The first girl I ever told I loved came to me from Cherokee Beach, a lakeside recreational area near my home of Bessemer, Alabama. Her name was Jean, and we were so shy with each other at the beach that we didn’t hold hands or say more than a few words as we watched our friends Robert and Lisa touch each other all over. During the next two weeks we talked for hours nightly over the telephone lines, and it was on that third night that I took my chance:
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
But by the tenth night, she was wavering. And then came her fatal question:
“What do you think of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon?”
“Oh, it’s ok.”
Words that doomed me for Jean. I just wasn’t “cool.” Though we met one other time, six months later at a bowling alley near her home in Roebuck, I couldn’t overcome my ignorance of “Us and Them.”
But I did learn something from Jean and our failed love.
Music defines relationships, and I had better establish my own cool pop icon.
Until then I was mainly an AM radio listener; I could tell you all the hits of that era, and ashamedly, I didn’t discriminate among “works” like Bobby Sherman’s “Little Woman,” the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” or Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” But there was a band that I liked so much that I spent my hard-earned grass-mowing funds on an entire album: CSNY’s Déjà Vu. And that’s when I found Neil Young, who sang of pretty country girls like the ones I had already known. Like Jean. Or, to be painfully honest, her friend Lisa.
I’d turn off my bedroom lights, put on “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and dream of a woman who could see me as I was. I was old enough to want to change my life, though I was still only fifteen.
The part I did change was to ask every girl I met the one question that would determine whether they were worthy of risking my heart:
“Are you a Neil Young freak?”
Lukewarm responses disqualified the prospects. Far worse were the “I don’t knows”–even worse than the “Ugh, his voice” replies, for at least those meant that the girl listened to the right stations or had an older, cooler sibling.
Still, even the “Oh I love him” responses, like the one I got from Marcy, a girl I met on a family vacation to Disney World, might not mean anything. Marcy’s parents, Ukranian immigrants, swept her away from me while I was off getting my parents’ consent to hang out with Marcy an extra half hour. God, and she just loved “After the Gold Rush,” too.
I can’t say that “Heart of Gold” is my favorite Neil Young song, though it is on my favorite album, Harvest. But because it was Neil’s greatest “hit,” playing constantly on my favorite AM stations—WSGN (the “Big 610”) and WVOK (the “Mighty 690”)—it certainly increased the odds that my litmus test question would lead me to love, just what I had been searching for. And the greatest odds I had back then came during the spring play of my sophomore year of high school: Harvey. I had the second male lead, “Dr. Chumley,” but more importantly, three different girls that I loved (in that fifteen year-old manner of loving) also had roles in the play.
Sheri, Mary Jane, and Pam.
Sheri was a year younger than me but never gave off strong signals, so of course I pursued her the hardest. She “liked” Neil Young.
Mary Jane was my fifth grade girlfriend, but by then was dating a good guy, Bill. She thought “Heart of Gold” was a good song. I dreamed that she would come back to me, or at least kiss me one day.
Pam was a year older than me. A junior. Ever since I entered junior high school, she had been one of the older girls my friend Robert pointed out: one to watch; one to wish you could have. Pam played my wife in the play, and had as many Neil Young albums as I did. But I thought older girls were off limits. What would they want with a boy like me anyway? I wasn’t an ocean-crosser.
On the night the play ended, at the cast party in Jimbo’s basement, Pam tried to show me what all my heart-searching had been for.
“Come here,” she said, and led me into another room where it was dark and we were all alone.
She kissed me then, my first. “There,” she said.
I thought then that I must be getting older, but sadly, not old enough to know what to do. I didn’t believe what Pam was offering. So I stood there, and then turned back to the party, to Sheri and Mary Jane who had, sadly, found their own gold by then.
I thought for a time that this was only a minor moment in my life. A few months later I realized that it was I who failed the test.
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Since last appearing in the museum of americana, Terry Barr has had essays published in Red Fez, Full Grown People, Grounded Magazine, Graze, Red Truck Review, Rougarou, Belle Reve Literary Journal, and Marathon Literary Review. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and teaches Southern Film, Food and Literature, and Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and daughters.
Click here to read Terry’s essay “A Southern Kaddish” in Issue Two.