I lost my mother-in-law in today’s wee-wee hours. The news arrived at 3am. Like a thief, death is more comfortable working nights.
It was expected. She hung on longer than anybody thought she could. But she finally had enough and willed herself away. She did not die alone.
Her last week was spent in hospice care….a bi-polar existence of numbing ghastly amounts of pain….and a trained staff’s saintly reverence for injecting as much dignity as possible into an undignified process.
All those born so too must die…..a slightly more high-brow way of echoing Jim Morrison’s “no one here gets out alive” mantra. You’d think that would allow some type of rationalization…..some time of preparedness. And maybe it does….but when the news that you’ve been expecting for days does come through, you’re gutted nonetheless. Because love doesn’t do rationalizations. Love only knows I want you here with me…with us…forever. Love is indeed timeless, and that’s the part that brings the tears.
She accepted this awkward, quiet, Dunmore Irish kid into her family’s life from day one. Hers was a family that was nowhere near awkward or quiet….and figured if a Dunmore kid traveled all the way to Jessup (gotta remember…I chose a college because I could walk there…) to see a girl, he must really love her. And so they made an extra place setting at the table….marveled at the Irish appetite (“doesn’t he eat?”…..I used to love when they’d talk about me while I was at the table….”what’s the matter with him?”), and eventually just told me I no longer needed to knock to come in. I was a member of two families now.
Over the years I remained the awkward, quiet, Dunmore Irish kid…….but I never went away. We were constants in each other’s lives. I certainly got major brownie points for helping out in the grandchild department…..having a role in presenting Alyssa and Kiera to their grandmother. Two gorgeous and fascinating girls who made her eyes twinkle and helped keep her forever young.
(So guys….if you buy the mother-in-law-as-shrew cliche jokes….you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. And when you have a child, present the baby to her and say “look what I brought you, Grandma”. All you gotta do after that is step back and be warmed by the smiles.)
The tears come easy now. Too easy. For me they’re mostly triggered by the tears of others. When my kids said goodbye for the last time….holding her hand and whispering their private messages into her ear. Her leg twitched. She knew her girls were there. Being a witness to a scene like this made my knees buckle…..and at the same time made me stronger. I can’t explain the paradox so I won’t try. But I saw some of her strength pass into my own girls….and I saw some of their strength pass into her. It was the meaning of blood…..the meaning of family. It’s why during dark nights of the soul…..blood is all you have left.
As for me…..I’d always announce myself as “your favorite son-in-law”. The fact that I was her only son-in-law didn’t faze me in the least. The last time I saw her was Saturday. She looked so peaceful. Like a doll. Clutching a stuffed animal. Pictures of her grandchildren spread across the top of the pillow. I sensed no pain. She was sleeping. All but the body had already moved on. When I left I knew it was the last time.
On my way out I stopped in the family room. I plucked a few notes out of the piano they have there. Searching for a melody that might make it easier. There wasn’t one.
The last room on the way out was a community kitchen. Sometimes patients will sit in there…in front of a TV. I saw a man reaching in vain for the coffee on the table next to him. He couldn’t get to it. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to. He could burn himself with it. But he wanted it. I stopped…..went in….and pushed the table closer to him so he could get it himself. He smiled. “Thank you” he said…..and then he gave me a thumbs-up. I returned it.
I made my way to the elevator with a big smile on my face.
Life finds a way.
Thank you Marion. For everything. I love you….and miss you.
If you want to make great music make sure you surround yourself with musicians who are better than you are….
If you want to make great music make sure you surround yourself with musicians who are better than you are.
Because you know what you don’t know. You know what you want to sound like but can’t. You may not brag about your shortcomings, but you sure as shit know what they are.
If you’re the best musician in the room…..your head is already hitting the ceiling.
When I write songs they don’t have notes in them that I can’t hit or guitar parts in them that I can’t play. On the surface that’s just common sense. But what if the song would be better if it contained a note I can’t hit or a lick I can’t play? And believe me….that’s a shit ton of notes.
That’s where the cats who are better than you come in.
So somebody adds a killer harmony vocal and another dude nails a nasty little 5 note hook at the speed of sound…..and everybody thinks….”gee….what a great song.”
‘Cause that’s how it works. We “play” music….we don’t “work” it. And playing alone sucks unless you have multiple personality disorder….and even then it can get creepy.
The best songwriters in the world surround themselves with better musicians…..because if they didn’t they wouldn’t be the best songwriters in the world.
Our area is filled with great musicians. Name-dropping can be dick-ish so I won’t go there…but a part of me really really want to because I feel honored to be in the same room with these guys. Guys (and gals) who are good enough to play anywhere with anybody. I’m leery of anybody who looks like they’re working hard when they make music. The names I ain’t dropping might be working hard….but they never sweat..
I never think about the business side of music. Admirable self-denial I know…as my mail-box isn’t exactly overflowing with royalty checks. But still….it seems rather odd to make original music for 25 years without expecting some type of return on the investment. Even home gardeners get to look out the window and watch the fucking rutabagas grow. All I get is watching the un-sold CDs pile up in the basement. The last time I checked my mentally deranged cat shit in one of the boxes….which must mean something but I shudder to think of what that might be.
I might get discouraged for a few days. A few weeks even…..when I’m playing rusted guitar strings ‘cause I can’t afford the $5.75 for new ones. But eventually the sun rises….I get myself a new set of Earthwood light gauges from a soggy $10 bill left over from a paid bar tab….and I grab a notepad and pen and write another song. Not because I think this is gonna be the one that pays for the house that the bank is nice enough to let me live in for 30 years….but because writing songs is what I do. Just like the guy who grows rutabagas.
I feel very self-conscious performing. It doesn’t come naturally. I tell myself I’m going to do A, B, and C and I get onstage and mumble something (usually my name) and do X, Y, and Z and try not to get heart palpitations. If there comes an opportunity to take a genuine chance….I won’t because that’s how self-conscious performers perform. When writing I’m totally free…nothing is off the table….there are no rules. I ignore the basics of structure and phrasing and how many words are allowed to be jammed into a line (ask anyone…the answer is “lots”). I’ll attempt to go around the world with 3 chords…..and if I feel like navigating side roads maybe I’ll stick a capo on the third fret. I’m badass that way. I can do all of this, of course, because nobody is watching me at the kitchen table. If you feel self conscious when you’re alone you probably need pharmaceuticals.
Writing is solitary. When I’m asked to co-write a song…..I get all nervous….because I’m not alone anymore. So the only way I can do it is by dividing by 2. I’ll write the words and send them off for a tune….or I’ll take a finished lyric and add a tune to it. Either way I’m up for….and love being a part of. Sitting knee to knee with a co-writer freezes me. I can go in another room and write you a verse, or come up with a simple melody…but not if you are staring at me.
Music is life. And music shared is not having to live that life alone.
And really….how cool is that?
In a bit..
Strange days. Strange Christmas.
Rushing out on Christmas Eve for some last minute guy shopping….I pass a dude in a convertible. Top down. T-shirt. Shorts. The only thing keeping him warm was his hipster beard. I can only guess what he was blaring on his stereo, because all my windows were closed and my air-conditioner was on. On my radio was news of snow in Las Vegas. Ho ho ho.
Dinner with extended family that night. Nice restaurant. Things are going reasonable well. Nobody pulled a gun. About an hour in I notice a distinct breeze. Like I’m sitting on a sea-side patio. Patrons were requesting the air be turned on…and said air was blowing directly above my head…..onto the back of my neck and snaking its way down my spine. It was the first time all day I needed a jacket. It finally felt like Christmas. Then the bill came. It really felt like Christmas now.
It’s all over now. The big comedown is upon us. All that’s between us and more than 2 months of cold, dark depression and a really lousy Super Bowl half-time show is a set of New Year’s Eve declarations that will be forgotten as soon as the bowl games are over. Turn off the lights, the party is over. Drag the tree down the steps….or better yet just release it so it slides down the steps on its own. I threw out my back for 3 days dragging the thing up….so it can fend for itself as far as I’m concerned.
What’s ahead is the vast waste-land of 2016. A frozen-tundra of uncertainty that, if political polls are any indication, could very well lead us into a self-made catastrophe brought on by an excessive amount of Jesus, guns, hypocrisy, and stupid. It will also be my daughter’s first year in college, the cost of which I am unable to fathom without hyperventilating. Ho ho ho.
Last night I sat up really late….watching my Xmas present…..the DVD portion of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” box set. A documentary about the making of the album and a complete 1980 concert. My daughter kept walking in saying…”how long is this?”…..not being familiar with Bruce’s 3+ hour, multi-encore extravaganzas. She does think that Bruce is “kinda hot for an old guy”, and asked me to get some tickets so we could go see him on this tour. To this I laughed….the same kind of laugh I emit when I consider her upcoming college tuition. From what I can tell the price tags are comparable.
Music is the soundtrack to my life. And no music reminds me of growing up more than Springsteen’s. As a teen I devoured his records….and The River….a sprawling double album (ah….the days of double albums…) of dark laments and bar-band rave-ups thrown together as if the two belonged together, which of course they do, was a milestone. It was the first record I’d heard that encompassed the drudgery of the work-week and the false hopes of the weekend. If was the kind of record that you had to dance to to keep from crying. Of course only weirdos like me think this way. Most just bought it because it contained “Hungry Heart”….a huge sounding single that became a concert singalong despite its subject matter (summed up nicely in its opening couplet) being as dark and depressing as anything ever heard on the radio. But still, there were some who listened to “Stolen Car” and “Wreck on the Highway” obsessively, and took from those 3 chord songs (simple…that was so important to those of us still fumbling for chords on the guitar..these songs were simple….so maybe there was a chance…) that maybe….if we thought real hard….we just could stop this rain.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that I probably got drunk to this record more than any other. It was the kind of record that could serve as the soundtrack to an outdoor party…..blaring from a boom-box near the bon-fire. Or could serve as a companion piece to a lonely dark night of the soul. A neat trick that.
I don’t get drunk these days. It’s too much work really. A few beers and my eyelids go into overdrive. I miss being young. I miss looking forward to nothing more than music and bon-fires and quarter kegs and dreams we didn’t know at the time that kids from NEPA mining towns weren’t allowed to have. “Is a dream a lie it it don’t come true, or is it something worse”. What difference does it make? Sucks either way.
And so enough of all that. The important thing is that everything doesn’t die…..and that’s a fact. The music lasts forever. And maybe….just maybe….that’s enough sometimes. Last night….as I sat up alone….for about 4 hours…it was indeed.
In a bit..
I can’t really blame any outsider for thinking that our nation is in the middle of a long night of the long knives….
I have friends who live in Europe. Lately they’ve been asking me only one thing. “What the fuck is wrong with you people over there? What are you gonna propose next? Easy-bake ovens?”
I don’t have much of an answer really. I stutter and mumble and write sentences and then delete them…because they sound so inane. All I can do is assure my European friends that we’re not all racist nazi assholes. And then I turn on the TV and it’s wall to wall coverage of racist nazi assholes waving American flags….so I can’t really blame any outsider for thinking that our nation is in the middle of a long night of the long knives.
I used to think that the dangerous mainstream haters existed only in the past. My generation has been oh-so smug…knowing that Hitler and Stalin and Japanese internment camps and Joe McCarthy walked the earth before we were born. When we arrived our cleansed souls dealt with the most extreme fuckwits….banishing the true haters to the fringes of the Westboro Baptist Church and the trailer parks of the Klan Klaverns, where they provide comic relief. We might have to put up with the occasional Dick Cheney or Antonin Scalia, but even that was more like a cautionary tale. If we let our guard down long enough snakes could slither under the door. Clearly nobody ever takes the comic-book hate of these two fools seriously enough to become inspired. Unless you are…..you know….mentally disabled and stuff. Even Cheney’s own daughter thinks he’s an asshole. So we’re cool. Right?
This Trump fella. It’s certainly looking like he is going to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. The more unhinged he and his rhetoric becomes, the more his poll number rise. In the beginning it was good for a laugh. Watch the goobers gather and hold anti-Obama signs filled with misspelled words and wildly inventive grammar. Watch the poor angry white people congregate to pledge to vote against their own interests because Jesus loves them best and doesn’t like the brown fella who never took anybody’s guns away but was gonna take their guns away anyway because…well….just because. Plus Hillary is a bitch.
And then I started hearing it. From people who could spell and didn’t have grammar issues and really had no reason to be angry. “Hey…that Trump…he speaks his mind doesn’t he?”
Um…well….ok. But I know lots of people who “speak their mind”. So do you. How many of them are fit to be the leader of the free world?
I mean….I like drinking with them and stuff, don’t get me wrong. They are entertaining and usually good for a few rounds at least. But the novelty wears off the first time somebody punches them in the face and you have to step in to keep them alive.
I have Republican friends. You probably do too. They are easy to spot these days. Half of them are squirming in acute embarrassment, and the other half are acting like rabid dogs who smell a fresh steak on the other side of a mine field. It’s an uneasy truce to say the least. Like Philadelphia Eagle fans dealing with Chip Kelly.
Watching the so-called “establishment” Republican candidates deal with Trump is like having a front row seat to the circus. All of them are navigating the 24-hour news cycle like infants holding in a huge shit. To their credit, some have mildly repudiated Trump’s latest nugget……banning all Muslims from entering the United States…although others, like Ted Cruz, just seem relieved that Trump didn’t suggest banning Cubans.
So yea….Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. No word on how he plans on dealing with the Muslims already in the United States. Maybe he can trick them all into attending the Rose Bowl?
For those about to rock, I salute you. And for those who thought that this sort of knuckle-dragging went out with George Wallace and Bull Connor and Richard Nixon after half a bottle of scotch…..I ask that you visit Fox News on the web and randomly read through the user comments.
Make no mistake. The world is laughing at us. Sometimes it’s a guffaw and sometimes it’s one of those uneasy laughs that comes from a combination of absurdity and fear because the absurdity part seems lost on a lot of us. But the result is the same. A man who could very well become the next President of the United States just co-oped an idea from Adolf Hitler.
And in doing so got a bounce in the polls.
Our generation can no longer afford to be smug.
In a bit..
I’ve been thinking a lot about music. Why I listen to what I listen to and write what I write and hate what I hate and don’t trust what I don’t trust.
And to quote my guru….”remembering distant memories and recalling other names…”
That first Beatles record. Records plural, actually. It was the Red and the Blue double albums. I was about 10 and must have been a very good boy because Santa left ’em both under the tree. That year I had a bad flu and Christmas morning found me lying on the couch, delirious with fever….alternating between chattering teeth and sweat-soaked blankets. You know the drill. Somehow I rose from the dead and put “Paperback Writer” on the living room stereo, and my fever broke.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Music could raise the dead. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
There was something about those Brits though. Beatles. Stones. Kinks. Who. Faces. Glorious noise and great accents. If you didn’t have a cockney accent rock magazines banished you to 1 star oblivion. Like every other shot-and-a-beer teen I had my Rolling Stones phase (learned that 5 string open G tuning Keith used and felt like the cock of the walk) and my Led Zeppelin phase. By that time I’d heard the tale of blues-men selling their soul to the devil….and one look at Jimmy Page in “The Song Remains the Same” convinced me that he was probably the guy with the clip-board. Whip-thin, eyes heavily lidded…dressed like a Star-Trek villain…he looked preposterous. But you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was such a force that nobody ever held him accountable for “Dazed and Confused”…..which is extraordinary when you think about it but…well….whatever. Robert Plant was the original Derek Smalls passing through the airport scanner with a vegetable down his pants…and nobody ever held him accountable for that either because there was no such thing as airport security in them days. Such were the strange days of the 1970s.
Strange Days indeed. I read that hilarious Jim Morrison book when I was in 8th grade and swallowed every word of it, even the part about him being part god, part misunderstood Rimbaud. I tried in vain to find one of those long, loose white shirts with the shoelace threaded through the neck…..although I drew the line at the leather pants…not willing to take punches in the face for my new flame. It wasn’t until I actually bought the album “American Prayer”, in which a drunken Lizard King recites what sounds like random pages from the dictionary that my love for the Doors passed from Morrison to how fucking good and unique his band was. Manzarek and Kreiger are the only reason I can still listen to the Doors now. Morrison reminds me too much of how fat Val Kilmer got. It’s depressing.
I spent the summer of my 16th year devouring the Who and Pete Townshend…a love affair that has hit some black ice (“It’s Hard” anyone?) but has never died. “Quadrophenia” was my first Who record….and still remains an endless source of fascination all these years later, mostly because it reminds me of what it felt like to be a teenager, a topic which remains an endless source of fascination for a man rubbing up against the inner thigh of 50. Townshend was the first person who made me want to play the guitar….or at the very least stand in front of a mirror and pretend to play the guitar. Until such funding could be caged, however, a tennis racket would have to do. I never truly learned how to play “The Real Me” until a few years ago, but you’d never know it if you saw what I saw in that mirror all those years ago. Rock and roll never forgets, and neither do I.
One of the all time great rock songs is barely 2 minutes long and is about not knowing to say. “Can’t Explain” is sorta what all songwriters are up again. We have no idea why we feel this way…..but are forever attempt to articulate it anyway. If we can’t find the words we reach for the melody. And if that doesn’t quite do it we can always turn it up to 11 and hope for the best. When I was in college I heard this band called REM, and they took articulation to places it had never been before. I can still listen to “Sitting Still” and “Carnival of Sorts” and dance to their stuttering melodies and sing along to words that nobody really knows because they are utterly intelligible. But it didn’t matter. “Murmur” and “Reckoning” and “Chronic Town” changed lives. I know this because they changed mine. REM were as good a rock and roll band as our nation ever produced….and I shudder to think what synthesizers and the huge drum sound of the 80s would have done to my brain-stem without their musical antidote.
And then Cobain blew up the world with those 4 chords and all the pretenders grabbed their hair-spray and ran screaming from the room. Pretty heady stuff for a mixed up kid from a dead town who never believed a word of what all these strange people were saying about him.
He was listening to REM when he died. Trying to decipher rock and roll.
In a bit..
In a world gone mad we’re all keen to find a temporary oasis….and if you can bring your guitar with you so much the better….
I’ve reached that age. It’s not a number, more like a feeling. It’s called “old”….and it creeps up on you. Things hurt you didn’t even know you had. The nights are shorter and the days are longer and the couch beckons the way a long-legged cheerleader sitting alone at the back of the bus used to. Most things you used to do you can’t do anymore. Those you can do….take a lot longer….and if they take too long you wonder why they were so fucking important in the first place. I’m way smarter than I used to be, but I don’t have the energy to mobilize my brain-power. In other words, I’m asleep by the time the 3rd quarter of Monday Night Football starts and need 2 days to recover if I stay out past midnight….which I rarely do of course, because I’m old.
But I sometimes do…and it’s because I still play music. Music is the only thing that makes an old person feel not so old. If it’s 1am and I’m singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in a smokey bar filled with empty chairs and a handful of people who know the words and aren’t shy about sharing…..I get a second wind that even drugs can’t touch, and I should know because….well….never mind. That was a long time ago….when I was young and stupid and happier than I am now but I was happier probably because I was stupid. Yea, that must have been it.
I spent the last few hours playing music with another old guy….whose identity I’ll protect because he probably doesn’t want you to know that he’s even older than me. We sat knee to knee and sang songs and tossed ideas back and forth and said “yea, that works”, or “no…that don’t move me” and tried to make things right with the world for 3 minutes at a time. We spoke of Levon Helm and eating pizza with Van Morrison and having Dylan peer over your shoulder and why it’s perfectly normal that the same guy who wrote “Jungleland” also wrote “Crush On You” and was proud of both……and we spoke of making movies and rum commercials and writing plays and having daughters and being blown away when others are as passionate about their craft as we are about ours…..which in turn means we give our shit away for free when we should probably ask for at least beer money….but no matter. It’s only rock and roll and we like it even though we’re broke as shit.
And then it was time to go home and feel old again because nothing this good lasts forever.
On my way home I had the music blaring so loud that I lost track of the fact that I was merging into a single lane construction zone….blowing past a yield sign and nearly getting flattened by a meth-fueled 18 wheeler in the process…piloted by a driver who clearly did not understand or much care that my muse was working overtime…and that singing along with Richard Manuel to “King Harvest” was way more important to me at the time than not being killed. At least that’s how I took the long, hideous blast of his wretched horn. Perhaps he meant something else by it, but I doubt it.
Probably an old bastard in the cab. Can’t you just spot them a mile away? I sang these lines tonight. “I don’t wanna grow old / rather run out of time…” and now I know why I wrote them in the first place.
And so it goes. The things that make me feel old work on me like a masseuse, so maybe the music gods try to even the odds a bit by granting me a few hours with a kindred spirit.
In a world gone mad we’re all keen to find a temporary oasis….and if you can bring your guitar with you so much the better. When the world comes crashing down I’d much rather be found playing a loud A chord than worrying about the ecumenical details….because any angels worth believing in would never turn their backs on a dude banging out an A chord. This I know to be true because I’ve been praying to Pete Townshend since I was 16 and the fucker always answers me.
I’ll keep chasing these shadows across the borderline, because it makes me feel less old. And that beats shit out of being old.
Thus endeth the lesson.
In a bit..
I don’t know what to say but feel the urge to say something….anything….so I can at least look back on today and have a record of what was going through my head.
We’re no longer shocked I don’t think. The world we live in no longer has that power over us. Instead we kinda live in a perpetual holding pattern, hoping that what we all know is going to happen, at the very least, doesn’t happen today.
Today it happened. I watched the body count grow higher every hour. As I type these words the reported number of dead in Paris is “more than 150”. Are we to say….”well….at least it wasn’t 3000?” Is that how we measure victories in times such as these?
So what can we offer? Prayers? Please. If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s fucking prayers. The assorted invisible men in the sky we’re praying too are the same ones in whose name warped fanatics kill. If prayers are all we can offer….this war is lost. If organized religion isn’t the root of all evil, it sure as shit is the root of most of it. Virgins armed with automatic rifles are bad enough. When they think they’re gonna be ravished by multiple virgins after they blow themselves up, well….that’s a special kind of anti-social. The next person who offers “thoughts and prayers” to Paris should never be invited to another dinner-party. Ever. It’s pissing on a forest fire and calling yourself a fireman.
I had a gig tonight. I didn’t want to go. That last thing in the world I felt like doing was playing music. I wanted to stay home and huddle with my family. I wanted to hold them and watch them sleep. I wanted to barricade myself and not venture out into the wild blue yonder.
But the show must go on and all that. When you have a gig booked, you play. I was fortunate that the gig was a duo show with Joe “Wiggy” Wegleski…a musical soul brother who happens to be one of my closest friends. We talked a little bit about what was happening as we set up. We were both shocked. Saddened. Pissed off. Confused. But what can 2 poor boys do? So we played our asses off for 3 hours. It was a decent crowd. Good folk. Nobody fucking shot anybody over the ecumenical details. A few even danced in front of us. They drank beer and sang along and yelled out requests and when it was over said “you guys were great”….and we said thank you and meant it. I drove home listening to music in the car…loudly….and as soon as I got into the house I checked on my wife and kids. Safe and sound. Sleeping. I poured myself a beer and nursed it. I checked the clock. Late. But I can’t sleep. Not now. After a gig you need to wind down. Your ass may be dragging in the hours leading up to it, but when it’s over the second wind has doubled. It’ll be a while. That’s why I’m doing this now.
I feel older than I used to. That sounds funny and all that, but I didn’t used to feel old at all. I look at myself in the mirror and sometimes I hardly recognize the gaze. My eyes seem hazy. Confused. Like they’d rather not be subjected to what they’re forced to see.
The shouters are out in full force now. They’ve got all the answers. The lower your IQ the easier things are to fix. Who says being a fucking moron is detrimental? I’ve been cursed with what I take to be somewhat average intelligence….along with the ability to feel the pain of others. Empathy is the word. The lack of it is, for some, is the best definition of evil ever devised.
I presume this is the work of ISIS. Fuck ISIS. Fuck any religious zealot. If you want to fuck a virgin, buy her roses and tell her you love her and make sure she believes you. Then hold her hand and promise to love and honor and protect her….and love and honor and protect her. Trust me son. You’ll be in and it’ll be magical. There ain’t no short cuts. Patience is always rewarded.
I want to sleep and wake up tomorrow and find out that these “more than 150” people are still alive.
In other words…I want to dream.
In a bit..