aren't you playing with me?
The cruelness and savagery of children can be astounding. Growing up in small-town Ohio, I was a firsthand witness. For a period of years, living two houses away in our plat of humble, ranch-style homes, Timmy M was my regular tormentor. Swift and strong, and a year older, Timmy was a superior athlete and delighted in domination. Snowball fights turned into prolonged combat, extended beyond any rational sense of jovial, healthy play. Pick up baseball games in the open field behind our houses quickly devolved into bouts of mortal terror, the only real objective being to avoid obliteration from one of Timmy's whizzing fastballs. And any time was the right time for a wrestling match. Not really a "match" at all, instead these were opportunities to have limbs pretzeled and your face ground into the earth. I was somewhat better at basketball, but was always reluctant to engage in a one-on-one game for fear of winning. When I did manage to come out ahead — or if a wild swing should connect with one of his sizzling pitches on our overgrown diamond — the occurrence only served to dial up more punishment. I won't even mention football.
As we became teenagers the tactic changed from physical torture to mental intimidation.
"Hey, Bright, what are you doing now?" He'd say in a sadistic, sarcastic tone, as if to say, "I'm not going to throw you to the ground now — but you know I could — and you do remember how I did, right?" Without saying it, he was saying he still owned some part of me.
Of course, on we went in our separate ways: He to a local job, I to college in Michigan and then back to Dayton. In terms of our relationship, life was tracking in it's normal, grey manner. Until one day. One day of profound psychic significance and convergence...
Some years later, in 1985, when The Pleasures Pale were forming, during an evening rehearsal in the basement of the Marcella house, working up a song with words specifically meant to exercise Timmy M's psychic hold on my self-esteem, after a particularly rousing and satisfying run-though of said song, and before we could move on to the next song, I heard the phone ring upstairs.
"Hey, Bright, what the hell are you doing now?"
The needling, teasing voice shot from the receiver, a bullet out of the blue. It caught me unaware, the improbability. Perhaps it shouldn't have been, but it was the last voice I expected to hear as I ran up the stairs. How did he even get my number?
Shocked, I stammered, momentarily slingshot back to 1967 — after school, pinned and buried in the cold snow, squirming, the light fading, tired of the perpetual conflict, tired of always looking over my shoulder for the next attack, wanting only to be home and out of his maniacal grip.
Then it flipped. The switch. A wave of reassurance welled up.
"I'm rehearsing with my band —"
"What's that, Bright?! You're in a band? No way. What kind of a band?"
"Yeah, we're working up this really cool song about a bully that used to torment me when I was growing up. I just happened to hear the phone between takes and ran upstairs to answer. I'm surprised it's you."
"Really? I should come and see you play. When are you going to play? Let me know."
"I gotta get back. Like I said, we're rehearsing. The guys in the band are waiting."
And that was the last we spoke.
If more was said, I don't remember. What I do recall is, roughly a decade later, my sister phoned me in San Francisco to tell me Timmy M had died from cancer, and wasn't that a shame he had died so young.
My feelings were again twisted into a knot, but now with a more distant, dull discomfort. A different color of unease and conflict. Did I feel some sort of justice had been served? That things indeed do have a way of evening out?
Those thoughts may have glimmered, but I knew not to trust them. I knew only that I had exacted a degree of revenge — call it a moment of empowerment — in writing and performing the song. The childhood trial that tangled two young lives had been objectified and memorialized as a kind of art, a concentrated expression of experience, performed first privately, then in public. And that took the edge away, for me at least.
But what about Timmy? Did he really harbor ill will toward me? Toward himself? Some kind of resentment? Probably not. Possibly. And most likely. Did he, as someone suggested to me many years later, harbor an affection that couldn't be spoken or recognized? Was he finding closeness in the only way he could? Or the only way he would allow himself to find it?
Well, no news here. The relationships between men and men and between men and themselves have been and will continue to be complex affairs — to be examined but certainly not codified by the likes of those such as I. What can we ever know?
Only that to be "whipsawed" is to be pulled violently in two directions.
So it was that the song "Whipsaw," one of the earliest for The Pleasures Pale, reached it's karmic climax. Not on stage, but in a rehearsal, when the composition was coming wildly to life. How fitting and how strange. The musical accompaniment crafted by Lerma, Swann and Earick, on that night and on the 1985 demo recording, couldn't possibly be more potent or fitting.