There he was — half-naked, hugging a tree, crying hysterically. After months of house arrest and outpatient group therapy that ended up being more like a prescription-psychotropic swap meet, my best friend had snapped. It had been a year since his youthful indiscretions had caught up with him — indiscretions that, had they been better-timed, better-placed and of the heteronormative variety would have been shrugged off rather than prosecuted. It had been a grueling year for our entire clique, watching our friend, who already had a bout with mental illness, slowly unravel as he sat in his parents' basement popping pills and trying to ignore the fact that his mother thought he suffered from demonic possession. Now it seemed that his downward spiral had reached its inevitable and ugly bottom.
And just to make it all extra-weird, in the background you could hear Steve Miller singing, "Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin', into the future."
Obviously, by this point, as a technically-but-not-really adult, I had heard Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle" 8 or 9 billion times — on every classic-rock station playing at every crappy job I'd ever had, on the P.A. during a particularly formative middle school make-out session, every time the folks wanted to get nostalgic and talk about the time they saw Miller in '72. But even a song as omnipresent as "Fly Like an Eagle" can take on new relevance given the right — or, in this case, sadly wrong — moment. The most innocuous, ignorable, overplayed songs can take on mammoth significance if the planets align in such a way that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you can't help but become emotionally involved with it. And the next thing you know, you find yourself having weirdly emotional moments in the toilet paper aisle at Kroger.
My friend was/is one of the smartest people I had ever known — the first time he snapped, they found him in the university library after 72 sleepless hours of trying to memorize the Arabic language even though he wasn't taking Arabic — and it's hard to see his choice of soundtrack as anything other than calculated. We saw him stand up, pull the record out of the sleeve and drop the needle on the platter. We saw him savor the cosmic synths of "Space Intro" — track one, side one of Fly Like an Eagle — and start his Klonopin shuffle to the door. But we didn't think that we, as a group of childhood friends who had weathered a number of crises together, were about to hit bottom. We had spent most of his homebound incarceration in that basement getting stoned and listening to classic vinyl. It was hard to believe that him hazily singing "doot-doot-doo-doo" was in fact a cry for help, but there he was weeping onto tree bark.
It was one of the most resounding moments of human frailty I have ever witnessed, and the whole time Steve Miller is going "doot-doot-doo-doo" in the background. Well, the record kept on playing as his mother was screaming out of the window, and we tried to talk him away from the tree before the cops showed up and carted him back to jail, but "Wild Mountain Honey" didn't take on any epic new meaning (though "Take the Money and Run" might have been decent advice if we were a more devious and criminally minded group). "Fly Like an Eagle," however, would forever be changed for me, dredging up huge disdain for our frequently unjust criminal justice system, our society's codification of homophobia and the piss-poor way we handle mental illness in this country every time I hear it at the dentist's office or in a convenience store. You can imagine how inconvenient that is.
But now, almost a decade after we got our buddy back in the house and went our separate ways — him into the relatively uneventful life of a well-adjusted gay adult and me to Tennessee for the overly eventful life of a maladjusted record critic — it's easy to see why "Fly Like an Eagle" was what he wanted to hear. It's exactly those dark, dreadful moments in our life where we need pop music to supply the optimism that we ourselves cannot muster. It's those moments when we need to hear words of confidence, when we need someone to remind us that things can and will be better no matter how fucked they seem right now. It's those moments, when everything is dire and distraught, that we most need to just take a deep breath and remember that time keeps on slipping, and the only thing to do is sing "doot-doot-doo-doo."