“There’s got to be something better than in the middle. But me and Cinderella, we put it all together. We can drive it home with one headlight” ~The Wallflowers
It was spring, 1997, and I was working hard at the campus library, even though I was on academic probation. None of the other workers knew that because I was pretending to keep a school schedule, even pretending to have study breaks every now and again. It was tedious, all the pretending, but it was necessary because campus jobs were just for students. So I kept showing up for work, getting a paycheck every Friday, and wasting it on things I couldn’t tell you the next day, much less now, over 18 years later.
Every day after work I would get out my tiny radio, plug in my headphones (yes, real headphones), and lose myself in the world of the radio. That spring songs like Semi-Charmed Life, by Third Eye Blind, I Want You, by Savage Garden, and The Freshmen, by The Verve Pipe, arrested my attention because they were new, they were hip, and they allowed me to pretend things were normal.
You see, it was all about illusion with me back then, hoping that people believed the facade I showed them, and one of the biggest parts of the facade was me with those headphones on, casually strolling around campus as if it was just another day. And those songs were so typical, with their catchy hooks and their predictable melodies, I was able to melt into them.
Then 6th Avenue Heartache started playing on Q-102 and it was different. There was just something about The Wallflowers that commanded a different kind of attention. The lead singer’s voice was almost monotone, but it was deep, and it was soulful, and the melodies were more insistent than anything else on the radio at that time outside of maybe BLACKstreet. I became a fan, and like with me and everything musical, I had to have the album.
So I went downtown to The Wall and saw the album prominently displayed next to the Spice Girls, which struck me as mildly funny. I grabbed a copy, got out my Discman, and before I was even on the subway again I was awash in the sounds of all the other songs that made up what would turn out to be one of my favorite 90s records when all was said and done.
The song that stuck out the most to me during that first listen was One Headlight, for some reason I couldn’t fathom at the time. Now, looking back, I think it was the fragility of the story that it told, the tightrope between contrasting emotions of the narrator and what he left behind, the hollow tone juxtaposed with an aching sadness that drove itself deep into the recess between my ears.
And it still hits me the exact same way every single time I listen to it even now. Because even though I’m not still at the library pretending to be something I’m not, life tends to offer similar scenarios where I worry that all I’m operating on is one headlight in the dark, that I’m still trying to hide from the harsh world that could expose me at any turn. Maybe that’s just something I’ll have to keep working to try and get over, or maybe that’s just the way I’m meant to be, that this battle inside of me will eventually lead me to the light.
“Hey, come on try a little. Nothing lasts forever…”