Cause I Am Here To Remind You
Author: Theodore Kerr
February 9, 2016
This week, Lambda Literary explores the ways in which music and literature influence each other.
Lying flat, in an overgrown mushroom cut, my limp hair is parted down the middle. I am in Grade 9, chubby, and wearing a green rayon “silk” shirt with an abstract patterned tie. My face is flushed. I am smiling and my eyes look small.
Beside me is a woman with big eyes and a lovely smile who, although only 18 at the time, could pass for 25. She has soft looking skin. Her auburn hair is slightly tousled. In a few years her hair will be famously longer. She will use it to hide behind as she sings to sold out stadiums the world over.
We are sitting in a plaid, purple hued, cushioned booth with a yellowy pioneer-motif mural behind us. Her arm is draped over me, hand extending past my shoulder almost on my chest. I am holding her hand, not grabbing. Holding. Our heads are slightly cocked in each other’s direction. Mine more than hers.
Growing up our lives are public knowledge. We are all famous in a hyper local ways. Stories about ill-timed erections are traded at sleepovers, and on playgrounds. News about promising grades are passed on by our parents at family picnics and across office cubicles , sports victories are shared at gas stations and grocery store line-ups, and budding youth romances are gossiped about in school and mall parking lots. Getting older, our lives become privatized. Some of us fence ourselves in, or use walls to be selective about what we let out. Personal information gets locked down. Meanwhile supercomputers hum in the great plains of the United States, hot with all there is to know about us. Almost.
Taking up space on one of those servers is a digital copy of a the photo from the night I met Alanis Morissette, which I posted years back on Facebook. The image dates back to 1992 when she was still a Canadian pop star, singing the national anthem at minor hockey league games, and touring the country not to play, but to meet geeky teens who had won local TV show contests. It was actually my friend who had won the contest, not me. I had entered 13 times, and he entered once at my urging. I later found out I had been disqualified because the quality of my questions were too good. The producers of the local music show thought that I was just taking questions from Spin Magazine. Luckily my friend was allowed to bring someone.
The night of meeting Alanis I was nervous. I remember standing in the vestibule of The Keg, a chain of Alberta restaurants, during a chunk of time not anticipated by the representative from the record company or the TV producer. Sensing an opening I just dove in and started bombarding Alanis with questions about her songwriting, her life, and things she had said in past interviews. Looking back, I feel like a proto-version of the Chris Farley character from Saturday Night Live that asked Paul McCartney, “Remember–remember the time you were in The Beatles?” At one point I asked her if she felt hexed because of the supposed curse on the “Most Promising Female Artist” Juno award she had won the year earlier. (Canadian equivalent to a Grammy.) She looked at me and then at everyone standing around us and said something like, “I think he knows more about me than I do.” I was embarrassed and proud, a feeling all too common for a young teenager.
Having more courage than sense I surged on, pulling out my point and shoot camera, asking Alanis to pose. It was a mini photo shoot that resulted in me saying, “pretend you are going to hump the wall,” a command she happily obliged, which saved the moment from any creepiness that could’ve come from a nearly pre-teen gay boy asking a grown woman to simulate sex acts with an inanimate object.
By the time we sat down, I was feeling close to her, but still nervous. There was a moment, soon after the photo of us sitting together was taken, where my shaky, dimpled hand went for the nachos. Sensing my nerves, Alanis placed her hand on mine and said, “It’s okay.”
Years later “You Ought To Know” was on constant radio rotation. I remember groups of girls clumping together on the schoolyard, shouting out the lyrics, reveling in the almost wounded animal sounds her delivery gave permission to recreate. I remember boys rolling their eyes, making wisecracks about which girl would go down on them in a theatre. I remember my first boyfriend telling me during our late night phone calls how many Jagged Little Pill albums he sold that day at the record shop.
During this time, long before the photo of us began circulating, people told others the story of how I met Alanis as a way of connecting to fame, and aligning themselves with her. As Canadians, we told the story to remember that Alanis had once been our dance superstar. I remember driving around shopping mall parking lots the year after high school listening to Jagged Little Pill on repeat, laughing about how foolish I must have seemed to her when we met. Thinking about it made me feel closer to her, and for no reason I could name, gave me hope that a meaningful adulthood lay ahead.
Beside me in the photo of Alanis and I, just out of view, is a brown leather coat that belonged to my dad. It had long been too small for him, and was still slightly too big for me. Referring to the 1980s TV show, we called the jacket the Fall Guy coat. In the TV show, Lee Majors played the title character who every week would catch an escaped bad guy, always after a death defying montage of stunts. He would jump out of helicopters, scale buildings, and run through tunnels. Lee Majors was a big star in our house, a down to earth heroic everyday kinda guy who dated Farrah Fawcett in real life but was still humble. My mom saw him and Farrah once when she worked at a fancy mountain resort hotel.
The night before I was to meet Alanis, in front of the closest in the spare bedroom of my parents’ suburban house that held all the items my dad could not part with, my mom pulled the Fall Guy coat off the hanger and suggested I try it. After I put it on she said I looked “spiffy,” our family’s word for well put together. My little brother, just a toddler at the time, jumped up and down, reacting to the sense of excitement and tension in the room. My dad didn’t say anything. By then he had been unemployed for years, worn down by the world. Even the roar of his abuse that had once filled the house had dulled. “Bob, doesn’t Teddy look spiffy?” my mom urged. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
Sensing a sadness in him which related to the coat in a way I could not make sense of, I did something that became my habit. I offered myself up as a punchline. Wearing the coat, I did a spin, stage whispering the words, “Fall Guy” as I orbited back to my parents’ faces, pivoting on one foot, landing on my knees, with jazz hands outstretched, fingers sparkling to the stars. A smile jerked across my dad’s face. Because all eyes were on me I was the only one who got to see it.
I have lost the original photo and only the digital one posted on Facebook remains. I sometimes share it and each time it accumulates new “likes” and new comments. People I have not seen in a long time will say something like, “I haven’t seen this until now. How sweet it is.” Newer friends will come across it and understand why I so often quote Alanis lyrics: “What!? Oh, wow. It’s all so much clearer now.” One of my favorites is a 2012 comment from “me” written by my boyfriend at the time: “in this moment, while logged onto your Facebook at work on a Saturday afternoon, this photo makes me love you a little bit more. And maybe Alanis too…” Reading this used to give me a pang in my gut of love lost, but not anymore. It is part of a collection, a web of relationships and moments, “likes,” and comments that stem from a single image.
Alanis is a mother now, working on a book about her life, and focusing on helping others by sharing her experiences. She has described her time in the spotlight as traumatizing, coming to understand that being known and seen did not solve all her problems. That there was power in silence, and in doing the internal work. Since the photo was taken, I have long lost track of my friend who brought me. I have moved across the continent, the baby fat is gone from my face, my hair is receding, and my dad died a few years ago of cancer. The only thing that remains the same is the Fall Guy coat, hanging in the closet of my parents’ suburban home, placed back on a hanger in the hours after the photo was taken. The coat keeps space and time on the Alberta prairies, humming loud in my mind every time I see the photo.