The first time I slept with Bobby it wasn’t the night we spent together that I recall; instead, little details will spring back to me, little specks of memory, glimpses of objects, or the sense one has of coming into a room for the very first time. Where were we that night after the bar? I cannot recall. But I do remember the light coming into the small bedroom the next morning, that old yellow light that must have poured into that part of downtown Savannah for so many centuries and which was now baptizing our ‘morning after’: the small talk, the nervous laughter, the quick gathering of our clothes to hide our shyness.
I do not remember where we were headed. I remember his mustache, his reddish-brown Ford Pick-up, and then temporarily being left alone in the passenger seat while he dropped something off at a friend’s house. This left me some minutes to explore the cabin of his truck. It was a newer 80s model, and the seats had a kind of brushed tan cloth I kept idly running my hand back and forth over to make a pattern. I spied a cassette sticking out of the tape deck and greedily pulled it out (my tastes for music at the time expanding rapidly) and then marveled that it was the Pet Shop Boys’ latest cassingle, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” on the EMI/Manhattan label, the logo created in 12 bold capital letters, four rows of three squares, which I remember well because I pondered it. Record buying, even record listening, was so wrapped up in all of the tiny graphic details on the merchandise back then. I know these complicated design details are on all of our products, even, say, a bag of potato chips, but do they impart the same mystery? These details mattered because music had a defining quality for me, and there is never a more potent time for having our experiences widened than our teens and twenties.
As I idly popped the “cassingle” back into the Sony digital tape deck (even though they wouldn’t be called cassingles for a couple of years) I saw another cassette peeking out of the hold below. This one was in a rectangular black and red cardboard jacket, open at either end so you could easily release the tape. It was M/A/R/R/S “Pump Up The Volume”, the single version, not the extended one with mixes, because Bobby wasn’t in the least bit cool (being from the country); also these two songs were currently the biggest hits at the gay club where we met, which had to have been the Who’s Who, before it burned down, or was burned down, one of the local mysteries no one has ever seemed to solve, or ever will, because its importance has slipped away and been replaced just like most things. However, the image of these two tapes, well, they are just as clear now as that morning was to me. Just touching them planted them firmly into my consciousness.
In that moment I made many connections which reverberate to this day. I perceived that Bobby and I didn’t own music in the same way; these cassettes were just the songs he danced to at the bar. Even if he loved music as much as I did he certainly didn’t have a fetish for it. I also realized that it was remarkable that the Pet Shop Boys, a very gay duo (at the apex of their “Imperial” phase) were also extremely popular and radio-friendly. They weren’t cool, exactly, except that they were. The M/A/R/R/S in his Ford pickup was even more remarkable because it was one of the of first giant dance hits to incorporate hip-hop beats and what amounted to little more than found samples and a hypnotic beat. It was an extremely alternative record that had found a mainstream audience (Mars. Needs. Women). Looking at the block red letters spelling out the title, waiting for Bobby, I thought about the contradictions of the moment: my sleeping with a cowboy type, the fact that our music lined up, the gay bar, the country, the small town of Savannah itself. Mostly, I thought of the music, and how it was marking this time for me.
Staring at his tape deck little could I have known that the Pet Shop Boys’ were very soon to hit a career peak with “Always on My Mind”, a disco cover of the old hit (they were no strangers to contradictions themselves). I wouldn’t love the song but when it came out that winter I bought it immediately because it was them. By then they had become my favorite band ever. You had to buy the single because the single would come with a “B” side, and the B-side for “Always on My Mind” is now one of their classics, “Do I Have To?”. Some of the lyrics in that song state
Do I have to?
Oh, don’t say
Do I need to
which fits right into the moment in the truck, because back in the 80s gay men sleeping with one another conjured up many negative connotations—in fact it could be as full of wonder and innocence as the music on those cassettes. Did I buy the single for “Always on My Mind” on cassette? I am sure I did—they didn’t really have cd singles then. It was either vinyl or cassette; compact discs were still relatively expensive. We all had them, those cassettes, because the tape players and boom boxes were much more ubiquitous, more “normal”. What I didn’t know that morning, sitting in Bobby’s truck, going through his things, making my judgements based on his tastes, taking leaps in time just by touching the music, was that the Boys were soon to top the charts in England with the Elvis cover. In fact, I didn’t know how big a deal it would be for them over there. To land the top spot in December is a thing in England—there is a long history of bands jockeying to be the last song of the year to top the charts.
Suddenly I experienced this electric feeling of being caught out and hastily returned Bobby’s cassettes as he dramatically opened the driver’s seat door to scare me, popping in with his mustache and smiling the cutest smile. He knew I was snooping but couldn’t have cared less that I was looking at his tapes. As he slid in and turned over the engine to drive me home I couldn’t know that I would never sleep with him again, or that by the end of that year I would be perusing my own all-white cassette in the same wondering way, making my connections, or that the Pet Shop Boys were soon to achieve one of their biggest hits with a one-off cover of an old Elvis song. In the US they would go top ten with “Always on My Mind”, but in the UK it would turn out to be one of the absolute peaks of their career. That year,1987, every new song seemed to make an impression on me; but for the Pet Shop Boys, unaware that they were nearing their pinnacle with a throwaway single created for an Elvis tv special, it must have been the last thing they expected: a Christmas No.1.