Jay Jolles is a PhD student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. He truly loathes living in a colonial theme park.
Just To Boogie With You
It’s been two months since H died and I’m driving home from the Yorktown Beach on the Colonial Parkway. The speedometer is kissing 80 when KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Give It Up” comes blaring through my speakers. My gas gauge slams itself repeatedly against empty, begging for the slightest glimpse of my attention. “Give It Up” is a patently 80s disco tune and it doesn’t let you forget it. The opening notes are simple and bright, they swell to a point where you can feel the song powering up, whirring awake at your touch. The thwack of the toms gives over to a deliciously chunky bassline as I approach the bridge that crosses Felgate’s Creek. I don’t dare touch the brakes. There is something so seductive about velocity.
The premise of “Give It Up” is very simple. Like a lot of disco, it’s about sex. But the thing that is easy to forget when it comes to songs about sex is that they’re not just songs about desire. They are songs about vulnerability, the shame of wanting, the difficulty of being told no. Or worse, being told nothing at all. Except for that one night after a good friend’s wedding, after which we vowed–almost successfully–to never talk about, my relationship with H was far from sexual. But the relationship one has with a training partner, as any serious athlete or dedicated gym bro will tell you, is often the most intimate relationship one will ever have. My relationship with H was in a lot of ways deeper than many of the romantic relationships I’ve had. To train with someone, particularly as an endurance athlete, requires an almost complete suspension of inhibition. A training partner will see it all. Routinely, your experience of each other is raw, even on the easy days it’s difficult to blunt the edges. And often, the days you remember most acutely are not the easy ones. Most training days are the kind where you learn that a hobby you theoretically do for fun is in reality an exercise in experiencing the limits of everything you thought you knew.
The last time H and I rode a century—100 miles by bike—it was the 4th of July. It was a month before I’d move to Williamsburg, and, unbeknownst to either of us, the last time we would ride together. Riding a century was a tradition we’d started the summer after we met and we’d do it twice a year: once for her birthday in November, and once on the 4th of July. The latter wasn’t to satisfy some sort of latent patriotic impulse, but given our schedules, it was a convenient time to overlap. Often, the 4th of July ride fell on what felt like the hottest day of the year. On those rides, the sun is so oppressive that we’d barely make it through the distance. Several times I’ve gotten sunburned through my kit, the sun scorching its way through the trees for hours, the air so thick it holds you. I’d empty bottle after bottle of lukewarm water into my helmet, down my bibs, willing to do almost anything for relief. This year, the temperature barely cracked 65; by the time we pulled back into the parking lot, my fingers were numb. H was born and raised in Vermont, and so she often reminded me that the cold was her most natural habitat. Ever year she’d tried to drag me out to ride in the winter, telling me to, “tape some handwarmers to your nipples and stop being a whimp.” I refused to venture out on two wheels unless the real feel was above 45 degrees and though I miss my friend, I’m not sure I regret it.
For years I’d had relationships with people who led me to believe that my intensity was intimidating. No one ever told me I was too much, but it would often approach on the horizon of conversation, clouds rolling in before the big storm. There is a distinct tone of voice that people take on when they stop themselves short of telling you what they really think. They kneecap their sentences right before the avalanche. It is a type of kindness, they think, to keep you from getting buried. And so, in staccatoed speech, they trapeze their clauses together, hedging to keep you from knowing each other in full. H wasn’t like that. Sometimes I wish she had been. I think she told me precisely what she thought more than anyone else in my life. Sometimes this was at the expense of my feelings, often it meant that our ways of knowing shifted in order to accommodate this new change in the atmosphere, always I came away from it with a deeper appreciation for being known.
The thing about H is that she never picked a good line in her life. She rode entirely on feel, which to me looked a lot like riding on impulse. She would send it so hard over a log that she’d nearly decapitate her rear derailleur, hooting and hollering with little regard for the mechanical nightmare she’d just barely avoided. Many times, I’d watch her careen to a turbulent halt on a patch of loose gravel at the edge of a trail we shouldn’t have been riding, back tire skidding out like a stone skipped across a river at an angle too sharp.
“Sometimes you just think too much,” she’d tell me before clipping back in and wheeling off.
She wasn’t wrong. My approach to training is often analytical, data driven. I am focused on wattages and calories, wind speed and perceived effort. H on the other hand had two main goals: have fun, work harder than she did yesterday. Somehow, we found a rhythm despite our radically different training philosophies and sustained it for half a decade. When we weren’t riding on the roads (often, after my own near miss with a motorist in the summer of 2017) we would ride the trails in Wissahickon Park, splitting a pair of Airpods. I always contend that Airpods are the most effective training tool because they keep you from getting dropped. If the distance between H and I grew wider than the broadcasting range, the sound quality suffered for both of us. And if there’s one thing worse than listening to Parliament’s “Give Up The Funk” while you’re sweating and heaving and trying to keep your heart rate under 180, it is hearing it skip like an old Walkman while you’re sweating and heaving and trying to keep your heart rate under 180. All of which is to say that the incentive was there to stick together. In the years H was my training partner, my Garmin data estimates that we shared about 20,000 miles. That’s a lot of time, and we measured it in music. H was just shy of a decade older than me, the daughter of a first-generation American immigrant and a Marine Corps veteran and her music taste never let you forget it. She would whip through entire disco and dad rock catalogs on a four-hour ride and then laugh us all the way home when I’d toggle over to Paris Hilton’s “Best Friend’s Ass”.
Since arriving in Williamsburg, I have settled into an apartment that is too big for one person. I am reluctant to invest in making the space feel like home, and despite the wall-to-wall carpeting, the signature ‘amenity’ of all the apartments in this area, my voice reverberates off the walls. I find myself fearful of the type of confrontation that arises when it dawns on you how much space can be taken up by silence.. When my dog barks at the mailman, it rings with affronting clarity, and I am often startled even when I am expecting it. And so I have developed a bad habit of needing to listen to something at most times. The morning H died, I fired up a popular music streaming application that will remain unnamed. It is one of the simplest questions I ask myself, and I ask it a million times a day: what do I play next? But that morning, the first truly cold one in November, as I sat alone in Williamsburg, a six-hour drive away from everyone I knew and loved, further than I ever had been from H, I had never been more afraid of silence. And I had no idea what to listen to.
I shuffled through some stock playlists suitable for early morning but skipped every track within the first ten seconds. It was the auditory equivalent of recovering from a stomach virus. Somehow, everything was simultaneously too heavy and too thin, non-sustaining. I played the phone call with H’s partner back in my mind. The nurse called time of death at just after four in the morning. They were pretty sure she had a stroke. It all happened so fast. There was nothing they could do. Of the things I admired most about H—and there are so many—in that moment, it was her commitment to being a morning person until the extremely bitter end. Who else would acquiesce to the perpetual snooze button of death at the precise time at which she’d usually have woken up? I pulled up our training playlist and hit shuffle.
A few years ago, H and I were crowded into a squeaky wooden booth in the corner of her favorite neighborhood bar. It was her 33rd birthday and one of about a half dozen times I can remember seeing her in real pants instead of spandex. I watched her feed quarter after quarter into the rusted slot of an ancient jukebox with a good n’ plenty color scheme. She queued up John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” before emptying her pockets on KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes”.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard this one?” H yelled over the din of the bar, rolling her shoulders to the beat, settling into the groove. I envied her rhythm, her absolute lack of restraint when it came to dancing badly in public.
“I’m sure I’ve heard it, but in contrast to Mellencamp? Feels like whiplash” I tried to resist Harry Wayne Casey’s breathy whispers of boogie down and slipped a bar napkin between my hand and the bottle of my Yuengling, unsure of the primary origin of the sweat.
“Whatever!” she yelled back at me, rolling her eyes, and waving me off. “They’re both bangers!”
Boogie Shoes’s opening is iconic, just a few descending bass notes walk you into the song like an evenly spaced staircase. A shuffling beat slips in and before you know it, a chorus of wailing trumpets have dragged you into the first verse. It’s a song that is impossible to sit still to.
I will scarcely find another morning as absurd as the one after H’s death. There I was, standing in the kitchen in my boxers. Unshaven, unshowered, reeling from some of the worst news of my life, when the opening notes of “Give It Up” came coursing through my headphones. The contrast was ridiculous, the ersatz sheen of a disco tune turned up as loud as it would go as I imagined the shape my life would take despite the H-sized hole drilled right through the center of it. Of KC and The Sunshine Band’s major hits, which include “That’s the Way I Like It” (1975), “Shake Your Booty'' (1976), and, of course, “Boogie Shoes” (1975), “Give It Up” (1982) is probably one of the group’s lesser-known songs. In fact, its role as the lead single on their penultimate album before hiatus, All in A Night’s Work, was far more popular in the UK than it ever was in the United States. But the thing about “Give It Up” is that it is a force. It is a hair over four minutes of an absolute party—the chorus, which is almost exclusively “na na na na na na” repeats eight times. And while such lyrical choices might seem like an argument for writing that has chosen style over substance, the choruses coalesce into a conduit that completely opens up the song.
Perhaps ironically, it is when I am listening to disco that I feel H’s presence most palpably. Not on the bike, not at the small plot of land in Vermont that houses her body, not thinking in the interstice between this life and the next one. But in disco. Especially in a disco tune where the tension built between high and low frequencies creates a little space for magic. It is in this space where while unseen, H feels most present.
In the past, after a loss, I was so often angry at the living. I simply couldn’t get my head around how people just kept going when my life felt like it had ground to a halt. Future forward motion seemed all but foreclosed upon. It is remarkable, really, how closely our worlds come to near collision with each other, and yet remain so distinct. So intact. What I am continuing to learn about grief is that it simply does not care about you. Not about your whims or desires or needs, your work schedule or interpersonal relationships, the fact that you need to make dinner or whether your sheets need a good wash. Grief feels like a snow globe, hermetically sealed and with its own weather. Grief takes you for the ride and even when you’re driving, it is a constant if silent companion. Grief was with me that morning mere hours after H died, sitting on the kitchen floor in disbelief, listening to KC and the Sunshine Band with earnest anticipation.
The thing about “Boogie Shoes” is that–like much of KC and The Sunshine Band’s oeuvre– amidst the boisterous horns and repetitive, stuttering choruses, it is about the idea that it is almost impossible to intelligently describe what it feels like to be around someone you love. For KC, that idea of love has a pretty narrow meaning and turns on a similarly narrow set of circumstances. Ones that differ entirely for the reasons I am drawing on the tune here, but I think the sentiment stands. The washy feel of the loose hi-hat and the repeated “boogie down” drive the feel-good tune to the satisfying culmination of a single word: “yeah.” But it begins the same way I concluded H’s eulogy, the simplest most declarative statement of love I think I’ve ever heard: “Girl, to be with you is my favorite thing. I can’t wait till I see you again.”
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malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.
Jay Jolles- Just To Boogie With You
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