Listening to The Waterboys’ album, ‘A Pagan Place’ for the first time in Dana's car requires a description of Dana, the Waterboys’, Amy Abdoo, my family, the Underground Railroad, and me.
Me and my best friend Dana were seniors in high school in 1988-89. I not only didn’t have a car, I still didn’t know how to drive. My parent’s didn’t think it was that important and sensed, correctly, that I was too flighty to pay attention and drive. I didn’t push the issue terribly hard because deep down, I never expected access to a car. Even though they taught my brother to drive at 16 and he used my mother’s car to get to work, I had gotten used to separate but unequal treatment as a daughter in a rather ethnically traditional family. Dana got her license and a car the day she turned 16. I would go anywhere just to kill time with her, like to visit her grandmother or get an oil change. Sometimes we would go for a scenic drive up Route 12 past the cornfields to the cool town over and listen to music and talk about our problems.
We were alike on the basic levels – taking school seriously and studying, morals, being real and not fake teenagers – we were good girls and didn’t drink, use drugs or have sex. But we didn’t have music in common, or fashion or how we identified ourselves. I didn't want to wear mall clothing, the make-up and clothing stifling, otherworldly. Weekends I was content to stay home. The places I would want to have gone didn’t exist for me yet, not in Utica, NY. Dana wanted to go dancing. I didn’t want to drive to the next town over late Saturday night, hoping to sneak into a dance club. It was repulsive to me. This is later high school, junior and senior years. Backing up to junior high, I didn’t have any identity yet or role models in 7th and 8th grade. I can say that mostly who I am now started with Amy Abdoo in 9th grade.
Amy Abdoo, like me, came from a pretty conservative family. Our families weren't close friends, more of an occasional family get-together. Kids change a lot between the junior high school years. Amy was one year older. The summer of 1985, I was going into 9th grade and she into 10th grade. So in the space of one year, Amy had gone from being a nondescript but enjoyable nerd to a secret blooming hippie flower. She had met a boy in her high school that turned her on to beat literature, hippies, music and drugs. She had to keep her longings to herself, and in fact, once she was 'out' about her hair-dying self, and her parents felt like they had lost control of her, that was the end for me, also and I was forbidden to see her. Because, why would I want to be friends with her if her parents had lost control of her, is how my parents saw it. She could rub off on me and that would not be allowed under any circumstances. This fortunately came after I had a few opportunities to hang out with her and learn all about this alternative world to mall clothing and format radio.
What did she say that enticed me at that family gathering when she told me about her new discoveries? Did she use the word freedom? Did she promise me some kind of mental or physical liberation? Was I looking for liberation? I don't remember. I can remember initial distrust that must have given way to curiosity. But, also confidence that I could handle what seemed to be controversial information and choices. Reading and re-reading this, I realize that I appear purposefully vague, like I am leaving out the real details. What was controversial? What was alternative? What was the freedom from? What did I learn? It’s hard to say now. I didn’t know what my options were, but I sensed this person had something valuable to offer me. Something that wasn’t on the shelf in the grocery store.
Up until 9th grade, I don’t think I was or was seen as markedly weird. To other kids I was pretty neutral. I wasn’t popular on any level, but I wasn’t labeled negatively either, at least, I don’t think so. Inside, I struggled with wanting some depth, as much as a 13 and 14-year old had depth. Probably I was afflicted by the same disease everyone at that age has, but I think I had it worse. I was looking for extra meaning in song lyrics. I wrote in my diary. I took books like A Separate Peace and The Outsiders to heart to such a degree I fantasized myself a character in them. I had needs that weren’t met by friends, family or television. My friends weren’t like that.
I think Amy enticed me with mental challenge through word games and IQ tests. Mostly though, music was the common ground. Utica's format radio station WOUR played only classic rock. My older brother's musical interests rubbed off on me. Since whatever Ron did was acceptable, and the only thing we really had in common, I got schooled on Led Zepplin, The Police, Genesis, Rush, 70’s and 80’s rock, hard rock, and glam rock. I never listened to what my girlfriends liked, such as Duran Duran, Madonna and Prince. Amy and I found common ground in radio music that I knew, but she taught me about other bands of those eras that I had never heard before like The Velvet Underground.
I had never asked to hang out with Amy before. We’d only ever gotten together as part of a family thing, and that was infrequent and dismissible. Now I was making plans, suspicious to my super over-involved family. We kept our meetings in secret.
I asked my friend Dana to go with me to meet Amy and China downtown. It was an innocent gathering but I was also nervous of my parents finding out. We didn’t do any drugs. All we did was meet in the downtown library and discuss books and check some out. Went to a thrift store. It was completely innocent. But it was different. It was deviant.
The drugs were always on my parent’s mind. They were fearful and old world. My friends and activities had to be approved. Their number one fear was that I would, that one of us in the family that a Catholic Arab would fall into the wrong crowd. Sex, alcohol, drugs, even just deviance of any kind was strictly prohibited.
Another time I begged Dana to take me to meet Amy's cool adult friends at someone's house up north. These were her college-age punk drummer boyfriend and some others I have forgotten, including the guy named China, who I was totally in love with. I begged Dana to take me because she had a car, but I also knew she would be uncomfortable with these people.
I was finding Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground, Genesis with Peter Gabriel. The more access I had to the external voices, the more I had access to my hidden developing self. I began to write poetry. As I started to dress in thrift store clothing, basketball sneakers and tie-dyes, my parents grew fearful and suspicious. Their power and morals had to be absolute. At one point, my parent had taken all my alternative clothing away from me and were threatening private school. It got to the point where my brother listened in on my phone calls and my parents did not allow us to be in contact. This was not without serious struggle. By that time, I didn't need Amy and her crowd to find myself. Those get-togethers and phone calls were enough to start me on the way.
My parents let me dress the way I wanted to when they accepted that I was still a good girl and wasn't interested in sex, drugs and parties. In my time alone I learned to be sad with the state of the world but kept my thoughts about discontent and the human condition to myself. I knew even at 16, at 17, that I was uncomfortable with cultural disconnect; liking what I liked and not wanting to explain it, to make it OK for you. That’s why I felt so awkward bringing Dana with me to the library to meet Amy and going up north to meet Amy’s friends. I feel this way still today. I feel torn, like I’m an ambassador between the Avant Guard and the Normals.
In the car with Dana, I excitedly popped ‘A Pagan Place’ into her tape deck. The opening track, “Church Not Made with Hands” burst open with a horn section. I immediately felt embarrassed. This was a 1984 post-punk Irish band! Dana listened to bands like Soul to Soul and Madonna, Whitney Housten and Tracy Chapman. I can call this the single defining minute of my adult life. Hearing the horn section and feeling embarrassment singe my ears because I didn’t want my ‘normal’ friend to judge my ‘weird’ music tastes. I didn’t want to be defined by an outside and yet I didn’t want to be an outsider. It was like I was on the transatlantic cruise liner, waving with my white handkerchief to the people on the pier, on my way to a new life. I was thrilled because I had discovered this band all on my own. My pride was countered by embarrassment for what I heard because I knew Dana would think it was strange and I didn't want my moment ruined. I had her pop it out so I could listen to it later at home.
I had discovered The Waterboys’ that fall by reading my brother's Rolling Stone magazine and reading a review of the 1988 album, Fisherman's Blues because U2 had referenced them. I bought all four of their albums as well as tapes for all the bands that they referenced - many other Irish musical artists like The Pogues and Sinead O'Connor. My love for Irish bands became a pillar of my identity throughout college that eventually led me years later to listening to and learning to play traditional Irish music and provided me with a sense of community at my local pub in Portland, Oregon where I would play in open sessions.
Had it not been for Amy Abdoo I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t have known there were choices, and that I would choose to be a fighter against confinement – spiritual, parental, peer, community. My brother, my friends had freedoms I did not have and had identities that posed no threat. I knew I had to find myself somewhere else and fast. I hadn't taken going to college seriously since my parents insisted they would not pay for it or allow me to go away. Even the fall of my senior year, I only casually applied to two state schools. I don't remember how everything fell into place, but they had a change of heart and did permit me to go, took responsibility for payment, and I was college bound. I was getting out. I could see the light of the Underground Railroad and it was close at hand.
My last night at home, I listened to The Waterboys' album, ‘This is the Sea’ on my Sony Walkman. I had written in my journal about my excitement and fears for starting college but really, I wasn't afraid at all. I laid in the dark long after my parents had gone to sleep and had to play the last track again. “That was the river, this is the sea”. The build on this song is incredible still after twenty-four years. It brings tears to my eyes to remember that I predicted it would be a kind of anthem; that it would be foretelling, that it would be all mine.