As an acne-faced and awkward wannabe punk rock teenager, I knew who Iggy Pop was. I knew who he was because a lot of the Goth girls I would meet at parties and teen dance clubs were way into his newest album, Blah Blah Blah, which was kind of okay, but wasn’t hard or fast enough for me right then. I knew who he was because I made out in the back seats of cars while that album was playing. I had no idea who Iggy Pop really was until I heard Fun House.
I ran away from home for a few days in the summer of 1987. I was sixteen years old and really struggling with a lot of things going on in my life. Some of them were typical teen things, while others were far more complicated. The typical: drugs and boredom and not feeling challenged in school, awkward sexual beginnings and a lack of any real friendship because I was the weird smart kid who listened to punk rock at an alternative high school full of angry metal kids and teen moms. The more complicated: parental units in the throes of a marital collapse and a father I could not for the life of me figure out how to please or get along with.
Where I ran away to was complicated as well. I had become close with my English teacher at my school. We shared the same birthday and he knew I loved books and he turned me on to a lot of writers I would have never otherwise found out about if he didn’t push my nose into their work. He came to see my band play our gigs at these horrible VFW Halls full of sweat, cigarette smoke and angry glares — always standing right up front and nodding along. I had called him and asked him if I could crash at his apartment for a few days as things in my own home had become way too heavy for me to deal with in any kind of rational way. My father and I were at one another’s throats nonstop and my mother and sister were living in a warzone.
He was the first adult who ever took an interest in anything that I was doing and treated me as an equal.
I took the bus to his place and when I arrived he was happy to see me and offered me a beer. We just hung around his place and he let me smoke inside. We talked about books and writers and my SAT scores –- I was the only kid at my school to have taken them-– all while tipping back can after can of Budweiser. He asked me what I had been listening to on my Walkman, so I popped the tape into his stereo. It was a mix tape I had made of a bunch of punk rock stuff I was into – Black Flag, The Germs, Social Distortion, The Cro-Mags, X, The Damned. He nodded along for a while and then got up and went over to his stack of records and started thumbing through them.
“You know how when we talk about writers and I tell you to go deeper and figure out who influenced the people you’re reading now, so you can get to the source? The same applies to music.”
I watched him pull a record out of a sleeve and put it on his turntable. He stood over it for a second, trying to find the right groove to drop the needle on, and when he did everything changed.
As soon as the needle hit the record there was that magical pop and hiss and then the next thing I know the room is filled with this blood-boiling scream and then a circular guitar riff with pounding drums and my mind is totally being battered and pushed around. I felt my knees get weak and I wasn’t sure if it was the beer, the repetitive rhythm, or Iggy singing “See that cat? Yeah, I do mean you!” in a tone that was totally different and far more urgent than the songs of his I had already heard. I just knew that something had shifted around inside of me.
“This album should’ve started with this song —‘TV Eye’—because every album should punch you in the face as soon as it starts. You should remember that if your band ever makes a record.”
I immediately asked him to dub over whatever I had on the cassette and record Fun House for me on both sides of the tape.
From that point forward, I opened up every mix tape I made for anyone with “TV Eye.”
My mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in January of 1996. Because of all of the leftover and unresolved teen drama, I was asked by her and some family members to leave her alone and let her try and heal without my presence, help or input. By the time April hit, she was in a coma and my sister had called me and told me to come to San Diego where they were, to be present. When I arrived I soon found out that there were a lot of cloudy things at play, and that I would probably be there for a while.
Late that first night I drove my mother’s car to the Tower Records by the Sports Arena. I bought another cassette copy of Fun House. I wasn’t planning on it, but the goddamn thing sort of jumped right into my hand as I was walking the aisle aimlessly looking for something to put in the cassette deck of her car other than my sister’s Depeche Mode tapes. I needed something visceral, something that would beat me up and help me get my blood up on the drive into La Jolla every morning to see her in a bed with tubes and machines keeping her alive.
I would leave my mother’s apartment in the morning and pop the cassette into the deck and just let it rattle. Rocketing up the highway through early morning fog while “1970” blared away, smiling at myself in the rearview because that was the year of my birth, pounding on the seat next to me with a free hand in time with the drums while screaming “I feel alright!” with Iggy as Ron Asheton’s simple yet muscular guitar riffs worked magic on my subconscious mind like water erosion. Whenever the doctors or my family would show up and start talking to me like I was diseased I would go outside and just sit in her car smoking and listening to the album with all the windows rolled up.
At night when the rest of the family was gathered at my mother’s apartment I would take her car and drive to the Déjà Vu strip club on Sports Arena Boulevard. I would find a table away from the stage and the lights and just sit there staring into the darkness while nursing a soda and trying not to cry. Sometimes the girls would come over and offer up a dance, but I would always shoo them away. It was the only place I could go where I knew nobody was going to tell me what I should be feeling or doing. I could sit in the dark and think about my mother and the machines and how she didn’t look like my mother anymore and about how everything in my life was changing and I needed to grow the fuck on up.
She passed away on Mother’s Day. I was 25.
In the summer of 2005 I dealt with a lot of really awful shit — my grandmother passed away and a relationship I was in exploded into a terrible mess of infidelities and lies and then I lost a friend who I was hoping would turn into another mentor like my English teacher had been.
Before he was killed, that friend had admonished me for not having a relationship with my father because of all the residue leftover from childhood and because I didn’t get along with my father’s current wife. I listened to him as he berated me for calling my father “The Sperm Donor,” and after a while I saw where he was coming from. We only get one father, and some people never even get that much. I promised him I would do my best to try and repair the relationship. He was dead not long after, in early July.
All of this sent me reeling, so I ran away and moved from Brooklyn down to Fayetteville, Arkansas — to try and get my shit together, to maybe start over. I rented myself a tiny apartment right off the campus of the University of Arkansas and the first thing I did upon moving in was throw on Fun House to shake the floors and settle the dust.
My downstairs neighbor called the cops.
Fast forward to the end of October and I get a call from my father, who is living in Santa Fe with his wife.
“Sean, I have cancer. Stage Four. Lung and lymphatic system.”
“Fuck, dad. Do you want me to come? I can be there –- I have nothing holding me here.”
“Yeah, I think that would be best.”
I decided to drive my things back to Brooklyn and put them in storage before I headed to New Mexico. I knew in my heart that my father was going to die –- I even told my stepbrother on the phone that I knew he would be gone by Christmas—so I made the decision that when it was all over, I was moving back to Brooklyn to live my life the way I wanted to. I didn’t want to run and hide from my problems anymore; I wanted to run at them head-on. I drove from Fayetteville to Brooklyn in somewhere around twenty hours. I had Fun House on repeat in the stereo the entire drive, the primal urgency in the music infecting my blood with every repetitive piece of each and every song embedding deeper into my DNA like a sonic mantra, the comfort of each note like a warm blanket to soften the blows about to come.
When I got to Santa Fe and helped to take care of my father it was very complicated and very scary. I did whatever it took to make him comfortable. I did whatever I could to make his transition easy.
It wasn’t easy.
The rituals involved in taking care of someone with a terminal illness — the medication schedule, the rolling of their body to change sheets and clothing, the sitting up all night and listening to the rush of oxygen moving through the cannula — these were things that were shared among everyone who was present. In the little bits of downtime I had I would pace around outside in the parking lot with Fun House on my headphones, chain-smoking and thinking about where everything derailed between my father and me and trying to find some way to breach that gap and forgive one another. Somehow we were able to do that without ever verbalizing it. Somehow we were able to trust one another.
He passed away in my arms on December 18th. My 35th birthday.
I stuck around Santa Fe for a couple more days to take care of cremation arrangements and whatnot before heading back to Brooklyn. I spent the flight home with Fun House playing in my ears while the TV screens on the plane showed some movie –- “Roll Bounce,” with Nick Cannon. Every time that kid smiled in the movie I choked up and turned up the volume in my headphones. I swallowed down two Xanax with whiskey and tried not to look at the screens and see all of the happy faces in a coming of age flick. Every time I looked out the window at the clouds and the sun I felt him around me, remembered the sound his last breath made, remembered the nurse from the hospice pouring his liquid morphine down the sink right in front of me, remembered the odd feeling of helping to put his lifeless body on the gurney with the guy from the Coroner’s Office and loading it into the back of the van.
It wasn’t easy.
We all have albums that are like mile markers. Albums that, when we hear them, send our memories into overdrive and remind us of who we have been, what we have seen, and who has been around. Some albums can remind you of someone you used to love, someone you used to want to spend every waking moment with. Some albums can remind you of trying not to fall asleep at the wheel and cross the median in the middle of the night cutting through Kentucky on your way to do the hardest shit you will ever have to do as a living human being.
The Stooges’ Fun House is that album for me.
You should go buy a copy. Throw it on. Shake the walls until your neighbors call the cops.