I once harbored an inordinate amount of anger toward a rock critic who gave Annie Lennox’s Medusa album a bad review. I needed something—or, rather, someone—to direct my adolescent fury toward and, for quite a long time, that was an Entertainment Weekly columnist who’d given Medusa a scathing C-. I think part of my resentment was fueled by the fact that his analysis, in the end, boiled down to an arbitrary, but personally applicable-to-my-life score—a below-average grade.
But to think that someone considered Annie’s latest album anything short of “phenomenal” and “life-changing” was a personal assault to both my taste in music and to the woman who I considered to be the greatest musician alive.
It was not the most impartial position for me to take on the matter. And my oft-ignored pragmatic self, stuck with a gag in her mouth amid the hormonal abyss of my teenage brain, understood that. People have opinions, after all. And they’re entitled to them.
But I didn’t care. Annie’s version of “No More I Love Yous” was certain to go down in history as one of the best cover songs ever recorded. I would let no critic get in the way of that.
It also bugged me to think that this man—this supposed music aficionado writing for Entertainment Weekly—was capable of altering the public’s perception of Annie Lennox before they had a chance to give her album an honest listen.
I held onto my anger over the bad review far longer than I probably should have. It was published in March, 1995. I still found myself pissed about it in spring, 1997.
That was the year my own reputation crumbled into a fine silt that ferociously dusted over the small town in which I grew up. Whereas I once was “Abby, the girl who harbored a ridiculous but harmless amount of love for that weird ’80s singer, Annie Lennox,” I was now suddenly “Abby, the girl most parents might want their teenage children to avoid.”
I suppose, in retrospect, my notoriety hadn’t exactly blossomed overnight. By early 1997, at the age of sixteen, I had a juvenile record that included charges of “destruction of personal property,” “criminal mischief,” and “disturbing the peace.” I’d gotten into a verbal argument in a Wal-Mart parking lot that escalated into slashed tires and kicked-in car doors. I hadn’t done the slashing or kicking (the owners’ did and blamed me for it), but I still got slapped with the charges.
On top of that, I’d also been suspended from school my freshman year for truancy and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Then, in late 1996, when I was a sophomore, my friend, Thao, and I were busted for carrying around hits of acid in school. To this day, I’m not sure who’d ratted us out—could have been anyone from our small but tight-knit group of friends. It didn’t matter. Because the bigger issue was that of Thao’s father—who had once liked me enough to let me hang out at his house with Thao, eating pizza he’d order for us while we watched MTV on their family’s big-screen TV. Thao’s father taught history at my high school. After the bust, he took it upon himself to make my life—and my parents’ lives—a libelous hell.
While I was inwardly disheartened about my crumbling reputation and understood that my own irresponsibility and stupidity was partially to blame for it, I also revelled a bit in my new “bad egg” status. Without fully realizing the transformation underfoot, I found myself less worried about appearing awkward in public and more concerned with exuding an air of confident carelessness instead. Though the awkwardness was still there, it was hidden beneath the grungy shroud of my new young delinquent’s attitude.
In short, I became John Bender from The Breakfast Club.
But I couldn’t bring myself to blast Bender-esque tunes in my own immediate vicinity the way he did, which would have been, in my era, songs by Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool. These were all bands that I liked, sure, but the only artist in whom I found steadfast solace remained to be Annie Lennox. Which was why that gripey, old review of Medusa pissed me off so much. It was a personal affront to the only musician I truly loved, the only one whose music actually kept me from committing crimes more serious than “criminal mischief” and “disturbing the peace.”
One afternoon in the spring of ’97, I came home from school particularly angry about Thao’s father’s harassment. He’d recently instituted an in-school restraining order between his daughter and me, effectively barring the two of us from being in the same classroom simultaneously or from speaking to one another in the hallway. His colleagues—teachers whose own children were my age, who’d formerly considered me a smart-but-underachieving young woman, a nice-enough girl—now stared at me like I was a dangerous wolf walking the hallways of my high school. They would watch me as I’d pass by their classrooms, making certain I was nowhere near Thao. My locker was moved away from where it had been originally, four doors down from Thao’s, to the “Shop and Home-Ec” hallway—far from where the majority of my classes were held.
I realize now that Thao’s father had only been protecting his daughter after we’d been busted with the drugs. But he hadn’t gone about it with any semblance of forethought or consideration for me or my family. That spring day I came home from school already incensed by the measures of the in-school restraining order and how much they were disrupting my life, when I found the “message” button blinking on my parents’ answering machine. I pressed play.
First, all I heard was the sound of a man clearing his throat. Then a voice spilt from the small machine’s speaker, deep and agitated. “You should really be ashamed of Abby’s behavior,” the man said. It was Thao’s father. “She should be sent to another school.” Click.
I erased the message and went about making a Hot Pocket with a strange serenity, after which I retreated to my room to listen to music. This was where my anger resurfaced, doubly strong. So much that I started entertaining ways in which I could get back at Thao’s dad.
I didn’t want to hurt him. Not physically.
Or maybe I did. But not seriously.
Eventually, I realized, that, yes, I did want to hurt that man. And bad.
The idea of being that kind of young criminal though—the hurting kind—disturbed me. I found myself more concerned with my own destructive thoughts than I did about Thao’s father’s behavior.
So I pressed play on my CD player, knowing “Medusa” was already in it, and laid face-down on my bed to cry.
That was the first time Annie’s cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” really moved me. I’d never heard the original version, though I knew it existed.
Old man lyin’ by the side of the road
Where the lorries rollin’ by
Blue moon sinkin’ from the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky
Cold wind rippin’ on the valley at dawn
And the morning paper flies
Dead man lyin’ by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes
Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around
Its haunting imagery shook me from my thoughts. At first I envisioned Thao’s father as the dead man on the side of the road with the daylight in his eyes. And that scared me, imagining his dead body, eyes locked open, disregarded on the side of the road while semis passed him by.
The pleading chorus, however—“Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning”—felt as though Annie were telling me—just me—to relax, to remember that horrible things happen all the time, that they’re an unfortunate part of life, but there are people out there to help you get through them. “Find someone who’s turning,” she said, “and you will come around.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, what “someone who’s turning” might look like, but I took it as a message to press forward, to carry on in spite of how Thao’s dad tormented me. It was as if she knew there were others waiting for me in my life just up ahead, and they were about to make me feel a whole lot better.