Badlands

      As I walk on through troubled times
      My spirit gets so down-hearted sometimes
      So where are the strong, and who are the trusted?
      And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?
      ’Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away
      Just makes me wanna cry
      What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding
      Oh, what’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?
                  —Nick Lowe, as sung by Elvis Costello

I first met him less than three years before he walked out of my life—not actually met, but saw him. He had that effect on people.

I’d spent the better part of a three-day weekend waiting in line to get University of Washington last-chance campus housing, and he was one of the many others in line with me. “What in the hell is he doing here?” I thought. He looked like he still belonged in high school. I would have placed him at about fifteen or sixteen, his shoulder-length center-parted blonde rocker hair and his baby-smooth face combining with his diminutive stature to make him an instant candidate for a teen idol on the cover of Tiger Beat. Think David Cassidy meets Michael J. Fox. As it turned out, we were both freshmen, and he was a year older than I; he thought I was an upper-classman.

The first week of school, my high-school crush Terri Haggerton came by to visit the McMahon Hall dorm room that Greg Fisher and I shared. Terri lived in McCarty Hall just up the road. Eventually, the conversation turned to this incredibly cute guy in Terri’s Chemistry class—he had just the nicest hair and the cutest smile. Suddenly the excited look on Terri’s face froze and her transfixed gaze aimed steadily over my shoulder. “That’s him! That’s him!” she hissed as I turned and saw him again for the second time, framed in my doorway. “Hi! My name’s Matt,” he said, as Terri slowly melted onto the floor.

As it turned out, he’d been assigned a room two doors down from mine.

The first thing I learned about Matt Conway was that he had a great hi-fi system. The second was that he had what I considered a strange taste in music. He swore that some guy named Bruce Springsteen was God.

He liked Springsteen, in part, because Bruce wasn’t popular. “As soon as people start liking Bruce,” he confided to me—and to his new girlfriend Terri—“I’ll stop liking him.” Judging from what I heard of the music, I thought that day was a long way off. But the more I listened to the music that Matt played, the more I liked Bruce… and the more I liked Elvis Costello, an English twit with a bizarre talent for writing exceptionally original lyrics.

Spring came, and Matt’s hair went. He was on Frosh crew and received the traditional pig-shave that gave the original meaning to the phrase “crew cut.” We talked about moving to McCarty Hall for our sophomore year, and about sharing a room.

Autumn followed, and as Matt’s hair slowly came back in with it so also came Bruce Springsteen. His concert tour coincided with the release of The River, and I (as well as the rest of “The Morgue,” as we dubbed 1st North McCarty) was subjected to a two-week non-stop barrage of “The Boss.” I really didn’t mind it all by this time—having come to actually appreciate Springsteen’s talents, if not becoming an actual fan—and enjoyed watching Matt tear all over our room pretending to be Bruce, destroying my lamp-turned-microphone in the process. Matt had been one of the first to get tickets for the show, but as it had sold out in one day I was left out in the cold. I almost bought a ticket from a scalper for thirty bucks. I should have; the price sounds ridiculously cheap nowadays, but back then that was two months’ spending money for me.

Springsteen treated Seattle to a four-hour thriller show, and Matt returned from the concert in awe. He had seen God. Matt recounted the entire concert to me, telling how he’d touched Bruce’s guitar, how he’d shaken Bruce’s hand and wouldn’t let go until Bruce said, “I’ve got a show to do,” how he’d been right in front of Bruce during “Jungleland,” how drops of Bruce’s sweat had landed on the stage in front of him; and Bruce stared down from the huge four-by-four album poster from Darkness on the Edge of Town that hung over my bed and seemed to say, “Hey, that’s what rock ’n’ roll was meant to be.” And Matt raved on into daylight about Bruce, about the show, about the rock ’n’ roll god that sang the heart of the common man.

Then the unpredictable happened: The River became the smash success that had always eluded Springsteen, and in the year that followed, Matt’s prophecy came true—his outspoken devotion to Springsteen died. A person’s taste in music reflects that person’s nature, and once more Matt, ever the nonconformist, turned to unpopular music: punk rock.

By the time we began our second year in The Morgue, Matt’s hair had grown long again into a New Wave / punk style, and even his dressing habits changed. Bruce posters, including the giant Darkness over my bed, still covered our room; but Bruce’s albums had been supplanted on the turntable by The Ramones, Joan Jett, and The Sex Pistols. Matt’s heart was not really in the punk movement, but Bruce was now popular… and as such, could no longer be idolized. He had gone “mainstream.”

As Matt grew away from Bruce, he also grew away from me. He gradually became more and more distant, and spoke frequently of moving out at the end of the school year. It wasn’t easy to realize that saying goodbye to a big chunk of my life was inevitable, but I was gearing myself up to accept it.

What made it harder was realizing that it wouldn’t affect Matt the way that it was going to affect me. Life for him was a series of stages, a progression of events to be experienced and left behind with no afterthoughts, the episodes a summing up of his “runaway American dream.” What was right in front of him occupied him fully; if it happened to be Tom Petty (and it did, late that year) then Damn the Torpedoes and full speed ahead. I was just grateful that I had several months before I would actually have to deal with it.

But Matt pulled the emotional rug out from under my feet when he announced that he was moving out a quarter early.

I was totally unprepared for this. In less than a week he was gone, leaving only a couple of plants and that ever-present four-by-four of Bruce; and within another short week I was emotionally flat. When I finally drummed up the courage, I sat down with Bruce looking over my shoulder and listened to him sing from Darkness:

      I believe in the love that you gave me
      I believe in the love that can save me
      I believe in the faith and I pray
      That someday it may raise me
      Above these badlands

And then, at last, I took down the four-by-four and packed it away in the closet. In its place I put up a giant promo poster of Elvis Costello glancing over the top of his multi-colored horn-rimmed glasses.

TRUST ELVIS, the poster proclaimed.

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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