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.