So instead of spending my quality time with Bo, Luke, Daisy and the General, I was getting my hair did. The soirees at the Milton Hoosic Club were swank affairs, with a live band to play “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Cocaine,” and the same songs every band played at any teen dance. But I was going to look spiffy. My sisters strong-armed me to the sink, bent me over the basin, and shampooed me. Ann picked out one of my dad’s ties while Tracey put conditioner in my hair. They sent Caroline to ask Mom if they could shave me.
“Go ahead,” my mom said, trying to concentrate on her book. “No blood, okay?”
There wasn’t much legitimate stubble on my chin—I had just turned fourteen—but a few minutes later, there was foam on my face and a general consensus that debris had been cleared. Then they went for the fuzz at the back of my neck. I sat stoically while Tracey blow-dried my hair and Ann brushed it. They taught me to shine my shoes and supervised as I brushed the Cheeto dust out of my braces.
A couple hours later, I was officially dressed to kill. My sisters circled me with hand mirrors, approving their handiwork from every angle. Tracey proclaimed, “Our little baby’s growing up!” Ann folded a handkerchief for the pocket square and pinned my corsage.
If I’d had a date for the dance, she might have been impressed by my slick surface. But I didn’t. In fact, all I remembered about the dance was watching the band—the guitarist had a six-foot plastic tube attached to his microphone stand, and a jug of Jim Beam at his feet, so he could liquor up during the band’s heartfelt rendition of Foghat’s “Stone Blue.” I was stone blue about missing my date with Daisy Duke.
But I knew better than to give my sisters any back talk. These were ferocious Irish girls and they drilled me well. In fact, when I saw the movie Mean Girls, I kept wondering when the mean girls were supposed show up—I mean, all due respect to Lindsay Lohan and crew, but my sisters would have eaten these chicks for breakfast.
My sisters were the coolest people I knew, and still are. I have always aspired to be like them and know what they know. My sisters were the color and noise in my black-and-white boy world—how I pitied my friends who had brothers. Boys seemed incredibly tedious and dim compared to my sisters, who were always a rush of energy and excitement, buzzing over all the books, records, jokes, rumors and ideas we were discovering together. I grew up thriving on the commotion of their girl noise, whether they’re laughing or singing or staging an intervention because somebody’s wearing stirrup pants. I always loved being lost in that girl noise.
Yet there are so many things my sisters know about each other that I never will. They constantly laugh about private jokes I don’t get, quote movies I haven’t seen, nurse each other through crises they wouldn’t even tell me about. They know all the symptoms when one of their kids is sick. They fight, they make up. They explode and then go right back to loving one another as fiercely as ever. It’s one of the millions of secrets they share that their brother will never understand.
It’s still dramatic when my sisters get together, and it always will be. In any family function, my role is to race from sister to sister saying, “She didn’t mean it.” It’s like an opera with too many duchesses in one castle. Just a few years ago, when we were all supposed to be adults and beyond such things, my sisters kicked my mom and dad out of the house so we could have an evening at home, just us—my three sisters, their three boyfriends, and me. (One of these boyfriends was a husband.) We played board games by the fire, and perhaps a beverage or two was consumed. Then Ann mentioned the word “dollop.”
This is an extremely loaded word in our family, because of an incident a few years ago when Tracey wanted to use some of Caroline’s fancy shampoo, you know, expensive shampoo. Caroline wouldn’t let Tracey could use it. Not even a dollop.
“I swear, I’ll only take a dollop.”
“I can’t have a dollop of your shampoo?”
“You can’t spare a dollop? One dollop?”
“Your own sister?”
Ever since the dollop incident, the word is dynamite, and nobody uses it. But on this occasion, Ann asked Caroline to pour her a dollop of Bailey’s. Eye contact was made, angry words were spoken, and my sisters raced upstairs to settle this matter in private. It took them about twenty minutes. They came downstairs all lovey-dovey, and we went right back to the game.
But in those twenty minutes, I sat there on the floor with all three boyfriends. I kept the conversation going—if I remember correctly, we were arguing about the U2 discography, and whether Zooropa was not in many ways superior to The Joshua Tree. The boys kept making nervous glances upstairs. I was like, “Don’t look at me, dude.”
In the immortal words of Keith Richards, “It’s weird to be living with a bunch of chicks.” But that’s how I lived. To me, it seemed like a dreary waste of time not to be surrounded by bossy, zesty, loudmouth girls. We’ve always been a loud family—it’s fair to say that we’re always the “problem table” at any wedding—and it’s my sisters who pump up the volume. We like to sit at the kitchen table and talk, then drink in the living room and sing Irish songs. Mom calls out the requests for each one of us to sing, and although our voices might not get any sweeter as the night goes on, we do get louder, making up in enthusiasm what we lack in accuracy. Then we go back to the kitchen table for more talk. Since Ann and Tracey have always been tall like me, each one could talk into a different ear. I learned to take two sets of orders at the same time.
My grandmother tried explaining all this to me when I was a little boy. Nana was from County Kerry, in the old country, and she explained it was the way of our people—my sisters were always going to order me around. The Irish marry late, because they tend to starve to death if they give themselves too many mouths to feed, so the mother on an Irish farm tends to be old by the time she starts having children. That’s why the eldest girl is the one who runs the farm. My grandmother was an oldest daughter, so was my mom, and so was my sister Ann. I come from a long line of Irish men who live with oldest daughters, and they basically learn to survive by washing a lot of dishes and keeping their mouths shut. My grandmother warned me that it would always be this way, but I was too young to understand. Yet meanwhile, Nana would call my sisters after school to tell them to go into the kitchen and fix me a bowl of ice cream, and maybe a milkshake with a raw egg in it for protein. And they would. Why?
Like any kid, I longed to be someone else, so I was fascinated by pop stars who were garish and saucy, awakening the slatternly Valley girl in my soul. I wore Psychedelic Furs and Pretenders pins on my Barracuda jacket, in hopes of impressing the new-wave girl I was sure to meet any day now. Then I came home from school to watch General Hospital with my sisters. Dr. Noah Drake was the man—how I yearned to rock that mullet-and-labcoat look. I would have totally copped Scorpio’s accent if I thought my sisters would let me get away with it. Eventually they switched to Guiding Light, the more mature woman’s choice, but I still think of Laura, which is one of the many things I have in common with Christopher Cross.
Every day during those years I walked to school over a tiny iron bridge blasted with graffiti dedicated to Ozzy. “Welcome to Ozzy’s Coven!” it said, alongside graphic depictions of Iron Man, or maybe that was just the devil wearing a hockey helmet. Either way it was imperative to get over the bridge before the high school kids got out of school, because then it became a place for them to blast their boomboxes, smoke, drink, get high and look for something to punch out, which was obviously where I came in. If the high school kids got to the bridge first, you had two choices, either walk a couple miles out of your way or run the gauntlet.
Across the bridge was the grassy hill that the cops set fire to every summer, because the kids had planted weed there, always a seasonal highlight for the budding pyros of my neighborhood. There was a streetlight next to the bridge, which the town installed just to discourage kids from hanging out after dark, but they seemed to revel in the spotlight, blasting “More Than a Feeling” and “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Iron Man” on their radios until the cops would come chase them away. Some nights we went down by the bridge to watch the high school kids who were actually on the bridge, hanging out and looking cool in their own desolate honeycomb hideout, even if they were inhaling Pam out of paper bags. Ozzy and Zeppelin were singing to them, not really to me—they came to proclaim the hippie dream over and celebrate the burnout losers of the new world.
The bridge is still there, but it now looks tiny and dumpy, just a twenty-foot slab of rusted iron painted green, hardly the sort of real estate you imagine Satan and his minions would bother fighting over. But at the time it was an epic battleground, a catwalk fraught with fright and dread and blood. I guess every American town had one of those—it was the battle of evermore.
I was the oldest kid in our house, so I was fascinated by other people’s older brothers and sisters. I was thirteen when the 70s crashed into the 80s, and the prospect of all that adolescent angst stood before me like that bridge. I worshipped our babysitter, Patty, an Irish girl with red hair who took no shit from us at all. One night, my sisters and I badgered her into telling us The Omenas a bedtime story. She went through the whole movie scene by scene, stab wound by stab wound. I don’t know how long she spent narrating the fable of Damien and his demonic conquest of the planet—maybe it took as long as it takes to watch the actual movie—but my sisters and I just screamed along, perched on the edge of the 80s.
My sisters actually got to hang out with the older girls, because they were on the basketball and field hockey teams. They would shoot hoops with the basketball chicks listening to F-105, and when anyone sank a basket, they would yell “Jojo COOKIN’!,” which was the inexplicably thrilling catchphrase of the ranking disco DJ in town, Jojo Kinkaid. The debate over whether Jojo was cool or not still rages on in some extremely specialized circles, but one thing is for sure: he was cookin’.
When Ann and Tracey were on the basketball team, they used to ride the bus with the older girls who blasted the radio and taught them hand dances to go with the songs. There was a hand dance for Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” another for “You Should Hear How She Talks about You.” I never felt more like a boy than when I was trying to learn the hand dances. Ann and Tracey tried to teach me those, but I never could crack the girlie handclap language. They would do their handclap routines, “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat,” or “Bubblegum, Bubblegum,” or “The Spades Go Two Lips Together.” Every time they tried teaching me to clap along, my hands would trip over each other. I watched the girls at recess clap their hands and wondered when I would crack the code, maybe with some help from the mythical Lady with the Alligator Purse.
Rhythm was girl code, which is why I was obsessed with the claps, but I never got it right. Handclaps were the difference between boy music and girl music. Boys noticed the vocals, the guitars, while the real action was going on down below, where only girls could hear it. All my sisters’ favorite songs had great handclaps, and I could never learn them. It was all I could do to learn the claps in The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” (CLAP clap, CLAP clap) or “Let’s Go” (CLAP clap, CLAP clap clap, CLAP clap clap clap, let’s go), or “Bette Davis Eyes” (clap CLAP, clap CLAP).
One time Tracey came back from a school dance, laughing about how terribly this one guy danced. “They played ‘Private Eyes,’ and he was trying to clap along. He went ‘Private eyes, CLAP CLAP, they’re watching you, CLAP CLAP, they see your every move.’ ”
“Right. How is it supposed to go?”
“You know. ‘Private eyes, clap CLAP, they’re watching you, clap CLAP.’ ”
“So just the one clap then, the second time around.”
“Watch. ‘Private eyes. CLAP.’ Now you.”
“OK, now again. ‘Private eyes! Clap CLAP!’ ”
“CLAP. CLAP CLAP.”
“You know,” Tracey said in her soothing tone. “You might just want to avoid the clapping-when-girls-are-around thing.”
I nodded like I understood. I didn’t. This was a girl language and I was on the outside. Girls can clap, boys can’t. It was like the Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Tapping Heels, where Nancy figures out the tap dancers are sending secret messages to the bad guys by tapping in Morse code.
When you’re a kid, every step in identity is marked by a step in music. You were totally defined by which station you listened to, graduating from the kiddie station to the teenybop station to the grown-up stations. In our house, the radio was always on, whether it was my parents’ doo-wop and oldies, the weekend Irish drinking songs on WROL or me and my sisters trying to navigate our own way around the dial. WRKO was AM Top 40 for girls. F-105 was FM Top 40, for seventh and eighth grade girls, or sixth grade boys. Kiss-108 was disco for girls or very secure boys. WBZ and WHDH were pop for parents. WBCN (“the Rock of Boston”) was rock for boys. WCOZ was like WBCN, but heavier and not as arty. It ran adds proclaiming “Kick Ass Rock & Roll!” or “WCOZ . . . (painful grunt). . . the Rock & Roll MUTHA!” I believe the Mutha set a broadcasting record by playing “Whole Lotta Love” continuously for six years straight.
There was a lot of radio out there, and I didn’t want to miss any of it. In seventh grade, I switched from WRKO to F-105 to WCOZ in the space of six months. By eighth and ninth grade, it was WBCN. Tenth grade introduced WHTT, the new contemporary hits radio station, which played nothing but Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie.” There was always Magic 106, with a heavy-breathing seductive DJ named David Alan Bouchet who was always hosting Bedtime Magic, the show where he would recite the lyrics of the songs in his very sexy way, as a soundtrack to what must have been the most depressing adult sex imaginable.
Top 40 radio was a constant education in the ways of the world. I learned what sex was from Barry White appearing on The Mike Douglas Show to sing “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me.” Barry himself, looking fine in a green velour leisure suit, wandered out in the crowd to preach a little sermon as the band vamped on the bassline. “Is this song about one person? Is this song about three people? No! It’s about two people. Yeah. Two people.” I was grateful to the Round Mound of Sound for every scrap of wisdom he could throw me.
One of our favorite songs was Sister Sledge’s disco classic “We Are Family,” still all over the radio in 1980, getting played like it was a brand new hit even though it dated back to the summer of 1979. Our baby sister, Caroline, a decade younger than me but picking up all of our cool music in the timeless tradition of sassy little sisters throughout human history, loved to sing along with this one, making up her own words: “We are family! We got all the sisters we need!” Those are still my favorite words to that song, because (in our case) they were true. But it’s funny how this song never goes away, and every generation of baby sisters puts their own spin on it. Just the other day, in a movie lobby outside the Harry Potter movie, I heard a little Puerto Rican girl singing it as “We are family! Yeah, mama, sing it to me!” And she was singing it to a life-size cardboard cutout of Megan Fox, which only proves there is no limit to the Sledge sisterhood.
Rick Springfield from General Hospital had started making hard rock records, and although they were theoretically guitar rock records for boys, they were the girliest thing ever, and I was vaguely threatened by how much I loved them. I felt so dirty when Rick Springfield sang cute, but as Rick would say, the point is probably moot. “Jessie’s Girl” turned out to be one of the Eighties’ most enduring hits. Hell, in the Rite Aid in my neighborhood, teen girls can still buy Jesse’s Girl Baked Powder Eye Shadow, which is stocked on the shelf right next to the Love’s Baby Soft and Hannah Montana Glamour Guitar Lollipops.
I thrilled to the glories of rock-and-roll radio, especially the Doors. Was any band ever so perfectly designed for teenage boys? My friends and I were typical eighth-grade dorks at the time, in that our sex education mostly took the form of Jim Morrison. We studied “No One Here Gets Out Alive” as if it were holy writ, and memorized the entire soliloquy in “The End,” right down to the chilling “he walked on down the hall” conclusion. They seemed more like an 80s new-wave combo than a classic rock legend, in part because they clearly had no idea what they were doing and didn’t even bother faking it. They prepared me for all the nightmarishly pretentious and incompetent new wave that would become my adolescent raison d’etre. The Doors revival was in full swing, with the immortal Rolling Stone cover that showed Jim Morrison with the words “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead.” (I was 0 for 3 in that department.)
Can you blame us? When you’re an eighth grade boy, everything sucks in your life except Jim Morrison. We felt Jim was a god—or at least a lord—who had faked his death and escaped to Africa. When he returned, he would reward our faith, telling us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants.” Eventually, we started to get the sinking feeling that even if Morrison did fake his death, he probably died later anyway, and we never heard about it. But that’s too depressing to think about. Morrison lives! What was it Jim Morrison said? “People are strange, when you’re a stranger”? More like “People impose, when you’re a poseur.”
I assumed my sisters would scoff at the Doors, but Tracey ended up doing a book report on No One Here Gets Out Alive. We were always checking out each other’s music, books, magazines, everything, looking to surprise each other with new kinds of fun. One day I put on the cassette of Jesus Christ Superstar, only to find that Tracey had taped something new over it: the Go-Go’s album Beauty and the Beat. I grieved for a few minutes, before I realized I was now off the hook and never had to listen to that annoying bogus show-tune church shit ever again. Praise Jesus!
And praise the Go-Go’s. Man, we listened to that tape over and over again. Every song sounded like it was the chronicle of a world that was much cooler than the 70s burnout rock we heard all around us, a report from California, where sassy girls got dressed up and messed up and went out to cool places to do evil. “This town is our town,” they sang. “This town is so glamourous! Bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us!”
I used to dream about being only boy in the Go-Go’s. I had to feel like that was the ultimate rock-star gig. I had the scenario all planned out, that I would learn to play bass and replace Kathy Valentine. (Sorry, Kathy!) I would be Jane Wiedlin’s true love, and she would take me to wherever she got her hair did and fix me up a little, because I wasn’t really presentable enough to hit cool places with her. Our lips would be sealed. I would get to borrow her stripey pants, and sing backup on my favorite Go-Go’s song, “How Much More,” which was basically just the two words “girl” and “tonight” repeated over and over. Since those are the two new-waviest words in the English language, it was brilliant to give them their own song. I would rewind this song over and over, close my eyes and dream of being one of the girls. I want to be that girl tonight. Girl tonight!
I’m still in awe of my sisters. The only thing I would even consider changing about them is that their husbands are taller than I am. (We’ve had words about that.) But I would love to know anything as deeply as they know each other. I’ll never get their ability to laugh for hours over nothing, but I crave being part of their girl noise even when I don’t understand it.
What I don’t get, they are more than willing to teach. I am always learning new rules from them. Giving compliments, for example—always a good idea, yet there are rules for doing it right. My sisters taught me to start with the shoes, and then keep the compliments coming. Never compliment her eyes, because that means she thinks you think she’s plain. Always compliment something else before you compliment the hair, but always compliment the hair. If you’re giving a compliment you don’t mean, which is often advisable, sandwich it between a couple that you do mean. My sisters had a lot of rules.
Everything was changing so fast and moving in stereo. My voice was breaking, so I creaked from Andy Gibb highs to Isaac Hayes lows in the space of a single syllable, even when the syllable was “uuuuh.” I was saying it and spraying it, thanks to my brand new braces. I was growing so rapidly that I had to re-learn how to walk every few months, bumping into trees and tripping over my feet on such a regular basis, inspiring the classic greeting, “Smooth move, Ex Lax.” Nothing could really help me make sense out of my spindly, gangly body, and all the hormones exchanging gunfire in it. Nothing, that is, except my radio.
My sisters did their best with me. Music helped.
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