#298, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
When I was a freshman in college, I lived in a performing arts dorm, the closest experience I have ever had in my life to going on the road with Barnum & Bailey's Circus. It was not unusual to come home at two in the morning and find, in the stairwells, one soprano practicing an aria and another painting a chalk outline drawing of a dead body at the bottom of the steps. There were wood-paneled dance studios in the basement, origami in the hallways, and at least one copy of Marat/Sade or Waiting for Godot resting on a side table in one of the suites at any given moment.
There was also, bless it, a magnificent monthly Friday night happening called Performance Hour, where my fellow dormers would congregate in a big open space and foist whatever performative whim crossed their hearts, granted it was wrapped up in ten minutes or less. I was an occasional dabbler in Performance Hour, but never, I think, did I transcend the shining moment when I brought to the stage my rendition of a song that would forever render me as "Spumoni Girl." Not that it's my proudest hour, mind. Just the most memorable.
It was 1993, and I was in knee-deep in indie rock. I carried with me the CDs from high school, all the Smiths, Joy Division, and New Order you could shake a stick at, combined with my exciting new lo-fi acquisitions like Sebadoh, Buffalo Tom, and the Blake Babies. Juliana Hatfield, a member of the Blake Babies, was an object of much fascination for me. To others, she was just another talented, fearless indie-rock chick. I was both in awe of her casual coolness yet terrified (thanks to a recurring nightmare) that if I ever met her, she was going to beat me up. Her hit "My Sister" was in heavy rotation on the airwaves, and it was this song that eventually launched me into the Performance Hour skit I'd never live down.
Many good, and still more bad, ideas are launched in barrooms all the time. In college, we had the dining hall. It was here that our wildest ideas were hashed out, here, over copious bowls of Lucky Charms and Grade D meat cheeseburgers that we philosophized, BS-ed, and called each other's bluffs. One day, after we'd cleared our plates, we got to talking about the day's dessert offerings, and someone happened to mention that they were featuring Spumoni ice cream. Now maybe this is not an exotic thing where you're from, but to my Midwestern mind, this was a new concept entirely. This flavor, this dish, wasn't even on my radar. And just because that's the way the winds happened to be blowing that day, we all got into a deep discussion about Spumoni. Some tried to explain it to me, others shared my ignorance. "I've never had Spumoni," I commented, and that, so I thought, was that.
Later that night, I was in my room with my guitar. A nineteen-year-old alone in her room with a guitar is a dangerous thing indeed, and one with a notebook nearby and nothing particular to do that night is still worse. Juliana Hatfield's song "My Sister" had been in my head since dinner, and as I was strumming the chords, I idly realized that "Spumoni" had exactly the same number of syllables as "My Sister." Today, this sort of nonsense is constantly present in the junkyard of my head, and I know to ignore it. Back then, it was nothing short of creative inspiration. Frantically, I began composing words, and in fifteen minutes flat, I'd penned an entire set of lyrics to Ms. Hatfield's song, all about, yes, the ice cream.
Performance Hour was coming up, and I decided that would be the ideal time to premiere my song. So I did. And then, in the span of three or four minutes, the Juliana Hatfield love/hate ode to her (imaginary) sister became my love/hate ode to my (imaginary) experience with Spumoni ice cream. It was a runaway hit. Years later, I would be at a party, introducing myself to someone, and their eyes might light up and they'd say, "Spumoni Girl!" Yes, yes, I admitted. That was me.
If you're unfamiliar with the original, you can check it out here. I guarantee it's far better in it's pure, untainted form than with my snarky take on it. Still, certain lyrics I can't listen to without hearing my own ice cream-inspired words superimposed over it. ("She had the greatest band, she had the greatest guy/She's good at everything and doesn't even try" is forever: "It's got the weirdest colors all mixed up in it/It looks like neapolitan on a bad acid trip.")
Strangely, shortly after my debut at Performance Hour, my nightmares involving Juliana Hatfield beating me up began to taper off, then they ceased altogether. Anyone who says art is no way to channel demons has a stiff argument coming from me. Yeah, me. Spumoni Girl. Don't forget it.