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What I Need…

james out to get you

It was one of the albums that shaped my life. There are just a few that have done that ~ Shirley Horn’s ‘Here’s to Life’, Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’, and REM’s ‘Automatic for the People’ come to mind – and to that ‘Laid’ by James must be added. Nowhere is that more evident than in the opening track, a quiet beginning to the maelstrom of emotions that the rest of the album would release. I like quiet beginnings.

I’m so alone tonight
My bed feels larger than when I was small
Lost in memories
Lost in all the sheets and old pillows
So alone tonight
Miss you more than I will let you know
Miss the outline of your back
Miss you breathing down my neck
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Once again…

As 1993 turned into 1994, and winter turned into spring, and my first year at Brandeis turned into something that was coming to a close, I sat up in my small twin bed, sheets twisted around my legs, the gray light from an outside lamp spilling in like some lame approximation of moonlight, and wondered at the predicament of being alone.

My roommate was gone. I felt relieved, but alone – always alone. Yet not lonely – not yet.

The red numerals of an alarm clock took rigid stock of the passing minutes. Spring rustled at the window. A restless longing was being tapped out by my heart. What did this life have in store? What message might I be missing? Do you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Insecure, whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you
I need you.

A bottle of urine stood beside the bed (the college guy’s method of avoiding fluorescent hallway walks past midnight.) My backpack slumped on the chair, filled with the books I’d need for the next morning’s classes. Looking back, I’m glad I never realized how alone I was. It would have broken me.

That night, I did not know. Or, rather, it was all I knew, and it was how I survived. Shadows and muffled laughter of passing students floated in from the hallway. I watched the shifting shaft of light beneath the door and bristled at the fading voices. There was no laughter inside my room.

Looked in the mirror, I don’t know who I am anymore
The face is familiar
But the eyes, the eyes give it all away
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again…

A bit of paranoia creeps into the song. It builds slowly, like an incoming tide, gently but insistently growing louder, and soon, too soon, it is a roar. Static in the head. A feverish state. I kick off the sheets and blankets, as a cold sweat soaks through my t-shirt. On the verge of crying, I wonder why they never loved me. Somehow, I don’t cry. It isn’t sadness that I feel, or even loss. Merely a sense of wonder, at the world, at the human condition, at what it was all supposed to mean. I made a tender reconciliation with the night then.

Insecure whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you, is you,  is you, is you, is you, is you, is you…
If you let me breathe…

I call friends and lovers at strange hours. I need to talk, and listen, and hear from people I know. They buffer the fear. I ask them to listen to this song, to the whole album. They promise to try, but I know they don’t. I make mix tapes for them instead, counting on the effort to get them to hear it. They don’t respond or say they like it. I have no way of knowing if they hear it too, if they hear the loneliness.

I have never heard voices in the night. Not in the crazy way that would make it easier to make sense of who I am, the way they want so badly to make sense of me. Instead, I hear James. If they heard it – if they only listened – they would know too.

They’re all out to get you
Once again
To get you
Once again.
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