…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

Song for Wovoka

Having followed much of the protest of the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock, I was pleasantly surprised to find a poem in my journal archives that reaches back almost twenty-five years. I can’t pull to memory, what exactly it was that inspired the creation of this poem. It was almost certainly written while journaling with my students at that time. It  seems to me that I was doing some reading about the Sioux at the time, but any specific title now escapes me. Just the same, it’s worth bringing forward and sharing, especially if it inspires anyone to go in search of the story of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance.

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Wokova

Ghost Dance

They dance with spirits
That haunt ancient minds
Apparitions of holiness
Phantasms of time

Blend into one circle
Earth, Wind
Fire, Rain
They speak of no pleasure
They sing of no pain

Tread softly on clouds
That scrape desert floors
Ride thunderbolt ponies
Ghost braves of great wars

Send spirit to eagles
That glide round the moon
Send courage to women
Left lonely too soon

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Between the World and Me…

Having spent a significant chunk of my thirty-year teaching career in the English classroom, I feel I’ve come to know a good book from something less. My very core has been built from the bottom up by the literature I’ve been able to take in and more importantly by the books I’ve been so fortunate as to help others understand. So when it comes to recommending a book for others to read, I don’t take this risk lightly.

And make no mistake there is a risk in sharing a book with another soul. In a way, it becomes an act of sharing yourself and all of the vulnerabilities inherent with the act. But in this case, and through this vehicle of a blog, the risk is well worth it. Even when the book has already, been around for a while.

The book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve told my wife that although it’s a nonfiction work, this is a book that should be read as a follow up to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the seminal novel that pulled back the curtains on life within apartheid. Unfortunately, Mr. Coates succeeds in making me cry for my own country as he pulls back these curtains of ours.

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I recommend this book because it is important! I hope you keep this in mind as you work your way through it. And make no mistake; it will take a bit of work… on a few different levels. First, Coates is brutally honest… and being the target of direct honesty is seldom as pleasant or romantic a notion as it sounds. Second, his book is an open letter to his own child, which will hopefully bring the truths he is sharing to an empathetic ear. Whether or not we are parents, we all have children in our lives. Think of those children if you can put yourself in his place. Third, his stream-of-consciousness style of writing requires a trip or two to your desktop dictionary. That is a blessing in disguise.

If you choose to get your hands on this book and give it a proper reading, please remember that it should not be considered a gift. In fact, it is like most good books, a tool. Once it’s in your hands, you must decide how to best use it.

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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!

loud-music04

 

Captain Beefheart: Visions from Beyond – Big Eyed Beans from Venus!

I love to share good writing and good memories. So occasionally, I will reblog a piece from someone I am following. I hope you take the time to read it…and enjoy it. I’ll credit this one to The Immortal Jukebox… good stuff so far.

The Immortal Jukebox

‘Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note .. And let it float.’
(Captain Beefheart ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’)

‘Once you’ve heard Beefheart it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains like coffee or blood’ (Tom Waits)

‘If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in popular music it’s Beefheart’ (John Peel)

A day or so ago, on a whim, I decided to play my vinyl copy of, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

So, I carefully punched in the combination code (get it wrong twice and the caged tigers are released) and entered the sanctum sanctorum containing the motherlode of a lifetime’s dedicated record collecting.

Adjusting my eyes to the subdued lighting and breathing the filtered air in a thermostatically controlled dry heat I strolled past the substantial, ‘A’ section and found myself mesmerised by the bounteous treasures contained within the…

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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.

devildog