Originally Published, April 15th, 2015
When I was 17, I got my first hand-job. This isn't to say that I hadn't been "manually stimulated" before, only that it had always led to something more fulfilling. And let's face it, aside from the potential for an eventual release, there's nothing all that fulfilling about a hand-job -- not when there are a dozen other, more pleasurable things that can be done to achieve the same result.
Still, at 17 there was my first hand-job to completion. I mention this not because it happened but because of what occurred immediately afterward. I had my girlfriend at the time to thank for the experience, a very sweet young lady who liked me much more than I liked her, and no sooner had she wiped herself off than I dropped a bomb on her in the form of my plans for that evening. She figured I was going to take her to dinner. I had other ideas. So basically the first thing out of my mouth following several minutes of hard work from her was, "Thanks, I'm going out with my friends tonight." It was the first really selfish dick-move I pulled on a woman. It certainly wouldn't be the last.
I've always said that my life has been a crystalline illustration of the finer workings of Karma. Everything I've ever done that was terrible came back on me in a way that was an almost perfect one-to-one comparison. I cheated on someone I was married to and devastated her psychically and emotionally; I was cheated on by someone I married later and was psychically and emotionally devastated. I spent years gaslighting the hell out of somebody; I was gaslit all to hell. I wasn't there for my first child's formative years; my second child was taken from me during her formative years. I escaped nothing. Every time I thought I had gotten away with something, it was only a matter of time -- sometimes years into decades -- for that transgression to be dug from the ground and thrust in front of my face. Even when I thought I was Henry Hill, doomed to at best spend a lifetime looking over my shoulder, I was really poor sociopathic Tommy, completely oblivious until that very last second before somebody put a bullet in the back of my head as payback.
Nowhere was this more true than in my relationships with women. I spent more than a decade using and abusing anyone unlucky enough to get into bed with me, always with the best of intentions but intentions are worthless when your actions are so atrocious. And so, in time, what I sent around came around. I met and married someone who often made me feel like I was in a fistfight with an MMA champ. I screwed up in the relationship hugely -- only a truly delusional soul would believe he was "the good guy" when he spent almost a year crawling inside a heroin pipe every chance he got -- but there's no denying that it was a two-way street. She insulted and belittled me as if she were making a career out of it and made me feel like I'd never measure up, so, whether consequently or merely subsequently, I made sure I never measured up. It was a storybook marriage, it's just that the book was Revolutionary Road.
During that entire time, I wanted only one thing. There was so much toxic anger and bile filling up our two-story apartment and always threatening to drown us that I wanted the simplest thing imaginable. And I realized this when I happened to be listening to the radio and a song came on that I hadn't heard in years. It was simple, plaintive and undeniably sad, merely because the voice behind it and the words and emotions being communicated in it felt like they came from someone in a position of complete helplessness. Someone who wasn't demanding that his lover give her life for him or that the two of them commit themselves to each other forever and run off into the sunset together. The person singing this song didn't want "happily ever after." The person singing this song wanted next to nothing. And it was in the complete understanding of the need being expressed -- the one little thing this person was requesting -- that I found myself blubbering like a fool. Because I got it. I got what he was looking for. I got what he wanted. Because I wanted it. At my lowest point it was all I wanted.
Eventually, that marriage dissolved into a pile of narcotic dust on a piece of tin foil and the ashes created by so much fire having been breathed.
In the wake of rehab and a twist of fate that I can't call fortunate, no matter the fact that it allowed me to reset my life completely, I was able to redeem myself a little and eventually meet someone new. But once that relationship became a marriage, everything began to collapse. Some of it was my fault, no doubt -- I've never exactly been a peach to live with -- but what was coming from the other half of the relationship was sometimes so emotionally brutal that it would leave scars that still haven't healed to this day. (Despite the salve provided by years of soul-searching and, ultimately, the wonderful growth of the healthiest relationship I've ever been in.) When things were at their absolute worst, in fact -- when everything I'd believed in so strongly had been effectively annihilated -- I sought out a good friend to spend time with, someone equally broken, and she and I commiserated together often over drinks. Occasionally these drinks would end in the two of us just holding each other. Because we both needed the comfort that badly.
And that was it. That was what I needed. Just to feel cared for. All I needed was for someone, anyone, to be nice to me. It's the simplest thing, really -- it's what you desire when you feel like every minute of your life is being spent under attack until you're nothing more than a child curled up in a corner. I was so desperate and helpless that it was literally all I wanted anymore from the person closest to me -- or really from anyone at that point. I wanted mercy. I wanted somebody to, please, be nice to me.
That, then, would be the song -- the song that made me lose it during that earlier bitter marriage and the one I remembered, and listened to again and again, as my relationship with my most recent ex was crumbling. Todd Rundgren's Be Nice To Me. The saddest song in the world.
Be Nice To Me is the third song on side-two of Rundgren's 1971 album Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. If you're unfamiliar with Rundgren as an artist, that's really a damn shame because he's always been one of maybe a handful of legitimate musical geniuses working within the pop sphere. But a strong appreciation of Rundgren kind of carries with it a certain impression: It tells the world that you're the sort of person who found Alan Alda sexy back in the '70s because you're really into men who aren't afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeves. And at the height of his career, Rundgren absolutely was that -- he was the original emo god. As such, Be Nice To Me is mostly Rundgren and his piano, with the former earnestly asking for the simplest form of charity over a spare shuffle of a beat. "So tired so sad/So sick of being had/By everyone who comes along," he sings. "Would it be so wrong/If you played along/And please just be nice to me?"
The effectiveness of the song is in how unassuming it is and how broken down someone would have to be to take pleasure in something so meager. That's what I identified with during the times in my life where I felt like I couldn't possibly uncurl myself and move away from my little corner. I wanted safety and kindness. Nothing more. When I was at my worst I'd hear the song and if nothing else I believed for a second that someone got what I was feeling. There's a quiet desperation there that's undeniable, the sense of being beaten into humility. Anyone who's ever felt like he or she is in a relationship with someone who dispenses cruelty more often than love can understand it. That day-in/day-out punishment robs you of your ability to pursue anything more than the most basic of social necessities. That's where I was at two different periods in my life. Music gets you through moments like that, and Be Nice To Me always seemed to pop up at just the right time to get me through my particular moments and for that I'll be forever thankful. A song like Wilco's Radio Cure may have been a visceral expression of the chaos inside my heart and head, but Rundgren said what I needed to say when I couldn't bring myself to say it.
That time I specifically remember hearing Be Nice To Me, in the middle of my MMA match of a marriage -- when it made me cry for myself -- I realized something important. I realized that I'd heard it before. The first time I heard Be Nice To Me was as I drove to meet my friends in the hours after my girlfriend's little gift to me. The song was on a mix tape she'd recently made for me.
I thought nothing of it at the time.