Music for Leaving
Abandoned Schools - Cheap Beer and Broken Hearts
It was a Thursday and I had two days to get this thing done before the weekend while packing to leave home forever, so I was a little rushed.
Mix tapes were an art form, demanding patience, skill and a level of thoughtfulness that required fastidious planning. They were both time capsule and soundtrack for a moment in life. Because with cassette tapes, you had ninety minutes divided into two sides and that was it, brother - after that you’re out of time. And that was the beauty. That was the challenge – to create a meaningful arc that flowed like a rollercoaster from highs to lows – begin strong, finish stronger and the rest was the unpredictable journey between.
In those days you had to physically OWN the music or somehow manage to record it off the radio when you suspected your song was coming and catch it like a butterfly. Searching for music then meant journeying into Pittsburgh to places like Jerry’s or the Attic where the world of alternative music opened her arms to you and schooled you on the real shit. At home was Pete Seeger, Rush and Zepplin, but out there in the wilds , among the corridors of vinyl, lurked Kate Bush, Husker Du and Cocteau Twins. To score good music meant finding gold and social cache. And besides, there was a girl I wanted to impress.
There would only be five of us this night. TJ, Gwen, Heather...and Tammie. The cadre of outsiders that never quite fit in anywhere. I knew Halloween would likely be a winding junket around the backroads of Gibsonia, Pennsylvania in my rusty Ford Maverick where you could see the road flashing below through the rusted holes of the floorboard driving in an improvisation of random turns and speeding circuits as the naked trees blurred by against the twilight because we were young and dangerous and nothing could touch us. Not this night, not when we had only one goal – grab beer and break into our old elementary school. It had been boarded up for fourteen years.
All the while playing the tape I had yet to make but which I already had the title for.
“1992’s Halloween Before Leaving for Points West” It was a lot to fit onto the label.
I worked on it till 5am the night before. Record – pause – record – rewind – listen - rerecord. It was the perfection of imperfection with all its pops and clicks and mistakes that only I would care about. But it was my expression created for a single night and which afterwards would be a tribute to a memory that was yet to be realized. I didn’t even listen to it until the night we left.
Halloween night and I had achieved beer sufficiency from Tom’s market earlier in the day. By sufficiency, I meant three cases of Mickey’s Wide Mouths, which in retrospect was an utterly atrocious choice, but we didn’t care or know better. My friends arrived in time as we crushed ourselves into the Maverick. Gwen was in the passenger seat as TJ was gloriously jammed between Heather and Tammie in the back. I taped a glow-in-the-dark bobble head skull to the dash and a rubber bat which I slung from the rear-view mirror. We would leave precisely at sunset and not a second earlier because that was the agreement. I’d hit play the second we hit gravel as if it were a gun blasting off at the beginning of a race.
SIDE A – “VINTAGE FEAR”
Left or right?! I called out. All cries to the affirmative but since I had a crush on Tammie and she yelled left, the choice was made.
Creedence Clear Water Revivals’ “I put a Spell on You” launched us down the road. Not that I didn’t love Fitzgerald’s version, but this one had the kick and was a solid starter.
I chose songs not because they were particularly about Halloween, but that they felt like Halloween. That ineffable voice and vibe that spoke from a world beyond.
On came Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” followed by “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard.
Neither songs need a defense, but at this point we had ground right onto Donaldson Road which was choked with overhanging trees and I don’t think anyone cared what was playing anymore. Smashing over potholes, the damned bat was darting into my periphery making me jolt every single time while Tammie was leaning outstretched through the window screaming, “We ain’t never gone get old!!” as I heard the cracking open of beers from the backseat. And I never felt more alive.
Barreling right onto Sandy Hill, on came The Animals’ “House of the Risings Sun”
It had that witchy sold your soul to the Devil in a house of ill repute vibe and as far as my knowledge goes, the Animals were never heard from again. Though I am likely wrong on that point, I don't want to be corrected.
From there the songs got disconnected from the landscape as we bolted down country and the waning moon screamed clear through the branches that past overhead like slats or fingers or spasms of eyesight.
And in precise order came…
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Hear Voices”
This was some crazy voodoo shit right there. The cover even has him holding a skull for God’s sake. And that was only one choice among many of his. This guy had seen some things.
The next was a risk. Henry Hall’s “Hush Hush Hush, Here comes the Bogeyman”
Naturally no one has heard this ever, but that was the point. This one was my father’s suggestion from his vast collection of vinyl. 1930's. The appeal of course was that this guy was likely dead by now.
Gwen looks over, “What is this??”
“Wait, you don’t know this? It’s f’ing Henry Hall.” To which she narrows her eyes at me. It was delicious.
Continuing the oldies train was Bing Crosby’s “The Headless Horseman”
It was quaint and done for Disney, but you can’t fail with Bing Crosby because people are genetically prevented from disliking him.
“The Skeleton in the Closet” by Louis Armstrong was up next and if you see the video, it's creepy in its own right. And just like Crosby or Sinatra (below) it is musical law that you must adore them. When was the last time Armstrong came on and someone yelled, "Oh, I hate that guy!"
Closing out the geriatric/dead section was Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” whose generation had a discomforting penchant for comparing women to demons, but it was Sinatra and he could get away with such things.
Then I brought the tempo back up.
Louis XIV’ – “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha Haaa!”
It was obscure, ridiculous and about insanity so it was perfect for tonight. I had caught it on the Dr. Demento show one Sunday night. A show dedicated to, well, the obscure and ridiculous. If anyone knows the song Fish Heads by Barnes & Barnes, it's because of this guy because no one would have found it on their own. Don't say you did because I know you would be lying.
Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” was really just social commentary, but he referenced a hairy handed man who ripped a man’s lungs out, so it passed muster. That and he wrote Lawyers Guns and Money which is probably the best Hunter S. Thompson inspired song ever written. Prove me wrong.
Finishing off side A of the tape was The Eagles’ “Hotel California” which was magnitudes darker than “House of the Rising Sun.”
I don’t care if Don Henley claims it to be a paean to American excess and commerce, the main character meets a woman named Tiffany-Twisted who’s surrounded by sweaty ecstatic men, a spirit that hadn’t been there for years and a beast that can’t be stabbed to death as he runs screaming from the place. Perhaps Glenn Fry was right in saying, “Vaguery is the primary tool of songwriters,” but I still like to imagine it as a guy who fell under some spell and lured to some demon hotel in the middle of the desert that he couldn’t escape from.
BETWEEN A & B
The tape may have switched over but I don’t remember. What I had imagined would be a forty or so minute dart around the neighborhood, turned into three hours of caterwaul. We left empties covered in esoteric symbols in mailboxes and fashioned a cairn out of plastic jugs on a front porch with a note that read, “Thank you for loving me.”
It was now after midnight and we had almost forgotten about breaking in to the school. We were thirty miles out however without a map and only a marginal sense of where we were. I don’t know who came up with it, but we decided if we kept the moon to our right, we’d find our way back. Which we did. But it was really just stupid luck and Heather’s memory of road signs that got us there.
1am and we screeched into the parking lot. Everything was unlit because all the street lamps had been gouged out from the ground and sold for scrap a decade before. The lot had gone to seed as nature reclaimed its portion, the pavement splintered with weed clusters as if the earth forced its way upwards, spoke in failed flowers and collapsed back exhausted.
The school loomed weather-worn and dark. Three stories of mottled bricks and cracked cement – the windows and doors boarded with stained scrap wood as if nailed down in a hurry to guard against some impending storm. Stones and bullets had pocked the glass in spiderweb cracks as if it was lain siege.
I pulled the car around the back to where the playground once stood to keep us from the sight of the road. Tall sallow grass had supplanted the spaces where swing sets once dwelt as the asphalt path leading up from the town below and through the dense spray of trees beyond, now only spoke of leaving as it wandered trailing off into the weeds and lost from sight.
We sat on the hood of the car as I cracked my first beer as we plotted our invasion. Not for the purposes of ruin, but for it to give up her secrets. She was once ours after all.
This was where we grew up, fought teachers, fought each other and stood up to bullies. It was a lost cathedral of first kisses, skinned knees and anemic lunches where we’d wet straw paper and if timed just right, we could blow it upwards to stick to the ceiling twenty feet above.
We had our flashlights and spare batteries, two pillow cases full of beer and my father’s crowbar secreted from the garage. I also carried the tape player - for my mix needed the right space and I knew this was it. But the metal doors were tack-welded shut and the windows too small to get through and laced through with a lattice of metal wire. And so it went as we made our perimeter clockwise around the crumble of the first floor and covered in tufts of seed from the guardians of straw which grew thick on all sides.
We couldn’t get in. Yet I knew we could get in. Like a vague prophesy, the night felt purposed. We would get inside. And finally on the northern side, by the second entrance, one piece of new plywood stood out like a vertical welcome matt. Prying it off, revealed a gaping open window.
The stale cold air jarred us. Air unbreathed for a decade and a half since the last of the workmen entombed what remained inside and left in their trucks for supper. Our flashlights played across the delaminated walls as a carpet of curled paint leavings crushed brittle under our feet. Without discussion, we innately knew where we were headed.
SIDE B - Fear Not the Night, Children
The cafeteria was choked with abandoned chairs and desks, the clock having given up at 2:25 one day when they cut the power and was the last thing there to ever move. We lit candles which splayed our silhouettes in a choir of shadows across the pealing walls. I laid the recorder upon the stage. “Okay, listen. Just…listen.”
It was This Mortal Coil’s haunting version of “I Come and Stand at Every Door”
“I come and stand at every door
But no one hears my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead, for I am dead”
It came from a folklore poem about a child that had died in Hiroshima and now wanders the land alone. It was covered by the Byrds, but no one evoked it into being like This Mortal Coil. If you like their style, also listen to “Another Day” and the impassioned “Song to the Siren”
The song expanded with the room and everyone was silent until Gwen said, “Shit. Could you play that again?”
I did and let it roll over into Dead Can Dance’s “Cantara”
A piece that takes its time to draw you in like a fish on a line then tosses you into a pagan fire to be transformed into some sprite that dances off into the trees. And with that, we didn’t want to be lying down anymore. Gwen said she could drive so I committed to drinking beer.
Off we all dashed into the decaying halls as I left the player on the stage and the music echoed from off collapsed drop ceilings which left their fluorescent lights crushed below like fallen birds.
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Halloween” kicked in and its timing was prescient.
Siouxsie doesn’t let you stand still. Siouxsie provokes you to dazzle in the night. So, we made a move. It was Halloween and we had an abandoned school as our playground.
Stumbling towards our first-grade classroom in the dark, the halls were a dereliction of decaying obstacles trying to kill us. More ceilings dangled, rotting to the floor and chairs devoid of seats crowded the walls as if thrust there by some great force and the air was choked with mildew kicked up by our shoes. We were young. We were Chernobyl.
And then Kate Bush reverberated through the air filtered through dust and ruin. “Waking the Witch”
Imagine that song playing in this desolation, in this moment. Me sitting on the exact spot where my desk was fourteen years ago with the girl I had a crush on and a mitten abandoned by my brother’s class in 1978 crumpled just feet away. I had a few beers by then and now everything was very very important.
“Tammie, you were like over there. Right? Fifth row over and like four chairs back. You always had that green sweater and it had this…this um…”
“Right, butterfly on the front and you were just so like…lime Jello.”
“Yeah, like a cute box of lime jello with this butterfly on the front and I just really liked lime jello. Like you.”
“You drunk,” she laughs.
“No, no I’m…Okay, yes I’m drunk but I just…okay, forget the jello thing. I just liked you. Still do.”
“Oh, isn't you just so cute.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just talking stupid.”
“You isn’t stupid. You just feel things a lot.”
And yes, I did feel all the things. Terrified of leaving. Leaving my family, leaving my friends. Leaving all things familiar and walking out from under the canopy which always promised comfort. Terrified that never again will there be a breakfast made for me waiting upon the kitchen counter with Mom smiling, I love you. I am already an orphan clinging to a passing night. This last gambit for joy before the great unknown. And Tammie bore its face.
It was then that I realized the other three had left.
“Do you want to dance?” Tammie asked.
“No. Sixth grade. Yeah…sixth grade.”
That was the first room on the third floor. The tape had long played out sitting abandoned on the stage. TJ, Heather and Gwen were scurried off into the dark recesses. Maybe a séance, maybe an orgy. It didn’t matter. I grabbed the deck, rewound to the song last remembered as we stood in the aching dark among the moldering relics of our past, placed it upon the shelves that once held books and raincoats and pressed play.
“The Killing Moon” - Echo and the Bunnymen.
We had long turned off the flashlights and swayed in the moonlight that eased through shattered windows and whose position we had held to our right. Hands now around waists and bodies drawn close. To all this a clock timing down. Her head upon my chest till lifting up and the kiss. A longing thing drawn out of a finite endness. A consummation of years never to be fully realized and finally breaking off in a deep sweet sadness.
She grips my hands tight with a gentle finality.
“It’s okay. I know you isn’t comin’ back. Not permanent like. You got that life ahead. You got them stars on your chest like diamonds. You gotta go! Run from here. You’s destined. I isn’t. Look…I isn’t! No, don’t say nothin’. I be fine. I’m good. Don’t give me that face.”
And after that not much else was said.
We went downstairs to find the others, calling out into the darkness as the curlings of paint crushed under our feet like egg shells. I heard the rebound of TJ’s voice, but couldn’t tell which side of the school it came from - like the ghost of the ghost of his voice existing purely in echo and devoid of origin. We called back into the same cloud of incoherence till discernable words began to congeal in the musty air and by the time we got to the main floor, I could see a single flashlight bobbing in the air like a dying Chinese lantern in the wind. TJ was likely just as plastered as me, Heather too and I think maybe more so than anyone else.
When we came together, TJ had his arm around Heather’s neck as she clung to him giggling, the buttons on her shirt unmatched from side to side as Gwen had her hands in her pockets and didn’t say anything.
Back in the cafeteria, no one knew what time it was for none of us brought watches. We knew it was late, that liminal time before dawn as our energy began to leach from us. We didn’t know when to leave because nothing prompted us to, like we were waiting for some sign to tell us it was time to go. I reached over to the tape machine. “Okay, let me do this. It’s cool, just…hang on.” “Do it,” Gwen blurted out. There were only a few songs left anyways.
“Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths.
Morrissey’s bouncy forlornness scampered over the ruins followed by Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” but the time for these songs were hours ago.
Only Me and Heather seemed to have any spark in us now. Gwen was awake but quiet. TJ was stretched out in the dust with his arm across his eyes, while Tammie sat with her chin between her knees staring outward. She looks over at me and gives me a quiet thumbs up as I nod in response.
“Earth Died Screaming” blazes on. Tom Waits in his boozed growl.
“And the great day of wrath has come
And here's mud in your big red eye
The poker's in the fire and the locusts take the sky”
Then suddenly a smash of glass. I look up and Heather is tottering knock kneed on a wobbling desk and had tossed an empty across the hall, her mouth open in a silent laugh.
“You can’t do that!” I yell.
She stares at me baffled, “Wwwhat?! What do you even mean by those words coming out of yer face?”
I glare at her with a withering intensity. “Because…Look! You’re gonna mess this whole place up!”
It takes her a second. Then I hurl an empty to my side shattering it across one of the lunch tables as she howls - then suddenly pitches backwards off the desk smashing her knees onto the stage.
“OW! Owowowow! Goddamnitfuck!” As she rocks crying/laughing and bonking her head repeatedly onto the stage and then turns on her back rocking holding her knee.
“You okay?” laughs Tammie.
“YES! Fuck! Ow!” then whimpering “Where’s my beer?!”
“I don’t know! It flew over my head!”
Now everyone is awake and the world is utterly and stupidly beautiful. And I know in this moment that we will never all be together again. That this was it. I try to seal my mind around it, to place it into some chrysalis in time to visit again when I am old. And true to that moment, I close my eyes and pray, “Please stay.” Stay somewhere.
Then like a feral cat, Heather has bound to her feat.
“Okay look, we got like one, wait no two. Yeah, two beers left. Let’s say we split this shit and call it.”
“Done,” nods TJ. I look over to Tammie who nods and smiles, “Go have fun.”
Gwen looks up at me and whispers, “Don’t worry, I got her.”
And then Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman” drives us out into the hall near what was once the teachers’ lounge as we form a circle, our arms around our shoulders as we passed the remaining beers between us.
“LA? Seriously?” asks TJ.
“Yeah, I mean it. Next week. I’m goin’”
Heather crushes my neck under her arm. “Then you better fuckin’ come back and see us. I mean that shit. We’re your family.”
“I’ll be back at Christmas. Promise. Like serious promise.”
“Yeah, yeah and not just that. You’d better fuckin’…like fuckin’ get Academy Awards and shit. I wanna see your shit in lights, man.”
“All I can do is try, bud.”
“No, you promise us. I wanna see you famous.”
“Okay. Yeah, I promise.”
“Good. Now drink the rest of this.”
So, I empty the last awful slug of warm beer as the two final songs play out. Both by Nick Cave – Tupelo and The Mercy Seat. A musical apocalypse and the grand finish. I toss the bottle down the hall but it only plinks into the darkness. Then silence as the tape finally runs out.
We sway together, our foreheads touching and no one speaks. The splintered windows now glowing blue with the threatening twilight. Then to our right, we hear a shuffle. It’s Gwen. “I think Tammie’s ready to go.”
With our remaining flashlight, we escape by the way we came, leaving the pillow case full of empties as just another relic to be bulldozed over in time. The cop was already waiting for us beside my car.
“So, you kids have fun tonight?”
I speak up. “Yes, sir we did.”
“You know you’re trespassing, right?”
“Yes, sir but we did it anyways. It was our school once. We didn’t break anything I promise.”
“You’re telling me you went in there and caused no trouble at all?”
“No, sir the place pretty much broke itself long before we got here.”
“Then what where you up to? I can see you all have been drinkin’.”
Heather jumps in. “We listened to a lot of his shitty music” as I suddenly glare at her.
The officer surveils us and asks, “So whose getting you all home?”
All of us instantly point at Gwen who sheepishly shrugs her shoulders. “Then you just drive careful, miss. I don’t want to see any of you here again. Understood?”
We all nod in unison. We deserved for that to have gone so much worse.
On the drive home the sun was coming up and no one spoke for only Gwen and I were awake. Gwen smiles and says, “Well, I liked your music.” I nod and laugh as I sip a beer from the third case.
“Just be careful, okay?”
“That,” nodding at the beer.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Don’t let it get ahold of you. My Daddy can put down two of them cases in a night. Every night.”
“Don’t worry,” as I nearly finish the bottle off. And she looks out the windshield and doesn’t speak after that.
At home goodbyes and promises were made as the sun crested the ridge of pines to the east. Yes, see you all at Christmas. Tammie stood off in the periphery, knowing I was going to say goodbye to her last.
“You get goin’” she smiled.
“Look, I’ll be…”
She grips my hands tight and squeezes her eyes shut. “I know you be back. I know.”
“Then I’ll see you.”
She nods her head quickly, not because of any agreement, but to shake the idea protectively away. She looks me sharply in the eye and says, “You go do well, Kevin,” gives me a lingering kiss on the cheek and turns away to get in the car and never looks back.
Gwen looks out from her car. “What do you want me to do with the rest of the beer?”
I glance about. “Give it to Heather.” Gwen grins as Heather makes devil horns out the window screaming a long wooohooo! And they vanish over the drop of the hill.
Though I’d see a few in passing in the decades to come, we never were all together again. Marriages and children, careers and moves. Aging becomes a banal series of what seem like compromises, but are actually just decisions on the way to becoming adults. TJ moved into construction and Heather became a fashion coordinator in Miami. She’s the one I stay in touch with the most. Tragically, Gwen succumbed to her father’s addictive illness in time. It's like she gave me her wisdom but didn't keep any of it for herself. She died of heroin and booze in her forties somewhere in Kentucky. I couldn’t even make it back for the funeral. Tammie married an apparently nice business guy named Greg, moved back to West Virginia and has three kids. I never did see her again.
I returned to the school the next day armed with my Nikon and rolls of black and white film. It was my impulse to prove the place existed. This ossuary not of bones, but of molding books and relief maps whose contours matched the buckling floor below.
And in the years to come, the school haunted my memory and dreams. Dreams all of the same theme – That the school was being restored, repainted and made anew for the next generations. These dreams went on so long that I began to believe them even in waking.
Then returning for a high school reunion fifteen years later, I mentioned the Halloween night we spent there years before and that I was going to visit it again tomorrow. They looked at each other and broke the news to me that the school had been torn down just three days before.
I darted out the next day and it was true. All that remained was the barely visible parking lot and raw dirt. Then the dreams stopped and never returned.
I have now the only remaining history. The photos from the day after and a tape dredged from a case, found behind a box beneath another box. But here it is. It happened. And the ghosts and the music still frolic in halls that no longer exist but for memory and the words that landed here.
Entire Play List here