Cut That Little Child by Kevin D. Woodall
Disarm you with a smile, and cut you like you want me to.
I didn’t really think too much about it, the meaning behind those lyrics,
because I was a nine year old listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm on Star 98.7 back in 1994, and I didn’t really know much about anything, let alone knowing how to critically listen to lyrics or melody.
All I knew was that I really liked that song, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
I was a lucky child, in that my parents have always made an attempt to stay current with music. This meant I had exposure to a bunch of excellent alternative and indie music at a really young age (how many nine and ten year olds could brag about listening to The Pixies or Chavez or Nirvana am I right?). I got ahead of the curve on a lot of music that other kids my age wouldn’t discover until they hit college.
But I was also an unlucky child because this meant that, while I was sporting ripped jeans and flannel, jamming out to Pavement and fitting in with the Gen-X crowd ten years older than me, I was wildly out of step with the kids my own age, who were all wearing wife-beaters and shaving their heads, listening to Boyz II Men or Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. I was about one mortifying school-talent show appearance away from being a real life Marcus from About a Boy, only instead of getting bailed out by Hugh Grant I probably would have just got an ass-beating.
A freak at school, a novelty to the older teens and twenty-somethings in my neighborhood, I never quite fit in with anyone anywhere.
I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard The Smashing Pumpkins, but it was the first time I’d heard them like this. The other two songs I’d heard, Cherub Rock and Today, are unmistakably rock. It’s right there in the title of the former, and the chorus of the latter has some seriously heavy, grimy guitar and bass action going on. They’re great rock songs, but they aren’t necessarily beautiful songs.
Disarm was totally different. It was easily recognized as a rock ballad, but it stirred strange and complex emotions in me. Sure, as far as rock ballads go you’ve got Alone (such a great song), and November Rain (ehhhhhhh), and any other number of well-worn hits, but there was something about Disarm that haunted me. It starts off so quietly, with Billy Corgan’s vocals, the cello, and the acoustic guitar, punctuated by the initial peal of bells ringing, but then that sweeping crescendo of strings hits you from nowhere as the chorus starts. The song goes on and it builds as more strings come in, and by the end you can almost hear how the song shimmers and radiates silver light. It sounds so beautiful.
But I also recognized a tremendous weight of sadness throughout the song. I hadn’t exactly developed any critical analysis skills to understand it, but I could tell that those words held anguish. The words would eventually come to hold deep meaning for me, but not until later in life. All I knew when I was first listening to it was that, within this song, there dwelt a sadness that reached into me in a primal way, calling out from a place beyond my understanding and offering me something that was vaguely comforting.
While I was wrapping my head around how a song could be both beautiful and sad at the same time, I grew even more wonderfully confused by the pervasive feeling of power that drives the song forward. Those relentlessly powerful tympani drums pound throughout Disarm like blasts of cannon fire. As the song builds the other percussive elements join the fray, (cymbal crashes and even more bells ring stronger and louder as it goes on) strengthening and bolstering what started off as a quiet, melancholic piece and turning it into something bold and commanding. It builds and builds and builds, and you’re in a frenzy of emotion, and you want to cry, and you want to shout, and then…
And it takes all of ten seconds.
Such beauty, such sadness, such power, all ended in the span of ten seconds, with the final peal of the bell signaling its death.
It still gives me chills even as I listen to it now.
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The song had me in its grip and I couldn’t free myself. I didn’t have any money to buy Siamese Dream, (since I was a child and children don’t usually have well-paying salaried jobs by the age of nine), but I needed to hear Disarm over and over and over again. No other song would do, because I needed to feel that wild and strange range of emotions. I needed to feel that triumph in the face of sadness. I needed that sense of power in spite of it all.
So I did what any self-respecting kid in the nineties would have done: I sat around listening to the radio every day, blank cassette loaded up and ready to go, waiting for the song to come back to me so I could record it.
It took about six or seven attempts to get a good, clean recording off the radio. The first attempts failed because I was either too slow to hit record, or the song faded out early, or the DJ talked over the beginning and/or end, (only 80s and 90s kids will remember the struggle and et cetera). Eventually I got it, though, and once I had a good, clean version of the song I went a little nuts.
I didn’t want to have to keep rewinding the tape to hear the song play; I just wanted to hear it, uninterrupted, over and over and over again. So I took my original tape, and I got a second tape, and I made that second tape into one where the song ran back-to-back for the whole 90 minutes by pausing recording when the song was done, rewinding the original tape, and playing/recording again.
Later, when tapes were dead and CDs were king, I would continue the trend of way-too-long-looped-singles. I still have my 70 minutes of Strawberry Letter 23 CD in my now-untouched CD binder in my car (which, in retrospect, is a strange choice to make since you can just hit repeat).
I spent a good amount of time over the next few years giving that tape a listen every so often in 90 minute bursts, until it was devoured by my cassette deck.
Rest in peace, gentle tape.
…leave you like they left me here to wither in denial; the bitterness of one who’s left alone.
Friends were always hard for me growing up. I had a knack for losing them. They’d move away, or we’d lose touch with each other when we were in different classes the next year, or I’d be too nerdy or weird for them and it wasn’t cool to hang out with me anymore. In fairness to the latter group, I really was a strange and poorly adjusted kid. See the previous point on About a Boy; it’s social suicide to hang out with a kid like that, I get it.
There was the bullying too; pretty aggressively bad bullying. For example, when I was in sixth grade, a kid who’d been held back twice made my life a special hell, particularly with his penchant for smashing chairs over my back (which, let me tell you, when I saw a similar scene in Moonlight, the 11 year-old in my heart cried aloud for the vindication I was never able to get for myself against that 13 year-old god damned monster).
Year after year of dealing with trying to make new friends, or getting shit on by former friends, or being bullied by bastard people began to take its toll. It seemed like I was stuck in some kind of loop of loss and loneliness. It didn’t matter how good or strong the friendship felt; inevitably, something would shift, and I’d get left in the cold once again.
When I was sixteen, I turned, like so many awkward and lonely sixteen year-old kids, to music for my comfort. I was back on the Pumpkins again at this point, and I found myself hitting repeat on track six of Siamese Dream to get that Disarm fix (let’s hear it for making money to buy CDs by hustling rich kids at poker and pool wooo).
Again, I found refuge in that sad, beautiful sound, and at first I fell into wallowing in my own self-pity. I focused on the themes of loneliness and denial, and I began to think there was something wrong with me. Something in me was anathema to everyone else, and triggered defense mechanisms in them to drive me away, or outright harm me. For a time I really, truly believed that I must be the broken, defective one, and the rest of humanity was trying to tell me that I didn’t belong.
But then I started listening to the lyrics on the whole, not just piecemeal, and I realized that the percussion wasn’t the only part of the song that exuded that sense of power. I came to feel that, for me, it was a song about recognizing toxic behavior in other people, and how that can lead to a self-sustaining cycle of misery if you let it. The song was telling me to take agency for myself, to choose to smile instead of withering in denial and loneliness.
While I was back on this Disarm kick, I was reading Siddhartha for a school assignment, (such a good book and everyone should read it) and the lesson I was learning from the song was driven home by the themes I took away from the book. I began to understand that everyone is on their own path in life, and I couldn’t let their actions control me. I realized that I’d been internalizing their issues and blaming myself for them, which made me miserable, which in turn made people want to be around me even less. Once I stopped allowing the actions of others to define me I suddenly found that I could make friends. I was in a much better headspace, and I was able to sustain it for years, making lots of friends and feeling accepted for the first time since I was a child.
The killer in me is the killer in you.
I’m not sure exactly what caused it, but about seven or eight years ago I lost my way. Maybe it was going through an unfulfilling undergraduate program. Maybe it was routinely interacting with shitty people while working in the service industry. Maybe it was a couple of friendships I had that turned sour when they found out I was in a committed long-distance relationship with a girl in another country, and wouldn’t dedicate myself to them as much as they’d like in terms of competitive advancement in video games (“a real friend would help their friends hold their PVP rank. Why are you being a selfish dick?”).
It was likely a terrible combination of all of the above, but I have a feeling that the particular example with the video game friends triggered some unresolved issues from my childhood. Even after I’d moved on from those poisonous people I started to backslide into old childhood habits . Why would people claim I was being selfish unless it was true? I must be the one being awful. I started to think that if I wasn’t ready to drop everything to keep my friends happy, inevitably I’d lose them.
I stopped doing the things I traditionally did to recharge and get my energy. I stopped writing. I stopped taking photos. I stopped exercising. I stopped disappearing into nature for hours. Doing those things began to feel like a selfish luxury that I couldn’t afford, because if I wasted time on myself I’d be letting everyone down and they’d cut me out. These thoughts and habits wormed their way into my work as well. I couldn’t say no to any request, even if I was doing the work of three people all by myself. If I turned down work I knew I’d get fired, even if it was literally impossible to meet the deadlines I was given.
This line of thinking eventually led to me resenting everything about my life. I woke up each day, (if I managed to sleep at all) with an increasing sense of panic and dread. I had a growing urge to burn my life to the ground and run away because it all just felt like too much to bear. Everyone was so unreasonable, and my only way to get out from under them was to run away, or worse.
When you let the actions of others control you, and you deny yourself agency, you can hit a breaking point.
I hit mine a few months ago.
Oh the years burn. Oh the years burn, burn, burn.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how I was feeling, but I think that this example sums it up:
I was trapped in an airplane that was falling out of the sky, which had no parachutes.
Because the parachutes were on fire.
Because the plane was on fire.
And I was also on fire.
I was getting pretty desperate, and I felt like I was getting burnt alive from all of my stress and anxiety. I was at the lowest point I’ve been to since I was a teenager, considering dark alternatives to carrying on with existence. But fortunately, over the years, I’ve somehow managed to break that cycle from my childhood. It turns out that most of my friends didn’t actually expect me to drop everything for them at a moment’s notice, and, in fact, they were very supportive when it came to helping me get the professional help I needed. I’ve recently learned, thanks to finally listening to people’s advice and seeking out therapy, that all these years I’ve been dealing with a high-functioning form of depression and anxiety called dysthymia.
I’m doing better these days, but, as I’m discovering, it’s a heavy undertaking to try and unlearn years of bad habits cultivated from unresolved childhood issues. There’s no instant fix.
But I’m trying. And it’s nice to know that a large part of what caused me so much stress and anxiety was built up to unreasonable levels in my head due to a known, identifiable, and diagnosable mental illness.
I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes; and what I choose is my voice‒what’s a boy supposed to do?
I came back to Disarm a couple of weeks ago, after having not listened to it for years. I was at a 30th birthday party which featured hours of drunken karaoke. We were mostly sticking to nostalgic hits from junior high and high school, ranging from Blink 182’s What’s my Age Again? to Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again to Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’. I had settled in for a night of lame-in-the-best-way 2000s hits when quite unexpectedly one of my friends declared, “Fuck it, I’m gonna go do Disarm. I hope you dicks like The Smashing Pumpkins.”
Now I’ve had an on-and-off again obsession with Disarm for about 22-23 years (holy hell where does time even go), and every time I’ve come back to the song it’s given me different messages. But I still know it inside and out. I know that my favorite part is the beginning of the crescendo at the 2:10 mark that carries you through to the end of the song. I’ve had the words memorized for years. When I’m driving I can hammer the drum parts on my steering wheel in perfect time with the music.
And yet, the second I heard that opening guitar it was like I was hearing Disarm for the first time again. That sad, powerful, beautiful song came back to me out of nowhere just as I’ve been trying to claw my way out of one of the darker valleys in my life. I’m not really a spiritual or religious person, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little spooked by the coincidental timing of its reappearance (though, strangely enough, I wasn’t shook nearly as badly by Rollin’. Somehow, that one lacks the same emotional punch. So weird).
The next morning I bought a digital copy of Siamese Dream, (I no longer owned the album as I loaned my CD out years ago to some dumb bastard who moved away with it), and since then Disarm has once again become my obsession. In the car, at work, at home, it’s almost exclusively what I’ve been listening to, letting that melancholic, beautiful music wash over me again and again.
Rather than give into those themes of despair and resentment that I once read into the song, I’m focusing on the power of it. I’m trying to get back to that mental-place that I was at in my late-teens and early-twenties, when I was taking agency for myself and I felt fulfilled every day. I need to relearn for myself that everyone has their own path in life, and I’m not responsible for their actions. The killer in others doesn’t have to become the killer in me. Hell, sometimes the killer in others doesn’t even exist outside my own head.
Now and then I fall into the trap of thinking that I’m a grown ass man, and I have life figured out, when more often than not I find that I’m still that little, messed up, awkward boy, so old in his shoes. Only now I’m trying, once again, to choose my voice.
After all, what’s a boy supposed to do?
About the Author:
Kevin D. Woodall is a Californian expatriate living in Calgary, Alberta with his well-dressed wife and strange-looking pug. You probably haven’t read anything else by him because he’s mostly a professional hermit. He’s the co-curator/editor for Memoir Mixtapes, which he sincerely hopes you’ve heard of if you’re reading this now. You can find him on Instagram as @KDWoodall and Twitter as @Kevin_D_Woodall. He’s trying to do his best.