“When I was in my twenties, it felt like I was riding wild horses,
and hoping I didn’t go over a cliff.”
― Chaka Khan
Our twenties are supposed to be for wayward, rude, selfish, irresistible sex. A bit precarious to do when your twenties take place in the decade of the 1980’s, with said decade bearing the contrails of the brand new AIDS crisis and understandable hysteria. My roommate and I lived in spitting distance of West Hollywood and its thriving bar scene, yet even though AIDS seemed to be all around us, we weren’t stopped one bit from trying hard to be reckless and wanton and fulfilled, because it was a solid directive of our generation. We just had to be cleverer about how to navigate the waters, and the bars.
I’ve often heard, from a sociological context, how awful and awkward and messy our twenties are supposed to be. And sure, the growing pains. I was constantly broke, and breaking someone’s heart nearly as often as someone was breaking mine, yet I was voracious in my various appetites; the sexual, the creative, the partying, the being-out-of-my-mother’s-house euphoria, the enticement of being considered an adult for the first time in my life, and the scary responsibility that entailed. I was unstoppable. And clumsy. And, frankly, I find myself often yearning for that deeply flawed but fearless energy again.
I had left my mother’s home for the first and only time. I had left my very first relationship. My first love. He and I had been so Raging Bull with each other. So full of youthful Sturm and Drung. We wore each other out equally, to be honest; I was just the first to act on it, needing desperately to have lightness back in my life. And off I went to my new adventures as a grown-up. I was instantly wild, as if I’d been cooped up and bound my entire life prior to that moment.
On more than one occasion, I dated two guys at once who were friends with each other. And it really was only ever just a matter of time before they’d talk, end up discovering the mutually shared component in the landscape of their conversation, and decide (rightfully so) that I was a pretty nervy bitch, and be done with me. I always knew it meant that I’d been found out whenever they would both stop taking my calls at the same time. My rationale was always, “Awwww, too bad, I was having so much fun. But hey, I’m single. I’m playing the field. We never made a commitment to each other. What exactly have I done wrong?” In hindsight, and in the slightly calmer edge of my older self, I can see how remarkably self-absorbed that is.
Self-absorption may just go with the territory of being in one’s twenties. Is that insulting to twenty-somethings? Because I don’t actually mean it as an insult. I think it’s necessary for the decade of finding oneself to be a little self-absorbed. It requires all of one’s focus just to get the proper sea legs as a newbie adult. Lots of falling down. Plenty of injuries. Copious discoveries. Getting our way. Not getting our way. Brutal tears. And infectious laughter. We are babies. At the same time, while our twenties are meant for discovering the world and ourselves, and is, as a decade, inherently, even acceptably, self-serving, should we be let off the hook for it? Because while selfish may be sort of OK in our twenties, it still usually involves others’ hearts.
Take what happened with my next door neighbor. I made the mistake of dating him. Mistake only in that we literally shared a wall. Again, I’m thinking casual dating. And so, on an evening’s social excursion that did not include him, I found myself with the interesting prospect of a one-night-stand. And as I giddily shared the details of that exploit with my roommate the next morning, guess who heard my boisterous story through the thin walls? I found out later, as he was confessing his eavesdropping to me (although, confession isn’t really the right word when you’re the one backed into a guilt-targeted corner) that he’d actually placed a water glass to the wall like you’d see in movies.
“That trick really works?”
He was not in the mood for chatter.
From that moment on, living next door to him while trying to continue conducting my wild twenties was proving to be pretty excruciating. Let’s just say there were lots of slammed doors meant for my ears. Years later, when he and I ran into each other, both older, hopefully more mature, calmer, wiser, he actually apologized for being “a little crazy” back in the old days. And while I gratefully accepted his apology, somehow I felt like my incredibly selfish nature had been given an undeserved reprieve.
I’ve been rather lucky that no one ever murdered me out of some kind of crime of passion because of my impetuous immaturity. Like what nearly happened with yet another neighbor (same apartment complex on Detroit Street in the Fairfax District―many wild nights and crazy memories there). Let’s call this neighbor Ron. I honestly don’t remember his name. For all I can recall, it might’ve actually been Ron, making my efforts to protect his privacy moot. But oh well, Ron it is. My roommate and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating crispy, drippy melon on a hot summer evening, when a brusque knock came at our door. Those kinds of knocks always shoot my stomach right up into my throat. There stood Ron, a meek individual both in stature and voice, who very calmly offered that he’d been stabbed and could we please call 911 for him. What?! No one who’s been stabbed is standing there talking to you calmly. Haven’t you ever seen Starsky and Hutch? But he proceeded to turn around and show us his bloody back. Freaking out as only two twenty-year-old girls can, we yanked him into our apartment, and rushed to call an ambulance. He told us we might want to close the door as his boyfriend was still storming around outside and brandishing the knife. Holy shit! Now we were officially harboring a crime victim from his perp (I’ve always been a sucker for 1970’s cop show lingo). As we locked the door and closed all the curtains, we could finally hear Agamemnon (not his real name either. Hey, no John Doe’s in this story) outside in a drunken rage, and we were scared shitless. We called for a paramedic and the police. I then called my stepfather, who was a retired paramedic, to ask him to advise us on what to do until an ambulance arrived, as Ron Doe might’ve been slowly bleeding to death, for all we knew. What could we do to stop the bleeding? My dad advised, imploring us to “be careful!” The authorities showed up, an ambulance carried Ron Doe away (he survived), while the police carried Agamemnon away to County, and we two pretty naive, sheltered, middle-class girls shivered in our boots once everyone left, and promptly graduated from melon slices to tequila shots, as we stared at our blood-stained sofa, and squealed in delighted horror that this kind of heart-thumping thing would never have happened living under our mothers’ roofs.
And while that one is always a you-won’t-believe-this! story to tell, with no other needed context, I relay it now to say that at least the callous heartbreaking I tended to do in my twenties never resulted in someone trying to kill me. I don’t think I had a clue just how lucky I was back then; not even after Ron showed up at our door with his domestic violence in the palms of his hand (or the fold of his back). As far as I was concerned, I was indestructible.
My twenties were not just filled with me being the one breaking hearts. I was on the receiving end of that one plenty. Which is only fair. Take Frederic. Also not his real name, though I am awfully tempted to out this magnificent prick. Frederic was from Argentina, and we both worked as waiters at a pizza joint. He was very cute, and the accent was thick and alluring. We slept together the first day we met. It was cold and impersonal from the start, but I barely noticed, so fulfilled was I by someone’s attention and approval. It was always about that, if I’m being brutally honest. Things were going fairly normally until a young pretty thing started working at the pizza joint, and Frederic’s eye turned completely toward her. Well, not completely; he was still sleeping with me, which is where normal gradually moved into dysfunctional.
It blows me away to think that I looked at this little beauty as a “young thing” as compared with my old ass, which was twenty-five! I would trade a lung for twenty-five again. The point is, it doesn’t matter where we are in life; someone will always come along to make us feel not as young, not as pretty, not as smart, not as desired, not as something.
But on to the pretty young thing ― or PYT, in Michael Jackson parlance. Frederic, magnificent prick that he was, would be in my bed and be talking about her. And I allowed it! If he was a prick, I was a stooge, and I’m not honestly sure which is worse. Yes, he and I were just casual. I was still happily in playing-the-field mode myself, but for god’s sake at least I’d had the decency not to share whatever other exploits or interests I had with the guy I was presently with (thin neighboring walls notwithstanding).
The reason Frederic was still sleeping with me is because PYT was still a virgin, and was not about to have anything to do with Frederic. I was his convenience, until he could get what he really wanted. He had no qualms about telling me so, and I would say things like “fuck you, asshole” in response to those kinds of comments, in my desperate attempts to counter stoogedom, I think. Of course, not sleeping with him would’ve done the trick, but that’s way too self-respecting.
Here’s the thing: Frederic really got into the name-calling. The first time I realized it, I was taken aback, as I’d been looking for an actual argument. I could really get with a good screaming match. But he liked it. And then he thought I might like it. And eventually I realized without ever consciously deciding on this, that we were actually mutually agreeing to have an abusive relationship. Never physically, other than the sex (which didn’t even get particularly wild); just verbally and emotionally, which is damaging enough.
Eventually our interests both turned away from each other. Probably because, truth be told, that kind of relationship is boring, in addition to the more obvious spirit-decimating. But when I think back on it today, wasn’t it really only a matter of time before verbal would become corporal? And couldn’t I have ended up being the one to knock on a neighbor’s door with a knife wound in my back? I am amazed I got out of my twenties alive.
It also wasn’t just about a sexual revolution either. There was a creative explosion happening, as well. One I honestly wish I could recapture. Because while I love the artist I have become today, so much more than the one I began with in my twenties, a present level of unadulterated lust, gumption and nerve has just never quite matched that of my beginnings.
I was in the midst of writing my first novel. I’d started it the day I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’d loved acting, and thought I could’ve actually been gifted at it, but it never tugged at me the way writing did. Nor has music, to be frank, which might surprise those are are aware of my nearly 40 years in the business. I love being a musician, but it was always the writing. I was still living under my parents’ roof at that point. My stepdad had made our basement his office, and down there, in the cold cellar walls atmosphere, on his old (now vintage) Underwood typewriter, circa … around … 300 BC? … I started writing my first novel. The story takes place in London between the world wars. I didn’t have a single identification or connection with England or its culture, and I was the last thing from a history buff to even have much of a clue what was going on politically or socially there and then. I was a girl from Compton circa the 1960’s and 70’s. My sole inspiration for choosing 1936 England as the backdrop for a story I didn’t even have in my head yet was that it would be the absolute last thing anyone would ever expect of me. I was always the girl who hungered for a life no one could peg. I hated cliches. I hated people who were cliches. I hated being able to read upon the lips of anyone talking to me, within seconds of meeting them, just exactly who they were down to their taste in fetishes. Mainly what I feared was the reflection back to me of myself. I did not want to be one. So, whenever I encountered someone who blew my mind for surprising me with an angle in their lives I could never have guessed, I would always say, “That’s what I want to be. Unpeggable.”
That became the engine that has driven practically every decision, every life choice, every path I’ve ever traversed. It’s also exactly how I would describe all of my artistic idols: Coltrane, Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Joni, Jimi, Basquiat, Bukowsky, Van Gogh, Bartok . . .
So I took this story on, one that took eight years, practically my entire twenties, to write merely its first draft. I took it on and was determined to learn what I didn’t know, which was everything, about this time and this place I had randomly chosen. Long before the internet existed, I spent hours daily for years in the public library reading books and locating archived newsreels, to help create this world I was attempting to create. The directive many in the writing world consider to be the absolute sacred cow of credos is, “write what you know.” It’s practically biblical. And I broke that rule straight out of the gate. I had nerve, if not common sense.
My main character was a kind of contemporary (for 1936) philosopher known for radical ideas about politics and religion, so I spent the bulk of my twenties with my head buried in Plato, Mao, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and on and on, as well as any books on the rising Fascist movement of that era. That is, when I wasn’t raving in the gay bars with my best friend and hooking up with boys who hadn’t found themselves yet. My sister, the intellectual, was quite instrumental in pointing me in the direction of whom I should read.
By the time I had finished my first draft, I truly believed I’d written a masterpiece. And typing “the end” to a 400-page novel held a power I cannot describe. It was the very first of such moments. I was twenty-eight years old, and I had written a book. And not a romance novel, or “young adult fiction” or stories of boyfriends and partying. No. A hefty-themed story of politics, war, and identity. I thought I was a badass. I still think I was a badass.
I also began singing in the gay bars. The cabaret scene was thriving. I entered a contest put on by the now defunct but forever legendary (and deeply fond to my heart) Rose Tattoo in West Hollywood, called Stardom Pursuit. I won. The winning was a good chunk of money and a residency there. I started learning a bizarre mix of songs, when most of the other singers around me were amassing their Broadway repertoires. I remember pulling Pirate Jenny, by Brecht and Weill, out of some warped hat (I’d done The Threepenny Opera while at the Academy, and found I had a taste for the salty and the nasty). And so, while everyone around me was slaying Sondheim and Bernstein and Webber, and these were some of the best singing voices I’ve still ever come across, I was trying to take everyone to Hell with this enigmatic song of hurt and revenge and nastiness. It was my very first, ever, standing ovation. Message received … the dark crevices approach was working. Or at least the different was working. I decided right there and then that I wasn’t interested in the same repertoire everyone else around me was choosing. Even though, like I said, these singers I grew up with in the bar scene (most of whom are tragically no longer with us) could break my heart on a cold day.
First off, full confession, I didn’t have the kind of voice most of those singers did. Frankly, I couldn’t handle Sondheim. I had a different instrument altogether, with its limitations, and if I knew better I’d employ what I learned in acting school to make a song come alive. The high notes and virtuosic stuff were always going to be elusive to this slightly raspy, small-ranged alto. But my gift, it turns out, was in my ability to use that texture to interpret a lyric with genuine intimacy, and connect to a song the way an actor connects to a character she is hired to play. So, mom and dad’s money for school wasn’t a complete waste.
The very first of my songwriting also came out of this era. And also came from a most cracked and introspective place. I wasn’t creating infectious hooks and house beats. I was calling on other worlds, the ancestors, archetypal hauntings, to fuel the stories inside my songs. For better or for worse, it remains the way I compose. I personally think it’s for better, because I’ve established a unique voice, even though not following trend has largely cost me opportunity over the course of my life.
If only I’d had the stubborn standards no one could shake from me with regards to my personal life. As a budding artist, I was fairly peerless and fearless. But as a budding woman, I was so full of insecurities as to wear the bloat of it on my very desperate soul.
It’s been a long time since I was a twenty-something, but one thing I know for sure is that it’s a very different world today for people in their twenties than it was in my day. I believe it’s much harder today. Most of my peers were out of the house as soon as they were legal. Today, kids largely stay under their parents’ roofs as long as they can, because a living wage seems to be so much more elusive to come by today. The economy is tougher. When we left home, I was a waitress, and my roommate was a file clerk. We managed to keep a pretty nice 2-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors and crown moulding, in the Fairfax District, with no significant struggles, and also no financial help from our parents. We were pursuing our careers (me in the arts and performance, her in psychology), even though our present jobs weren’t yet reflecting them. And it was do-able! And, at least from my vantage point as a performer, we didn’t live in a culture where if you weren’t “made” by twenty (or younger!), you were already over-the-hill and close to extinction.
The twenty-year-olds I know today are beating their asses to a pulp to hustle their careers and meet benchmarks, and are working round the clock, and maybe even juggling several jobs at once (while still trying to be in school), and are exhausted in the way we think of our elders as being exhausted, because the window from being a child to being a superstar is smaller and smaller, and panic seems the overriding emotion. Today what’s most important, what’s most revered, are ambition and relentless drive. There are even television shows right now that pit twelve-year-olds against each other in competition in order to inspire the shark in them. I am incredibly bothered by that. Unless you come from money, the world at your feet to explore and discover at your own pace seems to be a lost gem.
I spent my twenties doing some of the stupidest things imaginable. I’m not advocating for stupid. But I deeply appreciate the leisure I had of growing up by way of the mistakes I was allowed to make, and the lessons learned from them, which builds a certain muscle, and which doesn’t seem to be a luxury afforded the twenty-somethings of today. For one, we’re a more protective culture with our children than we were in my youth, living with more fear of predators, especially as social media has become THE major character in the play. It seems that rather than being allowed the gradual process of growing up, and finding themselves, and floundering, and grabbing hold, and tossing away, twenty-somethings are pressured to grow up instantly, and to produce! produce! produce! And the ones who are celebrated are the ones who’ve “made their millions by twenty-five,” or “gone viral by sixteen.” Today, the people that kids are programmed to view as their heroes are the ones who write code not books.
It seemed an easier time to be twenty when I was twenty. Of course every generation says that. Is every generation right? Is it literally becoming a harder and harder world to live in?
Like I said, I did some stupendously idiotic things in my twenties. Things I would shudder to think of my own twenty-year-old daughter doing, were I a parent. But not only did I survive it, I was shaped by it. I learned some lessons there, and had an unforgettable decade. I became an artist there, in the Magical Land of Twenty. You’ve heard of The Unsinkable Molly Brown? I had firmly and irrevocably established myself as The Unpeggable Angie Brown. My twenties were equal parts cringe-worthy and rhapsodic. And I can honestly say that no other decade for me has been nearly as extreme on both ends, or as fertile.
I truly hope the twenty-somethings of today aren’t being so protected within the bosom of their frightened parents that they aren’t allowed to breathe a little, and find themselves. Yeah, spoken like a true childless woman. I get that. I don’t know what it feels like to let go of a child who is growing up. But I’m still rooting and cheering for some freedom and wiggle-room and memorable odysseys for those who are coming along.
There are some pretty extraordinary twenty-somethings in my life right now, and whether I’m right or wrong about it being harder today to be in your twenties, what I see in these young folk is backbone likely formed because of the tougher times the present seems to hold. And they are taking the world by storm, on their terms, and tearing it up. Are they enjoying their lives? I pray so. I don’t want them burning out by thirty because we’re a more ambition-centric society than ever before.
We’re going to need them to be our hope for a future that presently has rights being retracted and constricted and snatched from our grip. And with the heavy burden that will eventually be theirs, I pray they are loving their time in this decade now. Loving it with a ridiculous ecstasy, because there truly will be no other decade like it. I adore being a witness to their personal renaissance. Because what I know is that when they reach my age, they’ll have a tale or two of their own to ramble on about their Magical Land of Twenty, how it built them into who they are today. And there’ll be a twinkle in their eye as they tell it.