Never Say Never

It’s a simple enough anecdote, barely even that: I was cleaning, I found something, memories and emotions returned. If only it were that simple:

I was cleaning because I needed relief, first from pandemic claustrophobia, and second from the guilt of having moved into this house ten years ago with things that were never properly sorted out from our old house. We did make room for things: we spent the time and money to have shelves built for my books, including a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in my study, just for poetry books. I didn’t have enough to fill it then, so I had a lot of empty shelf space that I could justify as “other storage”: odd paper products, books that didn’t really fit into categories elsewhere in the house, and items that I didn’t know what to do with but would decide later. Or never. Of course, over ten years, those spaces became like Gregor’s room in “The Metamorphosis,” a place for junk I didn’t really want to see or acknowledge. Very cluttered, very dusty, possibly harboring vermin.

Well! Now that I’ve been trapped like Gregor in this house for a year, it seemed high time to purge some things and reclaim those shelves for books that needed the space. Among the old printer cartridges and teacher memorabilia and strange detritus from various research projects, I found a spindle of CDs. “Found” isn’t really the right word: I was well aware of it, had seen it every time I’d added something new to my little charnel house, but couldn’t wrap my head around going through those dozens of discs and deciding which would be saved and which consigned to . . . wherever unwanted CDs go.

Most were labeled, a few not. This morning, I grabbed a couple of the unlabeled ones to check out in the car while I was running errands. A few days ago, I found a nifty mix I’d made, lots of ridiculous stuff from the aughts, most of it best forgotten. Still, it was nice to play it one last time. So, maybe one of these mystery CDs was something like that.

The first one was actually blank. Bummer—no mystery, nothin’. I popped in the second one, and almost as soon as “The Politics of Dancing” started playing, I was laughing. By the time I got to “The Look of Love” and was on the expressway, I was in tears. This was one of several CDs that Reginald Shepherd burned for me, sometime between 2002, when we met, and 2008, when he died. I had once asked him for a perfect mix of 80s pop/dance music. As you’ll see from the track list below, I asked the right guy.

Sometimes I still can’t believe how lucky I was to have been close friends with Reginald for those few years. It’s even harder to believe that the years really were so very few, because it felt like we’d known each other forever. Also, although we were close to the same age, he was a mentor to me at a very important point in my career as a poet. I learned so much from him, a lot that I’m only beginning to fully grasp. But most of all, we were friends, talking on the phone, writing silly and serious emails, excited whenever we had a chance to visit in person. (I was in New Orleans, he was in Pensacola.)

Early on, I realized that Reginald’s knowledge and love of music were formidable, and the range of what he loved was both incredibly broad and pointedly specific. He didn’t just have taste; he could tell you exactly why a certain song or artist deserved admiration, and exactly why others did not. Opinionated? Yep, but when you’re talking to someone who seemed to know Jessye Norman’s entire catalogue and the lyrics to every pop song from the mid-70s to the (then) present, you do not question their opinions. (I’m not exaggerating about the lyrics: if something reminded him of a random pop song, particularly one from the 70s, 80s, or 90s, he might just start reciting every damn word, giggling at the silliest bits.)

No, it would be pointless to question such opinions, so you just revel in them. Listening to this CD today has been a joy. Reginald really knew how to curate a mix: both the selections and the order are impeccable. One thing that strikes me is how many of the singers are really good, or at least very distinctive. I mean, all of these pre-date the Auto-Tune era, but still, there are some really great voices in this mix. I remember visiting Reginald and his partner, Robert Philen, once, and we were talking about the fact that they didn’t always like the same music: Robert loved jazz, Reginald not so much, and they even differed about the classical works they preferred by the same composers. Robert finally observed that Reginald required music that foregrounded the human voice, and speculated that this was strongly connected to his being a lyric poet. Reginald very much agreed.

I want to write more about the many roles music plays in Reginald’s poetry, but right now I just want to acknowledge this wonderful gift that has, as it were, given itself back to me, and for which I am deeply grateful. A last note: one thing Reginald missed a lot in the years I knew him was going out dancing. So if you decide to check out tunes from this list, close your eyes, pretend you’re in a hot club in Chicago circa 1985, and dance.

  1. The Politics of Dancing, Re-Flex.
  2. Just Got Lucky, Jo Boxers
  3. Change, Tears for Fears
  4. The Look of Love, ABC
  5. Never Say Never, Romeo Void
  6. Fascination, The Human League
  7. Our House, Madness
  8. Shy Boy, Bananarama
  9. Save it for Later, The Beat
  10. Too Shy, Kajagoogoo
  11. Let Me Go, Heaven 17
  12. Fascist Groove, Heaven 17
  13. Obsession, Animotion
  14. Sex, Berlin
  15. Send Me an Angel, Real Life
  16. Homosapien, Pete Shelley
  17. Love on Your Side, Thompson Twins
  18. Change Your Mind, Sharpe & Numan
  19. It’s My Life, Talk Talk
  20. Robert DeNiro’s Waiting, Bananarama
  21. Tainted Love, Soft Cell


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