There are days. Damn. There are DAYS.
There are days worth remembering. The kind of days you’ll conjure up with a grandkid on the knee. You’ll say…..”I’ll never forget the day…let me tell you all about it…”
And the kid will look at you, and probably wonder what the big deal was. “Two people who love each other getting married. You mean….that wasn’t allowed? Wow….how old ARE you anyway Grandpa?”
Strange days mister. Strange days.
The last time I felt this way was when a black man was made President of the United States, less than a life-span from the time when he wasn’t allowed to order a cup of coffee at certain lunch counters or piss in certain urinals.
I sat there watching that inauguration in 2008, and I cried. I watched it alone. One of the reasons it was so monumental was because, to my kids, it wasn’t monumental at all.
Progress. We move. Sometimes at the pace of a glacier. But we move. Sometimes the right stuff is buried in a piece of rock…and it takes the patience and skill of a sculptor to hammer it out into something recognizable. Something that contains all the colors of the rainbow.
My kids don’t understand baby-boomer bigotry either. Or the kind cloaked in Bible-speak that has been around ever longer. They’ve known gays their whole life. They are friends with them. They are related to them. They don’t give a fiddler’s fart, and it’s the type of not giving a fiddler’s fart that we can all learn from. It’s glorious apathy. And, I might add, democratic as hell. Kids don’t hate by instinct. Only grown-ups do that.
But kids know this is special. They KNOW. This one touches them. This is the parting of the red-sea. They’re not about to CONGRATULATE anyone, least of all 5 near-octogenarians dressed in robes, for doing what should not have been necessary in the first place. Making love legal. But they can exhale and say…”well…at least the grown-ups FIXED something for a change.”
And yea, America is used to leading, or at least used to bragging about leading. In this case we dragged ass. The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Britain, Luxembourg, Finland, Ireland, all of them beat us like a gong here….but…well….once we were blind and now we see.
Or at least some of us do. The rest are like that asshole who insists on wearing sunglasses indoors.
It’s absurd, on the face of it. And underneath the face too. That it HAD to come to this. But we’re a broken nation, living on fault lines manufactured by past haters and kept in working order by present ones. Hate drives us apart for sure, but it also brings us together, which is one of the reasons it’s so easy to fall into its ditch. So you’re some social misfit sitting in your basement on the weekends with your joy-stick in your hands? You know what….that’s probably somebody’s FAULT. And the only thing easier than finding somebody to hate is finding somebody to hate with.
Those who hate the most always seem to be the most “god fearing”. In the US nobody hates with more white-hot intensity than a lower to middle class white Christian egged on by a way upper-class white Christian. I don’t know why this is so. I stopped believing in an invisible man in the sky when I realized the Easter Bunny was a hoax, so those who think the lesbians across the street signify the end of America are a source of endless wonder to me…sort of like talking to a 50 year old who is afraid of short changing the tooth fairy. I do know that nothing divides us more than religion….and that all of the major ones seem equally intolerant, especially of each other. Talk about a crap shoot. There’s too much pressure choosing your god these days. You think people fucking hate you for loving the Dallas Cowboys? Try drawing a picture of Muhammad on the wall. Then wear a turtleneck.
And really, can you imagine Jesus coming back today? A socialist dark-skinned Jew who trashes capitalism and befriends the poor, lepers, the IRS, and whores? Poor wretch would be tasered in about 15 seconds. If he showed up in Texas he wouldn’t last that long.
(I wonder how long it would take Hannity or O’Reily to cut off his mic?)
But I digress. Because digression is fun sometimes.
Until this sort of mindless ideological jabbering goes the way of the statue of Baal and Tim Tebow….days like today will continue to be necessary.
But still, what a day.
Hug who you want. Kiss who you want. Love who you want. Drink yourself stinky tonight. And sleep in tomorrow.
But then come back. Because there’s so much left to do. Hate is nothing if not resilient.
Reptiles like Antonin Scalia (today his legacy as the Roger B. Taney of our time was, with his hilariously unhinged dissent, cemented in stone) are still out there….but they are a necessary evil, for they give a face to the abyss they represent.
And he is one ugly motherfucker.
In a bit..
You’ve heard this one before,
“Only in America”.
What followed used to be a list of superlatives.
The greatness is still there, but it’s getting shouted down by an invasion of stupidness.
It’s fun to be stupid. Stupid people really aren’t held responsible for anything, because they have the perfect excuse. If you attempt to explain rationality to a person who has none….you’ll truly understand the clinical definition of insanity (“Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”)
So a stupid white kid walks into a black church, announces that he’s there to kill them because they are black, and then does so. He leaves one alive on purpose….so that person can tell the tale, lest there be no misunderstanding of the killers intentions (The other survivor survived by pretending to be dead).
In a matter of hours the kid is caught. His picture is splashed across front pages. With a Moe-from-the-3-stooges haircut and eyes that look like discarded Christmas lights, what we have is a poster boy for dumbness. We already know his story before reading the first sentence. Such an interesting nation this is. Always it’s the insignificant little shits who make the biggest news. News leaks out. Friends speak. No surprises. A run of the mill racist who told “nigger jokes” and, in a theatrical touch, posed for his Facebook pic wearing racist patches celebrating racist South African regimes. Black males made him nervous, especially when girls he liked seemed to like them more. So he killed for the same reason the goons killed Emmett Till 60 years ago. See how far we’ve come?
A hate crime for sure was this……except in the eyes of the people who hate the most, and thus should know better. The chain-gang for Jesus. The chaing-gang for Jesus sees this as an attack against Christianity….because the dead black people happened to be Christians. So they were not killed for being black. There were killed for loving Jesus. You know….the same thing the boogie-man-du-jour ISIS are doing to our blue-eyed sons….
All about as subtle as a hammer hitting a nail. But give them an A for staying on message.
And this stupid kid is sitting around listening to this and saying…..”NO you dumb shits……I killed them because they were BLACK!!!. I ANNOUNCED IT! Are you jackasses DEAF or what!?”
Thus, dumb and dumber. For real. The unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
Because to admit that this kid killed simply because he hated black people might cause a chain reaction. It might cause people to wonder….”gee….I wonder why he hated black people?”……and thus……maybe, just maybe….bring them ’round in a great big ‘ol circle to the relentless barrage of hate spewed by people who….wait for it…..love Jesus the most-est in the whole wide world.
But….no, that ain’t gonna happen.
Imagine for just one second….if a dumb muslim walked into a Texas church and killed 9 white people.
The fucking military would be at defcon 3.
But 9 blacks in South Carolina? Probably just some atheist cracker who wasn’t taking his Prozac.
Nothing to see here. Move along. Go back to the Jenner’s.
And by the way, play no attention to that Confederate flag hanging from the State Capital. It’s not flying at half-staff because that would alert people that it was, you know….a fucking CONFEDERATE flag. In case you are wondering, the US flag also flies in South Carolina. That flag IS at half-staff. Isn’t that interesting?
Pause for a moment. The Confederate flag salutes a treasonous attempt to destroy the United States of America. To those who argue that the Civil war was fought for “states rights”, I agree. But the right your state was fighting for was the right for one human being to own another. So…..well….I for one am fucking glad you lost.
Make no mistake. You did lose. You can put up as many Stonewall Jackson or Robert E Lee statues as you want. You can even name the street the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sits on after a virulent racist, but that doesn’t change the outcome. You fought for something ghastly and disgusting. That fact that so many of your sons were brave and even honorable in defense of that cause doesn’t make it fucking noble.
And I haven’t even mentioned guns. You know, that thing these dumb people use to kill people they don’t like because they have darker skin.
“From my cold dead hands” and all of that gibberish. Nine cold dead hands in this case. Less than half the butcher’s bill of Newtown, and no little kids this time, so maybe that’s American progress? The NRA already blamed the dead black guy for his own death because the guy voted against a law that would allow guns in Church. You really can’t make this stuff up. You can try, but that would make you stupid too.
The world is justly laughing at us, and what do we do?
Well…we just whistle Dixie.
In a bit…
When we think of Alzheimer’s Disease, the focus is seemingly always on memory. The forgetting.
But there’s more.
As I watched the disease slowly take over my father, what seemed most insidious of all was the fear.
This was my father, after all. To most kids, fathers are fearless. We learn later that us kids scare the bejeesus out of our Dads (and Moms) pretty much daily, but they never show it. I never saw my father scared. I never saw my father cry.
Until Alzheimer’s got him.
He didn’t want to be alone. If you were in a room with him and walked out, even for a moment, he’d wordlessly follow you. When he wanted to go to bed, he’d insist my mother go with him. As the disease progressed “bedtime” could by 10pm…or it could be 10am. “Will you take me up”, he’d say. If she left him and came back down, he’d stand at the top of the steps and call her name. On and on it went. Only complete exhaustion would end the cycle. His. Not hers. That was not allowed.
At the very end the eyes die….you can gaze into them and see nothing. Like the eyes of a doll. But what I remember most is the light in his eyes. The way they’d dart back and forth, taking in the moment, which was all he had left. Every noise, even seemingly slight ones, would make him jump. Every movement he followed, like the hunted in the wild. Curious. Eager. Not at all disinterested or disengaged. Childlike. If you could look past the horror, at times it was even charming.
Always a sweet man, he became even sweeter. More docile. The way he interacted with his grandkids. The way he interacted with my beloved dog Abbey, who would run through the front door when we visited and immediately leap into his lap…..lick his face….to whoops of delight. (One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life came the first time Abbey visited the house after my Dad had passed. She ran to his chair….he wasn’t there. She ran through the entire house, upstairs and downstairs, looking for him. She did this for weeks afterwards….always looking at me quizzically..)
But then the fear would come over him, like a muscle spasm. Something that was just in his head would drop out…with no warning. He’d be in the middle of a room and not realize where he was….or on his way to a place he no longer knew existed. He’d see a face one minute and know it, and then it was gone. And he was left with a roomful of strangers. Like expecting 10 steps when there are 11. Over and over again. That moment when you lean too far back in your chair….past the point of catching yourself. Over and over again.
Always being in the moment, he’d notice that his fear brought out ours. Which of course just made things spiral ever-downward.
In the beginning, he knew what was happening to him. He heard the words. “Alzheimer’s Disease”. The fear must have been overwhelming. You are literally told you are, to paraphrase the first documented Alzheimer’s patient, “losing yourself”.
That patient is known as Auguste D. She died in 1906 at the age of 56. She repeatedly would say, “I have lost myself”…as she scribbled non-answers to questions (when asked to write the number “5”, she wrote “a woman”…when asked “Where are you right now?“ she answered “Here and everywhere, here and now….”) from her physician, a Dr. Alois Alzheimer.
Dr. Alzheimer wrote, “She seemed to be consciously aware of her helplessness.”
In other words…..fear. Unrelenting.
At the end, it dissipates. My father was transformed. From terror to rage. A vast difference. The man he was…was not the man he became in his last few weeks.
He fumed. He lashed out physically and verbally. It sounds bizarre, but in a way I think he finally remembered the forgetting. His furies came out, and he was fighting against the plaques and tangles that had taken over. He was sick and tired of being afraid and he wasn’t gonna take it anymore.
It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.
So when I think back on his disease, what I remember (irony of ironies….) is not what he could no longer remember….but the fear in his eyes when face to face with, in that ghastly phrase, “losing himself.”
I wanted to get this out today. I don’t know why. I’m missing him. That’s probably enough. But maybe I’m starting, for the first time, to feel my age.
But really, ultimately, I’m asking that you help….and give what you can. Because we need to beat this bastard.
Alzheimer’s took him. It’s been 5 years now. My father deserved better. He worked hard his whole life. He was unflinchingly honest and decent. Never shirked. Earned everything. He had plans when retirement came. Travel. A book. Spoiling his grandchildren, who adored him. It was all gonna be done on his schedule. Finally. Not somebody else’s.
It’s insidious….this Alzheimer’s. There’s no warning. All we know is that the longer we live, the more likely it’s gonna come. It’s like waiting for the storm…and when it comes, watching the water rise. Slowly. Inexorably. It’s a ghastly thing, a bit like being punished for the crimes of a stranger.
Oh sure….we fight it. There are pills. Aricept…Namenda….but they don’t do much…maybe slow down the progression, that is if the side effects aren’t intolerable, which they often are. Ultimately, what we call treatment is no more than bailing the flood-water with a bucket. A band-aid on a severed limb.
There is no cause for Alzheimer’s. And, currently, there is no cure. It is always fatal.
In the beginning, he knew something was happening. The words which always came easy didn’t come easy anymore. The faces that drew names to his lips didn’t draw names anymore. There was a series of fender-benders. Left turns from the right lane. One way streets and mixing up green and red and yellow. He could no longer tie his tie. Things that could be explained if you tried hard enough and we tried like hell. He was always active….always moving. His mind could never be idle. “The devil’s workshop” he called it. As kids we’d vegetate in front of the TV for hours….and he’d shake his head. It said “where did you people come from?” Now, he’d spend hours in his chair. “Seinfeld” re-runs mostly. He’d laugh and laugh….the same episodes. Like it was the first time. The typewriter on the dining room table sat by itself. Eventually it was moved into storage. Not hearing those keys took some getting used to. Imagine living on the beach and not hearing the waves. Still, he was still there. He smiled. He laughed. We visited. Sure he was slower. But that’s just getting older.
We knew. We had to know. But we didn’t talk about it. Because…well…we just didn’t. Maybe alone at night in our cups, whispers….
It was the middle of the day. I was sitting at work when the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but I knew the voice. It was him. He sounded….confused. Foggy. He was calling from a cell phone. I found out later that he had just gotten a hair-cut at the same barber shop he’d been going to for years. My mom had dropped him off and was running a few errands. He wasn’t sure who he just called. He was just saying, “hello? Hello?”…..as if I had called him.
I asked him where he was. He wasn’t sure. I heard cars driving by. He was outside. I was scared all of a sudden. Fear rising like something in the throat. I could hear it in his voice. He was too. I called the house phone using my own cell. I got voice mail. I was trying to contact my mother. I was asking him where she was. He was saying he didn’t know. Then…as I was reaching for my coat to get him….from where?…..she pulled up. I could hear the relief in his voice. “Your Mother is here. Do you want to talk to her?”
My hands were shaking.
I knew before this….but this is what it took. This was sitting in a crowded, noisy bar….and the background noise of the juke-box being turned off…and the band kicking things off with an AC/DC song. Thunderstruck.
This was a man who traversed the streets of Manhattan and Paris like he could have been giving guided tours. This was a man who never lost his cool, whether he was in the midst of the chaotic Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, or sitting across the glass from cold-blooded murderers, trying to make sense of their crimes.
And now, he was mere miles from his home….lost. And even worse, scared.
I’m sure a part of him knew what was coming, for a time at least. Eventually this disease robs you of even knowing you have it. If it gives you anything, maybe this is what you would not spit back.
It teases the rest of us….because there were subsequent days when what happened that day would not have happened. Lucid days that flickered hope. …and we thought….it’s just age. It happens. It’s….normal.
But, again, and maybe only in our cups….we knew. No. Enough bullshit and false hope and pills and prayers and pretending that him not being able to sign his own name was because his eyes were bad.
And so a few years later I got another call. This time from my Mother. She was crying. Terrified. She needed me there.
He didn’t know her anymore. He wanted her….whoever she was, to take him home. He wasn’t sure where he was, but it sure wasn’t home.
When I got there, he knew me. But the only woman he ever loved…his constant companion for 60+ years, was a stranger. The pain in her face seemed the visual equivalent of a death sentence. He wanted to see her, but he didn’t know who she was. “Take me home” he kept saying. So I said….”ok, I’ll take you home now.”
It had taken us years to get to this point. Years of quiet, unseen heroics from my Mother, who watched over him like a bear. Years of him hitting literally hitting himself in the head, saying “what’s wrong with me!” But never in front of us kids. He protected us to the end. Years of whispers from friends and former friends alike….some understanding, but most not.
We went to the hospital that night. He never spent another night in his own home. He fought like hell, and it was almost impossible to watch. When he decided that what he was fighting for wasn’t as important as what he was fighting against, it took a few peaceful days. He was gone.
So when I think of this horrible disease, I think mostly of those 2 days. The day he first got scared, and the day he felt so sure of himself that he said to me, “take me home”….despite the protestations that home was exactly where he was.
Alzheimer’s disease will be cured someday. Polio. Smallpox. Diphtheria. Malaria. Typhoid fever. All deadly. All met head-on by the best and the brightest. And bested.
I want to be here when Alzheimer’s is tossed onto that same scrap-heap. I want to be able to visit his grave and say, “you were right about idle minds. How about what we’re capable of when we keep moving?”
If you could help….in any way….I’d be so grateful.
In a bit…
It’s like holding your breath. Sooner or later you have to let it go.
The high tension wire that was the city of Baltimore appears to have snapped. There’s been rioting and looting and injuries. All playing out in front of the cameras. The world watches. All pass judgement. None more so than those who do not call Baltimore home. And those who are white.
(of course, when young white people riot, we call it “disruptive behavior”….and it’s usually over hugely important things like their favorite hockey team losing….but never mind that for now…)
If allowed to fester long enough, fear can turn into anger. And a peaceful crowd can be turned into a lawless mob if leaders emerge….as they most always do.
Leaders can do good and bad things, of course. All leaders ain’t oratorical geniuses. Sometimes it’s just the guy willing to throw the first bottle that gets to be the head of the snake.
So, once again, what was a story about possible police malfeasance is about to become un-done, hijacked by photographs of 16 year old kids in $150 sneakers laughing while they throw stones, stopping only long enough to allow looters balancing cases of Pampers on their heads to cross back into their lines. All of this brought on by a small minority of people who didn’t care about Freddy Gray when he was alive and don’t give a shit about him now that he’s dead.
If you look like you’re having fun during a riot, you probably are. And this makes it difficult for outsiders to believe your heart is in it. If you get my drift.
The legitimate problems that led to the protests in Baltimore….namely….issues of race (and class…always class) that plague just about every decent sized city in the country….are lost in the smoldering flames of burning CVS stores and on-the-scene reporters trying to file their stories before being overwhelmed with tear gas…thereby becoming the story. The news is not always what’s on the news.
And besides….this is sorta what the cameras are hoping for. You ever see a peaceful protest on CNN, running uncut for 4 hours in prime time? Me neither. But high school sophomores throwing bricks and jumping up and down on the hood of a cop car? Can you say “sweeps-week-come-early?” (Remember, this is a network saved from bankruptcy by the first Gulf War. Lucky them…)
If your contention is that cops are oppressive, and that you can remedy this by throwing rocks at their heads, you probably need a plan B. If in your old age you want to sit with a grand-child on your knee and tell him or her what you did to further the cause of civil rights in your own neighborhood, here’s hoping you can brag about more than stealing a pair of sneakers from Thom McCan. In the same vein, if you are a Baltimore cop, I hope you’re not the one CNN caught on camera throwing a rock at protesters. Not exactly Serpico-esque.
Mobs don’t do heroes very well.
The anger is undoubtedly real. When white cops are stopping black males for broken tail-lights and, minutes later, shooting them in the back, multiple times, in full view of camera phones and their own dash-board cameras, something is fucked up. When a cop kills a black man and uses the excuse that he shot him by accident…confusing a service revolver with a taser…something is fucked up. And when a black male is arrested for unknown reasons, and is tossed into the back seat of the car healthy…….and comes out 30 minutes later, mortally wounded…..something is fucked up.
But then again, something has always been fucked up. This isn’t a new thing. The fact that these incidents between black males and the police seem more prevalent these days of course doesn’t mean they are. In the age of smart phones and facebook and twitter, just about everything seems more prevalent. If you look closer, however, you’ll find that the only thing increasing is public awareness. The numbers have been a flat line for a long time.
Sooner or later….these things come out. Like life itself, they find a way.
(Or one can….you know….just look at the make-up of our nation’s prison population….if that’s your thing..)
We are loathe to admit it….but when history teaches us that violence doesn’t solve anything, history is a lying bitch. That doesn’t make it any less repugnant while it’s happening….but it is so.
Only the most deranged Fox-watcher can still pretend that justice is color-blind in this country. Something needs to be done. I have no idea what that something needs to be. There are layers upon layers that need to be peeled back and deciphered. Anything but business-as-usual is progress. To stand still is to sink.
A state of emergency has been declared. The National Guard has been called up. Smoke lingers. Sirens wail. We’ve seen this all before.
But surely we’re better than this. We’re better than back-seat beatings and riot shields and pilfered diapers and thug-mugging for the cameras. On the day that Freddie Gray was laid to rest, his memory was besmirched, largely by the very people who claim him as their own very own. But the true tragedy is that he appears to have died in vain.
Nothing is gained in all this. Absolutely nothing. To stand still is to sink? Today we are rooted in place.
I’m not sure how Freddie Gray feels about this, but I’ve a feeling his first few hours in his new locale have been every bit as painful as his last few hours in the old one.
In a bit..
I caught parts of the Bruce Jenner interview on TV last night and I sat there thinking, “we’ve come a long way, baby”.
Granted, a nation that takes a Ted Cruz or a Scott Walker seriously is not exactly a bastion of civil rights, but last night a transgender was given 2 hours in prime time. During that time Jenner was treated with dignity and respect and allowed to tell his story. He was surrounded by his loving family. Interviewer Diane Sawer did not editorialize. There was no post-interview roundtable of talking heads thrown together to sop the bible belt. When it was over Facebook and Twitter lit up with praise. The normal haters did the normal hating, but it seemed so rote….so connect-the-dot like…..lines pulled out of some goober playbook. Irrelevant.
In short, when all was said and done, America said……”good on you Bruce. Be happy.” And then went to bed. My Mom watched, and she told me…..”I just wish he was prettier…” and that was that. The perfect response. My Mom is as cool as it gets.
(People seemed more surprised that he came out as a conservative Republican than they were hearing that he wanted to be a woman. The sound I heard, which I initially thought was thunder, was John Boehner’s head exploding when Jenner said he would gladly discuss his plight with the speaker of the house…..and expect forward movement on LGBT rights. Good luck there Brucie.)
In my lifetime, this nation has gone from Jim Crow, to an African American in the White House. From gays hiding themselves away behind locked doors, to gays proudly marching down the Avenue of the Americas. Even the hint of a gay character on TV was greeted by the bible police as a sign of the apocalypse. Now, we simply don’t give a shit.
In many cases, not giving a shit is a glorious sign of acceptance.
I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be born a man and want to be a woman. But that’s the trough we need to navigate. I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a black man in the inner city being flagged down by a cop car either. We can never know such things until we can walk in the shoes of others. And all to often, those shoes simply don’t fit.
So what then?
Well….we can listen.
How hard can that be? Well…..pretty damn hard if we fail to filter out all the noise first.
Judge not lest ye be judged. It’s astounding to me how many God-fearing folk forget this little nugget.
What Jenner did was incredibly brave. Any time you raise your head above the parapet you invite rocks to the head.
We should all be allowed to live our lives the way we want to live them…..to love who we want to love….without fear of repression. As long as in doing so we do no harm.
And really, why should I give a shit that Bruce Jenner wants to be a woman?
How is it in any way my business? Live and let live. Another nugget.
But is he a “hero”? We use that word a lot.
That depends on how high your bar is. If winning a gold medal is heroic, then surely so is this.
I don’t think running faster than somebody else makes you heroic, and I don’t think deciding to live your life the way you want to live it is heroic either. Men and women run fast every day. They push through their own lives with dignity every day. Nobody calls them heroes.
Fred Shuttlesworth was a hero. Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi. Kids who fight cancer are heroes.
Bruce Jenner is simply a good man. A good father. By all accounts a good friend. He should be thought of as nothing more. And nothing less. I’m sure he’d agree.
Our nation has come so far…..and yet we still have incredible distances to travel. Sometimes I wish we would run as fast as Jenner did in 1976 in Montreal….but maybe just knowing that we keep putting one foot in front of the other is enough.
Good on you, Bruce. Thank you.
In a bit..
Back in the old days you needed money to buy records. “Stealing music” meant literally visiting a record store, shoving a record up your shirt, and doing a runner. As an irish catholic born with guilt, this was impossible.
I was a desperately broke teen, which meant I had to rely on the record collections of others.
Lucky for me I had (and still have) way cool sisters.
Whenever they weren’t around (of course I wasn’t allowed to even breathe on their records, must less touch them) I’d pour over their ever growing collection, which I seem to recall was combined in once stack. They leaned them all against the far wall in the bedroom they shared.
I’d devour Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”, and The Who’s “Who’s Next” and play air guitar to Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”. I was crushed when I heard Neil Young’s live “Cinnamon Girl” at a party and took note of the name “rust” in the record’s title….only to find it was “Live Rust”, not “Rust Never Sleeps”. The latter is the one my sister’s had. A rare lapse that was soon corrected.
One Friday night I slinked in (they, being popular, were out for the evening. Me, being not, was not)….and saw this bearded face staring back at me. Some dude with a hand over his mouth, as if he was about to suppress a giggle that hadn’t formed yet. I looked closer. Bruce Springsteen. I knew the name. But at the time….I’d never heard a note.
I put it on.
It made me dizzy. “New York City Serenade” and “Rosalita” were written by the same dude? This seemed impossible. Stuff about the circus and the boardwalk and pimps and Puerto Ricans and 57th Street and E street and some crazy fortune teller who pissed off cops and got arrested. Horns and accordions and a a guitar jam about some girl just back in town getting everybody worked up, alongside a piano played so quiet that I could hear the pedals being stepped on. The guy was from New Jersey and was 23 years old and looked like one of the guys on a road work crew who draws the short straw and is forced to hold the Go Slow sign. I heard one of his songs on the radio by Manfred Mann….the one with the line about being “wrapped up like a douche.” Something like that anyway. There were no lyric sheets in the early days.
What a night this was. There was another record behind it. And one behind that. One had a cover that still makes me laugh. Bruce with the worst case of bed-head I’d ever seen, standing in front of wallpaper that would have made a whorehouse madam blush. That was “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. The first time I heard “Racing in the Street” was when the connection started (Old time boss freaks know what I’m talking about. There’s that “moment” always, as corny as it sounds). I understood the cover. Nobody who wrote songs like this could possibly get a good night’s sleep. I played that song so much I wore the grooves out and it started to skip. I had to tape a penny to the arm of the needle to force it to stay in the wax.
“Born to Run”, of course. A friend of mine used to talk about (and, unfortunately, sing) this song called “Jungleland”. It was like 10 minutes long. If you went over 3 minutes you needed a note from a doctor back on those days (live drum solos got a pass, as did bad bands from Canada that are now in the rock and roll hall of fame. Not naming names…). There was another song that featured a trumpet. I tried to imagine a trumpet on Led Zeppelin II. That’s how my mind worked in them days. John Bonham might have killed a trumpet player just on principle.
I discovered “The River” at the same time I discovered the healing powers of beer. That record remains to me the greatest beer drinking record of all time. “Two Hearts” and “Out in the Street” and “Ties That Bind” and “Crush on You” and “You Can Look” and “Cadillac Ranch”……we’d be sitting down by the creekside with these songs pouring out of the truck tape-deck, creating dead solders by the score. By the time it got to side 4 (otherwise known as the “sad side”), we’d be drunk as monkey’s and spilling secrets. Guys aren’t supposed to hug but if they drank steadily through The River on a summer night by the end of “Wreck on the Highway” they’d be collapsing in each others arms. Try it. If you’ve got the guts.
But that side 4? Hmmm. Something was going on.
“Stolen Car” might have been the most desolate thing I’d ever heard. You weren’t exactly worried about the guy who wrote it but….well….ok…maybe you were a little.
But still, “Nebraska” wasn’t as earth shattering to me as it was to others. It seemed perfectly logical. The next step when your band starts to bore you. A guitar player and singer releasing a record of him playing guitar and singing? Um…so what? Why is everybody getting so worked up? Nobody is buying this stuff because of Gary Tallent’s bass playing.
My sisters had a copy too. Bless their hearts.
You all know the story by now. Newly minted rock star (“Hungry Heart” was a huge radio hit you may recall) watches a Terrence Malick movie and then retreats to his bedroom alone with a 4 track tape recorder and creates a “folk” record that confuses the living shit out of everybody because he was supposed to be writing “Hungry Heart pt II” and is instead writing about serial killers and singing like he just ate a bowl of downers.
But a guy who spends 6 months working on a single song (“Born to Run”) while forced to toil in a studio with an out of tune piano is different than you or me. This is a control freak who sang the sax solo to “Jungleland” to Clarence Clemens….one line at a time, for 16 hours straight, and then heard the finished product and promptly flung the acetate into the pool.
Not the kind of guy who’s gonna work well with the accountants on the top floor. And besides, at the time he wasn’t married or in therapy or living in Beverly Hills so he had lots of time on his hands.
“Nebraska” is raw and home-made and all that (but it was hardly made in solitude. Bruce’s guitar roadie…who was later fired and sued Springsteen for not paying him required overtime…was with him for every note, which I find interesting and deliciously ironic).
But “Nebraska” still sounds great. Every note is clear. Every word is audible. Drenched in reverb, it’s not a “solo acoustic” record despite claims to the contrary. Nearly every track also contains a glockenspiel and a gorgeously understated mandolin. It’s perfectly mixed. In a decade (the 80s) that featured some of the worst sounding records of all time, “Nebraska” to my ears is a sonic marvel. It has certainly dated better than “Born in the USA”, it’s thudding follow-up. Not many people, transfixed as they were by Bruce’s ass on the cover and Roy Bittan’s ridiculous synth lines therein, noticed that more than half of the “Born in the USA” record contained songs that could have (and in the case of the title track, should have) been released on “Nebraska”. BITUSA was essentially a fast-food “Nebraska” released at a time when Bruce was writing songs for Donna Summer. That most of these new fans read the dog-depressing title track as a flag waving republican anthem says something too, but I’m not sure what. All I do know is that these people are still out there….and they vote in large numbers.
If Bruce had a crystal ball and could read all this shit in advance, it’s no wonder he sat at his rented kitchen table in Colts Neck, New Jersey and wrote songs about guys practically begging to be euthanized. Who could blame him? Poor bastard has never been the same since the the fashion faux pas of the head-band.
He said he released “The Rising” in 2002 because somebody called to him on the street after the 9/11 attacks and said “hey man, we need you now”….which is…well….breathtaking in its arrogance if you really think about it, which I try not to do. I hope Jon Landau or Dave Marsh made the story up to make Bruce sound noble. The problem with being treated like a deity is when you start believing you are one.
A deity can’t write a song like “Highway Patrolman” by the way, so there’s that I can fall back on. Which is nice.
“Nebraska” is a folk record, sure (“All music is folk music” said Louis Armstrong. “I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”). When Springsteen sings in the voice of Charles Starkweather, he SOUNDS like Charles Starkweather. He SOUNDS like the morally compromised Joe Roberts, and like the little kid humiliated by Dad’s choice of yet another clunker. It’s a marvelous piece of ventriloquy.
It’s also a great punk rock record (no frills….quick…no fat at all, 3 chords, filled with eccentrics and done on the cheap). A great blues record too (“Reason to Believe” is as good and scary as anything Robert Johnson ever came up with). It’s as good as a set of Flannery O’Connor short stories. Or a Terence Malick film for that matter. Bruce has never really matched its power (“Racing in the Streets” comes close…”The Promise” too)…..but expecting someone to write songs as good as “Nebraska” or “Atlantic City” or “Used Cars” AGAIN is as goofy as expecting someone to write songs as good as those in the first place.
His best has always been good enough for me.
In a bit…