Thirteen Covers

by Erin Langner

I still have all the mixed CDs Jill made for me when we were seventeen. I was sitting alone, in the home office I’d never actually worked in before, when I found them. The pandemic was just beginning, and every day, I would sit behind my computer, staring through the corner windows into my townhouse complex’s empty, concrete courtyard that matched the gray Seattle skies. But one morning, my eyes landed on my abandoned CD collection, carefully alphabetized and lined up on an IKEA shelf, next to the only boom box I still own.  Desperate to end the stillness, I started playing the long-neglected discs one by one, until I was stopped by Jill’s lithe handwriting, and a title in fading blue sharpie: Tarnish.

Jill made the CDs during our senior year of high school in the Chicago suburbs, at the peak of our friendship. We’d known each other since freshman year, but we only became close after we had been abandoned by our respective best friends—mine left me for more popular social circles, and Jill’s was consumed by a boyfriend.

What did you think about me before we were friends? I remember asking her that last year.

Well. I thought you really liked Erykah Badu, because you had that picture of her in your locker. And I thought you were standoffish. 

I thought back to that mildly awkward freshman version of me, in 1998, the one outfitted in vintage crochet tops with bell-sleeves, paired with lightly flared jeans leftover from junior high school. I had dishwater-blonde bangs that Jill would one day complement me on growing out—praise I still think about whenever I debate cutting them now. I didn’t ask her what she meant by “standoffish,” exactly. Even though it bothered me, some aspect seemed right. I felt distant from that world we moved through, even though I didn’t know why.

From the beginning, I thought Jill was much cooler than me; her hair long, black, swinging across her narrow frame, outfitted in airy black t-shirts and deep blue bootcut jeans; the slightly elongated strides that she took with an air of distraction, as if she were perpetually immersed in an invisible novel.

And what did you think of me? she said.

I thought you were…bookish? Not just bookish, though.

That’s not wrong, she said.

I didn’t know how to tell her I admired her slight swagger, the way she could introduce a poetic quality to the bland suburbia we inhabited. Whenever we went out, it felt like we were crafting uneventful nights into momentous outings. We drove two towns over to sit in the creaking leather seats of the Glen Art movie theater. We strolled the aisles of the Whole Foods after sunset to admire the patterns of the perfectly stacked produce. And after everything else closed, we would shut down the Bakers Square with coffees and cokes and matching key lime pie slices.

But maybe it was our own absence of parents that really brought us together; my mother dead since I was nine years old, Jill adopted from Korea when she was an infant. And, we were living in Naperville, which felt like the tidiest suburb of all in that moment; divorces were down, standard two-parent households were the norm and anything that deviated wasn’t really talked about.

Jill used to deposit the CDs in my mailbox without telling me. When I caught the glimmer of its holographic surface against the rest of the mail, I would rush upstairs to my bedroom and shove it into my rounded boom box, my heart banging, my breaths quick. I knew what I was about to hear would be new—some new tracks, sure, but the excitement was more in how the tracks would sound the way she arranged them: Wilco’s “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” beside Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” Hanson’s “If Only” after David Bowie’s “Changes.”  And then there was also her ineffable signature, the track that appeared on so many of them: the song “Thirteen.”

Music people love the band Big Star’s original recording of “Thirteen,” from 1972. I don’t know if Jill had read the hipster critics who wrote about the lyrics as a “a near-perfect mediation on adolescence,” or if she noticed that all on her own, in its musings on beautiful ordinaries like swimming pools and tickets to the dance.  As much as it resonated with me during my actual adolescence, her CDs primed me to notice “Thirteen” for the rest of my life, and the song has many covers. Most of them mimic Big Star’s melancholy tone and spare guitar strums—so much so that sometimes I forget mid-way through hearing the song whether it’s the rendition by Elliott Smith or Wilco or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, even though their vocals sound nothing alike. In my mind, the ascending pleads of “Won’t you let me…” still belong to Jill. It doesn’t matter who’s singing them, or when they were sung. Whenever I hear it, I wonder if she still listens to it, too.

When we hear a favorite song, our brain’s pleasure circuit is stimulated by a rush of neurochemicals like serotonin, similar to some of the effects of cocaine. Because of the neurological development that happens during adolescence, the music we love during those years can become wired into the brain even more permanently. The heightened, hormonally driven emotions we experience during that age help create a strong memory trace to the songs we heard, almost like a direct pathway to euphoria. Psychologists think this may be why we tend to love music from our youth more than music from our later years.

But, when you hear a song throughout your life, the network that represents the song is updated with new memories that become woven into the original tapestry. This dilutes the memories associated with any specific phase in your life, like the smell of the place you were when you first heard it, or what you were wearing, neither of which I can tell you about the times I first listened to “Thirteen.” I noticed that another cover of the song came out this year, by Waxahatchie; I’ve also put the Big Star version on a number of playlists, so I hear it often. Nonetheless, when I hear it, I still can see the places we found to escape the synthetic lightness that filled suburbia’s chain stores and restaurants and Top 40 radio, where our weighty conversations could breathe. But I have started to wonder if I should stop listening to “Thirteen” all together—if this kind of overplay is a way of mentally writing over the parts of my old self that I don’t want to remember.




I knew we were close when Jill started visiting me at Borders. I worked in the mega-bookstore’s café, which I thought gave me some sort of indie-cache, with its handwritten menu and kitschy beach scene painted on the walls. Often appearing unannounced, I would sometimes look up and notice her reading alone at one of the blonde wood tables, her tilted head and tousled mass of hair draped over her elbow as she pored over her book, waving slightly when she finally looked up. She often humored me and ordered my named drink—Erin’s Red-Hot Affair, a saccharine raspberry white chocolate mocha that I thought sounded sophisticated but really only made it obvious how little I liked coffee. Sometimes I snuck her free Lindor balls as I was wiping down tables.

On quieter nights, it was part of my job to strip expired periodicals of their covers and throw away the rest. Usually, it was the specialized magazines that didn’t sell, like thick art publications and oversized music issues with a free CD— magazines that were heavy as phonebooks and with thick pages coated in saturated inks that always ripped open with a satisfying crispness.  You throw them all away? Jill had said when I told her one day. That’s absurd.

So, we started waiting in her car until the store closed and the rest of the staff was gone, so we could sneak behind the store. Borders had three massive green metal dumpsters, almost always filled to the top with the likes of cardboard book displays and unsold wall calendars. When I was working, I tried to place the bags full of magazines at the very top of the pile so we could avoid the café’s sour milk and moldy bagels. But, even with my strategic placement, we had to hoist each other all the way inside and plunge through the mounds of black plastic to get what we wanted.

Did you hear Cindy got into Berkeley— their business school? I asked Jill one night, as we were rustling through the bags. The three of us all ran on the track team together every year, but Jill had started drifting away from the social gatherings Cindy and I frequented.

Of course she would go there. Jill said, without looking up.

What’s wrong with Berkeley? Cindy’s choice sounded so similar to ours—like another liberal, state university in a hippie town. Jill was going to the University of Wisconsin and I was going to the University of Colorado.

Nothing. I’m sure it’s beautiful. She stopped digging and sighed, like I was missing something. It’s that she’s going to a “name” school to please her parents, so they can tell people they know back in Taiwan. She’s always been that way. It isn’t about what she really wants.

Are your parents worried about where you’re going—that it’s not good enough?

No, of course not.  I’m not part of that. My parents are white. She paused. They’re just happy that I have a scholarship. Is your dad worried about Boulder not having good enough of a name?


There are a lot of reasons I just can’t hang out with Cindy anymore.

I realized then I hadn’t understood their falling out at all, that there were parts of Jill that I didn’t know and couldn’t know, despite how close I thought we were. I knew she had a new friend, named Wanyu, who I’d seen her with in the smoking section of Bakers Square on nights we weren’t there together. I’d asked if he was her boyfriend. No, just a friend, which somehow seemed more threatening, like I could be replaced. But maybe he was better at understanding the things I didn’t, because he also wasn’t white. Maybe the ways Jill and I connected didn’t matter as much—the songs, the coffees, the slices of pie. She didn’t say anything else, so I went back to trying to find magazines for her in the trash.

It was a lot harder to know song lyrics in the 90s; you couldn’t reliably look them up online. So, I would play songs over and over again, trying to write them all down. I must have done this with “Thirteen” at some point since I listened to it so many times on Jill’s CDs. But it’s only now that I know that right in the middle, it’s talking about another song—”Paint It, Black,” by the Rolling Stones, a song from 1966 about losing a beloved that I surely never heard at the time. Reading about it now, I learn of the way its metaphor hides something dark and unspoken. Some people think it might be about a bad drug trip. Or the Vietnam War. Or Joyce’s Ulysses. But that’s the essence of all great art, isn’t it—it always has a level of meaning that it keeps us at arm’s distance, something unspeakable that you can never really know. And by turn, I’m not sure I can ever really know “Thirteen,” even though it’s so easy to talk about how simple and sweet it is.

When Jill gave me the CDs, they often came with an album cover that she had collaged with images from the magazines we found in the dumpster: wispy dandelions, bentwood chairs, rolling hills. The collages felt like they held some kind of key to knowing the reasons Jill had for creating the CDs the way she did—as if understanding them meant I would understand her in a way that no one else would, since they were made just for me. I was so sure I could decipher them if I looked and listened long enough. I don’t know if I thought that because I mistook everything as literal references, or just because there were so many things I thought I knew: seemingly ordinary things.




The night I turned twenty-one, Jill and I were both home from college for winter break. She picked me up in her beige Altima and we drifted between the streetlamp shadows of neighborhoods quieted by layers of snow and darkness, just like we always had. But this time, I was surprised when we suddenly pulled back into my driveway not even an hour later; she said she had someone else to see.

Oh, it’s my birthday, I’d said, as I opened the door to get out.

Oh. Happy birthday. Don’t get too wild.

I was bothered that she had forgotten my birthday, but I hated that we didn’t even get out of the car. That we didn’t stop for pie or coffee or any of the things that would have reassured me that she wasn’t drifting out of my life. I wanted a reason to she still needed me in her life.

The next day, my dad brought in the mail and there was something strangely gold, glowing on top of the pile. I think someone left something for you.

As I picked up the gold parcel, part of it slipped from my fingers and unfolded; it was a satin skirt, with an elaborate design woven in magenta and black threads along its edge. There was no note, but I knew it was from Jill, probably from a vintage shop. I wondered if it was originally supposed to be hers. I brought it to my room and slipped it over my hips, surprised that the zipper ends slid all the way up to the waist; it was slightly tight, stretching in small waves around my stomach, but it fit.

After that visit, we mostly spoke through letters. She’d send me music reviews she published in the college journal, occasionally a mixed CD.  I wrote her back that year and the next. But sometime during our third year apart, she to wrote me from Spain, where she was studying abroad, in a letter that felt generic and strange, as if it had been composed for someone other than me. Don’t limit yourself. Every end is a new beginning. Think outside your thoughts. Somehow, the vagueness of these suggestions made me so angry that I decided I wouldn’t write back. And somehow, that was enough. She didn’t write again. We’re too different now, I remember thinking when I realized there weren’t any more letters.

I still haven’t seen Jill since. We came into contact again at some point, briefly. Maybe it was a group text about a high school reunion or a group brunch over a holiday break that never materialized. Somehow, we connected enough that I decided to follow her on Spotify—and, to my surprise, she followed me back. What she’s listening to still pops up on my sidebar, but she hides her playlists, so I don’t know if she makes them, the way she made all of those mixed CDs. I check back every few months, hoping that some someday her profile will be unlocked, and I will have a lifetime of playlists to catch up on. In the meantime, I make my own—one every month—which anyone can see. I have over 100 playlists, methodically marking the passage of time. Each one is timed to fill exactly one CD. And every time a new cover of “Thirteen” comes up, I can’t stop myself from adding it.

Tarnish, Jill’s CD that I found in my home office, inevitably had Big Star’s “Thirteen” on it. The day I listened to it, I looked up the lyrics again, only to discover that I’ve been getting two lines wrong, all along. The second and third from the end— the most crucial lines of all, since there’s no chorus, which is the part of a song that usually answers its more esoteric questions.

I always thought the end of “Thirteen” went, “If it’s over, let me know, if it’s over, I can go”. In my mind, the narrator is filled with certainty, perhaps even pleading with the beloved to end the relationship. It turns out that, those last lines are much softer, less sure. They simply ask the person listening: “If it’s so, well, let me know. If it’s no, well, I can go.” More like, just let me know, either way. Less like, tell me it’s over already.

I also read how the song is written with a simple progression: verse, verse, bridge, verse, in the key of B-flat major. When the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wrote about the meaning of musical major and minor keys, he assigned each one a personality. He associated B-flat major with cheer and love, hopes and aspirations. The kiss on the edge of the swimming pool. The crush who says yes to the dance.

But the three verses of “Thirteen” also detour into B-flat major’s relative key, D minor, which shares all the same notes but works through them in a different order. They are aesthetic contrasts, like the way a residue of red lingers in your sightlines when you stare into something green for too long. Schubert affiliated D minor with discontent, unease, worry. Resentment and disklike. The darker side. The fade to black. It’s like a conflict buried inside of this song, embedded among the sweetness in a way that gives the lyrics a more truthful quality. A complexity that makes it more timeless, less nostalgic.  I wouldn’t have known there was so much to the song if there weren’t so many covers bringing “Thirteen” back to me, to rethink it, rather than just remember it.

It’s easier to see how little I knew now. I went looking for the rest of Jill’s CDs in my office, and I came across one she called Pineapple Upside-down Cake. I remember a fight, or maybe just a misunderstanding we had when I thought she was trying to communicate something through the songs on that CD.  I recall knowing she was upset when she gave it to me. I thought I must have done something wrong, because the mix ended with a song called “Farewell and Goodnight”—I thought she didn’t want to see me anymore. When I finally called and asked her about it, she said there was just extra space on the CD, and the song was just the right length, so she had slipped it on, arbitrarily. That time, I believed her when she said everything was okay.

These days, I watch what Jill’s playing on Spotify enough to know when her musical interests change. For a while, I worried what she and others might think of mine, now dominated by my daughter’s preferences of Sesame Street and Caspar Babypants, as if I have no musical identity of my own. But in the evenings, I finally get to listen to what I want to hear. The other day, I noticed Jill’s music appearing in the sidebar, too, even though she’s three time zones ahead of me, which means it’s the middle of the night where she is. Instead of the usual Lumineers and Father John Misty tracks I’ve seen her playing for years, I find her listening to something that confirms my suspicions: a lullaby playlist. I think of the late nights. I think of the endless songs. I think of all of the “Thirteens”—what is a cover if not a retelling. Here in the Spotify sidebar is a retelling of our story. I know where Jill is in her life as our music converses in ways that we can’t anymore.  In some sense, it feels like knowing her again. Or at least, it feels like enough.

Erin Langner’s essays appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, december, The Offing, and The Normal School. Her debut collection Souvenirs from Paradise will be published by Zone 3 Press in November 2022. She lives in Seattle and works at the Frye Art Museum.