Sunday, November 9, 2014

Music I

   What matters more than rock n roll?
  I mean when you're there, inside, listening to it live. When you're in a place, a bar, a club, a concert hall and you can feel it, literally, happen in your heart, when you turn around, look at your rational self and say, "See ya, brother."
   You've been standing there for an hour.
   You walked down the street to get there, shaking your head at guys your same age dressed back up in their 20 something selves from 1982. 
   You walked past the door and went on 3 more blocks so you wouldn't have to stand in line with them and their "dates". 
   Your life is a clotted mess of failing joints and greying hair no one notices, misguided attempts to find a mission, and the occasional outburst people are either inspired or bored by.
  You're middle aged.
  You don't fall for it anymore. You know "it". You knew "it". You stood by "it". On rare occasions you were "it". It suckers you no longer.
  You watch. You appreciate. You think, "Now how could I spin this into a story worth selling?" cause in this day and age selling and telling have become the same.
  The club's an old church from a working class section of the ex-working class city you were born in. It's been gutted, the stain glass removed, the pews long gone and flanked by a 50 foot bar. Like the Orthodox, you stand for the show.
  People you can't recognize but know you knew say long hellos. They hold their gaze. You can't place the faces. The bald. The sag. The waddle. Counting out tips like grandmothers in a diner, they're wearing tour shirts like kids in college wearing their college hoodie.
  The band starts. If ever there was a band that was "it" back "then", this is them.
  They look like they wanna sit down. The lead singers so far off key she's using cyrillic. You don't recognize the guitarist. He's one of the most famous guitarists in the world. No. Can't be him. It is.
  Their first song sounds like a recording of their first song underwater. You can't hear the words. The volume is bearable which was once anathema to this band. Unforgivable. You remember seeing them in Rhode Island, Pawtucket, and when the guitarist warmed up he emptied a swath in the stands before his amplifier. He ruled. He stood on high. Love's gonna hurt, he told us all. So's hearing the truth.
   You're leaning against some sort of temporary barrier keeping the underage from the aged. Women approach you and stash their purses behind it. They look at you like you're gonna keep a secret, like you work there. And then they don't dance.
  The beer that was trendy then is again trendy now. Pretending to be hip is easier.
   You look down at the half empty floor.
   You look around and see teenage children ask why did you bring me dad?
   You look up behind what was the altar, and the windows -which once held saints and archangels- have been slitted out with steel panels admitting a shaft of light cut like the bar's logo. There is marketing even in the ether.
  "Why am I at a concert when the sun's still up?" you ask. The answer? 
   You can barely hear it anymore.
  "That's entertainment. Ever felt like you've been swindled? Eat the rich. There's too many of us. I wasn't born so much as I fell out. Let's start a war. Ask what your country's been doin to you! We're desperate. Get used to it. How you gonna come? With your hands on your head or the trigger of your gun? Ohhh way to go Ohio……"
   All that, all that you were told, and this is where you are? What you've become? A two bit marketer and marketing tool letting the anthems of your youth roll over you like they were just…..lyrics…..?
  You're tapping your foot, sure, keeping a steadier rhythm than most and making sure everyone notices but you're not moving up to the front of the stage and you don't mind that people are talking texting analyzing replaying rearranging liking sharing and repurposing something before it's even happened. Nothing's happening to them anymore if their friends don't know. "That's okay", you say, "that just leaves more of what's left of the now to me."
  That's the peace you've made.
  And then you hear the other lead singer do something funny. He changes key to keep the harmony he and the other lead have had for years working since she can't hit her old notes. He bends the song and lo and behold the song holds it. And you see him laugh. The guitarist who rarely even acknowledges the lead looks over and nods. Was that appreciation? Was there just some detente in their mutually brilliant disdain for each other? Like the old days when they were kids?
  You lean a little farther forward. The music rises up and you realize they're so good they're covering themselves. They're not rushing through songs they can't stand anymore a la the Stones turning Brown Sugar into Husker Du. They're rebuilding what they still buy in the songs of their younger selves and making them new. The lead takes a whiskey from someone in the audience and then points at the sound mixer- Turn it up. He says it twice. 
  You stop tapping your feet. You jump. You dance for them. You sing back. You know every word.
  And that's it. 
  I could try and put words to it, to what happens next, but that's really the point of these words, and of all music, and that's that words end at a certain promontory in the world of our selves. They cannot follow. They tell a great tale when we come back but there are rooms in our lives, their are whole bloody fields of experience you shouldn't worry with language.
  The thing is, music shudders into life some dormant spirit in our chests- some amplified heart carried over by the 10 millennia of our species that thrived and died before we ever wrote anything down - this vestigial organ that still lives and plays in our bones and in our tapping feet and humming selves- and when that spirit takes off it can fly right out of you. If you're lucky its talons or its coattails or the golden dust vibrating in its wake catch hold of some part of your body and drag you into the air where music has no gravity, no historical time, no reason. And rock n roll lives right at the place where that spirit takes wing, gains lift, finds its most dangerous velocity. It can't last, by Dionysian definition it never does, but oh the power of mortality when it forgets it's mortal.
  You melt away in the sonic shock wave-
the welcome suicide of your socio economic self- and what's left is maybe something you loved but didn't have a name for at 18 at 23 at 29. 
  You were delivered? You were transformed? You were elevated? 
  In truth it wasn't you, it was some sort of "us".   
  The gift of rock is its hovering truth that is only true as long as the music lasts but that no one afterwards would say was a lie. It just …only ever... lives…in there.
  You had to be there.
  You have been.
   Rain on me……….

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Cost of War

   The very residential corner of Monongahela and Schoyer streets in Swissvale is basically a thru way for people trying to get to work. It's no wider than any other local intersection but it's cursed by being the quickest way to get onto 376 and then downtown or out to the eastern burbs and beyond, the Turnpike.
  So everybody uses it. Pity the poor sods who live on it.
   I was pulling around this corner when an ambulance passed going the opposite way, into Swissvale or Swisshelm Park. A glimpse of two twenty something guys in reflective gear blipping their lights and siren.
  And I thought, it's possible, anywhere among the thousand some homes and apartments behind me in this old working class, old too white neighborhood, there's a decent chance somebody's watching the last moments of their life tick by. Somebody's dying.
  As I'm driving on a pointless errand, glancing up at steps and storefronts I haven't let register for 47 years, passing facades I've insisted over the decades will be unimportant to me, clotted with exhaust, and worn down by endless traffic, somebody's staring at the last thing they'll ever see: the side of a bed stand their parents gave them, the underside of a lamp they thought to but never replaced, the sliver of a windowed view into a backyard anyone could have and not appreciate.
   The immensity crossed from my banality to their melodrama. The sad drip of a day? A block or two away Angels sing or Devils howl and a shock wave's about to pass through a family. 
   Boggles the mind. A seismic shift thru 20 people's souls. The karmic fabric of a neigborhood wrinkled for years. 
  And I drive by thinking about nothing; knicks on the windshield, the bricks below the potholes or how miserable Bonnie Rait's rhythm section is. 
   Death doesn't go off like a bomb. Bombs may kill people - car crashes, gunfire- sudden impact and dramas create death but the loss of someone is like a suction, a silent removal, a leaf pulled under the surface of a river, an insect plucked from a fissure of sand.  
  There's a Czech word I saw written on some gravestones in Prague- a conjugation of the verb zanik- which doesn't mean "died", it means -loosely- extinguished, snuffed out and the Czechs use it on the stones of the murdered, holcaust victims especially. "Died" normally is something like zemryl or umerl. (I spent 3 months in Prague but speak no czech so forgive the approximations).
   I asked someone to say it for me, this zanulych type word, and it fit, the sound. The last syllable like a drop of blood, or a slavic version of the "pfft" we make when we draw a finger across our necks. The silent piff which accompanies someone breathing their last, leaving us to transform the non-event into our own catharsis- to tear our clothes, strike something, sing, pray, scream - basic human instincts-  reaching for some kind of form to wrap around the spongy madness left after a death in the family.
  I drive my car through a neighborhood I grew up next to and all this is happening again. To someone else. As it always does. Till you're the someone else.
  Think of the casual trauma all these someones carry thru their daily lives. Even if a death is expected. A person's of a certain age or contracted a known disease, it's accepted, this is the way it goes. You lose people.
  And then it happens and the threads in your psyche fray and your behavior changes and your friends suffer, if not your lovers and your family, tearing and taking a toll wherever you go. Of course there's the covalent decency, the new empathy you have learned as well, but I can't help but think the damage is worse than the good when you feel you've had something torn from you. Or when you may be responsible for the tearing.
  You go out every day into the daily world and you potentially bring discord. You fray the fabric.
  And I thought if that's what I bring….what the Hell do people bring who've seen vast terrors and murder on a military scale? What do they bring with them if they did those things? Felt responsible for them? What aura trails in their daily wake?
  I don't mention this in terms of blame, well not for individual soldiers, nor do I say this as some sort of practical warning- I simply feel that I now have the slightest grasp on, the tiniest understanding of why  people completely forswear violence as a tactic to achieve justice.
  I think of reading Tolstoy and his 1400 page mantra against War, his simple insistence that murder rends the fabric of creation, allowing the demons of our nature to emerge.
  If someone who feels cheated by the death of his brother trails a dark spirit or two through his day what possibly happens to daily life in Sarajevo, or Gaza, or Baghdad when hundreds and thousands and then millions of people collide who at one extreme or another are suffering some kind of traumatic shock? Think of the waves of paranoia coming off these people. Ever amplifying. Yes some of them will cancel each other out but by the simple laws of propagation, some of those waves are going to double and triple. Rogue waves of terror. A perfect storm of fear.
    What cruelty could be unleashed? What madness?
    What could possibly be worth that reality?
    What about the US?
     As we acculturate violence further into our culture how much have we changed? As the very air around us is more and more colored by the off gassing of the worser parts of our selves what do we become?
   It just strikes me now. I used to mock the sayings of Ghandi and MLK - what was Malcolm X's riposte, "If I respond to someone trying to do me and my family harm I don't call it violence I call it common sense." I still agree with that- but I can see how the price of violence, of murder, or assault is written down in the hearts of those who pull the trigger. They pay, if they're sane. And so do we.
  This again is in no way me saying "Oh all those violent people in our midst! We're not safe!"
  This is me saying governments that send men and women to die and kill for any reason below the Holy or the necessary, reap the whirlwind. Or we do. It comes back, with its own vengeance and again the people pay the price.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


   The danger of Halloween.
   It's like the danger of voter fraud. 
   Please look this up:
    In almost every urban area in the United States crime is lower than it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago.  Name it: Violent crime, crimes against children, abductions, abuse, murder, theft. By a factor of 40%. 
   And yet we treat the world like it's a mine field of perversion. Children are monitored to within an inch of their interior lives. They have next to no public memory of what it is to be unobserved, to be allowed decisions unmediated by adults, to move amongst themselves and build their own brief childhoods , their worlds, not one designed by their parents, makers of the Disney childhood, a walled psychic suburban community (which could be anywhere) with adults trying to legislate behavior with codicils, restrictions, requirements and security patrols. 
  Halloween. 1982. Several hundred children walking around a small town together. Big brothers and sisters. Police driving down the street.  HS seniors patrolling as well.  Lights on. Folks watching out their windows. An agreement: this is a community action. So….what actually were the chances that one of your neighbors was going to abduct your kids?
  How much stranger danger is there?
  What actually are the odds?
  This is where the coin drops- the crime rates that haven't gone down? The child abuse and sexual violence that still happens?…..happens in the home. Between people who know each other, are related, should be a family.
  So what's the issue?
  What we fear most in the house we project onto the stranger, the creeper, the bum, the poor guy, the "gang banger" (go ahead and read black or brown there). And of course onto that figure of universal dislike - the guy a couple house down who doesn't mow his lawn enough.
  Racism and reputation. 
  It's either about blaming somebody else for the demons we fear in ourselves, in our homes, in our bedrooms, or it's about reputation. Keeping up with the Joneses.
  "I maintainence as well as they do. I hover just as much. I've taken this precaution, that insurance policy, these new helmets, that new allergy medicine." What it boils down to is fear. Not "oh the kids are gonna get grabbed by Rapey the Clown" but "oh the neighbors'll find me out- the bad parent. I'll get sued. I won't keep up." I'm just as GOOD. 
  We monitor each other like survivors in the Walking Dead, "Wait, are YOU going to take everything from me!!" like Black Water operatives casing anyone not wearing the uniform, anyone who's NOT carrying the weapons of suspicion. What else are the packs of the fleece clad half smiling parents standing at the foot of your driveway making sure Jimmy doesn't get too close, doesn't step indoors, doesn't get leered at, but vigilantes? You used to go trick or treating with your big brother now you go with the latte toting minions of Big Brother. 
   It's not just being practical. It's nuts. You're not embracing your kids, you're smothering them, you're not covering all the bases, you're quite simply, trying to stop the game. And the truth is folks, you can't. 
   When it comes to "freedom"- the real F bomb in our American narrative- we're penny wise and pound foolish. Enable kids to get a vaccine for cancers that effect 60% of women born in America? "You're limiting my freedom!" But pass legislation that a man can't sit by himself in a park if kids play in it? You're defending the children! Try and put some brakes to an industry that shortens life expectancy in an area the size of Texas, the slightest limits, and you're impractical, you're waging a war on coal or some other extractive behemoth casting itself as a victim. Mention we might as well just let the kids go out and play, by themselves….and you're Adrian Peterson. 
  Let Yer freakin kids go outside. Eat dirt. Break things. Get in fights. Scream at something other than your paranoia. You've got bigger problems, by far.
   Let them walk alone at night for the first time in their lives in the cool of a Fall and think - this place is mine. And when they climb the stairs to someone's door, somebody they've never met, across a lawn they could never normally cross, up to old folks who mostly never smile at them or young toughs who don't give them a nod, let them knock and those people, those strangers will emerge…. and give them candy. A gift. Like what happens 90% of the time you run into someone you don't know and need a hand. Most of the time, they'll give it. An affirmation that this is our town and we will help each other out. 
   Let the rough democracy of childhood return. Let it live.