John Henry saved my life

The Planet's Leslie Mattern offers another installment of our reflections on life-changing albums:
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They Might Be Giants, John Henry.
I’d just like to get this out of the way up front, so it’s not over our heads the whole time, looming: I’m a cool kid. Always have been.

Okay with that being said, some people have thought otherwise, and maybe I would have believed them, had it not been for Wendy and John Henry.

Wendy is my sister, and when I was 9 she was 18, which at the time made her so much cooler than I could ever hope to be in my life.

At 18, she was very busy doing cool 18-year-old things, like going to concerts, sleeping over at her friends’ houses and cutting and dyeing her hair in crazy ways, all of which I envied from behind the crack of her halfway closed bedroom door. Of course I wasn’t granted entry. I was most definitely not cool enough (yet) to enter any part of her room.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t go in anyway, without her permission. My mom was even my accomplice on the nights when Wendy would sleep over somewhere else. On those nights, I’d get permission to sleep in her room. It was as if the first lady were to say, “Oh, you know Mr. President is out of town tonight, Leslie; you want to come frolic in the oval office. You can look through all his stuff. It’ll be between you and me.” Heck yes, I would!

Her room was nothing like mine; it had dark, cherry wood, and Morrissey looked tiredly upon me, while the The Smiths stood defiant and bored in their Chuck Taylors and windswept locks in the poster above her bed. Her drawers were full of amazing trinkets: vials of ink, hair goop, notes from friends in bubble-sloppy handwriting. There were no frilly flower drapes, no schoolbooks neatly stacked on a desk, no Storytelling Participant stickers stuck to the side of a book case, this was no kids room, this was the room of someone wise, mature, and superiorly with-it.

The trophy of the room, the treasure I always saved for last inspection was the tower of CD’s near the stereo. I’m not exaggerating when I say opening the CDs and hearing the foreign sounds of guitar strums and drumbeats was a spiritual experience. Each CD was a key to a secret door to the most powerful emotions I would ever find within myself. Some of the CDs I feared: Jesus Jones’ demonic visage cackling on the cover, the Joshua Tree with its ethereally spooky lone tree looking back at me. I’d leave those alone; they could keep their secrets. I guess as a kid I still thought this powerful noise could steal my soul. It might’ve.

R.E.M. intrigued me, the machined sunburst behind the words, "Automatic for the People.” Nightswimming made me believe in poetry and New Orleans Instrumental #1 in God, and in my head as I fell asleep to the soft sweetness of brimming violins, I dreamt the colors of the music. They were beautiful.

I don’t remember which night it was that I found John Henry, by They Might Be Giants. I just remember seeing the little girl, serious and kind-of like me, holding the sledgehammer in a pretty way. I liked her, she wasn’t so happy but she seemed nice. I put in the CD, and I was attacked.

It was raw and dry and unpretty, no pillowy woodwinds, no Michael Stipe voice warbling. I’m sure my face made the same expressions it makes now when I hear music for the first time, something between confused, scared and serious. I stuck through Subliminal barely moving my feet to the uber bass coming from the speakers until Snail Shell.

Ah, Snail Shell. Snail Shell made so much sense to me then, and it still does. It was simple and fun and somehow dark. I made the song go repeat for at least a half hour as I funked around my sister’s room in my own weird way, breaking it down during the bass solo. I still have some pretty wickedly weird dance moves, probably mostly because of that moment.

Breathless and shiny, I pressed forward through the rest of the tracks, dancing and shimmying to every single one. I didn’t skip any, each one got it’s own dance recital.

The scene in my head is more comical now then it was to me then. Then it was cathartic, the music streaming from the speakers was my oxygen, and the beat tapping out from my feet was my language. It made more sense to me than anything else I had experienced, granted that wasn’t too much at age nine, but it was a good start.

Which brings me back to how John Henry and Wendy saved my cool. The next day I had summer gifted classes at my elementary school in art and computers, and the art teacher let us bring in CDs to listen to while we worked. While I didn’t know exactly which music I did like, I knew I was damn tired of the Boyz II Men her 13-year-old son played for us the whole hour and a half. Yeah, the girls were crazy over these guys, but they’d all change their minds when they heard Snail Shell. They’d funk around too.

I smuggled the CD with me to school and showed it to Sheena Morales before art started. She looked at it unimpressed, and suddenly I was afraid it would be met with disdain and disapproval. So great was my fear of being outcast, I had decided to keep the CD to myself when the teacher’s son asked for any musical contributions, but Sheena ratted me out.

Reluctantly, I put the CD in the player and skipped through Subliminal straight to Snail Shell.
“Better to wow ‘em so they’re on my side for I Should Be Allowed To Think and Meet James Ensor,” I thought.

The first notes of the folksy-funk guitar rang out over the silent classroom and everyone looked up terrified. I’m sure they were wondering where the hell the Boyz II Men was. The teacher’s ever-intelligent son hee-hawed something like, “What is this? Country? This sucks.”

Of course everyone laughed, and Snail Shell was quickly replaced by I’ll Make Love to You (why the hell we were listening to that at the grand age of 9 still confuses me). I took back the CD and sat down to work on my silkscreen but not without getting the last word in, for the sake of Snail Shell, for the sake of my soul, “Losers.”

And they were. But me? Nope. I had graduated to cool, and John Henry was my diploma.

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