There were stairs outside my old apartment, the upper part of a house where, downstairs, two ravers lived. These two would play music, house, drum and bass. Sub-genre doesn’t matter when it’s playing at 3 or 4 in the morning. I kept a broom next to my bed. I’d get up and pound on the floor with it. I did it at 4, 5, even 6 in the morning. All night drugs — ecstasy, whatever. And when they did hear me, they would turn it down. They were nice. The dude down there, he’d answer back to my pounding. “Sorry bro.” He’d say up through the floorboards.
I was living alone then, 26 or 27, young and “going places.” I’d just gotten a tiny raise in the form of a promotion at the Education Television Station where I worked. I was on my way to becoming a director. But even though I was on the rise at work, I was alone, and I was getting tired of it, of being alone.
Of course, I wasn’t really alone. I had friends, and I’d often have them over to have a few beers and listen to the hundreds of CDs I owned. We’d smoke outside on the steps. I could do that for hours — talk to friends over a beer or three, the windows open, at the end of a hot day, the night air coming on to cool down Columbia, South Carolina.
Sometimes girls came back to my place, but they’d never spend the night. We’d exchange phone numbers, probably fake, and never see each other again. Maybe there’d be a kiss, a kiss from nowhere. Some girl I’d be talking to who I thought I had no chance with. The end of the night at the bar, some night, some weekday night. A promise of new love. But not.
On nights like that I only had one song that described how being single felt, and how there was always the possibility of meeting that someone, sometimes getting so close, but then not quite hitting it off.
“Color and the Kids,” by Cat Power (Chan Marshall). Just piano and her voice. I loved how her heart broke on that song, I loved how half of the lyrics didn’t make any sense, how they were just placeholders, things she experienced but couldn’t flesh out in the rewrite. Or so I imagined.
The song is on Cat Power’s third album, Moon Pix. The CD cover, a portrait of her, would sit on my stereo. To me, that photo of her seemed to show who she was, her strange stripped down sophistication.
“Color and the Kids” was this: dreaming of a day I could almost see in front of me. A wife. A kid. Independence.
I was beginning to think about leaving town. Wanting to go to a bigger town with bigger jobs. What if the jump to director didn’t pan out for me? All those years of new year’s eve nights with no one at my side thinking to myself, next year I’d be with someone. Next year I’d finally have enough of this town. This place I’d been hanging on to. The people there were too much of a family to me. We had the after-work canoeing and beer-ing together, Sunday nights with The Simpsons and X-Files, live music three nights a week. That was all great, but now they were settling down and getting married. And I wasn’t.
I saw the show announced on the Matador Records website. Red and black and white. The only image was the Cat Power Moon Pix photo. Tour dates. When I scrolled down, looking for the two letters, the S and the C —and there it was. No one big ever came to Columbia, SC. When I went out to see live music it would usually be a friend’s band, not someone like her.
But there it was: Cat Power at New Brookland Tavern.
To see her on stage, singing “Color and the Kids,” to see her live, the woman I’d been in love with ever since Moon Pix came out.
That night I was there with my friends, my too-close-to-family-to-leave-town family. The show was great. Cat Power, Chan Marshall, I knew she was an unpredictable performer. I’d heard rumors that some nights she’d seem lost, cooing into the microphone, rolling on the floor, locked into the same word.
But not that night. That night she was level headed, and it was one hell of a performance. And even though she didn’t play ”Color and the Kids,” I was kind of glad about it, to hear a song that was the perfect alone song for me around a few hundred other people would’ve been too much.
After the show, I saw her sitting down in the back, smoking a cigarette. The way she sat, the way she smoked, it seemed like she’d be open to me sitting down and having a smoke. I wasn’t sure of it, but somehow I was sure enough to walk over and talk to her.
We drank beer, we talked about life. And there was a moment, about an hour into our conversation, when people on the patio had come out and filled the place and her cheek was close to mine, she was talking right into my ear. Cat Power and I talking and nobody else. Our bodies touching just a little bit, and I got that feeling, talking to her. I knew that probably nothing else was going to happen, but I felt it, the idea of possibility that something could happen with someone special. That whatever was in me could grow into something bigger, someone more, in a place with less limits.
That night when I came home. With the CD signed by her. “Dear Adam,” it said, “Carry on with that soup herb hospital.”
And you could say my name
Like you knew my name
My friends thought we were gonna fall in love just like that. I mean I was talking to her and only her for two hours. We were so easy with each other, it felt like we could always stay that way, the two of us almost touching but not touching, talking into each other’s ear. Our voices filling up our heads.
When I got home that night I put on ”Color and the Kids,” and this time I didn’t see it as a depressing thing, to be single, I saw that night as the promise that it actually was. Through the song I saw a future where I was loved, where I was married, even. Where I had kids. I saw the life I have now.
“Yellow Hair, you are such a funny bear,” — such a simple line, that come here you, let me rub your hair and look at all of your imperfect. I accept you. You are the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.
That night of the Cat Power show. Sitting out on that stairwell with yet another rave party happening in that downstairs apartment. I had to turn up the stereo to drown it out. The part of the song where she starts to lose it, her voice unable to contain all the emotion. I felt it in her that night, her voice in my ear telling me how the place where she recorded that album was haunted. And how she’d be up in the middle of the night and see an old woman in a rocking chair when she woke up, with a finger to her mouth, telling her to hush.
I could stay here
Become someone different
I could stay here
Become someone better
I went to bed that night knowing I would leave South Carolina in the new year. I’d leave my too hard to leave family. I’d drive west to Portland, OR. I’d start over, no matter how hard it would be. I’d find a life, a partner, a career. I’d get married, have kids. I’d seek out a time where, when I put on “Color and the Kids,” I’d remember that person I was before, but I’d be the man I am now.
Cat Power, live at Lee’s Palace, Toronto, Sept. 4th, 2006
Photo by basic_sounds used under CC.