Songs of Our Lives: A Certain Ratio’s “All Night Party”


A naked man nobody recognized danced on the beam stretching across the living room’s cathedral ceiling. Despite the wall of windows thrown open, smoke choked the room. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party had been Jennifer’s idea; we’d served gallons and gallons of Long Island iced tea. Homemade hats stitched from vintage gowns, draped with lace, veiled with tulle, and lofted with hidden wire now sagged, though my stereo still boomed Soul II Soul and Technotronic, and straight girls in black cocktail dresses, elbow-length gloves, and heavy makeup danced with bare-chested gay boys wearing eyeliner or swathed in feather boas.

Beyond the parking lot, toward Highland Street, blue lights spun. Michael shimmied in from the hallway and said that the cops had set up a DUI checkpoint for departing partygoers at the end of our block. (That summer, he and Jennifer had wagered fifty dollars on whether or not I’d come out by the age of nineteen—sorry, Michael.) Tracey, who worked for a realtor and had found us this place, was hunting for Steven, and someone said he’d taken a gang of friends down to a vacant unit on the second floor to do lines. Weeks after the party, exploring other vacant units—only ours and one other on the fourth floor were rented, and all the rest were unlocked—I found a sink brimming with moldy vomit in one of the first-floor apartments. It could have been disgorged by one of our friends from the suburbs; it could have been disgorged by a drunk who’d wandered in from Highland Street, since the building’s back door didn’t latch. I never returned to that unit.

In my bedroom, Richard—an older gentleman with an Afro and a thrift-store sport coat who was, except now, never not hanging out at Coffee Kingdom—had disassembled the metal shade of my floor lamp, one of the few items of furniture I owned besides my futon and a butterfly chair, and in its stark incandescence was reading Amy’s aura before a few stoned onlookers. Half-blinded, I saw only the tracers glowing cigarette tips etched in Jennifer’s and Sarazar’s darkened room. My ninth-grade sister, her hat tipped at a jaunty angle, leaned against the living room wall, absorbing these tableaux. Or was she talking to Phil, who’d famously traded his Chevette for two grams of coke the summer before I’d met him? After a while, Ben and I took her down to Theo’s twenty-four hour diner and fed her French fries. When we got back, Michael, cigarette clamped in his lips, collected plastic cups and beer bottles while a few stragglers still whirled and bobbed on our filthied carpet.

Our apartment’s spiral staircase, twenty-five-foot skylit ceiling, neutral wall-to-wall, urban setting, and $1000-a-month rent must have been some developer’s attempt to lure that era’s famed young professionals, not four eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds who’d share bedrooms and co-sign the lease. Tracey had mentioned how fucking cool this place was during a New Year’s Eve party at Tim’s father’s house, and a few of us, seized with the night’s spirit (or with the night’s spirits), had resolved to move in together and forsake our educations: Sarazar and I, seniors in high school, had no interest in going straight to college. Jennifer said she’d drop out of UMass. Tracey had already decided to skip school for the working life. A year earlier, we’d all partied in Seth’s mom’s condo, or Tia’s parents’ basement, or Jeff’s and Paige’s apartment, where swollen, white-creased 1960s and ’70s sci-fi and philosophy paperbacks lined the windowsills, and where we turned the electric oven to 450°, opened its door, and sat in a circle on the scuffed linoleum after their heat got shut off. Now, a few months before I graduated high school, I moved into a brand new, four-story brick building, six units per floor, surrounded by nineteenth-century three-deckers, halfway houses, and offices, and just off the slightly sorry commercial strip of Highland Street, where I worked managing a vintage clothing store.

For a few spring weeks I walked to school in the opposite direction from the house in which I’d grown up: except for our parties, I liked the idea of living in our apartment, and the fact that my classmates knew I lived there, better than the reality of living there, and anyway I still carried my laundry home, still ate dinner at my mom’s house when I could. By graduation, I worked forty-hour weeks in a store that always smelled of mothballs, incense, and, when I’d steam some 1950s sequined sweater or Pendleton wool shirt to tag and put out on the floor, years-old sweat. One afternoon, a classmate browsing the racks told me that the Levi’s 501 jeans we were selling to local college kids for $15 a pair would fetch at least $50 a pair on the street in Athens, and escape seemed suddenly possible.

Within a few months, all of us but Tracey had found subletters and left that apartment: Sarazar and I bought one-way tickets to Greece; Jennifer moved to her boyfriend’s. I’d already abandoned my dying car in the parking lot, then returned months later with a former co-worker about to drive cross-country. I’d bumped into him one night at Coffee Kingdom, where he’d explained how his ex-girlfriend had turned out to be a witch trying to steal his soul; he was heading west to escape, too. He wanted a stereo for his car, so I told him to drive us to my old parking lot, where I let him pry the tapedeck out of my dead car’s dashboard with a screwdriver. “Thanks, man,” he said. For some reason, I locked the car as we left, and looked up at the wall of lighted windows in my former apartment—my name was still on the lease—where some woman I’d never seen before gazed down at us.

Ben, Tim, and I had practiced a few times in that huge, acoustically lively living room, the year we were trying to sound like a graveyard funk band. Ben and I would cover A Certain Ratio’s “Thin Boys” when Tim didn’t show, since the song was just guitar, bass, and voice. Ben was a classically trained cellist with a beat-up Stratocaster and some inherited effects pedals; I, a mostly self-taught mediocre bassist. Tim’s dad bought him some drums that summer, but he struggled to keep time. We were listening to Public Image Limited’s Second Edition, the Slits, A Certain Ratio, the Pop Group, Maximum Joy, Delta 5, and Rip Rig & Panic, but even these bands’ sloppiest, most ramshackle records were beyond our capacities to emulate. Eventually we gave up trying. Ben and I wrote a fake folk song about a girl, a year behind us in school, who had a crush on both of us, and who used to come by the apartment to listen to us rehearse. Jennifer made us play it over and over, but only when the girl was sitting there.

I should have been composing different songs. A large number of the girls I found attractive in high school, I recently noted, inscribed my yearbook with some version of this sentence: “Yes, I’ll come to the apartment tonight!” As best I can recall, none of them ever did. Even the girl busted for drunk driving before she was even old enough to get her license seemed impressed: “You and your parties! You guys are just crazy.”

Joshua Harmon is the author of five books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including most recently The Annotated Mixtape and History of Cold Seasons. He will publish two chapbooks in the next year: Usonian Vistas and Outtakes, B-Sides, & Demos, in which this essay appears. More from this author →