Sunday, October 26, 2008

Help, My Life Has Turned into One Big Kinks Song

Sitting here now, with the Phillies battling Tampa Bay in crucial Game 4 of the World Series. It’s been a great fall for me sports-wise. Penn State’s football team has been kicking ass, third in the nation, undefeated, way above anyone’s expectations, as 80+ year old coach Joe Paterno, who has been the head coach since I was three, hobbles around on a cane, in pain from a hip injury, but smiling his ass off with the situation his team is in. The Phillies, what can I say – a good year, turned into a great one in the playoffs, and even if they somehow tank this, I’ll still be proud of them.

But I have the sound turned down, partially because I can’t stand the blathering of game commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. When I hit the mute button, I popped open the iTunes library, did a search for The Kinks, and I’ve been sitting here listening to various songs from their great catalog, only to realize …

My life has become one big Kinks song! I never thought this would happen. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I just never thought it would happen. What I’m going to do here is list some of the lyrics that are grabbing me from the songs I’m listening to and draw parallels to my own life. This may not work – it may come off half-assed. But it’s worth a shot. I’ll list the song after each set of lyrics, of course. If you don’t know them, feel free to youtube, LastFM, or google these songs to find a sound clip: you won’t be sorry.


Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
Cause his world is built around punctuality,
It never fails.
And he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

“A Well Respected Man.” This is how my life feels most week days. Work in the office, work-out after work. I am reasonably healthy in my body and mind. People respect me (for the most part). I’m punctual as hell. Question: should I feel like the pompous dick as was Ray Davies intent for the character of this song? Ray Davies, what in the fuck am I supposed to do?

Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac
I like my football on a Saturday,
Roast beef on Sundays, all right.

“Autumn Almanac.” This song is my life right now, the way the leaves are coming down. As noted numerous times before, I spend a good bit of time each Saturday morning sweeping out my landlord’s property, sidewalks and back patio. A good bit of work, generally takes about two hours: dirty, sweaty and afterwards I feel like I’ve accomplished something, especially when I stand and look at what I’ve done, nice clean walks that were leaf and/or garbage-covered before. It’s a good feeling. Makes me feel like I’m watching after nature, sweeping up after her, taking part in the seasons. The leaves are going to be coming down like snow the next few weeks, and I love it. I think in this song, Ray commiserates with the little man keeping his property in order, so I guess I should take a thumbs up from this one. I like watching Penn State football on Saturdays and making chili on Sundays. All right.

But all I want to do is make some money,
And bring you home some wine.

“Get Back in Line.” A poignant song about a man standing in a welfare line (in the UK, receiving money on the dole), reasoning why he wants to make money. Doesn’t want to get rich. Wants to bring home some small personal comfort to the people he cares about. It’s that simple. Should be that simple. Is that simple for me. I love this song for that reason. It’s hard to get across this concept to many New Yorkers, who have no identity without money and status. It’s where I’m from in Pennsylvania and who I’ll always be in many respects. Not some "in your face" faux humility -- you want to get rich and do what that requires, go right ahead. I just want some minor creature comforts (music, movies, books), a roof over my head and some money in the bank. Saving money will always be important to me, thanks to Dad's stern Depression-era stories. But that's enough for me.

All life we work but work is bore,
If life's for livin' what's livin' for?

“Oklahoma USA.” Another beautiful Davies ballad, about a woman living in a run-down house in Oklahoma who imagines her life as the more romantic musical Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. There aint shit sweeping down this woman’s plain. I know the feeling, and I guess we all do at one time or another. I’m not sure what the above couplet means, save that it conveys a sense of emptiness that’s part of life on bad days. Hopefully, not something you’re feeling every day! I don't know what's livin' for.

I've gotta start facing up to what I really am.
I've got to realize l'm just an ordinary man.
I think that I'll just settle down.
And take my place in the crowd.
I don’t want to lie to myself anymore.

“A Face in the Crowd.” From one of The Kinks' horrible concept albums of the mid-70s, but a great song about a rock star choosing anonymity over his high-profile lifestyle. When I listened to this song as a teenager, I’d imagine that I was the rock star making the same humble choice … never quite realizing I already was that face in the crowd, and would go on being that face in the crowd the rest of my days. I think Ray was a little full of shit here – then again, he was just playing a character in a rock opera. Dare I say it now, Ray Davies could probably walk down any street in America and go unrecognized by a vast majority of people. He got his wish. But having had minor brushes with fame along my way, I can see that anonymity has its benefits. Things get strange when people who don’t know you act like they know you.

Go to my office, sit at my desk,
Predictably just like all of the rest.
I sit and I dream about far away places,
Away from the people with frowns on their faces.

“Predictable” – from one of those great early-80s Kinks albums where Ray got his groove back. Again, this is a pretty typical work day. Actually, that’s a good day. A bad day is encountering any variety of bullshit and head games that make high school seem like a gathering of Greek philosophers on Mount Olympus. I gather Ray Davies never worked in an office, probably never held a job outside of being a rock star. I think he loathes the idea of sitting behind a desk … without ever having sat behind a desk. Which, I have to admit, is not as bad as he makes it out to be – it surely gets worse. Springsteen did the same thing with working-class jobs: imagined how the world was without actually living it for real. As a result, I sometimes think both miss the boat and shoot a little broad in their characterizations. Still, I give Ray a huge edge for empathizing much more clearly with his characters, seeing himself in them more than doing third-person character studies. I imagine being a rock star is pretty dull when you’re not on stage or creating music. I suspect Ray just transferred that boredom into an office and figured he had it nailed … and he did, in small ways.

Somehow you feel that the world's been passin' you by.
Can't help thinkin' somehow they're living a lie.
Now I'm asking questions, I never thought I'd ask them before,
Like "why" or "how" or "what am I doing it for?"
Will I reach my destination,
Or will I get off along the way?

“Return to Waterloo.” From Ray’s mid-80s solo album based on the kind-of-dull movie he made at the time about a guy with serious family problems going off to a typical work day in London from his town in the suburbs. The theme is one he’s tackled many times over in his songs: world is passing you by, and you’re not moving with it, living a lie of sorts. I think we all feel like we’re living lies to some small extent – maybe even a larger one if you really hate what you do. I made peace with office work once I realized I was good at it. Doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, although I thrive on staying busy and feeling productive. Fuckin’ A, I like to work: it’s that simple. I don’t LOVE to work. And I like to work eight hours a day – not 10, or 12, or more, like many fiends do in New York. It’s work. You’re not necessarily supposed to like it. But if you’re smart, you learn to love that act of working as opposed to whatever you’re actually doing. If it makes you feel empty, find a cure for cancer already, or go save a whale. Find a cure for cancerous whales. When you're not busy getting hammered.

What I also remember about this song, actually the album: I bought it the first day upon returning to campus in last August for my senior year at Penn State. Knew it was coming out that day, busted down to the small indie store and snagged it. Warm sunny late summer day. Walked back to Headquarters, where the gang was sure to be gathering, a few blocks away on the main drag. Sure enough, Justin was there, warm greetings, welcome back, what's that you got there, why it's the new Ray Davies solo album, Return to Waterloo, break it out, let's have a listen. Title track was the first song, and it floored us. Both being young iconoclastic bullshit artistes, we marveled at how well Ray had nailed the middle-class hypocrasy again and that feeling of dread 'neath the suburban hedges ... again, not quite realizing, we never forsook or in any way escaped similar existences, save to say we went away to college and got drunk a lot in that insular little hipster world of English majors. We were dicks, of course. But tasteful dicks. Now Justin has 15 kids and lives in a shoe in central California. We weren't fooling anybody!

Put on your slippers and sit by the fire
You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher
You're in your place and you know where you are
In your Shangri-la
Sit back in your old rocking chair
You need not worry, you need not care
You can't go anywhere
Shangri-la, Shangri-la, Shangri-la.

“Shangri-La.” Could be Ray Davies best song, from the Arthur album, based on a brooding British melodrama about the desperate suburbanite (which I’ve never seen, although I’ll bet it’s ham-fisted and over-wrought). This song perfectly nails the concept of ev’ry man a king, in his own little domain. Am I being shallow to admit I love the concept and see the beauty in it? I gather Ray was laying on the sarcasm heavily in this song. Sometimes he’d have an entirely sympathetic take on the working/middle class (like “Autumn Almanac”), other times, he’d launch a subtle attack, like in this song. Man, when I get home from work, I do want to sit back in my old rocking chair, and not worry or care. Is this wrong? Hell, no. I don’t have slippers, or a fireplace, but motherfuckers, if I did, I would put on my slippers and sit by the fire. I wouldn’t call it reaching my top and not being able to get any higher. I’d call it taking it easy after a hard day at work. Shoot me!

"Shangri-La" also has the lines: "Here is your reward for working so hard/Gone are the lavatories in the back yard." Again, the song is all thinly-veiled sarcasm over a "little man" taking comfort in the creature comforts and safety of his home. I got news for you: there's a radical, positive difference between using a toilet in a home and a lavatory. Before Dad built an extension to our house in the early 70s (something that would have thrilled Ray Davies, when he wasn't too busy scoffing at the concept), we had a lavatory to handle the overload of seven people in one house with one toilet. We called it the out-house: an outdoor shithouse. It was just a small wooden shack at the very end of our backyard, with a wooden bench inside with a hole in the middle, through which you pissed an shat, then hopefully wiped with paper, unless you made the grave error of not taking note before sitting down.

I don't know how deep the out-house hole was -- it didn't seem very, i.e., you could peer inside and see the murky sewage just a few feet away. Allow me to summarize: IT SUCKED! Try dumping in your pajamas in winter snow, with splinters in your ass. Indoor plumbing and toilets were a HUGE reward! Then again, I suspect most of Ray's adult existence was spent in the relative luxury of upper middle classdom, as opposed to the lavatory-ridden existence of freshly post World War II London, which had been bombed into oblivion. If he wanted to get sassy about a topic like this, he could have easily had his indoor plumbing removed, erect an out-house in his backyard and go there. I suspect he was a thousand times more pampered than the "little men" he often wrote about, and possibly his mild loathing expressed so often in the songs was really self loathing because he recognized how spoiled he was in comparison to those spartan days of picking through bombed buildings and vacant lots as a child.

If my friends could see me now, driving round just like a film star,
In a chauffeur driven jam jar, they would laugh.
They would all be saying that it's not really me,
They would all be asking who I'm trying to be.

“Sitting in My Hotel.” A big ballad from the early 70s, in which Ray’s pitying himself while looking out a luxury hotel window on tour and thinking the world is going by without him. He remembers his working-class friends as a child, and thinks they’d be laughing at and with him – glad that he made it in some sense, but wondering where he’s going with all this poofy rock-star stuff. Again, as a teenager, I’d play a song like this, and imagine I was a self-pitying rock star. Now? It makes me think of my friends back in Pennsylvania and the minor dislocation between them and that world and the one I’m living in here in New York. Where everything is glitter to the outside … but is really just as mundane as anywhere else. You get used to it, believe me. It has its good and bad points. And sooner or later, you get tired of running around in your spare time and just settle down, the same way you would in a small town. I may have detailed this once before, but I made a brief stab at living on the west coast, just after college, in Venice, California, and one day seeing a lost dog on the beach, cowering in the shadows as scores of people milled around on the beach on a Saturday. I saw myself in that dog, and felt an unbearable sorrow that presaged me getting my ass out of there a few weeks later. That was surely a “Sitting in My Hotel” moment in my life. Just because you leave home doesn’t mean home leaves you. A feeling that fills some people with dread, but makes me feel all right.

I was riding in the car with my mum and dad,
He was drivin' the car, the kids were drivin' him mad.
Dad looked at us, then he looked at his wife,
He must have wondered where we all came from.
And then mum said, "Dad, you know it won't last for long,
Before you know it, Summer's gone."

“Summer’s Gone.” Another great 80s Kinks song, a period well-worth checking out for anyone who hasn’t. What a beautiful scene he sets – parents in a car full of squabbling kids, and the mother looking at the father and saying, “You know it won’t last for long” – in a sad way, not in a “shut the fuck up, kids” sort of way. And, boy, does this song nail that vibe. Dad’s gone in my life, Mom’s getting on in years, and every time I get in a car with her, I think, this won’t last forever, sooner or later, it’s going to be just me in that car wondering where both of them went and truly grasping what it means to no longer have them in my life. I’m obviously in the “autumn of my years” – and I like it. But it’s like being perched between two worlds. I still feel young, but I can see death coming, can feel it and sense it in little ways that I couldn’t have in my 20s or 30s. I remember a lot of those little moments with my parents when I was a kid or a teenager, and being a total asshole with them, like the time I made Mom cry when she bought me a Philadelphia Phillies t-shirt that I claimed to hate on sight (but later loved and wore to shreds). God, I wish I could take moments like that back. But what can you do. We’re still here, and she’s still my mother. I’ll take it.

I wish my eyes could only see
Everything, exactly as it used to be
It's too late, so late
Young and innocent days
I see the lines across your face
Time has gone and nothing ever can replace
Those great, so great
Young and innocent days

“Young and Innocent Days.” Again, from the Arthur album, one of my favorite Kinks song, cascading harpsichord lines and wonderful background vocals from brother Dave Davies. A good song about growing old. Only I don’t subscribe to getting all misty-eyed over lost youth. You move with time, you get lines on your face, sure, time marches on, but you can’t overly concern yourself with this stuff. Those young and innocent days weren’t always so great. Sort of like how I don’t really like the message of the song “Imagine” by John Lennon (I don’t like being told to imagine having no possessions by a multi-millionaire), I don’t like the message of this song … but the melody and everything else about the song is so incredibly good, that I forgive the message. Ray wrote a song about the same time called “Days” that’s simply the best song about the death of a friend that I've heard. I like it so much I won’t quote it here and draw parallel lines, but I’ll
give you a copy if you want. Next to “Lola” (my favorite song choice in my high-school yearbook … which I’ll still stick by), the best Kinks song.

Man, the Phillies are kicking ass in the 5th inning! This is looking good tonight. But this game is surely far from over. Just like your average Kinks song where nothing ever works out the way you though it would, but you get somewhere worthwhile anyway. Shit, man, I’ll be going to bed tonight at 12:30 and only getting six hours of sleep. Can’t have this if I’m going to be a productive worker in the office tomorrow. Can’t have this at all!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Inner Tape-Mix Nerd

Via MP3s, I’ve realized the Inner Tape-Mix Nerd never really dies, even after the death of mix tapes (save for a hearty few who miss the warmth of cassette hiss and chewed-up tapes). I’m now winding down on a Celtic Music project, where I’ve incorporated anything Celtic-sounding in my collection, a few things from stalwart, now-celtic-rock-band member P.J., but mostly a huge chunk of tracks from Emusic, which has this genre covered with its myriad collection of small indie labels.

Right now, I have about 560 tracks! So, that Inner Tape-Mix Nerd has morphed into a monster who now collects hundreds of songs pertaining to a music theme as opposed to tastefully sifting through x number of CD’s and pulling 2-3 dozen tracks to narrow down to one tape. Every now and then I’ll employ the creative legwork of making a mix CD, like my upcoming Christmas offering, but even that’s starting to feel like an archaic function. Doing so makes me feel like I’m riding one of those turn of the 20th century tricycles with a four-foot high front wheel.

Last time I was back in PA, my brother had just bought a used pick-up truck, a 2004, and the odd thing about it was that even with a sell date only four years past, the pick-up had a cassette deck! This is like seeing a Model-T’s front hand crank on a 57 Chevy … just unbelievable that the auto industry was putting out vehicles in 2004 with these archaic devices. I also recall seeing a few mix tapes stacked on a shelf in my old bedroom back there, ones I had made back in the mid-90s, before CD-Rs came into vogue. So I made sure to break a few out when we went for rides that week, mostly the 70s Pop ones I made that are painfully accurate renderings of the Top 40 junk kids were listening to circa 1975. I don’t know how kosher it is for two grown-ass man to be driving around in a pick-up trick with “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace blasting away on the tape deck, but I enjoyed myself.

(A recurring fantasy I have: a few years ago, a guy at work was raving about a new Peter Frampton album, how it was a return to his mid-70s glory days and worth picking up. I sampled it, and while it wasn’t bad, in all honesty, I was never a huge Peter Frampton fan to begin with. I was one of the five kids in America who didn’t own the Frampton Comes Alive album or eight track. But it got me thinking of this concept of grown men listening to music they grew up with, which is not at all unusual and in fact far more normal than grown men listening to new music. I thought it would be a cool idea if me and a few of the fortysomething guys from work got greatest hits CDs for Journey, or Styx, or Frampton, got a 76 Nova with tailpipes, got sleeveless concert shirts for the aforementioned artists, drove down to a suburban high school at 3:00 pm, hung out in front of it, and posed like tough guys on the Nova while blasting songs like “Don’t Stop Believin” and “Blue Collar Man.” I know – we’d get shunned like the plague or arrested – but for some odd reason, I can’t escape the urge to try this.)

I should stop kidding myself that I still subscribe to any pre-designated rules of taste with music, because with MP3 files and these gigantic collections I’ve amassed over the past few years, I fully intend to go on listening to everything I’ve ever listened to in my life, and expanding outwards with blues, country, celtic, etc. whenever it grabs my ear. That concept of barriers in music has fallen away, which is liberating. I knew this before when I was buying CDs, that wave of 90s reissues of previously-considered lame 70s acts (think ABBA and such), but with MP3s, forget it, I’ve amassed collections that match and supersede any musical phase or experience I’ve experienced before.

It’s odd when I piece together these gigantic collections – in my quiet life, it’s a monumental event. I’m literally forming large groups of music that I will listen to the rest of my days. The same way I bought building block albums in my youth by the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, etc., I’m now either documenting those days or forming new tastes with a wild abandon that wasn’t possible in the old days of albums and cassettes. It’s a big thing to me … that means virtually nothing to just about everyone else! I’ll usually pass off copies of these collections to various friends whom I know will “get it” in some sense. And that’s often a strange experience. When someone give you a DVD with 500 songs on it, what the fuck is a normal response. What do you do with this? I’ve learned the best thing to do is let it sit for a week or two, then slowly digest it, like a boa constrictor eating a very large chicken. Because it’s impossible to absorb that much music all at once.

It’s not a fantasy world to me – this is real music, I have it and am listening to it – but it feels like a fantasy world in terms of what it means to anyone else. I’m assuming that if I was married with kids, this is the sort of shit I would do in my “den.” Like on The Brady Bunch – Mike had that huge room on the ground floor to himself where he’d presumably be working on his architectural projects, but was more than likely watching porn on Betamax, when not listening to old Dion & the Belmonts albums and wondering how he’d become such a stuffy, old asshole. (I never gathered whether Mike and Carol were divorced or widowed. Nearly every divorcee I’ve met has dealt with a minor, or major, world of shit with the ex, and this never seemed to be an issue on the show.)

Guys need this. Hell, everyone needs this, but grown men, in particular, seem to need that one thing in their life, that one burning interest or hobby, that they can go off and do on their own, and it’s their thing. That’s surely music in my life, but I also think it’s a shame that so many adults let their taste in music fall by the wayside as they age. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking music is a “kid” thing, a phase you go through in your teen years, and the best you’re going to do afterwards is buy copies of albums in different formats from that time to remind yourself how much fun you had back then (as opposed to having none now). As far as I’m concerned, musical appreciation is one of those cognitive abilities we should never lose, much like working out, which also falls by the wayside for most adults, thus the onset of any number of health issues as the years pass.

I sometimes get the feeling music is just a back-drop to my life – aural wallpaper of a sort – but then again, what was it when I was a teenager? If anything, music at that time is used as the running theme for kids in their little teenage worlds. The gist is supposedly that they’re feeling the music more intensely at the time, that it’s in perfect synch with their thoughts and emotions. But that wasn’t true. It was wallpaper for most kids – something to listen to because all the other kids were, and their parents weren’t. Forget about buying new music as adults, or even doubling back and buying that great old stuff in a newer format: most people seem to stop buying music all together after a certain point in their early adulthood because in some odd way, it's no longer expected of them.

Why? I have no idea, save the previous assumption that we’re brainwashed into thinking this is kid’s stuff. Shit, I’m listening to celtic music that in some cases is centuries old, played and recorded very well by people who were raised with and trained to play this kind of music. When I listen to music, that’s what I’m appreciating – the effort and artistry involved in making it. What does that have to do with rock and roll, or hiphop? Very little, or any trend that's come and gone since most music has been foisted off on society as kid stuff. It’s a shame we’ve attached the constraints of passing time and phases in our own lives with something like music, which exists apart from time, which moves with time or in some cases, like the celtic stuff I’m listening to now, stands for centuries for the simple reason that it defines a certain culture, and people go on sharing in that culture years after the fact much as they would a religion.

And I'm not even getting into the simple mystery of why music is so pleasurable, why it calms people down, or makes them dance, or sparks certain emotions. I can't stand meeting adults, especially when they're younger than I am, and they've seemed to talk themsleves into being stereotypically stern adults who've totally abandoned any concerns but money and responsibility. I thought people like this were fuckheads when I was a kid, and that goes much more so now. Whatever spark of humanity someone felt talking with me openly when I was eight, or thirteen, or twenty-two, I'd rather hold onto that basic humanity for the rest of my days than forfeit it for some stiff routine of adulthood. Music plays a large role in that basic humanity I want to maintain. Think it's childish? Look at the world of shit we're in now thanks to the responsible, stalwart leaders of our financial sectors who more than likely possess that false "adult" quality in spades. I can't help but think that useless, false sense of faux maturity so many adults espouse is the sort of thing that takes root when that closet full of albums goes for pennies on the dollar at a garage sale.

In my head right now, I’m hearing the opening guitar riff from “Fly Like an Eagle” by Steve Miller. I’ll be listening to this celtic stuff later when I hit the gym. I’ll go home tonight and download a few dozen tracks of new music, most alt rock and country, that I’ve had ear-marked on Emusic while I’ve been nailing down the celtic material. I feel like hearing “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips. I heard “The Rover” by Led Zeppelin blasting out of a car stereo the other day and had my mind blown that someone was still playing that shit loud in public.

Where does it end? It doesn’t for me. This stuff is always swirling around in my head. The Steve Miller thing comes from a coworker talking to someone named Steve Miller on the phone. Not the “real” Steve Miller. If I had speakers on my computer, I’d blast the opening riff to “Fly Like an Eagle” right now as a goof. And would wonder if Steve Miller heard it in the background and thought, “Fuck. I’ve been dealing with this shit since high school. Like the guy I met in the last business meeting who blurted, ‘Keep on rockin’ me, baby!’ when we shook hands. I guess I should be glad my name isn’t Leo Sayer.”

And now I want to hear a Leo Sayer song. With the trusty iPod nearby, these are always options. If you had told me I’d have these sort of limitless musical options when I was a kid in 1978, with my motley collection of albums and eight tracks, I’d have thought this was some sort of musical heaven. And I’m smart enough now to recognize that it is.

And here now, three of the celtic tracks I've pulled down recently for your edification:

Barleyjuice - High Drive

Damien Dempsey - They Don't Teach This Shit in School

Anna Murray - Dolina Mackay

Thursday, October 09, 2008


This past weekend, I had a nice fall visit back to Pennsylvania, part of which involved running into an old friend I haven’t seen in roughly 10 years. Robin’s from Ringtown. Our friend Tony, who I see just about every time I go back, is also from Ringtown. Robin lives down past Reading now, far enough way and busy enough with work that he rarely gets back to our home area. Tony lives in Shenandoah, just over the hill from Ringtown.

When we were kids, we used to harass kids from Ringtown by taking the melody for Glenn Campbell’s hit song “Rhinestone Cowboy” and instead sing, “Like a Ringtown farmer …” There are a lot of farming communities in Pennsylvania. Within our school district, there were other farming-based towns: Gordon and Lavelle. You drive between Gordon and Lavelle, and you can catch the overwhelming aroma of cow manure in summer time.

While it would be lost on outsiders and city slickers, all these little rural towns have their own vibe, which you’ll often see unexpurgated in the kids of the town. With farm towns like Gordon and Lavelle, the kids were always physical, probably due to their proximity to farm animals and the need to interact with them. I know that sounds weird – I don’t mean to imply bovine bestiality – but when you work on a farm, you’re herding and feeding goats, pigs, cows, etc. You get into it with them sometimes, holding them down for shots or brands – rare farms would even have horses.

As a result, a lot of these kids were physical. Our high-school championship wrestling teams of the 70s and 80s were stocked with Ringtown kids: big, physical kids who liked to grapple. Even now, farming high schools like Tri-Valley, despite being very small population wise, will often field state-finalist caliber wrestling teams. It’s a weird thing with farm kids.

I don’t think Robin and Tony come from farming families, but both probably did enough work on farms as kids, and lived around plenty of other farmers, that they had the same rollicking, physical vibe. They were always administering “titty twisters” on guys in their peer group: grabbing a guys chest as hard as possible, pinching down and twisting. I’d imagine this would be much more painful for a full-breasted woman, but it hurt like hell, too, when done on a guy. Robin was strong as an ox – if he caught you in a titty twister, the pain could be excruciating. Followed by him braying out his horse-like laugh.

Another odd thing we did in that Butthead phase of life. Any time we disagreed with what one of us was saying, provided no teachers were around, rather than say something witty like "you're full of shit," we'd ball up one of our hands into a fist, place it directly underneath the chin of the kid making the questionable statement, and then make a "pwt-pwt-pwt" sound with our lips to imitate the sound of an oil can squirting oil. What we were really doing was pretending our outstretched arm and fist was a penis, and we were ejacualting on the offending party's face as a sign of disrespect. I'm not sure why ejaculting on someone's face would represent the epitome of humiliation, but there it was. And that oil-can sound ... I've never heard my penis make a sound in any state of being. But I guess when you're 14 years old and learning how to use the thing in different ways, the first time you see it in action in that fashion, you imagine it making that oil-can sound.

Those Ringtown kids were always grabbing each other: headlocks, full nelsons, hammerlocks. When I say they seemed gay, I don’t mean “effeminate” gay, I mean “prison shower sex” gay – guys who were always grabbing each other in deeply physical ways that were rude. Granted, most boys did this – rough-housing – in varying degrees, but with Ringtown kids, it was an art form and a constant. It was nothing to pass by a study hall or gym class in repose and see two Ringtown guys, red-faced and gasping, locked up with each other in some physical challenge. Arm wrestling was big, too. Girls would be sitting at the surrounding desks doing homework, while two Ringtown guys would be busting neck veins and sweating profusely in an arm-wrestling death match. (I kept waiting for one of them to lean over and gently kiss the other on the cheek.)

You’d think I wouldn’t get along with guys like this, but one other thing about Ringtown kids, a lot of them were pretty good-natured and friendly. Sure, as time went along, I got tired of the endless arm wrestling matches and silly physical crap that seemed like a misguided mating ritual. But the kids I knew from Ringtown tended to be friendly, regardless of social status.

I should mention social status, because that was the strange (but good) thing about Robin. This is a guy who spent the first two decades of his life doing everything possible to go off the rails (drugs, dropping out, rampant teen sex, going AWOL in the Navy and eventually getting discharged, etc.), yet is now a plant manager (not sure what kind of plant), making great money and living in a quiet rural/suburban town with a few kids from two marriages. You can take issue with the marriages, but by all rites, I had figured this guy to be a corpse long before 30.

How did he get there? A reversal of fortune? I don’t know. I gather from what he told me that he’s just as perplexed that he’s made it this far and is, in fact, somehow excelling in life. When I implied that something must have happened to make him shift gears, he said, no, I’ve always known I was a good worker, I just didn’t like school and had more of a wild side when I was a kid.

Which was an understatement! He had Tony and me in tears with some of his stories. The time he and Tony watched a notoriously gamey kid in our school take a dump in the locker-room shower after gym class. Or when he screwed a girl in the vestibule of the auditorium during a presentation. (I vaguely remember this as I was in the auditorium that day and the rumor had spread like wild fire … thought it was a joke at the time … but he verified that they actually did this.) Or routinely driving his motorcycle at over 100 mph down a long pot-holed hill leading into Ringtown. Or having one of his naval officers hit on him in a hotel room while on R&R in Connecticut (basically hopping naked into bed with Robin, throwing his bare leg over his waist and whispering “roll over” into Robin’s ear … which he did, punching the officer square in the face, then taking off with nothing but his pants on and catching a taxi back to base … no wonder the guy went AWOL twice.)

The guy’s a repository of these sort of wild stories, his favorites being all the times he’s been caught having sex with various girlfriends and then wives in public or while visiting relatives. It’s as if he planned these events, but I gather he delighted in taking these calculated risks – yanking up his wife’s dress while her parents were on the porch and trying to bang out a quick one on the living-room sofa. He detailed getting caught once, bare-assed and pumping full-gun in a guest room, and his mother-in-law, opening the door without knocking, letting out a shriek that made him lose his erection instantly. I can only imagine the parents’ horror to witness this red-haired monster romping porn-star style on their little princess, who was probably moaning like an alley cat. The following breakfast or dinner must have been quite an ordeal for everyone.

Robin used to wear leather pants, sometimes with a matching vest, which had to be the gayest thing I recall anyone in our high-school wearing. Understand that he was a Judas Priest fan, and like millions of other Judas Priest fans, Robin had no idea Rob Halford was gay and into hard-core S&M, thus the leather outfit he wore into metal’s rough legend, with all these aggressively heterosexual kids none the wiser. There was little worry about mistaking Robin for being gay – the guy was like a modern-day centaur galloping through the countryside in a permanent rutting season, leaving hoof marks and stains on many family-car seat covers.

Just before he joined the navy, after dropping out of high school in the ninth grade (he may have flunked a grade or two), he worked with brother J at a gas station on night shift, which apparently only gave him more time to rut, as he outlined a few instances of comely customers taking up his offers to come back at his break time and get the van rocking. Pumping gas on night shift is a rough job – shady characters, drunken kids and adults, a lot of down time as the night wears on, and the gas freezes on your hands when it gets colder. J recalled the weird conversations he and Robin would have early in the morning, reminiscent of a perverted Waiting for Godot:

Robin: What would happen if you crazy-glued your dick to someone’s forehead?

J: I imagine you’d have your dick crazy-glued to someone’s forehead.

Robin: I know, I know. But, what would you do?

J: You’d probably stand there thinking, “I have my dick crazy-glued to this person’s forehead.” And that person would think, “This guy’s dick is crazy-glued to my forehead.”

Robin: I know, I know. But how would you get out of it?

J: I think a better question might be how did you get into it.

With Robin, the possibility of crazy-gluing his dick to a woman’s forehead was very real. Just to see what would happen. I couldn’t help but think when I heard him recount these many bizarre stories what an odd life he had leading into his adulthood – which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find out how stable and successful he is now. The last time I saw him in our youth, I didn’t know it, but he was AWOL from the Navy for the first time, riding around on his motorcycle, and with what would be come his first wife (not sure if she was pregnant at the time or shortly thereafter). When I heard he’d gone AWOL and then been caught and thrown in the brig for 90 days, I thought, here we go. Apparently, he did the same thing again a year later, only this time, the Navy threw him out after this stint in the brig. All this transpired before he was 21 years old.

What I’m not seeing with him is all those years in between, much like no one knows what happened to Jesus between the ages of 12 and 33. I know the basic story line: drummed out of the service, feeling low, gets a job driving trucks with one of his brothers, which grows into these various managerial spots resulting in plant manager years along, all the while married and having kids, so he has these things to anchor him. As opposed to the footloose and fancy-free kid I knew who nearly blew out his candle before legally becoming an adult. I still remember the time he and our friend John, while out driving drunk, sheared off a telephone pole in Pottsville and somehow got out of the situation with Robin’s mother blaming John for the incident (although he was not driving and nearly got his head caved in when the pole crashed down on the car).

Robin said he hardly even drinks anymore, much less do drugs, so I’m sure that’s also another huge factor in his turnaround. He asked me if I knew the whereabouts of many of the infamous, fellow drug-addled kids from our class, the ones who got high in the wooded area on the north side of the school before lumbering back to doze in meaningless classes. And I told him they were all living on Mars with Jesus Christ. Because I have no idea what happened to a lot of the kids, save I suspect they’ve probably had a rough time unless they, like him, somehow snapped out of that teenage drug lethargy and allowed themselves to grow up.

All I know I was literally laughing myself to tears over his stories, part nostalgia, and part getting caught up in that wild energy that sometimes erupts when you get old friends together who haven’t seen each other in awhile, and vivid memories of embarrassing and odd situations come flooding out, like some bizarre form of group therapy. Haven't laughed that hard in a long time.