Watching the Parade: The New Radicals, Beau Biden, and Me
Wake up kids,
We got the dreamer’s disease…
The opening bars of the song knocked the wind out of me and I reached for the faux granite counter — the nearest solid thing to lean against. Stretching my neck through the kitchen pass-through to the living room, I studied the TV to find the source of this sudden. . . what? Episode? Without my glasses, I spied the fuzzy image of an aging rocker wearing an orange tracksuit, strutting to a dazzling sound. What the hell? This was supposed to be President Biden’s inaugural parade! Like a magnet, my mind strained to pull together the iron shavings of far-flung memories. What was it?
The band kept playing. The guitars made a fluttering sound.
Then I got it.
Bold yellow CD cover. Sitting in my car. Gas station. Smoking. Leather jacket. Autumn. Clear skies. I was having an affair. That song was all about middle-aged freedom and sex. Every note from the television lit up a different part of my brain, firing off a technicolor film reel of memories that siren-called me to stop and let them wash over me like a bath of warm honey.
That song was all about middle-aged freedom and sex. Every note from the television lit up a different part of my brain, firing off a technicolor film reel of memories that siren-called me to stop and let them wash over me like a bath of warm honey.
Back in 1998, I missed The New Radicals on the radio as their song “You Get What You Give” became a stupendous hit. I was an NPR girl who ignored commercial radio and took life much too seriously for rock ’n’ roll. With a white-knuckle focus, I’d spent the previous decade aimed solely at achieving my goals: become a teacher, lose weight, get married, and always be the best at everything: honest, upstanding, and good. And I judged anyone who didn’t live up to the same standard. I ran all over my little town volunteering, leading, producing, directing, acting, singing, trying to stay thin.
It was every bit as exhausting and isolating as it sounds.
This frenzy of perfection was a reaction to a previous decade of feeling utterly lost. After college, I held a few adventurous jobs that sounded much more daring than they really were: low level PR positions at famous places in far-flung cities. I got a lot of mileage out of telling gossipy stories about celebrities, but ultimately the work was uninspiring enough to drive me back home with my parents and a desire to do nothing more than wait tables. I re-lit a pointless relationship with an equally unambitious (and alcoholic) high school flame until I couldn’t stand myself anymore. So, I went back to school to become a teacher, lost weight, got married, yada, yada, yada…
The pursuit of personal and professional perfection ultimately lost its appeal. Perfection for its own sake is hollow and lonely and creates a giant wall of intolerance. I didn’t want to be perfect anymore and I didn’t want to see the look in my husband’s eyes when he saw me for real. As my resolve frayed, so did my marriage.
The pursuit of personal and professional perfection ultimately lost its appeal. Perfection for its own sake is hollow and lonely and creates a giant wall of intolerance.
Eventually, I left teaching and started a new career which offered loads of unstructured time — the exact opposite of my cloistered life in a high school classroom. I didn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t plan lessons, go to meetings, take attendance, submit progress reports, re-read The Great Gatsby every spring. In the new job, I discovered two things: male attention and down time. Commodities that, in retrospect, should be carefully regulated in my life. Especially when mixed with another new interest: Cosmopolitans.
A few years after The New Radicals blew up on the radio, the “affair guy” gave me their CD. No one had ever given me music like that and, for a second, I felt hip and cool and gorgeous. Not 40. I started smoking again. He was a smoker and my husband wouldn’t be suspicious. Just disappointed. In the end, this chapter of my life helped me run away from home, but it did little to help me build something to run toward. Like costume jewelry, the fancy new job looked better from a distance and the emotional turmoil of the affair kept my mind preoccupied for far too long.
They were a one-hit wonder, The New Radicals. One and done. Rolling Stone considers “You Get What You Give” one of the top 50 songs of the 90s, calling it “one gloriously grandiose prom anthem.” Joni Mitchell said it was the best song she’d heard in 20 years. If the lead singer wanted to be a star, all he had to do was everything he was told. He took one look at the bullshit that came with pop music fame and escaped to London where he wrote songs under a pseudonym, refusing all requests for reunions until, 23 years later, the Biden Presidential Inauguration committee called.
Rolling Stone considers “You Get What You Give” one of the top 50 songs of the 90s, calling it “one gloriously grandiose prom anthem.” Joni Mitchell said it was the best song she’d heard in 20 years. If the lead singer wanted to be a star, all he had to do was everything he was told.
Beau Biden fell in love with “You Get What You Give” while fighting brain cancer. Glioblastoma. Before he got sick, he had followed his father into politics and became the attorney general for the state of Delaware. He took a leave to serve with his National Guard unit in Afghanistan and planned to run for governor with an inevitable bid for the White House on the horizon. But he had “spells” in Afghanistan and soon after his return, he was diagnosed. His rocket-like trajectory had to be aborted so he could seek treatment.
In the song’s music video, the leader of The New Radicals, Gregg Alexander, is the perfect pop star for the late 90s, all shaved head, baggy windbreaker and attitude and his soaring vocals make the sound and melody irresistible. From the chopping chimes of the opening guitar strum to the relentlessly bouncing beat, it immediately calls you to move, to jump, to live. No wonder Beau was inspired.
Not that he needed motivation. Beau Biden had been moving in a straight line toward his goals for his entire life. Before he entered public service, he was emotional support for his brother, his sister, and his father. Senator Joe Biden took the train home to Delaware from Washington, D.C. every night, not so he could save his children, he said, but because, after the devastating loss of his young wife and tiny daughter in a car crash, his children saved him.
Beau Biden had been moving in a straight line toward his goals for his entire life. Before he entered public service, he was emotional support for his brother, his sister, and his father.
Like most of its victims, glioblastoma didn’t spare Beau, even when he participated in an experimental treatment resulting in precious research toward a cure. That selflessness was typical for the Bronze Star recipient who, according to Barack Obama, was the most popular politician in Delaware, with apologies to his famous dad.
At his funeral, Beau’s sister Ashley quoted the song’s lyrics:
This whole damn world could fall apart.
You’ll be ok, follow your heart,
You’re in harm’s way, I’m right behind
“In retrospect,” Ashley recalled, “I think Beau played that song . . . not for him, but for me. To remember to not give up or let sadness consume me, consume us.”
Joe Biden’s memoir of the final year of Beau’s life, entitled Promise Me, Dad is one of those books required by today’s political campaigns to provide both cash and talking points, but this one also involves coping with the crushing loss of a son while trying to be vice president of the United States. The Buddha warns us that all unhappiness comes from comparing our lives to others, but I couldn’t help myself. From the beginning pages of the memoir, I felt ashamed. The Bidens are a tight-knit clan who truly enjoy each other’s company. My family is spread out like a galactic force field, afraid for any parts to come in contact with each other. Jill has been through three Presidential campaigns and more than forty years with Joe; I could barely make a marriage last for a decade. The Biden family is stuffed full of kids and grandkids; I never had children. Jill, Joe, and Beau spent their lifetimes in careers that served others: I have been bouncing around like a hard rubber Super Ball for years.
My teaching career blessed me with that Biden-like purpose. At the end of every day, I knew I was doing “God’s work,” as I called it. After all, what better way to spend your life than showing people how to do stuff? There was one other time when I felt like that. I had folded my tents after the affair and left the new job to spend three years with my toddler nephew while my sister-in-law battled cancer at the age of 39. Glioblastoma. She was like Beau in other ways, too: eternally optimistic and practical, talented and sunny. She spent the first part of her career managing people for J.C. Penney. Then, she led a non-profit that helped revitalize the downtown area of our small town, winning a national award. It wasn’t a Bronze Star, but she was still a hero.
I haven’t forgiven myself for letting my life unravel, but I’m also not sorry. Most lives don’t travel a linear path and, as a result, are infinitely interesting. I want to look back on my life and see a crazy quilt of experiences rather than a beige carpet of normalcy. Still, I have so little to show and I am convinced people are watching and judging, even though a good friend keeps reminding me, “People only care about your troubles for 15 minutes and then they go on to the next thing. Forget about it.”
The music video of “You Get What You Give” is an anti-capitalist appeal set in a shopping mall where young people take over, replacing the pets in cages with rich Yuppies. But the lyrics also work as a call to service — or at least a call to prevail.
Don’t let go
You’ve got the music in you
One dance left
This world is gonna pull through
Don’t give up
You’ve got a reason to live
We only get what we give
When I heard that song again, the bright clear sound shot straight into my brain, like a whiff of Old Spice still triggers memories of my very first boyfriend. Immediately, I was back in the affair and I felt free and desired and excited again. As Liz Lemon might have said, I wanted to go back to there. Interestingly, Gregg Alexander said, once he got famous, he “missed his old life” offstage. Going back worked for him. For most of us, though, trying to recreate the past, as Jay Gatsby so desperately desired, only results in disappointment or worse. If I went back, all I would find is the point of having the affair in the first place: distraction and killing time.
When I heard that song again, the bright clear sound shot straight into my brain, like a whiff of Old Spice still triggers memories of my very first boyfriend. Immediately, I was back in the affair and I felt free and desired and excited again.
Beau Biden’s story reminds me that time is precious. But sometimes it is a burden. Without some kind of purpose, time feels sprawling; onerous rather than an opportunity. We can easily become like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s feckless, bored, overly rich Daisy Buchanan, who has so little to do and so much privilege, she has lost her ability to imagine. She wonders aloud, “What do people plan?”
There’s a moral or a lesson buried underneath all of this, but I’m afraid if I regurgitate a worn-out aphorism to sum it all up, I might explode. After all, my sister-in-law and Beau gave a lot, so if, as the band sang, “we only get what we give” is true, why didn’t they live forever? They built good lives with strong direction and purpose, but my nephew doesn’t have his mother and Joe Biden grieves for his eldest son. In the meantime, my meandering self enjoys perfect health.
There’s a moral or a lesson buried underneath all of this, but I’m afraid if I regurgitate a worn-out aphorism to sum it all up, I might explode. After all, my sister-in-law and Beau gave a lot, so if, as the band sang, “we only get what we give” is true, why didn’t they live forever?
President Biden didn’t run in 2016 in part because he felt his family needed to mourn Beau properly. I think he had to find hope again after such enormous despair. Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl claims hope is essential to having a purpose in life. I am thankful I have not lost hope and I am confident I will someday find order and direction in this tangled knot of experiences. Like the snarled wires on a set of ear buds, they seem impossible to unravel now, but with time and patience, eventually they will provide inspiration.
In the meantime, parents miss their children, boys grow up without their mothers, teachers have affairs, and pop stars disappear after a single hit song — and still we go on, “borne back ceaselessly,” Fitzgerald said. But not into the past. Even a lurch or a stumble is a move forward. “Don’t give up,” the New Radicals sang, “You’ve got a reason to live.”
Even if no one throws you a parade.