Monday, February 19, 2018

Meet the Beatles

Of course, I never actually met them.  I was born when they broke big in America, a toddler for their entire existence, and a large McCartney/Wings fan through the 70s.

It seemed like getting into music as a kid in the 70s, the one hallmark all serious fans of that time held: going through the Beatles phase.  That initial blast where it became clear to the young listener: my God, this stuff is over a decade old and sounds as alive and interesting as anything going on now.

I’ve had that similar music experience many times over with other bands and kinds of music.  A real surprise as an adult has been hearing live blues and jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, knowing they were recorded in the most rudimentary ways possible, and the music sounds so immediate that you feel like you’re in the audience.  Compare and contrast with your average Rolling Stones live album that sounds like a fuzz machine echoing through a stadium.

I had brushes with The Beatles as a small child.  As noted in the book, “Hey Jude” became a childhood staple at neighbor Bubba’s house, plundering his older brother’s collection while he was fighting in Vietnam.  And the pool parties where some kid would lay the needle down on the portable record player at the start of that 45’s flipside, “Revolution,” and we’d time our jumps into the pool with Lennon’s opening scream.

The first real blast of Beatledom came with Brother J and me pining over the recently-released Blue and Red compilation albums in 1975.  They came out in 1973, but it wasn’t until then that both of us were thinking, “Man, we should own these things.”  We didn’t know where to start with The Beatles in terms of albums.  Their 70s revisionist era was just beginning, where their songs would be repackaged in all sorts of bizarre ways.  I recall their “rock and roll” songs being packaged as a collection. Their “love songs” as another.  The “Hollywood Bowl” recordings.  Almost immediately issued in the shitbins was “The Beatles at the Star Club” – a recording of their rowdy Hamburg shows pre-stardom.  (Brother J made the mistake of buying that in the late 70s … it was the worst pile of shit we’d ever heard.  I’ve since seen some revisionist history on this bootleg … they’re wrong.  It’s recorded and sounds like shit.)

The Blue and Red albums kept looking us in the face every tie we went into Woolworth’s.  Double albums.  I can’t recall the pricing, but it was reasonable, around $10.00 for each.  So, we kept mowing lawns, saved up, and eventually made those albums ours, probably in the spring of 1975.

I was immediately struck by how much more I liked the Blue album (1967 onward).  This sounded like the music I was listening to in real time.  Their influence was so strong that mainstream music would go on sounding like their varied takes on pop music for well over a decade, surely into the early 80s.  (And that’s just in terms of cultural dominance … there have always been melodic pop/rock bands since then, if not dominating the charts.)  “I Am the Walrus” and “A Day in the Life” were far more out there than most music I was hearing on 70s AOR radio.  Nearly every track had a timeless feel to it.

The Red album didn’t register nearly as well, probably because the recordings were more basic and raw, and only started to evolve production-wise leaning into 1966 (Rubber Soul leading into Revolver).  I’ve since come to realize those two albums are the apex for me and The Beatles, where they were all on the same page, still seeing themselves as one band, creatively intertwined, putting out pop music that would be influential decades later, without any hazy psychedelic shadings, a few leaps beyond the early boy/girl stuff.  In 1974 I was thinking, meh, whatever.  I didn’t realize that “In My Life” was Lennon’s direct take on Smokey Robinson and demonstrated his growth as a lyricist.  “Eleanor Rigby”?  Yeah, cool.  I didn’t realize that no one in the rock world was doing this, putting out a track with only vocals and classical backing.  Orchestras had crept into rock music in the late 50s, with The Drifters and Phil Spector working them into arrangements.  But not like this.  I’m shocked listening to “Eleanor Rigby” now – this was groundbreaking material at the time.

Of course, the early boy/girl material left me cold at the time, just sounded silly.  I still feel that way, although to a much lesser extent.  You could hear them breaking ground almost immediately – the fuzz guitar in “I Feel Fine,” Lennon’s lyrical genius in “Help” – but I don’t think they shifted into creative overdrive until after the Help album, later in 1965, where they really started learning their strengths and how to use the studio with George Martin.

This was the perfect musical schooling for an 11-year-old boy just getting into music.  Other kids were doing it, too, and I was always tuned into when that was happening.  Those kids were either musicians themselves, or smart kids who understood that Styx, Boston and REO Speedwagon weren’t created in a vacuum.  Old friend Tony was a budding guitarist, way into heavy metal, but he knew, The Beatles were a band he needed to hear.  And it wasn’t like we were in a Beatles-only musical world.  We were surrounded by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in their 70s prime, The Who, Kinks and Stones still putting out reasonably good material.  Dozens of bands putting out good-to-great material.  Bands like Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp were putting out top-shelf pop albums that many considered Top 40 fluff because it was such a normal occurrence back then.  While 70s AOR radio was becoming dull in terms of repetitively playing the same tracks over and over (it took me decades to appreciate Jethro Tull again), there was a time, up through the late 70s, where you could still hear an amazingly large variety of 60s/70s pop rock being played routinely.  It became a teenage/young adult culture unto itself that many of us still identify with strongly.

But in terms of The Beatles, for my first few years as a rock fan, those two albums were it.  If a song wasn’t on those two albums, chances are we weren’t hearing it on the radio.  As we didn’t have the full albums, there was a vast sea of Beatles material we knew little to nothing about.

I still remember hearing “We Can Work It Out” on the radio one day and thinking it was a new McCartney song, not realizing it was a decade old, and that was clearly Lennon on the harmony vocal.  Ditto, “If I Fell,” which wasn’t on the Red Album, but should have been.  A wonderful pop song that blew my mind the first time I heard it.  I knew it was The Beatles, but I didn’t know where it was coming from!

The first non-Blue/Red album bought was based solely on economics.  The Let It Be album was in the shit bins for much of the early/mid 70s, at least at Woolworth’s.  I’ve since seen conjecture that this was because bootleggers were pumping out thousands of fake copies to record distributors, more than stores could handle, so they’d dump the album into the bargain bins at the front of every record store or section.

I don’t know about that.  The copy Brother J bought for $0.99 at Woolworth’s looked like a legitimate Apple release.  What I do remember is that rock fans at that time looked down on the album because it sounded half-assed and unfinished compared to the last album they released in the fall of 1969, Abbey Road.  Let It Be came out in early 1970, although it had been recorded a year earlier and then shelved because no one quite knew how to salvage the project (their attempt to “get back” to a more basic sound … although you can surely hear the same desire on many songs on The White Album).  I suspect record stores dumped it into the cheap bin, bootleg or not, because of that reputation among the fans.

Imagine my surprise to drop the needle on “Two of Us” and hear what would become one of my favorite Beatles track.  I can’t say that for the entire album, although I’ve grown to love it.  What really grabbed me was George’s guitar solo on “Let It Be,” sounding so much more raw and alive than the thick/bouncy, Leslie-speaker version on the Blue album.

But that album let me know: if all I knew was the Red and Blue albums, there was a truckload of material with the Beatles that I didn’t have a clue on.

It wasn’t until 1980 or so, when Brother J came back home one weekend from his junior year at Penn State, that I finally heard Abbey Road.   I knew the hits that appeared on the Blue album.  (I even knew one-offs like “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”)  But I’d never heard “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Oh! Darling,” “Because” or any of the medley tracks.  This was the second time I was absolutely floored by a Beatles album.  My head split open, and doves flew out.  I couldn’t believe how good this album was.  I remember coming downstairs after listening to it for the first time on headphones and telling J, “That’s the best album I’m ever going to hear.”

And it could be, despite horseshit like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus Garden” appearing on it.  (Sidenote: I can see why George Harrison was glad to leave the band.  I can picture him offering “All Things Must Pass,” “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” to the band, and Paul responding, “I don’t know, mate, I think we should do about 300 takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and use that instead. We already spotted you ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – isn’t that enough?”)

I should mention J had already bought Sgt. Pepper’s by that point, which didn’t blow my mind nearly as much (although I recognized I was supposed to view it on a higher level at that time).  I’ve never thought much of tracks like “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” or “Lovely Rita.” Among others.  Half that album is filler.  Of course, the other half is mind-bending.  But, again, I was shitting my diapers in 1967 … I can recognize now, especially given the overall vibe of the summer of that year, that this album changed the world.  Ditto, Magical Mystery Tour.  (This would lead into J buying the Yellow Submarine album, and being mad as hell to realize side two was bullshit orchestrations from the terrible animated movie that put us to sleep.  Still, we came away with “Hey Bulldog,” which was worth it.)

I should note, after the Blue and Red albums, J was buying these albums with his own money.  He really picked up the flag with The Beatles, not to mention getting the ball rolling with Hot Rocks and Phased Cookies from The Rolling Stones.  The problems with all these compilations were they left out so much great material, legendary album tracks, that it would take us a few years to mine out for ourselves being born slightly too late to assimilate these albums in real time.

J did the same with The White Album shortly thereafter, and that was another mind-opening experience, despite the sprawl of that collection.  I hadn’t heard “Dear Prudence” until the late 70s … why weren’t they playing this on the radio?  I had no idea.  AOR radio would never play tracks like “Julia” or “I Will” – songs that now strike me as real gems.  About the only track I remember radio playing routinely was “Birthday” as background music to rock-star birthday announcements followed by four-song “super sets” or “rock blocks” as they were often called.

It seems strange to me now that I wasn’t immediately gobbling up these albums in the mid-70s after that Blue/Red introduction, but those were different times.  It took time to save up money for albums, and back then, we didn’t know what we were buying.  (We were also buying a ton of great albums in real time.)  If songs weren’t being played on the radio, or if a friend hadn’t bought the album on eight track or vinyl, we didn’t hear them.  Ever.  If the internet existed back then (especially as it existed in the downloading bonanza days of the early 00s)?  I would have downloaded the Beatles entire catalog in one afternoon and tried to absorb it all in a few weeks.

I can see now how insane a method of music appreciation this is, how crazy our world has become, an embarrassment of riches, so much wealth that we just don’t’ have the time, patience or right frames of mind to understand and slowly develop an appreciation for it.  It took me weeks to absorb one Beatles album, years to get a grasp of what the band meant.  That sort of slow, careful nurturing fans would develop with a band or recording artists seems like a thing of the past now.  It’s not an age thing either.  I find myself doing the same now with bands I stumble over, loving a track, sampling the album, buying the album, realizing the band has a five-album back catalog, and knocking those off in very short order.  It’s too hard not to do this when it’s there for the taking!

(Don’t get me started on streaming music in this context.  Yes, you can pull up a band’s entire catalog in seconds and listen to the whole thing in hours.  You love it?  Like nothing else you’ve ever heard?  Great.  You’re renting this music.  If for any reason that music is dropped form your streaming service, it’s gone from your life.  Never mind going further and finding bootlegs and live shows: not on there.  That’s one of the larger issues I have with the media format, and not the only one.  It surely fills the needs of casual fans, and that’s what I have to realize.  Most fans are casual, the real problem of the music industry: trying to develop lasting, passionate music fans when so much of their income is dependent on casual fans and then their waning senses of nostalgia.)

As it was, we pieced together the Beatles entire catalog, probably over the course of a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.  The last to fall, of course, were those early albums we shunned, and those tended to be cursory experiences, not the revelations of their post-1967 career.  There were moments with each.  Hearing “And Your Bird Can Sing” and loving George’s guitar work.  Lennon doing his thing for the first time on “I’m a Loser.”  The genuine energy from both Paul's and John's vocals on "Twist and Shout."

We were buying solo Beatles material every step of the way.  Especially McCartney.  After Band on the Run came out, he took over the 70s.  That album was as great in its own way as any Beatles album: the essence of McCartney perfectly captured in one album.  You can say the same for Plastic Ono Band – a stunning piece of work that would not have been possible as a Beatles album.  A lot of people are now saying All Things Must Pass is the best Beatles solo album.  But they’re wrong.  Still, it would have made an incredible single album.  (One of the great 70s blowoffs for J and me was to play that awful third record of All Things Must Pass with those interminable, senseless jams.  Say the words “I Remember Jeep” and both of us smile at the memory of this ludicrously bad material.)  I should also note here that the best post-Beatles single for me was “Photograph” by Ringo Starr, but written with George.  Every now and then, Ringo go it right, but clearly not on the same level as the others.

It’s strange to think that I had probably only known the song “Dear Prudence” for a year or two before Lennon was shot in December 1980.  That was probably the last album J and I went halfway on, Double Fantasy.  Of course, the Yoko material on that album left us cold.  And not all of Lennon’s songs blew us away.  But “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You” and “Watching the Wheels” were prime Lennon for us, and enough to keep the album, especially when phony “fans” were offering to buy the album for $20 and up when it became impossible to buy the album in the weeks following his death.  (When Milk and Honey was issued a few years later, it burned us that he had shelved tracks like “Stepping Out,” “Nobody Told Me” and “Grow Old with Me” – he had enough material in 1980 to make one hell of a solo comeback album.  But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.)

After that, it was a matter of changing media types.  I eventually bought CD’s for all their studio albums through the early 90s, even found a cheap used copy of The Blue Album, and the Past Masters which actually were very good collections.  I was pretty happy with that but when the mono and stereo remasters were announced in 2012?  I didn’t rush out and buy them, but maybe should have.  As it was, I pulled a massive trade with an old friend who was a big music collector, too, but only for the MP3 files burned at 320 kbps.  I feel weird now that I listen to only the stereo tracks.  The Beatles albums up to Sgt. Pepper’s were released in mono.  (A lot of folks go on record as stating that and The White Album in mono are the way to go.)  Honestly?  I wasn’t around back then as a fan, and this stuff all sounds perfectly good to me in stereo.  I suspect mono and original Beatles fans would be outraged, but I’m fine with this.

Stuff like the 1 compilation album?  I have no need for it.  I made the mistake of buying a few of the more recent remasters.  They were really nothing new, although I did like the McCartney-approved version of Let It Be, with the more stripped-down/original production values maintained on his tracks.  The Anthology collections were a lot of fun for serious fans, but I'd still find myself tracking down bootleg studio material before and after they came out.  Frankly, I’m just glad there’s enough public interest from new and old fans to support these kind of projects.

Maybe I’m noting all this because I suspect whenever Paul and Ringo go (they’re both in their mid-to-late 70s now), there’s bound to be another reappraisal of what The Beatles meant, and the wheel will keep turning for their music.  In all honesty, I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, will go through certain periods where I’ll get a yen and run through their playlist on the iPod for a week, but it passes.  I was raised in the 70s and grew up with the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Queen, ELO, and all sort of punk and new wave pushing me through those years.  The Beatles were the first time I looked back and realized there was much to learn from the past.  That’s something that any true music fan realizes: understanding the past is just as important as grasping the future.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Learning Curve

The last few weeks have been interesting since I put the book out in early November. As I learned at that time, being your own copy editor isn't a good idea.  (I’ve revised the manuscript five times since publication, finding small grammatical glitches each time I re-read chapters. I probably still don’t have them all, but I took care of roughly two dozen.)  Everything involved with putting out your own book is rough work!

What have I learned?  Let me put it this way: I couldn’t possibly envision Hemingway, Steinbeck or Kerouac on Twitter or Facebook hyping themselves.  Well, I could imagine Hemingway on Twitter, but no one would grasp what he was doing.  In the modern world, you’re supposed to hype yourself, shamelessly, endlessly, chase after popularity, page views, re-tweets, “likes” in double- or triple-digit numbers, “friends” galore, touting these digital triumphs, building your online self-mythology, regardless of depth or sincerity, for the whole world to gaze upon in envy.

I can embrace that to a certain extent – anyone putting a book out must endorse his own cult of personality – but not to the level where I’m going to use social media to sell this book.  I’m convinced that unless you’re well-versed in a given social-media platform, already using it for personal reasons and comfortable with the time commitment and lack of privacy, it’s pretty much a waste of time hyping a creative endeavor you’ve undertaken, be it a book, album, paintings, etc.  People aren’t going to flock to your social-media site from the pure power of your creative work, or your personality.  Like anything else, social-media identities are carefully constructed and nurtured, over time, generally on the premise of feeling a sense of self-actualization.  Some people are great at that, and I surely don’t hold it against them.

People create works of art for the same reason.  I recognize social media as a separate structure from what I’ve done with the book, where I’ve put a lot more time, space, effort and consideration into creating something that will last, as opposed to the constantly-running meter of social media. I want this thing to stand, next week, next year, decades from now. Whether 50 people read it or 50,000.  Sure, putting it out there and selling it is a popularity contest of sorts.  But not why I wrote it.  I wrote it to define a time and place in my life that not many people have done, that part of Pennsylvania, rural America by extension, in the 1970s.  That’s not fully accurate.  I already had about 80% of the book written and simply recognized this.  So, I compiled those pieces, revised a few, ordered them chronologically, and added about six more pieces that added to the whole.

It helps to go back to the first post I wrote here back in 2006.  It surprises me now how much of that post rings true and applies to what I just did in terms of putting out a book.  It’s simply what I do.  Back then, my father’s death two years earlier had blown my mind to the extent that I felt no urge or need to write.  In my mind, I created a half-assed tribute to him in terms of seeing the world with his stark clarity, i.e., seeing right through any sort of creative ambitions.  I hadn’t made it big by then … be practical … why go on?

But I’m not my father.  As much as I’ve adopted from him over the years, especially in terms of temperament and personality, this urge to write is something that existed way outside his frame of reference, Mom’s, too.  I remember the one time I got under his skin as a writer, when a story I had published in the college newspaper, a satirical piece on how I was raised in the Coal Region, was picked up by a local paper, re-published verbatim with a sidebar editorial positing the piece as a non-satirical insult to where I was raised.  It was far from the truth, but the sort of thing a bad editor would exploit.  Dad fielded a few nasty phone calls from outraged friends who didn’t “get it” – which was fine by me, the whole point of satire is for a lot of people not to get it.

Not fine by Dad.  He was pissed at first.  I made it clear to him: I’m your son. These jackasses calling you on the phone, threatening me with physical violence, aren’t well-versed enough to know they’re being played by a small-town newspaper editor.  You don’t need to like what I wrote or even take my side.  But you either need to hang up on these jackasses or tell them to go fuck themselves, because no friend of yours would ever do something like that.  I could understand Dad being angry that idiots were calling the house and assuming he was somehow responsible for this, but if I had a son, and you physically threatened him in my presence?

He got it, fairly fast.  I made it clear to him it was irrelevant to me whether he got it or not: this was happening, and I wasn’t backing down.  He should have known from the way his mother raised him and he raised me: I was not going to be intimidated.  From that point forward, he had no grasp of what I was doing as a writer, which was fine, so long as he respected my choice.  I’ve learned, don’t expect family to treat you like a rock star, or something special.  They know me so much better than that!  It’s reassuring to have people see you for exactly who you are, good and bad.

When you leave the working class, which is exactly what I was doing by going to college and writing, you head into a world that makes very little sense outside that context.  I learned how to work in offices, get used to the corporate mindset and understand the value so many people place on money as a source of self-respect.  In terms of the “writing” world, I’ve only existed on the fringes of that, which suits me fine now.  Seemed like failure at some points, but if you’re reading me now, or have ever read my stuff, and I’ve communicated something worthwhile and memorable to you, there is no failure, whether money has been part of that exchange or not.

In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money.  Boy, he didn’t have a clue!  The white-collar ways of life I’ve encountered would have blown his mind in terms of pressure, arrogance and the bizarre lack of self-worth that I’ve seen drive so many “successful” people.  He was over-joyed that I was making good money in non-working class settings.  And in his practical mind, if writing pays you next to nothing or nothing, you shouldn’t bother with it.

That was my only real rebellion against him.  That incident I noted above was the only time it ever got discussed.  I understood he didn’t place much value in that aspiration of mine.  I wasn’t hurt at all.  I could see in his mind that whatever I did, preferably for more money than he made, in a place that wasn’t clanking machinery, grease and dirt, was fine by him.  Whether it was getting paid for writing or punching an office clock.  Mom?  I don’t think she ever got that part of me either, but god damn, just like the picture on the back of the book (if you buy it!), she was teaching me how to write when I barely knew how to walk.

That piece I wrote back in 2006 was before Facebook and Twitter were ways of life.  Facebook was around a year or two; Twitter was just getting started.  Smart phones didn’t exist; people were painstakingly clicking miniature QWERTY-style keyboards on Blackberries.  All social media did was underline the tenets I put forth in that piece.  Self-promotion may have been more the domain of artists trying to hype their work back then, but social media made it acceptable for everyone, an addiction for many.

I do want to hype and promote my writing. But not like that, not in ways I’m not comfortable with, that I’ve always found questionable, full of empty promises and false values.  Just by poking around the Amazon message boards for publishing, I’ve seen so many people desperate for that level of financial success and acceptance as writers.  I think that even if they’re lucky enough to find these things, they won’t be as fulfilling as the illusion.  When I read all these missives and hard-wrought wisdom (generally from people who have sold 2,000 books at $0.99 per book about dog grooming) aimed at “first-time authors” … I guess they mean people in their 20s who’ve never published anything?  Sure, this is my first book, but far from my first brush with publishing or minor fame, or thousands of pages into a life of writing that, in this case, culminated in a book.  I worked through that mindfuck by 2004 and walked away from any vestige of it for two years.

Some people are going to get what you do.  Some are going to hate what you do.  Most aren’t going to know or care, one way or the other.  The goal seems to be tapping into the “get what you do” group and exploiting it for all it’s worth, whether that means dozens of sales or hundreds of thousands.  I can see now, after jiggering ads on Amazon for enticing keywords to pull potential readers in, trying to reach as many as possible … even when you do reach them by the tens of thousands, 350 will click on the book to actually look at it, maybe read the first few chapters online … maybe 10 will go ahead and buy it. Thus, you keep re-thinking the next set of ads and throwing the net out again.

Social media would be much the same concept, save there’s usually a meter on the site to let everyone know how well or poorly you’re doing.  And that’s where me and social media part.  No one has to know that but me.  There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity.  Tell it to Van Gogh or The Velvet Underground, who would have had about 26 followers a piece on Twitter during the course of their greatness!

Beyond that, I can see that the only reason to put out a book through a publishing company is to have their marketing department work for you, hopefully have you tapped into a good agent, both of whom can arrange promotional tie-ins, appearances, reviews in major media outlets, etc.  And that’s nothing to scoff at.  While these things won’t make or break a book, they could go a long way in terms of influencing thousands of potential readers.

But even then, I can see, that’s not it.  I’ve had friends put out books with publishers, major and minor.  Good books, too, well worth reading.  And even with all the marketing and promotional muscle behind them … no big commercial breakthrough happens.  Successful books, especially today, are like lightning in a bottle.  So many different forces need to converge at roughly the same time to push the visibility level so much higher than before, as there so much more out there now.  You can launch an all-out assault on social media, arrange appearances on talk shows and reviews in major worldwide newspapers, even with a great book … and if the stars don’t align, it won’t happen. The way I’ve done it, if my book under-performs, all I have is a bruised ego. You do the same with a publishing company, you get the heave-ho, generally after being made to feel like a failure by people whose livelihoods depend on selling as many books as possible.

Is that solace? Hardly.  But it helps that I’ve been around long enough to see these varying levels of success and failure occur, even see a few people I know break through and make some kind of living as writers, however tenuous and insecure that job position tends to be.  In the end, you just do what you can, what you were put here to do.  That’s where I began, and it will be where I end.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit

The day has arrived: Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit: Growing Up in 1970s Rural Pennsylvania is now available on Amazon, in Kindle and Paperback versions.

The past two months have been insane. The key thing I’ve learned: proofreading your own book is like representing yourself in a court of law. You may think you’re smart. You may see yourself as empathetic. But when push comes to shove, there’s a ton of tiny details about yourself that you’re just not seeing.

I read this thing through so many times now that I’m simply exhausted. If there is a next time, I need to pay someone to have a go at this. It’s amazing how many minute details there were that took forever to detect, and I’m not sure I caught them all. Forget about comma usage … I’m all over the map with that stuff. But I have a propensity for dropping verbs and key words like “the” or “an” to make a sentence read as though a caveman wrote it. Mentally, these mistakes should be glaring, but time and time again, I missed details like this. If you do pick up a copy, feel free to let me know about minor glitches like this. Amazon allows me to edit the manuscript at any time, even after publication.

Overall, I’m excited about the finished product. In my mind, it’s a Frankenstein monster of bits and pieces I’ve written since about 1985 through last week. In the last two months, I added six new pieces that would have easily made posts on this site. One memory lead to another, and there were things I just had to include. Even now, there are bits and pieces floating around my head, but I just had to let this hen out. Whether it makes sense to anyone else, or has any appeal beyond people from that part of Pennsylvania recognizing their own lives in my words, time will tell.

You know how when you read a book, there’s an Acknowledgements portion in the end that recognizes what seems like a cast of dozens of people surrounding the author as he raises his new literary work and unfurls it like a flag?

For the life of me … I did this shit on my own! Sitting here where I am now, in my leather chair in my basement studio in Astoria, cranking this shit out, much as I cranked it out in my bedroom back home in spiral notebooks back in the 70s. The only assistance I had was Angie Jordan’s husband, Scott Sullivan, helping out with the cover design, taking a photo of the actual cemetery in question and applying a more professional touch to the image. Are these writers really living like this, surrounded by a swarm of people supporting them and picking them up every step of the way? That wasn’t my experience at all. I always feel like a dick when I read those Acknowledgement sections. More precisely, the word “Bull … Shit” appears in my mind. Don’t let anyone fool you. An undertaking like this, as Glenn Frey once sang, you’re all alone in the center ring.

So, please, if you’ve been reading along here for any amount of time, follow the link, buy a copy in your chosen format, you won’t be let down. If you like it, spread the word, get on any given social media outlet you may imbibe in, pass along a recommendation. I suspect that sort of informal “word of mouth” publicity is how things work now, much more than the old machinery clanking away at the publishing house. It’s been an interesting learning experience seeing just how fast and self-reliant a method of publishing this is. Of course, every crank with a book idea these days is doing the same thing. I like to think I’m a higher class of crank. You be the judge.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Tom Petty's Inferno

Scene: A tastefully understated bathroom in a Malibu beach house. The Pacific Ocean is visible through a bay window over a vintage cast-iron tub. On the toilet sits an elderly bearded man: Tom Petty. He’s smoking a cigarette and reading a book about The Shroud of Turin. Suddenly, a bolt of pain shoots up his left arm, paralyzing that side of his body. Petty stands, drops the book in the toilet, kneels to the marble floor and loses consciousness.

He wakes up on a bathroom floor, but not the one he passed out on. This is a non-descript, clean bathroom of the sort found in doctor’s offices. Outside the door, he can hear voices, feet shuffling, a lot of activity. He gets up, pulls his pants back on, brushes himself off and looks in the mirror: the same person. The book is gone, but all else remains the same.  Huh, Petty thinks, that was a cigarette I was smoking, there’s no logic behind this. Having been along for the ride on many similar drug experiences, he knows to roll with whatever’s happening.

He opens the door onto a bustling backstage area of what he recognizes as a TV studio: cables, the backs of klieg lights, stage curtains, fold-out director’s chairs, assistants hustling to and fro. Petty thinks this vision will require him to perform live since that’s the only reason he’d be at a TV studio.

Monty Hall: Wrong, Tom. You’re not here to perform.

The voice comes from behind him, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as most game-show host voices do. He turns to see Monty Hall approaching him in a green plaid leisure suit, as he was in the early 1970s, smiling broadly.  The only difference, Petty notices, is that he has two small horns sticking out of his temples, and the slight smell of sulfur accompanies his presence.

Tom: Monty Hall! Didn’t you just die a few days ago?

Monty Hall: Monty surely did. He’s with us now.

Tom: What? No. You’re Monty Hall.

Satan: No, Tom, I’m not Monty Hall. I’m Satan. I’m using Monty Hall’s visage to create your vision of hell.

Tom: Wait a minute. You’re telling me I’m dead? Man, I’m not even 70!

Satan: No one saw it coming, Tom, not even me! Keith Richards walks the earth, yet here you are!

Tom: What did I die of?

Satan: Massive heart attack while reading a Jesus book on the can. Just like your idol.

Tom: And now I’m in hell?

Satan: Literally, no. We’re at the gates of hell, figuratively speaking. We’re here to play a little game.

Satan: Bingo!

Tom: Are you sure my name is on your list?

Satan: It sure is! There’s no waiting in line for Tom Petty!

Tom: Look. I could be an asshole. Most rock stars are. You don’t get that far for that long without doing some damage.

Satan: Oh, you did. You were no picnic. The usual rock-star stuff. Drugs. Debauchery. Neglect. Pride. The shit that went on with Stan Lynch was pretty lousy.

Tom: Sure, Satan, but he was being a prick, too.

Satan: Undoubtedly so. But you should understand one of our circles down here features a Jimmy Iovine clone in a recording studio control room making drummers hit the same snare roll, over and over, for eternity, while constantly barking “again, again” and “I have Jim Keltner’s number on my rolodex, why don’t you take a break.” For eternity. That place is for aspiring drummers who come here, thinking they’re going to realize their lifelong dreams of being rock stars, only to find themselves locked in a recording studio with an irritating twat in a baseball hat calling them “asshole” for playing the same beat, over and over, and never getting it right.

Tom: That does sound like what happened.

Satan: You should be honored. You and Iovine served as inspiration for one of my better burns.

Tom: But so many people loved my music.

Satan: Me, too. Obviously, the long string of early hits, but when you later got into stuff like “Echo” and “Room at the Top” … I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat here in my lair, ruminating on the nature of mankind, and those two songs perfectly define how I feel. You had a real knack for writing lyrics that were deceptively simple, but suggested more profound meaning.

Tom: Thanks, I guess. But come on, now, there’s more going on here than me giving Stan Lynch the hard time he deserved.

Satan: Oh, there is. I’d call it vanity, more than anything. For centuries, this had been the domain of kings, rich men and heads of state. But in the past 50 years, musicians and actors tend to suffer the same consequence. Your talent endears you to millions of people who, on one hand love and respect you for your warmth and immediacy. But on the other, encourage you to see yourself as super human, special beyond comprehension. Thus, the one-night stands on the road. The brusque behavior with record-company and hotel staffs, assistants and band members. The purposeful distance with loved ones who knew you before you were famous.

Tom: That’s enough for hell?

Satan: It’s the gateway to hell. Remember all the times you were doing things that you recognized as wrong, stupid and abusive, there was that voice in your head, reminding you that this was wrong?

Tom: Sure, my conscience.
Satan: No. That was me. It's always me. That's one of the jobs God gave me, along with running hell. To give people fair warning of bad, potentially damnable behavior. I am your better angel. God gave you free will, so I have no control over your life. It's human nature to be sinful. That part of my job is easy; I literally do nothing. The hard part of my job is trying to subtly convince people that they should change their ways, and thus never lay eyes on me. I do this with the understanding that most people never listen to me.

Tom: OK. So I screwed around, like any other musician on the road. I got cross with people. I got moody and abusive sometimes. I didn't kill anyone. Start any wars. If anything, my music helped people keep their heads on straight and avoid going off the rails like this.

Satan: All good points. But the key to your vanity is that it will strip you of the self-awareness required to overcome it. That’s what I’m not getting about rock stars. You pride yourselves on connecting to the common man, of relating to every-day humanity and emotions. Yet, your personal lives are virtually no different from those of influential men from the past who lived like angry gods, as opposed to decent human beings. According to your songs, you’re only human. But the adulation heaped on you led you to believe otherwise. To the point where you accepted this illusion of superiority as universal truth. I think that’s the crux of why you’re here.

Tom: Other rock stars are down here?

Satan: (laughing) Sure! Far more than are in heaven! Pretty soon, we’ll have a Traveling Wilburys reunion! Jeff Lynne will be the last. We’ll get him more for the drum sound he created in the 80s than anything else.

Tom: So why am I here? Not hell. This TV studio.

Satan: Well, as you can see, I’m Monty Hall, and I’ll be hosting hell’s version of Let’s Make a Deal, featuring Tom Petty as the first contestant.

Tom: The band and I used to get high in the morning and watch game shows all the time. If I recall, Let’s Make a Deal made the contestants dress up like it was Halloween.

Satan: Correct.

Tom: So what will I be dressed as?

Satan: The Crypt Keeper. You really don’t have to change a thing.

Tom: Ha-Ha. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that one?

Satan: Probably about as many times as guys told you they once dated a girl in high school who looked just like you.

Tom: Yeah, a certain kind of guy always had that one girl.

Satan: I don’t think they were being complimentary.

Tom: No. They meant the girl was plain, sort of homely, and had droopy eyes from getting stoned. How do I know this? Because I dated a girl who looked like me in high school!

Satan: Well, if it’s any solace, you did look OK up through the mid-80s.

Tom: My greatest revenge in life was knowing I was an un-layable dude who, thanks to his musical talent, had sex with dozens of beautiful women who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

Satan: Well played, sir, well played. A fitting epitaph. That’s why guitars were invented. But that was then, this is now, let’s go!

Satan claps his hands, and he and Tom Petty immediately materialize in the cheering studio audience, Tom standing among a group of people dressed as sailors, witches, soldiers, cheerleaders. He’s standing next to Satan who is holding a thin microphone and laughing heartily.

Satan: So, Tom Petty, where are you from?

Tom: Originally from Gainesville, Florida, but I lived in Los Angeles.

Satan: Are you ready to make a deal?

Tom: Do I have a choice?

Satan laughs his bellowing, game-show host laugh again. A beautiful woman in a gown rolls out a deluxe Kenmore refrigerator to center stage. The audience gasps in amazement.

Satan: Jay, tell us about this wonderful prize.

Jay (a disembodied television announcer voice, speaking very fast): Monty, we have a Kenmore 50023 25 cubic foot, Side-by-Side, Stainless Steel Refrigerator. Fit more fresh food and delicious leftovers in this spacious Kenmore 50023 Stainless Steel Side-by-Side Fridge. Top-to-bottom storage space gives you plenty of room to stash away snacks, produce, leftovers, pre-made meals and household staples with room to spare. Gallon door bins means you won’t have to find a place to cram the milk, juice or wine while the tight-sealing doors help keep foods fresher, longer. Adjustable shelving and door bins let you organize the fridge just the way you like so everything, even the leftover lasagna, has a place in the fridge. Suggested retail price, $1,213.96.

The audience continues to sigh in amazement.

Satan: Tom, that’s a lot of space to store alcoholic beverages and scoobie snacks for the munchies.

Tom: That’s right, Monty. And my collection of human heads that I keep in mason jars, too.

Satan doubles over in laughter, as does an audience member dressed like the “devil” version of Satan. Tom stares in amazement as he realizes the audience member is Jeffrey Dahmer.

Satan: Tom, that dark sense of humor is going to serve you well here. But seriously, you know how the deal works.  You can have this wonderful Kenmore refrigerator, free and clear, or … we have other options waiting for you … behind doors 2 and 3.

The beautiful woman onstage strolls to her left. Tom looks more closely and realizes the woman is Marilyn Monroe. She raises her left arm, while waving her right arm up and down to showcase the doors that have appeared on each side of her.

Tom: Well, you know, Monty, the refrigerator is tempting. But since I’m in hell and have nothing to lose, why not chose one of the doors instead.

Satan: Always the gambler, always the risk taker, living by his wits, Tom Petty, which will it be Door 2, or Door 3?

Tom takes a moment to ponder his choice.  He looks at the audience and realizes Adolf Hitler is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and John F. Kennedy as a rodeo clown.

Tom: Is that Adolf Hitler dressed as Charlie Chaplin?

Satan: Tom, this is hell, not Burbank, California.  Of course, that’s Adolf Hitler. Adolf, are you enjoying yourself?

Adolf: Ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Much better than dragging dead Jews into mass graves you had me doing yesterday, danke, Herr Satan, danke.

Satan: Good, good. Tom, I should tell you, things work differently when you make a deal in hell. We’re going to show you what’s behind both doors, the full implications of each choice, and let you decide rather than have you feel terrible for making a bad choice.

Tom: That’s awful nice of you.

Satan: Well, let’s see what’s behind the doors before you make that assumption. Marilyn, if you will, please show us what’s behind Door #2.

Marilyn waves her left arm with a flourish as she walks in front of the dissolving face of Door #2. The sound of the French National Anthem plays … but it’s not. It’s the introduction to The Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” The scene that materializes from behind the door is the studio session that was filmed for worldwide broadcast on June 25, 1967. Petty remembers it like it was yesterday, as any time The Beatles or Stones were to appear on TV, he was on it. Something strange though.  There appeared to be a fifth member of The Beatles playing dual lead guitar, seated next to George Harrison. A skinny, young guy, blonde, shoulder-length hair … son of a bitch, Petty thinks, that’s me!

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #2.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. This prize is a membership in The Beatles for eternity. History will be revised just for you, Tom Petty, so that it will show when The Beatles fired Pete Best for Ringo Starr in 1962, they also hired a young American guitarist they had met playing night clubs in Hamburg, a certain Tom Petty from Gainesville, Florida who played in Gene Vincent’s touring band. Unlike George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will include you in their songwriting process so that you can share in the making of such hits as “She Loves You,” “Ticket to Ride” and “A Day in the Life.” They will consider you an equal creative partner and, in fact, you will serve as an important bridge between Paul and John when they start drifting apart as friends and songwriters in 1966. Suggested retail price is beyond comprehension for a music fan like you, Tom Petty.

Tom: Now, wait a minute. This is hell. There must be some catch, like in the movie Bedazzled. Everything I choose, no matter how rewarding and attractive, will be revealed as having a dark side that I didn’t anticipate.

Satan: Thank you, Tom, for noting one of my favorite movies that depicts me correctly. But, no, there is no catch or hidden agenda. You will become part of The Beatles and spend the rest of your after-life living that dream. Of course, the downside will be there too: pissing off Ringo so badly during the recording of The White Album that he quits. Lennon’s heroin abuse. McCartney’s ego. The fist fight between John and George during the making of Let It Be when John finally snaps over one of George’s throwaway insults about Yoko. As with any band, as you well know, shit happens. But you will also be a full participant in the creation of songs that will be remembered centuries from now. How about it, Tom, does Door #2 strike your fancy?

Tom: Satan, you’re like a lawyer, asking questions you already know the answers to.

Satan: (laughing) Well, funny you should say that Tom, everyone who has ever received a law degree from the start of time is hellbound, no matter what he does in his lifetime. Perhaps the only more certain bet on going to hell than being a celebrity! But no matter, before you decide, let’s see what’s behind Door #3. Marilyn?

(Marilyn Monroe sweeps back in from stage right, winking and curtseying before strolling in front of Door #3 as the door dissolves to show a wood-paneled family room circa 1965 in a middle-class American home. A thin, gaunt, bespectacled man in his 30s with a crew-cut and face similar to Tom Petty’s, but harder, stands glowering over a gawky teenage boy sprawled on the carpet watching an episode of the TV series, F Troop. I thought I told you to mow the lawn, the man snaps at the boy. Yeah, I will in half an hour, the boy replies listlessly, F Troop is on, Dad. The man grabs the boy by the legs, yanks him to his feet, and pulls back his right hand, where the scene freezes.)

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, should you choose, Door #3, your after-life will be to be spend a very long time in hell with your father, locked into a five-year period between 1963 and 1967. As you recall, Tom, this was when he was at his most angry and abusive, lashing out at you and your brother for no reason, irrational outburst of rage. You may also recall, your driving emotion at the time wasn’t reciprocating anger and fear, but the desire to find out why your father was this way. You will have a lifetime in hell to try to find out why your father was mentally and  physically abusing your family, then make him stop.

Satan: Well, Tom, what say you?

Tom: (still shaken from being transported directly to one of his more harrowing childhood memories) What do you mean, what say I? You’re telling me to choose between heaven and hell.

Satan: Tom, do you remember how Let’s Make A Deal worked? Particularly when we had a contestant win, let’s say, a set of Samsonite luggage?

Tom: Sure. That was a trick prize. The contestant would clap along gamely, thinking, oh well, I won some luggage. And then you’d say something like, “Well, now wait a minute, you’re going to need some place to take that luggage” and the door behind the luggage would slide open to reveal an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium.

Satan: That’s right, good memory. Jay, tell us where Tom can take his emotional baggage behind Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, if you choose Door #3, it will take you a very long time to convince your Dad he’s wrong, as you knew that stubborn Southern rebel streak well and possessed some of it yourself. There is no sense of time as you understand it in hell, but in human terms, it may take you decades of repeated abuse before you can break through and convince him that he’s wrong. But when you do, you will magically be transported to heaven, where you will spend the rest of your days hanging out, smoking pot, making love to blonde bombshells, playing your guitar and watching as many episodes of F Troop as you please.

Tom: So, you’re saying I get to be myself again.

Satan: That’s right, Tom. You get the rock-star lifestyle all over again, as does everyone in heaven.

Tom: Monty, one key question.

Satan: Shoot, Tom, shoot.

Tom: Where is my mother? I know Dad is in hell.  That makes perfect sense. But where’ my Mom?

The audience sighs knowingly, nodding their heads. General Custer, dressed as an astronaut, wipes a tear away from his cheek.

Satan: You can’t get anything past this perceptive young man! Yes, Tom, what you’re thinking is true. Your Mom, bless her heart, is in heaven. She was a no brainer for taking all that shit your father dished out, never once losing her composure and sacrificing herself so that her kids could be raised with some semblances of love and dignity.

Tom: So, you’re pretty much saying I can live out a lifelong dream for an eternity in hell. Or take decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse from my old man so I can see my Mom again.

Satan: That’s right. This is how we roll in hell. Door #2 with The Beatles will be indecipherable from how many people spend an eternity in heaven.

Tom: Monty, did you ever see the movie, Cool Hand Luke?

Satan: (laughing) Oh, I can see where this is going. The scene where they roll Luke’s mama up to the prison in the back of the jalopy for one last visit, with the understanding that she’s going to die while he’s in jail?

Tom: Exactly. I never mentioned this in interviews, but that moment had a far deeper impact on me than even seeing Elvis in person or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. All the more so thanks to Dad beating the shit out of me and my brother all those years. You see, instead of being in prison, I was a rock star, which was no prison at all. But it kept me on the road and wrapped up in my own affairs from the moment I left Gainesville for Los Angeles. When I saw Mom on her death bed days before she died, figuring I was going to be on the road or in the studio when her time came, I made a vow that I would do whatever it takes to see her again, this world or the next.

Satan: This is the next world, Tom, and that’s a long road ahead of you, should you choose it. Do you seek the redemption you never found in life?

Tom: I have no choice, Monty, I made a promise. I choose Door #3.

Instantaneously, Tom disappears from the studio audience and is transferred to his childhood self in the scene from Door #3. The action unfreezes, and his father’s open hand slaps Tom directly on the face, dropping him to the living-room carpet. His father expects him to start crying. Instead, Tom rolls over and smirks, the very same smirk displayed on his first album cover. He winks at the studio audience, who starts to fade from his view, with Satan leading a standing ovation. The last person in the studio audience Tom sees is George Harrison, smiling broadly and waving to Tom, dressed as The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just to let readers know, the past few weeks I've been assembling and editing various posts, older articles from publications, unpublished bits and pieces, etc. to form what should become a book about growing up in rural Pennsylvania circa 1972-84.  I'm not sure yet how I'll present this, whether going through Amazon and self publishing or trying to weed out some type of publishing deal.  But I like what I'm seeing thus far.  Not doing it for the money, as with all things you read here, but simply because I'm good at doing it and have always enjoyed the process.  Any recommendations or interested parties out there, feel free to check in with me via Comments.  I should be getting back on a more regular writing schedule in September.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Christ Comes to Coaltown

Author’s Note: This story first appeared in on February 21, 2000.  I always liked it, and it’s worthy of reprint now.  From what I gather, Whatsyourname  is still around, taking the concept of Jesus into new territory as the Dude must certainly be somewhere in his 50’s. 

"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"

-- Luke, 24:13-18

Emmaus is a good ways south of the Coal Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. Down around Bethlehem. And Nazareth, made famous by The Band when Levon and Robbie pulled into for salvation via a new guitar at the Martin factory. All they would have seen heading South on Route 81 was woods, farms, Golden Arches and small towns in the distance.

Had they left the interstate, they'd have been amazed how an approaching town, through tangles of tree branches and telephone wires, resembled some small Eastern European village, with the bulbous, golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches and angled steeples rising over factories and houses. Each town would look the same, but somehow different, as even the blank slate of a shantytown like Shaft or William Penn would mean civilization after a few hard miles of great black slag heaps (soon to be gone thanks to coal regeneration plants). The Molly Maguires traveled these back roads in the late 1800's, before an undercover detective and the hangman crushed their murderous coal miners' rebellion.

The long arms of Philly and New York don't reach this far. The suburban sprawl and six-figure restored barns of the southern part of the state haven't seeped north. I grew up thinking Scranton and Wilkes Barre were big cities to the north but see them now for the even-larger coal towns they are. The one or two ski resorts are miniscule compared to the tourist chalets in the Poconos. West of the Poconos and east of Eden.

"HAZLETON, PA. He appeared out of the blue back in October, clad only in a dirty white robe as he walked barefoot along the two-lane highway into this struggling former coal town. Folks pointed at first as the man with the shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard preached to whoever would listen. Before long, though, many in this largely Roman Catholic community were embracing him as a holy man."

-- "Some See Hope in Mysterious Preacher," Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, January 29, 2000

I can see him now in the dim yellow light of a firehouse hall. The bingo cage and microphone sitting on a card table off to the side of the plywood stage. The firetruck smell of rubber and metal seeping from the garage next door. Creaks and scrapes of folding metal chairs opening on a cement floor. The taps at the bar turned off for this holy night, and the regulars in their baseball hats and blaze-orange hunting vests grumbling. The halo of a Pepsi clock glowing over his head.

Or maybe he's in a field. People milling around him, where they normally gather for turkey shoots and block parties, kids hunting for Easter eggs, and a cover band with umlauts in its name playing Skynyrd and Springsteen in the summer. The faces, hard and round, shadows of the Ukraine and Ireland, with bifocals and wrinkles, rosary beads and little black Bibles clutched in hand, gazing back at this man in nothing but a white robe and sandals in the dead of winter. Turn a six-pack of Yuengling into the blood of Christ. A box of Mrs. T's Pierogies into His body.

According to the A.P., when anyone asks his name, he replies "What's your name?" He says it's part of a Hebrew tradition not to reveal your name to someone until you're their friend. So the locals now call him: "What's YourName". His real name, according to a police affidavit, is Carl J. Joseph, 39. I've seen his face in a picture. Like Christ as traditional surfer dude. Ted Neeley and Willem Dafoe. He's got the look, even a year shy of forty. But where was Christ all those years, after teenage sparring in the temple with the rabbis and before a three-year lunge at earthly authority so burning and desperate even his own followers called for his head? "What's your name" is a Hebrew tradition? It's also a line from a David Bowie song that Pontius Pilate would have liked.

The newspaper says he's been traveling for 9 years, through 47 states and 13 countries. But he's never stayed in one place for so long before. He spoke to 2,000 people once in Hazleton, and it's not uncommon to see dozens of people "standing in a field at 2 a.m. listening to him preach. "He turns over all money and gifts he receives to local parishes, except for sandals he received recently because he did not own a pair of shoes.

"He said he will remain in the area as long as there is a need for his words."

-- from the AP article

I left when there was no longer a need for my words. Or at least I was filled with enough anger, boredom and resentment that whatever I had to say wasn't going to do anyone any good, and I had to go away. Back then I blamed it on the place, that I had "outgrown" it in some sense and had to move on. And maybe that was true simply in the sense of leaving home, wherever it may have been. But I can look back now and see that I had to outgrow whoever I was much more than the Coal Region itself. That sense of abandonment haunts and comforts me to this day. 1978, a good decade before I left. My brothers and I would sit on the steps of a mausoleum in the graveyard by the church. Bagging it because our relentlessly Irish Catholic grandmother had a debilitating stroke, preventing her from attending Mass. Our sister was still going through the motions, although that wouldn't last. Our father was doing much the same, only with the benefit of a car. And our mother was a filthy Protestant, so she was already hellbound and didn't count.

We got dressed up every Sunday morning, left at quarter to nine, and hung around talking about rock stars and school. Occasional parishioners passing by would glare at us. They didn't know teenagers like being glared at. We lived. The parish priest at that time was later nailed for possessing child pornography, and he was in the pictures, too. The church folded a few years back. My friend George bought it for a song. He didn't want any freaks moving in next door.

Here's a picture I clipped from a local newspaper and held for years before it turned too yellow: a group of Catholic school children re-enacting Christ's agonizing walk up Calvary Hill. Roman centurions in wire-frame glasses and shag haircuts, bearing plastic Star Wars lasers and trashcan lids. The Virgin Mary in a headband and two-tone saddle shoes. Christ, a pasty-faced 12-year-old, bearing his cardboard cross, wearing a white sheet and a pair of Nike running shoes. They do roughly the same show in Gordon every Easter, only with adults. What I always wondered: If this reenactment were to be authentic, shouldn't most of the crowd be bawling out taunts like "King of the Jews" and "crucify him" and throwing stones at "Christ," even if they're only styrofoam chunks painted to look like stones?

"SHENANDOAH -- Gary A. Moses, 42, said when driving to Mahanoy City on Friday, he saw What's Your Name walking the road. 'It was bitter,' he said. 'It takes a lot to walk in these conditions with sandals and a robe,' he said. He stopped to offer him a ride but the nomad refused. 'His reasoning for not taking a ride is he said that's how he meets people.'

-- "300 Hear Nomad's Message," by Stephen J. Pytak, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, February 2, 2000.

The only Buddha I meet on the road back there is a guy named Buddy. Rumor has it he spent an afternoon hanging out at the bottom of a swimming pool as a boy, and is lucky to be alive, but is slightly brain damaged as a result. He thumbs it everywhere. It seems to be his purpose in his life. You'd have to be nuts to pick him up. He has a shock of red hair, and his rocking body motions let you know something's slightly off. He's often wearing a bright red Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket. No one knows where Buddy goes. He just goes. And he never gets there. As Woody Guthrie must have known every Dust Bowl backroad, Buddy surely knows even the abandoned, dilapidated mining roads in the Coal Region. Buddy's going to be there long after What's Your Name is gone. I suspect one day he'll be thumbing my hearse as it passes on the road to the cemetery. Then again, much like Christ, Buddy has more reason to fear the motives of those nearest him than the capricious whims of omnipotent rulers:

"TAMAQUA -- The 27-year-old Tamaqua man who allegedly robbed and repeatedly stabbed a hitchhiker with a screwdriver Wednesday morning remains today in Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Tedd Richard Fredericks, of West Broad Street, was arraigned before District Justice Joseph D. Zola, of Hazleton, on charges of aggravated assault, three counts of robbery, simple assault and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The victim, Harold 'Buddy' Klinger, also of Tamaqua, was treated at Hazleton General Hospital for numerous lacerations and a broken right hand. Klinger is originally from the Ashland area, according to Tamaqua Police Chief George B. Woodward, who said the man is known for hitchhiking and panhandling in the Tamaqua area.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Corporal Brian S. Tobin, a state trooper at Hazleton, the attack was initiated when Fredericks offered Klinger a ride for $6 when he saw him standing along Route 309 near Tamaqua. Tobin said Klinger knows Fredericks because they reside in the same apartment building, so he agreed to the ride. They then picked up Fredericks' mother in Hometown and took her to work at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, he said. After dropping her off, the two drove back to Tamaqua for gas, then headed back to Hazleton, he said.

'They drove on Interstate 81 and got off at the Hazleton exit,' said Tobin, who spoke with the stabbing victim. 'Klinger said they made a couple of turns and didn't know where they were. Then Fredericks stopped the car to go to the bathroom.' Fredericks then exited the vehicle and opened the trunk. He called Klinger to the back of the car and asked him if he did drugs. When Klinger said no, Fredericks began stabbing him around the head with a screwdriver, Tobin said. According to Tobin, Klinger didn't see the weapon at first, but when he started to get stabbed by Fredericks, he attempted to flee, but the attacker jumped on him and continued stabbing.

'Fredericks then took approximately $380 from Klinger and drove off, leaving him behind,' Tobin said."

-- "Tamaqua Man Charged in Stabbing," Chris Dean, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, 2/3/00

There are strange things about the Coal Region reporters will never pick up. Having been born and raised there for 20 years, I'm not even sure I have. Forget about the accent, a strange, guttural mix of Irish and Slavic. I can't imitate it, although I sometimes drop hints of it when back there for a few days. Mahanoy City is famous for always being on fire. And for once having their Christmas tree right in the middle of the main street, and it would invariably get wiped out every few years by a drunk driver. Old coalcrackers pronounce it "Mock-annoy." Shenandoah is the heart of the Coal Region, if not the head. "462 da fuck" is a popular local saying, the town's area code, stated with profane emphasis. What amazes me about What's His Name--how he didn't get locked up in the hoosegow for vagrancy and then given a ride to the edge of town the next day. This unnerves me. Makes me feel like King Herod, and the pharaohs before him. Are people in the Coal Region easily led astray? No. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find people more stubborn. I know the hardcore coalcrackers, the factory workers who never make the papers unless it's holding a trophy or the antlers of a dead buck, are having a good laugh over What’s Your Name. But I would say that as in any small town, curiosity runs wild in a situation like this, and it doesn't hurt that What's Your Name is pushing all the right spiritual buttons. I'd imagine a majority of the audience at his shows are Christians; the rest just want a piece of the action. And they see a man who is not Christ, but gives good scripture anyway.

I've known Paul Rieder for a few years now, a gentleman farmer in the wilds of southeast New York state who's also a fine musician. One of his songs is called, "Jesus Died at 33- 1/3." He and his wife, Heidi, have traveled extensively, and it's his habit to keep journals of these trips. It was Paul who brought my attention to What's Your Name's saga with the AP article that has touched off a media frenzy, with Time, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News hot on the trail. He sent me the AP article, along with his journal entry from a trip to Mexico:


Palenque and Misol-Ha, Chiapas, Mexico

It takes a bit to find out how to get to the waterfall at Misol-Ha without spending a lot of money. Everybody seems to want us on some kind of $50 package tour with all the tightlipped sunburned Germans. Finally, we decode the local schedule and get on a chicken-class bus--telling the driver "Crucero Misol-Ha" a few times so he'll remember to stop there—and slowly wait for the bus to Tila to fill. It's an ancient school bus painted bright blue (inside and out).

About half an hour in the bus stops in the middle of the jungle--not a building or path in sight--and on gets a white hippie guy dressed only in a thin blanket--the polyester kind found in bad motels. He sits down in the aisle up front. I know immediately that he's getting off with us.

So of course it's just the three of us there at Crucero Misol-Ha for the two miles or so to the water. He starts up a friendly conversation--he's American. Did we know there was a Rainbow Gathering at Misol-Ha this week? No, we did not. Turns out he's been on the Rainbow trail for six years now--no vocation, no money, and unless he's hidden some back there in the jungle, no clothing except a blanket. He expounds his philosophical position--he's essentially a holy fool, constantly moving around (Central America these past six months), going to these gatherings, sleeping in the wilderness and eating whatever he finds. (Maybe the Mexicans feed him 'cause he looks like Jesus.) He asks us what we do and Heidi says we're farmers--he thinks she said "performers," then laughs when we correct him, singing to himself, "Am I a farmer, am I a star?" We chat some about farming. He asks us our names.

"Paul and Heidi. And yours?"


"Um ... Paul and Heidi. And you are ..."


Aha. I laugh and he laughs too. It seems that What'syourname is his nomde-Rainbow -- sort of a litmus test for a person's tolerance and humor.

We arrive at the falls: it's a much grander, jungly version of Hamilton Pool in Texas, a big collapsed grotto with veils of water pouring into a deep cool lake. It's around 95 now and very humid. Looks like the bulk of the hippies have taken off. What'syourname has a baggie with his passport and some money, but he doesn't have enough to pay the entrance fee at the park, so we pay for him. He then gives me all the money that he has and won't take it back, saying that he's held on to it for too long anyway. I'm wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with this hippie's pile of pesos, if I should buy him a drink or something. But there is no one around selling drinks. What'syourname dives in the pool, blanket and all, and that's the last we see of him.

P.S. There's a picture with the article, and it's definitely the same guy. I feel like I should send him a couple of pesos.