There’s a certain series of events that follows the breakup of a relationship that has lasted longer than, say, six months. Shortly after the fateful decision is made by one or another participant (and let’s be frank, after half a year, there’s no “mutual agreement” to part, unless all the vases and plates in the house have been thrown and smashed and a state of détente is brokered simply because you’re out of weapons), the mutual friends are contacted and divvied up, the final “fuck you’s” are uttered, and the Great Possession Exchange takes place. She gets the house and the garden; he gets the boys in the band.
There’s a point in the midst of all this when you recognize the fact that your breakup has a soundtrack, that while your heart was being pounded with a meat cleaver—flecks of bloody matter splattering the near and far walls, your once-beloved chuckling as the implement comes down again and again—there was that song, the one that encapsulated all the pain and recrimination, the sadness and the truth. It was the omega moment that reminded you of your alpha moments together, not to mention the omicrons and upsilons, as well. Beg to differ if you must, but if you think back to that breakup, the Big One, the time everything in your life just blew the fuck up and left you wondering what the hell just happened, there is almost certainly a three- or four-minute ditty that happened to be in the air when love went all Hiroshima on you.
The one I remember best was Aerosmith’s “What It Takes.” She and I had been done for about a month and a half, but had continued arguing (really serious, emotional arguments, replete with sobbing and slammed doors), to the point that the Great Possession Exchange couldn’t happen until things had calmed down, until we could be in the same room again without setting off some conflagration.
This happened after she started seeing someone else, and I was fine with that. Happy for her. Yup. I knew the guy—they were perfect together. Except, you know, she and I had been perfect together once, and, well … I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time. Serial dating, you know. Nothing much happening. And at the Great Possession Exchange, we were actually civil with one another. We spoke quietly, without rancor. Among the items returned to me was a sweatshirt I really liked, which she had appropriated. It still smelled like her. I returned a picture of her I’d had sitting on my desk for two years. I really liked that picture, had grown accustomed to it being in the same place, didn’t feel right taking it down and putting it away, much less giving it back. She tried to give back a George Michael record I’d given her and, of course, I demurred.
There was other stuff, of course, and I stuck it all in a bag and tossed it in the back seat of my T-Bird. Then there was the last goodbye, and we hugged lightly and I got in my car and pulled away. As I did, I kept an eye on the rearview mirror, seeing her getting smaller and smaller, but never moving. She kept watching. And at that moment—swear to God on the graves of my relatives who haven’t died yet—I noticed the radio was on. And a song was beginning, with a drum intro and some arpeggiated gee-tar and a piano that sounded like it was leading the whole thing. And I drove down her driveway as I heard those fateful words:
There goes my old girlfriend
There’s another diamond ring
And all those late night promises
I guess they don’t mean a thing
So baby, what’s the story?
Did you find another man?
Is it easy to sleep in the bed that we made?
When you don’t look back I guess the feelings start to fade away
I felt a catch in my throat and was about a nanosecond from slamming on the breaks, throwing the car into reverse, and begging her to call the whole calling-off off. The bitch of it was, I’d broken up with her, then, within a week or two, had regretted the whole thing. My head knew it was the right thing to do—we wanted different things, we had different views of just about everything, and we argued almost incessantly—but my fear reflex had kicked in, albeit belatedly, and I found myself fighting off all manner of idiot voices in my head. You’ll never find someone as terrific as her. She’s going to make someone else happy, and you will never know such happiness again. And my favorite: You’re going to be lonely for the rest of your life.
Complete and utter bullshit, right? You couldn’t tell me that, then. My voices would have shouted you down.
I didn’t put it into reverse. I kept driving forward. And the song kept smacking me around.
Tell me what it takes to let you go
Tell me how the pain’s supposed to go
Tell me how it is that you can sleep in the night
Without thinkin’ you lost everything that was good in your life to the toss of the dice?
Well, I was the one who’d tossed the dice, and had to live with whatever numbers came up. And I had my breakup song. I’d heard it a bunch of times before (I’d quite enjoyed Pump. In fact, somewhere in the ether, there exists my review of the record, comparing it favorably to Sgt. Pepper’s. I had inadvertently double-dosed myself with flu medication while writing it, and thought I was hearing God sing “Janie’s Got a Gun”), but it had never before resonated in that manner.
Aerosmith, of course, kept crapping out albums and increasingly bland power ballads, but never again (to these ears) achieved what they achieved with Pump; the ballads were never again as powerful as “What It Takes.” As a wise man (I believe it was Greg Kihn) once said, “They don’t write ’em like that anymore.”