On the day when her first CD in many years was released, Poly Styrene died in England. On the way to work today, her new song, “Virtual Boyfriend,” played in my car.
Poly and I had grown apart over the years. It happens in life. However, when she was in her prime during the punk rock movement of the 1970s, I felt a bond with this petite girl with kinky hair and braces who lived across the ocean.
Poly was part of a movement of gangly-looking misfits whose social outcast message resonated with my brother and me. Living in the wilds of Fleetville, we would blast our stereo so loud that it blew the fuse on the system and you had to reset it with a little red button on the back of the system. Many days, we would be rocking out to Talking Heads, Blondie, the Jam, Elvis Costello and whatever else we could get on Tuesdays at the record store. Our mother probably knew more Ramones songs than most high school aged kids, who were into Toto and Journey.
We had albums, cassettes, 45s and eight tracks. We spent every dime we could get our hands on for the latest music. If you got straight As, you were allowed to get a free album. My brother had a lot of free albums and I got to listen to them while I finished my geometry homework in frustration.
Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex hold a special place in my memory of this time period. Their track, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was one of a kind, from its spoken intro with Styrene’s distinct British accent to its rocking saxophone solo, which I mastered in middle school. The message of living on the cusp of what society deems acceptable has a pleasant ring to people who don’t receive universal acclaim from their judgmental peers in the age of adolescence.
I saw my brother a few days ago at my mom’s house, which isn’t the one where we spent those many hours resetting the fuse on the back of the stereo. I safely delivered a copy of the Big Star vinyl that I bought for him on Record Store Day. The plastic was soon ripped off and the contents were pawed over with the type of abandon we used to have when the new Patti Smith/Television/Clash album would arrive in town. It was nice to go back there and forget about adult troubles of the day.
I feel lucky to have been there to hear Poly’s distinctive stylings when I needed inspiration. I am also thankful I have an older brother who didn’t like Styx.