Sylvia Rexach

Alma Adentro

By Lemon Peralta

“Now you tell me what am I?”

My abuela‘s favorite question. It came out when she had done something particularly American: “Now you tell me what am I? Puertorriqueño?  Or americano?

Now every fifth grader knows that Puerto Rico is an American territory. I’m not arguing with that. Are you, Mr. Cotton Candy-head? But just as Southerners are Southerners and Northerners and Northerners and Californians are really anorexic New Yorkers on Xanax and tanning spray, so Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans. Despite this, my abuela liked to make claims about how American she was.

She was about as American as a yuca empanada.  Besides “Now you tell me what am I?” her favorite American phrases were “I don’t like you what you say ’cause you fool” and “Hootchie Cootchie.” She dressed like she had wandered into her mamá‘s 1960’s-era closet covered in glue and come out with every paisley scarf and gaudy-as-shit piece of jewelry stuck to every available surface. And she smoked like a blackened hot dog fallen through the grill of a faulty Hibachi.

She was my idol.

empanada
Empanada

But with her shriveled-up face and her bright black eyes and the apartment always smelling of coffee and tostones, the answer to her question seemed pretty obvious to my brother and me. We would joke about it when she wasn’t looking: “Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog or an empanada?”

We both went through a Courtney Love phase and even our dear beloved abuela wasn’t safe from it. My brother bleached his hair. I pierced my belly button. But the worst thing we did was to start eating Americano. My brother spent all his money on Kentucky Fried Chicken. I swore off plantains. I hadn’t trusted them since I was young. Something about the combination of starchiness, the greenish taste of a banana but without the actual flavor of banana, and the funk of sliminess always lurking around the edges. It took me years to overcome my aversion, and I probably don’t have to clarify that it took something Jamaican with Y chromosomes to change that.

But as much as I tried I couldn’t give up the yuca. And grandma knew it. Yuca is inedible until you cook it. It starts out like a tree branch and becomes creamy and delicious when you boil it, like sticky mashed potatoes. When abuela made it I felt a slippery connection with my heritage. So that’s how she got me. That, and the music. 

My abuela never listened to much music around the apartment. It was always a surprise when she did, and not just because the record player was more a piece of furniture than a listening instrument. It was always hidden beneath heaped-up newspapers and straggly potted plants and piles of cats. Digging it out was an ordeal. It usually meant sweeping up spilled dirt and surviving a couple of scratches from El Diablo, the one-eyed bastard who loved my pillow but hated my actual person.

There was a cache of records hidden in a secret compartment. If you put the record on without remembering to switch the speed to 78 rpm you would end up with the sounds of a full-fledged demonic possession. But if you put it on the right speed you would usually hear Sylvia, most often singing “Alma Adentro.”

sylvia rexach 2This chain-smoking, bling-wearing, shriveled old apple had music in her soul. In her music, she was puertorriqueño. Somewhere inside that blackened hot dog was a glowing ember, and when we caught her listening to it my brother stopped bouncing his basketball, my mother turned down her Sally Jessy Raphael. A hush came over the apartment like a tacky veil over a fifteen-year-old at her quinceañera. We’d all stop to listen to Rexach’s voice, in that slightly wobbly 78 rpm timbre, and the rattle of the plate used to catch the extra water underneath the geraniums. I could close my eyes and see the tree ferns and coconut palms, and hear the waves caressing the moonlit shore underneath the serious moonlight. And our hard American bodies and souls would become soft, mushy, and delicious.

Even today I sometimes look up “Alma Adentro” on Youtube and play it back.

Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog, or an empanada?

Advertisements
Sylvia Rexach

Jo Stafford

Haunted Heart

By Kedrick Rue

Laurel.Canyon.Blvd_.sign_.9900N-600x397I am driving up Laurel Canyon from a day in the city. There is little nature in Los Angeles, but what is there seems to be concentrated in the canyons that separate Los Angeles from the Valley. Between the two locations is a deep, winding rift in the plastic-and-concrete reality of Hollywood. It is as if all of the dreams out of which these fictions originate well up out of this rift.

When I was a child, we lived in these hills. My father worked at Lookout Mountain Studios, and I still own the house, whose location I shall not disclose, and which I call the Rectory. There were folkies, and hippies, and Satanists running through the woods at the time, along with children. Joni Mitchell sang songs from her terrace not that far from my house, in preference to having to make conversation, while David Crosby chased groupies through the caves hollowed out in the bedrock below his bedroom.

One morning I came outside to find a number of tiny people with flowers gathered in the garden. At the time, this didn’t seem strange, as I would regularly come upon one of Frank Zappa’s G.T.O.’s dressed as a butterfly, or a wandering itinerant who appeared to be There Were Folkieshomeless but who nevertheless had numerous expensive silk scarves draped around his neck. But these people were different. They were fairies, or pixies, or whatever you want to call them. They were tiny, and seemingly made of light, and they were all gathered around a tiny puddle where a toad presided, staring solemnly at the two who appeared to be their King and Queen, draped as they were in flower petals and cobwebs.

Then someone in the canyon began to play electric guitar and everything vanished.

Did my parents put something in my breakfast orange juice? Impossible. Did I inhale the leftover pot smoke from a party nearby? Unlikely. Did I dream this fairy wedding? I’m still not sure.

What I am sure of is that in my youth, my parents were friendly with people who worked in and around the film and music industry, and my imagination at this time was fertile. The canyons seemed like an enchanted place, where anything could happen. There was no sense of danger. At least before the Manson murders.

Sometimes my parents would sometimes bring home keepsakes from their parties or their time at the studio. One of these keepsakes which I cannot shake, and which is constantly on my turntable at the Rectory, is a record from Jo Stafford which contains the song “Haunted Heart.”
Jo Stafford
Haunted Heart, my haunted heart.
There’s a ghost of you within my haunted heart.
Ghost of you, my lost romance.
Lips that laugh, eyes that dance.

My father may have played the record that day, or maybe I did. All I know is that it’s inextricably tied to that image of the fairy wedding. The hippies, for the most part, are gone, priced out of the canyon. The folkies are gone. Even the Satanists are gone. My parents are gone, but I am not, and the image is not. And when the magic of the canyons seems to have faded, taken over by the plastic or the concrete or the gentrification or the business end of things, I remember that fairy wedding, and I remember that song. It haunts me in the very best possible way.

Haunted heart won’t let me be.
Dreams repeat a sweet but lonely song to me.
Dreams are dust, it’s you who must belong to me
And thrill my haunted heart.
Be still, my haunted heart.

Haunted Heart on YouTube

Jo Stafford

Cloudbusting–Kate Bush

By Andrew Fort

Hounds_of_love

 

When the album “Hounds of Love” came out I was in high school. Even though Kate Bush was hugely popular in Europe, she was still perceived in the U.S. as bizarre, willful, and somewhat immature. If anyone knew about her at all, it was as “that chick who sang with Peter Gabriel.” I think that’s still all most people here know about her.

But I was obsessed. I had all the albums–on cassette. I read all the interviews. People used to see me walking home from school and think I was talking to myself. I wasn’t. I was just singing the entire album to myself. From start to finish. Track by track. With sound effects.

Kate Bush looking childish
Kate Bush looking childish

But I was a Freshman, so people wrote me off, and I was left to my liner notes and reviews. I remember one in particular (in ROLLING STONE, I think) which was unable to deny the songcraft and production ingenuity of the album, but which still wrote off the lyrics as nothing more than the rantings of a woman with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. And though I would have vehemently denied it to anybody I was trying to convert, I always felt the same about this one particular song, Cloudbusting: bizarre, willful, somewhat immature. I mean, she actually sings from the perspective of an eight-year-old here. She sings about her glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. She sings about her dad being taken away by the government.

a book of dreamsPerhaps not coincidentally, my parents split up around this time. My dad had been jobless for a long while and I think this was the source of the conflict. My mom felt like she had to do everything and my dad felt worthless, a them which would carry through the rest of his life. At the time I didn’t really understand the pressures of having a family, so I spent most of the time in my room, with my liner notes and interviews and cassette tapes. With the kind of obsessive attention that only a high-school Freshman seems to have time to lavish on his favorite music, I even went so far as to seek out the book which inspired the song: A BOOK OF DREAMS by Peter Reich. It explained the backstory: Reich’s father, the brilliant scientist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, regarded glow-in-the-dark items as radioactive and was later taken away by “men in black” who thought him dangerous. Yet is still didn’t excused the childishness of the song or the video, in which Bush, with the aplomb that only someone as brilliant as she can manage when being totally ridiculous, dresses as a child and spends time with her magical, brilliant father (played by Donald Sutherland) until he’s taken away. 

So. My father has been dead for nearly twenty years. He wasn’t brilliant. He wasn’t magical. Towards the end of his life he was close to being homeless, struggling with alcohol and joblessness. He wasn’t taken away by the government, but by a heart attack. And I was almost too busy trying to be an adult to even take notice.

About five years ago I wrote a calculatedly tear-jerking essay about him for a now-defunct website called Field Report. The site’s gone now, but at the time it was offering $1,000 prizes for winning entries. Even though I have never really written for money, this time I did. I won the $1,000, as I knew I would. But I still didn’t feel much. Because my dad had always been a cipher, someone I was vaguely embarrassed by.

Quickly enough the $1,000 evaporated, as money tends to do. And little things began to permeate the air, like alpha particles being ejected from a radioactive material. I began to feel guilty for writing the piece. I remembered the time my dad got so angry at my older sister that he broke down the bathroom door with his bare hands while she hid inside. I remembered the birthday when I had given him a carton of cigarettes, because he couldn’t afford his own. Then, the next year, to atone for contributing to his terrible smoking habit, I gave him a book of Mark Twain stories, only to learn somewhat later that he was most likely dyslexic and could barely read. As someone who writes, this realization hit me the hardest.

Then, slowly, happier memories began to come through. Tickle-torture matches. The way he could dance completely unselfconsciously, something I’ve never been able to do. How much he loved his parents.

My father wasn’t magical. He wasn’t brilliant. He was jobless, on the verge of homelessness, and could barely read. But I began to understand how difficult it all must have been for him. I began to see how earnestly he attempted to make a connection with his sometimes bizarre, willful, and immature offspring.Cloudbusting Quote

I think that what troubled me most about Kate Bush’s song when I was in high school was that it felt embarrassing and childish at a time when the last thing I wanted to be was embarrassing and childish. But the childishness was still with me. I hadn’t shaken it yet. And ultimately Kate Bush was right, as she seems to be about most things, given time.

My dad’s entire side of the family has died out, and often it seems to me like my his life was completely pointless, and it feels far too self-congratulatory to imagine that all of his struggling went towards forming my sisters and me.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway, because his memory is like Kate Bush’s yo-yo: something radioactive which I keep in my pocket. And it continues to emit energy into the air whether I acknowledge it or not.

Cloudbusting video on YouTube

Cloudbusting–Kate Bush

The Eagles

hotel-california-19

Hotel California

By Lara Shelton

When I was eighteen I had a boyfriend who was six years older than me. He had a farmer tan, a crew cut, and he wore Oakleys. The last book he had read was a 1979 Trans Am owners’ manual. He drank Hamm’s beer like it was water. But he was mine, all mine.

When my parents moved to California, I wanted to bag a surfer. But we moved too far inland and I ended up with a jet skier.

There’s a certain culture of “going to the lake” which involves Sea Doos, beer, and trailer hitches. I was never a part of this culture. There were too many muscle tees, too many bikinis, too much bleach-blonde. But this is how they do nature in Riverside: by dominating it. One does not walk alongside a quiet creek; one rips across a lake at top speed while blasting Def Leppard.

And my man was taking me to the lake.

I was prepared for it. I grabbed my bottle of Sun-In, my bottle of Hawaiian Tropic, my Croakies.

boat-rentalAnd then we broke up on the way there. I don’t really remember why; with this particular boyfriend it’s more difficult to remember why not. I remember arguments about abortion. I remember arguments about fundamentalism. I remember arguments about alcoholism. We did not see eye to eye, me and him. But he had taken the day off, and he was not going to waste it driving me back home.

We arrived at the lake. It was hot. I sat on the beach eating a bologna sandwich on white bread while he unloaded the jet ski. I had a six-pack of Hamm’s to keep me company, and I camped out in the scorching sand near a line of vacation houses—the low-rent kind that week-end partiers trash and lower-income families rent for two weeks every summer. The water was flat and steel-gray. The sky was nearly white, feathered with brown, like my ’80’s hair.

From one of the houses, someone began to play music. Hotel California.

To me, the Eagles were always something like the lake crowd. They were a part of the dominant inland culture, a part from which I felt alienated. It was well enough when this music was playing in the background at a 7-Eleven, but it was nothing I would have chosen to listen to deliberately. It was something I put up with.

jet-ski

Hotel California is a long song, and it got louder and louder as it played. It sounded as if the people at the house were playing it over a loudspeaker, rather than a normal system. It blared out across the flat surface of the water, claiming nature as its own. And I watched, getting buzzed on Hamm’s, as my ex-boyfriend flung himself back and forth across the lake, beating it into submission.

When the song ended on its protracted guitar solo, I briefly wondered what the yahoos in the house would put on next. And the answer, of course, was Hotel California. They put it on again, louder this time.

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.

Trouble out on the water. Screams, and voices over bullhorns. A police boat. People run to the edge of the lake, looking out from underneath bucket hats.

Living it up in the Hotel California
Any time of year, you can find us here.

The police boat brings someone in to shore: a sobbing woman in a bathing suit. She stumbles off the boat with the help of the officer. She has been drinking. There are children in the boat with her, and they follow, sobbing as well, bundled into awkward blobs by their O’Neill life jackets. The woman crashes to the sand on a beach towel; the children stand, still looking out at the lake. Someone else in their group says, “they’ll find him.”

And my ex keeps careening back and forth across the water.

They don’t find him—the woman’s husband, the children’s father. The music keeps going. Another round of Hotel California.

I offer the children bologna sandwiches and the mother gives me a dirty look, as if I were a pedophile.

I remember a very cruel thought going through my mind as a fourth round of Hotel California starts up again: you deserve this. Not the missing husband, not the weeping kids. She deserved the soundtrack. I felt that, in a way, she had chosen her tragedy, and she had chosen Hotel California.

lara-quote-hotelAnd so had I, in a way. They must have played Hotel California a dozen times that day. As evening fell, the woman and her children were loaded into a State Trooper’s van. Something about the scene cut directly to what California was for me, and still remains. Death was everywhere. Death was banal. Death was the sort of thing you might see on a holiday, and say, “Oh, how sad” before you turn up your music and get on the freeway to drive home.

My ex-boyfriend came in and loaded the jet-ski back on to the trailer. He was polite enough not to ask me to help, but only because he thought I might scratch it.

As we pulled away, I could feel my skin already beginning to smart from a day in the sun. I knew I would be smarting for a long time.

The Eagles

Call for Submissions

Is there a song that reminds you of that last, awkward Halloween when you were too old to Trick-or-Treat but unwilling to give it up? Is there a piece of music that reminds you of that snowed-in, boozy weekend in December with your then girlfriend and her annoying brother?

Prepare it for us and send it in! We’re looking for all kinds of submissions, from artwork to essays to embarrassing live covers on video in your basement.

www.medicineididntknowineeded@gmail.com

 

Call for Submissions