What was it about the black tee shirt displayed high on the wall behind the cash register at my favorite record store that had me so smitten? There were other tee shirts to choose from, but I just had to fall in-love with the one that had the words Sex And Drugs and Rock n’ roll emblazoned in white across the front. I thought that whoever wore that tee shirt must have been the epitome of cool.
It hinted at things I knew nothing about.
It was 1981 and the summer I turned thirteen, right before 8th grade: I was brimming with unbridled excitement and energy because I was finally allowed to begin to walk around on my own, exploring the mile distance between where I lived in Chelsea, down to the West Village where I went to elementary school.
This was the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Royal Wedding (Charles and Diana) and when MTV made it’s debut, changing the face of popular culture for good. And I wanted to be the epitome of cool.
It was also the summer my father and I argued about words. Yes, words.
Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
We had to have strong words between ourselves before he learned how to deliver a message and I learned how to accept it.
My father was an Episcopalian priest, and I was growing up in a seminary, a school for priests. (No wonder I was desperate and misguided in my search for “coolth”!)
From the age of ten, I spent all of my allowance and babysitting money on records and music magazines, which would provide lyrics for some popular songs. My money went to Blondie, David Bowie, Elvis Costello and the Clash. But I listened to the radio too, so I wasn’t all that discerning. I was hungry for the power of the beats and the music. And of course, the lyrics would float right over my head.
The first argument with my Dad that summer was over the lyrics he found in a magazine to the song Urgent, by Foreigner. His irrational rant just made him sound like a punitive old fart.
I think these were the offending words:
Got fire, in your veins, burnin' hot, but you don't feel the pain
Your desire, is insane, you can't stop, until you do it again
But sometimes I wonder as I look in your eyes
That maybe you're thinking of some other guy
But I know, yes I know, how to treat you right
That's why you call me in the middle of the night
You say it's urgent, so urgent, so-oh-oh urgent...
Just you wait and see, how urgent, my love can be, it's urgent...
“What junk are you poisoning your mind with!” He railed at me and at the magazine. “Do you know what this song is about?”
I didn’t like the song that much, but I said: “They’re only words, Dad.”
“They’re only words?” My dad’s voice echoed around the room in his rage. I had finally done it. I had driven him crazy.
“It’s about mindless sex and objectifying both men and women!”
Huh? Why was I trying to defend this song? He grounded me from record and magazine buying so that I could think about his perspective. “Words. Matter,” he said to me very slowly, once he had calmed himself down.
I felt completely distressed and disrespected. What a jerk, I remember thinking.
Legend has it that I cried in my room for a week, trying to think up better words to Urgent, or at least trying to think about another interpretation for the lyrics. Every time I read the lyrics, they made less and less sense. My family valued imagination, and there was definitely nothing of value in these lyrics. He was right in that regard, but I didn’t want to admit it.
A few weeks later, there was a new wave/rock concert at the seminary. One of the priest’s older children had a band called The Clonetones. It was a bright day and an oddity - a rock concert had never happened on seminary property. The female singer was the coolest person I had ever seen. She was wearing a white wedding dress and had long bleached blonde hair å la Brigitte Bardot. Cat eye make-up. I wanted to be her. One of the guys in the band was wearing a Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ roll tee-shirt.
I wished that I could walk around in a white wedding dress, combat boots, bleached hair and heavy eye make-up.
But if I couldn’t go all out, I could settle for trying to dye my hair and buying that Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ roll tee shirt I coveted, couldn’t I?
I remember taking the long walk down to the Village with my sister and some friends on a beautiful, sunny day to the record store. The black tee shirt with white writing was still there and taunting me.
“Why don’t you just put yourself out of your misery and buy it?” A friend said to me. Yeah - why didn’t I? I wanted it. I knew that my dad would freak out, but it was babysitting money - it was MY money! Fueled with excitement and self-righteousness, I made my purchase, and I wore it on top of my other clothes.
That was the one and only time I ever wore that tee shirt.
I arrived home to a very calm father who had obviously had time to think about his own message.
“Hey, look at my new tee shirt!” I announced to my parents who were sitting in the living room, listening to Bach. “Isn’t it cool?” (My tack was to be up front about it.)
“No, it’s not cool,” was the response, said in a calm, almost soothing way. “Sex, drugs, and rock n’roll. What do you think you are advertising?”
I had no answer except: “I used my own money.”
“Oh dear. Then, since you used your own money, I will buy it off you.”
“But, but, but . . .” I couldn’t get any words out.
My Dad stood up. “How much was it?” He reached into his pocket.
“Ten dollars.” I was sullen, having lost the battle before it even began.
He took out a ten dollar bill. I pulled off the tee shirt.
“Words matter, Léna. What we say about ourselves matter. The words we use to represent ourselves matter.”
I handed him the tee shirt and stomped upstairs. In my embarrassment and anger, I didn’t understand what he was saying. They’re just words. What about the thing kids say to each other: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?
I knew better. I knew that words had the power to hurt, to cut deeply. I also knew that words had the power to heal. I was falling in-love with language and with storytelling myself. Did I want to tell the world that at thirteen, I was available for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll? Was that my story?
A few years later he gave the shirt back to me when I didn’t think it was cool anymore, and obviously, I never wore it then either. Instead, as a talisman of my philisophical growth and homage to my father's lesson, I cut up the tee shirt and Sex and Drugs and Rock n' roll became part of the collage I had pinned to my wall.