Working at a record store taught me a tragic truth; no matter how much you love your favorite albums, they’ll never be as popular as they deserve to be. Each month at Merry-Go-Round Magazine, I dust off some long-overlooked records, revisit my pretentious past, and explore how this music forever etched itself into my history. Eventually, all your memories get marked down and thrown into The Bargain Bin.
My mom let me watch GHOSTBUSTERS II when it came out on video, and she quickly realized maybe it wasn’t such a great idea for a kid under five. Between the spectral slime running through the sewers, the mink coat that springs to life, and downtown New York City swarming with colorful, see through specters, to calm me down, she said there was nothing to worry about because she had put a sign that only ghosts could see on our front door that said, “NO GHOSTS ALLOWED!” Thanks to my mother’s quick thinking, the only thing that still haunts me are poor decisions I’ve made in the past, and who you gonna call to get those to go away? (Hint: A THERAPIST!)
I do not believe in ghosts. However, one time, I saw a fucking ghost.
I grew up shy and nervous, a wonderful combination of traits that often made it challenging to communicate my feelings without a soul-crushing fear of rejection holding me back. I leaned on using the best communication device I’ve found: the mixtape. My uncles were a gaggle of music geeks, and some of my earliest memories of being with them are of watching them simultaneously hit record and play on the stereo cassette deck, perfectly sequencing tracks for friends, often decorating the tracklists with splashes of watercolor. I gave my first mix to a crush in first grade. I filled side one with songs from The Cure, R.E.M., They Might Be Giants, and whatever else the uncles had stacked around the stereo. I dubbed the first half of a cassette adaptation of the Bob Hopkins-SUPER MARIO BROS. movie to fill side B. I wish I were joking.
Not to get all HIGH FIDELITY about it, but crafting the perfect mix is an art. Much like those who can’t do, teach, “those who can’t have an emotionally charged conversation with their crush collect songs that perfectly express those emotions, layer them together in an order that naturally flows from track to track, and sheepishly hand it to them, hoping for the best.” Those mixes provided me with a way to share the music I love with the friends I felt closest to, as I had a knack for picking out songs they’d like from bands they hadn’t yet heard. If you’ve ever gotten a mixtape, CD, or playlist from me, know that you mean a lot to me.
Jewels would forever associate me with John Cusack’s record store owner character in HIGH FIDELITY, because I was deeply invested in being that record store guy, unfortunately. I would spend hours alone on an early version of iTunes, piecing together mixes that adequately conveyed all my feelings in song and burning them onto blank CD-Rs. I didn’t spend much time making each tracklist art like my uncles, instead letting the music speak for itself. While switching up the song order was easier with using CDs as a medium, I still spent hours listening to the end of one song run into the beginning of the next. It had to be perfect.
Jewels and I met on MySpace, which was passé to admit at the time, but now feels like the standard start to every long-term friendship story from the mid-2000s. Jewels was just a nickname given to her in high school after a boy asked her to prom and tried to woo her by saying her eyes were like priceless jewels. She’s a Keane painting in the flesh, though, without all the kitschy creep factor. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and always finds the beauty in anyone she meets.
Back in the MySpace days, I kept up a blog of my thoughts, never feeling like much of a writer but forever in need of a place for all the thoughts running around free in my brain. Jewels stumbled across a blog I wrote about Blu when we lived together, one that I wrote as she slept gently in our bed while I spiraled about the eventual day she would leave. I can’t recall what I wrote, but Jewels found my observations sweet, making her the first non-teacher to encourage me to write. She’s always been supportive of the talents in others, even when they don’t see it themselves.
These were the early days of the blogosphere, where one could grab free MP3s from Stereogum or Gorilla Vs. Bear and stumble upon your new favorite band. I was buying CDs in the mail from bands like Beirut, Colourmusic, About, and The Kite Flying Society, but my favorite discovery was a group from Austin called Oh No Oh My. They sounded like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah if they were less chaotic and leaned heavily on the quirky love songs. Oh No Oh My’s songs encompass the type of dude I was then. Shy, timid, constantly falling in love with every cute person with horn-rimmed glasses regardless of gender identity. I threw their track “I Have No Sister” on a mix for Jewels, and she loved it out of everything else on the disc. It’s our song.
Jewels lived about a forty-minute drive from me in Belleville, a town in Southern Illinois most often known as the birthplace of Uncle Tupelo. Jewels and I would pick up her friend Janae, and the three of us would spend hours driving around in the middle of the night smoking cigarettes and screaming along to Tegan and Sara’s SO JEALOUS before ending up at a little hole-in-the-wall diner called HY-HO. There wasn’t much else to do there in the middle of the night.
“Jackie,” Jewels said, her eyebrow raised, “Have you ever seen a ghost?”
I shook my head. “I don’t really believe in that sort of thing, but ghost movies have always freaked me out the most.”
Jewels and I already shared a love of horror movies and had recently seen the SILENT HILL adaptation for two consecutive weekends. I also dragged her to see THE OMEN remake because of its novelty release date of 6/6/06, even though she didn’t care for it. Horror movies became an unexpected comfort in high school. The excessive gore and jump scares somehow alleviated the constant anxiety we felt during our youth, the generation that somehow all were in class with a teacher who turned on the TV after hearing one plane hit the World Trade Center just in time for us to see the second hit live.
“Jewesy!” said Janae. “We should take Jackie out to that old barn!”
“Oh, that doesn’t sound creepy at all,” I said sarcastically.
“There’s a legend around here about this barn outside of town near where a girl went missing in the 1950s or 60s. She hadn’t come home after school that day, so her father went out searching in the rain for his daughter.”
“I’m guessing he didn’t find her?”
“Nope. He could barely see the road in front of him in the rain. Suddenly, a flash of lightning blinded him for a moment, just enough that he drove right into a tree. A branch impaled him to his truck. The next day, police found the little girl strung up dead in the old red barn at a farm near her home. They say if you back out onto the road by the barn at midnight, flash your headlights three times, then turn off your car, the ghost of her father will come driving towards your car.”
“Bullshit,” I said, feeling nervous in the pit of my stomach.
We piled into the car and sped through town and past all the farms outside the city proper to get there before midnight. There are miles of stars shining down out there, but few other lights to light the way. Jewels pulled the car off the highway and took us down a gravel road lined with stalks of corn. At the end of the cornfield stood an old barn that had sat neglected for decades. Its wood splintered where the right corner of its roof had caved in at some point years before, and faded red paint lifted off it in huge clumps. Just seeing it in the dark sent a chill up my spine; the perfect setting for an urban legend if I ever saw one.
At midnight, Jewels quickly backed out of the driveway, flashed her headlights three times down the narrow gravel road, switched off the engine, and left us in total darkness. I leaned forward from the backseat so our heads sat evenly in a row. We waited, but nothing happened.
“It’s still midnight! Do it again, Jewelsy!” Janae shouted.
Suddenly, off in the distance, we could see a light flickering. The glow got brighter yet still appeared translucent. The lights focused for a moment and became round dots, which formed what seemed to be a pair of headlights, still flickering like when a truck travels a bumpy road. The three of us were screaming out, full of shock and disbelief. My hands were shaking. We just saw a fucking ghost. Without warning, the light was gone. Jewels threw the car in reverse, and we got the fuck out of there.
Years later, I still don’t know what we saw out there in the darkness. My heart says we saw a fucking ghost car, a man long dead still wandering the back roads of Southern Illinois looking for his daughter during a storm. My brain wonders if someone with a sense of humor lives some miles down the road from the barn and goes out to their truck at midnight to wait for flashing headlights off in the distance, keeping alive the urban legends that get passed on from generation to generation.
It was probably a ghost, though.