1989: “Veronica” (Elvis Costello, Spike)
You might think it weird when I say that a song about an old woman in the throes of Alzheimer’s reminds me of my college girlfriend. But the alternative is remembering her as a prostitute.
Okay, I’m not going about this very well at all.
See, we were doing a production of Biloxi Blues. I hadn’t been cast, so I was — rather grudgingly — working on the prop crew, while Jen was one of the two girls who would share time as Rowena, the world-weary prostitute in the play. I don’t want to say it was the fairly constant sight of her waltzing around in the 1940s-era lingerie she wore in the show that caught my eye, but I won’t say it didn’t hurt either. We went through that clumsy “Hey, you are interesting, I am going to pay attention to you” phase, which eventually led to a request for a date that couldn’t have been more awkward if it had been scripted by a MadLib, and which somehow ended up in us dating that following summer and my senior year at Rollins.
It was during our tentative courtship that we discovered Elvis Costello’s album Spike, thanks to the ever-reliable Park Avenue Records. She actually got it before me, and I recall a phone conversation where she called it “an album to be savored,” in her usual expansive style. Well, at this point, she could have recommended an album of the sounds made by medical monitoring machines and I would have given it a chance, so I dove in. My knowledge of Elvis Costello wasn’t very deep at that time; I’d never heard a complete album of his, being only familiar with his hits like “Oliver’s Army” (which I love to death and hated not being able to slot into 1979) and “Alison”. And I always remember my dad taking offense that anybody but the King would dare call himself Elvis. But hey, girl I like like this, me like too. Fortunately, her taste in music proved reliable.
And while I understood the subject matter of the song was nowhere near as upbeat as the music, it was “Veronica” that stood out for me, and in a lot of ways defines that time. Because despite the fact that Costello was essentially singing about his rapidly fading grandmother, adrift in her world of forgotten memories, there was an uplift in his voice, especially in the chorus, and a sparkle to the melody that pretty much jived with how I was feeling. It totally doesn’t make sense, associating my first great romance with a song about going senile, but then a lot about romance doesn’t make sense when you think about it. The way I looked at it, it was her sharing something that made her happy, and she was sharing it with me. At the time, that made it the best song in the world.
Music eventually became our great link when we parted for the summer. We’d send each other mixed tapes, each of us slowly drawing the other into our musical worlds. And other songs would come along that held significance, for various reasons. But even though she’s sharp as a tack and nowhere near being anybody’s grandmother, if you say to me, “Jen, Rollins, 1989,” my first thought is going to be “Veronica”. It’s a bit of quirkiness that seems perfectly suited to our relationship. We had a lot of fun, made more than a few mistakes along the way, and while we didn’t last much longer than a year, we’ve remained good friends to this day, something I can’t say about many of my other exes. Even if she reminds me of a song about a woman losing her mind.