Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mount Carmel Beat Us Again!

My old high school, North Schuylkill, had what it considered to be its annual football rivalry with Mount Carmel. I state it that way because I’m not sure if Mount Carmel viewed the match-up the same way, as they had won nearly every game in the series history. Mount Carmel has been a traditional powerhouse in northeast Pennsylvania football for decades, often going undefeated and occasionally making a run for the state championship. The week leading up to the Mount Carmel game at N.S. was always one of anticipation, will this be the magic year we win, big pep rally on Friday.

Inevitably, we’d lose. There were some years when the game was a shoot-out. I recall such a game from the early 70s, the highlight of which was Rick W., an all-star player who’d later go on to play a year or two in the pros, lying down on the sideline and having a team mate pop his dislocated shoulder back into place. The game inspired that level of intensity, almost always in vain.

If you drive through Mount Carmel, then or now, one question arises: where are all the football players? It’s just a small, quiet town, no larger than any of the towns that make up the North Schuylkill school district. In fact, N.S. is comprised of a few towns (Frackville, Ashland, Girardville) and surrounding rural areas that appear to be larger than the town of Mount Carmel itself. Yet, year after year, with or without legendary coaches, the football team tends to be dominant.

They have a good program, which means they start much earlier than high school, with solid Pee Wee football leagues leading into freshman and junior varsity teams. Many high schools have one sport like that which attracts younger kids and shapes them into great teams. At N.S., it was wrestling, with legendary coach Joe Cesari scouting out future talent in grade-school gym classes.

(The wrestling vibe at N.S. was also a bit over-powering, if you didn’t like wrestling. I never liked wrestling. It seemed gay to me. I don’t mean effeminate gay; I mean prison shower room gay. Way too much physical contact with another guy, in ways that looked like rough sex to me. Granted, wrestlers got themselves into phenomenal physical condition – the one thing I look back on and kick myself for missing. But beyond that, the sport itself held no appeal to me. Still doesn’t. N.S. has always had a great girls basketball team, too, but that never seems to get as much respect in the male-dominated world of rural high-school sports.)

But I always find myself mystified when driving through Mount Carmel, expecting to see hulking teenage guys roaming the streets in letterman jackets, and the place always looks like any other small town in the Coal Region: main street left a bit ragged from the advent of malls in the 70s, struggling small businesses, row houses, church steeples, bars, Turkey Hill Mini Marts. There’s really no enmity between the towns of N.S. and Mount Carmel; no one’s going to attack you there if they find out you went to North Schuylkill, or vice-versa.

To this day, roughly 25 years after graduating from high school, when I go on the home county’s newspaper and see that Mount Carmel whipped North Schuylkill in football again, it arouses that age-old “must beat them for reasons unknown” passion. The “rivalry” is a bit like life itself, from the N.S. perspective: you’re told you can’t have something, and it makes you want it more. And once you get it … then what?

I was around once when we got it. The year after I graduated, that team, which was a good team, but nothing special, did beat Mount Carmel, at home, and I was there. It was a dramatic win, too, the quarterback throwing a long bomb to an open receiver on the last play of the game of the game and completing a 70+ yard touchdown. The stadium went nuts; I can still recall that palpable sense of elation. Strangers hugging, jumping up and down in place, screaming. One of the few sports experiences of my life when I was there (as opposed to watching on TV), experiencing a milestone (even on a relatively small level like that), and grasping the appeal of sports, that fleeting sense of accomplishing a goal that had presented itself as unreachable.

A few years ago, I was having drinks back there in a local bar with old high-school friend, A.J., whose younger brother was the quarterback on that play. We saw Glenn, one of the guys from our high school, who was also on that team, across the bar. Glenn was part of a hard-assed sports family. His brother Rick was in our class, and they were both tough guys, going out for wrestling and football, known bad asses, like their two older brothers. You didn’t mess with this family. The insinuation if you did was they’d all beat the shit out of you, when the prospect of even one of them doing so was pretty terrifying.

Glenn saw us, came over, and we proceeded to have a good time talking about the old days. Glenn looked a lot thinner than he had in those tough-guy high-school days, but I still had that memory of his family of bad asses, so I didn’t make any jokes about this. We were buying each other rounds, hanging out, when I dropped the highlight: “You know what I remember most about you, Glenn? The night you guys beat Mount Carmel. I’m never going to forget that.”

Sometimes in conversation, you say something, and by the look that registers on the face of the person you’re speaking to, you know you’ve said something wonderful that will be remembered. And that was the look on Glenn’s face, because obviously he remembered that night, too, probably had a shrine built to it in his memory, and it made him feel great that other people, decades after the fact, remembered that night, too. Let’s just say I didn’t buy another round after that the rest of the night.

Glenn’s brother Rick is now the N.S. high-school coach. Actually, he was in the early-mid 90s, too, and at that time, built quite a legacy for himself, creating great teams that won district championships and making their way well into state finals. We all reasoned that the kids were probably scared to death of Rick and were in constant fear of him beating their asses. But who knows. The school board removed him from the coaching position after a controversial situation with a referee – I’m still not sure what happened that night – but it was enough for the board to vote out a coach who had built a legacy better than any other coach’s in the school’s football history.

So, Rick went off to Cardinal Brennan, the small Catholic school just up the road from North Schuylkill (which closed for good last year, a victim of the American Catholic-school money crunch; definite "end of an era" vibe for many folks back there). Cardinal Brennan, fielding teams with maybe 20 kids, if they were lucky, immediately became a good team, and a powerhouse in a few years, bringing about the odd realization that Cardinal Brennan was fielding a better football team than North Schuylkill, a concept previously considered preposterous. But there it was.

Rick left that coaching spot, not sure why, but earlier this year, North Schuylkill re-hired him, and I was figuring, here we go again, back to winning, after the school has gone through a decade or so of mediocre to awful teams. Well, Rick hasn’t won a game this year, and Mount Carmel just whipped his ass. A rough showing for a guy who’s obviously a great coach in some sense, but I’m hoping he can hang in there and turn the program around.

I keep track of this stuff, but obviously from a distance. Even when I’m back there, I no longer go to N.S.’s high-school football games, just feels weird now. If you get to be an older guy (and I’d go with brother J, too) and you don’t have a kid on the team, people look at you funny, like you're either a scout for a small college football team or a pedophile. Besides which, when a team hasn’t won a game all season, you’re getting down to the faithful in terms of fans, the true believers with season tickets, and of course all the high-school kids who treat the game as a social event, ignoring whatever’s going on in the game, wandering in circles the whole time, getting into shit behind the bleachers, eating bleenies and french fries in a dixie cup, acting like dicks, trying to get laid, making plans to drive around in circles while listening to heavy metal music, etc. About the only time you’re going to get folks like that one the same page with the true football fans in the seats are cataclysmic events like North Schuylkill beating Mount Carmel. And it aint happening this year. Another year of a vaguely troubling sense of doubt that has nothing to do with my personal reality. How will I survive?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Zevon: Asshole Reconsidered

At the wonderful NYC Public Library, I recently picked up a copy of the late Warren Zevon’s biography by his ex-wife, Crystal. A large book, an oral history, what I’m figuring is the best way to read rock bios anymore as you get so many different takes.

I suspect the editing of an oral history requires just as much of the author’s discretion as a regular bio would. Crystal refused to name the Philadelphia DJ Warren not only dated, but lived with for a year, Anita Gevinson, which suggests to me some bad blood between the two, as all of Warren’s other main squeezes are not only named but interviewed. Who knows. (For a more clear account of his time in Philly, this article delves into what’s portrayed as an alcoholic haze in the bio. A little unfair as the same description could easily apply to the decade before.)

But most of it seems brutally honest, underlining Zevon’s years of alcoholism, resulting in strained familial relations, spousal abuse, a blown marriage, dozens of affairs, etc. The usual rock-star stuff, only this time it’s presented in a “this is simply how the guy was” light as opposed to either glorifying or condemning his behavior. Even after he got sober, he could be assholic: self-centered, argumentative, problematic, etc. It was made clear that his goodness, which is also noted many times over in terms of his humor, intelligence and flashes of generosity, was counter-balanced with a very dark side.

What I felt reading the book was virtually no different from the vibe I get around many musicians, whether or not they’re anywhere near the level of success Zevon had. Danny Fields had a great quote in the Legs McNeill oral history of the punk scene, which boiled down to: “All musicians are assholes.”

While I wouldn’t go that far, I know what he’s saying. Some musicians I’ve met are just people who view music as their vocation, and put out the vibe that they work hard at it and otherwise appear to be normal, caring human beings. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as the stereotypical musician. Basically a guy who’s useless and/or a burden when not composing or playing music, often baked or stuck in a late-teenage emotional state of development, usually living off a wife or girlfriend (who gets him in some sense, and he should kiss her feet nightly for doing so), profoundly selfish, in short, someone who would have a very hard time supporting himself.

I hope that doesn’t sound too negative, because I’ve also come to understand a lot of these guys are great musicians, and I love their work. But I’d sure hate to be responsible for their well being. It seems to me Warren Zevon’s life was what happened to a stereotypical musician who hit “the big time” in some respect and spent the rest of his days leading a relatively pampered rock-star life. Good work if you can get it, but I suspect your average person with zero contact with musicians doesn’t understand what that implies, which is never as alluring as the image.

From what little I’ve seen, a successful recording artist or band functions in its own little snow-globe world, especially on the road. Since the artist tends to be the center of attention much of the time, he doesn’t fully develop an adult sense of the world. In Zevon’s case, he just took money out of the bank whenever he felt like it, had very little understanding of his finances, and assumed money would always be there for him. Luckily, it was, although it got tight from time to time as his success boiled down to a few 70s hits he either recorded on his own or wrote for others (like Linda Rondstadt, who was hugely successful back in the 70s). After 1978’s Excitable Boy, his albums were much more critical than commercial successes, and aside from “Werewolves of London,” he never had any huge hit singles. He often toured solo in theaters and small clubs, most likely to reduce costs and make as much money as possible.

The artist also tends to populate his world with people who either support or depend on his ongoing success. Imagine a large family where a father is encouraged to be both infantile and patriarchal, and you have your average rock star. Reading the book, that’s how Zevon came off to me. I suspect that’s how many famous entertainers conduct their private lives, save they’ll be lucky not to receive the same sober scrutiny Zevon’s life receives in this book. (And not to worry if you don’t like the concept of rock stars being ambiguous and hard to accept beneath the image: there won’t be too many more rock stars. And just about everyone I know comes with strings attached, sooner or later.)

That’s also how a lot of his songs come off to me. With this renewed interest in Zevon, I doubled back and listened to his songs (of which I have just about all thanks to a returned MP3 favor from a friend). The first few albums, I was struck by how rigid his work was – either a slow ballad or stomping rocker, with little in between. And most of the rock songs I can live without. For years I’ve noted how “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner” has got to be the most retarded song I’ve ever heard, from the clunky martial beat to the silly mercenary story line. (I recall cringing the first time I heard it on my brother’s basement stereo in 1978.) I’ve always favored his ballads, and those early ones, like “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Carmelita,” still sound great.

Even when he lost his way a bit production-wise in the 80s, he had roughly the same formula that worked for him. What struck me most was how much his later work loosened up, to the extent I found myself more drawn to that material. He experimented with different styles (even incorporated a few celtic numbers), and there was a sense of artistic freedom I picked up on that wasn’t in his earlier, more popular work. The harder-rocking songs, like “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” and “Factory,” swung more than they stomped. In his case, I’d say the lack of pressure to write and record a Top 40 hit did him a world of good. I should also note sobriety agreed with him creatively, which is sometimes not the case for recording artists.

His lyrics? Always excellent, even on musically awful songs. Another reason I never warmed up to Zevon over the years was this odd effect his songs have on writers, and not just the famous ones he knew. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been around newspaper or magazine types in bars in New York, whom I know personally to have very little taste in music, but the one thing they can all agree on is a deep, abiding Warren Zevon appreciation. And while these guys are often great writers, they’re dicks when it comes to music, jam-band types who own about five CDs. Thus, I pictured Zevon concerts being a bunch of bespectacled guys in knit shirts and khakis, rocking out to that awful headless gunner song, and recalling their crazy nights copy editing while stoned after midnight at the campus newspaper.

As it turns out, I’m going to short-list about 40 songs for the MP3 player, which in old-world parlance would make a very full 2-CD set of his greatest hits. I wasn’t expecting that much, but then again, I had never fully listened to later work and thus didn’t know he somehow got better as a songwriter in general, despite never having another hit.

When I was back in Pennsylvania last week and mentioned the recent Zevon fest to brother J, he reminded me of the live version of “Werewolves of London” that Jackson Browne did for WMMR (Philly’s premier rock station) back in the mid-70s. He re-titled it “Werewolves of Bryn Mawr” as that was the town name of the Philly suburb he was performing in, at a club called The Main Point. It was such a good version that the station played it in heavy rotation well into the early 80s. I found myself wishing I had a copy of it, but hadn’t really searched for it.

So, when I got back to New York, went onto Soulseek, lo and behold, I found a copy, although as a humongous SHN file. Always a bad sign … means a tapehead’s file that’s supposed to be pristine fidelity because of the file type, but never is because, fuck’s sake, it’s a live recording, and all these dweebs insist on FLAC and SHN files as if they were recording engineers (when their source material wasn’t that well-recorded to begin with). But I pulled it down, converted it to a handy MP3, sure enough, it’s the same recording, although I’m not enthused about the quality.

Still, here it is, Werewolves of Bryn Mawr, if you want it.