Amy, Emily, and Me

Way back in 1990, I was Production Director at The Wave, 102.5, here in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market. Our Promotions Director, Rina Becker, gave me a pair of tickets to see Indigo Girls that night at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota. I knew one song–“Closer to Fine”–but it was a good one.

My brother, Marky, was home from FSU, and he’d just had some sort of surgery. He was ambulatory and full of hydrocodone, so he figured it would be fun. We went to the show.

Van Wezel seats maybe 1200, and it is acoustically perfect.  Our seats were seventh row, dead center. God bless you, Rina Becker!

There were maybe 500 people there that night, a huge proportion of whom were Lesbians. At one point, little brother pointed out–quite loudly–that the “Hot, Michelle Pfeiffer-looking girl” in the front row was making out with the girl beside her. He was really high on pain meds. I was a little scared. Then the lights dimmed, and two young women came out on stage.

And thus began my love for Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. I’d see them three more times over the next five years. That first night, I’d only heard “Closer to Fine.” By the second time I saw them–an outdoor show at Jannus Landing here in St Pete–I knew every word to every song they sang, and by God, I sang along with them, and my 1000 or so fellow audience members.

That was a time in my life–my mid-twenties–where I was unsure of my path in life. I didn’t know where I was going to end up, but I worked for a hip radio station, made enough money to get drunk a lot, and got free tickets to shows like Indigo Girls.

But I hadn’t gone that second time just because I’d been given free tickets. Hell, I’d earned them this time–the spot I produced helped sell out two nights worth of shows for them. At that point, I worked during the day, went to happy hour, came home, got even more buzzed, and wrote ridiculously long letters to my best friend, John. Some of these ended up being 50,000 words or more. It was more journaling than anything, my slogging through life, looking for answers. Many nights, Indigo Girls provided the soundtrack for my soul-searching.

Their lyrics are perfect for that activity, too. Even little swatches: “I’m kneeling down with broken prayers”; “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” Or my theme,

“I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
I went in seeking clarity.”

Or, the one that summed up what I was doing those drunken nights:

“There I am in younger days, star-gazing,
Painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be
Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection
My compass, faith in love’s perfection
I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen.”

Ain’t that the truth. How many tens of millions of miles of road did I miss from sitting there, trying to figure out what was wrong with my life, rather than embracing what was right?

Things happened, and I stopped listening to Indigo Girls as much. I embraced certain other albums–Van Morrison’s awesome “A Night in San Francisco,” for example–then I got to the point where I was so burned out on music, I pretty much stopped listening. In my final drunken spiral, I had a playlist of mostly rock and blues I’d listen to as I chugged my bourbon, but it was more about the noise, not about the message.

I’ve had three brain explosions since those halcyon days with Amy and Emily. The first was in 1997, where I had a serious depressive meltdown. It was bad at the time, but Prozac pulled me out of it, and I didn’t miss any work. Seriously, my job was to sit in a dark, cool room by myself, playing jazz music–it’s not like there were lots of stressors there. In 2005, my years of constant drinking (and occasional pill abuse) got me to a point where my soul was dead. If I hadn’t put myself in…um, that “special resort” for 30 days, you wouldn’t be reading these words. Then, this past April, my brain went kablooey. This one was worse than the other two combined.

I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why it happened. But holy shit, did it happen.

My brain: April, 2012


I’m healing. Slowly. Very slowly, sometimes.

When I first went kablooey, I couldn’t stand music. The only way I could go to sleep was with a movie playing, usually “Judgment at Nuremberg” for some reason.

Incidentally, I came up with a great analogy for how “Judgment at Nuremberg” relates to depressive meltdowns. When you have a breakdown, your conscious self–the little you inside of you–is like Montgomery Clift in “Nuremberg.” Even at his best, he’s jittery and nervous. Then you have the disease–Maximillian Schell–pounding away at you, pointing out every flaw you’ve ever had, from how you were a shitty student who failed sixth grade to how you were declared mentally feeble and had a state-mandated de-nardment. The meds are like Richard Widmark and Spencer Tracy–they do what they can to protect Montgomery Clift, but their hands are largely tied. In the end, it’s just Max vs Monty, day after day.

As time has passed–it’s been over seven months I’ve been fighting this thing–Monty gets stronger, and Max slacks off a bit. I’m on a handful of various Widmarks and Tracys, and most days, we can get by.

Slowly, music came back into my life. I created a little playlist I’d fire up at bedtime: “Breathe (2 a.m.),” by Anna Nalick; “Drops of Jupiter,” by Train; “Sweet Sweet Baby,” by Lone Justice; “Dream Hotel,” by Texas, and The Sundays, “Here’s Where the Story Ends.”


One night, that brought to mind an Indigo Girls song. I downloaded it. Then another. Then another.  I found their songs comforting, but I was missing context. I wasn’t hearing “Prince of Darkness,” “Secure Yourself,” or “Love’s Recovery” in context of their eponymous cd. Also, somehow my life felt out of context, like I haven’t been a Tom walking around with a shattered brain, but a shattered brain walking around with a Tom. Context. I had to go buy groceries on my Wednesday night. Instead of turning left toward The Infernal Store, I turned right up 4th St. In 20 seconds or so, I shifted into fifth gear. I headed north on 275, exited past Tampa International, then up the Veterans Expressway and Suncoast Parkway. It was exactly 65 miles, and I didn’t have to shift out of fifth, not even blasting through the SunPass toll plaza lanes. I turned around where the Parkway ends at US 98, and came back to Gomorrah.

Back when I was listening to Indigo Girls every night, drinking too much, and brooding about life, that drive would have taken two hours each way, and getting past the airport and highway 60 would have been a snarling nightmare. God only knows how many red lights I’d have cursed, or how many idiots pulling out in front of me. Twenty years later, the roads have been rebuilt, the way cleared. I could still have gotten to US 98 back then, but the journey would have been far rougher, more taxing.

I think that’s where I am now. I can get where I need to go (at least most of the time), but the roads are slow and bumpy, with stop-and-go traffic. Gradually, a new stretch of improved road will open, and the journey will get a little easier. In time, hopefully, it will be all smooth, and I can stay in overdrive and enjoy the scenery.

I bought Indigo Girls’ eponymous album this evening. I’m back working through these songs in their context, where Amy and Emily put them, and where they saw me through those boozy, broody nights. Difficult though it may be, I’m trying to put my life in context, too. When your brain goes kablooey, you can’t really trust your thoughts.

I think I’m starting to get a little trust back.

In context, I’ve had a hell of a ride, and I’m glad to be here, scars, pains, and all. The journey has been waaaay the fuck different than I imagined 20 years when I listened to this album.

When I was about 40 miles past Tampa, in the middle of a dark Hernando County nowhere, I was thinking about this album and where life has gone. I suddenly had to laugh.

Way back in the Vox days, I somehow ended up having two remarkable high school girls in metro-Seattle join my neighborhood. They were and are best friends, and over the last five years, we’ve become really close. We joke that I’m like their imaginary mentor. I’ve watched them go from high school sophomores to college sophomores. Through the Interwebs, I’ve become good friends with two young women who were born around the time Marky and I were sitting in the Van Wezel that night. The beauty of Indigo Girls is that they are two very different, yet magically compatible souls.

When I laughed, somewhere around midnight, going 80 mph on a smooth, deserted road, it’s because it finally dawned on me. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls. My two imaginary mentorees?

An Amy and an Emily.

The Universe has a wicked sense of humor sometimes.


9 Responses to “Amy, Emily, and Me”

  1. Oh wow. Does it ever. Have a wicked sense of humor sometimes.
    I’m glad you could laugh again. And “get” the Universe’s joke.
    The Indigo Girls are truly awesome. I need to get some more of their music.

  2. What a great analogy…what you are going through and “Judgement at Nuremburg.” Well done.

    • I really loved that analogy. I told my therapist about it–to go on YouTube and do a search for “Montgomery Clift Judgment at Nuremberg,” and it would come up. He did. The next week, he said it was a wonderful comparison. “Good Lord, poor Montgomery Clift! By the end of that…I can see why he’s the depression part.”

      I was proud of him. He went on to watch the entire film. 🙂

  3. I can’t imagine not being able to stand listening to music. That would be like death to me. The Indigo Girls….I was a bit older than you when I first heard them (just a bit 😉 ), but I associate them with some very sad moments in my life. When I hear one of their tunes on the radio, it’s startling to feel those memories come back: but it also reminds me that I’m glad to be here now, glad to hear their music in a different context.

    I’m glad you’ve survived brain explosions and Trials at Nuremberg to be here today, tom. The innerwebs always seem brighter when I hear you laugh.

  4. Saw them twice in Cincinnati. Those albums mean a lot to me, especially “Indigo Girls,” which came out around the time I was finishing up college.

    Meanwhile our friends we thought were so together
    Left each other one by one in search of fairer weather

    Man, is that true. I didn’t know how true it would be when I first heard it.

    And Anna Nalick–I love “Breathe,” unabashedly.

    I had read your blog from time to time on Vox, but when the Six Apart shit hit the fan I did a half-assed job of keeping up with people. Anyway, it sucks that things went ka-blooey in April, but glad to hear things are putting themselves back together.

    • “And we sit here in our storm and drink a toast to the slim chance of love’s recovery.”

      Indigo Girls can write the hell out of a song–“Ghost” rips my heart out. I love the way their voices play off one another: Emily has that angelic mezzo-soprano, and Amy’s growly and powerful; she said in an interview she’s actually a tenor. Whatever it is, it works.

      I mentioned the large proportion of Lesbians in the crowd, but I didn’t expound on that as I’d intended. Every time I saw them (and Melissa Etheridge), there was a huge Lesbian presence. I got the feeling that, while I loved and appreciated the music, there was an almost mystical thing going on, like girls were back when Elvis or The Beatles were hot. I think Indigo Girls have always been openly gay, so maybe their gay fan base felt freer at their shows? It could be that, but I think it’s just something in the music that really touched them. Their songs make it okay to think, and okay to be different, to be yourself.

      I first heard “Breathe” on a drizzly night last year. We were getting killed at work, so on my lunch break, I went to Dunkin Donuts to get a Box o’ Joe for my cohorts and me to enjoy. The radio played “Breathe,” and I was intrigued. Then the second verse hit, and I Shazam’d it, and bought it right there at the drive-thru. The whole song is beautiful, but that line: “Here in town we all know he’s been down for awhile, but my God it’s so beautiful when the boy smiles…” Goosebumps.

      That song segues so perfectly into “Drops of Jupiter”–they’re both piano with big string arrangements, and similar in tempo. Texas is one of the most underrated bands on earth, and I’ve always loved the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. By the time Texas and The Sundays come on, I’m already asleep. 😛

      I remember we were neighbors on Vox, which I sorely miss. I’m glad we ran into one another here in the post-Vox blogging wasteland.

  5. And there was steam on the windows from the kitchen
    Laughter like a language I once spoke with ease
    But I’m made mute by the virtue of decision
    And I choose most of your life goes on without me

    — is the defining lyric of part of my life. Great post.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Listening to their music again after so long, I’m amazed at the lyrical quality in nearly every song. They have an amazing knack for summing up the human condition, and harmonizing their summation. There’s not a “Sussudio” in their canon.

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