Der Erlkönig–Franz Schubert

By Andrew Fort

Second in an October series of “spooky” songs*

*actual “spooky” content may vary

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I was a strange boy. Coddled and passive aggressive. Slightly effeminate and highly sensitive. Too smart for my own good and too dim to realize how the world worked. Living in a rarefied world of my own imagining, but without any specific talent to justify my otherness.

High school was especially awkward. I was too headstrong to slot myself in with any of the available social groups, and too scornful of superficiality to attempt to stand out much by means of anything resembling a fashion sense. There were lots of questions. Was I gay? Was I straight? Was I Goth? Was I too good for everyone else? Was I clinically diagnosable?

Things didn’t change much in college. I foolishly chose to go to USC, one of the most conservative of private colleges, because offered me a large scholarship, and because they had a Recording Arts program. I looked forward to sharing my wide-ranging musical interests, but my fellow students were only interested in Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I hovered on the edges of conversations for a couple of years, attempting to insert comments about the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir or Hoagy Carmichael, only to be met with annoyed looks. I nursed a hatred of U2, which always blared from the Frattiest of Frat Row houses.

So my college social life was a bust. And my showboating attempts to read Byron in the breakfast commons weren’t winning me any friends, much to my surprise. Hadn’t my teachers always praised my reading skills? Why weren’t my peers doing the same? I spent a lot of time a lone, or with a similarly morose boy named Michael who was drawn to me as if by magnetic force of mutual alienation. But we didn’t have anything in common either, and I had to listen to endless improbable stories of his most likely invented girlfriend, Juliet.

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I thought that maybe all I had to look forward to was a life of conversations involving sports (Go Trojans!) sex (Trojans, ha ha! Get it?) and cars (Dude, there was a crusty, dried up Trojan on the floor of his Camaro!)

Until I encountered Kenton. I say encountered because he was not the type of person you met, as on a level playing field. He was the type of person you encountered, as a woodland sprite or a friendly imp among the frat houses and crusty dried-up Trojans and Camaros. He was totally absorbed by the sparkle within his own skull.

He was clearly gay, but that wasn’t the point, even at a time and place where gayness was a dire sin. And in case it seems that this entry is going to go somewhere it’s not, let me make it clear that even if I had an interest in experimenting at that time, Kenton was definitely not my type. The first time I saw him was in the middle of a blazing California September, and he was dressed in a bubble-gum pink tank top and those ubiquitous Dove nylon shorts, and roller blades with elbow and knee pads. He left the blading gear on through the duration of our German class together.

This was the first time I found myself in really close proximity with someone who was clearly weirder than I. I have to admit I relished it. Here was someone I could complain about with my roommates, with whom I had nothing else to talk about. Can you believe what this freak did? Can you believe what this freak said? Can you believe what this freak wore?

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But ultimately, I protested too much. There must have been a note of admiration in my voice, or maybe my roommates thought I invented Kenton, the way Michael invented a girlfriend. The disbelief never faded, but the joy in talking about it soon did.

Then during one October class with the autumn leaves falling outside, Kenton sang Der Erlkönig, Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem about a father riding through the woods through the woods with his young, deathly ill son clutched to his chest. To an accompaniment of frenetic, thudding triplets, the Erlkönig–a sort of elf-king of the forest tempts the child with promises of fine clothes, riches, and dancing. And the child resists, until ultimately the Erlkönig takes him by force. The father arrives at his home with the child dead in his arms.

Like the child in the song, I felt tempted by these fairy-tale riches. My life, especially at the time, seemed to hang in a dangerous balance between the frenetic thudding of the everyday and the rich world of the imagination.

erlkoenig_schwindKenton sang the song in a pure, high, counter-tenor voice. He seemed to inhabit the world described in the lyrics. I can’t remember if he also sang the father’s parts two octaves lower, as David DQ Lee does in the video below. What I do remember was that his facial expressions were just as intense and, up close in the small classroom, just as unnerving and potentially embarrassing. And I was deeply embarrassed, because Kenton clearly had ten times the talent I did. I remember thinking at the time that he also belonged in the world more than I did. His weirdness added value to the world, where mine just made me feel like an outsider.

So now it’s October again, and the year is dying, and I’m wondering, as I do every year: has my particular weirdness added any value to the world? Or is it just a pose, a distancing mechanism which I use to make myself feel superior? Am I a Conscientious Objector to Mainstream Culture or just a failed part of it?

And I wonder where Kenton is right now, and if he feels as if he belongs in the world, or if the Erlkonig has pulled him away to his shadowy realm.

 

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Der Erlkönig–Franz Schubert

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