“It’s always that one song that gets to you. You can hide, but the song comes to find you.”
— Rob Sheffield (Love Is a Mix Tape)

I dislike Rob Sheffield for many reasons—his writing comes off as pompous, hipper-than-thou snark (and that’s just for the stuff he likes); his greasy, perpetual grad student look smacks so obviously of affectation; his voice on those VH1 shows sounds like he’s gargling bathwater with a tampon shoved up each nostril; and he made music writing safe for a whole army of people just like him (read Spin lately?). I also dislike him out of insane jealousy; in spite of all the above, he wrote one of the most moving books about music and music fans I’ve ever read. The bastard done really good. Go to Amazon now and purchase a copy, or borrow one from your local library, that most wonderful of socialist institutions.

A song I’d relegated to the leaky, cobwebby space in the back of my mind recently came to find me. I’d been in the mood to listen to some vinyl, and one of the hundred or so LPs I had standing at attention on a shelf in my living was Foreigner’s 1987 album Inside Information. Immediately, I knew which song I would drop the needle on first; I flipped the thing over to Side Two, and let my trusty old turntable do its thing.

I don’t have anything to say about first love that hasn’t been said before, more eloquently, by writers far more articulate on the topic than I, some of whom write for this very site. I can say, however, that I hadn’t really thought about mine in years, and I wasn’t prepared for the tidal pull that took me out into the deep water the moment I heard that familiar keyboard figure that begins and runs through the song “Out of the Blue.”

See, like Sheffield and Nick Hornby and many of you reading this, I was a mix tape maker back in the day, and I put together a doozy for this particular object of my affection. Scene: fall of ’87; we’re seniors; and I stock this 60-minute love bomb with the heavy stuff—Aerosmith’s “Angel,” Triumph’s “Let the Light (Shine on Me),” at least one song each by Journey, Survivor, REO and the like—the hairy men with loud guitars and the ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves without staining their denim jackets. And, just so my intentions were crystal clear, I put George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” on the tape—every other song. Aerosmith, Harrison, Triumph, Harrison, Journey, Harrison, etc., etc., ad infinitum, forever and ever, world without end.

Pretty slick, huh? Yeah, not really, but hey—it worked. I wooed and won. We were inseparable for two years, and I had that tape, in part, to thank for it.

It’s been 20 years since we broke up, and on occasion she crosses my mind, albeit usually in the abstract—I’ll run into an old friend from high school, or read about the exploits of a former classmate, or throw away yet another of the fucking alumni information cards I get every couple weeks. She’ll pop in and out, a blur, a faded photograph (the one of her in a sweatshirt and jeans, sitting in front of her parents’ fireplace) borne on a cool autumn breeze.

I made her tapes fairly regularly, and the one after The One began with “Out of the Blue.” At the time, I thought it perfectly encapsulated the strange and wonderful world of a high school senior in love for the first time and trying to engage in the daunting task of putting together the rest of his life:

Not a lot of time to think today
It’s almost over now
Didn’t need it anyway
Guess I knew somehow

True dat! I’da said, had that expression been around then. Thinking wasn’t really the issue, though—it was all about feeling. Seventeen is the age of heartfelt emotion, perhaps the last age—do we ever in adulthood feel anything as intensely as we did then, when we were virtual hormone factories, earning the trust of our peers and superiors at an age when we were perhaps least trustworthy, when our brain chemicals were at their most volatile?

I feel love around me
And the feeling grows
As your love surrounds me
How was I to know
That straight out of nowhere
You’d come to me

I feel love around me. That feeling is like stepping out into the cool of a late October morning and taking a deep breath, the deepest you can muster—that sting in your nose, that ice in your lungs, that slight wisp of chill against your face, all the things that make you feel indisputably alive in that moment. Multiply that by your heart rate at the prospect of a few hours alone with your beloved, plus the number of times your lips touch hers, plus the number of times you notice the scent of her perfume, or her shampoo, times the number of instances it occurs to you how lucky you are to be in her presence, times the rate at which your knees wobble at the sound of her laughter, or at the sight of her smile or the beyond-comfortable fit of her hand in yours. That’s what you feel when you feel love around you for the first time—all that and more. Inexplicably, wonderfully more.

Out of the blue
Into my heart

The needle dropped and for a little under five minutes, the song came to find me, and it pulled me out into those moments again, and as Lou Gramm‘s voice enveloped my living room, I was no longer there, but somewhere else, 22 years ago, in the chill of the autumn of my senior year. And it didn’t matter that so much time had passed, or that she and I had split acrimoniously, or that we had eventually found the true loves of our lives, had both started families, hadn’t seen one another in many years, didn’t need to see one another, didn’t need to interrupt pleasant echoes of then with awkward small talk today. It didn’t matter that the plans we had foolishly made as teens never came to fruition.

As the song played, I felt that first love around me once again.

My eyes were closed and I was smiling.

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