“Blinding paths through tables and glass,” the voices sang in the darkness in room 102 Slichter Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus in the earliest 1980s.
The two young women assigned to this room were tucked in their cot beds stoned. Side two of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s album “Déjà vu” played on the cheap stereo turntable that boasted Thruster speakers. The cheap stereo was mine; the album was my roommate’s. Every night we listened to one side of an album while we drifted off to troubled sleep. Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles ‘64-‘67, Decade. Both of us skipped more classes than we attended. Both of us probably suffered from undiagnosed, untreated depression and anxiety, and like the rest of our generation, we self-medicated.
We weren’t sad. Not in the least. Undisciplined, yes. Wildly creative, yes. We held weird-girl beach parties in our room in the dead of winter; we gained weight and wore lots of mascara. We sang Rolling Stones songs into hairbrushes. We colored and drew and made collages. It never occurred to either of to take an art class; those dots were not connectable back then. We both smoked menthol cigarettes. I imagine, like many freshmen in college, we had little idea what we wanted to be when we grew up, and even if we did, we had no idea how to get there.
“Too late to keep the change, too late to pay, no time to stay the same, no time to leave.” Both of us had already waited tables and would continue to do so off and on for many years to come.
Thirty years later that song still haunts me. It’s definitely a Neil Young song, not so much a CSNY song. My dad had that album in our house; on the cover a bunch of bearded, longhaired men stared at us through an antiqued image with deadpan expressions dressed as old timey Gold Rush prospectors. Back then singer/songwriters in particular were wistful for the Civil War era. Their album covers were haunted with these images (see The Eagles, The Band, James Taylor, The Byrds, et.al). From my dorm room, I only remembered hearing the first two songs on side one, “Carry On,” and “Teach Your Children” from girlhood.
By the time Neil Young wailed, “Country girl, I think you’re pretty,” I was twisted into inhabiting the song. Was it about picking up waitresses? Were both the waitresses and the singers feeling guilty, or did they want more from one another?
Back then I didn’t know that songs didn’t have to make sense; it was more about making the words fit well together. I didn’t know that many songs were the result of a variety of narratives and life experiences fused together. I didn’t know that no one song is ever about only one person no matter what you hear otherwise as a waitress being picked up by a troubadour.