Just returned from a mid-summer trip to Pennsylvania, which was bracketed by two strange sightings. A few years back, I wrote a story about a well-meaning nut who was roaming the earth as a Christ-like figure to spread The Word, and how that particularly related to the Coal Region where I was raised and he was spending some real time. You can find the story here, still on the Leisuresuit.net website. In that story I mention Buddy, the odd local still roaming the back roads and highways of the same area, and the strange, sometimes violent circumstances of his life.
Well, this trip, I saw Christ and Buddy. I don’t think this was whatsyourname. But the day I came back, the bus was driving through Tamaqua around 7:30 on a late June evening, that “golden sunset” time where everything glows. A guy dressed like Christ was on the street – thin, early 30s, long dirty blonde hair, beard, white robe, sandals, throwing his arms out wide and laughing as a crowd of senior citizens applauded. The bus driver gave me a “what the fuck” look, and I explained what I knew of the previous Christ imitator – like I said, this didn’t look like him. But I guess the concept must have caught on, and frankly, if you’re going to imitate someone, why not Christ. Or a guy who thinks he's Christ.
Buddy, I saw this time just outside of Tamaqua on the Sunday morning bus heading back to New York. Naturally, he was thumbing it, with that big shock of red hair, a goofy grin on his face. He made that honking motion with his right arm to get the bus driver to blow his horn, and the driver obliged, causing Buddy to clap his hands. Buddy looked like he had put on a few pounds since I last remember seeing him about eight years ago, but god damn, if he still isn’t out there thumbing it every day. Some things never change back there.
Sandwiched between all that, the madness of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett dying on the same day. Fawcett, I found out about early afternoon, but Jackson, I had gone out to have dinner with an old friend, and the restaurant was ablaze with the news that the King of Pop had expired. It’s been a landslide of Jackson news ever since, really disturbing, too. I guess my issue with Jackson, beyond the weirdness which is irrelevant, is that most of his music just doesn’t hold up to legendary status. Sure, the hype and image do, the methodical creation of style over substance he worked to an art form back in the 80s. The guy was a tremendous showman, no way around that. I recall the hype and self aggrandizement he generated being beyond belief and truly sickening at the time. Once a musician dies, and the hype wears off, only the music remains.
And the music just wasn’t that good after awhile. His best stuff, far and away, was with the Jackson 5, when he was a kid and had very little control over his creative choices. I can always go back to these songs and find unassuming greatness. But as he went along as an adult, he kept growing more slick as an artist, to the point where the music was meaningless, just a backdrop for him to dance to onstage and in videos, which occurred simultaneously with the advent of MTV. Welcome to the new age … because that became the formula for so much of soul/urban music from the 80s onward. Jackson, and surely Madonna as well, were the first to usher in that sense of style over substance. And it's been all downhill ever since: they were the best of the bunch, and their music was, and is, mediocre for the most part. The music industry started dying for real when this shift was made in popular music in the 1980s.
The guy worshipped James Brown, who brought the whole package, like a monkey wrench upside your head. I’ve been listening to a lot of James Brown lately, especially his live material, and he made a great case for style and substance. Even the way he screamed and grunted made some type of profound sense. But I’m hearing a lot of Michael Jackson on VH-1 and the radio and such, and the songs just aren’t there. “Billie Jean” and “Black and White” are about the only songs I can hack from his adult life – there are a whole slew of others that aren’t bad … but just aren’t that good either. (And there's stuff like "Man in the Mirror" and "We Are the World" that are utter shite.) I’d feel a lot better about this Elvis-like mania surrounding his death if he actually had the musical chops to back it up. I just aint hearing it! Somebody like Prince passing on would hit me harder. Granted, the guy hasn’t put out anything great in decades, but he has put out enough challenging music to register as a musical force above and beyond any style issues. (August Darnell, of Kid Creole & the Coconuts fame, put out as much great music as Prince and Jackson combined ... but no one gives a shit about this guy these days!)
It was just a weird few days for me this time of year, that particular death pushing me back to an early 70s time frame … and then stumbling upon some cool Disney movies at the local Walmart, in particular, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man in the World, both starring a very young Ken Russell. Both staples of my early 70s childhood film experiences, seeing them at the then-decrepit Roxy Theater in Ashland, which was on its last legs and felt like it. For some reason, I distinctly remember seeing The Legend of the Boggy Creek Monster, The Jungle Book and Song of the South there – the latter two because they had the audience singing along and clapping, and the first because it scared the shit out of me. I still suspect if I had to spend any time near Texarkana, I’d be on the lookout for that furry manbeast creature.
In regards to the Russell flicks, I had already made a copy of The World’s Greatest Athlete (starring Jan Michael Vincent) from my cable system in New York, and thus was already in that mind frame to appreciate that early 70s Disney vibe. And it’s a good one. I find all these movies fun to watch – they’ve held up well despite being incredibly dated. Although I have to wonder what college campus Russell was on in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes … every kid in that movie has a reasonable haircut and seems more like a wholesome 50s teenager than an early 70s college student. Remember, this was the age of Kent State, hippies, drugs, Woodstock and such. But I’m sure Walt Disney himself stiff-armed any such concepts appearing in his movies, which makes sense. Besides which, I somehow suspect that if I could get in a time capsule and go back to 1971 or so on a college campus, the environment would probably be a bit more sedate and button-downed than the radical hippie utopia I have built up in my mind. I’m always meeting people in NYC office work who were college students around that time and were decidedly NOT hippies in any overwhelming sense.
About all I didn’t do back there this visit was find old video footage of Karen Valentine in Room 222 and Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the Batman TV series to masturbate over. I can just about guarantee you, the first few hundred erections I had in my life could be attributed to those two: those “roll over and cover my crotch with a pillow, because I’m pitching a mean tent in my footed pajamas” sort of woodies you can only get when you’re eight or nine and not really sure why that’s happening, but know you have to hide it.
I don’t know why, but deep summer is that one time of year I can go back to that part of Pennsylvania and have a more clear connection with the past. I’d guess this is because nostalgia ties in with focusing on good memories, and most kids have good memories of summer, even if that only means not being in school. Thus, adults relate more good memories to summer than the season truly deserves. It also underlines to me how oddly disconnected you become from your past when you move to another place and live there a long time. For me, it’s a blast to drive down all those all roads and re-connect myself to where I’m from. If you still live there, have always lived there and never left? I’d imagine it’s a much less romantic view of the place. I wouldn’t even call my view romantic. But when I go off on a long morning run on a back road through woods and farmlands, it’s a night-and-day experience from where I’d been only 24 hours earlier, i.e., dodging packs of annoying tourists on Broadway and fully immersed in that much quicker/more alert city life.
City life is good in that way: keeps you on your toes. Best to have your head on straight, lest you enjoy being taken advantage of. Gets tiresome sometimes, especially when you’ve run across more than your fair share of wolves and assholes, so it’s always good to get away to a place where they’re less plentiful. I’ve seen urban dwellers put forth about how great the city is in terms of setting yourself free in some sense, but from what I’m gathering about life, if you don’t have balls enough to be yourself anywhere, in any circumstance, that stance is pretty much bullshit, and will go on being such until you learn to be yourself at all times. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve underlined that basic tenet of life, but it’s not so easy to follow at times. I guess I’m veering off in this direction because I came across a website that had a few gay guys carrying on about the Gay Pride Parade this past weekend in New York, and that seemed like a basic thread in their musings. Man, there’s always someone who’s going to hate you for no good reason, whoever you are, wherever you go. You’re not living for those people, if you’re smart. The idea that “homophobic rednecks” are keeping you from being yourself is utter bullshit – only one person can keep you from being yourself. (And if you know city life like I do, you’re just as likely to run across packs of homophobic jackasses who will throw a scare into gay folks as hard as any rednecks in a rural bar would.)
The lines are more blurred now between here and there, although I can still clearly and easily feel the difference in that long bus ride, from one place to another. But I find that coming and going aren’t as shocking as they once were, there’s not that sense of letting my breath out when I get back to the country, or tightening my game when I get back here. I guess I’m just “on” all the time in the sense of being aware of other people and how they act, maybe because I’ve noticed more boorish, trashy assholes walking around back home in the past few years, and had just as many unexpectedly nice experiences in the city that are as genuine as anything you’d find in a small town. I can tell when I’m around good people, and when I’m around shitheads, and I avoid shitheads, no matter where I’m at. Are you writing all this down? Words to live by here!