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Once I Was Cool by Megan Stielstra

Megan Stielstra reads an excerpt from her debut essay collection, Once I Was Cool, forthcoming in May from Curbside Splendor.

Stop Reading and Listen

1.

Just after we eloped and just before the housing market crashed, my husband and I bought a condo across the street from the Aragon Ballroom. If you’ve never had the pleasure, the Aragon is a legendary music club on Chicago’s North Side. Take the Red Line to the Lawrence stop in Uptown and it’s the first thing you’ll see: breathtaking (albeit crumbling) Spanish architecture, enormous light-up marquee, the line to get in wrapping into the alley, and ticket scalpers on every corner. Here’s a fun game: find the nearest Chicagoan and ask them to tell you their Aragon story. Most of us have one or two or five, and many of them go something like this: “Passed out at Rage Against the Machine,” “Got peed on at Faith No More,” “Broke my arm at Megadeth,” “Lots of dudes whipping their penises around in circles at Butthole Surfers;” Profoundly dangerous and/or masochistic crowd surfing and/or mosh pit at KMFDM and/or Deadmau5 and/or Insane Clown Posse, and the classic: “Kicked in the face during Slayer. It was awesome.

But there’s more, of course.

There’s always more.

So the story(ies) go(es): Capone had underground tunnels running between the Aragon and his favorite bar in Uptown: the Green Mill; good for bootlegging, good for hiding out from the cops, good for those massive secret parties that you always see in movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Back then, the Aragon was a ballroom dance hall housing one of the best orchestras in the country; Sinatra played there, as did Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Lawrence Welk. Tuxedos and semi-formal—expected. The jitterbug—prohibited. In 1958, a fire next door caused extensive damage, and instead of bouncing back to its former Big Band glory, the Aragon became, in quick succession: a roller rink, a boxing arena, and a discotheque. Then, in the ‘70s, it housed these crazy, day-long, drunken, furious monster rock shows, thus earning its current nickname of “The Brawlroom” (ball/brawl—see what they did there?). And that, my friends, brings us roaring into the present: mid-sized rock tours, local Spanish language shows, and the occasional boxing match.

You can feel the history in this place. It’s peeling off the walls with the paint.

2.

I don’t know why I bought a condo. The American Dream, I guess. Adulthood. I used the phrase “building equity” a lot, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.

3.

I do know why I bought that condo. It was because of Jane’s Addiction. In high school, I was a huge Jane’s Addiction fan—still am, but adult devotion is nothing compared to teenage obsession. Fifteen-year-old me had walls papered in Nothing’s Shocking posters. Fifteen-year-old me brought up Perry Farrell while discussing the great American poets in AP English class. Fifteen-year-old me made out with boys who wore eye makeup.

Thirty-eight-year-old me drinks Cabernet and plays “I Would For You on repeat.

In November 1990, Jane’s Addiction played a somewhat infamous show at the Aragon. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school in small town Southeast Michigan—no way in hell would I have been allowed to go to a concert in Chicago—but I had a sort-of boyfriend who was a few years older (shhhhhh, don’t tell my dad) (hi, Dad!), and he made the four-hour drive to be there in his Ford Escort fueled by pop cans we meticulously collected and turned in to the grocery store for ten cents per. “It was awesome!” he told me the next day, his eyes still glazed from no sleep and the glory of the rock. “Perry Farrell climbed the walls! He was up there on the ceiling like a vampire! Everybody was throwing beer bottles, and smashing chairs, and full-body slamming into each other; it was so totally insane, like somebody must have died! There’s no way somebody didn’t die!”

“What about the music?” I said.

He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That was the music.”

Fifteen-year-old me didn’t have much experience with live shows. I hadn’t felt the high that comes from being there, being part of it—the collective energy of the shared experience. My sort-of boyfriend explained it via Star Trek: “It’s like the Borg— we’re thinking and moving and feeling as one,” which in retrospect is a pretty fucked-up metaphor, what with their mass assimilation and “resistance is futile” and nanoprobes injected into your neck, but at the time?—I totally understood what he meant.

“You can’t get it unless you’re in it,” he said, and that’s how I wound up in the audience for the first ever Lollapalooza tour. It was August 4th, 1991, a few days before my sixteenth birthday. That summer, I’d been at an eight-week theater program at sleepaway camp—yeah, I said it, sleepaway camp—and for some reason my parents gave me permission to spend the day at the Pink Knob Amphitheater [5] in Clarkston, Michigan. I remember bits and pieces, a fast-changing montage of image and sound: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T; Butthole Surfers (no swinging dicks, FYI) and Living Color. Color! Wild clothes. Tattoos and piercings and mohawks, none of which I’d seen before. It rained for a bit; thousands of people danced in the mud. It was the first time I heard Henry Rollins, who performed his set with his back to the crowd, bent at the waist, and singing into a hand-held mic with his head between his knees. When the Violent Femmes played, the entire audience sang along to that part in “Kiss Off” that goes, “and ten, ten, ten, ten for everything, everything, everything!”

Later, after the sun set over the main stage, people lit bonfires across the lawn, and Jane’s Addiction took the stage. The sort-of boyfriend had splurged for pavilion tickets; [6] in my memory I can see the band’s buttons and sweat and guitar strings. The night was warm and perfect. I remember standing on my seat. I remember screaming my head off. I remember dancing and not caring what I looked like while I danced—a freedom I haven’t felt in decades. The song I most wanted to hear, “Summertime Rolls, was the third one they played that night, and when I heard its lilty, steamy opening bassline, I felt—

Maybe you’ll think I’m corny as hell, but what I felt was joy.

This was the one I played over and over, alone in my bedroom on a scratched CD. This was the one I listened to when I fell asleep at night. This was my song—the one that spoke directly to me—and here I was with fifteen thousand people who felt the same way. Fifteen thousand people, all of us singing.

Me and my girlfriend
Don’t wear no shoes
Her nose is painted pepper
Sunlight
She loves me
I mean it’s serious
As serious can be…

Fifteen thousand people—fifteen thousand—all sharing the same moment.

Can you hear it?

Stop reading and listen.

Excerpted from Once I Was Cool with permission of Curbside Splendor. Copyright © 2014 by Megan Stielstra.

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