…What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Sometimes the light’s all shining on me…other times, I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me…”

The sound, just for a brief second, was clear and I could understand the words. It was as if someone had pulled cotton out of my ears, just a momentary blast that brought me closer to the surface.

“…What a long, strange trip it’s been” And with that the cotton seemed to get shoved back in and all I could hear was the deep throbbing bass that pounded through the concrete walls and directly into my slightly swooning head.

Don’t ask me how my parents ever agreed to this trip…but in their loving naïveté, they signed off on it and the rest was a hot mess. We got word early in the fall that the Grateful Dead would be playing the Iowa City Fieldhouse in the spring of ’71. Bruce and Doug, both tenth graders, represented two of my more mature friends and this concert was all they needed to make life worth living. Bruce had been a fan ever since he first heard Friend of the Devil. Doug was Bruce’s best friend and sidekick, so that made it his mission too. I was the kid a couple years behind them in school, but hip enough to have a decent record collection and a growing knowledge of who was who in the rock scene of the early seventies. I had, in fact, earned my stripes on a warm fall afternoon the previous September when I read the headline telling me that Jimi Hendrix had died and promptly rode my bike onto the field at the high school baseball practice and announced it to everyone. I was like a carrier pigeon with a vocabulary. While the coach didn’t much appreciate it, the boys on the team did. From that point forward, I had become an ally in the rebellion against adulthood.

It was a chilly Saturday morning in late March when Bruce and Doug finally pulled up in his 1967 Blue Ford Mustang, fondly known as Marvel. Hopping into the back seat, I joined another friend, Mike, an ancient senior and lead guitarist in the local rock band for which Bruce sang.

By the time we finished the two-hour trip to Iowa City it was time to grab a quick burger and find our lodging for the night. We had been granted floor space in the dorm of another Van Meter legend. Steve was an identical twin and I literally could not tell him from his brother Stan, until they went to college and Stan joined the ROTC. Steve was the older brother of a classmate, so I knew him too and it was with great pleasure that we dropped our sleeping bags off in his room and went our own way.

Now, I may have considered myself to be worldly in a rock-and-roll sort of way, but I was not worldly in the way of college life. So when the boys walked into a liquor store a few blocks from the dorm, it was the only time I’d ever been in one without my dad. He was a connoisseur, so I had full knowledge of how the system worked when he was doing the shopping. But with Mike and Bruce leading the way, I was puzzled to see that liquor stores carried anything on their shelves besides vodka. Before I could even be consulted, Mike, the only one of us old enough to buy anything was walking us out with a grocery bag full of various flavors de jour for our merry troop. I had been casually grandfathered in on the liquor order and as such was told I would be allowed to have small samples of whatever was available. By the time we bought some mixers and headed back to the dorm room, small scraps of snow were beginning to spit from the gray skies.

My whole job for the rest of the afternoon was to keep the ice bucket full and the munchies nearby. What each person was drinking is blurred now, but I remember lots of orange juice, vodka, schnapps and a very lonely bottle of cheap wine that soon became my dearest friend. After a couple of happy hours in a sterile dorm room, it was time to work our way through the increasingly cold gray afternoon. Bundled up in my heavy parka, complete with a snorkel hood, I was set to battle anything…that plus my blood had been thinned to a degree I’d never before experienced.

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Seating at the Fieldhouse was broken into two sections. Reserved tickets were given wooden folding chairs on the floor in front of the stage all the way back to the scaffold risers where general admission tickets took over. The four of us had made it to the point where we would be dead center in front of the stage, only the length of a basketball court between musicians and us. I marveled at what must have been several fifteen-inch speakers in the gigantic PA cabinets. It was hard to tell because each speaker was covered in some fashion or another by a thin tie-dyed fabric. It gave a slightly inebriated eighth grader the notion that he was in the hall of rock gods. Bright, multicolored lights spotted the stage and the double drum set waiting for the night to begin. Huge Fender amps created a wall along the back of the concert space. Even at this early point of the evening, the stage was alive with an assortment of free spirits that looked like they had a purpose up there. Either tuning guitars, or plugging in microphones, or just sitting on the drummer’s throne, occasionally slapping the snare and looking important while doing it. In a time when it wasn’t uncommon for people to smoke in public, the stage was already starting to drift into a fog of sorts…and the place was only about half full. Many of the chairs in the reserved section were still empty. I had grown up with two smokers in the house for most of my thirteen years, so I was well acquainted with what that smelled and tasted like. I wasn’t familiar with the sweet, herbal smell that now greeted the growing crowd, but I had a pretty good idea it wasn’t coming from the Marlboro Man.

Eventually the crowd filled and the lights dimmed. I was smiling for no particular reason as Bruce, Doug, and Mike bounced to the beat. Bruce and Mike looked around as if they were waiting for something to happen nearby. The Fieldhouse was still cold enough that I kept my parka on as I started humming whatever song was being played as part of the pre-concert filler. When the lights finally went all the way down and the crowd got on its feet to welcome the band to the stage, what seemed like ten thousand lighters torched simultaneously. Some song I didn’t recognize at the time began the show and we were off. Within a couple of minutes I could see the guy three people to my left passing something to Mike. He took a hit and passed it along to Bruce. He took a hit and passed it over to Doug. He took a hit and passed it along to me. It was the first time I’d ever really seen a joint. It wasn’t beautifully crafted but its sweet smell made me wonder what it would be like. I looked back at the boys, who were motioning me to get on with it and send it back their way. Having been an avid cigarette smoker for all of one week in sixth grade, I felt like I knew what to do. I stuck in my lips and pulled hard expecting the same guilty pleasure I had felt when I smoked Kools back then. When the smoke got about half way down my windpipe, it did an abrupt about-face and came gasping back out my mouth and nose in a burning cough. I handed the joint back to Doug who worked it back down the line to its owner. My eyes were now running as if I’d been kicked squarely in the berries. No matter how much smoke came wheezing out, half of it seemed to get sucked back in when I tried to catch my breath. My ears had taken on a ringing that was colliding with the guys on the stage who were too late in warning me about the evils of Panama Red. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered The New Riders of the Purple Sage had preceded the Dead on the stage. Was I ever getting a hands-on education about purple sage.

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Eventually the coughing subsided, but didn’t go away completely. I would be caught off guard and hack up a puff from my freshly singed lungs. The ringing in my head grew worse and had evidently awakened the contents of my stomach. Bruce got up to go to the bathroom and I decided I needed to go along as well. I wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to hold onto my coat, but hold on he did. We walked about a hundred feet toward the edge of the risers when my brain rolled over and made me walk it again. In front of me, I could see the men’s room only a few feet away, but in my mind I was still a good forty feet behind my body. Something had kicked in and that outlaw Panama Red was about to steal my head. I’m pretty sure I got my pants zipped up before we left the men’s room, but I was no longer in control, so it’s all pretty much speculation.

By the time Bruce had my body half way back to our seats, I could feel the conversation in my stomach now turning into an intense argument. I stood at the corner of the bleachers, Bruce patiently standing beside me, and gazed across what used to be the reserved section. Things didn’t look the same and I didn’t trust my own reality anymore. Where there once were rows and rows of neatly lined up folding chairs filled with fans, there was now a wasteland of openness filled with hippies and smoke. Around the floor, I could see four or five small dark mountains. The folding chairs had been unceremoniously removed and clumsily stacked. The whole concert had apparently become general admission as people were now pouring out of the bleachers onto the floor to get closer to the stage. Bruce was about to join them when I made a U-turn and grabbed the nearby trashcan with both hands. The day came rushing back at me in a Technicolor yawn. My knees buckled and my nose was now running with whatever hadn’t made it past my teeth. Bruce looked at me and looked at the stage. He paused, reached for me and helped me sit down next to the bin.

“Stay here,” he said. “You’ll be alright. I’ll be back to check on you in a couple of minutes.”

Any reference to time was pointless, because in my mind, I was just leaving the bathroom and hadn’t yet made it to the trashcan. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just knew that wherever I was, was the perfect place to sleep. As I wiped my nose and mouth and pulled the furry snorkel up over my head, I distinctly heard a voice saying, “Man, I feel just like that guy looks.” I felt pity in my heart for the guy being pointed out.

I thought I was asleep, but I’m pretty sure it was a different form of unconsciousness. I could feel people shuffling by, occasionally tripping over my outstretched feet. A blast of song would penetrate the hood on my parka and I’d wonder why the stereo was up so loud. Suddenly I was brought out of my miserable slumber by a gruff voice with strong hands…four of them.

“Come on buddy, let’s get you out of here.” I opened my eyes to see not my returning caregivers, but two largish gentlemen in official looking uniforms. Something registered in my cloudy mind that this might not be a good thing. They pulled me to my feet and set me off on a path I was clearheaded enough to believe would be prison for life. I had no words or strength to do anything other than be their “buddy” and do what they did. To my surprise, I was not hauled outside to a squad car but taken through a door where the bright lights were enough to start me on a second path toward sickness. Before I could give that much thought, a cup of water was placed in my hands with the command to drink it. My rugged friends herded me toward an examination table and bid me goodbye.

“Stay here, buddy. They’ll take care of you.” Seems like I’d heard that before and I was wondering if I was now stuck in a nightmare. A man with glasses and a light blue shirt with some symbols on it quickly scurried up to me and put his hand on my forehead while simultaneously pulling my left eyelid up and shining a flashlight at me.

“OK, pal…whatta ya on tonight? Uppers? Weed? Acid? Do you remember what you been taking?” He seemed sincere and priestly, so I thought I could confess to him.

“Boones Farm?” I replied.

“Boones Farm?” He echoed.

“Yep… Boones Farm… Strawberry Hill… I think.” I tried to squint my eyes but the light and his thumb was moving between them too fast for me to outmaneuver him.

“You mean you’re just drunk?” He asked sounding terribly disappointed.

“I am?” I returned his question with my own.

“You are!” He switched off the light and released the current eyelid. “Why don’t you finish your water and just lay down over on that cot?” He politely suggested.

And sleep I did. As mentioned at the beginning, I would occasionally get an aural glimpse into the greatness of the Dead live and in concert. But these were short-lived and more interruption than pleasure to my suffering head. It was later in the night that Bruce, Doug, and Mike finally found me. Not where they expected to, of course. In fact they let me know that they had gone all the way back to the dorm in hopes I had found my way there. They retraced their steps to the Fieldhouse and finally asked security about some kid wearing a puke-stained parka that had been parked by the trashcan near the bleachers. The particular officer in this case had seen the cops haul someone of that description out in handcuffs earlier. Maybe they should check downtown. Thankfully for me, they checked the first-aid room prior to the jailhouse.

As I grew older, my love for the music of the Grateful Dead only got stronger…to the point where I have a recording of my then five-year-old son singing Friend of the Devil. I regret that I only heard bits and pieces of their concert, but I still have a great deal of fondness for what a long strange trip it’s been.

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In A Big Country…

As we stepped out of the bright noonday sun into the murky dusk of the shadowy pool hall/bar/cafe, my dad’s jaw fell open.

“Jesus Christ, would you look at the size of that Polo Bear?” he said. My Uncle Herb just smiled and laughed out loud at the look on his brother’s face.

I’ve never seen you look like this without a reason

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you

Shock

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I headed to a nearby booth as my dad and my uncle did a very slow waltz around the inner sanctum of Ole’s Big Game Lodge, a huntsman’s paradise with walls that were smothered with every kind of mountable trophy except a decent Yeti. There were elephants, goats, wildebeests, and a rhino. There were lions, and tigers, and bears, (oh my) and yes, it was a big-assed polar bear that had ambushed dad once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. A great eight-footer about to snack on an understandably pissed-off harbor seal trapped under its giant paw.

After nine long hours, we’d finally made it to Paxton, an interstate town just inside the Mountain Time Zone on our westward voyage up to the mountains. We were nearing the overnight point of our trip to Steamboat Springs, soon to be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. After two horizon-expanding summers as a camp counselor just at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had been seduced into pulling up stakes on a pretty dim future as a teacher in Iowa and rolling out west to tackle a winter on the powdery slopes with the romantic dreams of everything that a blank check like that might hold for a twenty-seven year old with no money and no future. It was a siren call that already captured two of my buddies, Greg, the original transplant, Sully, the teacher and Bob, the pearl diver. All Midwesterners looking for something closer to adventure than what could be found on the rolling plains of the heartland.

So, that next day with a bit of a lump in my throat and a few tears held back for the sake of pride, I bid farewell to Dad and Uncle Herb as they dropped my few bags off at condo on the hill above the old west ski town and headed back down the road to the safety of Iowa. As Bob helped me toss things onto the floor that would be my bed, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I never took the smile away from anybody’s face

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child

It didn’t take long for the plan to unfold. That night when Sully came dragging home from a full day of social studies with sixth grade hooligans, we hopped into his yellow Opel and headed out to the mountain to begin my internship as a full-fledged snowbird…albeit the working kind. It turned out that Bob had recently been promoted from his position as a pearl diver to that of short-order cook at the Sidestep (née: Side-ache) Cafe. This left his dishwashing job open to the next man up. So began my working life in the mountains. As it turned out, the money wasn’t great and the free meal was even worse. Still, until something better came along, it was my last best hope. The job I was really waiting for was on the mountain. But the corporate bigwigs were still a couple of weeks away from holding the open interviews. So liquid Palmolive became my friend.

In the meantime, I was tightly holding onto the four hundred dollar grubstake my mother had secretly endowed upon my adventure. Rent would be due long before any possible paycheck might come from the “real” job I had yet to secure. My share of the rent was about to go up, because Sully’s original roommate Greg had found a better place to hang his hat and get away from the now overcrowded condo. Greg still held tight to our new friendship and proved valuable on many occasions. Bob and I quickly learned the art of turning hotel hors devours into a full meal. On Fridays, Sully would join us, but during the week, teaching was too demanding to turn him into a happy hour punk. Bob was my guru in this newfound survival skill. We would work our way across the base of the mountain, from one hotel happy hour to the next, drinking pretty cheap swill and living on cocktail wienies and cheese cubes. We looked like tourists, and we acted the same. But really, the waiters and bartenders all belonged to the same seasonal brotherhood of vagabond workers and as such, were required by the very bylaws that joined us to watch out for jokers like the two of us. As such, we survived. On the nights we didn’t scrounge, Bob’s idea of a home cooked meal was half a package of Top Ramen noodles and some sweat and sour sauce, lifted from the local Chinese carryout joint. I was a potpie man, myself…a full meal wrapped in a crust. The beer of choice around our condo was whatever we could afford. These were desperate times. One weekend adventure found us pooling our combined pocket money to afford a twelve pack of Buckhorn. With the aid of some environmental voodoo that allowed us to return bottles for a nickel apiece, we were only twelve cents short of our goal. That problem was quickly solved when Sully found a quarter stuck in the cushions of our Goodwill couch.

As the weeks quickly passed, first I, and then Bob got jobs as lift operators on the mountain. Bob was either a better skier or a better liar, as his lift was on the backside of the peak where the finest powder lay waiting for the first shift operators to come and violate it in their sacred runs to the bottom shack. I, on the other hand, a relative novice with boards strapped to my feet, was assigned to a place called Headwall, the beginner slope right in front of the Steamboat Sheraton. We were the first faces that our adoring public would see if they knew little about skiing on snow. When Thanksgiving finally rolled around two very noticeable things happened. First the sun went away for over a month, to be replaced with dark skies and the most beautiful, fluffy snow one could imagine. It really seemed a bit like living in a snow globe…that was being shaken on a 24-7 basis for thirty-five straight days. The second was my lift mates and I soon became introduced to every form of southern drawl that had ever been loosed by overweight, acrophobic women forced into a vacation not of her choosing. On more than one occasion, we would have to bring a snail-paced lift chair to a complete stop to accommodate a stressed out skier who knew her legs were about to be torn off by that seat slowly crawling around the bull wheel.

When finally the ever-present clouds shred themselves into nothingness, it was on New Year’s Eve. As it happened, a full, gigantic moon crawled up over the mountain long after dark and it’s orange blood flowed down the jagged strips of pale snow where the runs had been carved into her side like so many painful wounds. It seemed to freeze the warm air from our lungs like a Polaroid snapshot. But for the temperature and deep snows, it had a look and feel more like Halloween than the final day of the year. With the breaking of the snowy spell, the rest of the New Year fell into a more normal routine. An occasional large snowstorm followed by several days filled with enough sunshine that at least mentally, we felt warmer as we crept into spring.

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

 When March tossed St. Patrick’s Day down at our boots, Bob and I decided that the time was right to push back and show this mountain who was really in charge. We’d adopted another lift operator along the way. Anthony was from South Carolina and his low country twang was charming and nearly undecipherable to Bob and me. It was he who brought his love of the Scottish band, Big Country to us. This alone would have endeared him to the two of us. Their music seemed to follow us around the town, in and out of most every bar. It became our anthem. Anthony was athletic and wiry and was all but impossible to catch on a downhill run. He fancied himself a rock hopper. He lived for deep powder and the larger snow-covered boulders from which he could get some serious air. In this regard, Bob was his compadre. I was a chicken in this area. I had learned to ski and love deep powder and I had acquired an ability to handle the bumps on a black slope, but I stayed away from runs that might combine the two. Above all, I knew I was too big to be skiing off of large rocks thinking that I’d do anything besides plummet like a pig without wings.

On this particular day, the sun was pushing the temperature into the mid-forties. After a winter of sub-zero days on the slopes, this was too tempting to disregard. The three of us ignored the crowded, subway mentality of the gondola and instead headed up the mountain first hopping up on one lift and then the next in only shorts, light coats, gaiters and gloves instead of our heavier togs and Anthony had hidden a fifth of peppermint schnapps that we felt would serve us better once we got to the operator’s party, secretly being held on the west side of the peak.

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

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The schnapps never made it to the west side party. It was gone before we got off of the third and final lift dropping us just above Buddy’s Run. It took only a few minutes to ski down to the informal gala, which was hidden, from the touring public by some fairly deep powder and quarter mile of firs. We shared a beer or two while standing around soaking in the warm rays, joking and making plans for later with a few dozen of our brothers and sisters in arms. It was one of the most vibrant, and pleasant memories that I return to as I think about that time in my life. I can remember telling Bob and Anthony that I was surprised the schnapps hadn’t bitten back at us. I reasoned that it was likely because three of us had shared it and already skied off any of the bad juju. After half an hour or so, we knew it was time to head back down to the bottom, so we thanked our friends and made ready to go. The mountain broke before us in a cascade of feathery runs, an open invitation to breathe deep and become one with nature and all its beauty.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime 

I should have known I was in trouble when I tried to step into my skis and fell over for no apparent reason. Bob began what would be a nonstop cackle that would last for the next thirty minutes. Of course the unapparent reason from my balance issue was that the schnapps had indeed caught up to me. The two beers at the gathering proved to be just stupidity in action. After a couple more attempts, the skis were on my feet and I was pointed downhill with my friends laughing with every awkward slide I took. What usually should have been a ten-minute run at good speed eventually took about half an hour. Tears had started to freeze to my face as the temperature had started to sink with the sun. I could manage about thirty yards or so before my balance gave out and I’d have to right myself and start the agonizing ritual over once again. My lower half had taken on the painful pink one might see when glancing at frozen crab legs in the seafood shop. I was laughing so hard that I could barely see the trail. It was all I could do to keep from pissing myself, which the dropping temperature had taken off the table as an outdoor option. Bob and Anthony were less than helpful in any regard, whatsoever.

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

Shock, One, Two

In the end we made it back to the employee lockers and thawed out a bit. I threw on some pants and we decided to keep the day moving and headed into our happy hour routine. About at week later, Anthony flew awkwardly off a rock and snapped his tibia. It proved to be his ticket home as the season was winding down. With April came even warmer weather and fewer skiers. By the end of the month Sully was counting down the school days, Bob was making plans to ride his bicycle to Alaska and I was on a plane back to Iowa…waiting for another adventure to pop up calling me forth somewhere in this big country.

 In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

Love It, Live…

As I grow older, I have begun to feel a sensory kinship to Ray Charles. I’m not any kind of musical talent, though I can pretend to blow fills on a blues harp as my guitar playing friends turn up their amps to push my bends a little further to the rear of the mix… and rightfully so. I’m probably the only one that can hear my budding talent on the harp. No…my empathy with Ray is more physiological.

For all practical purposes, I’m deaf, but I’m too proud to do anything about it. I’ll let age take part of the credit, but for the most part I’m going to lay the blame at the feet of a certain high school friend…I’ll call him Bruce.

Now don’t get me wrong, Bruce was a great friend and he led the kind of high school life I wanted for myself. He was smart. He had a great sense of humor. He was a natural leader. But mostly, to me, he personified cool. It was because I saw him do it, that I started including my middle initial in all of my signatures. Talk about your pedestals. I was a couple of years behind Bruce in school and he was the perfect gateway for my short venture into the wild side of life. Bruce helped me into and out of my first ridiculous forays into underage drinking (who knew Boone’s Farm could be so messy)? He influenced my interest in taking more art classes than shop classes, which is probably why I’m still afraid of table saws specifically and loud tools in general. He was on the cutting edge of the rural psychedelic experience and as a result, I started listening to more FM cuts and less to Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Hell, it was Bruce who loaned me The Hobbit to read for the first time. He altered my universe.

But, Bruce had no regard for my young, and apparently sensitive ears. He was a musician that could seemingly play any instrument, but for the purpose of fronting The Heavy Experience (local rock gods to we of the younger set), Bruce played the bass. He was also the lead singer and evidently had the more understanding parents of the band members. For it was in Bruce’s upstairs bedroom that the band’s sound system was housed, when not being used for practices or gigs.

At this point in life, many of us can now appreciate what a colossal mistake this was on the part of Bruce’s parents. But there it was…right at the end of his ten-foot by ten-foot room…a room barely big enough for his bed…let alone this monstrous contraption. But the two, five-foot columns powered by a megawatt amp (seemed to produce as much power a border radio station down near Laredo) was his pride and joy. And it was through this sound system, that the entirety of Led Zeppelin albums, I and II, were literally etched into the soft fabric of my brain cells at levels that would have impressed the boys from Spinal Tap. I swear there was a twelve setting on that system’s volume control. When Bruce powered the system up and dropped the needle on the first album, I’m sure my eyes rolled back in my head. While I can remember feeling something quite uncomfortable in my ears, but not willing to call it pain, I wasn’t about to admit to Bruce that it was too loud. It was rock n’ roll. This was Bruce. It was cool with me.

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So now, I understand. It is not at all unusual for someone like myself, a couple weeks shy of sixty, to have that nasty ringing sensation sloshing around my ears in an otherwise silent room. It’s not fun but it’s not abnormal. Just the same, this particular nasty ringing haunting MY ears seems to suggest Robert Plant screaming “Living, Loving…. She’s Just a Woman” over Jimmy Page’s guitar licks. The pitch in the echoing rings of my inner ear are so high my dog starts howling at me, of course it’s always when no one else is around to witness it.

But all things being equal, I can’t say I’d trade the hearing issue with the experience of growing up with such a rich and local connection to the feel of rock n’ roll. We had at least four good bands in my little town that were capable of earning money, or at least free refreshments, at a variety of gigs. It started with the late sixties sound of The Soul Purpose playing “Hang on Sloopy.” My cousin Steve played guitar in The Sound Alliance as this second group appeared on the scene in town. These guys had a sax in the band…this was when Boots Randolph was the only sax player most of us had ever heard of and way before Clarence Clemons joined the E-Street Band and made it fashionable. This group eventually graduated and along came Bruce’s band, The Heavy Experience. It was this band that gave me a taste of the glamorous lifestyle of the local rock icon. I was brought along to help move equipment and to run the homemade lighting system during the band’s shows. After my first show, I had three big blisters on my fingers and thumb and an extra twenty dollars in my pocket. On one longer road trip, I, at only fourteen, was required to smoke the cigar that would hopefully kill the smell of the skunk our drive had managed to hit with the station wagon. Music seemed to require a lot of sacrifices.

Eventually, The Heavy Experience morphed into a smaller group, called Pax (Latin was not lost on the hip youth of my day). And just as quickly, Pax was gone and we were out of the seventies and into the era of “me first.” Somewhere during that wonderful time period, I was brought in as the drummer in a group of my own peers. Our name changed with every practice, as did our lead singer. We never played anywhere besides the garage or basement of somebody’s home. We knew about six or seven songs, leaning heavily on Creedence Clearwater Revival. But we had fun and we had a deeper understanding of the freedom that rock n’ roll could bring to a kid stuck in a small town in the Midwest.

There was something so meaningful about being on the edge of all this live music that has stuck with me over the years. Live music, when done well, pulls you in and lets you participate on the same stage with the performers. It hurts and heals in what seems like the same moment. It allows us to travel time and land where our memories were born. So, looking back, a little hearing loss isn’t that big of a deal. Other than the live music, there isn’t that much out there I really want to hear any more. I was given an education that I still seek to supplement these days. I look for the live music as a way to re-inform myself as to what is real and what is fun. For this education, I have so many to thank. You know who you are…or you should. So keep playing boys…somebody out there is still listening.

If only Robert Plant would shut the hell up!

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The Red-Headed Stranger…

Jenny didn’t shit just anywhere when she had a statement to make…she was very selective. She wouldn’t shit in Craig and Robin’s room. On those rare occasions she actually came to visit them, she didn’t bother to shit upstairs in Fred and Dan’s room. In Larry’s and Gary’s room? My room? She never shit in any of those places. In fact she was a perfect guest to most of us at the WAFU House. It was more than a little surprising that a visitor who oozed great looks and obvious breeding like Jenny’s would find it acceptable to shit anywhere except where she was supposed to.

 

The WAFU (We’re All Fine Undergraduates???) House was a three-story behemoth that was a cross between two great movie sets…Animal House and Psycho. Ten of us called this place home at the same time. Eight dudes and two ladies…three, once Jenny moved in. The only rules revolved around Top Raman Noodles and toilet paper. Otherwise, it was everybody for themselves. We were a living, breathing television script way before the advent of reality TV. We were drunk and disorderly at the dawning of the MTV age. And all was peaches and cream, until Rod brought Jenny home one late winter evening with barely a story other than she needed a place to stay for a while. For her entire stay, she remained an enigma to us.

 

It was only Chris with whom Jenny seemed to have serious issues. We never knew why this was the case. Chris certainly didn’t ask and Jenny wasn’t talking. Still, on more than one occasion, Chris came home from a long day on campus to find very un-ladylike calling card plopped right in the middle of his area rug. Maybe it was just some kind of evil chemistry between them, but tension was palpable.

 

Maybe the problem was that Rod, her liberator, paid way more attention to his girlfriend Pam than Jenny was willing to put up with. After all it was Rod who had taken it upon himself to save her from her “situation” with that last guy. He had bonded with Jenny. He had brought her to stay with us…until arrangements could be made. Pam was unusually silent about all of this, but that’s how we rolled in the early 80’s. Jenny’s a bitch… Hunziker and Furman are assholes and sometimes you have to put up with Fred and BK.

 

Clearly, Rod was a sucker for redheads and Jenny was a long, lean one. The deep-set hazel that glittered in her eyes barely masked the anger and resentment she had for her last guy. I suspect this is what she really loathed the most about Chris…his physical similarity to some guy none of us had ever seen, but who had become painfully imprinted on Jenny’s psyche. We never quite learned how Rod came to befriend Jenny and that had to grate on Pam’s already delicately stretched heartstrings. If Jenny noticed this resentment from Pam, she kept it to herself. Jenny seemed to have a lot on her mind. She was quiet and kept to herself. She slept almost constantly, only waking to stroll into the kitchen and eat whatever food Rod was willing to give her, and then back to the couch for another round of shuteye. As it turned out, she was carrying more than deep, dark concerns about her living situation.

 

It took very little to entertain our little household of misfit toys. We’d survived on beer and Fred’ sense of humor for so long that when MTV premiered earlier that fall, we felt like we had been lifted to a higher cultural plane. Most of us viewed MTV as a way to become more informed on the social and political renderings of our various musical heroes. Dan, on the other hand, viewed MTV as a gateway drug to better sleep. One unusually cold, still snowy March night, Dan outlasted the rest of us, who had sauntered off to our own beds, and passed out on the couch while Martha Quinn, on the screen across the room, introduced each video with a back-story lost on this audience. The furnace, when it ran correctly at the WAFU House, did little if any good, so before fading completely to black, Dan had at least grabbed the afghan lying on the floor by the couch. He didn’t remember that the afghan belonged to Chris and as such, was considered a target.

 

Dan was wakened to the tune of a whimpering chorus. Four soft, wet, newly born puppies were crawling around on his chest and legs trying to determine if he was their new mother or if it was indeed, our temporary house guest, Jenny, the Irish Setter with a grudge to even. Jenny had crawled up onto Dan and the afghan and littered, while Dan twitched and snored his way through it all. Chris’s afghan took the brunt of the birthing process, but Dan, who shortly after this episode traded his pre-vet major for forestry, had not gone unscathed. He quickly freed himself from the mess he found himself in and woke the house with his colorful expressions. Jenny was a new mommy and Dan, at least in the eyes of the puppies and his roommates was the de facto new daddy.

 

After the cuteness of the puppies wore off, that is to say in about a week. Jenny and her offspring were farmed out to a place much more capable of handling the day-to-day demands of parenthood. Rod took them back to his parents place and the rest of us, especially Chris, started living a mostly normal life again. We had all been included, if ever so briefly, in the “circle of life.” Spring brought the customary thaw and our windows opened to warmer southerly breezes. The songbirds began to fill the trees in our yard and the nasty insects that find every hole in the window screens started to join our daily adventures. But the flies this spring seemed to be thicker than usual…even for the WAFU House.

 

Finally, one day, while Fred and I sat on the “puppy couch” as it had been dubbed, eating our tuna fish sandwiches, we could stand it no longer. There were too many flies and as the warm weather had brought a pungent odor to our television room. Fred and I were convinced that there was a dead mouse in the vicinity. We slid the couch away from the wall. There was nothing to be seen there. We flipped the couch over and were horrified to find a jelly-like mass stuck to the inside of the underskirt of the couch. Cream-colored maggots crawled over most of the underside of the couch. Oh well… we were familiar with gross. This was just another chapter. But then we both saw it at the same time…the petrified, but unmistakable paw of a long-dead puppy poking through the skirt. The sickness forming in the back of my mouth chased me out the door and into the yard, with Fred close on my heels. Larry who had been watching the search with an egg-salad sandwich in his hand, didn’t make it three steps before his lunch resurfaced. A full month after she had left our lives, Jenny, or at least one of her offspring, had struck again. The puppy had obviously fallen through the back of the couch and died shortly thereafter. It’s a testament to our lifestyle that we didn’t notice it for several weeks.

 

Being the soulless wretches that we already were, Fred and I tore off the skirt of the couch and tossed it in the yard for the elements to destroy. Eventually the couch was restored, thanks to a can or two of Easy Bake Oven Cleaner. In the end, the WAFUs may have lost whatever we once had of our dignity, but we had our couch back… and you can’t watch MTV sitting on your dignity.

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Ship of Ghouls…

Amoral vs. Immoral:

Both have to do with right and wrong, but amoral means having no sense of either, like a fish, but the evil immoral describes someone who knows the difference, doesn’t care, and says “mwah ha ha” while twirling a mustache. If you call someone immoral, you are saying that person knows better. (Vocabulary.com)

 

 

Not long ago, I posted a piece on my ideas about spirituality and the redeeming, even purifying powers of nature to wash away my inner guilt and leave me with a hope for a meaningful afterlife. As much as I’d like to confess that those were just some especially strong feelings, meant to lift the soul of anyone who took the time to read my online blathering, I can’t. You see…I’m a sinner, floating out on the social waters at one of the darker edges of our social globe in a ship of fools. You see…I bet on dead people. Well, actually, that isn’t true. I bet on living people that may or may not die in the near future. Let me explain.

About five years ago, having been plied with ample amounts of dark ale, I was lured into a quasi-secret society of adult ne’er-do-wells. It was explained to me that for a mere monthly installment of five dollars I could join this merry band of outlaws in a game that required so little of me it seemed immoral. I was right, it was immoral, but I didn’t hesitate to join them. I plunked down my five dollars (which for the sake of convenience and permanence, would soon be converted over to an automatic withdrawal from the bank account of my choice…modern immorality is THE best) and simultaneously carved away a slice of my soul. I blame it all on the Brit.

John was born and raised in England and had brought this concept of a Ghoul Pool across the puddle when he and the Beatles invaded our fair land. Okay, he isn’t as old as the Beatles, but his impact on our little patch of American soil is just as meaningful as theirs was. John is clever, polite, charming and more than a bit devious. Back in the motherland, he had belonged to a group of blokes who bet on which world-famous celebrity might expire first. That’s right, a member can pick any person famous enough to be noted in the New York Times upon said person’s demise and hope that this chosen one is the next to go. First ghoul wins the pot. The Ghoul Pool, it was called. A quid dropped here and there, a florin spent now and then, a couple of innocent pints with close mates then they’re betting on death and before you know it, Bob’s Your Uncle…here comes the Hell Express and it’s waiting carry us all asunder.

Now, granted, our American souls had been on line, waiting some time for that Hell Express to load us up and drive straight into the river Styx, but creating our local version of the Ghoul Pool (which is the exact wording of my monthly Quicken entry, by the way) has probably put us in some sort of express lane. We easily qualify for the commuter lane, as we’re now approaching double figures for enrollment. Though it might seem intuitive to suppose that a group so debased as ours might be primarily made up of unshaven plasma-sellers and bottle collectors, such is not the case with this group. Some of us even shower on a regular basis. Indeed, we have at least five educators, two lawyers, and a dentist among our crew. Educators (full disclosure: me) are simply innocent bystanders too easily sucked into whatever muck is closest to them; most frequently it’s just middle school. Lawyers, although one of ours is now technically a judge and as such may or may not have risen to a higher principled ground, are too often, the brunt of tasteless jokes all the while doing more good than harm. Just the same, you would have thought they might have known better.   Most dentists are just communal medicine men/women just trying to help us all in the least painful way possible. Yeah, that never works out like planned, but I think they really do try. Unfortunately, Bernie, our GP dentist and chief financial officer is also a Cardinals fan, which can already get you to hell quicker than shooting the Pope. Overall, we’re good people with a weak spot for tasteless entertainment.

While I have pointed my finger at John for infecting our moral fiber, it was actually Sully who thought that the idea was too good to keep a secret and set about to create what is now our version of the Pool. We needed a legal outlet for our poisoned souls and the Ghoul Pool seemed to be the perfect vehicle for us. That plus we were looking for a good reason to gather and drink once a month. The Pool was started a year or two before I was asked to audition. Sully explained the concept and told me to meet him and the boys, numbering about four strong at the time, for a beer. Oh, and by the way, make sure I bring a list of candidates from which to choose. The existing members could veto anyone they thought would be too likely to die before his/her time. That ruled out Willie Nelson right there, which in hindsight, turned out to be a good thing. So I kept my ears open, did my homework and showed up that fateful night ready to swing for the fence.

It didn’t seem right to pick someone that I actually would not miss if they keeled over, so I dropped Dick Cheney and Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church…) out of what guilt I had left to muster. I liked Jim Nabors and Keith Richards too much to choose one of them. It needed to be someone about whom I was fairly ambivalent. Eventually I gave them a name that they all accepted with suppressed snickers all around. They nodded knowingly at one another believing that I had chosen poorly…but I was a rookie…could they expect less?

After about ten or eleven months of tithing, the Pool voted to grant me full vestment, which meant that if I now won, I’d be eligible for the entire pot, not just an actuarial percentage of whatever I’d personally invested. In mafia terms, I’d become a “made man.” The Poolers were smug in the assumption that my choice was a long shot. Within weeks, the roulette wheel of disgusting events stopped squarely on my number when Amy Winehouse, my selected celebrity, unfortunately lost her battle with sobriety and slipped from this world. Cha-Ching!

There is no way to feel good about “winning” the Ghoul Pool. I think we all secretly hope that our choice, usually someone with glaring problems, can get straightened out and make us look silly. Of course, we only think this way until the Cubs win the pennant and one of us needs a couple thousand in windfall cash to buy a nosebleed seat at Wrigley (I’m looking at you Sully). Don’t get me wrong. I took the money. I paid the bar tab for the boys that night, as is customary. We toasted the memory of Ms. Winehouse and moved on. But whenever I hear her nearly perfect bluesy voice telling me that “…no, no, no!” she ain’t going back to rehab, I sigh and wish she might have said “…yeah, yeah, yeah!” instead.

Just the same, the Ghoul Pool moves on even if life doesn’t. I’m a sad soul with much to answer for when my own number comes up, but I’m betting that isn’t soon. Looks like a need to take a walk down a mountain path and see what nature can do to cleanse me again.

By the way, anybody know the current state of Meatloaf’s health?

shipfools04

So You Wanna Be A Rock n’ Roll Star…

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Quite an auspicious beginning, to be sure. My mom might understand how it got to this point, but she would certainly not be happy with my choice. As if it really were my choice. I didn’t poke the cigar in my own mouth. I didn’t light the cigar. I didn’t even ask for the cigar.

But here I sat; my fifteen-year-old ass wedged between an upper class high school dude and a car door that looked very flimsy, just puffing away by order of Bill, the keyboard player. The moon kept poking through the ghostlike clouds as the night crept toward the haunting hour.

The ’68 Chrysler Town En Country wagon that hauled most of the gear and pulled the overburdened U-Haul trailer behind us was unusually cramped for a car of this size. Rex, the drummer, had been entertaining himself in the back seat with a rapid succession of horrific farts that sounded more like exploding water balloons than anything at all human. As a result, Bruce, the singer/bass player (for tonight’s gig…Tom, the regular bassist, had been put on a short geographical leash by his mom) was trying to get as far away from him as possible, which put him mostly on my lap, head hanging out the open window. The farts, as pungent as they were artistic, almost created enough of a screen to kill the smell of the skunk that Mike, driver and guitarist, had hit about five miles back. It was the combination of all of these toxic potions that convinced Bill somebody was going to smoke the cigar. Such was the start to my brief stint as a local rock n’ roll star.

It was late October and still warm enough that having the windows down late at night on our trip back home wasn’t lethal or even foolish. Do away with the skunk’s odor, Rex’s air biscuits, and that cheap assed cigar I was smoking, and windows down would have been a fine choice anyway. It was just another night on the road for The Heavy Experience…local rock heroes. Our band…and I use the term OUR very loosely, had just entertained what must have been tens of, dozens of kids just waiting for us to stop playing so they could grab their dates and go in search of warm beer and cold stabs at teen romance on the dusty back roads of rural Iowa.

But, for me, the night was magical. I had been invited to climb that stairway to the heaven of stardom. I had become the personification of all things righteous in the deviant world of rock n’ roll. I had lived out the dream of being on stage and performing in a real rock band…one that got actually got paid in cash, not just all-you-can eat chili at the local legion hall. Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, The Monkees…we all now shared a common bond. Rock Gods! As such, the temptations of this kind of power can be overwhelming. So, truth be told, it was with little, if any protest, that I accepted the cigar that Bill demanded we light up to combat the stench that had now nearly asphyxiated us all. Really, I didn’t care. I was a rock n’ roll star.

The Heavy Experience was a pretty typical little band for our little patch of the world. A little Hendrix, Spirit, Cream, some Free, toss in the occasional Guess Who and you had half of the set list. In it’s usual configuration, it was a five piece band with an under aged roadie. Mike played a pretty good rhythm guitar with enough chops to slap together the occasional solo that sounded as authentic as he needed to fool the locals. Bill played keyboards with a restrained darkness that should have signaled to us what would later play out to be a tragic ending in a troubled life. Rex, the left-handed drummer, kept a good beat and was all-in on being the best version of Keith Moon that he could muster. He was the jester in a court already too full of goofballs. Tom, the Boy Scout of the group (with a sneaky penchant for streaking) was a steady hand on the faux-McCartney bass that he prized so much. Bruce, the lead singer (by virtue of the fact that he was the only one that knew all the words) was the front man. He was the one closest to me in age. Two years older than me, I more or less put him on a pedestal that he never asked for. Bruce was the devil in blue suede Adidas. He became the architect for most of my bad choices. Drinking that…smoking this…don’t even get me started on the he took me to the only Grateful Dead concert that I would get to see…or more like, hear…or mostly neither. Who knew Boone’s Farm and Panama Red were not on friendly terms?

But on this trip, Tom couldn’t go and the contract called for a five-piece band. I had been travelling with the group all summer as the roadie / lighting dude and was preparing to be same for the stop that night in Seymour. When the boys pulled up to get me at my home, I was sent back in to grab a dress shirt and a tie. It seems the closer we got to Missouri on our road trips the more the school administrators expected in terms of formal wear. I just figured that applied to the light dude as well as the boys in the band. It was, however, explained to me, in short order, that on this night, I was going to be on stage, and that under no circumstances should I do anything stupid. Too late for them…they’d already given me a license to kill.

Once we arrived and got set up, it didn’t take long to slide into the part of tambourine playing, background singing, acne-faced rock god. I had already been playing drums and percussion since sixth grade so I was no threat to screwing up their rhythm section. However, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a reason I’d been asked to stop attending mixed chorus in eighth grade. I had always assumed it was because I was an incurable smart ass. Turns out I couldn’t hold a note to save my life. Problem? Maybe… Too bad for the boys that I knew how to turn my microphone back up every time they tried to turn it down. I knew the words as well as Bruce did and by god, I was going to be a genuine back up singer…so sing I did. Loud and loose!

It was nirvana, before Kurt Cobain had even heard of the word. There I was, on stage with a button down collar and a shitty tie and a flippin’ tambourine in my hand wailing like the day I was born. All of those years of standing on the floor of the gym looking up at those cool guys on the stage playing their instruments…The Soul Purpose…Sound Alliance…and now, I was one of them. I was in The Heavy Experience. I was Mr. Tambourine Man playing songs for my own fans on the floor. So what if they wanted to be out getting drunk? It was my fantasy, not theirs.

And before I could soak it all in, it was over and I was getting sick from not knowing that cigars don’t necessarily have to be inhaled fully to be enjoyed. But for that moment…for that one golden, fleeting moment, I was a rock n’ roll star. And damn…it was good!

 

The Goat in the Machine

Yesterday, I was prepared to tackle the immediacy of the LCS in great detail. But the big, black dog of sports despair crept into my living room and growled at me until I backed off from my computer and diligently stole away to the bike trail to outride the shaggy beast once again. By the time I returned, the beast was gone, but the cold beer was nearby, so it garnered my attention for an hour or two and then the solitude of my retired activity was interrupted by life. The kids were home from school. So my writing was put on hold for a day. Whew…

This morning, the LCS still looms before those of us who have worshipped at the alter of Harry Caray. For the sake of clarity, I’m not referring to the LCS many of you are probably nodding your heads to in tacit understanding. No…I’m not writing about the League Championship Series…at least not directly. My LCS, the one the big black dog recognizes and growls life into is the Lamenting Cub Syndrome. Hello, my name is BillyBobb, and I’m a lamenting Cubs fan. You may remember me sitting on a bar stool next to you that one time. I look differently to different people, but no matter how I appear on the outside, I’m always one deep drive (…way back…way back) to right from crumpling up and dropping into the outfielders glove as the prevailing winds at Wrigley switch direction and begin to blow in from Lake Michigan. I don’t have a chance.

Back in the early  80’s, my friend Sully invited me into a world of fantastic buffoonery and formidable despair. I have yet to forgive him. He introduced me to the boys of Moline, Tea Bags, Lopey, Weebs and they various legends they and their ilk had been creating for years. Sully brought me to Chicago to meet and foolishly fall in love with the Chicago Cubs. Of course, alcohol was involved. Isn’t it always when you want to make a good first impression? I went to the windy city gawking in wide-eyed-wonder and like a big, old crack head…I was hooked.

Although the relationship was nothing more than a long-distance flirtation for the glamorous Cubs…I only went to the home opener, nothing else…it was more than that to me. I fell head over heels in love at the first sight of the friendly confines. Just like my college sweetheart, the Cubs didn’t have to tell me they loved me, they only had allow me to pour my heart and soul into them. The result, in both situations, were strikingly similar. My heart, broken in sloppy wet chunks on the ground. My college girlfriend, at least, had the decency to break up and move on with her life. The Cubs, bastards that they are, slapped a spiked collar on my neck and continue to drag my sorry ass from season to season…and I don’t even go to the home opener any more.

So naturally, when the Cubs started turning the corner by making good hires like Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon, then started winning games in a very un-Cubs like manner, my anxiety about how to handle this began to grow. It is now culminating as the Cubs took off games two and three of the Championship Series, but forgot to tell the Dodgers. Last night, after my daughter asked to listen to the game on XM radio coming home from faith formation, I gave in and we turned it on long enough to hear Anthony Rizzo strike out for the four-hundredth time in the post season. Off went the radio. With the apocalyptic demise of this magical season at hand, I was forced to put away my Bill Murray shirt and stop wearing my Ernie Banks jersey and make myself watch the Presidential debate instead of the game. And just as predictably, when I’m not there to suffer, they Cubs soar to great heights. Somehow, the 10-2 win, which ties the series at two games apiece, brought little satisfaction, knowing that once again…if my favorite team has any chance of winning, it starts with me being removed from the equation.

You see, I’ve got a history with this. My whole sports world hangs by a thread no matter what season it might be. If this history should happen to carry over into politics…Lord help us. We’re all going to hell in a hand-basket, as my dad once loved to tell me. The Cubs are famous for the curse of the billy goat…1945…fan brings goat to game…Cubs refuse goat…Cubs lose…and lose…and lose…and, well, you see where I’m going. Curses…and goats are NOT to be trifled with. Nothing good comes from trifling with a cursed goat. But you see, long before I became a Cubs fan, I got schooled in the world of the “crying shames” as far as that goes with sports teams. George Will once famously wrote that “Cubs fans are ninety percent scar tissue.” He knows what he’s talking about. My worshiping of the Cubs and the resulting pain, comes with one of those multipliers you can buy to increase your winnings should you hit the numbers in the lottery. However, my odds of winning seem unfathomable. My psychological scar tissue transcends baseball, I’m afraid. It permeates the very air I breathe and in turn, I tend to spread it to those teams I love the most.

From an early age, I have been able to pick the loser at every turn. It started with my conversion from being an LA Rams (pre-St. Louis) to a Bobby Douglass-era Chicago Bears fan. Just in time for what we Bears fans refer to as “the dark ages.” Because my mother had a twin sister, we both became Minnesota Twins fans. While perennially not great, they proved almost unworthy by winning a couple of division and World Series titles in their history, but came roaring back this year with the worst record in major league baseball. I fooled the NBA gods into thinking I was rooting for the Warriors in last years championship against the Cavaliers, when in reality (as you can probably guess) I have a secret love affair with the whole city of Cleveland. And of course, I spent five of my favorite years attending Iowa State University of Science and Technology. The Cyclones have long been the red-headed stepchild in this state, while their arch-enemy prodigal sons, Iowa Hawkeyes drink from the golden cup of all things popular and successful.

So now you understand. The Cubs won’t win. They can’t win. At least they can’t win if I insist on joining them in their success. Why not? Because it’s still there. It’s right there, lingering over my shoulder wherever I go. No longer a dog…big, black and furry. No, it’s now morphed into a goat..and damned if ain’t stuck right smack dab in the middle of my machine.