewalk with my coupons.

I shouldn’t complain really. I’m alive today because of it. It’s not so hard to adapt to safe sex when you’ve not yet had the experience of full-on gay sex without the barriers. That and seeing people dropping dead all around me made it reasonably easy to adopt safe sex.

I understood the logic of the ubiquitous prevention messages and knew I could, through sheer force of stubborn will, adhere to them like a straight-A student; yet I always felt uncomfortable with the admonition to use a condom every single time, to always assume your partner could be positive. Yes, it was practical, sound advice from a public health perspective at a time when literally half of all gay men in the city were HIV-positive. It was a simple, easy-to-understand guideline that made rational sense.

Dave X Robb fictionBut it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see how this might all come across as unappealing, albeit necessary, advice to a young gay man just coming to terms with and learning to celebrate his fierce gay pride. To see my lovers as potentially deadly, as ticking time bombs just waiting for a moment of weakness in my safe-sex resolve to explode in my ass, constituted a turn-off to say the least.

It was not so much that I wanted to have sex without condoms, those literal barriers between us, though I didn’t like them and I could imagine I might be missing out on something pretty fabulous, having heard as much from those who had experienced such a thing. I was not even particularly afraid of the virus, by which I mean I trusted condoms to do their job and trusted myself to use them properly and consistently, good student that I was.

It was this: I didn’t like assuming my partners were lying.

That was the part I could never get used to. I didn’t like being told to treat every partner as someone who could be, through malevolence or selfishness or just plain ignorance, putting my life at risk. I didn’t like always coming from a place of distrust and fear. I thought, We are better than that.

xoWe are in a different time now, and a lot of people seem to be having a hard time wrapping their heads around it. In an era where condoms aren’t the only safe sex choice, where you are safer fucking an HIV-positive man on treatment and undetectable than practically anyone else, where preventative treatment has been shown to work, and where—let’s just be honest and say it—HIV is nowhere near as scary as it once was, it might be time to consider what safety means and to reevaluate our risk tolerance and our approach to safe sex, each of us in our own way.

Nobody is saying to throw safety out the window, though you would never know it from reading the claims of screeching op-eds to the contrary. But the game has undeniably changed, hard as it may be to take that in (understandably—we’ve been living with the same safe-sex messages for 30 years, after all). That said, it has always been the case that you don’t need protection if you’re having sex with someone you know to be of the same status, positive or negative, as yourself. If you trust that person and are sure of your own status, then you have a choice.

Where You From You Sexy ThingIn my book, trust is necessary to intimacy, and intimacy is necessary to good sex (and good sex is just, well, if not necessary, at least important). Sometimes I choose to trust. I’m not stupid about it. With guys I know and love and trust, though, I have chosen to lay down my fear. That doesn’t guarantee that I will never contract HIV by mistake, but the odds are on my side; and in a world full of uncertainty—where HIV matters, but so do other things—it is a minuscule risk I find worth taking.

And yes, sure, sex without condoms feels better—my older gay brothers were not lying—but more than that, it feels way better mentally. It’s what I was missing.

My Writing Process

Dave X Robb in the kitchenHELLO THERE. THIS POST is part of a blog tour called My Writing Process. It’s kind of like a chain letter for bloggers, but without the annoyance of having to send something in the mail in the hope of receiving back 1,000 of the same kind of thing, which of course never seemed to work as planned anyway, but it never mattered because you didn’t want all those recipes or pot holders or post cards or whatever it was in the first place.

This is about sharing information about the writing process in a personal way, and I recommend you do it too if you have a blog or even if you don’t. It’s a good exercise to do just to learn more about yourself as a writer. The sharing makes it even nicer. Here are the official My Writing Process Blog Tour instructions:

Step 1: Acknowledge the person (and site) who involved you in the blog tour.

Step 2: Answer these 4 questions about your writing process.

Step 3: Tag another writer or 2 to answer the questions the week after you. Give a one-sentence bio of each, and link to their websites.

WHO TAGGED ME? I was tagged by writing coach, blogger, grammarian, writer, lunch-companion-cheerleader and friend Kristy Lin Billuni, aka the Sexy Grammarian. Sex and grammar–what a great combination! Her answers to the questions can be found here. Kristy was tagged by incomparable, inspirational writer-teacher-friend Minal Hajratwala, whose answers are here.

I’M TAGGING: Next week (or so), you’ll be able to read #MyWritingProcess posts from Chauna Craig, a wonderful writer-educator-imagineer (to borrow from her website; the “wonderful” is mine, though) and inspiring, supportive long-distance friend with whom I’ve had the pleasure of taking a couple of online writing courses; and Katayoon Zandvakili, an absolutely amazing poet, memoirist, blogger, and painter I also met in an online class, but have since met in real life…and she’s just wonderful!

I’ve asked a couple of other terrific bloggers I’d love to introduce you to and will add them to the list when I hear back from them, if they’re willing. If you’re a blogger or writer and want to post your own answers, please do! Just follow the instructions above, use the #MyWritingProcess Twitter tag or link to your blog post from your Facebook page or do both. Also ping me on Twitter, Facebook, or in a comment below so I can help you spread the joy.

Here are the questions and my answers:

1) WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

I’ve been blogging for a little over three years now, try to write a daily 1000 words or so on whatever is on my mind, and am getting my feet wet in the poetry pool. The blog started as musings on the intersection of 1970s music, grammar, and my love life; it has since evolved into something a bit more introspective, with a decidedly Buddhist tilt, but it’s still fun (for me, anyhow) and still ties in with pop music much of the time.

The project I am most excited about at the moment is weaving a collection of short fiction pieces into a novel about love and sex and heartbreak and healing that is hopefully going to be a lot more interesting than I’ve just made it sound. It’s sexy and sad and hopeful.

2) HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS’ WORK IN THE SAME GENRE?

Well, by saying “genre,” there’s already an implication that my work fits in with other work out there, and I would say that’s true. I think the difference is in how I present it personally, which is of course something we can all say. So, I don’t worry about being different because I automatically will be. If you take my genre to be “gay fiction,” or maybe “gay erotic fiction,” you could say that the stuff I’m writing is not just for gay men, but could appeal to anyone who has been through the kind of emotional stuff I’m writing about. The feedback I’ve gotten so far seems to confirm that. And, I know I’m not the only one doing it, but I do think it’s less common to find people writing about sex—maybe especially gay sex, because of the trauma we’ve all been through—in a way that isn’t just about the physicality of it. Mind you, I don’t shy away from that stuff; in fact, I like hardcore sex description a lot, but it’s not enough. It’s hard to get turned on by descriptions of sex without there also being some strong element of emotion, some connection to the characters and what they are feeling, in both their bodies and their minds. I think that’s why the vast majority of gay porn and erotica (and sex apps, for that matter) leaves me cold. And I have a feeling other people feel the same way. They’re looking for something more human, for feeling and connection, in real life and in what they’re reading.

3) WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?

I like this question. I do it both for myself and for others. My initial motivation for writing was not so very profound; it was just something I thought I’d like to get good at because I loved reading so much and admired how writers could work their magic. I’ve always loved language and grammar, and I was already an editor, so it wasn’t a great leap. I thought writing was something I’d be good at because people liked the way I told stories and encouraged me, and so I started the blog.

The more I wrote, the more I saw a real value in it for myself. It became my way of working things out. I guess that was the case even before I published anything online. I’ve written journals for 30 years, off and on, so I already knew writing could help me. I’d never thought of it as potentially helping other people until I started posting things.

I especially like writing the gay love stories. Because the stories are so close to me and my lived experience, I feel like I can write them with some kind of authority; I’ve lived them, and so I know what I’m talking about. It’s easy for me to understand my characters’ motivations and reactions when I can connect them to real people, myself or others, and real things that have happened. The writing also forces me to see things from others’ points of view, which is immensely valuable and sometimes tough work psychologically. So, that is an added benefit for me.

The more honest I can be emotionally, the more real the stories feel, the easier it will be for readers to connect and see themselves in what I write. One of my motivations is to try and heal the trauma that so many gay men have lived through, both in the struggles of coming out and facing hatred and abuse, physical and psychological, self-hate in many cases; and in having come through the AIDS war, the loss of so many lives, so much potential, friends and lovers gone, having to change our way of loving each other, survival guilt and burnout, issues of trust and intimacy getting overrun by the necessities of safety and survival, all of that.

Gay men are so amazing for the strength we’ve had to develop, but many of us are also deeply wounded by what we’ve been through. I want to begin to point the way toward uncovering and healing some of that and showing how to love. I’m such a big love-pusher. If I had a mission statement, that would be in it.

4) HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?

I’m pretty messy about it. I don’t know that I even have anything you could call a process, so my answer here won’t be very helpful. You just have to write. I find that my best writing comes out of freewriting, keeping the pen going and not stopping, just getting a whole lot on the page. A lot of times, my journal writing will uncover ideas that I then decide to turn into poems or scenes or blog posts, or sometimes a short piece will inspire a longer piece. Eventually, I accumulate enough bits of things that kind of go together, and I start looking for ways to connect them into something bigger, building that way. That’s the plan, anyhow. We’ll see if it works.

But I don’t have a lot of good advice. Just keep writing. Write a lot. I find that I have to write a lot to get a little that I like. And you have to live, and pay attention to what you’re living so you’ll have things to write about. Keep a notebook handy at all times.

For me, writing is a discipline. I don’t naturally make it a priority. I need projects and deadlines—most of the time fake, self-imposed deadlines—for me to get anything done. That’s why I love taking online writing classes with Minal and meeting with my writing group once a month–those things keep me writing and make me accountable to others. I can’t do it myself. Individualism is such a horrible thing. I know that goes against the writer stereotype.

I also struggle with how to know when something’s done. One of my vices is perfectionism. I worry over things too much. I sand off the rough edges and polish so much sometimes that I like the end product a lot less than what I started out with. So, part of my process is noticing when I’m dallying rather than sending something out into the world where it belongs.

No words for my love

Aerosmith: Walk this wayI’M LATE AGAIN, I know it. Internet was down at the abode for the whole first part of the month, but it’s back now, not that it makes such a good excuse. I’ve also been busily doing my homework for the Writing from the Chakras class I’m taking for the second time. You may recall I took the class last year at this time. I got so much out of it, I decided to take it again.

Not entirely sure how to do it, but not wanting to disappoint myself by having less dramatic breakthroughs this time around, I have resolved to go deep. Week #1 was about the Root Chakra, and I used the occasion to explore the origin of my fears. In particular, I wanted to know better what drives my lifelong search for love and sex and deep, intimate connection, and more than that, my search for peace of mind and contentment around it all.

This took me on an inward journey back through time to try and uncover those early memories of trying to feel loved and happy, traveling back through a parade of relationships including my “trying-to-be-normal-and-accepted” girlfriend excursions, which I took quite seriously at the time.

I didn’t stop there. I kept rewinding, deeper, reeling in the years to a time before sex and dating and junior prom, to a time of pure innocence, a time when I felt no shame and no compulsion to be anyone other than my true self because I knew no better.

My roots have soaked up and hold the memories I have long forgotten, body memories and feelings I cannot explain but feel strongly still. I had no words for what I felt, my attraction as natural as the weather, love and desire without even knowing it. What did I know?

Somerset Middle SchoolAnd I was able to pinpoint the moment when that changed, when all of a sudden I got the message that something was wrong, I was wrong. I got the words that day in the 6th-grade locker room for something I had no idea was a problem, had no idea was anything at all. My natural way of being stopped that day in the fall of 1970.

It took an action, a bringing together of witnesses, a sharing of these sensations with other fellow beings, classmates naked in a school gym locker room, all of us still mere children and dumb, but I somehow dumber, sheltered maybe from knowing what most boys my age already knew; or maybe it was just that they were different from me, strengthened by their being united in feeling what I didn’t, or in not feeling what I did.

And this is when my root was severed, cut from all nourishment, feelings left to wither and die, a sprout buried under heaps of too much pungent, dark, rich soil. Dirt. Dirty, yes, dirty and shameful. Soiled. I hadn’t a clue, really, until that point. I hadn’t a word for it, hadn’t even thought of needing a word for this completely natural sensation of excitement, attraction, and lust. It seems strange to speak of an 11-year-old’s lust, but that’s what it was.

Suddenly I had a whole new vocabulary of epithets to describe myself—faggot, fairy, homo, queer. I wanted to die. Welcome to middle school, where our cohort of innocents split into tribes, warring factions, splinterings. Middle school, all new, with its budding adolescent bodies, mouths, and minds, nakedness in the group showers, jockstraps and gym uniforms, cliques and dances and fumbling dates, night moves and cigarettes, and, hovering above it all, popular music, all these ways to judge and rank and pressure, to cast out the weak ones, evolution theory in action.

Hormones raging and no way to release any of that pent-up spunk and energy, no outlet and no privacy and no one to talk to about all this, much less kiss or touch or take a stab at sex with, at least I had a good record collection.

Shelter from the Storm

Barbra Streisand: PeopleWHERE DO WE GO for refuge? There is a Buddhist answer to that question, and it’s a good one—the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and though that ought to be enough for me, I find that I still rely on another source of refuge in my life.

People.

What do I mean by refuge? For me, it’s about finding a place where I can feel supported, especially when I am not strong enough on my own. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, be exposed and vulnerable, and know I will be loved. Shelter from the storm: we all need that. I hope I can provide it for others, too.

This idea became clear to me recently when the three people in my life who I consider most important to my feeling grounded and loved happened to be, all at the same time, away or otherwise unavailable for a spell. Lucky for me, I have a lot of wonderful friends who contribute to making me happy, so I was not alone. I am also a whole lot better than I used to be at being on my own and knowing that I am always connected, so there was that, too. It was not a crisis, in other words.

But it was interesting. It was really striking to have that small support network of mine temporarily unavailable. It made me realize how much I rely on them, and how lucky I am. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

People want to be supported unconditionally. I guess that is one of the big attractions of marriage. I am skeptical of the notion that we can find one person to provide all that we need, forever. I’m not even sold on Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracksthe idea that we need anything from anyone—ideally, we wouldn’t, and I’d like to get to the point of experiencing the truth of that. But until I reach such an enlightened state, I am glad for my support system. It’s nice.

So many people in our culture make a fuss about finding that special one, what we used to call a “soulmate.” (Does anyone still use that word, or have they all been laughed off the dating websites?) One is the loneliest number. Who decided that one is enough? And does anyone honestly believe that there is only one person in the universe we are destined to find and stick with for life? Dating is challenging enough without the pressure to find the supposed one in 7,236,660,000 you could be happy with.

I was reading something recently about arranged marriages in India. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, not by a long shot, and I know these things are fraught with problems—gender and economic inequities and so forth. Despite that, it got me thinking. We modern Americans tend to look down on the idea as limiting individual freedom (Gasp! The horror!), but looked at a certain way (theoretically, at least), there could also be a very nice element to arranged marriage: an attempt by society to match people up, to be sure no one ends up onKurt Vonnegut: Slapstick their own (unless they want to be). Yes, I know that’s not how it always works in practice. That said, I’ve read studies showing people in arranged marriages generally tend to be happier and are more likely to stay together. I’ll bet the lack of unreal expectations is a factor. Love the one you’re with.

So, maybe not marriage, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could count on having someone they could count on? It seems like human nature to seek refuge in each other. I remember long ago reading something along those lines by Kurt Vonnegut, some kind of scheme to match people up. Lonesome no more! And so it goes.

 

Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin IVI’M STILL PLAYING MY records in reverse chronological order, in case anyone is wondering, though I’ve not talked about that much lately. I’m in 1971, which you might say is the first year I was fully conscious of and beginning to obsess about pop music.

A whole lot of good records came out that year, and it seems like the biggest standouts on my list of favorites are clustered toward the end of 1971: “Theme from ‘Shaft’” by Isaac Hayes; the double-sided hit single “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” by Rod Stewart; “Do You Know What I Mean” by Lee Michaels; and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” all come to mind.

And then there’s Led Zeppelin’s 4th album. It came out on my 12th birthday, though I didn’t notice at the time. It wasn’t until the early months of 1972 that I began obsessing on the two songs from the album that were getting the most radio airplay. One was “Black Dog,” which climbed the charts as a single, incongruously played alongside the likes of Charley Pride and Redbone on American Top 40. The other was “Stairway to Heaven.”

I was still religious at the time, and I know that because I remember praying to thank God for having the record come out during my lifetime. (Yes, really.) I had this thing for long songs back then, something about getting your money’s worth out of a jukebox, maybe. I used to call WSAR to repeatedly request they play things like “Closer to Home (I’m Your Captain)” by Grand Funk Railroad and the long version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and was told they can’t play those songs too often because they’re so long, the logic of which escaped me. You would think DJs would prefer long songs so they can take cigarette breaks.

Led Zeppelin IV inside coverAmerican Pie” came along just in time to make the 8-minute song safe for radio; just in time for “Stairway,” that is. I became completely obsessed with the song. I would look at the album in the store, afraid to buy it. There were no words on the cover, front or back, just the scary old man carrying the sticks on his back and the peeling wallpaper. I think we had that same wallpaper in our kitchen.

Even the album title was a mystery, those crazy runes no one could figure out. I tried. I did a report about the album for class—English class, I think. It wasn’t unusual to do school reports on rock bands in those days—and did as much research as one can do at that age and with no Internet. I wrote a letter to Atlantic Records with a list of questions like “How many copies of the record have been sold?” and “What do those runes mean?” They never wrote back.

I remember one store listed it as Zoso because that was as close as you could get to it using our boring, modern alphabet. Another called it Runes. Most called it Led Zeppelin IV or just Led Zeppelin. We all knew it as the album with “Stairway to Heaven” on it. Who would have guessed Dolly Parton would cover the song decades later? If you’ve ever wondered what that song would sound like with a banjo in it, wonder no more.

I tried to find the 45 of “Stairway to Heaven,” but of course there was none. I hadn’t yet figured out that some songs got played a lot on the radio without being released as singles, but I wasn’t entirely to blame—it was a new concept, at least on AM radio. I did eventually get the album, but not until 1973, when I was a full-fledged teen.

Zeppelin yearbook quoteMeanwhile, the song’s mystical lyrics had an allure of their own—to a teenager, anyway. Back then, we all thought these words meant something important. I’m not sure if this one has Tolkien references like some other Zeppelin songs. Maybe. It seems very Middle-Earth. In Spanish class we had to translate a song of our choice into Spanish, and most people chose simple ones. I chose “Stairway to Heaven.” I think I fudged misgiven and hedgerow, but Señorita Souza didn’t seem to notice.

By the time I graduated, the wisdom of Led Zeppelin had been overshadowed by that of Pink Floyd. Only two classmates used lines from “Stairway to Heaven” as their yearbook quotes. I lifted my quote from an Argus poster. And it makes me wonder.