The Road, The Feeling of Youth, and The Smashing Pumpkins
“With the headlights pointed at the dawn
We were sure we’d never see an end to it all.”
--The Smashing Pumpkins
Southbound I-279 might just contain the coolest sight in the world. It’s the interstate that runs from I-79 into Pittsburgh, and most of it is pretty nondescript. There are standard signs and curves and various exits, a couple leading to shopping centers within view of the road. A lot of hills lie in the distance, but barriers and walls tend to block the nearby ones. During rush hour, it can be a concrete hell.
But there’s a spot that makes it all worthwhile, especially at night, when the cars are sparse and darkness surrounds you. You speed along a curve next to one of those hillside walls, headlights illuminating the road one white dash at a time. Then, you see the city. It emerges in a moment, the wall giving way to a glittering skyline. Fingers of varying length stretch for the clouds; the U.S. Steel Building, black and indomitable, outreaches all the others. Lights shine in all the towers, testifying to the industrial might and verve of generations. Just ahead, the first of Pittsburgh’s bridges offers you entrance to the city’s limitless potential.
This view of the city is not the most picturesque (Google image search “Pittsburgh” if you want to see something gorgeous), but it’s my favorite. Growing up in a smaller city an hour north of the Burgh, I traveled to Pittsburgh many times for friends and excitement not available in Butler. The suddenness of the view thrilled me. When you’re young, your hometown seems limited, stifling. A big city seems huge and open and alive. Every time I hear Billy Corgan sing that line about “headlights pointed at the dawn,” I remember I-279 and the promise of the road.
“1979” chronicles the nightlong driving of teens looking to escape the monotony of their own “morphine city.” So many of the residents have become numbed to the city’s tedium, or have such dull minds, that they never yearn for anything bolder. Our group, on the other hand, rises “On a live wire right up off the street.” Their energy and unpredictability pulls us toward them and away from the more placid citizens. “Double-cross the vacant and the bored,” Corgan sings. “They’re not sure just what we have in store.”
“1979” begins with a loop of percussive sounds that builds in intensity, but nonetheless remains quiet. The music enters suddenly, and at three or four times the volume. The bass and guitar combine into a muted, pulsing sound that is more mood than melody. Throughout most of the verses, the drums command equal or greater attention.
Almost immediately, we hear the song’s signature sound effect, an indescribable sort of falling away. Outside of the choruses, this rushing sound punctuates every phrase. Anyone determined to unmask the effect can do so with a quick Google search, but I won’t explain its creation here. The sound is perfect in part because of its mysteriousness. It continually reminds us how distant and fleeting the described night really is. “1979” is a memory, viewed through lenses of fondness and wisdom, and as with most long-past events, the remembrance of it has grown cloudy.
The singer remembers a group of “cool kids” who react to their dreary town with brash indifference. He admiringly reminisces, “We don’t even care, as restless as we are.” The opening words, “Shakedown 1979,” might suggest how the singer sifts through the past, but they could just as easily refer to a “shakedown” in the same sense as a gangster movie: the kids want to extort the year for what they can get, forcing payment of what they feel they deserve. The phrases “live wire” and “skipping like a stone” both point to the restless energy that compels them to drive about. “The street heats the urgency of now,” he sings near the end. The road gives both the itch and the means to scratch it: they have a burning need to drive on it because it is there, but they also feel desperate to escape the town that ensnares them.
The singer summarizes the city as “the land of a thousand guilts / and poured cement.” Both the city itself and the people in it are cold, hard and inflexible, hemming in the teens emotionally and physically. No wonder the road proves so tempting. It invites them to drive upward to look “down to the lights and towns below.” Atop a hill, that restrictive world appears as small and petty as they see it in their minds’ eyes. They are no longer bound. With a tank full of gas and all the hours of the night, they’re free. “With the headlights pointed at the dawn,” he sings, “We were sure we’d never see an end to it all.”
They will, of course. Older now, the singer knows it will all slip by “Faster than the speed of sound / Faster than we thought we’d go.” As teenagers, though, ignorance and apathy shielded his friends from the future. Lesser songs would wag disapproving fingers at these naïve youth. “1979” celebrates them.
During the verses, the guitar and bass throb with shapeless energy. Almost every time the guitar does play a more melodic line, Corgan’s voice relegates it to the background. It’s the drums that provide all the forward movement. The steady beat’s bass drum kicks and snare hits drive “1979” to its soaring choruses. The vocals become elevated and passionate, given emphasis by a kind of bright, distorted chime. The first chorus revels in adolescent indifference:
We don’t even care
To shake these zipper blues
And we don’t know just where our bones will rest
To dust, I guess
Forgotten and absorbed to the earth below
They are so absolutely untroubled. The larger questions provoke no stir in them. Where their futures will carry them? Death, and remembrance after it? Meaning of it all? Irrelevant. The apathetic words “I guess” utterly deflate the significance of the dust. They’re young and alive, and they can’t imagine being otherwise.
In one of my college lit classes, we were discussing a typically grim novel. (Cheery optimists don’t tend to become English majors.) After commenting upon the desolation and existential dread a character felt in the face of death, the middle-aged Professor McDonough added, “Of course, none of you really understand that yet.” Most of the class protested immediately. Being young doesn’t make us shallow idiots, I remember saying; we think about death. “Jesus,” McDonough responded. “I hope you don’t.”
Adults tend to complain that teenagers don’t know how good they have it because they don’t have any responsibilities. That’s really just bitter envy over what the young do have. They have confidence in their own invincibility. They have an illusion of jaded wisdom without all the painful experiences that will give them the real thing. And above all, they have possibilities. They have the promise of an open road.
Yes, they’re foolish.
And that’s why all us old codgers occasionally long for and seek ways to recreate the feeling of youth.
What makes life worth living?
I guess it depends who you are...and what you value...
But here are a few...
Not letting down kids, or family or lovers
Challenges we don’t want to loose,
To be content in knowing you did the best you could,
Not taking the cowards way out,
Dreams we cherish,
Sensations we crave,
Debts we want to pay,
Thrills we seek,
The fear of death,
The mystery of life,
Knowing being alive is a gift-
when a near-death moment threatens to take it all away.
To give hope,
to show faith, to act in love.
To love them more.
And not be left unfinished.
the pains are immense,
the troubles are immense,
these hurts are healed over,
by the joys life may bring;
in the vibrant hues of the sky,
in the happiness after a good cry;
in the love found in a mother,
in the arms of a brother;
in the way the birds sing,
in the newness of spring;
life is worth living,
because the joys weigh more,
than the heaviest of sorrows
Lost Things/Small Things
“I feel like a part of me is missing...” He says, his hand running through his hair.
“I can see why you would feel that way.” I reply, trying not to laugh.
His eyes are pitifully sad.
“I feel like a shorn sheep.” He admits.
I laugh at him, my smiling eyes contrasting his sad ones.
”I didn’t want to say anything, but I thought so, too.”
“I just... I looked at my shadow earlier... And it just looked... Different...”
”How many people screamed when they saw you today?”
“Uh, three, I think.”
”Was I one of them? I ask, voicing a challenge he doesn’t hear over the feeling of having lost something.
“No,” he states, and before he can register what I’m doing, I’m screaming.
“Now, four.” He calmly replies.
We get in the car, reminiscing about things long lost.
“I don’t know,” I say. ”Something just feels wrong about it. ”
“Yeah.” He agrees, quietly .
“It’s just not... Fluffy anymore.“ I say, shaking my head sadly.
”I really regret shaving off my afro.”
“Good.” I say. ” you should. ”
What do I live for,
The prompt asks.
I live for quotes,
In my mind,
Of what was,
And no longer is.
Felt and had many times,
But just as breathtaking,
As the first time I possessed them.
I live for love,
Love to laugh,
Love to live,
Love to be,
Love to feel alive.
The ups and downs,
Creating a beautiful,
Roller coaster of variety.
I live for life.
For the possibilities,
Of the life I could have,
And the opportunities long gone.
I live for the rainbow,
The land beyond,
And beneath it.
I live for the sunshine,
And the clouds that give it rest.
I live for the stars,
And calling loudly to me.
I live for happy,
I live for sadness,
For grand battles,
And for overcoming them.
I live for the small things.
The tiny little details,
That seen unimportant at the time.
But when you look back,
Yoou remember those “small” things,
With a heartbreaking clarity,
Long after you’ve left,
The minute drop of water,
On spring’s green leaf.
Thhe first snowflake of a storm,
To fall upon your nose.
How the light hit her,
Or how you did it,
Just in the nick of time.
That is what I live for.
So, how does that connect,
To two people,
About a haircut?
There were some amazing quotes,
Relating to it.
There were memories created.
Ties of freindship,
And an odd sort of sadness,
You can't really get back.
The small things in my life,
Carry a heavy weight.
The small things;
The small moments.
They are what makes life worth liveing.
What makes life worth living? For many people the answer is at the tip of their tongue. They think they know to live for the little things or for the big things or for the one thing that makes them happiest but they are the ones who would hurt the hardest.
They’re the ones who would be drawn to the edge with ease with just the gentle touch of one more failure enough to send them over.
Not many make it back from that edge.
There are those of us who know that edge well. As one of them I speak with absolute honesty. The edge is lonely but we do not want company here.
So never limit yourself to only one reason to live. Never stop looking for something to live for because everything can be taken away.