Image: Adam Fuss
Anthem For the Already Defeated - Rock Plaza Central
Add It Up - Violent Femmes
Down By The Riverside - Mahalia Jackson
I was listening for maybe the fifth time to "Anthem For the Already Defeated," a disheveled Dixieland jazz dirge from Rock Plaza Central's beautiful and boisterous ode to joy, Are We Not Horses, and, unexpectedly, thought of a friend who died more than a decade ago. Erica and I were close as sisters (neither of us having actual ones) during those delicate, in-between years of 13 to 15. Which means, of course, we were fierce competitors. If she went to camp, I had to go. If I was allowed to start wearing makeup, so must she, and so on. Most of the time we ran neck and neck: She was better at math, I was better at English, she was good at tennis, I was a faster swimmer, she owned more clothes, mine sported better labels. But we were both strong-willed, opinionated, curious about everything and vaguely itchy to get out into the world--the way girls are before boys twist their desire into something specific and localized. We'd move into one another houses on weekends, staying up all night to read aloud from horror potboilers by John Saul or listen to music while flipping through Vogue and speculating about sex. One thing she always had on me, though, was fearlessness. There wasn't a movie she wasn't willing to try to sneak into, or a boy she was afraid to approach. It goes without saying her taste in music was more daring. One night, Erica brought over a Violent Femmes tape and we sat on my back porch for hours eating popcorn, laughing and singing along to that great testament to sexual frustration, "Add It Up" (ensuring my parents weren't just around the bend when we belted, Why can't I get just one fuck?).
I was briefly home one summer in my early 20s and sitting at the kitchen table when my mom asked if I had gone through the pile of mail and other items of interest she always collected in my long and more frequent absences. Because, she said casually, there was an obituary for Erica Sullivan. (And here, I should note my family's curiously muted approach to matters of mortality. When my dad's mother died, he mentioned it several days later in a phone conversation, and only after we'd spent five minutes talking about the weather. I don't think my mom cried at either of her parent's funerals, but after I sobbed loudly during my grandmother's service, my aunt made a point of commenting on it. My people, mostly long-time Americans of English and German Protestant extraction, don't do emotions. So when I say my mom mentioned casually, I mean, in the same breath in which she asked me to please clean out my bedroom's second closet so it could be used for winter coats.)
Erica drowned during a river-rafting excusion on the Colorado River. I hadn't seen her since we were 16 (the friendly rivalry became too intense, we went to different high schools, I don't know) but reading what her life had been since then was like skimming the salient details of my own up to that point. Like my parents, hers had eventually divorced (a sad, small fact you gather when the deceased's mother is reported as living in Arizona, and her father in Florida). She ended up graduating from a college I had applied to. And like me, she was pursuing graduate work--in her case, a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Her end confounds any kind of verbal profundity, so I'll lean on a cliche: This was a life rife with promise and severed too soon.
So what spell of words and sounds have me conjuring this ghost? "Anthem's" death-and-the-river trope, certainly. And its nod to the gospel tradition (gonna lay down my sword and shield/down by the riverside), not to mention shades (yes, a pun) of Greek tragedy--the kind of mythos I reach for when I can't find other ways to order chaos. Rock Plaza Central isn't offering an observation deck for rapturous transport to a heavenly reward or a placid-streamed portal to the underworld, though. Stumbling over ragged piano, fiddle, horns and accordion, singer Chris Eaton rages, teeth-grinding tenacious:
They can take our bones, and bury them
Deep under the river
But we'll still be together
And we cannot be defeated.
And this seems appropriate somehow, if you're going to try to eulogize (too many years too late) someone who was only 23, and who would not, I'm certain, have left this world without a fight.
Are We Not Horses, Rock Plaza Central (Amp Camp, band direct)
Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (Amazon)
The Essential Mahalia Jackson (Amazon, iTunes)