Of Punk Rock and Pop Songs: How I Learned to Stop Using H and Start Loving Cliché

This week Avidly is running two pieces about “Bad Objects,” a subject about which we are avid. 

 

 

One night, as I lay in my aunt’s New York City apartment trying to kick my heroin habit, I found myself listening to, and deeply moved by, two songs by bands I don’t very much like.

It was the early 90s and my body was racked with several different types of pain. I was physically in knots, psychologically shattered, and endlessly nauseated. I was definitely not strong enough emotionally to get through this — desperate, anguished, self-loathing. My only movements were either from bed to bathroom, to dry-heave my guts out, or a leg lift exercise I concocted in an only semi-successful attempt to alleviate my nervous leg disorder. “Nervous leg disorder”: an unlocatable, relentless, surging of energy running circuitous routes through my body, up and down my legs in particular, making me feel agitated, antsy, unable to rest. You know that cliché about how addicts trying to kick feel as if they are crawling out of their skin? That. I had to shake my legs and rub my arms constantly until I could, in intervals, muster up the energy for my exercises: as I said, simple leg lifts—toes up, heels down, toes up, heels down. Press repeat.

This was not my first attempt to quit. Over the years of my addiction it was, perhaps, my 6th. 7th? Maybe 8th. In fact, if I were to be completely honest, I would have to admit that my intention at this particular moment (as with all my prior and many subsequent attempts) was not to quit using dope, at least not permanently–just long enough so that when I started using again, I could do so more responsibly. I had this idea that if I could manage the addiction, like managing a daily schedule of events, everything would be OK. By which I mean, I wouldn’t have to give anything up. .

The point of quitting, in other words, was not to quit, but to foster a better relation to a pleasure (and a reprieve) that was one of my primary ways of attaching to the world. “It’s my life. It’s my wife,” Lou Reed moans over the droning, non-syncopation of guitars, drums, and bass, the song redolent with wailing and screeching during the passages when the music accelerates in tandem with the drug rush experienced by its narrator. A confession, a romanticization, a (perhaps entirely rightful) claim to NYC’s East Village hipsterdom: all. And yet, also a significant insight. My co-conspirators in addiction and I would often talk about how one of the main obstacles to quitting was the idea that, once we did, we could never use heroin again and that was, at the time, and for years to come, unimaginable. It was what we did. It was our life. It was our wife. Our special love affair. In addition to Lou Reed’s song, any recovery memoir out there will tell you: this is another cliché.

But on this night it was not the Velvet Underground that played the musical accompaniment to my suffering. Instead, I put on MTV. The video playing was, hand to non-existent god, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” I do not like R.E.M. I did not like R.E.M. even when they were “that cool band from the 80s.” And yet there was Michael Stipe, beckoning to me in his black suit, his impossibly crisp white shirt and gray fedora. “When you think you’ve had too much of this life to hang on. Well, everybody hurts sometimes,” he said to me, and I couldn’t look away.

Do you remember the video? Everyone sits in their cars trapped on the freeway in bumper-to-bumper, stand-still traffic. Subtitles representing the unspoken thoughts and feelings of the passengers inside were floated over the almost frozen, tableaux vivant-esque images of the individual characters isolated in their own pain: “Nobody can see me,” “Leave me alone,” “They are going to miss me.”


The music swells and the sentimentality oozes and then, as if compelled by the same annoyingly heroic angst of the lead singer that kept my eyes glued to the television, everyone suddenly gets out of their cars and starts walking across the freeway. The band, the old guy who apparently has just lost his wife, cars filled with entire families, everyone emerges from their alienation machines as if in some form of spontaneous collective resistance—to trauma? To traffic? The music continues to swell! The guy in the red hoodie steps out of his truck! Michael Stipe stands atop the roof of a stalled yellow car with his arms spread out wide! Reader: I cried. I cried a lot.

And then I changed the channel. This time to Saturday Night Live. I watched a skit or two and then the band scheduled for that evening came on to play. It was Pearl Jam and their first song was “Alive.” Yes, it really happened this way.

Is something wrong she said
Of course there is
You’re still alive she said
Oh do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?
And if so, if so
Who answers, who answers?
I, oh, I’m still alive
Yeah, I, oh, I’m still alive

If you asked me at the time if I liked this song, or Pearl Jam for that matter, I would have said, No, I do not. I do not like this song or Pearl Jam for that matter.


So there I was puking my brains out, too tired to move, forcing myself to do god-damned leg lifts in the middle of the night, sometimes laying with my head on the edge of the mattress, sometimes on the rim of the toilet bowl, resting there for a moment until I had the strength to crawl back to the edge of the bed. You probably know it.  It’s the addiction genre. What a fucking cliché. Basketball Diaries, Requiem for a Dream, Rachel’s Holiday, Less Than Zero, Drugstore Cowboy, Infinite Jest, Celebrity Rehab, Intervention. These are not the same genres, of course, but they feature many of the same clichés. The euphoria of the first high, the eventually desperate need to use again. And again. The chills and sweat and vomit of the detox. The relapse. In Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy audiences are treated to all of this and more as the playfully torpid pauses of drug consumption are broken up by ripples of violence, paranoia, and reflection.

On this night I am in the detox phase: its ferocious embodiment, its cold uncertainty. And these two songs, playing almost back-to-back, provided the soundscape. Each song, in its own way, is saturated with emotional drama. Whether it’s the howling confession of Eddie Vedder or the anemic movement of Michael Stipe, these men could feel. They could feel so hard.

And so, as perhaps you can see, the usually predominate, cynical and dismissive, and thus anxiously self-protective, workings of my mind were then (and are now) responding with derision to both my own suffering and the ways it was being mirrored back to me in these songs, even as they moved me. But despite my eye-rolling tendencies and similar defense mechanisms, this is why I don’t hate clichés. It is, in fact, how I came to feel a certain affinity with the scene of the cliché.

Cliché is often attributed to forms of intense feeling that seem to repeat themselves in ways that should be embarrassing, because so common, so predictable, so oft repeated. For a particular kind of person — a critic, a self-posturing cool kid from New York, or, in my case, both—to find yourself in a cliché means you have done something wrong. You have failed to live more imaginatively or more expansively or more radically. You have been caught, by your own will, in the comfort of repetition even if the form of repetition you have chosen can kill you. You are thus contributing to the reinforcement of the world’s repetitions, to all those bad ways of attaching and being that disable narrative change. You have, like every other loser, tripped yourself up on the familiar.

Was I, in the end, addicted to addiction? Was I addicted to whatever it was that kept me firmly within the grasp of its genre? What entrenched narrative of celebratory alienation and punk-inspired cultural disobedience was I clinging to? For Freud, who himself had a brief fling with cocaine and was addicted to cigars, giving up an addiction like smoking was akin to losing a limb. In Drinking: A Love Story, it is what Caroline Knapp refers to as “trying to adjust to an amputation” (254).

Of course, they are referring to the recovery phase, when it feels as if you have lost your tools for living. In the detox phase, I would have appreciated the loss of a few limbs, so great was the pain surging through them. But even in the recovery phase, I would say that losing heroin felt less like losing a part of my body than like losing a beloved experience, and a warm, riotous, favored habitation. Another cliché?

A situation becomes cliché not simply through the consolidation of a set of recognizable conventions but because those conventions have become so knowable and predictable so as to no longer promise to teach us anything. Cliché is what Lauren Berlant describes, following James Baldwin, as akin to “cartoon-like versions of [our] identitities”, phrases we learn to say without knowing the meaning of the words, actions we can perform by rote without a sense of their consequentiality.

But do clichés, nonetheless, still have value? Is there anything we can learn from cliché? What I learned that night, from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, and their, for me, terrible songs about suffering and surviving, is not that everybody hurts (of course we do) but that, despite my cynicism, I had the capacity to be affected, to be roused by something, to care that I was also still alive. Listening to those songs, I experienced a certain clarity about my addiction, which I had thought was “my life,” “my wife,” but was really a substitute action for living because another way didn’t seem possible or, to be honest, as pleasurable.

And so, both the clichés of addiction and the clichés of proto-emo/post punk hypersentimentality were what framed and proleptically narrated my scene of suffering on this particular night. And through both I learned something surprising. Cliché may not just be a sinkhole of recurrence and relapse but a patterned orchestration of survival. Cliché might be about skills for living which, in part, entail being open to the exercises of life (toes up, heels down). When I hear these songs now, over two decades later, I still feel a lovely sense of the power of cliché.

Fucking Pearl Jam. Fucking R.E.M. Thank you.

Dana Seitler: And Nico