I have this recurring nightmare. Vanity Fair has hired me to profile Madonna. I'm sitting in the Material Girl's Manhattan nest, watching little Lourdes cavort>"/>
I have this recurring nightmare. Vanity Fair has hired me to profile Madonna. I'm sitting in the Material Girl's Manhattan nest, watching little Lourdes cavort on the carpet in her D&G jumper. My crush on Ricky Martin comes up, and the singer grins wickedly. "Let me tell you something about that se�ta . . ." she begins.
Suddenly Mr. Smith, my high school AP Biology teacher, appears. "You have to come with me," he announces. Instantly I'm whisked to a familiar classroom. A sheaf of mimeographed pages and a No. 2 pencil wait on the desk. "Thought you could skip my final and still graduate, did you?" he queries. Intuitively, I know the meaning of these events. Failing this test will annul my entire adult life. College, my one true love, all those years building a career—gone in a puff of smoke.
I awake frantically scouring my brain for dim memories of the possible genetic outcomes when crossbreeding various strains of corn.
Residual anxieties about higher education torment me almost daily. So how is it that, starting next week, I'm enrolled in a conversational Spanish class through the UW? Because I felt a profound need to do something besides knocking back Knob Creek and watching rock bands on my nights off. Plus, as I mentioned, there's my penchant for Latin men.
Initially, the prospect of going back to school terrified me. Did any capacity for absorbing new information still exist in my wasted brain? Practically all I do is listen to records. But then it dawned on me—tidbits gleaned from song lyrics have always augmented my formal education, even before I took Mr. Smith's damn exam the first time.
As a youthful show queen, I memorized the periodic table of the elements by singing along with one of Dad's Tom Lehrer albums; the popular satirist had set the entire chart to a Gilbert & Sullivan melody. A couple years later, Lou Reed sparked my Andy Warhol fetish with "Walk on the Wild Side." The cavalcade of "superstars" mentioned—Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn—prompted me to scan regional art house cinema schedules religiously, searching for showings of Trash or Heat, which in turn led to discovering underground film.
After-school hours spent mooning over the man that got away while listening to Kate Bush's albums The Kick Inside and Never Forever inspired me to read Emily Bront련Wuthering Heights) and check pastoral recordings of English composer Frederick Delius—hailed by Sir Thomas Beecham as "the last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion, and beauty in music"—out of the local library.
Watching MTV even sharpened my vocabulary. One afternoon in 1983, I caught the clip for "Drop the Pilot" from Joan Armatrading's The Key. Next day, I bought the single. But there was a lyric printed on the sleeve that made zero sense: "Drop the mahout, I'm the easy rider." A mahout, Webster's Collegiate revealed, is "a keeper and driver of an elephant." When the word failed to appear on the SAT test, I felt cheated.
Pop music continues to lead me to new areas of investigation, even Women's Studies. Thanks to "Tipton" on Positively Phranc, the 1991 release from everyone's favorite Jewish-American lesbian folk singer, I sought to learn more about the Tacoma jazz musician who lived her life as a man for over 50 years (as recounted in Diane Middlebrook's Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton). Before "Bella Abzug" from Portland singer-songwriter Sarah Dougher's new CD Day One (on K) prompted me to research the famous US Representative from New York—co- author of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, and among the first to call for Nixon's impeachment—I'd ignorantly thought she was just some minor feminist with a wacky hat.
If any single artist deserves kudos for repeatedly prodding my gray matter, the laurels go to Green Gartside of Scritti Politti. In 1982, the UK singer had the balls to record a ditty about philosopher Jacques Derrida, father of deconstruction. Six years later, Scritti got "Boom! There She Was" on to US radio, which seems remarkable considering that Green name-checks transcendental idealist Immanuel Kant and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in the same couplet. He even sneaks "pharmacopoeia" ("a book describing drugs, chemicals, and medicinal preparations") into the lyrics. After going MIA for ages, Green's returning to the US in January with a disc bravely entitled Anomie and Bonhomie. Give this man an honorary Ph.D. now!
But just because I've isolated the supplementary educational benefits of my number one pastime, don't think I'm about to start making meticulously programmed mix tapes that sound like a highly individualized version of Schoolhouse Rock. My listening diet remains unchanged. Just because he'll never be a Rhodes scholar doesn't mean Ricky Martin couldn't teach me a thing or two.