Monday, November 30, 2009

Letter Excerpts

Well, caught with my pants down again! End of the month crept up on me, away for a few days, eating like a horse in the country, and before you know it, it's November 30th.

Here's what I'll do to round out this one. I stumbled upon a folder of old letters I've written to various people. By "old" I mean early to mid-9os, when I had access to a computer and was probably just getting used to MS Word, thus I managed to salvage some of these from various floppy discs. Before that, we're talking handwritten letters, and I photocopied none of them, which is good, because most of them were some of the most half-assed, embarrassing love notes anyone's ever written, some of the most truly desperate shit you would ever be bound to read. If I could go back in a time machine, I would seriously kick my own ass from the age of, say, 21 to 28.

But, here's some snippets of stuff that caught my eye. Makes no sense, may be a silly read, but could be some fun stuff along the way, too.

I must say, out of all the tapes I make for people, 70's one-hit wonders or pop tapes are always my favorites. I think people make the mistake of looking at their deep teenage years as a time to remember "their" music. Nah -- for me it was my childhood leading into my early teens. That's the music that sticks with me, that haunts me, that uncovers certain emotions and situations that go a long way to describing who I am. As a "deep" teenager, i.e. the late 70's early 80's, I'd be hung up on stuff like Cheap Trick and The Clash. Not bad stuff, but it doesn't seem to mean as much to me. I find myself buying 80's collections every few months, but that's more for a kick. Rhino hit the bull's eye with their mammoth 70's pop collection -- a milestone, and I've also partaken of many of their "Soul Hits of the 70's" series, although not nearly as much. Stuff like this does represent a tremendous service to the listener. Until this stuff came out, the only connection I had to these songs were dusty and broken 45s in the basement. My brother M was a singles man -- he had hundreds -- literally every song on this tape, and an amazing majority of the songs listed in the "Have a Nice Day" series. With each one, he'd get out his special "M Repsher" address sticker he had sent away for and put it on the label, thus making it worthless for collectors. (He had more than a few early 70's Beatles solo records that fall into this category, with the split and full apples on the label -- oh well.) Unfortunately, 45s being what they were, and kids being who they were, these records were scratched and beat to shit within a matter of months. We took shitty care of them, and almost as bad care of our albums.


Greetings from the ghost of Christmas past, yeh cancerous little gobshite.

It’s me, Bill Repsher, back from the dead, or should I say back from the living, to rain bad tidings and gloom upon that netherworld of lost and doomed souls otherwise known as P____ & S______. To save you from professional embarrassment, I’ve refrained from placing my name anywhere on the outside of this envelope. I thought about putting “Ted Kozinsky, c/o Montana Federal Correctional Facility” on the outside, but that’s not a very wise idea, especially considering that P_______ is really ripe for this sort of thing.

I’d imagine I’m persona non grata around that joint, that if I showed up unexpectedly for a unscheduled lunch appointment with our man B_____, I’d have a few of those guys with walkie talkies in the lobby looking to practice their Tiger Schulman karate moves on me. And I dig that – for once in my life, I had the chance to nail a total bastard in public, and I took it. My only regret is that they couldn’t have published my five-page, single-spaced diatribe I sent to B_____ privately the same day, and that it couldn’t have been The New York Times instead. For what it’s worth, and I know it’s very little, I hope the man looks out a rain-streaked window on a particularly bad day, and some of the issues I dredged up in that letter play on the fringes of his warped mind. That’s all I ask. Even Satan wept when he saw Jesus walking alone through the fires of hell.

Enclosed please find a load of Irish Sounding Shite I threw together recently. Knowing you are a connoisseur of music from the isles, and that you may have known more than a few of these musicians personally, I figured you’d enjoy having a copy sent your way. It may well be preaching to the converted, but it sure beats preaching to a bunch of mean-spirited pricks throwing eggs and tomatoes at you.

Keep on smoking, poster boy for electronic voice boxes. Allow me to say that of all the people I have worked with, from ex-cons and white supremacist in various factory stints to blue blood Wasps from Westchester County who couldn’t get electrons shot through their anuses, that among this sad troop of misguided souls known as my lifelong coworkers, you were definitely one of my favorites, a true character, like some updated pervert from a Dickens novel. I can picture you giving lung cancer to Tiny Tim as he sat in the corner piping, “God bless us one and all.” You’d smoke that gimpy little bastard to death. Frankly, I’d have spent more time around you, but I’d probably be in an oxygen tent right now gasping, “That bald-headed prick Yul Brenner was right.”

I’ll be thinking of you when I’m vomiting in my green plastic derby on St. Patrick’s Day. Long may you run.

Oh – and fuck Bob Geldof.


I wouldn't say I think what you do is a waste of time. What I do at work is a waste of time -- but I'm getting paid well for it, and I'm supporting myself on it. I'd say the things you're doing for free are a lot more honorable than what I'm getting paid for. But, damn, A____, what are you doing? I'd understand if you had sugar daddies back home bank-rolling your existence, but how are you living? How do you do it? What I'm questioning -- because I'm honestly at a loss -- is how you seem to be getting by with no visible means of support. I'd be jealous, if I weren't under the impression that you must be near broke 100% of the time. I've been there -- a few times, the last being when I decided to temp right in the middle of one of the worst recessions to hit this country. I was down to about $300, with no work coming in, and I didn't feel like working anymore, period. It didn't feel good. A few weeks later, the jobs started picking up, and then I landed the job at the ad agency that kept me in the green for the following three years. That's as close as I got to going under, and with a college education and a fair amount of street smarts, I felt like a fool for letting myself go that far.


You look like a fucking gangster! The black leather coat, the shorter hair – your face has grown more character, you look real Italian now. When I first saw you, I didn’t know if I should say hello or reach for my wallet. Which is good, if you ask me – I’ve learned that having the power to physically intimidate people in some way is an effective tool in staying alive, especially in the city. I’ve had people tell me I’ve spooked them just by the way I walk up to them, but I’m sure not aware of it.


So I find it’s good not to get too hung up on one’s life direction. I live in a town filled with neurotic people who let such things blow their minds and either turn them into freakish trolls, or send them to psychoanalysts who get rich for basically being bartenders without alcohol and a loud jukebox to contend with. Everyone I know seems to have some grievous life crisis going on. Some for real (a friend back home going through an ugly divorce that involves kids), some imagined (another friend in California who’ll call at three in the morning to tell me he’s going bald). My only crisis is that I’m not doing exactly what I want to do, and I haven’t whipped myself into the proper state of righteous indignation to draw lines and make it happen. I’ve grown old enough to know that life rolls along no matter what you do, whether you appreciate every second or try to throw it all away, it goes on. And when you go, it goes on without you. (All right, so I stole those last two lines from a coffee cup.) I like the way I’m turning out -- most days I feel I can handle anything. If there’s one thing I’m acutely aware of, it’s that I’ve made a promise to myself to always live like I did as a child -- not to take things too seriously, and to treat everyone with the respect they deserve. And New York has taught me not to panic -- you live here, and you either learn that implicitly, or you never learn it at all. For most people, this is panic central, and I don’t know why these people just don’t up and move.

I’ve thought of doing that myself. I’ve been in the Bronx too long. It’s not a terrible place -- I’ve lived there around seven years and have no scars, war stories or police reports to show for it. But in a lot of ways, it’s very isolating, because people are afraid to visit me there, and I can’t blame them. I think people see me as somebody who wants to be an outsider. No -- I just want reasonable rent. I may move just because I’m getting the urge to have a relatively normal life living around white people again. (The only way my life is abnormal now is that I live in a place where no one else is white. If a black man who lived around white people told me he was sick of white people, I’d know exactly what he was talking about and wouldn’t take it personally.) I think every New Yorker spends half his day thinking, “Man, it’s time I left.” We’ll see what develops -- I haven’t gotten myself tied down yet, although I did have a pretty strange date last Friday which I won’t comment on.


I don’t know what you’ve gathered of my childhood from that big story and things I’ve told you about. It was a strange time. When I was, say, eight years old, there were probably around 15 kids between one and four years older than me, around 10 the same age, and around 10 more kids four years or younger. Right around 40 kids all told -- this was in a small town of 500 people -- an outrageous number of kids. We ran around like wild dogs -- adults couldn’t wield too much control over us. Luckily, they didn’t really have to, because most of us were raised by fairly strong-handed parents, but there were also a few wild dog kids, like LC, who served a few years in jail a while back for drunk driving and running down two small children one Sunday morning, and Tommy One-Nut, a member of the Warlocks who recently died when he ran his Harley over the high side of a rail one Friday night back in July. We played sports constantly in the schoolyard right next door to our house. Every single day -- all day during the summer. And at night we played this game called Jailbreak, an off shoot of Hide and Seek.

Basically, we were the tail end of the Baby Boom, and we were all over the place. There just aren’t too many kids back there these days, and the ones who are seem strange -- they don’t indulge in team sports, maybe because there aren’t enough kids to get good games going. I was raised in a totally different place from these kids, although the physical environment hasn’t changed much. Not many of my “kids” showed up at the block party -- I put kids in quotes, because I’m 31, and everyone else is either in his mid-30’s or late 20’s -- not exactly kids anymore.

Those guys still live around town -- J, our neighbor JB, GB, a goat-like human who will eat anything -- he’s responsible for some of the most foul, eye-watering farts I’ve ever smelled. His worst was after an all-night drunk with J and JB. G was in the back seat, and he made a strange sound. After a moment or two, J noticed a rotten egg smell. JB smelled it and vomited out the window -- he had to bolt from the car, as did J, at a red light. When they got back, GB was laughing his ass off. J asked G if he had burped or farted, and G mumbled, “I don’t know.”

We managed to have a great time talking about the vicious, bloody football games we used to have back then. (Once, a kid from a neighboring town had his ear ripped off, and I can clearly recall DT doing a full, unintentional split on wet grass, me getting a bloody nose and going home with a white shirt turned completely red down the front, and Z getting his nose broken and having two black eyes for weeks afterwards -- weird, nasty stuff.)

But the real kicker was running into JC, LC’s kid brother. JC is three years older than me, LC is around six years older, and the oldest brother MC is eight years older. MC’s famous because he turned down a minor league pitching contract to marry his girlfriend. LC’s famous because he was psychotic -- the kid scared everyone. He was about six feet tall and probably weighed around 160 lbs. -- a skinny, wiry guy, but muscled like a greyhound. The guy never worked out, and he had a body like an olympic athlete. Actually, he did heavy amounts of drugs, smoke, drank and abused his body in every way possible and had a body like an olympic athlete. Top this with a truly maniacal, criminal attitude, and you have one scary motherfucker. He had a weird, nasty look in his eye, even if he liked you.

While JC inherited some of LC’s rough edges, he was always a very effeminate kid. So it should have been no surprise to me that he’s out-of-the-closet gay and brought his partner to the picnic. Mindblowing, Daniel in the Lion’s Den stuff -- this took real guts. He was smart enough not to camp it up -- basically, if you didn’t know JC’s history, you’d say there goes two guys who must be related. JC does have a slight effeminate lisp and one of those “not an ounce of fat, sunshine” perfectly-toned bodies many gay guys seem to favor. But he still puts out those spooky LC vibes.

I remember when we were growing up, girls in town would practice to be cheerleaders while we played baseball. JC would start out playing baseball, but sooner or later, he’d break away and start leading the girls in their cheers. If anyone would make fun of him, he’d come over and kick the shit out of him -- I know, he did it to me once and beat me until I didn’t want to get up.

My childhood is filled with all kinds of incidents like that. It would have been a kick to go over some of them with the guys. I know everyone at the block party had as good a time as I did -- hopefully that will spur someone on back there to arrange some kind of reunion. I realize now that those kids I grew up with were just as, if not more, influential on me as my high school and college friends. I can’t lie to those guys, or pretend I’m something I’m not -- we go all the way back to our very beginnings. I think high school and definitely college presented an escape from the people we thought we were. We could go somewhere else, make new friends, act differently, pick up new interests. But the guys I grew up with -- they’ll be able to point out good and bad things about my character that may not be obvious to people who’ve met me down the road. I think it was absolutely necessary to leave them behind -- there were a lot of bad things going on back then, too, kids getting caught up in drugs, and just a general “Lord of the Flies” type attitude that was spooky and mean-spirited at times. But to go back and be able to see these people again in a totally new light, yet still the same in so many ways -- it’s a mind-blowing experience.


I’m sitting here tonight, Ms. G, listening to pop music and tossing around ideas on the laptop. When I got home tonight, I could smell my laundry on the drying rack I put over the radiator – a wonderful smell, clean and boyish. It’s good to know the things I wear smell like that – makes me want to toe that hard, fragrant line. Now that’s discipline! I’ve been told I still smell like a boy – and I know that smell, I catch it sometimes, a weird, clean smell, like a kid who’s just worked up a light sweat playing baseball, but his clothes are clean, so both sides come together and make this boy smell. So long as I don’t smell like shit, B.O. or heavy cologne, I’m doing all right. I tend to be an extremely clean person.


I can’t accept that philosophy. I think that’s why I’ve fallen out with AS, although I used the smoke screen of her getting all weird back in January about that time I called up late to go out for lunch. Regardless of how smart she is, she’s got herself into the mindset. I’ve never met her parents, but I can tell you they must be decent people from the suburbs, working towards some defined goal, a nice house and kids, the whole deal. She wants those things, which I understand and appreciate, but she also wants to blaze her own trail in business. Those two worlds aren’t going to peacefully coexist. I think she knows that, and the kind of guys she sets herself up with have to fit into that neat little picture. Sometimes I get the impression she wants to trash the whole business thing and just walk around some big house, giving her kids weird names and trying to live some way of life that doesn’t exist.

What a turnaround from the sorority girl who cut loose five nights a week and must have done her weight in guys. I see too many weird conflicts in her. We’ve all got them (I call them paradoxes when I want to be nice), but hers expose a little too much of a conniving mind. Conniving towards positive goals, but conniving nonetheless. I think she’s a good-hearted person, but I also think she’s going to have some sort of breakdown before she’s 40, where all these things come to a head, and she sees what everyone sees sooner or later -- there’s no way out. Every action will have positive and negative effects. There’s always a certain amount of shit to take. You may not get what you want, and if you actually get what you want, it won’t be what you thought it was. I don’t trust people who don’t understand that, and it seems that as people get older, they pick up on it real quick, or never pick up on it at all.

There’s no way out -- I like that concept. It makes you take responsibility for the way things are, and makes you realize it’s pointless to sit around pining for someone else’s apparently “better life.” We have no better lives than the ones we live. There’s no way out -- make what you have work. And if it doesn’t work, fuck it -- park it on the side of the road and walk away. I wish I could go back to high school and give that as a speech -- hey, kids, if you’re thinking high school’s over, you’ve just walked out of prison and now you’re free, I’ve got some news you might want to hear ...

But I do recall the end of high school as being a major relief. College was another story -- I recognized that was it for that way of life -- having friends around all the time, getting bombed in the middle of the week, having days where you only had one class and all kinds of time to play around with. College was a kick -- I have good memories of it, and I don’t ever want to go back (Dewey Beach, Dewey Beach). I guess it would still be possible to have that lifestyle, a lot of people I know have no qualms about hanging out until two in the morning on a work night. But that shit just wipes me out anymore, I can’t do it. Give me a good night’s sleep instead. Good bowel movements, a good night’s sleep and an occasional roll in the hay -- the rest is only window dressing.


I think I ended our situation because it felt like a job to me. We weren’t going anywhere. Maybe I filled some small role in your life, but I never had the feeling it was anything more than that. That gets tiresome, especially when you see possibilities in someone. And as you know, we let that cat drag from the bumper for more than a few blocks. It wasn’t easy drawing a line and saying, “This has to end.” But I think that moment was when I finally started to concern myself with the things I wanted, and to act accordingly. Call me a little boy for cancelling the whole party, but what else was I supposed to do? In terms of patience, I ran that well dry a few times. I did learn a lot about what it means to love someone, and I learned that I was willing to stick to my guns and see people for what they are (as opposed to what I want them to be). And I learned to walk away.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

9/11: Songs That Got "Us" Through

Back when large CDs stores existed, there was a certain kind of “various artists” CD I’d always notice in the Jazz section. Who knows, maybe this held true when vinyl albums ruled, but I just never noticed (because I never bought any records that were even remotely associated with jazz). This type of music was related more to Big Band, which most stores recognized as a subset of Jazz.

But I’d notice, and eventually buy a few of, these CDs that were entitled something like Songs that Got Us Through World War II. Or World War I. Sometimes even The Korean War. The concept was to note Big Band songs that pertained specifically to the war: “White Cliffs of Dover,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “G.I. Jive,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C,” etc. And there would be songs that weren’t specifcally about the war, but had a connotation of linking the song to the experience: “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” come to mind. Millions of people were away from home, thus a lot of songs got written about what that felt like, with the very real understanding that they may never come home again.

I noticed in the Pop/Rock section, the few CDs I saw about the Vietnam War weren’t positioned that way – the title would usually include reference to Vietnam, but no mention of “getting us through.” That war wasn’t viewed sentimentally. Glen Miller and The Andrew Sisters, or their 60s equivalents (were there any?) did not write songs specifically about the war experience. Songs that were specifically written about the war experience back then were generally by younger artists, who clearly were not feeling sentimental over friends and family sent overseas, but whose main message seemed to be: “Let’s get the fuck out of there.”

Now, most large stores have very small CD sections, and behemoths like Tower and HMV, where I’d find these CDs in their huge aisles, are long gone. I haven’t been in an indie CD store in eons either, although a handful still exist in NYC. But it got me thinking, forget about Vietnam, there were no Songs That Got Us Through 9/11 collections either.

And that was for a number of reasons. Personally, my biggest one was simple: no songs got me through 9/11. I was emotionally numb on 9/11 as I walked home over the 59th Street Bridge and watched hours of the horrible TV footage like the rest of the world did, even though I saw everything but the first plane go in from the 35th floor of an office building about six miles north of there that morning. Fucking numb. Followed shortly by enraged … a feeling that has surely let up since then, but that’s the one that still sticks with me the most.

No, a few days later, as I’d ride the subway with my MP3 player (pre-iPod, using the sturdy Creative Nomad 30 GB Zen Jukebox, I could feel certain songs cutting through the haze. You have to realize, it wasn’t a situation of everything snapping back to normal once we could all go back to work later that week. It took months for the lower part of Manhattan to open up again. The smell of what happened, burning debris of all sorts, hung over the city like a pall for weeks afterwards. People were constantly on edge, expecting a second wave of attacks at any time, particularly on the subway. Everywhere you walked in Manhattan, there were mimeographed and color-copied photos of the missing. Less than two months later, a plane crashed in the Far Rockaways, on its way to Puerto Rico, killing dozens, and I recall the sickly feeling of “here we go again” that morning. (That was determined an accident, but I still have my doubts.)

Once music started making sense to me again, probably by about 9/18 or so, it really helped me along. I’d like to note a few of those songs here now, and figure out why they worked. There are no “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” type songs here. There are no songs that were even remotely traditional hits of any sort. I was heavily into the indie scene at the time, thus was listening to that music the most, and that music was and is like a secret handshake. And I’ve never warmed up to the secret handshake method of music appreciation, i.e., I’m no hipster. I was raised with huge bands playing arenas and everyone knowing the hits. But there came a point in the late 80s into the 90s where the kind of music I liked was only happening with indie bands, and I was getting older, thus found myself truly repulsed by Top 40, which makes sense. I’ve listened to a lot of great indie music over the years, but it’s not the music of grand gestures. These people are not rock stars. They don’t shape generations. Which is good and bad. But most of the time, most people won’t know who in the hell I’m writing about! Nevertheless, these songs got me through that horrible time period when very little else could reach me.

(And for the record, at the time, I was extremely leery of any talk of “the new sincerity” and “how this has changed us” – leery to the point of derision. And I was right. Nothing changed after that, that much I can see clearly almost a decade later. If anything, New Yorkers tend to be even more vacuous, empty and insincere. It’s just the way a lot of people are here, which was true long before 9/11 and will be true long after. Skyrocketing real estate values since then, too, have done wonders in terms of injecting the city with new waves of greedy vampires totally lacking in any senses of soul or empathy. You need to live around people like this to understand how genuinely unappealing a lot of these folks are.)


“Under the Western Freeway” by Grandaddy. This was the first piece of music that got through to me after 9/11; in my mind, it sounded exactly like 9/11. Or at least touched on that feeling I had of that stark footage of the streets down there just after the second building collapse, where all was silence, save for the gentle beeping of firefighter’s emergency signal devices. That gray cloud of dust covering everything. Unnatural silence for a city– it only gets that quiet with snow falling late at night. In the song, you can hear a metallic grinding in the background. That’s pretty much how I felt for days afterwards.

“Protected from the Rain” by Grandaddy. Grandaddy made a lot of sense to me that fall. I had liked them before, but so much of the band’s feel was geared directly towards that feeling of mild suffering most people were going through. (I’ve since realized these sort of enormous cultural events are just that, unless you know/knew someone directly involved. Took it much harder at the time, but it was mild compared to my Dad passing on three years later.) Lyrics sound absolutely senseless, but again, that rolling, electronic sound these guys had was perfect, like a lullaby for adults.

“Don’t Be Crushed” by Hawksley Workman. If there’s one theme that I can see with most of the songs that registered with me then, it was that quiet, healing quality. Which is odd, because I was about as angry as I’ve ever been in my life: a low, steady rage that I felt for months afterwards. I had to find a way to counter-balance that with something, so music seemed to be it. Beautiful song by Hawksley Workman. Lyrics get a bit disingenuous in places, and a little too close to home with the airplane imagery, but the message driven home in the title was something I could relate to at the time. Most older rock fans will point to a song like this as a reason for not liking indie music. The music is there – it sounds expansive, the work of a talented artist. But the lyrics are so idiosyncratic, and the singer not fitting into that traditional “rock star” voice, that they can’t help but reject it. They rightly recognize a song like this could never be a hit, despite having the potential to be one. And that’s probably why I like indie music. You lose that huge generational appeal kids were raised with in the 60s and 70s, but you still gain something worthwhile.

“I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” by Antony & the Johnsons. Antony is one strange guy – looks like an alien, assume he’s gay, and wrapped in a cloak of gentility akin to Bryan Ferry’s bigger ballads. It’s a bit of a shtick, but it works because the guy is a genuinely talented singer and songwriter. “Dead Boy” is one of his better songs, and touched on that theme of constant death floating around the city at the time. I saw Antony perform at a local PS on the Lower East Side that December, and this song brought the house down, as he sang with these odd images on a large screen behind him that looked like a city in foggy ruins … which is exactly how NYC felt at the time. (My audience experience was greatly decreased by the gay couple openly making out in front of me. Audience was mostly gay, which was fine by me, but these guys were going at it like two virgins pulling their moves from an Idiots Guide to Gross Public Displays of Affection. Don’t think that scenario is an issue many places in the world! Besides, what kind of people would make out to a song like this ... vampires?)

“Cybercar” by East River Pipe. East River Pipe is really a one-man band named Fred Cornog who’s put out album after album of home-made recordings heavy on keyboards and synthesizers. As noted in an interview I did with him for in 1999, the guy had been through a lot and had found a way to make his life work through music. “Cybercar” had that sound of emptiness and hurt following 9/11. I’m noticing with all these songs, they’re not just simple rock ballads in that traditional Carpenters/Bread way, but close. In this case, there’s that flurry of electric guitar that works through the song. These are more like disjointed ballads where something has been knocked off its axis … again, this is how the world felt for a few months the fall and winter of 2001.

“Mellow (Part 1)” by Mellow. Mellow was (is?) a French pop band with a real yen for 60s style Britpop. I lost track of them after this album, save to note they did the soundtrack for the indie flick, CQ. I must have been coming out of the funk when this track hit me because it’s a fairly happy sounding song. I didn’t have much need for happy-sounding music in the immediate aftermath … wasn’t exactly walking on sunshine.

“Suffering” by Satchel. Painful to admit I was turned onto this song from the awful movie, Beautiful Girls, featuring a barely teenage Natalie Portman and a bunch of then twentysomething name actors stumbling through a bad script. I take it “Suffering” is about suffering, but really can’t tell from the lyrics, which sound mostly nonsensical. But what a melody and singer, like something from the Stones late 60s heyday. When you can put out a song that gets into the vibe of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," you're in a good place. It surely felt right in that dark time.

“Last Night on Earth” by The Mekons. One of my favorite bands, The Mekons, have always struck me as a bunch of well-meaning assholes. I recall Jon Langford, the band’s leader, making some truly stupid statements about the state of America as the Iraq War started. (He called it the worst time ever in American history … he wasn’t an American … has lived in the Chicago area for roughly a decade … and seemed to have no knowledge of little things like slavery, numerous plagues, a fucking Civil War, radical mistreatment and genocide of Indians, working conditions before unions and child labor laws, two World Wars that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, centuries under British rule, but never mind all that.)

I forgave Langford because he has a great band, and “Last Night on Earth” was archetypal Mekons: “Life is a debt/That must someday be paid/Born when we were born/Left us helpless and self obsessed.” Amen to that. The song had nothing to do with 9/11 directly, but seemed to address that more real sense of people getting back to the less dramatic emptiness of their lives as compared to what had just passed. This was also a “life is getting better” song from that time, although better in that Mekons “world is fucked” sort of way. You have to love The Mekons for grasping humor from the darkness of life.

Seanchai – Gates of Hell. This was the only song specifically written about 9/11 that I can handle. I took a lot of heat at the time for noting in print what an awful song “Let’s Roll” by Neil Young was. It still is! His heart was in the right place … but, dear Lord, what an awful song. The small handful of those big-name artist songs related to 9/11 were. (“Into the Fire” by Springsteen does work, give him credit.) Seanchai was a NYC celtic band led by a former member of Black 47, and also, I gather, a former NYC policeman. Thus, he had insight to what was going on in the weeks after 9/11 in terms of endless funerals for cops and firemen featuring empty coffins, as there was often no body left to bury. I’d wager anyone living near a cemetery in the tristate area must have been hearing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes a few times a week through early November. This song captures it all beautifully, particularly noting how many Americans of Irish lineage died that day, just by doing their jobs. If there’s one song you pull out of this piece, make it this one.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

These Are the Days

Well, the Philadelphia Phillies came a long way this year, all the way to the World Series, only to be out-played by the New York Yankees. Never going to be a Yankees fan, nor a Mets fan, nor a fan of any New York sports team. I firmly believe the teams you follow as a kid are the ones you stick with as an adult. (I really tried being a Yankess fan when I lived in the Bronx, but these were the Deion Sanders years of the early 90s, i.e., they were pretty bad, and my heart just wasn't in it, although there was plenty of leg room in the upper decks of Yankee Stadium back then.)

They had a ticker-tape parade for the Yankees on Friday in the Canyon of Heroes down by City Hall. For one day, it became the Canyon of Guidos. I could see them on NY1 when I woke up in the morning, already tipsy at seven in the morning, grown men wearing baseball jerseys and gold chains, Yankees hats set slightly askew in that dickhead style made popular by hiphop artists in the 90s, baying into the camera like senseless hounds at a full moon. I saw them on the subway train, too, going to and from work. Butch-looking guys in Yankees jerseys and sweatshirts. A lot of mustaches. Surprisingly, a lot of teenage kids, many with that surly “Uncle Vinny has a union job lined up for me when I flunk out of high school” look: a real strange, unfriendly vibe. People who normally don’t ride a subway train. You could tell by their pose.

But who am I kidding? If they were to throw a parade in downtown Philadelphia, I’m convinced the participants would be exactly the same, save the South Philly contingent of guys whose lives appear to be unironic glorification of Italian-American stereotypes. All that would change would be the team jerseys. Yankees fans strike me as being no more or less boorish than any grown man who would go around in a team jersey carrying on like a mental patient in the streets when his team wins. Fun, to a point, but, buddy, it gets strange and tired after awhile.

There used to be a white kid who lived in the apartment house across the street from me here, actually the kid and his mother: Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother. At least that’s how I referred to them. Astoria used to be much more gritty; we’re talking less than a decade ago. That building now houses nearly all affluent white folks paying what I’d guess are outrageous rents – the only things that remain the same are the Mexican super and his gigantic family living in the ground-floor apartment, and the decrepit state of the building.

Johnny was a chunky little white kid with blonde hair, a real loudmouth, too, you could always hear him in the street. I note his skin color because he was caught in that unfortunate wave of 90s kids who were convinced they were ghetto gangstas, when they were just creepy white kids with no identity and a repulsively moronic view of what it meant to black. I don’t like using words like “white trash” (because I don’t call downtrodden black folks “niggers”), but, boy, his Mom had it written all over her. She was permanently stuck in the second-floor window of one of those apartments, calling down to Johnny to tell him to shut up. You could often hear her phone conversations from the street, most of which concerned her hassling with the Duane Read pharmacy to have welfare cover payments for various medications. She never seemed to move from that spot – you could see her bulbous face, hovering behind the screen, like a priest in a confessional booth.

She seemed like a nice person in general, but then again, she gave the world Fat Johnny. Fat Johnny’s Dad would come around once or twice a year – please see above references to Italian-American stereotypes. Just this roly-poly loudmouth of a guy, you could tell he was no good, yelling at his ex-wife while he picked Johnny up and dropped him off. And he’d always yell when he left in that thick Queens accent: “Yo, Johnny, hang tough! Hang tough, Johnny! Yo, Johhhnnnyyyy! Hang tough, Johnny!” This would go on for a good five minutes. And he’d finally leave. Not every weekend like a good father with visitation rights would demand. I can recall that guy showing up maybe a handful times in the roughly five years they lived over there. Thus, Johnny’s anger with the world, or at least the roots of it.

What’s notable about all this? Every time the Yankees would play, and they won, Fat Johnny would hang his gigantic head out their second-floor apartment window and bay out the “Let’s go, Yankees!” chant, for minutes on end. Every single time. If you recall, the Yankees were pretty damn good in the late 90s, thus Johnny had many opportunities to serenade the neighborhood. It was like the “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” scene in Network … replaced with an angry 11-year-old kid with a voice like a braying jackass.

Have you already read between the lines that I couldn’t stand Fat Johnny? I’ve always had a hard time with trashy white folks: I take it personally. Come from roughly the same socio-economic class. Feel a radical difference between working class white folks raised in rural and urban areas … notice a much worse edge on the urban variety. Or maybe it’s just New York and the 718 vibe … although I suspect I’d be catching the same vibe in Philly, or Baltimore, or Boston. Then again, these days, I go home, and it seems like the bar keeps dropping lower on the white working class and how they carry themselves, all those 90s kids raised on grunge and Limp Bizkit coming into their 20s, and man, they’re not changing or growing one iota, just like all those hair metal assholes from the late 80s who still seem to be hair-metal assholes in their early 40s now. People have just developed this innate, sickly desire to go through life with their teenage predilections and tastes, which seems like a radical error to me.

Don’t know when it happened, but one day, Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother simply weren’t there anymore. I imagine their lease rolled over, and they got the “make way for the enlightened white folks with college degrees and money to burn” bumrush that so many people have gotten over the past decade. (Hell, I’ve got a college degree, and I’ll get this, sooner or later, too!) Johnny did seem to blossoming into a more normal teenager. He grew a few inches and seemed a lot less brash the last few months they were over there, so who knows, maybe that kindness I could sense fleetingly in his mother was starting to shine through on him.

Your average Yankees fan? Hardly. Most fans of a team, you don’t see them in the stadiums. Think about it. It costs a fortune to see any pro sport on a regular basis these days. You will find working-class guys, especially in construction, getting season tickets and such to their favorite football teams. But most people in those stadiums are burning serious money to be there routinely. Obviously, the crowd grows more gritty the farther away you get from the playing field, but even those nosebleed seats don’t come cheap.

No. Most sports fans, you never seem them on TV. They’re on the other end, watching the TV. A stadium at its largest for, say, college football, will hold just over 100,000 people. There are millions of people watching those games. Frankly, I would never pay to see a pro football or baseball game. Every now and then, I luck into a free ticket to a baseball game, but never football, nor basketball or hockey, which seem even more expensive. It just aint worth it, and if I’m really watching the game, you can’t beat the TV at home, not in a bar or restaurant.

Guys like Fat Johnny, or those vaguely creepy guys I was seeing on the subway and streets all day Friday during that parade, while I wouldn’t call them the “real fans” they do represent a sort of silent majority of sports fans, the guys who either can’t afford to go to too many games, if any, and spend all their spare time in bars and family rooms tying one on while their team hopefully does them proud. The Yankees make them feel like winners by extension … and I can’t fault them for seeking out that sort of positive emotional identification in their lives.

I guess I’m one of them, too, although you’d have to pay me to wear a team jersey. (That seems like such a fucking childish thing to me … honestly, kids wear that sort of shit, not grown men.) I’m just as informed as any slightly above average fan and have a sense of team history going back to the early 70s (which was much stronger then thanks to baseball cards and the tons of information noted on the back of each card). I’m not one of these Ken Burns/George Will baseball fans … waiting for Morgan Freeman’s melodious voice to say something profound about Babe Ruth over a George Winston piano solo while the camera slow pans a stock black-and-white photo … fuck that shit. Guys who feel that way about baseball tend to have never played the game at all. I’m not a historian or uber-fan. I just enjoy watching the games and feel some sense of connection in my life to trace this minor passion back to my childhood.

And one thing I realized, even watching the Phillies lose this past week: these are the days for Phillies fans. Think about it. When I was a kid, the Phils truly sucked in the early part of the 70s, they got Steve Carlton, guys like Mike Schmidt, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski and Larry Bowa came up through the farm system, and they slowly changed, so that by 1976, they were a very good team. Went all the way in 1980. Lost in the World Series like they did this year in 1983. And that stretch from 1976 to 1983, in my mind, are The Golden Years (of my life) for the Phillies, filled with legendary players, back when life was good, things were easier, made more sense, etc.

But I was a kid in a small town, and it was the 70s. The Phils have been playing on a playoff-quality level since 2007, and if all goes well, should do the same next year, and a few more years to come if they can keep their core group of good players (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Victorino, Werth) intact and pick up some good pitching. They apparently have a pretty good farm system with some new names that will probably be on the team next year to hopefully add to the long list of solid regulars. It feels pretty good to be a Phillies fan right now.

And, in my mind, these are the days, now, just like they were back then. Save the players are now almost half my age. I don’t look up to them – in fact, a lot of them seem a bit weird. Jayson Werth looks like he should be wearing a sheepskin vest and screwing a girl on a rock in some heathen ceremony in the woods. Shane Victorino, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin every second of the game. Cole Hamels, last year’s ace and this year’s goat, has a permanent southern Cal surfer dude smirk on his face that works real well when he’s winning, but turned sour this year. I don't know what Chase Utley has in his hair each game, but it looks like a handful of Crisco.

But they’re not the bunch of miscreants who stumbled through a losing effort in the 1993 World Series. That team seemed like a 75 Pinto shot into space like a freak comet. Guys like John Kruk at first, who hit well, but looked like he should have been playing the field with a can of Pabst in his throwing hand. And Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams on the mound, working a serious mullet, as many of the guys on that team did. From Wikipedia, a great quote from John Kruk about that team: “The previous year, noting the presence of the clean-cut Dale Murphy, Kruk himself described the team as ‘24 morons and one Mormon.’” They were in last place in 1992 and would sink back into a long malaise after that season -- which was nothing new for long-time Phillies fans.

No, right now, things are pretty good, and it’s worthwhile for me to note that. The “good old days” are never the good old days when you’re living them.