“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery, and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” — Rob Gordon, High Fidelity (film)
DC, I know I love you because you’re so capable of breaking my heart.
I came to town by design in 1996. I was a sailor in the US Navy, and I knew for certain that I wanted to go to grad school at American University and get my Master’s degree in journalism. I campaigned for a transfer from Texas and received it, thanks to the generosity of good shipmates.
I served my first job in the Navy in DC as a ceremonial guard for diplomats attending the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In that job, I had to drive around the city eight hours a day for three months, so I got to know the layout of the town pretty well. Ultimately, DC still is only a sleepy southern town, ready to serve you an exciting brunch and a steady happy hour, only to fade asleep as quickly as it can on any given night of the week.
But I can talk about places and things all of my life, and you’ll never know my story. My story is a story of other people. I came to Washington for the first time as a congressional intern in the summer of 1992. At the time, my office was in the Cannon House Office Building. Every time I now ascend the escalator at Capitol South Metro, I think of the first woman I ever fell in love with — a fellow intern in the congressman’s office. As interns, we often took happy hour at the American Café, which eventually became Union Pub.
I came back eventually to get that degree from American University, and I met my ex-wife. I proposed to her at Washington Harbour in Georgetown after a dinner at Filomena on a Valentine’s Day weekend, under the pretense that we were going to see a movie. She made me the happiest I ever have been by accepting my proposal outside of Nick’s Riverside Grill alongside the Potomac River years ago. She and I were never destined to be happy afterward.
Since then, I fell in love again with a woman I met at the Black Cat. My friend Chad America likely was the bartender that night, and the lady in question was unlike anything I ever had seen in my imagination. She stepped out of a dream I never knew I had and knocked me down! She put a lovely foot in a golden flat to my throat and said, “Let me know when it hurts.” Then she continued to press down and never stopped doing so because it never hurt so much that I thought she should stop. She was lovely then and even more beautiful now.
In her time, I had the most amazing dances of my life at 80s Dance Party with my comrade Neal Keller at Club Heaven and Hell. She and I went to Vinoteca, still my favorite wine bar although Italian varietals are not my favorite wines, and drank Bukettraube, a particularly dry South African white wine. We tumbled into and out of shows at the Cat, the 9:30 Club, and the Rock and Roll Hotel when it came along. We would go to Baltimore and Richmond at the drop of the hat, but the best times always were in the city.
She went with me to DC9, which always will mean so much to me. Somewhere after that she left — and there I was frozen like a fly in amber, trapped by my own heartache.
My friend Bill Spieler manages DC9, while always willing to lend a friendly word while curating concerts and dance nights at the ultimate dive bar-cum-concert venue. I’ll digress a moment to say his vision of a mature dance hall growing from the decades of musical genres he himself loved and cultivated since the 1980s finalizes my vision of DC nightlife now and forever.
Today, I can step outside atop the city’s largest hill to gaze upon the gothic architecture of the National Cathedral. At the moment, I’m alone, save a collection of dearly beloved gents I affectionately call the Imaginary Boys. We once hung out at Club Heaven and Hell at all hours and now we are at DC9 much the same, enjoying each other’s company still — albeit much grayer and all along fearing this is probably as good as it gets.
Through it all, I have a soundtrack that has been played over and over through the 16 years I have been here. It contains songs from New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, David Bowie, Blondie, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and others. The soundtrack speaks to me, and it suggests that maybe, just maybe, I’m not done yet. It tells me that although I may think I have danced my last song, maybe one more song awaits. And maybe another while I wait. And perhaps one more after that?