New York, New York
By Allison Moorer
The news came in late spring of 1997. I’m not sure how many days had gone by since Tim had hanged himself, but my best friend called to tell me when she heard. She still had an ear to the ground in Monroeville, Alabama, where we all three went to high school. I didn’t.
Neither Tim nor I had lived in Alabama for years. He was painting — he’d gone to the fine-arts graduate program at the University of South Carolina on a scholarship, and I was singing and writing songs in Nashville. The last time we spoke was the previous fall. I was going to be in Columbia, where USC sits, for Farm Aid, and we talked about trying to get together that weekend. We didn’t.
He was the first guy to make me a mixtape. Come to think of it, he was the only guy who ever made me a mixtape, save for the ones specifically designed to pitch me songs. Those usually got one cursory listen and thrown in the nearest trash can. I still have the “Songs for A.” cassette.
“Of course, he’d make a special cover for it,” I thought when I got the tape in the mail. He made a Xerox copy of a photo of Elvis Costello — just the eyes up — and added a third eye in gold metallic marker. A reference to “Alison,” which he always sang to me, I’m sure.
“You look a little bit like Jean Shrimpton,” he lied. We’d landed in the same history class when I was a junior and he was a senior. I didn’t know who Jean Shrimpton was, despite my non-stop study of Vogue, or that Tim hadn’t either until he heard her name in a Smithereens song.
She had hair like Jeanie Shrimpton back in 1965
She had legs that never ended, I was halfway paralyzed.
— “Behind the Wall of Sleep”
My legs ended way before they could’ve been called anything but short, and I knew I didn’t look a thing like one of the world’s first supermodels. I don’t think Tim thought I did, either. He was just trying to find something to talk to me about. He’d noticed me, and I don’t think it was only my red hair that caught his attention.
Jocks and cheerleaders were the kings and queens at Monroe Academy, a private school of 400 students who mostly blended together. Tim and I stood out — we were neither athletic nor spirited about those who were. He was a smart-mouthed alterna-teen stuck in a place that didn’t want to hear about, and certainly didn’t offer, alterna-anything. I was a year younger than everyone else in my class but mature beyond my years and walking wounded from the vicissitude of my girlhood. Even so, I could pass for somewhat normal when I tried. Tim never could. He was tall, skinny, had a haircut that earned him the nickname “Fraggle,” played the bass drum in the marching band, and drove a navy blue Volkswagen Beetle during a time, the late 1980s, when driving a Volkswagen Beetle wasn’t considered cool, not in South Alabama anyway.
I was shy. I didn’t like to get to know people well enough to have to talk about how I’d ended up in Monroeville, but everyone seemed to know I moved there to live with my aunt and uncle after my parents died in a murder-suicide in 1986. It’s difficult to keep secrets in a small town. Tim might’ve heard some version of the story before I told him mine, but he never said. What he did say was that he lived with his aunt and uncle, too. Displacement and feeling different from everyone else became our first, if mostly unspoken, common denominators. The next was music.
Tim lived and breathed art and music. He not only sketched all the time, but also played bass as well as the drums, usually along to his favorite records when he was alone. Those things gave him a window out of the small world we lived in. He knew he didn’t belong there. Music was a lifeline for me, too. I’d been raised surrounded by it, always singing with my family and constantly listening to records and the radio. My parents had listened to country music almost exclusively, but when I got my own radio around the time I turned 10, I started choosing the stations I wanted to hear and picking out Top 40 singles at TG&Y.
I was 13 when I finally discovered what was then, and I guess still is called alternative music. I first heard Violent Femmes, Simple Minds, and the like through the cool set at school. When I did, what had always been a way of life for my family — music — became a way for me to assert my independence from them. I bought my first INXS record, “Listen Like Thieves,” at the Record Bar in Mobile. I felt as if I’d entered a secret world, one far away from the fiddles and steel guitars of my parents’ music. One far away from them, period.
When I met Tim a few years later, after I was farther away from my parents than I ever wanted to get, I realized how little I knew about the music I claimed to like. He dug deep, and studied the college chart on the back page of Rolling Stone every time he got his hands on a new issue. Then, he’d order the albums he wanted to hear from our local record store. They wouldn’t have stocked pre-”Green” R.E.M., any Replacements record or The Smiths or U2 before “Rattle and Hum,” so Tim would place his order and wait on it until the following Wednesday, when the store would receive new merchandise. He’d then share his newly discovered records with me, usually making me cassette copies of the ones he thought I’d like.
The first time I heard a Velvet Underground song was R.E.M.’s version of “Pale Blue Eyes.” It was on “Dead Letter Office,” a 1987 rarities and B-sides collection that Tim copied for me. I told him it sounded like a country song, but he argued that it was more sophisticated and avant-garde than anything Merle Haggard might write. The album also included a tossed off, out of tune, and live cover of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” which further bolstered my connection to R.E.M. I’d begun to draw the parallels between different genres years earlier. I knew that ground zero for good music is a good song. But because a band I liked gave the nod to a songwriter I already knew because of my parents, and in turn shortened the distance between him and a dude like Lou Reed, I ever so slightly began to appreciate my upbringing, more than I’d been able to since my parents died. He might not have known it, but Tim helped close the musical circles for me. He also affected what was to come. I might not have heard anything pre-“The One I Love,” had he not made sure I did. That means I would’ve missed “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” and the rest of “Reckoning,” which would’ve changed my own recorded catalog. I’ve referenced, however directly or indirectly, the music he introduced me to more times than I can count. And I never fail to think of him when I hear “Pale Blue Eyes,” or that collection of songs I now know was released to help fulfill R.E.M.’s contract with IRS Records so they could move on to a more lucrative deal with Warner Bros.
While we shared a deep-seated hatred for Guns & Roses, Poison, and whatever other hair-metal band was chewing up the scenery on MTV, we didn’t agree on everything. I defended country music when he’d slag it. Tim said the only good things about it were Hank Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and Randy Travis. He reluctantly agreed to accept my counters of the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, but would stop short when he heard the strings on “For the Good Times,” calling it schmaltzy. I admitted country music wasn’t exactly flawless. But he also had to acknowledge the short connection between the ringing guitars and longing strains of what he saw listed on the back page of Rolling Stone, and Patty Loveless’ sob-soaked, nailed-to-the-wall cover of Lone Justice’s “Don’t Toss Us Away.” I didn’t see a huge difference in her version and Maria McKee’s the way he did.
I knew Tim partly accommodated my opinions because he hoped I’d allow our relationship to develop beyond tenuously negotiated platonic comity. I loved him but had no romantic notions. I didn’t know how to address his only slightly hidden longing for more than friendship and have things stay cool, so I danced around them, keeping them at arm’s length while hoping he’d do the same, at least outwardly. He did, while I dated other guys right in front of him. It was, however, always his number I’d dial in the middle of the night when I’d wake from a bad dream about my parents. He knew the recurring one about my Mama bleeding to death in my arms almost as well as I did. He never flinched. He seemed to know more about how it felt to be an orphan, even though he wasn’t technically one like I was, than anyone else I knew. His mother lived in North Alabama, though I never found out why she lived there without him. His father lived out of his car, sometimes in Monroeville, usually down by the river somewhere, but sometimes in places he couldn’t be found. He had returned from Vietnam less than whole.
We talked about other dreams, too, not just the bad ones. In fact, we mostly shared those of making it out of Monroeville and carving out artistic paths in the world, of doing anything not to end up working at the local paper mill. Anything not to end up with a Friday night football game as the highlight of our week. He challenged me to pay attention to my instincts, to seek, to honor my gifts, and to get out of small-town Alabama at least for a little while.
Tim graduated from Monroe Academy in 1988. He stuck around for the summer and fall, enrolling at the local junior college to take basic courses, but headed to Auburn the following January to study art. We kept in touch the next years through letters and the random phone call, and the mixtapes he’d send when he said I was particularly on his mind. “Songs for A.” came in the mail in 1992, I think. I was a senior at the University of South Alabama. On side A is the entirety of the The’s “Dusk.” Side B is the mix — a perfect time capsule of early-1990s modern rock.
“Full Moon, Empty Heart” — Belly
“Dry” — P.J. Harvey
“Hag,” “Saints” — the Breeders
“Submerge,” “Sad Eyes” — Come
“Long Way Down,” “Seen the Doctor” — Michael Penn
“Dive,” “Sliver” — Nirvana
“Bruise Violet,” “He’s My Thing” — Babes in Toyland
“New Year,” “Cannonball,” “Roi” — the Breeders
“My Drug Buddy,” “Bit Part,” “Alison’s Starting to Happen” — the Lemonheads
By the time I finished college in 1993 and made my way to Nashville, we talked maybe twice a year. I was nonetheless distraught over his death, even though I didn’t know what was going on in his life to cause him to take it. I understood his painting was going well, but otherwise I don’t know what changed or if anything had. Drugs, depression, deadlines, his thesis, or a combination of any and all of those things might’ve been the instigator, but I also knew his dark side, usually revealed by his razor-sharp sarcasm and contempt for those who were only concerned with getting along in their workaday lives. I wasn’t completely surprised he was gone. After a few days, I felt almost fortunate that we hadn’t been in better touch those last years. I didn’t like that I was suddenly living in a world without Tim in it, but was glad that the memories I had of him hadn’t been covered up by some that might’ve been less fond.
Records are more reliable than memories. They don’t change no matter how many times you play them, while a memory will morph when seen through the frosted glass of sentimentality. Records are stuck in time. They can take you for a ride in an emotional time machine right back to who you were and what you were doing when you first heard them or when they became significant for some reason. We are often surprised by those that haven’t aged well, though, by those that sound dated and self-conscious in the absence of vinyl scratch or tape hiss.
I don’t own a cassette player, so I keep “Songs for A.” tucked away in a drawer. I could make a playlist on this computer where I type and re-create it, but I don’t. It wouldn’t sound the same. I just play the tape over in my mind so I can remember it, and Tim, the way I want to. And I still think “Pale Blue Eyes” sounds like a country song.
Allison Moorer was born and raised in South Alabama and is a music industry veteran who has been nominated for Academy, Grammy, AMA, and ACM Awards. She has made 10 albums. Her writing has appeared in “Guernica,” “Performing Songwriter,” “No Depression,” “American Songwriter,” and elsewhere. She recently earned an MFA in non-fiction, finished a memoir, and lives in New York City and Nashville with her son.