Who’s That Singing?: Memoir and Irony

When I heard that Cory Wells, a member of the rock band, Three Dog Night, had died, I found myself watching YouTube videos of their performances. The song that struck me most was “Eli’s Coming.” It’s a song that Laura Nyro wrote and Three Dog Night later covered. It was popular during my early high school years, played often by the disc jockey at our after-basketball-game sock hops. For those of you who don’t know, the song has a slow build from a dramatic opening promising that Eli is indeed coming, to a rockin’ warning of “Eli’s coming, hide your heart girl!”

I was at that age, fourteen or fifteen, when I, too, wanted to be the sort of man who would steal girl’s hearts. Nights, I closed myself in my bedroom and put albums on my portable stereo and sang along, often with the microphone that came with my cassette recorder in my hand. Okay, maybe once or twice I used my hairbrush. You see, ladies, even men can do these silly things.

So there I was imagining myself on stage at my high school. Somehow, a few of my friends and I had formed a rock band, though none of us knew how to play instruments. It was a miracle! It was as if we’d succeeded at Professor Harold Hill’s think system that he tried to pass off on the folks of River City in The Music Man. I, of course, was the lead singer. I was Cory Wells, or Dennis Yost from the Classics IV, or Rob Grill from The Grassroots. I particularly wanted to be like Rob Grill with his rugged good looks, his long feathered hair, his manly moustache. In truth, I was a skinny kid with pimples on my face and dorky horn-rimmed glasses, and my hair was kept cut short because I played basketball, and there were rules, by-gumbo. My hair couldn’t touch my collar, and my sideburns had to come down no lower than the top notch in my ears. My coach liked to put signs up in the locker room. Look Sharp, Dress Sharp, Be a Winner, one of them said. Be a Guy, Wear a Tie, said another. But those nights when I closed my eyes and sang in my room, I imagined I paraded the stage with long, flowing hair. I wore leather vests with fringe, my shirt unbuttoned to my navel. Girls gathered at the stage and gazed up at me with adoration. Temptation Eyes? I had ‘em. I crooned about traces of love. The girls swooned. Oh, yeah. Eli—and wasn’t Lee close enough to being Eli?—was most certainly on the prowl.

A few years ago, I found a shoe box full of cassette tapes from my high school days. One of them featured me singing “Eli’s Coming.” You should know that the song has a falsetto part. You should know that I faithfully sang it. You should also know that I couldn’t sing worth a lick. But there I was on that tape—well, at least the young teen I’d once been—singing my heart out, singing so dramatically, so urgently, so earnestly. It was the funniest damn thing I’d ever heard, funny from the perspective of nearly forty years.

As I’ve written about it here, I’ve tried to do so from an ironic stance that allows me to poke fun at that teen.  How else can we approach those young people we once were when we write memoir? We have to treat our younger selves like the idiots that we surely were. We have to let age and distance give us the ability to find the humor in what at the time was dead serious to us. And yet, we also need to honor the gravitas our lives had in those long-gone times. Writing about my first kiss in my essay, “Never Thirteen,” I say:

I suppose I should be embarrassed now—how sentimental I am, going on and on about a first kiss—but I can’t manage it. When I look at that boy and girl kissing in the dark shade, walking out into bright sunlight, I feel a great tenderness for them and the affection that they share. They will never again be this age, never again be this innocent. They’re still children really, but just barely, and, because I know now everything they     have to lose, I want them to linger in the cool woods forever, to be always that age.

So when I recall the boy singing in his room, I laugh, yes, but I also recall what it was like to live in my home, a home full of anger, a home where we rarely expressed affection, where learning to love was a difficult thing. Music was one way I began. Singing those love songs I said things I never could have otherwise. For a long time, I said them only to myself. One day, as I began to write, I started to say them to the world. When I closed my bedroom door and sang along with Cory Wells, or Dennis Yost, or Rob Grill, I wasn’t just a goofy kid pretending to be a rock star. I was a shy kid who desperately wanted to be loved. Those nights in my room, when I imagined myself on stage, stealing girls’ hearts, I was singing my way to the man I’d one day be. I was remaking myself. I was singing for my life.


  1. Cyndi on October 26, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Beautiful and touching, Lee. Thank you for sharing.

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you, Cyndi!

  2. Karen Shoemaker on October 26, 2015 at 10:14 am

    I have written my way toward forgiving myself for being such a careless, self-centered goof many times, but I’ve never articulated it as well as you do here. Thank you for writing it, and sharing it. This is so touching.

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Aw, shucks, Karen. Thanks.

  3. Dianne Smith on October 26, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    While I agree with much of what you say Lee, I take issue with the sentence: “We have to treat our younger selves like the idiots that we surely were.”
    Idiots? I don’t think so. Teenagers trying to figure out who we were? Yes.
    All of that, but you know, some of us, trying to become the adults we were destined to become, still couldn’t make it, still couldn’t get it right.
    Some of us, and I am one of these, have had to work out, and work through, why our lives didn’t quite get there, when all around us others were.
    A late adult diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome gave me the answer I was looking for, and yes, I look back on my teen years with embarrassment. To treat myself as the idiot that I know I was, however, doesn’t do a lot for me.

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Point well taken, Dianne. Thank you. I do think that we have to be generous with our past selves, and I think we can do that while at the same time admitting our flaws, examining the circumstances of our lives that led us to the behaviors that we exhibited, and, as I say, honoring what was gravely serious to us at the time.

  4. Robert Dzik on October 26, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    I read your words and am always shocked by the amount of emotion within them. Thanks, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you so much, Robert.

  5. Gail Weiland on October 27, 2015 at 11:47 am

    I loved this, Lee. When the Beatles popularized colored “granny glasses,” and all the “cool” kids wore them as a fashion accessory, I replaced my corrective glasses (I’m extremely near-sighted) with them and spent a couple months walking into walls before that fad (thankfully) gave way to the next. So I totally understood your comment about treating our young selves like the idiots that we surely were. It’s about the things kids that age think are so important, that in retrospect, were not only unimportant, but were so downright goofy that all you can do is laugh. Idiot? Maybe not. But idiotic behavior? As the saying goes, I could write a book!

    • Lee Martin on October 27, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      Gail, I’m nearsighted, too, and I did the same things with some very cool, non-prescriptive granny glasses! You’re right. Maybe we weren’t idiots, but we sure did some idiotic things.

  6. cinnamonb on October 28, 2015 at 3:37 am

    Hi Lee –

    I have indeed been reading some of your blog posts – they’re quite interesting (the one about an anomalous object for one of your characters was pretty intriguing. I haven’t yet figured out exactly how I’m going to use it, but if I find something intriguing, it usually gets its day, sometime!

    But to this post. I had to read it since you stared out with Cory Wells (R. I. P., Cory —– and Dennis and Rob, too). I was probably only a little older than you in TDN’ s heyday, but had a proper crush on Mr. Wells. And I just LOVE to this day the music of the Classics IV and like the Grass Roots, too. Awesome musical memories there.

    I too, have to take just a *slight* issue in calling our younger selves idiots. I think that’s too harsh as some others have also said. I look back and see a lot of naivite. I guess we thought things were so simple, and would always be so. Did we do – I’ll call them “silly things” — like dream of being or marrying a rock star, joining the popular clique, etc. And yes, they did have quite some gravitas at the time. When we look back now, there’s probably a mixture of sighs of regret that some wishes didn’t happen and sighs of relief that some didn’t.

    I also think whistfully that as youth, we often thought we could change the world. Not sure what happened there… I will say that a few years ago, I was fortunate to attend a concert by Howard Jones. And he said he thought we could still change the world—- with help of our friends and all. Hey, where are you, Howard- I really could use a dose of that optimism about now.

    Well, I think I’ve rambles on quite enough. It certainly speaks well of your post that you’ve gotten some great comments to it.

    • Lee Martin on November 1, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      Thanks for your comment, and for your good words. I may try another post to elaborate on what I meant by treating our past selves as the idiots we surely were. My intention was to speak of the generosity it takes to look back on our former selves with empathy and understanding.

  7. Linda Gasperik on November 3, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    One definition of idiot is one who behaves foolishly. Totally what you meant, right? And we did! And it was wonderful! I truly miss those days. At the time I thought I would never grow up. Now I wish I could behave that foolishly again. Oh wait….I do! And I never want to stop!

    • Lee Martin on November 3, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Yes, Linda, exactly what I meant. We can all look back in memory and see our former selves behaving foolishly, and we can forgive ourselves for those behaviors and keep going on, perhaps, as you say, still behaving badly! Good to hear from you!

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