Brian Vander Ark
You Can Go Your Own Way
I was thirteen in the summer of 1977 when my mom, my aunt Esther and me were sitting at the kitchen table, all of us with our hair in multi-colored rollers. We were clutching our coffee mugs and gossiping like mother hens, surrounded by a cloud of ammonium thioglycolate, the chemical that was setting our hair into what would undoubtedly be lovely little curls.
“Cluck cluck cluck,” Mom said. Incredulous, my aunt would reply with a “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” I had no idea what the gossip was about, yet I agreed with all of it, occasionally sipping from my mug of Nestle’s Strawberry Milk and adding an “Ugh, can you believe that?” of my own when I deemed it appropriate.
I was happy to have been put into the rotation this year, Mom rolling Esther’s hair, Esther rolling mine. My straight hair—traditionally styled in the Little Dutch Boy bowl cut—was too untrainable to maintain a part down the middle or on the side. After all, this was the late 70’s; Straight hair demanded a part so well-defined it was as if you had a loaf of Butternut Bread on your head. But mine refused to cooperate, so I went with Plan B—the afro. Disco, tight white pants, gold chains, and afros were in. And since my hair was untrainable, using a corrosive chemical to curl it—a chemical that could induce systemic toxicity—was my only hope. I needed something; I was adrift as the middle child. Like Jan Brady, I wanted to make a change, have my own identity. I wanted to be noticed!
When the gossip well dried up, I decided to head out onto the dock and take in a little sun while the chemicals did the remainder of their magic. Once out there, the phone started ringing. The neighbors were just wondering who this brazen young teenage girl in hair rollers thought she was sunbathing topless at Barlow Lake—on a Sunday, no less!
Mom yelled out the window. "Brian! Put your shirt on!"
"I'm trying to get a tan!"
"You don't have to tan your nipples! Cover 'em up. Or Aunt Esther says she'll make you wear your cousin's two-piece!" I heard them share a laugh.
My cousin was about my size, so I considered borrowing her two-piece. I mean, why not? They all thought I was a girl anyway. Just go with it.
Ultimately, I decided being noticed was enough excitement for one day and put my T-shirt back on.
Our family was about to move to the Lake Michigan coastal town of Grand Haven, and I was anxious to make an excellent first impression with my new hair. I fantasized about how I would be invited to all of the parties after adopting the nickname “Starsky.”
Unfortunately, topping out at 6 feet tall and weighing only 130 pounds—no one was going to call the freak new kid from Middleville “Starsky.” They were going to call me Q-tip.
Lost in an identity crisis, abandoned by everyone, I needed to find a role model—perhaps a guitar slinger with curly hair. Bob Dylan? Robert Plant?
I came across a music magazine with Lindsey Buckingham on the cover and decided to give Fleetwood Mac a listen. The only thing I knew about them was what I learned in an especially impassioned sermon delivered by Pastor Dykstra a few weeks ago, the crux of it being that they were led by a ‘pagan witch.’ (He suggested that I would find all the answers I needed by playing their songs backward.)
“Rumors” seemed like an excellent place to start; it was on the top of the charts at the moment. Dipping my toes into Fleetwood Mac led to full-on bathing in everything they had done since Buckingham and Nicks joined.
“You can go your own way,” Lindsey sang, and I felt it. And though the song was about his unrequited love—I heard it differently coming out of my own lips.
I heard, “You can be yourself.”
So, what the hell? I decided to just go with it. I went my own way. They all thought I was a 'weirdo,' so I embraced it. I became the super nerd Q-tip in the highwater hand-me-downs from Hicksville. You know, the poor kid who wore the Nike knockoffs (the ones with the upside-down swoosh), who sat by himself and ate his sack lunch of sandwiches made on Foodclub bread, the slices so thin you could see right through to what was on the inside. Instead of joining sports, I spent that first year in Grand Haven entertaining myself, playing the guitar, and writing songs. Eventually, as we all do, I found my people. But for a while there, it felt pretty good just to be me.
The curls straightened themselves out after about three months, just like Aunt Esther promised. I was soon back to having untrainable hair. I had a relapse and thought I might try to fit in by cutting a triangle out of the center of my bowl-cut bangs to give the illusion of having a part down the middle. (Yes, I really did that.) But when the triangle grew back in, I came to my senses and let my hair go its own way.
Incidents like this become distant memories, and I look back at them fondly because a lesson was learned. Going your own way might mean days, weeks, months of being on a lonely search for your people. Just like Lindsey sang, “you can call it another lonely day,” and he’s right, you can call it another lonely day, but don't call it a wasted day if it's time well spent getting to know yourself.
Don’t force what doesn’t fall naturally. Lean into your likes, defy the masses, be yourself. Spend time alone exploring and loving your uniqueness, so you can value the uniqueness of others.
And men, if you find yourself laying out topless with your hair in rollers at Barlow Lake—especially on a Sunday—what the hell, consider going with the moment. Try on the two-piece.
Brian Vander Ark is the lead singer of The Verve Pipe. He's been obsessed with his hair for over 50 years. To hear his version of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," subscribe to the Rockstar Reinvention Youtube Channel for the premiere of the video Wednesday, May 12.