Last week, on Valentine's Day, De La Soul gave away all their music for free on their website to anybody who wanted it. I first listened to them back in college, when Three Feet High and Rising burst into the world and blew everyone's minds, and for the next few years I jumped on every new recording. And so this Valentine's gift was a wonder. I'd lost most of their CDs, and I missed them, so I downloaded every last album greedily and went on a bender.
It's like clockwork. You take a band that you soaked in for years, you leave them alone for a few more, you come back to them and press play, and whoosh, your memory net comes up so full. The music sticks to everything, pulls it all back up.
It's 1993. I'm in my apartment up on Capitol Hill, hanging with my friend Nellis. We've made some spaghetti and done some mushrooms, and now we're lounging on the oriental rug in the living room as the high kicks in. This song is wafting out of the CD player while everything slows down and softens up.
Nellis is one of the safest people I know. Was. Maybe he still is, I don't know. I don't know how the afterlife works. He drank himself to death five years ago. Not all at once, but cumulatively. But when we were close, way back when, there was nobody so accepting, so safe, so relaxing as Nellis.
For a lot of my life, I've been a nervous person. I got good at covering it up, but I almost always had something whirring in my chest that kept me vigilant. I had to read the room, scan the inhabitants, guess what bothered them and be sure not to do whatever I guessed it was. Nobody made me do this. I knew this was my job all by myself, because I was innately annoying and bad. I don't know how I knew that about myself, but that felt like a sure thing. I was a great mimic, though, and very pliable, so I could trick people into digging me by giving them what I guessed they wanted. I had it worked out. It was exhausting but it was a system, even if it felt like it was forever in danger of going to pieces.
I met Nellis in 1992. We were in a ragtag sketch comedy group that only lasted a couple of months, but Nellis was its heart. He was the best writer, and he just had something, he was something. I don't know how to get at him. Just think about your grandpa's shirt or something, how it might carry a little tobacco smell, something nice like pipe smoke. Comforting. Nellis was like that. Smoky, funny, bittersweet. A cloud of benevolence with a bright streak of acidity. He wore baggy shorts and old bowling shirts and fishing hats. He was an old guy without being old. Not a hipster old guy, not a phony, but a real old guy in a young man's body. He loved Dean Martin, he loved to smoke, he loved to drink and he loved his friends.
Nellis lived in an old run-down house in Wallingford with a rotating bunch of dudes, and his door was always open. And so there was always something going on over there. Nothing splashy, but there was always a hospitable group of guys drinking beer, or one or two guys at least. I never called first. I knew I didn't have to. I could come over whenever I wanted and stay as long as I wanted.
I remember one night sitting down in Nellis's room with him, drinking beer and hanging out and listening to Annie Lennox. We were singing along together to "Walking on Broken Glass", when Nellis suddenly stopped. I was still singing, and I looked at him to see what was going on, why he stopped. He was beaming at me. I stopped singing, and he urged me to go on, said I had a beautiful voice. He looked positively misty about it. He started the song again and ordered me to sing by myself so he could listen. And so I did. When I finished that song, he had me sing another, and another. I couldn't believe that he could be enjoying this as much as I was, because I was floating on a little cloud, let me tell you. To sing out, to be listened to, to be loved like I knew my friend loved me in this moment—we were sitting in a dim little nighttime room, but the place may as well have been fully sunlit.
Bear with me while we detour back a little farther, and then we'll fast forward again to my living room rug and Nellis and the mushrooms. But we have to go back a second to 1988. Pre-Nellis. I'm in college, a theater major, doing a casual lunchtime production of Cowboy Mouth, a two-person play that was originally written and performed by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. I'm in the Patti Smith role, and there's some singing to do. I know I can sing. I know I can do it. But I won't let myself do it right, not when other people are listening. I won't let myself sing full out. It would be wrong. It would be conceited. If I let a beautiful sound come out of my mouth, it's going to make me ugly—spiritually ugly somehow—and so it's not worth the trade. And so I either set or discover a limit for myself; I can sing at 50% skill and 50% volume, and no more. That's my ceiling. My boyfriend comes to see our one performance. He's a musician, and I like him so much, and I'd love for him to hear what I can really do, but that half-assed, broken sound coming out of my mouth is all I'll allow myself. He's standing in the back, watching from the doorway. I sing badly, watching his silhouette. I wish I could be different.
And now it's 1993 and Nellis and I are on my rug with our bowls of spaghetti next to us, and De La Soul is on the stereo, and the sound is so sweet and slow. We're not talking. We won't really be talking tonight. We're in our own worlds, companionably. This is the first time either of us has heard this song. We look at each other sometimes, as if to say, "Can you believe it?" It's just so beautiful. Maceo is truly blowing the soul out of that horn. And something wonderful is happening to my insides. I wonder what it is. I seem to be unraveling. Something I don't need is unraveling. I'm playing with a little purple Koosh ball, letting the music wash over me, and suddenly I have the most revolutionary thought I've ever had. This idea just blooms, and I can't believe it. Here it is, get ready:
I'm perfectly fine.
I'm fine as I am, I'm perfectly good.
I, me, Tina, am not some dumb, busted-up disappointment. Nope. I'm good. I can dare to be myself. I'm clean. For real. I'm good.
The song is going and going, and I'm taking a bath in this new information. It's so warm. I feel like I just got born. I look over at Nellis. He smiles at me, and I don't tell him what happened, what I just found out. But I know—I make the connection—that it wouldn't have happened if he wasn't in the room. I would never have known it.