SNL Comedian Julia Sweeney’s 1993 Essay: “Men, Music, & Me”
This story originally appeared in the February 1993 issue of SPIN, which was partially written and guest-edited by members of the SNL cast. Read interviews and stories from comedy icons of the era–Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Lorne Michaels and others–in our package of highlighted stories from the issue.
I used to think I had no standards when it came to dating men. Well, I had one standard: They had to like me (and I have to admit, for a couple of awful years, even that wasn’t absolutely necessary). In junior high, my friend K. already had her own ironclad shopping list of qualifications: 1) Cute. 2) Rich. But I believed such criteria would disqualify many wonderful young men. What really mattered was… love.
Many miles and several years later, I began to realize that I also had certain standards when it came to guys. Mine were more devious than cute and rich, but they could end a fairly respectable relationship with the swiftness of a knife in the back.
One night in college, a guy I had been dating for a couple of months told me he didn’t like Robert Altman’s film Nashville. I dumped him on the spot. Over the years, my criteria started to shift toward music. I have to admit that when I started college I had absolutely terrible — make that “uninformed” — taste in music. I started my freshman year at the University of Washington with my two favorite albums under my arm: the soundtrack to A Star Is Born (Barbara Streisand, Kris Kristofferson) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Peter Frampton, Bee Gees). Then I started hanging out with a couple of upperclassmen who introduced me to Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Thelonious Monk, and the Clash. I was a new woman! And, like a former nicotine addict who has contempt for smokers, I became an utter snob about music.
For me, music divided the men from the boys. I had a test: if he didn’t own some Elvis Costello, John Coltrane, or Tom Waits, no way could it work. If he had those and also some Ry Cooper, B-52’s, and Sarah Vaughan, there were real possibilities to explore. If he had Graham Parker, I would become engaged in a second. If he had Violent Femmes, I would light my troth to him instantly. If he had Jonathan Richman, I would gladly bear all his children.
Now, if he turned out to be the classical sort, I knew he was my type if he possessed any Haydn piano trios, Bach cantatas, or Mozart symphonies. But if he had anything with a title such as Greatest Hits of the 18th Century or Waltzes To Make Love By, then forget it.
Similarly, he would be nixed if he had any available recording by Boston, Rush, or Kansas, whether it was on LP, cassette, or eight-track. Generally speaking, one-word band names were dire omens: Styx, Journey, Scorpions. Bad, bad, bad.
Now, sometimes a guy would compensate somewhat. Or, he might have Foreigner (bad) but then have the Ramones (good), and they would cancel each other out. Actually, for someone to redeem ownership of Foreigner, he would have to have the complete works of Bob Dylan (excluding the weird Christian ones and Self-Portrait). Or he might have Toto, and you’d have to run screaming from his house immediately.
As you can see, this got fairly neurotic. And, believe me, it wasn’t like I was fighting them off. In fact, I spent most of this time in my own apartment looking at my own immaculate music collection.
My love for music was becoming an addiction. By this time, I was working as an accountant at Columbia Pictures in Burbank, California, making good money. I spent many hours compensating for awful accounting experiences by relaxing at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. If I’d had a hard day, I deserved one CD. There were days when I went crazy and bought eight, nine, ten CDs. Tower became my personal church, a shrine to the goddess of music.
One night, S., a guy I knew only slightly, called to ask if he could stop by to pick up a book for a mutual friend. On my stereo was Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk.
The moment S. walked in the door, he said, unsuspectingly, “Oh, Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk.” We married a few months later. Not only had S. actually worked at Tower Records, but he was the owner of a thousand reggae singles. And he was single himself! Soon realizing that the way to my heart was through my ears (aural sex!), his engagement flirtations included making compilation tapes such as “Songs About Los Angeles,” “Songs About Going to and From New York,” and a workout tape, “Run, Julia, Run Like You’ve Never Run Before.” We spent an indecent amount of time at Tower. We would buy several CDs, come home, and throw them on the bed unopened and make love, then squabble over who got to open the latest NRBQ release and then listen to the rest of them one by one, drinking tea. He would ask me to recite the list of song titles as if the sound of my voice were music to his ears. Oh, sweet life.
We were married within blocks of Tower Records and asked for Tower gift certificates for wedding presents. We had no use for china or crystal. We renewed our subscriptions to SPIN, Musician, and Option for the maximum number of years, a symbol of our deep commitment to each other. If we could only have subscribed for 50 years with a simple X on a postcard, we would have clearly done it.
We talked a lot of music. Well, he knew far more than I did. So much so that it didn’t really make sense for me to read all those magazines anymore.
In one year, I doubled my music collection (by assimilating his) and then doubled it yet again with gifts and new purchases. We had over 1,000 CDs in our living room. The problem was, I no longer recognized the things that played on my own stereo.
I found there were certain kinds of music I simply could not stand to listen to under certain circumstances. For example, when I was trying to scrub the bathroom, Muddy Waters just made me sad.
When I went to parties before I met S., I often ended up talking to people about music. But when I went to parties with my husband, people seemed to prefer talking to him about music. I mean, he knew so much more. And that made me so proud. And with nothing to say, really. He was usurping music in my life!
Somehow, we started joking about my deep, dark past — the stuff he found in my music collection when we moved in together. You know, the guilty pleasures: John Denver, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, and Cat Stevens. And the soundtracks to The Buddy Holly Story (Gary Busey on vocals) and Jesus Christ Superstar. Ha, ha, ha. Okay, so I didn’t know a lot about music. But that was all right because I knew about other things, like, like — well, like a lot of things.
I started reading extensively about Catholic saints and for a while considered gong back to school to get a graduate degree in hagiography. If I couldn’t talk about the latest Stone Roses 12-inch, I sure could talk about Saint Therèse of Lisieux. “No, I didn’t know that Robyn Hitchcock’s Fegmania! was available on CD, but did you know that Saint Rose of Lima used to rub pepper on her face, lest she succumb to the sin of vanity?”
One night at Tower, it all came to a head. S. and I had agreed to purchase two CDs a piece. Meeting up with him after spending a half hour alone in the jazz section, I held up my choices. “But this one is available on a Japanese label with three bonus tracks,” S. said. “And, darling, we have this one already.” I threw the CDs at him and ran out of the store crying.
So we don’t go to Tower together as much as we used to during the days and nights of our courtship. It didn’t end our relationship. And as for the “standards” I once held so dear, I guess they just blew up in my face. Beware of what you wish for. In the end, though, I realized my real “standards” are for a guy to be kind and funny and smart and interested in me. And, coincidentally, I got them.
It used to make me mad when my husband showed his superior knowledge of music, but now I like to watch him retire to the musical shrine in our living room. I remember one afternoon when he came home from Aron’s Records in Los Angeles with the new Stax box set. He sat down right in front of the stereo, listening to the music and reading every liner note with a big smile on his face. How could you resist that?