Monday, May 30, 2011

Musical Memories

It’s often noted that people are drawn to the music of their youth, particularly their teenage years, sometimes to the extent of never again listening to any other kind of music. And that music is inextricably tied into memory, so that’s part of the reason why people get stuck in these permanent musical time warps. Part nostalgia, part memory exercise.

I’ve found that’s often true for people who aren’t really music fans of any sort. And the greatest irony of the recording industry, and what damages it so much, is that in their time, these people will be the financial engine driving the industry. All those kids buying Top 40 and such. In 10 years, or 20, or 30, most of them won’t be listening to any music at all … but they’ll have a greatest hits collection on the 2 GB iPod that recall a very set time period hearkening back to their teen years. When I say the music industry is being dragged around by people who don’t like music, this is what I mean. It won’t take long, less then a decade, to pan out the people who really love music and go on buying it for years from the people who won’t. And the people who really love music and go on buying it will be considered virtually invisible and worthless by the recording industry at large, as they're a much smaller marketing segment than senseless kids buying Top 40 crap. It's a short-sighted cycle of self destruction for an industry that needs paying fans desperately.

But I’m more interested here in memory. I’m not consciously aware of listening to older music from my youth as some form of nostalgia. I listen to it because I like it. Because decades later, it still sounds good. I don’t sit around pining for “lost youth.” I don’t listen to this music exclusively. I don’t really keep score. But I’ll always find myself popping over to certain folders and knocking out some old Joe Walsh songs.

Do I think that music is better than music now? Honestly, sometimes I do. There’s a lot more care taken in the vocals, particularly. And more time and money spent in the studio working on a sound. In pure pop/rock context, a lot of that music, simply stated, is a superior version of music that came afterwards, and the genre hasn’t grown or changed all that much over the years.

I know it’s a crime to say that for some music fans – you can’t acknowledge that music from your past is somehow better than music of the present – but I don’t feel any need to kiss that ass. There is still good music being made. Constantly. A never-ending stream from which I’m forever pulling new inspiration. And this isn’t apples (the past) and oranges (the present). I go on an artist-by-artist basis more than a time frame, and back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of great artists were in their prime. And I’m far from a lazy, middle-aged, pop-rock fan. I listen to a lot of new music (most of which goes right by me), across all genres, and I keep literally thousands of new tracks that range anywhere from good to great by my estimation. (The thing is, the great ones, will generally not be from great albums, from an artist not consistently putting out great albums. Maybe that’s what I’m getting at: consistency over a period of time as opposed to one-off shots of greatness. I’m used to the concept of artists having great bodies of work (or at least one astounding three-album run) … not a few stand-out songs over the course of albums.

It’s not a burning issue with me. I’m more interested in the concept of memory and how it ties into songs. What I want to do here is list out a few of those songs for me. The song, and what it means to me personally. May not have anything to do with the song, but something to do with my life. Supposedly the kind of thing people my age (in their 40s) do all the time … but this represents a very small fraction of my listening time and intent. Which doesn’t really matter, because I’m invisible anyway!


“Strange Magic” by Electric Light Orchestra. I don’t know why, but this song reminds me of summer, and mowing lawns. It’s a summer song. I should be thinking of romance, ocean breezes, a full moon. No. I think of bermuda shorts, tube socks, the smell of gasoline, pulling the chord on the lawn mower engine, watching the rows of grass fall in my geometrical progression, the smell of freshly-mown lawn and a $20 bill in my hand.

“Say You Love Me” by Fleetwood Mac. Another summer song, but this song reminds me of driving in the station wagon with my family, windows down, and we’re on a stretch of highway between Lavelle and Gordon, PA, the back road. We can smell the cow manure in the fields, over-powering at times. Sunlight, heat coming off the fields in waves, corn stalks, maybe even a pinwheel hanging out the window. We’re probably on our way to the public swimming pool at Hegins, down in farm country.

“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel. Lifting weights in the basement. Those cheap vinyl weights filled with cement. A shitty, no-frills weight bench bought at Sears (it’s still down there). No matter how much I lifted weights as a kid, I never got bigger. (Now I wish I could reverse the process, as I could easily make myself the size of a house with weights!) Stuck in my head because Brother M was playing this to death on his basement sound system, while he sat a few feet away, smoking and listening. I still don’t know how I managed to work out with someone smoking a few feet away from me, which happened routinely with us. The basement was his teenage domain, but I had no place else to exercise in the house. An uneasy truce. He didn’t like me being down there, but I didn’t bother him either.

“Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tenille. My favorite song when I was 11 years old. Not the New York Dolls. Or Roxy Music. Or Led Zep. I was 11! This was the one song I recall listening to the radio constantly to hear, and I’d go nuts when I heard it. I never pasted myself to a radio like that before or since. I still think it’s pretty good for what it is. Only other song that had a similar effect on me as a pre-teen youth was “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John.

“Mistral Wind” by Heart. There are any number of Heart songs and albums I could pick for this, but all those mid-70s Heart songs take me back to Brother M’s car with the eight-track player. And driving around Point Pleasant, NJ on one of our summer visits. The ocean. Probably should have picked “Dreamboat Annie” as that’s surely the main connection. But when the drums and electric guitar kick in on this song, that’s like a time machine to a sandy beach road and the smell of the ocean circa late 70s.

“Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night. This song vividly brings back my second grade talent contest, in which all of us had to participate, and 80% of us did this song. Me, too. I was terrible. Chubby kid. Wearing red polyester checked pants. Skin tight in a bad way. Some florid dress shirt. Earth shoes and white socks. Dancing like The Brady Bunch in one of their show appearances. Warbling out this silly song in a cracking soprano as I tried not to shit those polyester pants. I suspect if this had been filmed and I saw it today, I'd go on a shooting spree.

“The Loco-Motion” by Grand Funk Railroad. Some nights in summer, kids would get together in a backyard with one of those Panasonic Hand-Pump Eight Track players, plug it in, and we’d get into our pajamas and dance in front of a blanket on a clothes line … the catch being all the other kids would have flashlights and would be shaking them wildly at the kids dancing, which would create a strobe-light effect. “The Loco-Motion” was the key song for this. I also recall another incident, while out collecting money for the Little League, in my uniform with all the other kids, doing our sweep through all the houses out on the main highway, this song came blasting out of a backyard, and when I went around to investigate, it was one of the girls from my class, dancing wildly in platform shoes, Daisy Dukes and a halter top in her backyard to this song … it gave me wood! So, there I was, with a hard-on in my Little League uniform, and this girl looks me straight in the eye and smiles as I peer around the corner of her house.

“Convoy” by C.W. McCall. All the kids in the neighborhood were carrying on about this song before I heard it. Carrying on so much that I thought I had to rush out and buy it to fit in. When I was buying it at Boscovs, one of the big mouths in our neighborhood was there by chance with his parents and saw me buying it – he somehow knew by the record label alone (think it was MGM with that lion’s head on it). Didn’t matter – he probably thought I was cool for doing so. But I rushed home. Pulled out the portable record player and plugged it into an outlet in the kitchen, I was so excited to hear it. And this hillbilly, piece of shit comes spilling out the tinny speakers! I was slackjawed. This stupid fucking song … they were carrying on about this like it was the coolest thing since Jimmy Page? I think that’s when I stopped chasing after whatever was deemed cool by other kids, recognizing other kids tended to be assholes.

“Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers. We played sports constantly in our neighborhood. Invariably someone would have a portable radio. Whenever “Black Water” came on, a kid in the neighborhood, George, would start singing the song scat-style in a strangely accurate Louis Armstrong voice, particularly that vocal breakdown part (“Take me by the hand pretty momma/Dance with your daddy all night long”). This song always makes me think of that 8-10 year old kid pulling off that perfect gargling baritone voice Louis Armstrong was famous for.

“Just When I Needed You Most” by Randy VanWarmer. This song doesn’t represent a memory so much as a realization. It was, what, summer of 1979? Well into my teen years, far into really good pop music like The Beatles, Kinks and Stones from the 60s, and Bowie, ELO, Queen and others from the 70s, the beginnings of punk and new wave with The Ramones, Elvis Costello, The Clash … so this song comes on the radio, and I love it! But can’t admit to loving it. It’s 1979. Man, I’m changing. Can’t have any more of this 70s ballad fluff. There were other songs like this that I couldn’t acknowledge liking in front of fellow teenage rock fans (“Heart of Glass” by Blondie and various ABBA hits), but this one really stuck in my craw for some reason. And just look at this guy in the video! That’s what 90% of all white males looked like in the 70s, and I was no exception.

Maybe it’s because I left this genre just when I needed it most? Nah. I’d go on in my teen years to be a sappy, lovestruck wimp a few times over, in ways that make this song come off like “Slow Ride” by Foghat. The strange thing about Youtube links: they let you know you’re not alone. When people aren’t carrying on like mental patients or pricks, they tend to be reflective in ways that can be overly trite, but they’re also just noting, this song floored them at a certain point in their lives. Could be a terrible song, which most seem loathe to acknowledge, but it doesn’t really matter. As noted, this type of listening experience represents such a small fraction of why I listen to music. And half the time, the memory is embarrassing! So maybe it’s good that I tie in memories of humiliation and awkwardness with youth, as opposed to glorification?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cornsilk Ghost

This short story was dated 10/25/99 when I wrote it for the folks at I did a lot of online writing circa 1999-2000, and some of it, like this, sort of disappeared into the mist almost immediately. At the time, I thought it was a pretty good short story that would have made a good movie. Still do, although it would take some fleshing out of the main character’s back story, which would be easy. Many opportunities for obscure 70s soundtrack songs, too. And how many ghost stories are there about the 70s?

But I digress. I’ll give it another chance here, doing some minor editing, but pretty much presenting it as-is. Enjoy.


Last week, I came across a ghost story on my hometown newspaper's Web site. Living in New York now for years, I miss that small-town paper, bad as it is. Reading the condensed front page every day fills me with strange nostalgia for a life I don't understand anymore.

In the story, the parish priest, Father Malloy, noticed something strange after a Saturday Midnight Mass. He claimed to have seen an "eerie visage" of a teenage boy in a blue plaid shirt and jeans hovering in-and out of the edge of the cornfield.

"I could see right through him," Father Malloy is quoted as saying. "He moved like the wind was blowing him across the ground. But there was no wind when I saw him. He was shimmering--like a flag."

Father Malloy wasn't the parish priest when I grew up there, so I can't vouch for him. But there's little reason to doubt his word, as two sightings followed over the next few nights. The same thing: a teenage boy, not walking, but gliding, through the cornfield. And the assurance of both people, a retired postal worker walking his dog and the town's police chief on patrol, that this vision was not human. The police chief claimed that the ghost had shoulder-length black hair and was bone thin. The old man simply said it was a ghost, and that the only time he had seen his dog so spooked was the night they had come across a dead skunk.

No one knows the ghost's identity. Since there seems to be no religious significance to the ghost's appearance, the Virgin Mary crowd hasn't latched onto the story, or at least it hasn't gathered enough steam yet to get their attention.

The strange part for me? I know people back there are talking the kind of talk that never makes the papers. Just by the physical description of the ghost, I recognize my brother Freddy. Freddy killed himself in that cornfield 20 years ago.

It's far away now. Fred was two years ahead of me in high school. Not popular, nor smart, nor handsome. He got high a little too much and pulled straight C's and the occasional B. He wasn't into sports. But he was known around school for one thing: his passionate infatuation with his girlfriend, Tangie. They had been dating for three years going into their senior year, and everyone was sure they would be married one day. Tangie ran with the same crowd as Fred. They thought they were rebels, but they never seemed to do anything beyond getting stoned.

One day out of the blue, Tangie dumped Fred for one of the guys on the football team. Not a certifiable jock--one of those borderline party animals who kept a foot in both crowds. No profound reason--just one of those random teenage controversies that people talk about at the 10-year class reunion. Fred was devastated. He played Bread and Carpenters albums in his room at night--and this from a massive Black Sabbath fan. There was something really wrong with him.

I knew it. Our parents knew it. Everyone knew it. He wasn't the first kid to have his heart broken like that for no good reason and wouldn't be the last. He was quiet to begin with, and stoned half the time, so no one could tell if he had developed any "warning signs."

One morning, he didn't show up for breakfast. Our parents immediately notified the police, as they thought he might have run away. Later that morning, his body was found by a few of Fred's classmates cutting school in the cornfield behind the Catholic church. It was a popular place for kids to go get stoned at night. No houses were nearby, and they could park their cars a few hundred yards away on a side street by the firehouse and walk there through the back of the field. The farmer who owned it lived beyond a hill on the far side of the field and had no way of knowing if anyone was in it at night.

He left no note. They found him lying peacefully in a small clearing near the edge of the field, hands on his chest, gazing at the sky, with dried tear trails on the sides of his face. Empty bottles of quaaludes and Jack Daniels were found next to his body. An autopsy showed an overdose to be the cause of death.

The funeral, as all teenage funerals must be, was awful. One of the worst days of my life. Tangie must have been too ashamed to show. After she graduated, she left town, without the football player, and we lost track of her. My mother was hysterical, and my father was numbed. Two years later when I went to college, they moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. After college, I left, too, and ended up here in New York. I visit the town, and Fred's grave, every year in May, when he died, but I don't hang around long. I simply stay at the town's run-down motel for a night, drive around the next day, look at the house I grew up in and feel strange, go the cemetery, put some flowers on Fred's grave, then leave.

I've asked myself why Fred would come back. Or has he always been there, and it's only now that a few people have seen him? He spent many nights getting wasted there with his friends. I knew because his sneakers would always have corn silk on them. And he made a point of wearing his blue flannel shirt out, as it sometimes got chilly at night, and it reeked of pot smoke, a smell our parents didn't know.

Maybe it was the one place he felt he belonged with other people. I wonder if kids still get stoned there at night. And if they do, do they talk about Fred? He must be a legend. Stories like that always drive kids wild. I can see them now, in the field on a summer night, sitting in a circle, joints and bottles passing from one hand to another, and someone saying, "I wonder if that kid who killed himself over his girlfriend back in the 70's is here tonight."

And even if he isn't, when the warm summer breeze rustles the stalks, everyone knows Fred is there--a lost soul at a stoner's séance, forever young in a way they'll never be.

Fred would be happy to know he had made the paper, even if no one seemed to know him by name. I wonder if Tangie, wherever she is, read the same thing I did and felt the same warm thrill. My parents haven't read it, and I won't be telling them about it.

I've started dreaming about Fred--something I've never done before. It's always the same dream. I'm lying next to him on that night. I can feel the corn silk and stalks rubbing against my back and smell the soil. I can hear crickets and power lines humming. I look up and see the lines and scaffolding of the dark tower against the purple sky. I turn my head and see him. He's quietly crying. The bottles are already empty. The dream starts here, but I know that I have shared the bottles. There's nothing to do but wait until he closes his eyes. I feel like vomiting but keep the urge down, as I know I'll live if I do it. In the dream, I don't want to live.

This dream is the closest I've ever felt to him. We were never that close. We certainly didn't hate each other and got along fine. But in the dream, it's like we're twins who've decided to end it on the same night. Ten year earlier on a sunny day, we could have been laughing at a picnic, naming cloud shapes in the spring sky.

He turns his head, looks at me and smiles. I feel the same way I did when I had my tonsils out and woke up under sedation: stoned, like I'm lying vertically on a wall of grass. I'm floating in some sense. And then we talk. I can recall one conversation we had:

Fred: I don't want to live.
Me: I know. You kill yourself tonight.
Fred: Because there's nothing here for me.
Me: It's only a broken heart. It'll go away.
Fred: I'd rather go away.

He leans his head back and closes his eyes.

I'm never going back there again. Who knows, maybe in the next few weeks, a reporter will do some research, or one of the teachers at the high school will get a flashback, and Fred's gaunt face, maybe his yearbook picture, will magically appear on my computer screen.

Would Fred appear to me if I lay down in that cornfield on a warm night in late May? Would my dream become real? If I saw him roaming the fields, would he stop to acknowledge that we were once brothers, maybe with a certain smile or a wave of his pale, bony hand? What would he say to me?

I don't care. I could drink ghost whiskey from the same bottle, and I don't care. I don't need to see it to believe it. The dream is real enough. Even if it all comes down to a drunk priest, a doddering old man and a paranoid town cop, I believe Fred is out there. I wonder if, as with all those ghost stories, he's doomed to wander forever, never finding what he's looking for, or if there, in the stoner's cornfield behind the church, he's found his home.