The song “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground has been with me in various versions for about as long as I have cared about music. Even if you have heard the song a million times, I invite you to listen to it again now before you go on. You will be glad you did. It’s even the super-cool full version:
I am fifteen years old and live in rural Kentucky. It’s 1989, and the country is finally starting to wake up out of the bad dream of the Reagan years. I am a rather odd character; I am flamboyant, I dress deliberately so as to attract attention, to stand out. I have always been the Smart Kid for as long as I can remember, but now I am beginning to figure out what that means for me, and it means that I am going in about six directions at once, all the time. I am passionately yet incoherently radical; I have no higher aspiration than to grow up to be Greil Marcus and write fiery political essays for Rolling Stone, but my ideas are too scattered and ill-formed, my ire at The Power too raw. I barely ever sleep. I have never once been kissed.
In the first months of my sophomore year of high school, during this time, my life changes irrevocably, and it happens in one day. It happens on September 23, 1989, to be quite specific. For on that day I fall in love. That is about the only word in the language for it, but it is utterly unlike anything I have experienced before or since, and I have known enough about love since, having been more than once its unwitting fool. For despite my moral courage in being a deliberate nonconformist in a part of the world that doesn’t reward that sort of thing, I am, at fifteen, profoundly lonely and feeling misunderstood. On this day, I meet someone who I think has the ability to see me and understand me.
Of course, I am terrified. I barely understand what is happening. All I know is that I am both happier and sadder than I think any human person can be, all at once. And I have absolutely no idea how to approach this person to see if she feels even remotely interested in me.
The Sunday after that, I am in absolutely no mood to go to church. I am never in much of a mood to go to church at fifteen, but on this Sunday I am especially uninterested. I need time by myself to, in words I read years later in Yeats and understand immediately because of precisely this day in my life, “be secret and exult.” So I pretend to be sick and, once the rest of the family leaves me at home to convalesce, I hang out in my room, think about my beloved, and dance to the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. The opening chords of “Sweet Jane” greet me like heavenly wine and roses.
It is early September 1992. The girl I fell in love with back in 1989 had zero romantic interest in me, and we never even became particularly close friends. This rejection was a complete shock to my system, and I became introspective and contemplative. I took up philosophy out of a desire to understand a world in which one could feel so deeply without it making the slightest thing happen. Meanwhile, I moved on to someone else who was more interested. I spent three years screwing up the courage and the ability to admit what I felt for her. I had the supreme misfortune of figuring it all out about a month before going off to Williamstown, Massachusetts for college.
We enjoy a month that is almost indescribably intense, with (at least for me) dizzying highs and lows, and then I arrive in Williamstown in early September to start as a freshman at Williams College. That is where the Smart Kid bit took me. I am introverted, bookish, shy; I ship a personal library to Massachusetts of about 150 books. I plan to major in philosophy and also maybe classics. I am surprised to discover that I am the only student who shipped his Sophocles, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jean-Paul Sartre from home. My girlfriend and I are still together, but she isn’t in Massachusetts. She is a year younger than me and back in Kentucky. I feel like my heart has been ripped out. I have never missed anyone like that. The only thing that keeps me from going completely around the bend is listening to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde over and over again. It only barely helps.
I am an odd college freshman, and I am completely out of my element.
My roommate is nice enough but inscrutable. He is from somewhere in Wisconsin. The resident assistant for my floor, a lovely lesbian Latina from Brooklyn, New York, calls us the “exotic” room, since we are about the only ones from the dorm who aren’t from NYC or from prep schools in the Northeast. I find it profoundly disconcerting to be a million miles from the woman I love and everything I took for granted and to be told I am “exotic” by a woman from a place I had only ever seen in the movies. My roommate is a huge Bob Dylan fan, but he also likes the Velvet Underground. He has a poster of the cover of the Loaded album on the wall. I ask him about the Velvet Underground and that album in particular. He says “Yeah, that one’s kinda the accessible pop one,” an assessment that I realize is completely fair and that makes my love for it seem childish.
But I don’t care. I love that album. One day, after shopping the book stalls in Williamstown, bringing home a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones for $1.00 that I still own, I come back to my empty dorm room and listen to “Sweet Jane,” and the other songs, and I realize that I have made a huge mistake in coming here. I later call my parents to come from Kentucky to get me. I miss my girlfriend too much for this, I miss television, I feel like I am in the middle of nowhere. I am there eleven days in all.
It is now 2009. I enrolled at Georgetown College, felt far more at home there than at Williams, and graduated with the highest academic honors the college could bestow. I then went to Penn State and got a Ph.D. in philosophy. That was where the Smart Kid bit took me. I got married along the way, and after I finished my Ph.D., we came to Louisville. There I slowly came to realize that my academic career, the one constant in my life from those heady days back in 1989 where I started reading philosophy to cope with a broken heart, simply was not going to happen. So I ended it voluntarily, at the age of 33, while I was still young enough to do something else with my life.
It was heartbreaking. My academic career was like a bad marriage, but it was a marriage all the same, and like most marriages, it had undeniable good times. I loved teaching and loved my students (some of whom have gone on to be my best and most faithful friends). I had developed a certain professorial persona, a carefully cultivated role, and I missed that more than I expected. In 2009, I am working a non-academic job and feel adrift and full of grief.
I hadn’t listened to the Velvet Underground, or much music at all, since writing my Ph.D. dissertation. One day, though, I put in Loaded— the same CD I had owned since 1989– and listen again to “Sweet Jane,” and this verse spoke to me hauntingly in a way it never had before:
And anyone who ever had a heart,
They wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it
It is March 11, 2011 as I write this. Much more has happened since 2009, and those of you who read my blog and/or follow me on social media know quite a lot about it all. Much of it is still too close, too raw. Through it all, though, I have realized: I am still a bit of a fool for love. My timing still stinks. I am not above dancing to music in my room on a good day. And the opening chords of “Sweet Jane” still greet me like heavenly wine and roses.