Tag Archives: pensacola stories

New poem: The god of dancing stars.

1 May

(Simone is 8. Pearl is 6. I am 41. The days and weeks and months are passing. Another birthday is here and with it another poem. I’ve neglected the blog for months, working on three different book projects, all of which are looking good.)

The god of dancing stars.

1.

The Greeks believed

Hermes carried

dead souls to the afterlife.

His winged feet allowed him to split

into a thousand selves

almost everywhere at once.

He carried jokes, pranks, tricks, gags.

He’s a vicious laugh.

A sneering terror.

 

The Greeks saw Dionysus

as the god of wine and revelry,

but also of ritual, madness and fertility.

His followers stripped off their clothes

and tore people limb from limb.

He’s a laugh, too.

Only the laughter hides tears,

and tormenting ecstasy.

 

Hermes is cruel.

Dionysus is deranged.

Which god do you pray to?

The god of drunken madness or the god of laughing tears?

 

Please don’t answer with Zeus.

Patriarchal rapist who cracks the earth with lightning.

Or Hera.

Displeasure and vengeance in equal portions.

Not Apollo.

Arrogance and rapaciousness

cloaked in sunshine.

Not Athena.

Wisdom skulking in the gloomy shadows.

There are no new gods.

Is this the source of human misery?

 

2.

When I dance, I dance.

Montaigne said that.

Hard to do.

I find

in getting older

that I know so little about myself.

I don’t sleep well.

(The bad never do.)

I watch too many movies.

I find myself consumed with worry.

Unexpected tears.

My daughter said to me just yesterday,

“Daddy, I’ve never seen you cry.”

I’ve hidden too much from the world.

 

When I eat, I read.

When I drink, I talk.

When I walk, I wonder.

The world is so exquisite.

But I don’t want to see it.

Life is a gift I often reject.

 

3.

As a child, I was motivated by joy.

As a teen, by loneliness.

As a young man, by fear.

Of death

Of obscurity

Of missing out on the exotic thrills of the world.

And now? By sadness.

 

I romanticized bad behavior.

I wanted to be a Bukowski, or a Miller.

A rake with no conscience.

No consideration of others.

It never fit.

I never tried.

I have a shroud of goodness

cloaking my tarry insides.

It’s a burden. Many have it.

I want to help, be useful.

But the wolves of resentment

bite those helpful heels.

I often feel good but not kind.

Is there a god of kindness?

There’s a major deity of charity somewhere.

Some goddesses of peace.

But most ancient people

did not consider peace or love

the highest ideals.

This seems important.

We live in conflict with ourselves.
I used to value kindness.

Now I’m not so sure.

What does it mean

And what does it matter?

A few seconds of empathy

in the torrents of time?

I remember,

as a teen

I stopped a prank on a friend.

Others put pepper in his coke.

He didn’t thank me.

Instead, he spit in my drink.

I tried to be kind

and he didn’t care.

I was horrified, wounded.

Yet somehow,

as I get older

he seems to be right.

What does kindness get you?

 

4.

The ancients dominate my imagination.

Duty and cruelty a jumble.

River gods morphing into nymphs

nymphs birthing heroes and godlings

heroes slaying monsters

and the gods appearing once again.

A circular celestial dance.

 

When a king died,

His servants were often buried with him.

That’s all they thought about individual suffering.

Individual people just didn’t matter.

The concept wasn’t codified.

There were gods

and there were men

all subject to the same solar vicissitudes.

 

Prometheus had a brother

Epimetheus, husband to Pandora.

A titan who loved humans.

Prometheus was good and kind,

yet he ended up tormented in Hades,

his liver a regenerating feast

for giant birds.

Epimetheus is forgotten.

His name means afterthought.

 

Hercules was a grand destroyer.

A hunter-god from prehistory.

Reconfigured into Zeus’s son.

Killer of the world’s monsters,

Every child knows him.

I suppose he’s a hero.

 

The point:

Hercules is remembered.

Epimetheus isn’t.

What does that say about the value

of meekness and decency?

 

5.

So.

To the ancient thoughts.

The Epicureans:

Live simply,

seek pleasure,

die well.

 

The Stoics:

Accept your fate,

choose tragedy,

die well.

 

The Skeptics:

Nothing from nothing.

And the non-engagement.

Who knows? (not me.)

 

There’s never been a cult

or philosophy

dedicated to kindness.

And why would there be?

Who cares for caring people?

Really—who gives a fuck?

 

Jesus was close.

A loving spirit.

But even he

railed on of the gnashing teeth

the fiery pit

and the sword in his mouth.

 

Meanwhile,

Pascal died at 39

—a younger man than I am now—

of a brain hemorrhage.

What does his wager say about that?

 

6.

Dance is magic.

An ancient ritual.

Dionysus arriving.

I wake up most mornings

ringed by mental illness.

A castaway treading water

in a cratered sea of volcanoes.

The sludge and suffering of others.

I don’t visit Dionysus very often.

And he rarely arrives.

 

Hermes saturates my world

While Ares buttfucks Kronos with our president’s dick.

Athena has retreated to the dark side of the moon.

Apollo tweets while Pan is disembodied in the world.

 

Smiling is an act of courage.

Survival an act of defiance.

But what does anything matter,

in our black iron world?

 

What’s that line in Lear?

Break, heart!

Or in Magnolia?

The goddamned regret!

 

7.

Life is often waiting

in doctor’s offices

or for the bus

Magazines are a poor window

to view the world.

I sometimes see another life

inside my own.

Writing ad copy and asinine features

approving photo spreads

and fretting over site visits.

There’s more money in it,

more prestige.

But when did I ever worry about finances?

Always. And never.

For we all sit at the oily feet of Mammon.

We all live in Mammon’s world.

 

8.

Mammon.

The god of money.

Ancient deity of greed and ambition.

A fish-footed god with death in its eyes.

America’s god.

A middle east transplant

shrouded in Christ’s raiment.

I cannot pray to Mammon.

But he is ever-present.

The fallen demiurge

Incarnate whenever money changes hands.

 

We live in the era of Mammon.

Hermes and Dionysus

have been hounded

by torches and stones

harried into tidepools and caves

by Mammon’s followers.

The goddesses are all drowned.

 

This world is a vale of tears.

Saint Jerome said that.

(The patron saint of librarians.)

With the passing years it’s hard to deny.

Sadness is a futile emotion.

No one cares.

The goddess melancholia gives no devotion.

Who prays to the god of tears?

 

9.

I can’t think of any sad gods.

Jesus wept, but once.

Buddha is always smiling.

Odin and Thor and Freya

maim and murder.

The reptile gods of Egypt fuck and dismember.

Where is the god of tears?

 

Sadness is a force, too.

Like water.

Boring through stone

through erosive drip drip

of millennia.

Sadness is useless,

but it matters. It shapes.

It pulls. It devours.

 

10.

One cold winter day,

I sit alone in a theater,

yet surrounded by children.

Sobbing as a make-believe family

euthanizes their dog on screen.

The ice, the iron

have frayed.

My heart is too close to the skin.

Tears flow freely.

The drip drip drip of sadness.

Goddamn the movies.

Goddamn myself.

 

11.

I would sacrifice to Dionysus freely

give up something of myself

to redirect the world’s attentions

from the tarry talons of Mammon

over to the panicked delight

of the god of song and wine.

But I can’t see a way past

Ba’al and the thorny gates.

 

12.

Frank Bidart says it best:

It can drink till it’s sick,

But it cannot drink till it’s satisfied.

Preach, brother Bidart.

That’s life, mine and yours.

Some days,

I wonder:

Do America and I suffer from the exact same illness?

A malady of lost belief?

Drinking for sickness

and not satisfaction?

 

What we don’t eat dies anyway.

Tis a hard fact,

And only one among many.

Born to die.

Born to suffer.

Imperfect machines.

Conscious of our consciousness.

A circular maze with no exit.

Thoughts breeding thoughts breeding thoughts.

While the arm moves before the brain wills it.

Humanity is Mammon.

Greedy reactions to the outer stimuli.

 

13.

On bad days,

I conceive of a new god.

A lonely, sad creature.

Slouchy and melancholic,

Capable of minor miracles

Often smiling in its gaseous cosmos

But incapacitated by despair.

My new god has a single

redeeming feature.

It cries empty tears.

 

On other days, I say:

Fuck that noise.

Anyone can weep.

Anyone can be sad.

Living with laughter is the brave calling.

The rejection of Mammon requires joy.

 

Maybe I worship Hermes after all.

Mercury, god of the in-between.

Hermes—even if you are only an idea—

I beseech thee.

My god of dancing stars,

Laugh for us, your miserable worshippers.

And then,

with Dionysus by our side,

let’s all dance the night away.

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Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser.

14 May

(They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 1 and 2.)

1.

I knew Beck’s “Loser” was special the first time I heard it. The guitar is so distinct and pure, the drum machine and loops and the superb, mystifying lyrics. Despite the numerous records and the shifting, mercurial sound, Beck wouldn’t make a song as perfect again. Sometimes you get it right the first time. It came out in 1993. I was 16 years old. It was one of the first Buzzclips, back when MTV still had musical cache and when the label alternative meant something. Although I was characterized by punk and power pop, some of these early alternative bands made the cut. Beck was one. Tool, strangely, was another.

My sophomore year of high school, I started hanging out with a handful of juniors: Chad B., Tim H., and Matt W. They introduced me to a lot of things. Tim lived in a little side room off his parents’ house, and we spent a lot of time in there. He was an artist and a poet, he listened to Pink Floyd.

I knew Matt from soccer. He was hilarious, caustic and disparaging, an old kvetch in a young man’s body.

Chad was honest, sincere, yet mysterious. He lived nearby[1]. He had a mystical slant to his thoughts.

I don’t know why, but they liked me and included me in their group. They brought introspection, poetry, oddball literature and drug music into my life. We spent our time driving around town or hanging out at Tim’s. Wild man Robert (I’ve mentioned him before) often came along. (Jeff and Chris had their first girlfriends.)

One night Chad and I drove an hour out towards Alabama to go to a party at Braden Rogers’s house. Braden’s name means nothing to most people reading this, and I didn’t and don’t know him well. But I feel an enormous debt of gratitude towards him. When I was fourteen, just a fifteen months earlier, he saved my life.

2.

Like all high schools, Pensacola Catholic had some bullies, those ’roided up, prematurely muscled assholes who stalk the hallways looking for hair to pull and faces to smash. Some bullies drape their immense self-loathing with mean-spirited, always close to violence joking (a dude named Clayton operated in this mold, sort of like the joker, laughing maniacally while inflicting pain); some bullies are simply transferring their unhappiness from their homes; and some are just vicious and violent and mean. Chance W. was this third kind of bully. He had huge pectoral muscles when he was in tenth grade. He had three o’clock shadow at 15. He was rich and strong and rotten to the core, an unfeeling, nasty shell of a person. Most people from those years at Catholic have some story of a Chance encounter. This is mine.

One day Chance and two other sophomores named Neil and Tony came up to me in the lunchroom. “That’s him,” Tony said.

“I hear you been talking about my mama,” Chance said.

I looked around. I was over six feet tall and I weighed under 150 pounds. I was a walking skeleton, scrawny and under-muscled and absolutely not a fighter at all. I minded my own business. I kept to my friends. I had no clue what was going on.

“That wasn’t me,” I said. I tried to walk back to my table.

“No, I heard you were talking about my mama,” Chance said. Neil and Tony smiled and nodded their heads.

“I swear I didn’t.”

After lunch I went outside to wait for the bell with a kid named Cody. Chance and the others followed me. Where the teachers were I had no idea. Chance continued with his bullshit. The day was warm but not hot, and the interior quad was small. A little group formed. I continued with my protestations of innocence, but I was feeling exposed and threatened.

Then Chance shoved me and, remembering all the idiotic anti-bullying literature and after-school specials, I shoved him back. Cody took a deep breath and took a few steps back. He was terrified of blowback.

Chance swelled up right in front of me like some cartoon villain. He puffed up to swing. Time stopped. I had no skills to fall back on. I had my bony hands in fists and thought, Well, here comes your first thrashing. I was afraid, but there was a tinny little internal voice saying, How bad can a beating be?

Then Braden appeared.

“Nah, man, leave him alone. He’s cool.”

He pulled Chance aside and cooled him down. I waited. The bell rang. I didn’t move. Chance came back over. “So you weren’t talking about my mama?” he said.

“No, man, no,” I said.

He let me go.

I had known Braden from middle school. But we hadn’t been friends, and I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I didn’t really speak to him after that, either. But I felt and feel an immense debt of gratitude to him. I wasn’t cool. I had nothing to offer him. He protected me because it was the right thing to do. And, well, I’ve always loved him for it.

(As for Chance, he would later infamously kick Devin Kennedy in the face! after Devin and Peyton fought in front of half the school, and Peyton had knocked Devin down. Chance had nothing to do with the fight and didn’t know either of them very well. He told me later in a rare moment of candor, and I’m not making this up, that he was pissed because “they both fought like pussies.” We were at a basketball game, the only two upper grades students in attendance, and I was wise enough to sort of nod my head, a very minor betrayal of my values, and in retrospect, totally worth it. Chance didn’t mention our little dust-up and I was happy to let bygones be. Later that year he slapped me in the back of the head at a party. Chad ushered me out before I did anything stupid.)

3.

Back to Chad in his little white Honda and our late night trek to Braden’s house party.

We got there late, close to ten, and stayed under two hours. It wasn’t our kind of people. There was a bonfire and the others were mostly hunters and fishers and outdoorsy types, Alabama folk, good country people. The antithesis of Chad and me, basically.  Braden was there in full country regalia, camouflage and a hunting cap, the kind of vibe I would have mocked on another person, but suited him just fine. I didn’t speak to him, not really, but I wanted to hug him and say thanks. I never did.

Chad drank too much and I had to drive us home. I drove cautiously, just at the speed limit. We ambled along some forgotten highway in the country, surrounded by immense black trees and the gray night, the kind of evening that feels like it could go on forever and ever.

The whole car ride we listened to “Loser” over and over, some twenty times. We both sang along.


[1] I still know him.

Salvation Songs, part 5: Steppin’ Stone.

15 Jan

(I’ve been posting less for two reasons. One, I’m working hard on a third draft of my latest novel manuscript. Two, I was doing my writing between 5 and 6 in the morning. But my two daughters now get up, too—I’m writing this one-handed with two little children squirming in my lap.)

The last new tape I ever bought was U2’s Achtung Baby! The first cd I bought was Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Between these two albums there was a world of discomfort and pain and musical growth. The boy loved U2. The young man dug Pavement.

I entered high school enthralled with progressive, college rock and what is now called Britpop. I liked R.E.M., The Las, early U2, The Soup Dragons, The Stone Roses, and Jellyfish. I also maintained an adoration for power ballads and hair metal until a disparaging comment from Jackson George about a Warrant concert ruined the whole genre, at least in public. I held on to the classic rock thing, still listening to the Beatles and The Doors and so on.

I caught the indie rock/slacker rock bug. I listened to Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement. I listened to Jane’s Addiction and Mudhoney. I listened to the first wave of grunge, but was already too hip for the next big thing; like all self-respecting musical aficionados, I favored Mother Love Bone to Pearl Jam[1]. I was on my way to an ensconced spot with the slacker crowd, despite year-round soccer and my strict religious household. Two of the coolest slacker kids in the city, Jay Thomas and Ryan Nalley, were my friends.

But then punk hit. A meteor, and the world changed. The simplicity of punk’s rage, the howl of its rancor, the disgust with the material world, the immense discontent—these things spoke to me in a profound way, and delivered a temporary outlet for my darker impulses.

I was a (mostly) sweet and (overly) sensitive kid. Yet I had the same macho self-destructive impulses as other teenage males. Some of my friends fought. Some smashed up mailboxes. Some sublimated their aggression through sports. For me, my anger manifested in the music.

Metallica was serious business when I was in middle school. They had long hair, bleak videos, and crushing music[2]. Guns N Roses were around, too, a segue from the hair metal power pop to garage rock. I had tapes of both, but had to discard Appetite for Destruction because one of my mom’s Christian radio announcers had denounced it in a vituperative and very public speech.

But Metallica’s primary focus was paganism and the terrors of Christianity[3]. Punk was concerned with the social and political. Most punk was squeegeed clean of sex. Punk was pure. It was atonal, discordant, and grating, too, but the essence of it was a counter narrative to the mainstream. I loved it.

And unlike other musical dalliances, punk stayed, a pungent force in my teenage years.

Around 16, I started going to shows at the Nite Owl—they had shows at Sluggo’s too, but I was too young to get in–where I was purged in the pit. The pit wasn’t about hurting other people, although this happened quite a lot. It also wasn’t about being out of control. The only time I saw someone totally out of control was at a music festival; some bizarre proto-goth kid ran and dove into a group of people standing outside the pit. They kicked at him some and then booed him away from the music. The pit wasn’t about dancing, it wasn’t about looking cool, although there was an etiquette, there were expectations as to how you would move. No, the pit was a way to express naked aggression without fighting. In a large mosh pit, you’d get kicked, slapped, punched and head-butted. But you took it with an inner smile.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the joy.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the unbridled joy.

This isn’t new. In an earlier generation, most of us would have become soldiers. Or we would have worked on the farm, or done some other manual labor. Or, we would have hung out in pool halls, smoked cheap cigarettes and punched out rival gang members.

Punk allowed me to circumvent some of the more unfortunate musical trends of the nineties, but I missed out on some cool stuff, too. Punk is an invasive plant, like kudzu; it drives out anything that isn’t punk.

I scoured the used record stores for punk tapes. Somehow, the economics of things made punk tapes cool. I went backwards in time. I listened to the Sex Pistols. I listened to The Circle Jerks. I listened to NOFX. I listened to Swingin’ Utters and Avail and Hot Water Music and Face to Face and Lagwagon and Bad Brains and Christian punk[4], too. And I listened to the best tape in my possession, Minor Threat[5].

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

Minor Threat was the punkest of the punk. They advocated straight edge living—no drugs, no alcohol, no caffeine, a spartan existence. Most of the vegans I knew in the ’90s were also straight edge people. They lived with a set of principles more austere than the Old Testament values my mom espoused. I dabbled with straight edge from time to time, and I’m a strict vegetarian now.

The cover was solid blue, of a skinhead sitting down with his shaved head leaning on his black trousers. The album is short, less than 30 minutes for the whole thing. And it is a humdinger, a raucous, virile, primal scream of a punk record. The whole tape is killer, but my favorite track was a cover of a Sex Pistols’ cover of a Monkees’ song. Written by Neil Diamond, no less.

One time I played it so loud I blew out one of my dad’s car speakers. Another time I screamed along with such conviction I damaged my vocal chords. My friends all loved it, too.

Listening to it years later, the song is catchy, hardly punk at all, MacKaye’s immense vocals firing on all cylinders. I don’t need to write about the sound; it speaks for itself.


[1] I’m still a touch embarrassed by the little pockets of snobbery in my former self.

[2] I didn’t see the humor in their work until much later.

[3] The common thread of heavy metal; it’s primary focus is always religious.

[4] I will write on this, later.

[5] I know I’m supposed to like Mackaye’s Fugazi better, but I don’t. Waiting Room belongs on any desert island juke box, however.

Salvation Songs, part 4: Waiting for a Star to Fall

2 Jan

Secular music, excepting oldies music with my dad (always in the car), was banned in my parents’ house when I was growing up. I listened to kids’ praise, Christian radio plays, Christian audio books, and Focus on the Family, a radio station that broadcast sermons and homilies from a variety of pastors, scholars, theologians and blowhards. No Bach, Handel, or Mendelssohn. No Stryper or Petra either, but I now count this as a good thing.

My older sister had Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. I had nothing and no one. Only Psalty. And if you don’t know who Psalty is, you didn’t grow up in the Southern Baptist church. (He’s still around.)

This all changed when I was in sixth grade. For Christmas, my dad bought me a two-cassette boom box[1]. I had a handful of Bill Cosby tapes and a Ricky Nelson album. But the stereo brought me radio, and the world blossomed into something new and rich and strange[2].

I had to listen to the radio with headphones, else my mom would hear and I would be lectured. Or, worse, have the radio policed or even taken away.

Christmas morning, I put in the large batteries, jacked in the headphones, and then lied down on my single bed. I propped my feet up on the end of the wooden frame and, tired out from the late night anticipation from Christmas Eve, closed my eyes while turning on the stereo. And the first song I heard was “Waiting for a Star to Fall.”

There’s a strange revisionism to eighties music. Hugely popular bands, like U2 and the Police, are seen as precursors to progressive and underground music. They really weren’t. They filled arenas and scored number one hits. Some of the more underground stuff has, as Chuck Klosterman is always pointing out, remained viable because critics like it. (See early R.E.M.) Meanwhile, other enormous acts of the decade, such as Ratt, have been completely forgotten. Klosterman argues that the underground and the outside, over time, becomes in. Liking popular music from years ago, such as KISS, becomes the true underground. Every professes a love for The Pixies now. But who listens to Frankie Goes to Hollywood anymore?

The music of the eighties feels shimmery and ethereal. New Wave and Post-punk were great things—I still listen to the Talking Heads, XTC, James, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Prince, (some) Tom Petty and The Pet Shop Boys, among others—and hair metal and 1980s R & B were pretty terrible. But there was a strand of pop music that was pure, light as air, and streaked with sugary life. The tone was airy, a kind of light-weight synth pop that worked as dance music for people who couldn’t really dance. As a genre, this 1980s pop music could manifest as a kind of lame pseudo rock—think of Roxette or David Essex and Eric Carmen (I admit a weak spot for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack)—or as a kind of precursor to the teen pop of today, such as Paula Abdul.

I speak of Dan Hartman, Crowded House, Taylor Dane, Timmie T., Duran Duran, Go West, and yes, Boy Meets Girl. Anthemic pop music that is catchy but forgettable. Unified less by a sound than a set of (vacuous) musical values. I’m immensely fond of this body of work; I find it to be aesthetically distasteful but sentimentally satisfying.

Back to my first day with the stereo. I fell asleep with the headphones on, and my mom awakened me some time later in the day. “What are you listening to?” she asked. The headphones were cheap, the music too loud. I was stone cold busted.

“Oh, nothing. You know. I was just fooling around.” I put on my best stupefied face. “I don’t really know how to use this thing yet.”

She gave me a disapproving shake of the head and then left the room. I dodged my first bullet. It wouldn’t be the last.

Here’s the song. It means nothing to me now, musically, but everything to me emotionally. Strange.


[1] I cringe to say it now, but at the time we called this type of setup “ghetto-blasters.”

[2] Up to this point I only had the rollerskating rink for my pop music fix.

Salvation Songs, part 3: Nobody’s Fool.

21 Dec

1.

Middle school is a strange time for music. You don’t have tastes, not really, just hormones and the hangover of your parents’ ideas.

And, of course, your friends.

My best friend at the time—and still one of my closest, although I never see him—was Jason Elzy. He was a dynamo in the pop music world. He started reading Variety when he was 12. He tracked singles. He knew pop musical trends at 13. He bought comedy tapes; he bought Chris Rock’s comedy tape years before his first HBO special. He was a boy ahead of his time.

Jason would tape singles off the radio. He made these into a series he called “assorted singles[1].” He made it somewhere near Assorted Singles 20.

At my house we had kids’ praise, Michael W. Smith, Baptist hymns and Amy Grant. In the car with my dad we had golden oldies. I had one conduit to pop music, the frenetic soundtrack and backbeat in my heart and head, and that was Jason.

Like me, secular music was banned in Jason’s house. By his dad. His mom let him listen to as much as he could stomach. I benefited immensely.

This was in the glory days of MTV. Before the reality shows, before the grind. Just music videos, all the time. We didn’t just watch it, we absorbed it. We percolated it. We marinated in it.

Jason had wider tastes than I did; he introduced me to Big Daddy Kane, Young MC, LL Cool J, and, regrettably, the Fat Boys. His tastes ran to hair metal, though, and in Pensacola he was the king. Unlike everyone else, he would go backwards into a band’s back catalog, buying their earlier tapes and studying the music. He would make arguments for earlier glory, although I rarely bought it. (He insisted that Def Leppard had good records before Hysteria. I thought he was crazy.)

He also bought singles. I would listen to his tapes, either with headphones or through the speakers when his dad wasn’t around. We were around each other so much that we had tons of time to do this sort of thing and I took advantage of the freedom by imbibing as much secular music as I could. (We also played with M.A.S.K., Muscles, G.I. Joe, and basketball.) Not my finest hour, musically. I loved “Last Train,” by Cinderella, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” by Def Leppard, “Deeper Shade of Soul,” by Urban Dance Squad, and “Sometimes She Cries,” by Warrant.

But my absolute favorite was, oddly, Kenny Loggins’s “Nobody’s Fool.”

2.

This was the title song to Caddyshack II, not that I knew it at the time. I spend two or three months listening to this four or five times in a row, every time I went to Jason’s house. It was a compulsive, pathological attachment; the song crowded out other music.

(Sadly, this puts the song in the pantheon of most listened to songs in my life, alongside “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue, “Whipping Boy,” by Lagwagon, “Don’t Know What You Got,” by Whiskeytown, “Nantes,” by Beirut, and “The Seed,” by the Roots.)

Re-listening to it, it’s a strange song. The verses are dated, cheesy and vaguely sexual; I didn’t like this style of music, even then. The guitar lines are cheap, derivative and cloying. You can’t hear the other instruments at all. There’s a drummer, but what’s he doing?

And yet, the chorus simply rocks. It’s the type of fist-pumping arena anthem that feels timeless, irresistible, like a piece of cheap birthday cake crusted over with confectioner’s sugar. Even now, it gets me.

3.

I moved on, eventually, into other, equally lame areas of pop music. But I kept this power ballad near and dear to my heart.

Jason moved to Kentucky in eighth grade. We stayed friends. He attended the University of Kentucky after graduating. We drifted apart. Then he began visiting me in the summers. He became more relaxed as I grew introverted and uptight. He outgrew the detritus of our childhood faster than I did. Yet, the essential balance remained. Our friendship was rekindled. He moved to L.A., got into the music business, became a hotshot publicist. I fell into movie junket work, and visited him twice. We stayed in posh hotels. We ordered room service. Our childhood friendship blossomed into something richer, and stranger, as we had an immense foundation of shared stories, jokes and references that no one else knew. We can fall into this comfort zone with just a few second’s worth of conversation, even after months and months of no contact.

Fifteen years after I spent those weekend nights blasting “Nobody’s Fool” into my ears, he got married.

I was in the wedding party. We spent the day in the hotel room, listening to music while Jason paced a little bit, worrying over the details. His computer had some 12,000 songs, and we each tried to pick the perfect song for the occasion, sipping on cans of beer. We played quality stuff for a while, before the mood of the room turned nostalgic and we made our way to the power ballads of our youth.

The wedding was amazing. The weather was perfect. At the reception, Jason picked theme music for each member. We waited in the hallway until our name was announced. I was fourth in line. The doors opened, and Kenny Loggins’s feathery voice welcomed me to the party. He hadn’t forgotten.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2EccP4yjn0


[1] He still has them.

Salvation Songs, part 2: Arms Can’t Stretch.

13 Dec

1.

I’ve had two reliable sources of great mix tapes: Jeff Butler and Tommy Heffernan. Jeff had superior equipment, Tommy had a vast knowledge of musical esoterica. Jeff leaned towards guitar rock. Tommy favored new wave. Jeff gave me a greatest hits of Queen. Tommy juxtaposed The Talking Heads with The Smiths.

I still have the tapes they made me, all of them[1].

My cousin Keith has emerged as the mix tape source in my adult life. More about him later.

But once, just once, I was given a mixtape from a friend kind of out of nowhere, and on that tape was a song that changed my life.

Christian Bauer was and is a music maven. He loved, breathed, lived for music, and found a way to collapse conversations into his comfort zone. I met him through soccer, we were both into punk—we both liked Screeching Weasel, Blink 182 and Lagwagon—but he had much more adventurous[2] tastes. He had a wide palate, dipping into all manner of musical subcultures.

We went to different high schools, and I was a year older but we were friends. He was smart and into ideas. I was interested in the world and read a lot. I remember he asked me once, when he was 17, how someone could pray all the time, constantly. “What would it look like?” (He was referring to Frannie and Zooey.) I said I didn’t know. He pondered. My attention drifted.

It’s hard to know how others view you, but I think he saw me as decent and generous with my emotional space.

Anyway, he made me a tape. I still have it. It’s titled “Something to fall back on.” He drew a picture of a smiling guy on the front. Some of the music was what we at the time called Emo Screamo, which has no real contemporary equivalent. Some of it was indie rock. Some of it was punk. And then, the first song on the second side, was a track by Hot Water Music: “Arms Can’t Stretch.”

2.

I used to go to punk shows at the Nite Owl, a shitty little rundown bar at the edge of a busted out shopping mall. Along with Sluggo’s—and later a tiny place called Section Eight—it was Pensacola’s only punk rock venue. (The mall has since converted into a Lowe’s. Or might be boarded up by now.) The Nite Owl had a stage, a reliable sound system, some pool tables and ratty gutter punk furniture. It drew huge all-ages shows. I saw Good Riddance, Face to Face, and Less than Jake there, among dozens of others. I loved it.

One of the perennial favorites was a band named Avail. They were amazing live, just stunning. They were a forerunner to the hardcore sound—a type of music, no longer around, that saw its heyday with Earth Crisis and The Henry Rollins Band and Hatebreed and, to a lesser extent, Pantera, and then dismantled into emo and death metal. I bought their cds. The music was okay but the magic wasn’t there. Avail’s magic was on the stage. I saw them a number of times.

Opening for Avail, when I was 19, was the band Hot Water Music.

3.

They’re a great band. The music is at times simple and comforting, but they have two singers and use them in tandem to great emotional effect. They also have a dynamite live show, but I was distracted and didn’t pay close attention.

I was in a difficult, unhappy period. I had a crushing avalanche of introspection. I essentially switched from an extroverted happy guy into a brooding, self-directed dude[3]. It felt like a malignant presence had invaded my thoughts. Placed into the new context of college, in a new city, I was unsure of who I was. I didn’t feel like I belonged with the soccer players on the team, and I didn’t have outlets to make new friends. I drank too much. I lost weight. I listened to whiny punk and power pop. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t enjoy my own company. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. There’s more[4]. My buddy Jeff was in Georgetown, living a life I wanted. Robert and Chris stayed in Pensacola. I felt alone and isolated and lonely. It sounds silly and quaint at this telescoped distance, but at the time I missed my friends, and I missed them terribly. I missed my family too, although I wouldn’t have admitted the sickly ache to anyone, including myself.

A second level of dislocation. I didn’t like Montgomery. More provincial than Pensacola, which seemed impossible. No live music. No punk anywhere. Thick-accented people who belonged to a Deep South culture I had somehow averted.

I was all over the place politically, a hybrid of libertarianism and old-school republicanism, as well as a mish mash of religion. I suffered from a collision of Southern Baptist, old school religion and burgeoning Gnostic notions trickling down to me through the eons via literature. The mystery religions of the ancient world were alive, and I was electrified by their contact[5].

I felt alone, alone, alone, alien in my own body, disconnected from my own thoughts and the miserable surroundings. But I had that tape. Something to fall back on.

4.

Yes, back to Christian’s mix tape. The first song on the second side. A song by the band I had seen back at the Nite Owl.

“Arms Can’t Stretch” is a love song, but I interpreted it at the time as a paean to life itself. It’s a soaring, rapturous song. It sounds of its time, there’s a touch of the 1990s to it, but it also sounds cosmic and timeless. There’s a spiritual strand in the lyrics.

I listened to this song constantly. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Along with “Modern Love” by David Bowie and, strangely, “Whipping Boy” by Lagwagon, I had a precise soundtrack of three songs.

One night I drove up to Athens to visit my cousin, Keith, at the University of Georgia.

We bopped around the campus, then around downtown, talking, talking, talking. We ate pizza. We walked. It was a calm night. We saw one of Keith’s friends witnessing to undergraduates. We passed the bars and the buskers. We made our way back to his dorm around 2 in the morning. He had a corner room. We were wiped out. I was happy, emptied out of negative feelings and at peace in a way that only the best of friends and the closest of companions can bring.

“I’ve got a song for you to hear,” he said.

And he put this on.

http://grooveshark.com/#!/search/song?q=Hot+Water+Music+Arms+Can’t+Stretch


[1] Although many of Tommy’s tapes are now playing through the speakers of my brother-in-law’s car.

[2] and at times more sophisticated.

[3] I’ve always been an uncomfortable mixture of both.

[4] But I won’t go into it; haven’t you learned by now that writers lie by omission?

[5] There’s a story here, and it’s a good one, but I’m sticking to the topic as much as possible.

Salvation songs, part 1: Michael Bolton.

6 Dec

1.

I bottom out, musically, every couple of years. I sort of look around and think, is this it? Is this the music I’m going to listen to for the rest of my life? (This usually follows some type of mini-existential crisis and period of disaffected self-loathing.) And then, inevitably, some musical meteor will streak across the firmament and save me.

A song written just for me. Transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. As if ordained by God.

A salvation song.

They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. I’ve been revisiting my musical history, looking to mine some of these out for a new reoccurring set of entries.

Here’s my first.

2.

I was a classic rock guy for most of my youth. My dad listened to oldies in the car. He was a British Invasion kind of guy, opting for the Beatles over the Stones. He liked the Dave Clark Five, The Lovin’ Spoonful. Like most kids, I absorbed his tastes. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was my favorite tape. I listened to it on a constant loop. The White Album was next, and then Abbey Road[1] and The Magical Mystery Tour. My tastes were unequivocally classic rock, but not yet sophisticated. I liked Ricky Nelson and Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Gary Puckett, Kenny Loggins and Queen. A little Pink Floyd. A little Motown. It was a fuzzy stew of guitar, drum, bass and horn. I couldn’t really hear the difference between good and bad. I liked it all.

Secular music was mostly banned inside the house by my mom. So it was oldies in the car with dad until I got a little black boombox for Christmas. And then it was tapes and tapes, the tinny speakers close to my ears so I could listen without my mom catching me.

This was me at 11 years old.

3.

At 14 it was Jellyfish and the La’s, Live, R.E.M. and college radio, with a soupcon of Mudhoney and Jane’s Addiction, a band I absolutely loved. At 16 I was punk (and power pop) with occasional descents into metal. I shaved my head, went to punk shows and eschewed popular music.

But before punk, before hardcore, before the counterculture, but after the classic rock of my father, I had a brief two-year fling with pop. It happens to everyone. Around 12, pop culture seeps in. Like most new teenagers, I was an incubator and a crucible for the pop strands circulating in the cultural ether. This was in the early nineties, and I absorbed massive doses of sugary confection. I absorbed  the good and the bad[2].

MTV was an enormous presence in my life. It was forbidden in my house, so when I stayed with my buddy Jason we overdosed on it, gazing at hours and hours of Yo MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball and videos, videos, videos.

This was at the end of the glam metal decade. Poison’s “Unskinny Bop,” Nelson’s “Love and Affection,” Def Leppard’s “Love Bites,” all vied for my affection.

And, yes, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Cinderella, Biz Marke, Janet Jackson, The Black Crowes[3], Warrant, Bel Bev Devoe, Boys II Men, Heart, Billy Joel (who was no longer cool)[4].

I have immense affection for this group of songs. Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” still rocks. Aerosmith’s “What It Takes,” has a special place in my heart. And Depeche Mode’s “Break the Silence” makes regular appearances in playlists and mix tapes.

But amidst all this cultural detritus, one song stands out. And an essential feature of a salvation song is you don’t pick the song, the song picks you. So, please, no judgment, or not too much anyway. Drum roll please. The song: “How Can We Be Lovers if We Can’t Be Friends?” by Michael Bolton.

4.

Yes. The Michael Bolton.

Mock me all you want, I don’t care.

I don’t know why this song about a troubled relationship resonated with me, but resonate it did. I trawled the radio dial. I memorized the words. I sang along. I belted the lyrics out with joy. My friends would point at me when it came on, give me the head nod saying, Yep. That’s your song and it’s on right now. I returned the gesture to Jason when “Heaven,” came on. All of my friends identified with one of these songs. Ryan was “Unbelievable.” Britt was “Everybody plays the fool.” I was Michael Bolton.

Bolton’s voice—if you can separate it from his cheesiness—is rich and strong, chesty with a natural reverb. His hair is amazing; he has luxuriant curly locks but is also somehow balding. He’s rocking the fashionable European mullet, years ahead of his time.

His sincere outbursts of raw emotion—you can see the pain ripple across his face; he’s really suffering—and his awesome microphone work, the intense background singers echoing his let’s save the relationship sentiments, the song caught in my thoughts. I loved it, even when I found out the chorus was not “How can we be lovers if we can’t be happy friends,” which I was certain it said.

About two-thirds of the way through, the song reaches a point of emotional transcendence, when Bolton belts out, “We can work it out!” It gave my 13-year-old self shivers.

In retrospect I don’t know why I glommed onto Michael Bolton. I stuck around with him for a few more songs until he released a cover of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” I smelled a rat and moved on.

I never bought the tape. I can say that much. And I used to be embarrassed by these early songs, but now I own my past. I still hold this song it my heart. Watch the video below, and prepare to be saved.


[1] I still don’t quite understand the adoration this record inspires.

[2] Mostly the bad.

[3] “She Talks to Angels” is another song that has made the cut to my adult life.

[4] I knew, even then, that Color Me Badd was pretty lame, although “I want to sex you up,” is a pretty catchy song.