This is my copy of Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I've had it for at least 22 years and I'm pretty sure I bought it at the Waldenbooks at the Auburn Mall. When I was in ninth grade I babysat for a little boy whose parents were total drips and kept terrible snacks, the most appealing option being these super-shriveled dried apricots that completely lacked the plump sweetness of normal dried apricots; after-school I'd walk up Pleasant Street to their house with Megan Cole and Sara Goldstein, who lived nearby. One winter day we had a snowball fight on the way home and a snowball landed in my bag and melted all over my copy of Less Than Zero -- so now it's tie-dyed, because of that. I don't know where the blue and yellow came from but I'm guessing from markers, or maybe a pen and a highlighter.
My first memory of "Stairway to Heaven" is from my birthdaytime when I was maybe nine or ten. My older brother's birthday's really close to mine (we're both Capricorns) and that year my dad got him a guitar. We were all at my dad's apartment, me and my dad and my brother and some of my cousins and my aunt and uncle, and my brother had also gotten the sheet music to "Stairway to Heaven." But one of the pages of the sheet music was missing and the lyrics ended up reading "And she's buying a stairway/to roll," which everyone thought was so funny. I didn't get it. I didn't get "Stairway to Heaven" at all. Led Zeppelin were really scary-looking to me and I was basically like, "Ewww WTF these guys are so ugly* and obviously satanists, please let us put on some Madonna or some Michael Jackson." Led Zeppelin is not a band made for little girls.
I probably didn't think about "Stairway to Heaven" again until I read Less Than Zero for the first time -- but maybe not even then, since I'm not sure I recognized "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west" as a "Stairway to Heaven" lyric. But I loved that line, just as a sentence, just as an epigraph. It seemed really deep and mystical and full of dark secrets and I wanted to know all those secrets. I figured the kids from Less Than Zero must know the secrets, since they were so glamorously fucked-up and full of drugs and they never knew where their parents were and they came from Los Angeles, which was this beautiful evil place. I believed those kids to be so exciting and tragic and I despised them and I wanted them; they obsessed me. I read Less Than Zero a zillion times and the kids never got any less fascinating. It's so strange to me, that I could love a book so much even though it's got almost no romance at all.**
Two weeks ago I moved into a new house and before I moved I had a minor spiritual crisis about how my new place faced east and how the lyric "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west" would no longer be the truth about my standing on the front deck. That lyric means more to me today than it did when I was 13 and obsessed with Less Than Zero -- partly because I ended up living in Los Angeles, partly because I eventually started loving Led Zeppelin, partly because I'm writing a book whose two main characters love Led Zeppelin too. Every time I hear that line now I get a weird thrill and everything feels sort of spooky and lit-up and electric, like time and the air are warping for just those six seconds. It still feels deep and mystical and full of dark secrets, but now that I'm older I like knowing that I'm never going to know those secrets. They're just not for me to know. They're for my older brother to know, and the kids in my book, and maybe the kids in Less Than Zero: I'm really into the idea of forever being mystified by the lyrics to certain songs and leaving it up to the older kids to understand everything about rock-and-roll and the universe and evil and love. "Mystified child in endless thrall to the older kids" is such a good part to play.
Last night I read Less Than Zero again and it still fascinates me but I don't hate or love those kids anymore; the only character I care all that much about is the city. The kids in my book are way better at getting what "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west" means than the kids in Less Than Zero, and that's what matters most to me now. But I think it's cool that, as a writer of books, Bret Easton Ellis took a line from a Led Zeppelin song and twisted it into something even more powerful than it ever would have been for me on its own. I think it's so cool that writers can have that much power.
*No! Jimmy Page is beautiful. But I remain deeply unattracted to Robert Plant.
**I think there's romance in the parts in italics (Clay's memories of going to the beach with Blair and to the desert with his family), and maybe in the way Clay's so attuned to the weather and to the spirit and the energy of the freeways and the hills.