Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thumb Generation

Year’s end, city in borderline chaos due to a blizzard and profoundly awful Sanitation Department response, resolutions, regrets … all the same old stuff. There’s only one thing that has really grated on me the past few days. Monday was a full-on snow shoveling day. Two-foot base of snow, at a minimum with drifts of three to four feet. A huge shoveling job, the most snow I’ve ever shoveled. Streets blocked and drifted over, home and car owners struggling to dig out, four-wheel drive vehicles spinning out in snow drifts …

And among all this, that Monday night, someone took the time to build a snow pyramid in one of the recently-vacated parking spaces along the side of the house. A crude pyramid, sloppy, nothing special, but someone took the time, probably an hour or so, to sit there and scoop up loose snow sitting around them and fashion a pyramid. Factoring in time to tweet pictures of the work of art in progress to followers, of course.

You’re thinking a bored kid? This had to have happened after 11:00 at night, as that was the last time I went out to do a spot check on whether or not plows had come through and walled over some of my work. (Plows didn’t come through here until Tuesday night, and did a lousy job, to boot.)

I know it was twentysomethings, not drunk, just giddy with excitement over the snow. How am I certain? I’m not, but from what I’d seen of the neighborhood during the course of this massive storm, the only people out “gallivanting” and “having fun” have been twentysomething apartment dwellers with no responsibilities, acting like they were Snow White in an animated movie with no queen witch and handsome princes all around. This commercial imparts the vibe perfectly, and these people feel like space aliens to me, or maybe gingerbread people? (Confession: I want to drill holes in the skulls of this couple … is the movie Hostel based on a true story … can I be one of those guys who pays $25,000 to go to the Czech Republic, don a surgical mask/smock/rubber gloves and get medieval on these two with Black & Decker power tools?)

On one hand, I don’t mind people like this. They literally have no responsibilities save for paying rent and feeding themselves. No kids, probably no pets, no vehicles, no property. In theory, I’m in the same boat, but as noted about my situation, I help my aged landlord (and myself) by keeping her property in order. I understand that feeling of freedom. Mixed with a snowstorm? Get out of here! Time to make snow angels! Piss your name in the snow! Frolic! The world is ours tonight!

On the other, these pricks just wasted a parking space in a situation where parking is dangerously sparse and confrontation-inducing. Someone’s going to have to either drive over their wondrous art work (and hope they don’t get stranded on the mound underneath their parked car) or just wait until it melts … when they could have spent five seconds blasting through the snow-plow wall and parking snugly in a relatively open space.

It got me thinking about the mild disconnect I tend to feel with twentysomethings and teenagers these days. Nothing like in the 90s, filled with dingus kids pretending they were ghetto gangstas or saddled with a navel-gazing sort of self loathing and parental distrust, that crappy sense of depression and antagonism kids in the 90s had threaded into their generational DNA. In theory, I see progress in kids in the last decade. That’s just the thing. I now include people through much of their 20s in the delineation of “kids.” They seem like kids to me. They act like kids. They do childlike things constantly. They appear to have the emotional development of kids.

And I relate most of it to thumbs. Not thumb sucking, although that would be an apt analogy. This is the thumb generation: people who over-use their thumbs, whether it’s spending hours upon hours wasting time on asinine video games, or being overly obsessed with cellphones and other hand-held devices for the sole reason of texting, to the extent of dozens or hundreds of messages sent in one day.

I wouldn’t mind if the texts were brilliant one-liners and bon mots. But it’s an endless stream of disjointed bullshit, the only message of which is, “I need your attention now, for no other reason than I’m deeply insecure.” And it’s not a personal insecurity … it’s a sort of culturally-bred insecurity, that sense of generational inclusiveness, that’s at the heart of this. Don’t be the last kid on your block to send over 100 texts in a day!

I can even handle that concept – empty people drawing too much attention to themselves have always over-populated the world. But to have this concept of handheld devices serving as modern necessity lorded over me as progress of any sort … no. And I am a tech-friendly person, who is growing less tech-friendly with each passing year, the slow realization that tech-friendly means spending $100/month on a device, and thousands more a year on devices and gadgets, and a way of life that represents only minor cosmetic progress in our society. It represents the ability of tech companies like Apple to foist a huge ruse on the world and make a fortune off it, which I respect, but this is not moving forward. If anything, if you’re paying attention, it’s a strange sort of devolution, at least in terms of real communication between people. A world in which people who position themselves as more advanced than previous generations spend all their time sending nonsensical messages to each other that are closer to cavemen hieroglyphics than higher written communication of any sort.

I’ve gotten into the topic of video games before, a practice I consider relatively harmless, and probably healthy in reasonable doses. Most kids don’t seem geared towards that “reasonable dose” mentality. Addiction is more accurate, hours every day, online, fighting fantastical battles with friends and enemies online, glued to the screen, thumbs constantly in motion. Again, even with the concept of addiction, and kids, I can roll with this. We all get hung up on silly shit at that point in our lives.

But I can’t roll with 30-year-olds in the same teenage mode, and you better look around, because they’re out there. My parents’ generation had fought a world war by the time they hit 30. This generation has fought dozens of wars, battling Nazis, space aliens, Vikings, urban street trash, kung fu masters, monsters, wizards, dragons … all in the safety of their heads and bedrooms, bag of cheese curls at the ready, a can of Four Loko on the nightstand if they’re living dangerously. These guys … they can kill you with their thumbs, man. They can shoot you in the head at 300 yards while running with a sawed off shotgun as you weave around the edge of an industrial park in a dune buggy. They’re that good, man!

Mom was worried about the draft coming back with all the trouble in the Middle East, not quite realizing I and my older brothers are probably too old to be drafted and are “retirement age” in armed forces parlance. But when she kept mentioning this on the tail end of Bush’s presidency, all I could envision was a bunch of draftee soldiers in a desert, hands in front of their stomachs, flicking their thumbs madly and mumbling, “Dude, why don’t you go down like you do on the Playstation!”

I don’t want to knock these kids too much. I know if I was a kid now, I would be indulging, too. But hopefully not to the extent of being one of these hollow-eyed beings thumbing it 3-4 hours a night after school. Video games and arcades were around when I was a kid – I indulged mildly, to say the least, mostly because the amount of money you spend on these sort of endeavors becomes more tangible when you’re pumping quarters into a machine in the mall arcade. My general feeling after about 15 minutes in any arcade was abject boredom after feeling childish for pumping quarters into a silly game. Shit, I can trace that feeling back to playing Pong in 70s arcades while pinball machines rang all around me.

But again, where does being a kid end, and being an adult begin? That line just continues to blur more and more into this area between, say, 25 and 35. I would say that since the Boomers came along in the 60s, each generation has prided itself on its sense of self absorption. You can still see that now with aged rock stars and actors who just can’t let go of the only ways of life they know, as stars and cultural forces, even though nearly all of them haven’t been for decades. There’s a refusal to let go and assume that quieter, less obvious role of older people who simply watch over younger people and guide them. The concept now is to compete with them in every possible way, to never acknowledge that they can be equal or better in any sense. I’m all for people feeling relevant at every point in their lives, but there still seems to be a real need for Boomers to remind everyone just how great their generation has been ... and still is.

Thus, you get kids who on one hand recognize this vanity in previous generations, yet can’t overcome that innate self absorption that they were imbued with from day one. They’ll reject a lot of things about their parents, but never that sense of being special little kings and queens to whom everyone must acquiesce. It’s a strange mix of self loathing and narcissism. Troubled people. When you’re around someone incessantly thumbing a device in public, just can’t stop, never looking up, do you get the vibe that person is happy? Is the person smiling? Nodding quietly to himself? Relaxed?

That hasn’t been my experience. I’m sitting or standing next to someone who can’t sit still, is constantly squirming, scratching at their arms and faces as if they have eczema, leg twitching uncontrollably, seemingly unable to stop and absorb anything outside of themselves, perhaps resistant to do so, knowing that to do so would be to acknowledge that people outside their chosen circles of influence exist, and exist just fine without them.

I first got inkling of that vibe around 2000, when iPods really caught on, and people got in the habit of wearing them everywhere. To this day, I can easily spot anyone listening to an iPod in public just by how they move, even if I can’t see the wires. I can tell by their shadows approaching behind me on a sunny day. Their sense of spatial relations is so skewed that they approach and move with little regard to people around them. They don’t bump other people – they rarely do. But they pass so embarrassingly close, in a quiet way that’s understood in urban parlance as wrongly invading another person’s space, that I can sense they don’t realize how off their instincts are. It’s wrong to compare them to blind or deaf people, who instinctively sense other people around them and react accordingly. Someone walking with an iPod going full blast just seems willfully ignorant of anyone or anything around him. Everything exists as a backdrop to their internal soundtrack. In a sense, everything around them, including you, is not real.

But that sense of willful isolation now seems downright quaint and worldly as compared to people who just can’t stop thumbing their devices. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like reality. Christ, I sound like a hippie tripping on acid saying something like that. But think about it, device obsession, simply stated, is avoidance of direct reality. These people are choosing to focus on this floating reality of meaningless one-line messages to disembodied beings they find more pressing and important than the immediate reality around them. It’s like an addiction to ghosts, or DJs of some sort, calling out in the night, playing your favorite song, which always has “you” in the title, and is all about you.

One thing I’ve grasped as time has gone on is that a key difference between child and adulthood is the ability to not just genuinely care about other people, but simply to recognize their existence, whether you like them or not. When you’re a kid, you don’t do that as much (even though you think you do). So much of being young in our culture is geared towards worshipping that stage of life, to encourage people at that age to gaze at themselves in the mirror, to firmly believe this is as good as it gets, and all eyes are on you. Have a talk with any famous actress in her 40s, and she’ll talk your ear off about this reality, and what happens when the world starts deciding you’re no longer that archetype of physical beauty we must all longingly gaze upon.

Somehow that fleeting hubris has become entangled with gadgets. In the 70s, younger people were referred to as the “Me Generation” … but compared to now? Still, it’s wise to recognize these threads of self absorption have been running through every generation since the 60s, and maybe this gadget obsessions is just another physical manifestation of that warped personal fascination. I don’t really believe that. I believe what’s going on now is a bit worse, that people are being culturally trained to devolve how they interact and communicate. But if you want to be optimistic, you can look back over the past four decades and recognize, all of us who have come along since, we’ve all been a little too far into ourselves for comfort.

In 1977, Jackson Browne put out a great song (and album) called “Running on Empty,” in which he fretted that he, at the age of 29, was spiritually void, and the only thing that kept him going was the ability to live the life of a traveling musician who could constantly move and avoid the realization that he was empty inside. Little did he know at the time that the simple ability to recognize that sort of emptiness inside himself and question it was a sure sign that he wasn't empty, that he felt troubled over his vanity and pride, and wanted to somehow do something about it.

I thought Jackson Browne was a bit of a pussy at the time. But I can look back now and realize that guy, in his 20s, was laying out hard truths and questions that most of us wouldn’t get anywhere near until our 30s and 40s. He somehow knew how to get these concepts across, the same way people like Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Dylan did long before most people sensed the same questions in their lives.

I don’t know what qualifies as “Running on Empty” these days. Running on empty seems to be some kind of goal now, a spiritual void that’s become preferable to sensing meaning and purpose in yourself and the people around you. Fill yourself up with emptiness so you can no longer discern what true emptiness is. Avoid passion, avoid contact, avoid interaction, unless it’s purely on your terms and preferably at a distance, bounced off a satellite and sent to someone you might only see once or twice a year, or people you see all the time, but communicate very little to because you’re all too busy taking calls and thumbing your devices in each other’s presence.

I don’t think I’d ever ask that people abandon their devices. Hell, I spend way too much time fucking around on the internet myself, even without Twitter or Facebook or an iPhone. I guess I’m just looking for a little context in our lives, places for everything, without these things overwhelming everything else in our lives. I sense an emptiness in myself when I spend too much time on the internet and can only imagine how much larger that feeling must be for someone who spends hours every day addicted to this shit. When I die, I’m not going to look back and think I should have spent more time at work, fucking around on the internet, or sending people text messages. I’ll want to know how much I’ve lived in that immeasurable way of understanding the people and places around me. Don’t we all?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Christmas Pasts

An odd thing about kids is how they can achieve far more than they’re capable of, but only when there is some dubious reward. I’m thinking in particular of my brothers and I a few weeks before Christmas. Pick any Christmas between, say, 1971 and 1978. In our early stages, we believed in Santa. We visited him at the mall routinely, excitedly read off our laundry list of toys we wanted. We’d see him at the firehouse, too, which had Christmas parties for all the kids in town. We believed in Santa Claus … but we knew the closet in our Dad’s room.

The closet in our Dad’s room was where our parents stored the presents they were buying us in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We’d see them coming home from shopping trips after work, vainly trying to hide the names on the bags: Boscovs, Sears, Listening Booth. Up to Dad’s room they’d go. Close the door. Shuffling sounds. Door creaks. God damn, they’re putting our shit in the closet for safe keeping.

Even earlier than that, we could rationalize that Santa would break into our house and leave everything in Dad’s closet because he’d be too busy to come down our chimney on Christmas Eve night. But after awhile, no, we knew Santa Claus existed in theory, and accepted this, knowing all the goodies were sitting in that closet.

But it wasn’t enough to let them sit there for weeks leading up to Christmas. We needed visual evidence that our shit was there. We had to see it, take the stuff out of the shopping bags, hold the boxes, and know we were getting that stuff.

This is where the diabolical brilliance of children comes into play. My brothers were handy with tools, in this case, the properly sized screw driver. That closet door was locked. Granted, an older, feeble lock that probably could have been picked if we were so inclined. But, like seasoned bank thieves, my brothers thought it made more sense to simply remove that ancient lock apparatus that was screwed to the wooden closet door.

Not as easy as you’d think. The key was to not chip any of the yellow paint – the screws were painted over, so we’d have to get an old cloth, not too thick, and wrap it around the screwdriver. And there were at least two screws and accompanying gaskets that we’d have to assiduously remove from the casing holding the lock, pry it from the wall without chipping any paint on the wood door, then reassemble it all afterwards … like marines re-assembling their rifles blind-folded.

That was the first part of the mission. The second was to take a mental picture of the closet layout. If our parents were smarter, they would have stacked a ton of shit – old board games, winter coats, shoe racks –against the inside of the door, made note of the order it was stacked and wrote it down. So that when they went in again, they could check if these items had been moved, as they would have if we’d swung the door open and they all came crashing down on us.

We were that meticulous, sometimes even writing down the order of the bags stacked in the closet, but usually just taking that mental snapshot of what was there so that when my parents went in again, they wouldn’t recognize that we had been in there on our recon mission. I’m surprised we didn’t wear gloves to hide our finger prints.

And previewing the booty was incredible. I remember that feeling. Such a rush of excitement to realize what we had asked for, we would be getting. I recall this feeling with records, and two in particular: Queen’s News of the World and ELO’s Out of the Blue. Christmas 1977. I loved those albums like you wouldn’t believe, floored by both, the last really good album by both bands. I could imagine my Dad buying these albums at Listening Booth, thinking, what in the hell is this kid listening to, but it got a lot worse than that! Both albums inspire those teenage memories of rushing upstairs, slapping on the Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, cracking open the cellophane, getting that new album smell, opening up the gatefold cover, dropping the needle on the vinyl, and getting lost in the music for a good few hours. Just sitting there on the bed, facing the stereo, with headphones on, reading the lyrics and liner notes. How many hours did I spend in that pose for the next few years as I absorbed the bedrock sounds of my musical education.

So, right about now in 1977, my brothers and I would be in that closet, looking at stuff like this, never taking more than five or 10 minutes. We’d also be wary of any sounds – a car approaching, a door slamming, footsteps on the street outside, as presumably our parents could come home any minute and catch us up there. Putting everything back was a painstaking process. Again, meticulous order had to be observed for replacing the bags exactly where they were, and then rescrewing the lock to the wooden door. It wasn’t easy! And the odd part was, we’d do it routinely, a few times every Christmas season, to see if anything new had been added to the collection in the ensuing weeks.

When I think about Christmas, I don’t think about love, or baby Jesus, or even the presents themselves. I think about activities like those noted above that are indelibly stamped on my mind as “1970s Christmas in rural Pennsylvania.” Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is one of those things, and one of the few uncomplicated memories I have of my childhood Catholicism. In short, it was a beauty. A candlelight mass around midnight, with full choir, and the congregation bearing candles, all other lights dimmed or off, the priest swinging his can of burning incense. Just a magical mass that was always SRO. We'd get a free box of chocolates on the way out. And it didn’t end there. The capper would be coming home to find all our presents laid out (our parents would bag this mass for that reason), tearing them open, and having a blast.

Why we didn’t do that every year, I don’t know, as it was a perfect formula. When we didn’t go to that midnight mass, the same thing inevitably happened: us waking up at two or three on Christmas morning and busting downstairs to open the presents that our parents had laid out an hour or two earlier. We never could make it to a typical Christmas morning to rip open the presents. Christmas Day itself was always anti-climactic.

In our teen years, I can also distinctly recall bagging the early Christmas Eve mass, which was nowhere near as magical as the midnight one. Pretty much a typical mass around four or so, I guess we were given the choice of going then or Christmas morning … at a time in our lives when our grandmother had had a debilitating stroke, could no longer attend mass, and we liberated ourselves from the responsibility of church-going. In general, I really disliked church – still do. It bored me, felt much more like dull punishment than a spiritual calling, and always felt more appearance-based than soul satisfying. You want to believe in God, you surely don’t need a church to do it. Nothing against churches – I can clearly see their purposes in any given community – but it just wasn’t for me.

The one year that sticks in my mind was all of us going to Long John Silver’s and having a fish dinner, a bunch of teenagers, in our Sunday finest. It just felt too weird. And I didn’t like Long John Silver’s to begin with. I could sense the guilt floating around the table at that meal, that maybe we should have bit the bullet and gone to church. It’s one of those gloomy parking lot memories of my teen years, waiting in a parking lot of a mall for the driver (usually Mom) to show up – it just felt like such a depressing few minutes. For some reason, every time I hear the song “I Never Cry” by Alice Cooper, I can remember waiting for Mom one Christmas season in the parking lot, on a dark snowy night while that song played on the radio. Bagging church at any time felt like that: watching and waiting. Waiting for the bells to ring, or the driver to show up, setting us free to go, back to our normal lives, where we didn’t have to indulge in these charades.

Right now, I’m watching a VH-1 special on Fleetwood Mac … Tusk. Yet another great Christmas album from that time period! I guess Christmas will always be indelibly tied into music with me, as it meant getting 3-4 usually very good albums. Starting in October of any given year, I’d have my musical radar up for potential Christmas albums, and bands would often release good albums in the fall, and “Best Of” albums meant for huge Christmas sales. I can’t remember who got Elton John’s Greatest Hits for Christmas the year it came out, probably Brother M, but that had to be the biggest album of the early 1970s. That thing was worn out by February, and I was the one who went on to be the huge Elton John fan, buying all his albums as they came out and back-tracking his earlier ones. (As I may have noted earlier, the first album I ever bought was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, with snow-shoveling money. And I can just about pinpoint it to January or February of 1975 as buying it directly proceeded flipping out over the greatest hits album.)

Even without Dad passing on over the holidays a few years ago, Christmas just aint what it was for me. I think you need kids for this, and even then, you’ll be observing their excitement rather than experiencing it directly. It’s all about the food for me now, hanging out and relaxing with a few days off from work. Not this milestone of happiness that sprung up annually, the kind of thing that haunts you in a way as time goes on. I don’t recall being a particularly happy or sad kid, remember bursts of both with a lot of down time in between the highs and lows, but childhood Christmas is one of those memories that always seems like nothing but good. I have my doubts about adults who don’t sense that bridge between childhood ecstasy and adult pragmatism when it comes to Christmas. But I can’t blame them for trying.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Act Your Age

One of the largest changes I’ve seen as an adult, as compared to the lives of my parents, is the concept of prolonged adolescence. My Dad fought on the tail end of World War II with his older brothers. They all came home in their mid-to-late 20s, and either immediately settled down, or took steps to settle down: free college on the G.I. bill, marriage, the first few kids of my generation. These guys had lived through the Depression, remembered what it was like to be hungry all the time, to want to work, but have no work available. They got thrown into the ass end of a war that the country was dragged into. I’d wager their sense of pragmatism and “reality” was equal in their 20s to what I feel now as an American male in his 40s.

In my 20s, I felt like a teenager. In some ways, I still feel like a teenager now. Part of that is this illusory belief that we somehow never age, despite our bodies telling us otherwise. You feel one way inside, but look another. People treat you as you look. You could put me in a room with a guy my exact look and age, dress me in a suit and tie, put him in hipster garb (big dumb glasses, ill-fitting ironic t-shirt, vest, pipe jeans, scarf, Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops, duck hair), watch people interact with us, and they’ll treat both of us differently. Especially if we’re sitting in an office.

I wrote earlier about that brick-wall experience of realizing I could no longer wear clothes ironically, which was a good thing. As a teenage kid and young adult, I’d wear bowling and air-conditioning company shirts with someone’s name emblazoned the left breast. Military gear. The concept was I found this stuff cool and funny: I would never actually be on a bowling team or named “Gus” and installing air conditioners. The day came when I realized, if wear these shirts, people are going to think that’s my name and what I do, because I look like I could be that person, as opposed to the under-fed, smirking, teenage-looking waif who sported such garb for a kick.

I recently saw this 2008 interview with Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a much-maligned band due to the 2004 documentary Dig! which presented Anton as a brilliant musician, but raving nutcase who would always be at odds with his bandmates due to his ego and mentality. I thought he got a raw deal with that documentary – take snippets of the worst moments of anyone’s life over a few-year period and you can make that person look like a complete asshole. I have about a dozen BJM tracks on the iPod, all good stuff, found a lot of their songs too derivative of mid-60s British rock, but every now and then, they’d really click. In this interview I watched, Anton was roughly 41 years old.

And there’s the rub for me. I gather that being a musician, particularly an indie-rock musician, you’re cast into a world of post-college graduates, people who are always in their mid-to-late 20s, at loose ends, trust-fund kids dressing like bums, guys with rich parents starting small rock clubs in hip parts of town, college town people who never want to let go of that loose college-town vibe. That way of life seemed endless at the time. Didn’t have a lot of money. Didn’t care. The body appears not to be aging. Can still eat anything I want. Some friends have freaked out and got married/had kids/got way into long-houred corporate jobs. But most feeling their way around, still going out to see bands well into their early hours or morning despite having work the next day. Seeing bands implying standing for four hours in a packed club, getting drunk with a gang of people before or after.

When does it end? For me, I’d say a few years ago, early 40s, I just stopped going to see bands in clubs. Very rarely in theaters or arenas, as the price gouging has been terrible. The concept of being packed sardine-like into a small club for 3-5 hours, sitting through 45-minute sets for two bands I’m not there to see … by the time my band comes on, I’m so physically uncomfortable, stiff from being wedged in, just not enjoying myself, and then contemplating a late-night subway train ride, which is always a drag … man, I just got tired of it. Whatever transcendence was generated by the music was negated by the physical experience of being crammed in, and then trying to get home afterwards.

But it’s not about music or even physical appearance. Watching that interview with Newcombe, I couldn’t help but feel the guy was perpetually frozen at the emotional age of about 23 or 24. He’s not the only one. I’ve met a lot of people like this, who want to be that age forever in that sense of always teetering on the verge of adulthood, but still grasping the essence of what it means to be a teenager. The guy could have a few kids. A mortgage. More adult responsibilities than I do. But the overwhelming desire is still there to present himself as someone who is 24 years old forever. Hip in ways a teenager will not get, a college kid can hint at, and a 28-year-old will catch glimpses of in his rear view mirror as everything in his life shifts gears into full adulthood.

You see it in movie stars, too, the unbearable urge to have the hair always longish and full, but never gray, the face relatively unwrinkled, body in perfect condition. The average person doesn’t seem to grasp that for a 45-year-old, this implies, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars spent on plastic surgery, hair colorings and dental implants, and more than likely personal chefs and trainers to conduct two-hour per day workouts, liposuction for those pesky body areas that will never come around despite advanced exercise techniques. There are very few people my age who look naturally like they’re in their mid-20s. And, as noted above, more than the look, the perception that this person is timeless, unattached to thoughts of impending physical decline, unaffected by deaths of parents and friends, everything in his life running smoothly, in perfect working order, like a machine that will never break down and never require any maintenance.

That’s 24, or at least how I remember it, the well-meaning illusion that your life, and you, will always be this loose and care-free. You have no reason not to believe that at 24. Look at you: you’ve hardly aged a day physically from the age of 18 onward. This could go on for a very long time, you think, I’ll be one of those people who are mistaken for someone a decade or two younger, get carded routinely in bars and clubs, a flip of the hair: no, really, I’m 34!

In a short story, I once described that feeling as looking out over the ocean on a summer’s day and not seeing the end, just that distant line on the horizon where the sky meets the water. I was in my late 20s when I wrote that story and must have been thinking about that line, and realizing there was no line, that if you got in a boat and kept traveling, sooner or later, there would be an end. Life is getting in that boat and taking the ride instead of looking over that distance and mistakenly believing it went on forever.

I'm not sure why I find myself vaguely annoyed by the “24 Forever” contingent. Jealousy? That’s probably part of it. Most of the people I pigeonhole with that vibe are clinging to creative ways of life, playing in bands, or married to a responsible, working spouse who serves as caretaker to the illusion. I don’t know anyone professionally ensconced in that way of life, although look around, these people exist. We’re trained to worship them, and all I can think, these days, is what the fuck is wrong with these people? It’s unnatural to live this way, the constant youth obsession, the refusal to accept the reality of your own aging process. I think a large part of the refusal to age emotionally has to do with responsibility, of any sort, to present that illusion of weightlessness. Married? Kids? Mortgage? Whatever, man, let’s do mushrooms and have a bullshit session on the local golf course, late at night, splayed out on the 15th green and gazing up at the stars. That sort of looseness gets a lot harder to pull off when you have to get up at 6:30 and do your thing for money. Or have kids who might see you stoned and pretending you’re a lot younger than you are. We’ve all tried – the war to live that illusion forever tends to get lost in our 30s, with a few minor battles won along the way.

I guess the issue is I used to imagine my adult life being that way forever. That’s how I envisioned a writer’s life being, that sort of eternal freedom, getting up whenever, pulling off all sorts of crazy stunts and adventures while the rest of the world punched a clock, and getting paid well to do it. God bless anyone who can pull that off, but it ain’t me. Even if I was writing full time and living off it, I can see, from having people in my life who do this, it ain’t easy, and not that open, limitless field with a clear path I once envisioned. It’s a lot of financial issues, periods of little or no money coming in, unwelcome down time. The dream in high school was doing something with your life that would be exactly what you wanted to do and never having to answer to anyone. Very few people live this way. The kids I remember most wanting to live this way, the wild ones, the ones who flunked out or were never around, most got roped into working-class lives more regimented and dull than anything they could have imagined in high school. You want that sort of freedom, you have to work at it from an early age, be very good at something creative, and get some very lucky breaks along the way. You just don’t cop an attitude and be granted that sort of limitless freedom. Most of the poor bastards on suspension in the rubber room never seemed to understand this.

And these days, I don’t even think I want that limitless freedom. Whatever does or doesn’t pan out in my life, I’ve come to realize there are certain things I’m in control of: my health, my sanity, my sense of well being. If I have control of these things, whatever else happens, life is good. I think you’ll find a lot of “successful” people make themselves that way because they lack some or all of these things. So we long for that sense of security they put forth in their images. If you could strip away the image, I think you’d see what those people are really worth. Some would be no different – some would be a mess. I don’t envy anyone who has to impress upon me how powerful/happy/secure they are. If they are, it goes without saying.

And I think that’s the heart of the issue: my inability to accept someone who refuses to move past an age, past a way of looking at the world, that is all possibilities and no hard choices. That attitude is perfect at a time in our lives, balanced between teenager and adult, wanting the best of both worlds without forfeiting too much to either side. But when I catch vestiges of it in people in their 40s, much less their 30s? Man, I had that shit beat out of me a long time ago! By life. By myself. By reality. By things that happened. By things that didn’t happen. I changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But I changed. That’s what happens as you get older. Things change. You change. You move forward, even when it’s down dead ends and in the wrong direction. Time doesn’t stand still. Neither should any of us. A wax museum of eternal youth is no place I want to be ... and seemingly what our entire culture is geared towards.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Muriah … Muriah …

The other day, I woke up to the sound of my landlord singing upstairs. As with so much Greek music, it sounded vaguely Middle-Eastern. She was really going at it, must have stumbled across some memory over her coffee and decided it was a good time to let loose. Sometimes in the shower, I’ll get hooked on a line or phrasing from a song and keep repeating it. An objective listener would think I was nuts. At least her singing must have had some personal meaning behind it.

That got me going on memories of my late Aunt Bess. A brassy, brick shithouse of a woman, the last of the Port Carbon widows. She out-lived all her sisters who were in that crooked rowhouse in the rain. I still can’t even recall the exact number of sisters living in that house – four or five. It was like that specter of aging sisters living together in an old house created this gray force-field that could replicate an elderly woman at the drop of a memory. Dampness. Clouds. Cigarette smoke. Songs like this playing on the hi-fi. The unidentifiable hard candies in trays next to ash. The nasty chihuahua and friendly setter. Wallpaper, drapes, furniture, lights, all faded and brownish. Minutes passing like hours, hours passing like days. The ragged, rock-faced hill in front of the house. The forlorn park between the shit creek and power plant. Instant Belfast.

If there’s one mystery about the Port Carbon memory, it’s the man who was always there with the aging Irish-Catholic sisters. I can’t even remember his name, an old man who was perpetually planted in a ragged easy chair, unfiltered Camel in one hand, a Rob Roy in the other. He rarely said anything. A family friend? A suitor? It was never made clear, or I’ve forgotten. He owned that chair, wouldn’t move an inch, would just sit there with Rudy Valee's voice and cigarette smoke floating around him. Didn’t seem happy or sad. Just there.

And there would be Bess, in her perpetual pillbox hat. She must have slept and bathed wearing it. Unfiltered Camel always planted firmly in mouth. Cat-eye glasses. Faded dress covering her boxy frame. Stockings. I recall her doing something very odd: hiking up her dress to tie some kind of strange knot in her stocking garters. This was in no way erotic – it was frightening. Her booming, raspy voice. If she didn’t like you, she’d tell you so. And didn’t give a damn if you didn’t like her.

I don’t know what happened that 4-5 aged sisters would end up living in a house together. Being the coal region, maybe their husbands were miners and passed in their 50s? This was never made clear to me what lead up to the circumstances of that house. They never married? People think that’s strange now. In a small town in the 1930s/40s/50s? Even stranger then.

Going upstairs there was like visiting a vampire's den. We had to go up there to use the bathroom as that was the only one in the house. Of course, we'd take the opportunity wander around their rooms. Old lady things. Faded pictures. Sweaters. Jewelry not worn in decades but gathering dust on a dresser. That cigarette smell saturated in every fabric. I don't believe in ghosts, but there were times up there when I was certain I'd turn around to see one gazing out the window at the falling rain.

This all seemed alien from my child’s point of view, but now that I’m older, I can see, you do whatever comes along to get by in life. You got a house to live? You live in it. You get along with these people? (And they all seemed to get along in a very deep, abiding way.) Then go on doing so. It occurs to me that the person I am now, and how I live, would seem very strange and alien to me as a seven-year-old boy. Why aren’t you married? With kids? Living in a house? With a car? Most kids have that expectation of adults because those are the adults they deal with in their immediate vicinity. But there are always those strange characters – bachelor uncles and aunts with “special friends” who never settle down. I’d be the bachelor uncle, save none of my siblings have had kids, and probably won’t from what I’ve gathered. If they’re waiting for me, they might wait awhile, too. Life goes on.

Aunt Bess in the Port Carbon homestead was one thing: a perfect blending of human being to her physical environment, as if she wafted out of that ancient browning wallpaper in a haze of Camel smoke every time we visited. Out of her environment? Man. I’ll describe a typical situation in our house circa 1970-80. Family is at home, at various places in the house, going about their routines. I’m on the living room floor, reading the sports section of the local newspaper, eating a bowl of ice cream, relaxed.

We suddenly hear the back door in the kitchen slam open. Someone’s breaking in! We can hear the door slam against one of the kitchen chairs. And then that unmistakable gravel voice:

“Muriah …. Muriah … Muriah …”

It was Aunt Bess, on one of her unannounced visits (seemingly her only kind) to see her sister/my grandmother, Marie. She’d just pile into her badass 1973 Chrysler Newport, floor it up the Broad Mountain, pop out and slam through our back door like the house was hers. Seconds after hearing her croak out her version of “Marie” … there’d she be, standing in the living room, cigarette smoke trail following her, looking at everyone in the room as if we were the ones out of place there and intruding on her.

We goofed on her use of “Muriah” as there was a 70s hard rock band called Uriah Heep, and the act of associating this tough old woman with a band like that tickled us no end. We pictured her jamming to “Easy Living.” If we wanted a good laugh, all we’d have to do was start burping the words, “Muriah, Muriah, Muriah” at each other, and we’d break out in laughter.

The visits were usually on the long side, hours, and often meant her and our grandmother camped out in the kitchen, drinking tea, Bess chain smoking, and talking about local priests, bingo and dogs. It was easy enough to avoid her. And I find now, all these years later, I was perfectly in my right to be annoyed over these sneak attacks. It wasn’t her house. Every time we went down there, the visit had been set days in advance, often associated with other relatives visiting and making the usual pilgrimage. These visits felt like some mild form of harassment, to remind us that our grandmother was her sister, and that relationship trumped whatever we had going on with her. It didn’t bother me one way or another, and I knew my grandmother loved spending time with any of her sisters. I just had problems with the mild disrespect she was showing the family, which was simply her way, she would not have seen it this way, but it surely was. And I was in no position as a small child to take a stand or even mention it. I’m sure Mom and Dad thought, correctly, “Getting into this will be far more trouble than it’s worth.”

Adding insult to injury was the time she made me eat a bar of Irish Spring. Yes, that old wives tale about kids with fresh mouths eating bars of soap is, or was, true, once upon a time. As with most adverse forms of punishment, I can’t recall the circumstances of what I did wrong, but I can surely recall the punishment. I can’t even recall exactly what I said to her. But I can tell you, she was ordering me around in a fairly bad, disrespectful, “I own you so do as I say” sort of tone, which I could handle coming from my parents in rare bad moods while feeling uncharacteristically surly. But from her? I remember barking out, “Go to hell!”

You … just … didn’t … do … that … to … an … elderly … female … relative … in … rural … Pennsylvania … in … the … 1970s.

Yes, society had gone mad in the 60s, but not there. Not in that house either. I elongated that sentence to underline the sense of shock and impending doom when I uttered that fateful phrase. I knew when I said it, this was going be some heavy shit. I remember her swatting me once or twice on the bottom, with the ensuing drama, and then my grandmother going out to the bathroom to get a bar of soap, in this case Irish Spring. I’m not sure what my Mom or Dad were doing while all this was going on. It would have been nice if one or both of them had said, “Wait a minute, that’s our son, and we’ll discipline him accordingly. You’re in our house, and you don’t do this here.”

But that fantastical morality did not exist in this scenario. That crabby old bitch made me sit in the kitchen with a bar of soap in my mouth. Couldn’t have been much fun for her and my grandmother, with me staring daggers at both of them in between mild bouts of weeping and moaning. I remember her asking me, “Well, have your learned your lesson now?” I sure did – which was don’t ever let me catch you in a situation where I hold the power over you, because I’ll return the fucking favor! Of course, that would never happen, and she would start declining within 10 years, and all the ill feeling generated in this one situation would slowly blow over. I can’t recall which was worse – having the bar of soap in my mouth for that long, or having to listen to old-lady talk and inhale her foul cigarette exhaust for upwards of two hours, which was an eternity in hell for a small child. Besides, I got the vibe she respected me more after that for actually standing up to her, which rarely happened with anyone.

I can barely recall when she passed on, a few years after my grandmother in the 80s. All her sisters had passed on before her, and for the life of me, I can only recall their passings vaguely, which troubles me now, as anyone dying in my childhood tended to leave an indelible mark on me. With them, it was like ghosts fading off in the mist, one after another, and I do feel some form of shame that their passings aren’t burned on my memory. Not even hers.

What I do remember is that 1973 Chrysler Newport, mainly because my brother inherited the car when she passed on. This was no ordinary car: it was a beast. A road beast. We could have taken that car into battle and come out victorious. It was the size of a small boat, got about six miles to the gallon and had a back seat that could easily fit four adults in it. My brother would hit the gas on that thing and be doing 75 seconds later. Had he floored it, he might have broken the sound barrier. The car growled, even when cruising under 30 MPH. Much like the house in Port Carbon, there was something gray and foreboding about that car, the same brown-ness to everything inside it. The coup de grace was the crucifix glued to the dashboard and St. Christopher medallion on the glove compartment. We felt like were riding with Christ every time we got in that car. And Christ had a pair of Wayfarer shades and a screaming eagle forearm tattoo.

That car was another physical extension of Bess, the act of things in her life taking on her character and living on after she was gone. Much like that house. When she passed on, the house was sold for some humble price, and new people moved in. When I go back there, I have very little cause to visit Port Carbon, as it’s generally not along my normal routes, and to get to their house, you have to be leaving town, headed towards Tamaqua, which is a trip I rarely take.

But every now and then, with time on my hands, I’ll head over that way and purposely drive by the house. It still looks exactly the same. The dumpy bar on the corner with the Pabst sign in the dirty window is gone, but I suspect that forlorn park may still be there on the other side of the shit creek. And that craggy, rock-faced hill will surely be there forever, with the meadow and a nicer park on top of the hill. I can’t even recall how to officially get up there, but I’d guess there must be a way back there on the other side of town, marked roads leading up the other side of the hill. I’d like to go up there, just one more time, on a clear day and take a good last look down on the town, especially that house, and remember all those old women who were my only connection to a past that feels long gone.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The New Yorker

I’ve reached a milestone this year: I have now lived in New York for as long as I’ve lived in rural Pennsylvania, a few years short of 25 years in each case. A long time!

What have I learned in all this time? That unequivocally, without a shadow of a doubt, I am not, nor have ever been, nor will ever be, a New Yorker. How does that work, you might ask? I’d say it’s simply a recognition of what one’s nature is as related to where he was born and raised. From what I’ve seen, at least as it applies to my life, that never changes. Many things have changed about me over the years. Developing different interests. Losing others. Having a different range of people influence me and how I see the world. All sorts of intricate and detailed elements leading into who I am.

But at the end of the day, how I see the world, how I feel comfortable in it, is still based on being from a small town in Pennsylvania. And I like that. Some things are permanent, no matter how much you think you’ve changed, no matter how far away you think you move from certain things. A thought like that would have terrified me in my mid-20s. In my mid-40s, it comforts me.

I remember once at a local bar back in PA in the early 90s, I was talking to a guy who had moved into my hometown about 20 years earlier when he and his young wife had bought a small house down the block as they planned on starting a family (which they did, two daughters). He said something to the effect of, “You know, I’ve lived in this town for two decades, and I still feel like I just moved here yesterday and am not really on the inside of anything.”

It took me by surprise, but now that I’ve spent about the same amount of time in New York, I know what he’s saying. His kids surely felt differently, as they were born and raised in our town. But he wasn’t and still felt that sense of being an outsider all those years later. We’re talking a very small town, too, less than 500 people, so it makes sense that this feeling would be even stronger in a place that changes so slowly over the years. The odd part was I’m sure he could go back to his hometown a few miles away, go to a local bar, hang out with guys there who never left town, and in his own way, reclaim that feeling of being rooted and from somewhere.

He was stating this to me as if I had the answer. At that point, I’d lived in New York close to a decade, and he chose to approach me to say this, despite the fact that there were a half dozen guys in the bar who were born, raised and still in our hometown. I had no answer, just a shrug, and said, “Don’t sweat it. No one really cares.” I know I didn’t. But it was odd that he thought I held the secret to that sense of belonging when I hadn’t live there in so long.

I’d say that’s the bond of childhood friendships more than anything. Kids think they own a town … they don’t. I’ve lived in my neighborhood 13 years now. A 13-year-old isn’t going to tell me a god-damned thing about living here, save how he sees it from a child’s point of view, which is going to be vastly different from mine. I came here with a wealth of life experience, knowledge of other places, the strength to support myself, the ability to compare/contrast the neighborhood with other urban neighborhoods and places. But in that kid’s mind, it’s HIS neighborhood and I’m the outsider. Not just his mind, probably his parents’ minds, too. They’re gauging life with the only reference point they understand.

To which I say I can respect the sense of territoriality, but sooner or later, you’d do yourself a favor to stop being such an asshole. I don’t mind that attitude from kids, but when I get it from adults, forget it. If all you cling to in this world for identity is one place you never ventured from, you got very little to show. (There’s a huge difference between understanding your nature and lording it over someone else as some type of trump card that only you get.) I get dog tired of that attitude in Queens: smugness does not go well with working-class humility. These people think they’re living in a humble fortress, but it’s more like a very elaborate cardboard box that will turn to mush next time it rains. It’s as if they’ve sensed that comfort of never growing up or old through their teenage years, a well-meaning lie, is something they want to hold on to the rest of their lives. If the place they’re from is godforsaken enough, no one’s ever going to challenge that false sense of ownership. But New York City has long been a transient place, whether people want it to be that way or not, the place just rolls over every few decades and becomes something else. If money takes root and becomes the sole entry point to a neighborhood, it may take decades or longer to change. But it will.

The blessing of New York is that it constantly underlines one’s powerlessness. Even if you have money, you see that it gets you only so far. There are so many great equalizers here (the subway, the street, the supermarket, the laundromat) that if you use them, you sense you don’t have this whole thing cornered, that you’re just another person living here, and the best you can do is bob along like a corked bottle on the ocean, hopefully catching some nice breaks along the way. You carve out a little place for yourself, the same way any settler would in the wilderness of days gone by, and make the best of it.

But to live here, you also get that a lot of people here have the exact opposite misbelief: they think they’re gods who rule the universe. Generally, any time you try to get a handful of people on the same page to hang out, it’s like negotiating with warring tribes, each of which is convinced it’s the most powerful. Jockeying for power. Bluffing. Intimidation. False indignation. Each assumes its time is more important than the others. And I’ve learned my time is unimportant. Sure, it’s important to me, but not to you. So why offend you by pretending that there’s some type of premium on it, that when not trying to find a cure for AIDS, or hanging out with David Bowie, or sailing on a yacht in the Hudson, or dining at a four-star restaurant that requires reservations months in advance … I might be able to pencil you in, but I might not. (I’ll often catch the attitude from non-native New Yorkers like myself who came here after I did. The worst thing I’ve seen with non-natives is their adoption of a crass, pushy attitude because they think this stereotype is “how people are” here. It’s a major city. You’re going to find all kinds of people from all over the world. People act like rude pigs everywhere. It’s not a “New York” thing.)

You can guess how I feel about the attitude. Most nights, I make myself free, because I like being free. Felt that way long before coming to New York. The best part about being single, anywhere, is the sense of freedom you carry with you. Believe me, married people with kids envy it, they’ve told me as much. The concept of presenting a façade of importance to anyone, much less a friend, is just something I’ve never humored. People in my life who make themselves hard to reach, sooner or later, I stop reaching. Once upon time, that was cause for great concern and perhaps wondering what I was doing wrong. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong – nor where they. People just fade out sometimes, inexplicably. Imagine the hundreds of people you’d have in your life if everyone you knew from childhood on stayed in the picture … and how little real time you’d have to spend with any of them. (I think I just described why I think Facebook is a pile of insincere bullshit.)

I do know city life is nothing like I expected it to be before I moved here. I had that “Dylan” sense of expectation about moving to New York, that it would change me irreversibly, and I’d become someone else, shedding old identities, creating new ones. Well, to a small extent, that has happened. But to a much larger one, I got through that first decade where you try to shed your skin, then settled back into who I really am, with revisions, as most people do. To this day, I’ll try different things, but I fail to see how that’s any different from me doing the same thing at eight, or 14, or 27. In our early 20s we attach that weight to our ability to try different things, that doing so will present these life altering situations that propel us into different realities.

And I guess that’s true in some respects, but the ultimate reality is every night, you put your head on your pillow the same way you always do, and probably think and feel the same way you have your entire life, whether you’ve lived in dozens of places or only one. I tried to break the straight line of my life by moving here, realized there was no breaking it, accepted it, and saw that no matter how much crazy shit you pull, or where you go, life is a straight line from Point A (birth) to Point B (death), with whatever detours you want to throw in the mix (travel, different lifestyles, marriage, children, divorce, work, etc.). It’s not prison. It’s not a race. It’s gradual movement, unnoticeable most of the time, from Point A to Point B. I look back on any conversations (more like unwelcome monologues) regarding “personal growth” with old girlfriends, and have to wonder how that factors into maggots eating our bodies one day in the ground. Not a morbid thought. Just an after thought. And wonderment over the stilted self-help vernacular people wrap their emotions in to claim victory in mutual failure.

It occurs to me when I write things like this, that some people might see it as negativity. It’s not. The second half of your life, more of the changes that come your way are going to be hard, in the form of illness, loss, death, unforeseen personal problems and disasters. I’m just trying to figure out ways to deal with these things realistically, as opposed to treating them like total destruction that beats you down permanently. If there’s one thing I like about most religions, it’s how they underline that life will beat the shit out of you, and you need something not so much to protect yourself (because you ultimately can’t), but to help you reason out the big picture, that good things that happen to you will always have a bad side, and vice versa. It’s the vice versa that becomes the shit you deal with post-30 in life that requires a different take than “smiley faces all the time.” Sooner or later, you need more than good looks, a nice smile, and a care-free attitude to get by in the world.

So, if you ask me what I’ve learned after all these years in New York as compared to coming from a small town. I’d say be true to yourself, understand whoever you really are, and never become too attached to identifying yourself with a physical place. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re in a small village somewhere or a major city here. You leave one place and never truly arrive in another. We’re all just renting space here, and most likely paying way too much for it, too.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Late-Night Web Crawl

Saturday night found me watching the tail end of a college football game that didn’t matter. Closing in on midnight. Bored. Laptop on top of my lap. Scrolling around the web in search of old girlfriends, former coworkers, childhood friends and relatives. Googling for images of “best ass.” The late-night web crawl.

Chances are, you’ve done it, too. I don’t do it every night, but every now and then, the crawl rolls around. I’m not sure what the expectation is. You find a Facebook site for someone who has dropped out of your life. (I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter for that matter, and won’t be.) Now what? If you were on Facebook, you would drop the person a line, see what happens. Nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. You “friend” this person who is no longer your friend, have a few slight exchanges, then both go about doing what you were doing, which is living your life without that other person in it in any meaningful way, save as a memory. Facebook has become an unnecessary reminder that our memories are real, and life goes on without us.

There are times when we should all just turn off the computer and figure out something else to do. Even if it’s watching bad TV. That’s something I become more aware of as time goes on, and time spent screwing around on the web does not pan out as anything meaningful. I don’t even want to think about what goes through some kid’s head as he sends out 100 texts a day. What matters to him? What’s real? How do you build any kind of life where you even have a field of memories to refer back to when a vast majority of your time is spent thumbing a gadget that communicates nothing real?

The main reason why I’ve become so anti-Facebook/Twitter isn’t out of any sense of rejecting popular fads. It’s the aggravating realization that these things have become an unhealthy addiction for far too many people. You live in New York, where people walk around with their devices all day, you can’t go more than a few minutes or feet without someone thumbing a device or loudly wrapped up in some embarrassing personal conversation that he should not be having in public. This used to irk the hell out of me but has become so commonplace now that it’s more like an ugly shade of wallpaper than a genuine nuisance.

I remember when the internet first rolled around in the mid-90s, getting on via dial-up and a profoundly slow modem. Having conversations with people from all over the country and world in chat rooms. Man, that experience should have nailed the coffin shut. You couldn’t go more than five minutes without flame wars breaking out, strangers fighting with each other over nothing, outrageous insults … and it was all just unbridled loneliness. And the anger that generates in lonely people. I remember getting into a chat-room conversation with a woman in a small town in Scotland telling me about her life, the highlight of which was kids in the neighborhood smashing her windows every other night with rocks and treating her like the town pariah. And she was one of the more normal people! For every insightful one liner or thought, there were endless waves of unimaginative, angry people with nothing worthwhile to say. Man, this was what, 1995? 1996?

Things only went South from there. I’m not totally hung up on privacy – I wouldn’t be maintaining this blog if that was the case. But things like Facebook and Twitter are just overkill, divulging way too much personal stuff in ways that suggest blatant exhibitionism as opposed to genuinely sharing thoughts and emotions. And does so in such meaningless and inconsequential bursts that it’s hard to make sense of any of it. It’s changing the nature of communication, turning it into a disjointed monologue that makes no sense. I’m not sure what’s being communicated when I overhear a cellphone conversation that’s basically someone saying, “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Did I mention me? It’s me. Me. Me. Are you tired of me yet? No? Me. Me. Me. Me. (I don’t give a fuck about you.) It’s me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. What? Goodbye. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. I'm really going to say goodbye now. Me. Me."

I'm always hearing stories regarding how people have become so incredibly self absorbed. People confronted on buses or trains over some outrageous cellphone behavior, and acting as if they are totally in the right, and the rest of the world is wrong for not spinning around their axis of self involvement. A coworker told me of a soccer Dad flipping out on his son's coach, cursing him violently in front of small children, literally threatening his life, the coach calling the cops, filing a police report, gathering a dozen eye witness accounts, then going to the man's home with the league president and a local police offer off duty, confronting the man, telling him he and his son were banned from the league, the guy flipping out again, risking a citizen's arrest from the off-duty cop, even at this late stage of the game, unwilling or unable to admit he was radically wrong in his actions. This is the kind of people we are creating and nurturing with these self-centric devices. People can't determine reality from their own perception of reality. I don't believe that guy was nuts -- I just believe he's become incapable of recognizing or respecting anything but his own point of view.

Myspace was just as bad as Facebook/Twitter and seems to have faded like the chintzy wallpaper of that site. It doesn’t seem to occur to many people that the same will happen with Facebook and Twitter, once some other social networking site rolls in, which is the nature of this age, constant change, not in the interest of enlightenment or betterment of society or humanity. Because someone’s going to make a truckload of money from it. No other reason.

The strange thing for me as a writer is my past keeps following me around. To this day, I’ll sometimes go back and read over articles I wrote for around the turn of the century … and people, to this day, are leaving comments on those articles, some of which are a decade old at this point. I stopped responding about 2005; the editors stopped forwarding me responses around that time. But people read these articles as if they came out last week and respond accordingly. This stuff is radioactive: it never dies. It’s fun for me to read the comments now, especially the insults, which I’ve since learned are part of the deal with any sort of internet exposure. I’m not sure if the people reading don’t notice the “Published 6/28/00” note at the top of the article, or they actually think the writer’s going to respond to something he wrote a decade ago?

Much of what I wrote for the NYPress, mid-90s through the unceremonious canning of much-loved editor JS on Christmas Eve 2001, seems to have disappeared into the mist as the paper was sold at the same time and went through eras and permutations afterwards that suggested hitting the road. (We all should have quite when JS got canned, as he was what made the paper great.) And I wrote a ton of stuff when they started a section called “The Daily Billboards” which existed before the concept of bite-sized pieces of opinion and information flooded the net – we were among the first, and very good at it, too. I’ve kept all that stuff and have PDF copies of all my stories, which is much more than I thought it would be.

What I was shocked to find recently is that all the old newspaper columns I wrote in college are now permanently on-line as part of the university’s project to document all publications from the past, which they’ve done with the college paper up through 1987 (my tenure was 1984-86). It’s been a jolt for me to read that stuff again, as some of it is just the worst shit you could imagine. It was wild stuff at the time, a real departure from typical newspaper columns, but most of it feels like bluster and bad writing to me now. Of course, there is some genuinely funny and well-written material in the mix, but the bad stuff makes me cringe too hard. I just can’t link to that stuff publicly! I know there are people out there who loved what I was doing at the time and remember me fondly for it, but a lot of that stuff is just bad writing to me now. It was a talented kid trying hard to be noticed, and succeeding wildly in that campus microcosm. (The stuff that really makes me cringe was when I tried to write seriously, as humor was my forte at the time. The “serious” stuff is just so frighteningly bad. Twenty-year-olds in college have a bad habit of appearing more substantial than they are. It's just not possible for most people at that age, me included.)

The pain of it? When I went back to read that stuff (and found that my friends on the paper at the time were quietly writing stuff that still holds up well after all these years), I started reading the current campus newspaper, and the editorial writing is horrendous: dull, self-serious, studied, stiff. Exactly what I was trying to refute in my time. I’m not sure if it’s because writing skills have diminished across the board over the past few decades, or they just have boring editors running the joint. But it reads like high-school newspaper stuff instead of kids spreading their wings and having the courage to fail on occasion. I’ll give myself that much: I failed spectacularly when I wasn’t writing solid humor pieces. Maybe that’s another Facebook/Twitter offshoot: fear of failure in terms of actually creating something real, as opposed to comfortably utilizing template communication methods that guarantee uniformity and lack of risk.

I’d rather leave legacies like that, or what I’m doing now, than wasting time on meaningless one liners, insincere Facebook relationships, or getting too far into message boards, which tend to be a colossal waste of time and talent. Hell, what I’m doing now could be considered a waste of time, but I think you gather that I’m at least trying to communicate something other than an insipid emoticon or glib one-liner. I think what turned me away from writing after Dad died was I looked back on what I was doing, and most of it was criticism, harsh and bitter at times, but somebody who wasn’t creating anything of his own, but spending most of his creative talents commenting on other people creating some type of art. It felt like bullshit. A lot of things felt like bullshit after Dad passed on, but that one stuck with me, that I’d rather be the one putting it out there for people to accept/reject/embrace/despise … whatever they felt, so long as they read along and felt something. There’s such a glibness now in terms of how the web works that I’m pretty much OK with anything that takes a real chance, or tries to hold your attention for more than five minutes. I don’t think people who are shaping the web realize how destructive it has become to minimize and sound-byte the entire process … it truly is destroying people’s ability to think, reason and feel beyond anything but the most shallow thoughts and emotions.

So, I guess, an old girlfriend googles my name, comes across this site, reads this, and thinks, “He’s still an asshole.” And I’m fine with that. You can always count on me to be an asshole. I will not let you down! But I wouldn’t know how or what to comment on with an old friend’s Facebook page, assuming I was in that network, shooting back the occasional message that really had nothing to do with anything, but we all felt better in some odd way about life because we were banded together by some website that sees us, ultimately, as a dollar sign. As opposed to our actual shared memory. I’m all alone out here, no social network, which is not much different from a kid with a spiral notebook, writing at night on his bed in a small town in rural PA. Or the same kid sending a story to a college editor his second day on campus and striking gold. Or the same kid doing much the same with a city newspaper and making his way into that fold. It’s all comes down to a guy, alone in his room, trying to fill out a blank page with something worthwhile, that will last beyond the act of reading it. That’s the difference. I don’t want what I do here to be disposable, as so much of it is. And if it’s going to last, I want it to be representative of who I am. Not some fake “everybody’s my friend” template. I think that vibe is what I look for in the late-night web crawl. Not realizing I’m just looking at myself and wishing I was doing what I’m doing right now.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Dreams

I’ve been having a bad dream for the past few years that I can’t quite figure out. Most of my dreams, I can’t remember, mainly because they’re too nuts. Not like movie dreams that have some recognizable purpose or plot. Mine usually involve dead people, celebrities, people with wings, talking animals, animals with people’s heads and vice-versa, purple skies, centaurs, shifting physical scenes, like a forest, open countryside and rural dirt roads suddenly appearing in downtown Manhattan (that dream always relaxes me), or a cliff suddenly appearing in a bedroom and me walking off. They’re vivid as hell, I only remember bits and pieces, and the ones I do remember make no sense and spook me.

This recurring one is a nightmare, albeit not a horrific one. No vampires, werewolves or yellow-eyed demons. It’s simple. In varying formats, some unseen authority figure determines that something went horribly wrong back in the early 80s in terms of tabulating grades and earned credits … and in each case, I am forced to go back to high school to get my diploma, which was erroneously awarded to me at the time. Starting Now. As an adult. Dream started in my 30s, now in my 40s.

I don’t have this dream every night, week or month. But often enough to know it’s a recurring theme, and one of those troubling dreams that always leaves me with a headache when I wake up. (That’s usually how I know I’ve had a nightmare that I can only vaguely remember.)

This last one stuck out for me because the first day of school, where I decided to use my wings and fly to my high school which is just where it was and is now, about two miles out the road on Route 61 … this time, I was wearing red leather lederhosen, with no shirt on underneath, but reconsidered when I was about to go through the front doors, realizing how weird I would look to the kids (or anyone, outside of a few select nightclubs, Right Said Fred blasting from the jukebox). I never went in – and this is where the dream ended. The dream tends to end before I actually take classes, or even see any of my old teachers.

The dream never applies to college, probably because going back wouldn’t be as uncomfortable or unrealistic. Plenty of adults go back to college. But I’m sure as hell not after hearing horror stories of people dropping $20K/year on their kids’ college educations now. Of course, in my dream, I’d expect to be the same gangly, fresh-faced kid I was then … as opposed to the more Rodney Dangerfieldesque reality of passing time.

I’m not sure why this inspires so much dread in me. Even when I was a kid, I thought too many other kids in high school were assholes. Couldn’t stand the trendiness, the cliques, the cattiness, the profound lack of maturity. I run into adults constantly who haven’t seemed to grow one iota mentally or emotionally over the following decades. Or at least I constantly encounter people at work who embody the worst of high school. Kids now? Cellphones, texting, the desperately empty pop culture, which makes the empty one I grew up with seem like the Renaissance. I don’t know if they’re “worse” than how kids were then – they surely do seem that way. But I can see what’s going on now is pretty similar to disco culture we had in the 70s, save amplified a few thousand times to overbearing proportions, with the Guidoism similarly turned up to 11. Watch Saturday Night Fever sometime … not much has changed, only grown more embarrassing.

In some strange way, I’m seeing the dream as a parting with my youth. I don’t want to go back, this much is crystal clear in my dream. There is dread. I’m being forced to go back. As you get older, you stop playing games with the concept of “youth.” Well, at least I do. There are plenty of guys well into their 60s dying their hair jet black and wearing that dead give-away “all black” outfits that scream “middle-aged man still trying to look hip.” There are some things about adulthood I will never grasp: overbearing self importance, fake authoritarianism, wearing collared shirts at all times, never wearing shorts, extreme debt, dishonesty as a way of life, money as status, forced life decisions, etc.

But one of my biggest pet peeves about adulthood is other adults kissing the ass of youth. You see this all the time with music. In the bad adult mind, this stuff is considered sacrosanct as it represents kids claiming some type of music as their own … and recalling how they felt at the time, too, about the bands and music they worshipped as teenagers. But they forget that there was plenty of music in their time as teenagers that they openly and wildly hated, too, often music that gets targeted at all teens. I would expect to walk up to some full-blown indie kid now and hear him say, “Man, hiphop sucks. It's empty. It’s a parasitic form of music that’s gone nowhere in decades and had very few original ideas to begin with.”

All right, so that was me talking. But a kid saying that is considered valid because of his age – me saying that is an “old man” who “needs to listen to some old school/underground hiphop to really hear the good stuff” and “just doesn’t get it.” I get it. I got it for about two years in the mid-80s and moved on when I grasped it was going nowhere musically. I get all kinds of music way beyond hiphop or the predominately white pop rock I was raised with. I’ll often see this debate with music fans, with lame adults always siding with the “can’t criticize anything kids like because you're not a kid” take. They won – a long time ago. And look at pop music now: horrible junk for the most part that gets more constricted, redundant and tired with each passing year. A 13-year-old seriously listening to a very small field of pop music for three months has just as valid an opinion as a 45-year-old man who’s spent decades listening to all kind of music well beyond and including pop? That’s how the world works now. Everyone’s equal. We should exchange the Supreme Court with the cast from Jersey Shore. Why the fuck not?

It’s that altar our sick culture has erected around youth, that demands we all worship at it, even when our teen years are a dot in the rear view mirror. To criticize it in any fashion is to be out of touch. When any sane person can see the altar is 98% shit and 2% substance. Sane teenagers see this all the time, but of course are heavily outnumbered by morons, same as it ever was. But we’re all expected to maintain the façade, out of some misguided sense of respect. Life goes on. I don’t mind seeing kids foisting this lie on me, as they don’t know any better, but adults? I don’t get it. Seeing life this way is an extremely defeatist attitude that ignores the simple act of aging. It’s permissible to be honest: if you think something sucks, say it sucks. Life goes on for everybody. Somebody thinks that makes you old and out of touch, let them get old and out of touch, so they can see what bullshit a stance like that truly is. I want to be out of touch with teen tastes because I’m not a teenager, and there’s something creepy about adults playing up the faux hipness they mistakenly see in themselves out of some deep-seated insecurity regarding the aging process. I can only guess what compels adults to swallow such dogshit. (Best guess is some of them are making money from that stance and know not to rock the boat.)

I can recall being 11 or 12, sitting in my dad’s room, listening to a rough cassette copy of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. This was the first album I bought, with snow shoveling money. And what an album – some of Elton’s best songs are on there. But there was too much filler, a forced double album when the guy was already putting out two albums a year. When I say a “rough” copy, I mean rough, recorded to cassette the old-fashioned way: holding an awful, low-grade plastic microphone, plugged into the cassette earphone jack, up to one very bad stereo speaker for the length of each album side. It sounded awful, even the good songs.

I was sitting there, listening to what may be Elton John’s worst song, “Jamaica Jerk Off.” I don’t think it’s a song about Jamaicans masturbating. “Jerk” could be referring to the type of chicken you get there? The actual lyrics don’t seem to be about guys jerking off. It’s just a dumb title, strapped on a terrible cod reggae song that Elton never should have recorded, not even as a b-side. I recall not being too crazy about the song even then, and had no idea what jerking off was (although you better believe I would in another year or two). But I had recorded the album in its entirety, and there it was.

Just as the song is playing, Dad walks in to take some money out the wallet in his drawer. I notice him pause as the song is playing. He doesn’t fly into a rage, but barks out, “That song’s disgusting! You shouldn’t be listening to crap like that!” He didn’t flip out and take or turn off the cassette player. Just made it known he thought the song was a piece of shit, and walked out. By the same token, “Candle in the Wind” or “Bennie and the Jets” could have been playing, and he’d have been put off. But not to the extent of hearing a horrible-sounding song about masturbating, or so he thought.

I recall being mildly offended in that “this is my kind of music, man” way … but even in that moment, sort of agreed with him. He left before I could say, “Yeah, you’re right” and explained that I had recorded the entire album without editing anything out. The song did suck, big time. What I loved about Dad, and his generation, is/was their ability to just say, in essence, “fuck this shit” to their kids and not be worried about any repercussions. If I had kids, I can guarantee you, I’d be the same way. Nothing was broken in him or wrong with his generation. They thought something sucked. They said so. We all got over it. I’m sure Dad’s opinion would have applied to many things I loved then musically and still do now. So what? Not everyone gets everything, and sooner or later, we all get off the merrygoround of pop culture, especially when it starts getting too sickening to bear, as it has been through the 90s and 00s.

Peel away the layers, and I think this provides the sense of dread in that dream. I think there’s also a fear of change going on in there. Change is good when you’re a kid, but as you get older, changes are not always for the better. People die. Get sick. Lose work. Get divorced. Lose friends. There’s still positive change, but a lot of the changes we go through after 30 aren’t good. Of course, you learn this is life kicking your ass, and provides even more opportunity for some kind of growth once the shock wears off. But we all hit these plateaus in life and just move right along, punching the clock, banking the money, wondering if this is what it’s all about, etc. I’ve been claiming that I’m hanging on to this clammy “working in an office” way of life by my fingernails … for decades now. Would love to ditch it for something else, but not quite sure how to pull it off in terms of money/level of income and such. I suspect that dream dwells on that longstanding desire for change.

I have no idea what the red leather lederhosen means. Only happened this past time. In my sub-conscious, I can recall that scene in the so-so 80s flick Streets of Fire where Willem Dafoe, as the bad guy, comes walking out of a wall of flame in those leather bib overalls with suspenders – I think that was the vibe I was going for in the dream, but of course looked like a total asshole instead.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Alternate Born in the USA

When Bruce Springsteen put out his enormously successful Born in the USA album in the summer of 1984, I was waiting for it. “Dancing in the Dark” had come out a month earlier, and I grew to like it after being initially put off by the 80s synth sound. I still recall putting the album on for the first time, on release day, and feeling blown away by the title track, and much of what followed. It was that summer’s album, endlessly playing my homemade cassette copy on the Sparkomatic in Dad’s Yellow Hornet station wagon, driving around with the beautiful Born Again before she was born again. It was a good summer.

But some things don’t age so well. That girl was gone a year later, in more ways than one, and over the years, I’ve come to realize Born in the USA has real problems as an album. You can hear what the problem is: what Springsteen was convinced he wanted at the time, mass superstardom, how he geared the album to invite that level of celebrity into his life … was not what he wanted, which he found out later, and that desire was at odds with who he was. Not his image … working-class hero, friend to the blue-collar man, etc. Who he was … a guy from Jersey who never had a job as anything but a musician, had played his ass off all his life, carved out a beautiful niche for himself as a respected and successful recording artist, but pushed himself into a role that was far from his simple desire to do what he had been doing. Born in the USA now sounds like a bloated attempt to achieve mass fame.

It helps to understand the history and recordings leading into the album, to hear the kernel of an idea he had, to put out a solid album of shorter rock songs to follow up the starkness of his all-acoustic Nebraska album – sort of a rock-and-roll addendum to that album’s folk leanings, with the same concise, no-frills lyricism. It wouldn’t have made him a superstar, but the album he could have put out would have been his best. I listen to the music around that album, the stuff that has never made it out officially, and can hear a much better album that would have been completely true to who he was as a musician and worked out just fine with his image.

But, producer Jon Landau seemed to insist on superstardom, and Bruce went along with that desire. “Dancing in the Dark” was an addendum to the end of the sessions when Landau noticed they didn’t have what he felt was a blockbuster first single for the album. So, he made Bruce write one, complete with teen-friendly synthesizer backing and beats, tailored to the production values of the time. This song should not be on the album: it should be what it is, a single. Bands used to release singles all the time that weren’t on albums, and this is surely one of those cases.

But that wasn’t the only song that shouldn’t have been on the album. “Cover Me” is among Springsteen’s worst songs: b-side material at best, a song he should have given to someone else. As it was the second song on side one after the title track, everyone involved obviously thought it was a gangbuster track that would blow the roof off. Even that first time I heard it, I thought it was a bad song. I was too young then to hold it against him, but what was he thinking? (Aside from the obvious, that he had let himself be talked into throwing more contemporary-sounding material on an album instead of sticking to his creative guns.)

And there are a few other songs on the album that I would have made b-sides. Songs that are now considered Springsteen classics, but for my money, are just a little too bloated or playing too hard into image-mongering:

Downbound Train: I know people who swear by this song, but I just don’t quite get it. This would have been a b-side. A great b-side, too. (I could have been talked into putting this on the album.)

No Surrender: Cheesy stuff. He had earlier cut a song called "Where the Bands Are" that’s simply a better executed version on the same theme of recalling what it felt like to be a kid playing in a band. A better song all around. This is a b-side. “Blood brothers on a stormy night with a vow to defend”? Man, come off it. This is deep-dish sicilian with extra cheese.

Bobby Jean: a great song. For me, this was the keynote song of the album for a long time. Better than a b-side, too – I’d have saved it for the next album. (If you’re familiar with Springsteen’s outtakes, there are any number of songs around each album that are just as good as what he chose to put out, but didn’t for reasons known only to him.)

I’m Going Down: this song has b-side written all over it. How a song like this made it onto a serious album, knowing the songs he had sitting in the can that he didn’t use, I have no idea.

Glory Days: a good song, but wouldn’t have made the cut. For one huge reason: Bruce describing a fastball – a common baseball term for the pitcher throwing his hardest, fastest pitch – a “speedball” – which is something made of heroin and crack cocaine that a drug addict snorts or smokes. There are no “speedballs” in baseball. How in the hell did anyone in Springsteen’s camp not know this? How did he, purportedly a lifelong Yankees fan, not know this? Did people know this and not have the balls to approach him and Landau, and say, “Bruce, there are no speedballs in baseball.” It’s not a bad song – would have b-sided it, or saved for another album.

What’s left? A core of strong, short songs (some that were better in their original form before Springsteen greatly altered the arrangements), along with a slew of outtakes from the home-made demos he made that, you can tell, must have been his original concept of putting out a twangy, rockabilly-style album, without the calculated image mongering that floats through most of the above-noted song. I’m going to list each song, in order, to my Alternate Born in the USA, with accompanying youtube clip when possible (or MP3 download otherwise) so you can hear how this would have come across … save a lot of these songs are demos and would have sounded even better as finished product. But, here goes. And the album is now titled Your Hometown, not Born in the USA.

Side 1 Track 1
Lyrics from this song eventually appeared in “Born in the USA” and the b-side “Shoot Out the Light.” He should have stuck with this original track as it communicates a rawness not present in the final product (in which much yelling and forceful singing was made to replace this original subtlety). And it conveys the image of the song’s protagonist being a ghost and not knowing it, being told by the factory foreman, “Son, you died in Vietnam.” He should have kicked off the album with this exact track, more polished of course and tightened up without the lyrical stumbles, as he was clearly feeling his way through the demo. Jimmy Cliff has a song called “Vietnamthat feels like what Springsteen was going for with this early take. It works so much better than the song “Born in the USA.” I loved this song at the time, but can live without it now.

Sidenote: Much was made of Ronald Reagan trying to appropriate this song for his own political purposes in a speech of his from the time. Springsteen’s response was that Reagan had no idea what the song was about, otherwise he wouldn’t have quoted it in such context. Well … with a video for the song that featured Bruce looking as if he had just come off swingshift at the sewage treatment plant, and the fist-pumping arrangement he laid on this song, I’d wager most of the fans in the stadiums he played for on the ensuing tour were getting the same limited message Reagan’s speech writers did. Which was a catchy chorus that played into any number of “Burn This One” t-shirt American stereotypes, with Bruce pumping his fist triumphantly in the air in the video. The album cover was Bruce as working-man standing in front of a huge American flag. My take? Don’t expect everyone to understand your message when you’re playing around with massive images that existed long before you were famous and will be around long after you're gone.

Side 1 Track 2
Darlington County
I would have seen this song as being in competition with “Glory Days” and chose this song instead. A rollicking, fun-sounding song that’s really about two big-talking-but-broke guys from the North headed South to look for work, only to have one of them hand-cuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford. Could be the best song on the album. This is Springsteen at his best: writing unassuming, straightforward rock songs that have a deeper message woven through the lyrics.

Side 1 Track 3
Another straight-ahead rock song about a farmer sitting in the Sugarland bar while his life falls apart around him. There’s such a great sense of forward motion on the song when that rhythm guitar kicks in. Springsteen was equaling his heroes (John Fogerty, Chuck Berry) with songs like this, and it’s a strike against him not to recognize it. He put a piece of tripe like “Cover Me” on the album and left a song this good off? Shit. Totally senseless.

Side 1 Track 4
Delivery Man
Again, simple song about a truck driver having an accident on the road, save his cargo is chickens, and all that implies in terms of chasing them down afterwards. Sounds stupid? Simple? The music makes it works – that twanging sound of early rock, the echo applied to the vocals, just a great little song that works on every level. I can hear myself listening to this in a car on the interstate late at night and feeling at one with the world.

Side 1 Track 5
The Big Payback
Another stripped-down rock song about a guy who sees himself as never catching a break in life (“the big payback”). It occurs to me there wouldn’t be a lot for the rest of the band to do on these songs. There wasn’t anything for them to do on Nebraska, and limited duties on his more sedate (and apparently solo) follow-up album, Tunnel of Love. Clarence would have been shaking a lot of maracas and not playing much sax. Maybe this should have been another solo album, with the concept of a more fleshed-out, electric follow-up to Nebraska? That would have worked for me. Give Roy Bittan and Clarence a break. No horn sections either. But instead we got the headband, buff biceps and big, blowzy choruses.

Side 1 Track 6
Stand On It
This was a b-side that was better than some tracks on the album. Tight, ass-kicking rock song that gets it done. Again, much like Chuck Berry simply describing what he sees in his American life, Bruce does much the same with unassuming songs like this that work just as well.

Side 1 Track 7
Shut Out the Lights
Listeners would say … wait a minute, parts of this song appeared in “Vietnam.” Exactly. Wraps up the first side with a slow-take on the same Vietnam Vet having the same bad time, save the song’s tone now suits its message. This was a b-side – again, inexplicably. A better song than many that were on the album. The running theme of this piece!

Side 2 Track 1
Don’t Back Down
This would have been the first single – just a great little pop song that would have worked just as well as “Dancing in the Dark.” Again, when the rhythm guitar kicks in on the second verse … that sort of stuff is priceless in rock and roll. The subtle little moments that make all the difference between a good and great song. Same title as a great Beach Boys song, too.

Side 2 Track 2
Working on the Highway
Nothing magical or deep here. A simple song about a guy who works on the highway. A rock song. Calls to mind any number of early rock greats, like Buddy Holly or Bobby Fuller. That’ll be the day when I die. I fought the law and the law one. When I looked straight at her, she looked straight back. I know what he means … you do, too. This isn’t rocket science: it’s rock and roll.

Side 2 Track 3
TV Movie
Another b-side that … oh, I think you get the picture by now. Springsteen would later write a bad song called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” – this was a better attempt at looking at life through the skewed lens of television. TV movies are always worse than real movies, which is a nice little dig this guy takes at himself and how he sees his place in the world. Oh, and the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 4
Pink Cadillac
The best b-side Springsteen has ever put out. Should have been on the album. The double entendre in the song makes for fantastic rock and roll, taps into the myth of car songs and twists it around perfectly. Did I mention the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 5
Johnny Bye-Bye
I didn’t have this youtube version … which is even better than the already solid b-side from that time! This is just a great song about the death of Elvis Presley. For the 10,000th time, this should not have been a b-side. Are you gathering that when I finally heard all these bootleg versions and b-sides Springsteen chose not to use for the final Born in the USA album mix, I was shocked and dismayed? To me, that period from the Nebraska album, where many of these songs took root, leading into the Born in the USA sessions, Springsteen had stripped his songwriting down to its essence, which was describing how he saw America in the most basic, easy-to-understand terms possible, yet imbuing each song with a deeper, darker meaning that made clear his underlying sense of distrust for where the country was headed at the time. He got no better than this as a songwriter, and was miles above any songwriter at the time. There may have been times before and after this time period where he wrote more impassioned and daring songs, but in terms of basic songwriting, this was his golden age. The best rock and roll, the most elemental of it, sounds so much easier than it is to create.

Side 2 Track 6
I’m on Fire
Along with “Darlington County,” a song that was pretty damn good as-is on the album. “I’m on Fire” appears to be one of those few “high lonesome sound” rockabilly tracks that made the cut with him and Landau … when the whole fucking album should have been all of these songs that took the basic concept or rock and roll as Springsteen knew it (a lonely kid growing up in the 60s and a musician taking his place in the pantheon in the 70s) and pushing it forward. “Dancing in the Dark” was a pop single made solely to provide a hit. “I’m on Fire” is Springsteen being true to himself and channeling the best of his musical heroes. This would have been the second single from the album.

Side 2 Track 7
Your Hometown
The title track of the revised album. Yes, it’s the early version of the big ballad “My Hometown" that closed the Born in the USA album. This version, simply stated, blows the doors off the big ballad Landau and Springsteen chose to go with. Much the same lyrics. Same message. It just sounds so much better without the crappy 80s synth keyboards and hammy ballad touches of the final version. This version kicks ass. In a song that’s about getting one’s ass kicked through life. This is how life is … you get your ass kicked, and you keep rolling. You don’t stop to have a big spotlight pick you out onstage and try to make other people cry with your story of woe. Fuck that. Life kicks your ass. Life kicks everyone’s ass. Your hometown is dying. You don’t feel so hot yourself some days. But what is there to do, but keep chugging along the way this song does?

That’s it. A vastly different album, one that rocked twice as hard and long as the final product, had no bombastic/cynical hits aimed at teenage kids in the 80s, and stayed true to the artist’s vision of rock and roll as he knew and practiced it. Springsteen would be slightly less well known now as a result, but he’d have an album to his name that would be known for being rock solid from one end to the other, made no apologies, asked for none, and would be remembered today as the best album he ever put out. As it stands, he’ll be reissuing a deluxe version of that album (Darkness on the Edge of Town) this holiday season, and I’ll surely be buying it as it’s stacked with the kind of outtakes noted above. This should have been the one.