(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Writing songs about kids and puberty was a departure for me. Up until then my MO was raunch. Sex was a ripe topic. It provided endless material that was funny and fucked-up and bitter and sweet. Located at the base of the trunk of humanity, sex said everything about human rapport. Plus it got me plenty of attention.
Back in the 70’s, in spite of the sexual revolution it was still verboten for a recording artist, especially a female, to get down and dirty with the lyrics. For my second album I recorded songs like “Can I Get On Top This Time” and “It’s Alright, It Won’t Bite.” I wanted to call the album “Box Lunch,” and even though those words were not exactly obscene, RCA demanded another title. So I called it “Beat Around the Bush.” After I terminated at the label, I wrote and performed a pornographic song cycle called “Biology and You,” this time making free with the obscenities, as in tunes like “Get Head.”
My obsession with sex actually began in puberty, with a book.
When I was 11, my family embarked on a trip to Europe, starting in Paris. Our 18-year-old babysitter was very uninterested in childcare (she quit mid-trip). What did interest her were racy books banned in the U.S., and Henry Miller's "Sexus" was one of those. She picked up a copy in Paris, intending to read it before she went back home so she wouldn't be caught smuggling it past customs.
We took a boat from Italy to Greece. I shared a cramped cabin with her, in which I occupied the top bunk. I woke to the sound of sniggering. Looking down, I saw my two older brothers perched on either side of the babysitter on her bed, looking over her shoulder as she read some book.
A few months after we returned, I turned 12. I don't know if this is a symptom of pubescence, but around then I started sneaking into other family members' rooms to look in their drawers. I found a "marriage manual" (sex guide) in my parents drawer. It read like a science book and thus was unmemorable. Still, no one had ever told me anything about sex so it was a start. I rifled through my brothers' drawers. I found books about male sexual development given to the boys by my parents. There were gross cross-section illustrations of the male genitalia and descriptions of erection and ejaculation. Again, highly scientific and scrupulously designed not to arouse anybody.
My older brother was trying out photography, developing his own prints in a bathroom upstairs. I found a stack of photos taken of individual book pages. He must have photographed the "dirty" parts of the babysitter's illicit copy of "Sexus." I stole them. My brother could hardly complain that they were missing: he would be admitting to his own crime of possessing them in the first place.
Locking myself in my bathroom I assembled the pages in order and read. What the hell was this? What was a "cunt"? It wasn't in the big dictionary in the living room. What was a "prick"? It sounded sharp. Why were people always "coming" and never going? And what was "fuck"? (This is 1959.)
I searched my brother’s room more thoroughly and found the original pages torn from “Sexus,” about 30 of them. I folded them carefully, inserting them into a metal Band-Aid box, and buried them in a remote corner of the yard.
Digging up the box from time to time, I pored over the pages incessantly. I managed to put all the pieces together and figure out what each word meant and what these characters were doing, also incessantly.
The writing was blunt and crass, but the text gave me a feeling of arousal that was new and mysterious. Therefore, these pages held power. You could write about sex and people would perk up; they would pay attention. They would even take the trouble to ban it, smuggle it, or bury it in the yard. Power and attention are two big things that children crave.
It was only a couple of years later that I decided to be a writer. Add fourteen more years and I finally got the chance to write explicit prose about sex with my first novel “Dry Hustle”; it featured a five-page five-orgasm scene. By the time it was published I was tuckered out on the subject and practically celibate.
So it was odd that my grandfather’s ghost pointed me back to puberty, with its feelings of powerlessness and social invisibility. And there I found a richer soil in which to dig up the Band-Aid box.
Final note: Eventually, after the ban was lifted, I read Miller’s “Sexus: The Rose Crucifixion” in its entirety with a more critical eye. The writing meandered and maundered and bragged. I decided Henry Miller was only fitfully a great writer and more consistently an asshole. For erotic description I preferred "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which I stole from my mother’s drawer.
(To be continued)
Causes Sarah Kernochan Supports