HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 9: “(He’s) The Great Imposter”)

“(He’s) The Great Imposter”
1961
Artist: The Fleetwoods
Writers: Sharon Sheeley, Jackie DeShannon

GREATIMPOSTER1

(NOTE: This might also be titled “More Scenes from an Actual Boyhood,” in keeping with my series of occasional push-backs against the incipient nihilism that, for me, defined the movie Boyhood. It now surpasses my Patty Loveless piece as the longest I’ve written for this blog…never say I didn’t warn you!)

In the spring of 1974, in the space of a single school day, I got my friend Bryan elected president of our middle school and hooked him up with the hottest girl in seventh grade.

The last words he said to me as we were being separated by the kids crowding toward the buses were:

“I’m gonna kill you!”

Coincidentally or not, I left both politics and matchmaking the following day, never to return.

Best to quit while you’re ahead.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t even close to the strangest thing that happened to me that day.

And therein lies a tale.

*   *   *   *

Sometimes the way you know somebody is complicated.

The way I knew Bryan was this:

When I was a very small child–four, five, six, like that–my dad, between his careers as a carny and a preacher, was a paint contractor. Somewhere around that time, he landed an ongoing arrangement with a local architect. That’s a nice deal for a contractor. Plenty of guaranteed work, especially in those halcyon days when the NASA-fueled Space Coast was up and coming (this was the early to mid-sixties) and the Old Florida was being consumed by the New Florida at gerbil-wheel speed and with about as much sense of proportion or higher purpose.

Anywhere from Titusville to Cocoa Beach to Melbourne, condos and housing developments were sprouting like spring violets, only faster and year round.

Hence, for a paint contractor, a prominent architect’s contract was nothing to sneeze at.

The architect had a son, Craig. He and I were the same age and my mother was already in poor enough health to make looking after me a trial, so it was deemed a good thing all around for me to spend a lot of the days when my dad was working for Craig’s dad at their very cool and very large River Road house. We got tight, Craig and me. Our families even got tight, as much as could happen across white collar/blue collar lines in that time and place, given that Craig’s mom was something of a social climber. And, for a few years, so it went.

Then, one day, when I was maybe six, my dad came home and told my mom that Craig’s dad had asked him to paint up some condemned houses he had somehow acquired because that way he could get a buddy of his at the county inspection office to give them a wink-and-nod clean bill of health and sell them at a profit as opposed to bearing the expense of knocking them down. This was probably business as usual for that time and place, but my dad was troubled enough to run the proposition by my mom.

As anyone who ever knew my mother could have told anyone who didn’t: That was the end of that.

No more contracts from Craig’s dad. No more family visits. No more playing with Craig.

So the years went by.

I probably thought about Craig once in a while, but I had lots of friends in those days, and he went to private school (expensive!) and I went to public school (free!), so I got over it soon enough. First grade came and went and then so did second and third and fourth grades.

Then fifth grade came along and I showed up for the first day of school and went out to P.E. for second period and looked across the old school yard and, lo and behold, there was somebody who looked an awful lot like…Craig?

So I said: “Craig?”

And he said: “John?”

And, as kids will sometimes do, we picked up right where we left off.

This wasn’t necessarily a given. Kids can change a lot between 5/6 and 10/11. And who knew what he had been told about what went down between our fathers?

Plus, he was a whiz kid. And a natural leader.

I was just a guy. But I did get good grades. I had my mom to thank for that. She couldn’t keep up with me when I started running around so she had me sit still and taught me to read and write when I was three. By the time I got to school, I was able to give a stronger impression of book smarts than just about anyone who lived in my neighborhood and, in those days, that was how they separated you at school. By test scores and grades and such–and, not surprisingly, those qualities broke down pretty closely along neighborhood lines.

The upshot of this was that I spent the first four grades hanging with the NASA kids at school. NASA kids came from NASA parents, or, more specifically, NASA dads–a type known everywhere, but especially highly concentrated in this time and place of whence I speak–and they were under what you might call a very particular kind of pressure.

You didn’t hear too much about Type A personalities back then, but, on the proving grounds lying between Titusville and Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, we were familiar with the concept.

I mean, if you heard about an umpire and a Little League manager getting into a heated discussion over whether the manager’s ten-year-old bat boy was removing the bats from the field of play with sufficient speed and efficiency, and if the umpire was said to have then picked up one of the offending bats and heaved it over the nearest fence (reports varied as to whether he had taken any real care to make sure it didn’t hit anybody) and the umpire and the manager were said to have soon afterwards ended up throwing punches and rolling on the ground, you pretty much just shrugged and said, “Yep, NASA dads.” (My first-year Little League manager and my second-year Little League coach, both gone on to higher things by then, pulled this off in my third year. The Bad News Bears had nothing on us!)

If some girl in our fourth-grade class went home with an A+ on an Earth Science exam and her parents showed up at the principal’s office the next day demanding to know how the school that was being supported with their tax dollars could possibly give an A+ on an Earth Science test to a little girl who couldn’t answer any of the questions they had naturally put to her in order to see how much she was really learning, you pretty much just went, “Yep, NASA parents.”

If some “visiting” coach showed up at your Babe Ruth field and made you (and by “you” I mean me) practice turning the double-play seventy-two times in a row while all the kids he didn’t like stood around and watched….well, you just had to keep reminding yourself we didn’t beat the Russkies to the moon by sending a bunch of shirkers across the Indian River every morning!

I guess what I’m saying is, we thought the NASA kids were driven. Very tough stuff. Very high end.

And they were.

But it wasn’t until the private school kids showed up that we understood what max-driven really meant.

The reason the private school kids suddenly showed up at our school was that their parents all had contracts with the private school (grades one through six) when the private school found itself in budgetary straights. This caused the private school to renege (or so all the parents said) on the contracts, which had stipulated that if you had two kids in the school at the same time, the second one was half-price (or maybe it was free–the memory hazes) until the first one graduated. When the school changed the contracts, the parents, who were mostly doctors and lawyers and, yes, architects, decided if they all stuck together they could get the school to back down. They stuck together, alright, and those budgetary restraints must have been real, because the school did not back down. That was how Craig and David and A.J. and Julie and Lea and Bryan and all their little brothers and sisters ended up in public school at the start of the fifth grade.

And, because I had been friends with Craig when we were four-five-six, I was suddenly more or less friends with most of them, too.

Including, of course, Bryan, who I would one day do such great things for….

*    *   *   *

In those days–four, five, six right on up to eleven, twelve, thirteen–I belonged everywhere.

I belonged in the neighborhood. I belonged at church. I belonged at the ball park. I belonged at my friend Paul’s house. I belonged in whatever trailer park was in walking distance if it had a kid my age who liked to shoot hoops or throw any sort of ball around. I belonged with the NASA kids and I even belonged, finally, with the private school kids.

I pretty much took all that for granted in those days, though I realize in retrospect it wasn’t something just anybody could have pulled off. I was counted shy and that actually worked to my advantage, because I was one of those who was counted shy, “until you get to know him.”

Which everybody did, eventually, because if you stuck me anywhere in the matrix of neighborhood-school-church-ball park, there was enough overlap for me to just about always have an in by virtue of knowing somebody from another part of the matrix. The thing with Craig was mere serendipity, but the rest was more or less inevitable, given who I was and where I was.

So I can’t say “belonging” with the private school kids felt other than natural, even if it was a little weird sometimes to be the only one at the lunch table who had taken a hundred and six on an extra credit test when a hundred and ten was available. (Even if I only heard, “So, uh, what’s the problem there Ross?” twice a year, it was, all of a sudden, two more times than my previously laid-back self wanted to hear it.)

If anything nonplussed me, it was the constant maintenance of different veneers, depending on circumstances, while holding on to my basic personality. I managed it well enough, probably because I didn’t actually know any other way to be. Of course, there were awkward moments here and there, but I didn’t really think about it unless I had to. (The toughest instance of being forced up against it–of “having to”–came in junior high, when it became increasingly evident to the others in the private school gang that I wasn’t being invited to my friend Craig’s cool house on the River Road for various social events that tended to gather there because even the other private school kids didn’t have, you know, a cool house on the River Road. I’m sure some of them had swimming pools–I’m betting none had a dock. Finally, one day, somebody–my friend Bryan if memory serves–ended a long discussion at the Monday lunch table of how much trouble they had finding a sixth to make an even number for a bowling party that had launched from Craig’s cool house the Saturday before by suddenly giving me a very quizzical look and asking “Why didn’t we just call John?” Seeing that my friend Craig looked as though he wanted to dig a hole in the lunch room tile and crawl in, I quickly conjured a white lie about not being able to come anyway because I was doing such and such that day, implying that Craig knew all about this beforehand. We never talked about it, then or later, but a few months later my friend Craig signed my yearbook, “To my life-long friend” and underlined “life-long,” so, if I never knew what he had been told about what happened between our dads, I knew, and always had, the only thing worth knowing. He didn’t care any more than I did. When it came to belonging everywhere, I’d have to say the good generally far outweighed the bad.)

*   *   *   *

I bring up this history to give you some idea of what my world was like when my friend Bryan showed up in our afternoon typing class on the first day of the second semester of the eighth grade and started mooning over “the new girl in chorus.”

Even being the one who belonged everywhere–the one who could move easily between worlds, who could needle and be needled mercilessly without dropping the usual stitch or tramping on the usual nerve-endings, the only one, really, in any of my worlds, who truly got along with everybody in any given world, let alone betwixt and between–I still couldn’t see where this one was headed.

Since the time I had first known Bryan in the fifth grade, I’m pretty sure he had never been without a girlfriend for more than a few weeks at a stretch. Even if it wasn’t really that way, it seemed that way. Bryan always had a girlfriend and she was never anybody we went to school with. It wasn’t something he bragged about, or even talked about much. You just always knew he had one. (Okay, he tended to talk about not having a girlfriend when he didn’t have one–he just didn’t talk about the ones he actually had when he had them. With my friend Bryan, having a girlfriend was actually normal. Not having a girlfriend seemed as weird to him as having one would have seemed to the rest of us.) When he broke up with his latest, just before Christmas break in the eighth grade, our friend Bob, who we had met in the seventh grade (different elementary schools, though I had played baseball against him in Little League), wanted to bet me–or somebody–that Bryan would have a girlfriend by the time we came back to school.

The rest of us had known Bryan a lot longer than Bob had. No takers.

So it was wild enough that Bryan had even arrived at the beginning of the second semester of the eighth grade bereft of a current squeeze. But to hear him talking that way about a girl who actually went to our school and apparently had just moved there was almost surreal. Naturally, we wanted details!

And we got them. You know, at least to the limits the average eighth grade vocabulary can accommodate such.

We got that she had long brown hair and gorgeous brown eyes and a slammin’ body and, was, you know, just generally a fox (the word we used then, which these days has been replaced in the common parlance by words like “hottie”–yet more proof, if anyone needs it, that God has turned His back).

Hey, what else did we need to know?

Nothing, that’s what.

Well, maybe find out her name. Just to help out our friend Bryan of course.

So it did put us on a mission. Any girl who had impressed Bryan at all, let alone so profoundly, was definitely worth going on a mission for.

It turned out, though, that discovering her name was no easy task.

Eighth Grade Chorus was too big for roll call (the teacher checked a seating chart), so that was no good. None of the girls Bryan was tight with (not a few, though they were mostly uptown types) seemed to know who she was or where she had come from. And, of course, he didn’t want to lose any all-important cool points–with us, with himself, but especially with the fox herself–by being seen to act too eager.

So, for a time, we were stuck.

Certainly none of the rest of us had noticed any mysterious brown-eyed foxes walking the halls or showing up in our other classes. We had a bona fide mystery on our hands.

The mystery went on for a while. I’m gonna say until some time in February at the very least. Day after day, Bryan would walk through the door of the typing room. Day after day, we would eagerly crane our necks, hoping for a sign. Day after day, we would be met with a glum shake of the head. No further intelligence. Day after day, then, of desultorily working our way through our typing assignments before convening to the corner where the fast-typing kids could gather and converse if they kept it quiet while the slow-typing kids finished their assignments. Day after day of Bryan assuring us, in his world-wise manner, that this girl “just has something!”

What can I say? We were stuck in the Florida public school system, being experimented on with classes like “Worthy Use of Leisure Time” (I only wish I was making that up). We needed something to keep us going. Conjecturing about the brown-eyed goddess in Bryan’s Eighth Grade Chorus class beat anything else available.

And then, one day, patience was rewarded! The glum shake of the head was replaced by a can-do smile and a firm nod. There was palpable excitement. Some sort of breakthrough had clearly occurred. We raced through our assignments (well, the boys anyway…Lea, Cheryl, Nanette? Not so interested.) Whoever got there first, Bryan made him wait. David, Bob, me, we all had to be there for the “announcement.”

“I found out her name!” he said when we were at last fully assembled. Big news. How did he find out? “Well, she was walking out the door after class and somebody called her name and she turned around and answered so I know it was her!”

And….

“Her name is Michelle!”

And then I got a very funny feeling. What you might call rather conflicted emotions.

Things I very much wanted to be true and things I wished very much were not true all washed together in a roiling sea. When it came to dealing with the absurdities of life on the eighth grade level, I suddenly found I was not as far above the average as I liked to think.

Nonetheless, if what I thought was true was really true, I knew I had to come clean.

Maybe if my friend Bryan had walked into typing class back in the first week of January and thrown this name at me I could have teased him a bit, led him on. But with all this water under the bridge, I knew I had responsibilities. Sometimes belonging everywhere carries some burdens along with the rewards.

First, though, I had to be sure of my information.

So I said:

“Uh, what was she wearing?”

Very slight incredulous pause…Then:

“You know her?…You know her!”

Boy, my friend Bryan. He was quick on the uptake.

“Well, maybe…Uh, what was she wearing?”

Now, I don’t remember anymore what she was wearing, my friend Michelle, but whatever information that my friend Bryan relayed on the subject, it did indeed fit the description of what she was wearing when she got on the bus that morning.

So I said: “Bryan, there’s good news and there’s bad news….”

*    *    *    *

Sometimes, the way you know somebody is extremely complicated.

The way I knew my friend Michelle was this:

When I was maybe ten (or could it have been nine? surely it wasn’t eight–the memory hazes), Michelle’s mother brought her five kids to our church. Her mother had a problem of sorts, the fact of which, not the specifics, was somehow conveyed to my mother, as all problems in our church or neighborhood tended to be if they involved needing a spiritual rock to lean on.

I gathered pretty quickly that part of the problem might have involved food and clothing.

Shelter they had, if squeezing a woman and five kids (oldest something like twelve, youngest something like four) into a seventeen-foot Airstream parked fifty feet from US 1 could be called shelter. “Money problems” was probably the fairest way to put it. I also gathered my mother might have helped them with this in some way or other. It’s possible that, if she did, they themselves never knew it as that was how she preferred to operate. It’s also possible they knew it very well. Certainly from that very first day they would hear no word against her.

Beyond that, they could sing. My mother was a choir director (adult all the time, youth when nobody else could be found, which was most of the time) and she loved anybody who wanted to sing–who didn’t need to be coaxed and cajoled.

Michelle’s family liked to sing and they were very good at it. They were all very good at it and they all liked it, but Michelle was a good bit better than very good and liked it best of all. So, once it was pretty well established that they were going to be around for a while, there was a lot of rehearsing going on at my house. Solos, duets, trios, mother-daughter, sister-sister, Michelle’s mother and my mother, Michelle and her mother, Michelle and my mother and so on and so forth.

A few years down the road, of course, that singing talent got Michelle promoted from the seventh grade chorus to the eighth grade chorus over Christmas break.

It turned out the brown-eyed goddess was Michelle from the neighborhood, whose older brother had gotten along with Bryan like a cat and a dog back in the fifth grade before he got moved up a grade.

Had to tell Bryan that part right off. No hiding it.

Then I had to make some decisions about what else to tell him.

I figured it was safe to share that the goddess was actually a month older than me, though a grade behind. (“She’s not stupid is she?” Bryan asked somewhat incredulously. I was able to answer in the negative. Honor roll in fact. Probably better grades than him or me. “She got kept back a grade because her family moved around a lot,” I said and left it at that. If Bryan got the idea her family was military or NASA or some other standard narrative of constant moving about with which we were all too familiar, then it was an idea I let him keep. I had my friend Michelle to consider at this point and I realized, maybe for the first time, that I wasn’t the only one who had to work at belonging everywhere.)

There were some things I didn’t share, then.

If you were playing touch football and she got by you there was no sense chasing her. She was gone.

Figured he could find that out for himself.

Her family still lived in a trailer park, though in a much nicer one (her mom had remarried). Nothing anybody needed to know there. Bryan was a private school kid but I didn’t think he cared. If he did, I didn’t want to find out (turned out he didn’t, by the way).

Oh, and one other thing.

About a year after they had moved in up the road from us and I started going up there in the afternoons to play those football games with her and her brothers and whoever else was interested on any given day–about a year after they took me in as one of their own, a degree of trust they extended to me and my mother and, so far as I could tell, no one else–Michelle’s mother came to my house one afternoon when I wasn’t there and told my mother what the real problem (the problem behind all the “money problems”) was, after which, Michelle’s brothers were free to come play at my house, but I wasn’t to go to the trailer park again until further notice.

Naturally, I asked why, and was told two things: First, I didn’t need to know just now and my mother would tell me when she could. Second, I wasn’t to tell anyone else about this new arrangement.

It all had to do with their father showing up a week or two before.

I had seen him a couple of times already, before “the visit” from Michelle’s mom. And he was a sight to behold.

Michelle’s mother was probably in her late thirties–a tall, dark, handsome woman with five gonna-be tall, dark and handsome kids (including, of course, one goddess-in-the-making). Her father looked to be about five feet four and easily sixty, though, of course, he could have been a good deal younger. No telling what chain-smoking and stress will do to the complexion and, as it turned out, he had some real good reasons for experiencing stress. He had extremely watery, pale blue eyes which were greatly magnified by coke-bottle lenses. His hands were palsied and his breathing had an even worse version of my mother’s occasional death rattle in it, except his were not occasional. He seemed like a decent stick to me, the time or two I saw him. And he clearly loved his kids to death and they clearly loved him no less.

The story I got eventually–not right away, but long before I was in a position to decide just what my friend Bryan strictly needed to be told about my friend Michelle–was that he was a top counterfeit man (or maybe accountant) for some crime syndicate.

The memory hazes and the original information wasn’t exactly crystal clear but it was something along those lines.

Evidently, he was wanted by the FBI or the Treasury Department or the Secret Service. One of those. Anyway, he had come above ground because he was dying of emphysema or lung cancer–one of those–and he wanted to see his kids one last time.

Michelle’s mother had warned my mother to keep me away because she didn’t want to risk my being caught up in the inevitable visit from the Federales, which, not too long after, did indeed come to pass, conducted by whatever service was in charge of catching him (Treasury, if memory serves).

He died not long after. Whether in prison or at home on bail is, you guessed it, hazed by memory and, I now find, beyond the powers of Google to recover. After which Michelle’s mother got on with her life.

How much of the story I got was really true?

Who knows.

Some of it certainly. Maybe a good bit of it. Probably not all of it (how rarely, after all, at ten or any other age, do we get the whole truth and nothing but the truth). But, true or not–whole or not–it was what I knew at the time and it was one more thing I figured my friend Bryan did not need to know several years down the line.

Not from me anyway.

After that, back there in the typing room, it was all logistics.

Mainly: Did I just know her, or did I really know her?

“Trust me,” I said. “I really know her. That’s the good news.”

“Okay,” Bryan said. “So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is she has a boyfriend.”

Boy, nothing crushes the old can-do spirit like the specter of the hottest girl in the seventh grade turning out to be tight with one of your best friends and then discovering, just a breath or two later, that she might be tied down for life, because, as we all know, those junior high romances are forever!

Well, we all do know that, in junior high, they feel like forever, at least when they involve the object of your particular desire.

We had come a long way down this road. I felt the need to offer Bryan some hope, and to make it sound like real hope, springing forth from a fount of hard-earned wisdom, even though it was really just a hunch.

I was in the eighth grade myself after all.

So when Bryan said, inevitably:

“So who is he?” which, of course, in the eighth grade and beyond, is always code for “Who is he and what can we do about him?” I was able to say, “Well, he’s this kid named Drew. He lives down in Melbourne and I don’t think you have much to worry about because he’s a jerk,”–at which point my friend Bryan perked up a bit, as if to say more, more and I was able to add, confidentially–“Look, I know Michelle. She’s been going with him for a couple of months and the only reason she hasn’t seen through him yet is because she only sees him on Sundays at church and then she goes over to his house for dinner or something. He’s one of those who puts on a show for the grownups and the girls.”

“So you think there’s a chance she’ll break up with him?” Bryan said, very cheery all of a sudden.

“Yeah,” I said. And I suddenly realized that I actually believed it. I did know Drew and I certainly knew Michelle and there was no way it was going to last. “Give it another month, maybe two.”

“And you’ll let me know right?”

Naturally, at this point, I looked around the table and kept my expression dead pan.

“No, Bryan,” I said. “I’ll do everything in my power to keep you from ever finding out.”

We had all been under a lot of strain. Highly irrational, eighth grade-style hilarity ensued.

*    *   *   *

So March came around and Michelle, for reasons she certainly did not discuss with me (I was very careful not to ask, she was equally careful not to tell), broke up with Drew the Jerk.

And then things got complicated.

Maybe Bryan got cold feet. Sure there had been lots of girlfriends but this was the brown-eyed goddess! This, it seemed, was different. None of that just having me put in a good word for him. No simple junior high wing-man stuff. Too risky. There had to be some grander, utterly foolproof plan. Failure was not an option!

Whether or not this in any way affected his decision to run for president of the school-wide, very-big-deal, mock political convention our social studies’ teachers had latched onto as a proper means of teaching us about the true value of the political process in the Age of Watergate, I have no idea. I mean, I assured him that Michelle was not the sort to be impressed by such things–and he actually liked hearing that even if he may not have quite believed it–but I’m not really sure I got through to him.

Besides, he and I had a track record of success, politically speaking.

As I mentioned above, we had gotten tight in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade he ran, successfully, for president of the student council (which was the closest thing to being president of our elementary school) and I had been his campaign manager.

The fact that I belonged everywhere had come in very handy in the sixth grade. I think Bryan had an idea it would come in very handy again.

There’s no need to go into too much detail on this front, because, of course, this post is really about a song by the Fleetwoods called “(He’s) The Great Imposter.”

Suffice it to say that my belonging everywhere mattered a lot less in our middle school that was fed by five elementary schools, three of which didn’t come anywhere near overlapping with any of my other worlds, than it had in our own elementary school. What did matter, as it turned out, was that Bryan was a popular kid and I just happened to discover a hidden gift for being a hellacious political operative, a rare combination of practical math whiz and go-for-the-jugular, bare-knuckled dirty tricks groin-puncher who, once I had the math nailed down as the first ballot droned on (and it became evident that Bryan was going to come second to another popular kid from a bigger elementary school, but a runoff would be required for a majority), started hanging around the Teachers-In-Charge (the day’s equivalent of back room political bosses) over by The Big Table (our version of the proverbial smoke-filled room).

The big bosses were very concerned that we wouldn’t have a winner before the day was out.

This was a rather big deal, since the school board had only approved letting everyone out of class for the entire day on the condition that the day ended precisely on time. Given that the local paper had the weekend section reserved for us and local television and radio were there to, you know, announce and interview the winner, let’s just say the specter of school-wide embarrassment loomed. Not to mention the end of all similar future projects!

We had a Secretary and a Treasurer and a Veep.

It wasn’t going to look too good if the victory picture had a blank spot where the Prez was supposed to be.

Knowing this much, and spying the enemy’s (the civilized notion of “opponent” was long gone by then) campaign manager wandering about trying to gather up stray votes in states where his candidate already had large, solid majorities, I spent my energies getting the bosses to enact a small rules change. Whoever got the majority in a particular state got the entire state. Block voting would replace proportional voting. Probably not exactly the way the Bull Moosers (for whom our convention had been named) had done it, but the Bull Moosers never had to be on the bus home by 3:30 either!

It would definitely make things go faster. They could announce the change between the first and second ballots.

Good. Because, by then, I would have the swing states who had voted for the candidates who wouldn’t be on the second ballot–and the states Bryan had won only by a vote or two–all wrapped up.

It took some legwork. I started following the bosses–er, teachers–who were spreading out to inform the various state chairmen of the impending rule change, suggested by me, and I kept on following them until I had the headcount I needed.

Then I went back to the head boss (Mrs. C, this is such an unfair description of you!) and said, oh yeah, one other thing.

And what was that?

Well, if we wanted to be sure we were done on time, we better also make it against the rules for anybody who had already committed to either candidate to change their mind.

Fair enough. Made sense.

Votes promised were votes delivered!

As the results of the first ballot were being announced I did a quick recount of what the second ballot was going to look like.

Various party chairpersons had already promised me enough votes to win.

The people had spoken!

After that, I repaired to the back of the gym, put my feet up and smiled beatifically whilst my friend Bryan, stuck on the podium with no idea whatsoever as to what I had been up to, gave me various incarnations of the evil eye.

 *    *    *    *

And that is where my friend Michelle came looking for me about an hour later as my candidate, aka her not-quite-secret admirer, rolled toward victory.

“So,” she said, after she had sat next to me for a few minutes and we asked about each other’s moms and so forth. “It looks like your candidate’s gonna win.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

Then she congratulated me or something along those lines and I accepted it with a weary smile.

I didn’t brag about my shenanigans.

I had a pretty good idea she wasn’t there to talk about me.

“I hear he’s interested in me,” she said pretty soon after that.

At which point I was able to smile again and say, yes, he was very definitely interested in her.

“Does he really want to go steady?”

Easier and easier.

“Yep, he really does.”

“Well,” she said, “what kind of guy is he?”

I liked that she trusted me.

It was only a long time after that I realized this trust might be an especially valuable thing, given what I knew and what she knew that I knew and given that we were each, in our own way, tasked with belonging everywhere.

Whatever I failed to realize at the time, though, it made me genuinely happy to tell her that my friend Bryan was indeed a good guy. And to mean it. And to know that she knew I meant it. That I, who had teased her relentlessly on a thousand other days, wouldn’t put her on about a thing like that.

I figured that was it. Last hurdle cleared. She had finally gotten to know Bryan a little bit in chorus (or to put it more accurately, Bryan had finally gotten to know her). Just the week before, he had told me that he brought my name up for the first time and mentioned that he was a friend of mine and that this little revelation had gone over very well. It all had the feeling of tumblers clicking into place. It probably wasn’t the way I would have gone about it, but I figured–correctly no doubt–that my friend Bryan knew a lot more about this romance stuff than I did.

So I was a little surprised to find that there was one more hurdle.

Right out of the blue, she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

I mean, of course I assured her he was nothing like Drew. And, of course this was true.

And, of course, this turned out to be the thing she really wanted to know–and that she really wanted to hear from me.

By which I mean from me, specifically.

As in: I wouldn’t have expected it from anybody else regarding the whole Drew thing, but you should have warned me.

Maybe that wasn’t exactly the way she meant it, tone-wise, but that was the way I heard it.

Which was odd, because, to tell the truth, there was no way for her to know that I knew anything at all about Drew. I knew Bryan didn’t tell her, because there was no way he was on that kind of footing with her yet. (Given that the footing in question was the kind where you feel comfortable enough to start talking about your junior high crush’s old boyfriends, he probably never would be, if he knew what was good for him. But, in any case, he certainly wasn’t there yet.)

I knew I hadn’t told her.

I knew Bryan didn’t know anybody in the worlds Michelle and I shared–the neighborhood, our church–well enough to have leaked anything accidentally.

I certainly hadn’t told anyone else who could have told her.

And God knows she had never seen me hanging around with Drew himself because, well, that had never happened.

And yet, somehow, she knew that I knew.

About Drew.

You know: The Great Imposter.

*    *    *   *

Sometimes, the way you get to know somebody is by glancing off each other at the slightest of tangential angles, barely leaving a mark.

The way I got to know Drew was this:

Our church had a revival.

Not in name only. Those happen all the time. At least once a year in any self-respecting Southern Baptist congregation.

Usually, a “revival” is a ritual. A chance to hear a different preacher than your own for a few days. Maybe take up an extra offering or two. Put a few conversions and rededications on the books. Possibly even add a new member or two.

This particular revival was different. It was the only revival I was ever part of that was actually a revival–the Holy Ghost sweeping in, allowing no one present to indulge the safety of denial.

Ours was a small church, pulling maybe sixty people a week at the time.

Ours was also a wounded church. Deeply wounded.

We had been founded as a mission by a larger church in the early sixties (a church whose pastor through most of my childhood, eventually to be referred to by my mother as simply, “that puke,” would one day be a leader in the unholy movement that bound evangelical bodies to the Republican Party, an unmitigated disaster for both sides, but that’s another story for another day). After we became a full-fledged congregation, officially part of the Southern Baptist Convention, with my mother (though not my father, who converted only years later) as a charter member, the church grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and began growing again. And it grew for a while and then it split.

Then it reformed and…well, you know what happened next.

Only the last time it happened, this most recent time, had only been a couple of years earlier and it had been the most painful of all, in part because we thought we had been experiencing a genuine revival then!

We had fallen for the oldest trick in the book–a charismatic preacher with something to gain!

That part might have been easy to guess. But the part we didn’t get right was that we thought we were the gain.

It turned out he had other fish to fry, but in order to fry them properly he had to hook them first.

So hook us he did.

He was Brother Herbert (actually Dr. Herbert but, for some reason “Doctor” always went with a last name–I never once heard anyone call him Dr. Herbert–and I’m not going with last names here because this thing called the internet has a long reach and, even though I know for a fact he’s now gone to his reward, I don’t want to dignify his memory with honorifics) and, like I said, he was charismatic.

Charismatic enough to double the membership (yet again). Charismatic enough to lead my father back to Christ. Charismatic enough to lead me to Christ. Charismatic enough to bring Michelle’s whole family into the fold. Charismatic enough to baptize us all.

Charismatic enough to lead my father into the ministry and get him ordained by our deacons.

Very, very charismatic.

Savvy, too.

He waited until he thought he had a solid majority before he made his big move, which was to convince the congregation to change our affiliation from Southern to Independent Baptist.

He probably did have a majority too. A solid majority.

He only had one problem.

He didn’t have my mother.

And, if he didn’t have my mother, then he didn’t quite have all those women like Michelle’s mother who had, one time or another, needed a rock to lean on.

And that meant he didn’t have a majority after all. Any majority.

Which meant we weren’t going to vote to change our affiliation.

Southern Baptist we would remain.

And that meant Brother Herbert was going to be moving on and taking enough of us with him that we were cut deeper than we had ever been cut before.

The cut was deeper in part because of the sheer numbers–maybe forty people, which is a lot when you start with a hundred.

But it was deeper than that because now, unlike those other times, there was a cult of personality involved. Now, people who had been the closest of friends weren’t merely going to separate churches. They weren’t speaking to each other.

A few of them weren’t even speaking to my mother.

Which meant that, for some of them, there was no more rock to lean on the next time the wind blew.

And the wind will blow.

Life goes on.

Charismatic preachers look around one day and conclude that their work is done. The new flock that broke away from the old flock isn’t meeting in the fire hall any more. They’ve got their own auditorium now and their new affiliation is secure and–as part of a head count designed strictly to increase a flock–they’ve probably reached their limit.

All of which means it’s time to move on and be charismatic somewhere else.

So Brother Herbert left the flock he tore away from us and went somewhere else to carry on with his mission to grow the Independents and the new Independents were left with a new church that was fighting even harder to survive than our church was.

And the wind blew harder. It blew into all their lives and all of ours, but it blew hardest into the life of my mother’s friend Doris, who had left to be part of the new flock and hadn’t spoken to my mother for two years until she called on the phone one day and my mother answered and Doris was crying.

She was crying from pain–because her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. And she was crying from shame–because she had followed a charismatic preacher to another church and fallen so far under his spell that she had stopped speaking to my mother.

And she was crying from desperation–because she was going to have to live in Orlando while her husband was getting treatments and she had a friend who could take in one of her boys who was in junior high, but no one who could take in the other because he was still in elementary school and had to maintain residence in our school district to avoid being transferred to another school at mid-year, only to be transferred back when her husband either recovered or didn’t.

Above all that, she was crying because she had poured her heart out to someone else who hadn’t spoken to my mother for a couple of years and they had said “Call Barbara,” meaning my can-hardly-breathe, hardly-stand, hardly-see mother, and Doris couldn’t bear the thought of it, because the one thing worse than not having the rock to lean on anymore would have been to crawl back to the rock and find that it was no longer there.

She was crying, then, because she couldn’t possibly see how my mother could take her back.

The only thing my mother couldn’t understand was how Doris could have ever thought she wouldn’t.

“But Doris,” my mother said, when it was clear Doris couldn’t quite believe there was nothing to forgive. “I never left you. I never would.”

When she realized that my mother truly didn’t understand what the fuss was, Doris started crying so hard she had to hang up and call back later.

The upshot was that Doris’ son, Jimmy, several years younger than me, came to live with us for a couple of months.

And from there, from my mother insisting there was nothing to forgive, the healing began.

People began speaking to each other once more, calling each other on the phone, asking for personal forgiveness and the Lord’s. There were shared services.

But there were still two churches. Two buildings. Two congregations.

The wound was too deep to overcome that.

So when Brother Dan–so charismatic he made Brother Herbert seem like a dead jellyfish washed up on one of our beaches–came up from Big City Baptist (I’m being coy, because I’m not naming names, but let’s just say it wasn’t very “big”–or even “city”–except in comparison to us), to preach that year’s revival at our church, we were maybe a little more prepared than usual for that once in a generation arrival of the real thing–the moment when the air comes truly alive.

Whether we were extra well prepared or not, we certainly knew one thing. The Spirit was upon us like never before. And, even when you’ve been fooled before, when it really happens, it is not mistakable for anything else.

Brother Dan preached up a storm and what he preached we were ready–desperate–to hear.

It’s probably safe to say he was of fundamentalist stock, which was a bit unusual for us (though hardly unheard of). He laid down the law, kept it straight and simple, and people flocked forward.

Then they told their friends and family and the friends and the families came in droves and they flocked forward, too. There were conversions and rededications  and new memberships by the score.

The first dreary, ritualistic night Brother Dan took to the pulpit, in the Summer of ‘73 (or thereabouts–the memory hazes), we were pulling fifty of our own (though he brought at least that many more with him.)

Within a week we were breaking a hundred and within a few months we were pushing past two hundred, setting attendance records right and left.

And we had a new sister church in Big City Baptist. A new congregation to meet with, pray with, congregate with, fellowship with and raise our consciousness with.

One of the ways we Baptists like to raise consciousness is by prayer retreats and pretty soon we had one. Our congregation (all ages) and Big City Baptist’s (all ages) retreated to a place called Lake Yale for a weekend of reflection.

At Lake Yale, the grown-ups had their own cabins and the kids had theirs.

The kids had theirs divided by age groups.

And, of course, gender.

That wasn’t exactly where I met Drew. I’d seen him around in all the group-mixing between his church and mine.

But that was where I got to know him. Just a little.

Just enough to know I didn’t need to know him any better.

It wasn’t any big deal really. Drew was a classic say-anything, do-anything, live wire kind of natural leader (a lot like my my friend Craig in that he was a natural, but completely different in that he was also looking for the job, as opposed to having it fall to him in the course of human events). Within the 12–14 age boys’ group at Big City Baptist he was the King, the straw that stirred the drink.

Within our group of boys the same age, we didn’t have a King, or a straw, or a natural leader. We probably all knew each other a little too well for any of that.

At least that’s what I thought.

Drew seemed to think otherwise. Because when he had his Big Idea, there in the boys cabin at Lake Yale, it seemed more than usually important that I, of all people, go along with it.

Or else that my own boys, the boys I had known my whole life, turn on me.

One of those.

Natural leaders who look for the job instead of having it just fall to them are kind of like that. They don’t much care for the idea that somebody–anybody–is going their own way, unless maybe it’s them, in some carefully arranged snit designed to test the Court’s loyalty and, ultimately, draw it closer around.

It was all supremely ridiculous, of course.

And supremely serious.

Another of boyhood’s inevitable tests.

Drew’s Big Idea, which I didn’t so much resist as roll my eyes at, was a Lake Yale Panty Raid to bond us beyond mere fellowship rituals and bible studies.

I have to confess that, to this day, I don’t quite know what a “panty raid” is for. Is the object to see panties? Steal them? Scare the girls who are wearing them?

I swear I didn’t know then and I swear I don’t know now.

If you know, please don’t tell me.

The main thing to bear in mind about panty raids, for the purpose of following this story about “(He’s) The Great Imposter,” is that Drew wanted very badly to lead one.

As a matter of fact he was going to lead one. Anybody who didn’t want to follow clearly risked not achieving favored status at the Court of Drew.

So he tried me on and I yawned him down for two basic reasons.

One was that I wasn’t interested. It sounded kind of stupid and pointless even before Drew announced the target was not the cabin with girls our own age but–rise Spartacus!–the cabin with the high school girls!

Now, I didn’t know much about the high school girls who went to Big City Baptist. But I knew the high school girls who went to our church. I had known them my whole life, too. And I knew if we showed up looking for their panties, the only thing that would keep them from wearing us out, both physically and verbally, was if they died laughing first.

So there was that.

But there was also a second reason–one which might be recognizable to those who have known me since–and that was my natural tendency to belong everywhere having a limit.

All the places I belonged, there was one place I never belonged even a little.

I never belonged to anyone’s Court.

Let’s just say that, when the moment of truth came, the boys I had grown up with–under Drew’s spell to a man, except for me and my friend Ricky–basically told Drew, “You might as well give it up.”

It would be a long time before most of them saw through Drew. But they knew me.

They knew if I said I wasn’t going, the usual taunts weren’t going to make me.

There were some huddled conversations.

I heard the word “chicken.”

Or maybe it was “chicken?”

I heard the word “Naw-w-w-w.”

I heard “He’s just….”

I didn’t hear the rest, if there was any “rest.”

Me and Ricky stayed behind.

The rest of them, Drew’s old Court and his new one, went on the Panty Raid.

Me and Ricky spent half an hour assuring ourselves that we weren’t missing anything, mostly by not talking about it. If I know me and Ricky, we probably talked about baseball instead.

Then we went to sleep.

I didn’t wake up when Drew and his various Courts returned.

I had to wait and hear about the Panty Raid the next morning.

“So how’d it go?” I asked my friends Carson and Bruce, though, judging from the mournful expressions all around, and Drew’s own highly uncharacteristic reticence, I could make a pretty good guess.

“Aw-w,” Carson said. “They locked the doors and shut the windows….We couldn’t get in.”

Bruce nodded. Or grimaced.

“Oh,” I said.

There was no sense pointing out the obvious.

I hadn’t thought of it the night before. It had played no part in my resistance. But in the cold light of day, something besides the morning sun shone clear.

On top of everything else, Drew was a loud-mouth. The kind who gives things away. Apparently, the only people who hadn’t known about the “panty raid” a full day ahead of schedule, were the boys in Drew’s Courts, who had followed so faithfully along the night before.

That’s the grown-ups for you. Always doing reconnaissance. Always keeping an eye out.

Always knowing kids better than they know themselves.

At least that’s how it was back then, when there was still such a thing as a “grown-up.”

It had evidently been decided that the best punishment for Drew was a full day’s worth of high school girls asking him if he had gotten a good night’s sleep and junior high girls assuring everybody that if they thought what the high school girls had in store was something you should have heard what they had cooked up.

If only Michelle had been there.

But she wasn’t. I don’t know why, but I know she wasn’t there because there’s no way she would have been going with Drew a scant few months later if she’d had the glimpse of who he really was that was available for just the briefest of moments that following day.

She never saw that Drew–Drew in defeat, hanging his head, snapping at his Court, looking for scapegoats.

Truth be told, he stayed away from me. But I kept an eye on him. Just for that day. Just to see if he was any better than I thought he was.

He wasn’t.

So, from then on, I knew who he was. But I didn’t tell anyone. I certainly didn’t tell Michelle. Not before she started going with him, which–in the mysterious manner of certain attractive females everywhere, came about without her seeming to be the least bit interested until the day he was walking into church with his arm around her.

And, until the thing with Bryan came along, I never gave it much thought.

Six months, I thought. Tops.

I knew Drew. And I knew Michelle.

I knew Michelle was a good kid, like me, and she’d see through him soon enough.

I also knew half the girls in our church, the ones who had been at Lake Yale and should have therefore known better, were what you might call green with envy.

See, if you didn’t know Drew as anything but the King of his Court–if you weren’t paying close attention that one day he let the mask slip just a little–he was considered quite a catch.

I could hardly begrudge Michelle a catch–a “take that” in the face of all those girls she was competing with who had never given her the time of day because….Well, because she wasn’t really one of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “us.”

She was the second of five kids who had showed up in our church with a single mother who turned out not to really be single but a criminal’s wife (and, believe me, the years hadn’t made him any less of a criminal, or her any less single, second husband or no second husband!)

Somewhere in there, I realized that Michelle, who seemed so naturally sociable, had it harder than me.

Odd a duck as I was, I belonged. At least in the neighborhood and the church, I belonged as much as anyone.

I could choose to join in or stand apart. She could only choose to stand apart. Any joining in had to come by way of an extended hand.

Which never came from anyone but my mother or–by extension–my mother’s son.

I suppose that absence of true belonging might have been part of why Michelle wasn’t on that retreat with the rest of us. Part of why she didn’t get to see Drew at his worst in the Summer of ’73 and had to wait until she saw whatever made her break up with him in the Spring of ’74.

It might not have seemed like so much fun to be on a retreat and stuck in one of the girls’ cabins if you weren’t one of the girls.

There had, in fact, been only one very brief moment when Michelle was such.

It came after one of Brother Dan’s very first sermons–one of those sermons that lit the fire that very first week he came to us a solid year before.

It was the night he preached about pants and dresses.

It was an aside really. He wasn’t the kind to make an entire sermon about men wearing pants and women wearing dresses. He wasn’t the kind that was ineffective and comical in other words.

No, he slipped it in.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in the middle of his real preaching. “God frowns upon it.”

Men wearing dresses, he meant. And long hair.

And women wearing pants, he meant. And short hair.

“God frowns upon it and I believe it’s wrong.”

Just that. No more. Straight back to preaching.

I honestly didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t imagine that anyone would, what with the Spirit moving through us in so many truly profound ways.

I was not, however, a teenage girl faced with the dread prospect of having to wear dresses to school. Every day. In Florida. In 1973. Like Quakers or something.

So I didn’t take much notice of the knot of girls who gathered outside in the dark after the invitation that night and were whispering, whispering, whispering among themselves with what was obviously far greater urgency than usual.

I did note that it was an odd grouping. Odd because it included all the usuals…plus Michelle.

For once, included, and–not unusual for her in any group where she was included–animated.

A shrinking violet she was not.

But, as I say, I didn’t think much of it, even so.

A quirk. Nothing more.

Who knew what girls got excited about?

Not me, certainly.

I was standing beside my mother, though, and they kept looking over at us. We were gonna be there for a while (my mother and me and probably some of the girls as well) because the leading men of the church (who, by now, included my fully ordained father) were still in the auditorium, down front, counseling the night’s tidal wave of converts and re-commitments and new memberships.

Finally, they fell silent and began moving towards us in one body.

I won’t say their names. It doesn’t matter. They were good kids, too, and if they didn’t take to Michelle beyond the requirements of Christian duty simply because she had dropped in from a world so utterly alien to ours and their mothers weren’t my mother, that’s nothing I can hold them accountable for in that moment or any other.

But I can remember them. I can see them as clearly as I can see the hand in front of my face.

And I can hear them, too.

To a person, they might not have noticed I was alive. They were fixated on my
mother.

“Mrs. Ross,” one of them said, to my mother, the barely-breathing, barely-seeing, barely-standing rock. “Are you gonna wear pants?”

My mother didn’t miss a beat.

She probably knew what they were going to ask before they did. And she probably knew that the one who did the asking would be the very one who resented her most for being a such a hard-ass about things like choir practice.

Anyway she had her answer ready.

“Well,” she said. “I just bought a beautiful new pants suit last week. And I’m sure the Lord wouldn’t want the money I spent on it to go to waste.”

I can see them now, spreading like a flock of sparrows. And I can hear the voices–whispered a moment before, now bold and confident, like they were proclaiming a new  and much-improved Gospel.

“Mrs. Ross says it’s fine.”

“Mrs. Ross is gonna wear pants!”

“Mrs. Ross….”

The case was closed.

Brother Dan held a lot of sway in that moment and rightly so. He had brought the fire.

But his influence only stretched so far.

No mother was going to have to make her daughter quit wearing pants–or quit wearing pants herself.

The real authority had spoken.

And every teenage girl in our church had known–as I, until that moment, had not–who the real authority was.

So, for one moment, Michelle, who loved to sing and was the apple of my mother’s eye, and all those girls who privately, or not so privately, thought my mother was a hard-ass for making them practice so much, were one.

It didn’t last. And I’m guessing that even if it had, there was enough water under the bridge for Michelle to watch Drew the King watching her and think: “Why not?”

Why not have her mother take her down the road to Big City Baptist every Sunday morning? Why not make half the girls in our church (and I do not doubt half the girls in his) jealous?

Why not believe he was who he seemed to be when he was putting on a show for the grown-ups and the girls?

And why not feel like I should have told her who he really was–if indeed I read her right, when she said:

“He’s not anything like Drew is he?”

“No,” I said, knowing my word would count, that we both knew what we both knew, about a lot of things. “He’s nothing like Drew.”

She left it at that. We talked a little while longer, about this and that. Then, eventually, as the vote count mounted ever higher for Bryan–stuck on the podium the while, trying so hard not to pay us the slightest bit of attention and, if you don’t count having his eyes sticking out about a foot from his head and not being able to turn away from us or pay the least bit of attention to his impending victory in the closest thing the school had ever had to a school-wide election, succeeding admirably–she stood up.

“Well,” she said, just before she strolled away. “You can tell him if he asks me, I’ll say yes.

*    *    *    *

So Bryan won the election.

He gave his victory speech. He stayed after for pictures. I think he had to talk to the guy from the radio.

The memory hazes.

Kids kept filing out. Including Michelle.

I stayed, of course.

I thought Bryan might want to thank me or something.

Plus, I figured he would want to hear the news.

You know. The real news.

The whole thing wrapped up around 3:25.

Five minutes to spare!

There were maybe fifty kids left by then. Enough to make a crowd when we all made for the exit.

Bryan fought through the crowd to get to me.

I’m pretty sure a Red Sea full of Egyptian chariots would have constituted no credible barrier at that point.

When we were finally face to face, he had a look on his face I had never seen before.

“Congratulations man,” I said.

He grabbed my shoulder.

“What did she say?”

I decided to keep it simple. It wasn’t my style, but I had a sense of occasion.

“She said yes.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Yes to what?”

The other kids moved around us and we were, at last, alone.

“She asked what kind of guy you were and I told her,” I said. “And she said if you ask her to go steady, she’ll say yes.”

He dropped his hand from my shoulder and that expression I had never seen before deepened. His lips got very tight and he looked me straight in the eye in that way that boys almost never do.

I looked back, smiling.

“You’re lying,” he said.

I laughed. Which was probably the wrong thing to do.

“Bryan,” I said, “I’m not lying. Believe me.”

“You think I can’t tell,” he said. “But I can tell.”

“Bryan, I promise I wouldn’t lie about a thing like this.”

For just a moment–one brief, flickering instant–he seemed almost assured.

“That’s really what she said?”

“Yeah, that’s really what she said.”

He refused to look away and I refused to stop smiling.

I mean, come on. You gotta have a little fun in this life.

He sighed.

“You can’t fool me,” he said. “I know when you’re lying.”

“Bryan….”

It was time to go to the bus.

He pointed his finger in my smiling face, more in sorrow, it seemed, than anger.

“If I find out you’re lying,” he said, “I’m gonna kill you.”

*    *    *   *

Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley–the first truly great and truly successful all-female song-writing partnership in the history of American music (if anyone has joined them since, I haven’t heard about it)–wrote “(He’s) the Great Imposter” in the very early sixties.

It became a modest hit (#30 in Billboard) for the mighty Fleetwoods in 1961.

From which point it has never quite left whatever is left of the nation’s collective conscious.

I probably first heard it in, yes, 1973, when my sister and my brother-in-law took me to see what was, after Gone With the Wind (courtesy my parents) and 2001 Space Odyssey (courtesy my brother who had to explain the ending to me after I fell asleep, hahahahaha!) my first “adult” movie.

americangraffiti3

There was a modest, though I imagine serious, discussion about whether my twelve-year-old self should be allowed to go. It had some cursing in it, apparently, and I think the deal was that my sister would hustle me out of there if anything crossed the line. Or maybe I was just supposed to cover my ears.

Anyway, it turned out there was nothing in it I didn’t hear on the junior high bus (the one I rode with Michelle) every day. Nobody had to cover my ears and I liked the movie very much–I even thought I recognized a lot of the characters as types who went to my own school, maybe saw a little of my future self in the Ron Howard character, was knocked out by Cindy Williams, and genuinely moved by the famous ending.

I was just old enough to wish they’d shown more of the blonde in the Cadillac!

americangraffiti1

One thing that didn’t make much of an impression on me was the music.

By which I mean it really made no impression at all. No song stood out. If anything, I probably found a few spots annoying because I couldn’t hear the dialogue.

That’s a funny admission now. It would have seemed a strange reaction to anyone who knew me even three or four years later.

But in those days, I didn’t know from the fifties–or 1962. I had been born at the tail end of 1960 and, if you don’t count Peter, Paul and Mary, I doubt I knew the chorus to ten “pop” songs that had hit in my lifetime.

In some ways that was good. I certainly missed a lot. But when my personal floodgates finally opened a few years later I was ready to be swept away.

I mention this because I can’t pretend the snatch of “(He’s) The Great Imposter” that plays in American Graffiti made any impression on me at all–even though it’s one of relatively few songs I can say for certain where and when I first heard it.

When did it make an impression? That I know.

It was when the radio died (to my ears anyway) a year or two after I started listening to it in 1975-76. That was when I started haunting bargain bins in places like Woolco or Woolworth’s for the few records I could afford and, modern radio being dead to me, I started moving backwards in time.

Beyond guaranteeing it very definitely wasn’t the cover that grabbed me, I don’t know exactly when this album came home with me….or, beyond me knowing it contained a couple of hits, exactly why:

fleetwoods3

I do know it was sometime in the very late seventies. And that, while I loved the big hits like “Mr. Blue,” and “Come Softly To Me” and “Runaround” and liked all of it, the song that really grabbed me, in that way that never really lets go, was “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

The song is sung from the perspective of a romantic male who has lost his love to….well, somebody like Drew. I didn’t think about Drew when I heard it. I’d met a few Drews by then. And I had never lost anyone to somebody like Drew because there had never been anyone to lose (and, as it turned out, never really would be, though I didn’t imagine that part then).

But it’s right there in the first line, as it’s written and as it’s sung, everything you need to know about how you will feel, if it’s really love and she really does fall for him when she could have, should have, fallen for you.

Now I went and lost her
To the Great Imposter

This was so completely me–not even the real me, but the imagined me that would actually never come to be–that if you had told me S. Sheeley and J. DeShannon were women (and very young women, at that) when they wrote it, I would have immediately assumed they were geniuses of the first order.

Which, as it turned out, they were, but my point is, I didn’t need to know anything else about them to know that they were already my idea of genius.

I’ve never been able to find out anything at all about the inspiration for the song, or the specific circumstances in which it was written. Did it spring from personal experience? Sharp observation? Theoretical discussion?

Professional diligence?

A deadline maybe?

I really don’t have any clue.

But this is a song, written by very young women, which is telling a story from a very specific male perspective.

Most love songs, whatever their angle, can be sung from the perspective of either gender. Sure some make more sense coming from a woman (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” comes to mind, so does “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” which acquires a stalker edge when sung by a male). But they can still be sung credibly by a man, just by changing a word or two. Same for most songs that make more sense coming from a man (“This Guy’s In Love With You” for example).

Very few make total sense–both lyrically and emotionally–from one perspective and virtually no sense at all from the other. “(He’s) The Great Imposter” is one of those few. And it goes a lot deeper than “her” rhyme-flowing a lot easier than “him.”

I stood and watched her fall,
Couldn’t help her at all”

Oh can’t she see,
tomorrow’s misery?
Soon she’ll learn her fate
But it will be too late

All her friends they just watch her
For they know the Great Imposter.

Note her friends.

Believe me, “all his friends” don’t stand around watching him fall for some girl and pine about it. Maybe one does, if there’s a man-crush thing going on (and a Drew will tend to have one of those lingering about, it’s true, but then, he is the Great Imposter, not the man in the shadows), but not the whole gang. Not even if the whole gang is the actual Imposter’s own Court. It’s not the way boys think. And it’s certainly not the way they admit they think.

And, of course, “he” isn’t going to “fall” and find “misery” in the way a girl will, i.e. by getting pregnant out of wedlock, which is the lyric’s clear implication, even if it couldn’t be spoken when the song was written and first recorded. And that implication would be a thousand times less potent for being made explicit even if the times had allowed it.

So a song that’s less than two minutes long and seems to have one, very direct, perspective, really encompasses a world deep enough to qualify for true, and deep, narrative. Lots of very fine films and novels have offered less.

It’s one of those high school setups, common in early rock and roll but never done better than here, that sets you up for a life time. Anyone with any perception at all can find a way in. Even the Imposter, if, by chance, he ever grows up.

If that’s all “(He’s) the Great Imposter” was, it would just be a great song, written by a couple of great song-writers, and a great record, recorded by a great vocal group.

But that’s not all it is.

That’s just the beginning

*   *   *    *

Listen, I’ve heard the record a thousand times. The first few times I heard it, it cut me to pieces. Any time I laid the record down, I would deliberately let my fingers fall limp, faux causal, pretending I wasn’t going to let it reach me. Every time I lied to myself. Every time it reached me and every time I knew it would. I wanted to stop listening and I wouldn’t have stopped for the world.

Then, one of those early times, I thought of Drew and Michelle and, yeah, maybe me.

And ever since then–thirty-five years or more–it has always cut me to pieces…and always made me smile.

The song has no ending.

There’s doom and finality in some of the lines and, certainly as the Fleetwoods sang it, in that way of theirs that nobody should ever bother trying to follow, in the very air of the thing.

She won’t see through the Imposter in time. The misery will be deep and permanent. The narrator will never find another like her because, well, there is no one like her.

If he does find another, he’ll go around the world to avoid admitting it, even to himself.

But, since the song has no ending, it doesn’t have to remain static, or even abstract.

It could play out a thousand ways.

I knew that by the time I really heard it.

*    *    *    *

A lot had gone by, by then.

The day after Michelle told me she would say yes and Bryan said he would kill me if she didn’t, she said yes.

They were still going steady a few months later when I moved away.

They were still going steady the following summer when I came back for a visit and saw Michelle for the last time.

As far as I ever knew they were still going steady when she moved a few months after that.

And that was that.

We all moved on. Most of us, in the modern American fashion, moved quite literally.

I’m sure Bryan didn’t have too much trouble finding another girl friend, but, for the record, I never saw him again after that spring.

Except for Michelle and the kids at my church I never saw any of them again. After the following two summers I never saw any of them at all.

Last I heard, my friend Craig’s parents still had their cool house on the River Road but, our family relations being what they were, I never dropped in.

Last I heard, some time in the late seventies maybe, my friend Ricky was pitching for a small college in Texas and had just thrown his arm out after going 5-1 with an ERA under 2.00. After that, no word.

Last I heard, my friend Carson’s family had put a chain across their property to separate it from the falling-down trailer park where my friend Bruce used to live when it wasn’t falling down at all. I don’t know if Carson or his family were home. There house was a long way behind that chain. I didn’t bother to honk the horn. I just drove away.

Last I heard, my friend Bruce won a college baseball game on a fine spring night in South Florida with a last inning home run some time in the early eighties. Instead of taking the team bus from Central Florida, he had driven down so he could stay after the game and have dinner with his South Florida girlfriend. On his way home he evidently fell asleep at the wheel and drove full speed into the back of a semi. I heard his parents moved away about a year later because they couldn’t stand the memories looking back at them everywhere. I doubt that the trailer park in front of my friend Carson’s gate going straight downhill thereafter was entirely a coincidence.

I certainly never saw Drew again.

Except in my mind’s eye, whenever “(He’s) the Great Imposter” plays.

I changed and the world changed.

I went from belonging everywhere to belonging nowhere, a status that would ultimately maintain.

I survived. I ain’t complaining.

But sometimes a song is a way back. A way back into the life you had–not as memory but as shared feeling. But, more significantly, a way back into the life you didn’t have and didn’t miss until you realized it had passed you by. Into the roads not taken as the poet famously said. At which point you realize you’d like to have certain chances again, but also realize you probably wouldn’t do anything different because you are who you are, stuck in the same old skin.

Drew was a Great Imposter and Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley nailed him to a tee.

But Michelle wasn’t really the girl in the song. She didn’t really fall (except just hard enough that she might have written a song about it, if she’d grown up to be a songwriter, like maybe Sharon Sheeley or Jackie DeShannon).

Bryan certainly wasn’t the boy in the shadows.

And, like I said before, I wasn’t really the boy in the shadows either. Just the boy who would be, metaphorically speaking. Because I was the boy with the blinders on.

Around the time I really began to hear “(He’s) the Great Imposter” the road turned in such a way that my father, who had, by then, graduated from the bible school that had pulled us away from the Space Coast to begin with in the summer of ’74 and, along with my mother, been appointed a Southern Baptist Home Missionary for North Florida, found himself speaking at the church Michelle’s family attended, somewhere around Jacksonville. They invited him home for Sunday dinner and to spend the afternoon. When Michelle, who was working her way through college, came in, she asked if he had a recent picture of me. It happened that he did. My senior picture.

I won’t say what my dad said she said about me when he showed it to her. It doesn’t matter.

I’ll just say that if I had possessed enough sense to get in the car and drive three hours, instead of sloughing it off, (even though I knew, from the weird, bemused expression in my father’s voice when he repeated what she said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it, that, for once, he wasn’t exaggerating, things he didn’t quite believe being the only things that had that effect on him), I might have gained a whole different perspective on the range of perspectives that make up “(He’s) the Great Imposter.”

That’s how I know it’s greater than anything Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin ever wrote.

Not better. I’m a rock and roller, but I’ll concede nothing’s better than them.

Just greater.

It has space in it. Space for any of its three characters, who might be any of us at one time or another, to grow into.

Sometimes the only reason the boy in the shadows isn’t pining is because he’s too stupid to see what’s in front of his face. I was never in love with Michelle–was happy to play wing-man for someone else and not think twice about it–for the stupidest of all reasons.

She was Michelle from the neighborhood.

I was too blind to see.

It took a decade and Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon and the Fleetwoods and the Woolco bargain bin and my eighty-dollar turntable to open my eyes.

By then it was too late to do anything but listen to the record one more time and be cut to pieces.

And smile.

Because it wasn’t so much that they–all of them, Sharon, Jackie, Michelle, The Fleetwoods, my mother–knew so much more than I did about guys like Drew, the Great Imposter.

It was that they knew so much more than I did about guys like me.

 

24 thoughts on “HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 9: “(He’s) The Great Imposter”)

  1. I can come close to topping your word count, even given that you might rather I didn’t. (I can just imagine your reaction to the following: “Are you SURE you don’t want to start a WordPress site?!”) It’s actually a long, scattered band story, along with a few other things I’ve been threatening to write about. What prompted my finalizing all of this was your rather gripping narrative about Michelle, et al. Damn, can you write a story.

    I’ll echo your statement in a different context: Take your time! In fact, I expect no reply. It’s too rudely long for such expectations.

    I had a michelle. There was no Drew or even a Bryan, but we were indeed in middle school (which I was still calling “junior high,” not yet fully acclimated to anywhere but “back east”). Due to my father’s pursuit of professional pharmacy; decision that he wanted more; enrollment in medical school; residency; and subsequent choice of city in which to open a podiatry practice, we moved almost every year of my school days. Even once we’d ultimately made it to Albuquerque from Buffalo, by way of a couple of cities in Ohio, one in Wisconsin and one in Iowa, we moved a few more times within the city limits.

    Later, I was grateful for this, as it made me a loner (i.e. gave me the ability to entertain myself and not require any sort of company to enjoy life), or perhaps caused me to be grateful about my latent loner tendencies. It also ensured that I wasn’t afraid of change or attempting to adapt to new environments — sometimes utterly alien ones. You can attest to how disorienting that can be.

    I have a blessing and curse: I remember everything. My memory doesn’t seem to let a single detail go. I creep people out with how much I remember. You’ve heard the saying “It seems like only yesterday” half a million times, but you don’t know the half of it.

    By this point in my life, I have the sense of everything happening all the time. I swear, if I were to encounter a girl from, say, third grade, and she looked exactly like the little girl she’d been when I knew her and was also in third grade — and I knew unequivocally that it was her — it wouldn’t faze me at first. I would think, “Oh, there’s Jenny,” say. It would take me a couple seconds before I realized that she should be in her forties.

    I don’t know if my creepy-good memory comes from having kept all of my brain cells alive throughout life, or simply because I’ve never delineated my story with a wife-and-kids chapter. It all kind of runs together. (I’m not a whack-job or anything. It’s just the odd feeling that everything it happening all the time. I’m not sure how else to articulate it.)

    It bothers me sometimes: “If I knew then what I……no. Don’t.” That line of thinking is never healthful. It borders on science fiction to wish I’d had a 45-year-old brain as a teenager. Anyway, that’s why stories like the one you’ve told tend to get me in the gut.

    At some point in the middle of my family’s constant relocation adventures, a girl who lived a few blocks away would ride her bike to my place quite often. I had met her at middle school. These were the days when other kids would just drop by after school or during weekends. There was nothing but the phone for distant communication, and she was one of those kids who wouldn’t bother calling. She just showed up every two or three days. I didn’t have a problem with this. I thought of her as my pal.

    These were also the days when you would occasionally just sit with a friend and listen to records. In our case, it was usually the same record, over and over. It was Elton John’s “Harmony” (black MCA label with the rainbow). We never seemed to get sick of it. I dug it because it was a “catchy” song — that was the term I always used, because boys don’t say “beautiful,” I guess — and at least in part, she dug it because the title was her name.

    Her folks were ex-hippies who (I observe in hindsight) seemed to have only recently come to terms with the fact that that lifestyle wasn’t going to work out. Naming your daughter Harmony was certainly no big sin, and they seemed to be good parents, but damn, were they broke. When Harmony came over, she would inhale any food my mother put in front of her with such alarming speed that we always sent her home with “leftovers” — i.e. more.

    By this point, I made sure that I didn’t get too attached to anyone, because I had grown accustomed to anticipating the goodbyes, which I never relished. I never even really learned how to talk to girls. (Really original for a boy, right?) I’m not sure if this had anything to do with my forming my first band near the end of high school, but in addition to the fact that I loved music and was excited to start playing it, it might have represented a desperate measure to gain some kind of social power. I didn’t think I needed any such thing, being a loner, but……well, girls were still pretty.

    I was “shy” — but not with my pal. It was easy to make her laugh. We got along like a house on fire. We clicked. We [insert another metaphor here]. She would tell me her deepest secrets, knowing that they were safe in my brain. It never occurred to me that she LIKED liked me. Never even popped into my head.

    When the inevitable goodbye occurred, she gave me a big hug, which surprised me. We had never hugged before. I told her I’d call her someday. Kids say things like that sometimes, without quite admitting to themselves that they’re just blowing smoke. She just looked so sad, I didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t that I had no interest in talking to her again. One simply didn’t call anyone just to “catch up.”

    Years later, in our early thirties, she somehow found my e-mail address. The Internet was new, so it was perhaps easier to search for such information than it is now. We wrote back and forth for a few days. She had gotten hitched and popped a couple of kids. When she admitted her former crush on me, I kinda went the other way from you — I blamed her, not myself.

    Her: You know, I really liked you. I was always hoping you would kiss me or something.

    Me: Well, you could have said something. I had no idea. I was pretty fond of you, too. You didn’t say a word, though. Nobody’s psychic.

    Her: Well, why didn’t YOU say anything?

    Me: I was twelve.

    Her: Well, there’s my answer, too.

    She gradually stepped from my e-mail box into the rest of her life. I hope she’s still happy. To this day, I haven’t been able to talk so naturally to a female. I mean, really talk to her. I come off like an aloof ego trip sometimes. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are almost too perfect to be true: I dream I’ll be never leaving Harmony. It’s not right to measure adult women against the rapport you had with a girl when she was twelve, but there it is.

    Anyway, notwithstanding your kind invitations to let all of the verbage hang out, I promise, considering what’s below, never to afflict your comments section with something of this length again.

    (That sounds like something perverted that I would tell a cute nerdy chick, expecting a laugh at my clever metaphors and not getting one.)

    The following is a band story that’s scattered among other, less humorous points. It additionally touches upon the Hepburn movie you’ve written about, and the Kent State murders.

    It’s also, at the end, an attempt to articulate the positive aspects of Trump’s presidency, which I threatened to do a few weeks ago. Bear in mind that it’s coming from a guy who doesn’t watch television and is blissfully politically uninformed.

    (I’m pretty selfish with what others would call my spare time. One has to value the moments of his fleeting lifespan, and choose carefully how to spend them. I’m sure you’ve noticed that there’s never……enough……damn……TIME! Ahem. Pardon the outburst.)

    I actually added that bit about time to illustrate how much you don’t owe me, just one reader of your terrific prose, any sort of response to this. I’m sharing some things with you at length because they touch on quite a few points that have arisen in your writing: points that have really gotten this reader’s synapses firing (was that one of your motives? I’ll just have to hope so). There’s also stuff that you said you wouldn’t mind reading about, like rock-musician tales and an uncommon view of the president.

    Speaking of delineation, this is a good place to introduce a pause. All of this will at least SEEM less verbose if I maintain the illusion of one general story per post! Besides, just in case you actually DO want to reply to anything, splitting it all up will make that easier.

  2. Here’s how I was going to begin all of this before I added the dislaimer-laden preamble above, and the memories of Harmony that your compelling story of Michelle and the Fleetwoods reminded me of:

    An aspect of your piece about Roman Holiday connected with me. “There will never be another [X]” informs my progressively stronger, yet formerly VERY uncharacteristic, inclination to live in the past. I don’t want to, of course. It’s not healthful. For the first time in my life, however, it’s become appealing.

    I was raised by example to be optimistic. The unspoken outlook around the house was, “Tomorrow will always be better than today.” I’m grateful to my folks, especially my dad, for instilling this in me. It stuck with me until I entered my forties. Until then, I had been extremely wary of nostalgia. I’d felt that one should always live in the moment and, if he ever looked ahead, to do so with optimism.

    Sure, I’ve liked a lot of “oldies” all my life — in every field of the arts — but I rationalized my fandom by considering my enjoyment of the old stuff to be a right-now activity. One is always discovering old stuff that’s new to him, after all. Even stuff that’s already familiar will strike him differently, depending on the day.

    For example, and to cite the group that led me to this website, I’ve heard “Never Again” by the Shangri-Las hundreds of times, but only recently did I truly *hear* that goose-bumpy pair of seventh chords that the three so-called backing singers collectively create during the middle section.

    “You cheated, you lied / you cheated, you lied…” It’s like a combination of Bacharach and the Fifth Dimenson, except that the blending of timbres in the Shangs’ voices contains, as always, a one-of-a-kind, extra-special quality.

    After that, the song modulates upward and really builds, with Mary and her sister trading places in the “How high is it possible to sing?!” spotlight. The momentum! It’s a shining moment in their recorded lives. What a masterpiece of a song……because of the singers.

    Oops. It’s so easy to get carried away when trying to put music into words. My point, if you’ll cast your mind back, was that I lived optimistically and exhibited a disinterest in pure nostalgia, until I hit my forties.

    Over the past five-plus years, I’ve been increasingly alarmed at just how stupid and self-destructive our species can be, not to mention how many people convince themselves that they like what passes for music nowadays. But these are just symptoms of a universal resignation to mediocrity.

    (Great name for an MTV-ready eighties pop album, probably from England: Universal Resignation to Mediocrity.)

    This turned out to be a comment about a Shangs song, so, as a theater-owning segregationist probably said a few decades ago, this is another good spot for a division.

  3. The universal resignation to mediocrity — not to mention sarcastic nihilism — confounds me. Maybe it’s just easier than reaching for excellence, and such laziness has spread like a social cancer. Focusing on music for the moment: You once rightly indicated (in the context of ’50s through ’70s rock and roll) that the point USED to be to sound like nobody else. Now it’s about sounding as detached and “too cool for school” as everybody else. (Now, THERE’S a saying from somewhere in the past.)

    Observations about mankind’s tendency toward collective suicide, both literal and artistic, have been made for centuries, of course, so I’m not being distinctive with that one; but a great deal of new stupidities all seem to have risen to the surface at once.

    As you’ve probably noticed — with perhaps a better sense of humor about it than I’ve managed to summon thus far — adults are now trying to tell each other how to talk. This lies at the heart of my relatively new contempt for humanity, and my atypical desire to time-travel……backward.

    The Freedom of Speech is overlooked in favor of bogus “sensitivity,” as if someone in a racial or sexual-prefence minority isn’t still a grown-up who can handle jokes and straight talk, but rather requires condescension. I don’t look at a black person or an Oriental person or a gay person or a woman and see a victim.

    I see a fellow adult, not someone who’s dumber or more delicate than us straight, white guys, and who can only thrive in the fascistic enforcement of eggshell-walking.

    All manner of “-ist” and “-phobic” terms are overused and misapplied, just as much as “culture” and “such-and-such is a thing.” I’m trying to keep it light with those latter, comparatively harmless examples of the imitative nature of nearly everyone now.

    It’s the *intention* behind one’s words that should be looked at. Good intentions are ignored in favor of deliberate “offen-sensitivity” (a great, currently applicable term coined by Berke Breathed……thirty years ago).

    Attention, young people: You’re not *supposed* to want to be victims. Stop looking for things to whine about. There’s no empowerment in self-infantilization.

    And no word has any power over you that you don’t let it have. Another person requires your consent to make you feel any way at all.

    I wonder what happened to hearing something one doesn’t like, simply thinking “What a jerk. Well, there’s someone I never have to talk to again,” and getting on with one’s day?

    When did it become cool to be thin-skinned?

    If someone says something that evokes a deplorable era — the N word comes to mind — he says a lot more about himself than anyone else. In fact, he says nothing about anyone else, and everything about himself. He’s given himself away. There’s nothing sneaky, insidious or subtle (i.e. truly damaging) about it. Now everyone in his right mind can avoid the blatant bigot.

    Maybe the fact that I can’t laugh it off when people try to limit each other’s vocabularies (i.e. means of expressing themselves) is based on the bubble of self-reliance I try my best to inhabit. I’ve spent my life avoiding anything that feels like a prison. No marriage, no kids, no “career” that I stick with once I’ve passed the point of restlessness.

    In fact, after living with a few girlfriends over a couple of decades (one chick at a time, mind you…I’m not *that* kind of rocker!), and ultimately giving up on finding anyone who wouldn’t attempt to change me somehow (it’s not like I’m abusive; I just need a lot of alone time, and I’m not throwing away my cigarettes), I resolved, four or five years ago, that I would remain single, and cut off all physical congress with women. I’ve stuck with it.

    (Another problem has been……well, one of my song titles is, “Crazy Girls Are the Only Ones Who Like Me.”)

    I got lucky: I was born without a loneliness gland. I love solitude. My two or three great friends have been very long-term ones, and they’re positive. One’s attitude doesn’t get dragged down, you know?

    But I still have all of the inconvenient human chemicals. And the majority of the vocal music most beloved to me features female singers. When combined, these two facts are not useful to a committed bachelor.

    It’s a mood thing. When you listen to quite a lot of stirring female voices, and you’ve been single for a long time, you (well, I, anyway) start daydreaming about having music-based discussions with the women as they were then, even if they are, in 2017, dead or elderly. This can’t possibly be healthy, but it’s how the straight male brain works when it’s obsessed with music. It’s how my brain works, at least. Mustn’t “project.”

    Every memory of my life is attached to at least one song, and sometimes a whole recording artist (he attempted to cleverly tie-in his recollections of Harmony).

    Your website is something of a psychic oasis for me: Someone else understands stuff that I’ve always figured was exclusively mine to find impossible to articulate. As you’ve demonstrated, it’s not impossible to find words after all. Massive bravo.

    Intentionally going without physical affection amounts to a pretty interesting science-fair experiment that I’m conducting on myself, even if that obviously wasn’t the impetus. Women I know who I wouldn’t have found terribly attractive only a decade ago look great. This can be alarming.

    Listening to the Shangs or the Go-Gos or the Ronettes or Veruca Salt or Concrete Blonde or ABBA or the Carpenters — well, Karen and Overdubbed Karen — or even the only real version of “Delta Dawn” (perhaps an awkward addition, as Tanya was only, what, 14 when she recorded it…well, she doesn’t SOUND that young, damn it!) or etc. for too long puts me in a much more…emotionally malleable state of mind than it ever would have before this self-enforced celibacy. I still resist meeting anyone, of course. It can get frustrating, though — even if, thankfully, not terribly often.

    So there’s one result of the “experiment.” Now we know. This is what happens when a music obsessive is very single and, for the most part, really digging it: daydreaming about relatively ancient female singers. John, this is a perfectly sane, drug-free guy typing this. It’s not like me to be lonely at all — it’s never been — but listening to a lot of stirring female voices, as I have all my life, has that effect on me now, and I hate the effect, even as I love the music.

    Quite interesting outcomes bachelorhood can have. I mean, we listen to a lot of attractive-voiced dames, y’know? It’s going to have an inconvenient effect on a single guy’s brain, even if he has strong self-discipline. I wonder how you deal with it. Maybe you just stay really busy. Maybe by “Stoic,” you partially mean MGTOW. I’m not wording this general thought terribly well, so I’ll switch subjects. But it does tie into everything below.

    (In the category of groupies, I’ve actually never had a problem turning them down. Even in my beautiful Albuquerque, would-be groupies are usually girls you wouldn’t even bring home to meet your pets, let alone your parents. I was always a monogamous-relationship guy anyway, when I existed in the “dating” world. Isn’t it funny that the term “dating” has come back? It’s like we’re all in the Brady Bunch!)

    Damn…this is all going to take you a week to read. Some reassurance: It all wrote itself in my head because of how much time I’ve spent reading your material lately, and it’s all coming out now so that it never has to again, and I can return to abiding by the usual definition of “comment-length.”

  4. In the early ’90s, we opened for a heavy-metal band called Lilian Axe (claim to fame: a cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What”). We were playing in a big Albuquerque theater called the El Rey. Lilian Axe’s bass player thought he would be funny and take a leak backstage…into the industrial-sized trash can in the corner.

    He didn’t get as many laughs from the group in which I played drums at the time (Sly Dog) as he’d expected, but this didn’t seem to bother him, as he had a lot of beer in him — hence his sophomoric disinclination to take up time looking for, you know, a restroom.

    If the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were largely about originality, the ’80s were largely about conformity and an almost proud stupidity. The ’90s and beyond have been about cultural self-reference — i.e. trading on the artistic efforts of those in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

    Anyway, a few years later, one of the chicks in L7 sat next to me at the bar, prior to a show we played with them in the same venue as above. This time, I would be singing and playing guitar. She said something like, “I’m excited to play here. I love the southwest.”

    Chris: It’s good to have you here.

    L7 chick whose name I can’t remember: Do you know our stuff?

    Chris: Only “Pretend We’re Dead,” I admit.

    L7: That’s okay. [I hadn’t asked.]

    Chris: Watch out. We always try to blow the headliner off the stage.

    L7: Good for you. You SHOULD. Good luck this time, though! You’ll need it! [We’re just provoking each other as musicians do, of course.] Have a beer.

    Chris: I don’t drink.

    L7: [Expletive]! How do you deal with club crowds?

    Chris: I make fun of them. Sometimes I get into fights. The drunk guy always loses.

    L7: Come on. You know you want to have a [expletive] beer with me.

    Chris: Nope. But, hey, there’s more for you that way.

    L7: Whatever.

    My memory’s eerily good, but nobody can remember an old conversation verbatim like that. I know the lyrics of our exchange only because my bassist was Camcorder-crazy at the time. The VHS tape of the entire show — nay, the entire DAY — exists. He went a bit overboard on the documentation, in other words. He found it especially amusing that the L7 chick liked me, and that I found her drunkenness extremely unattractive.

    Same L7 chick, after we had both played: Oh, THERE you are. Have a [expletive] drink with me!

    Chris: I don’t drink. Did you forget already?

    L7: Come on. You know you fantashize about me. [She’s drunk. I think this has gradually happened on stage.]

    Chris: I only fantasize about writing songs with you.

    L7: Really?

    Chris: You kicked ass.

    L7: Thanksh! So did you guys.

    [A buzzed girl approaches, flirts with me and leaves, apparently insulted that I’ve answered her nigh-incomprehensible lines with, “Before you keep yapping — what’s your name, little lady? Any idea?”]

    L7: She looks like a teenager. Why was she hitting on you? You gotta be in your thirtiesh. No offensh.

    Chris: Adults don’t really get ‘offended.’ That’s a fabrication. I’ll tell you about chicks who hit on musicians after shows, okay? Here’s all you need to know about women, in case you ever go through a dyke phase. Are you ready?

    L7: Sure.

    Chris: They aren’t really physically attracted to musicians just ’cause they’re musicians. As a guy, you have to keep in mind that it’s not really about you. Girls like to get REFLECTED SPOTLIGHT on ’em.

    L7: Reflected shpotlight…hmmm…well there are male groupiesh too, y’know. They don’t want reflected shpotlight. They just wanna lay rocker chicksh.

    Chris: I’m sure. Well, don’t catch anything. Nice playing with you.

    L7: Shee ya.

    Time to give your browser another break!

  5. Back to the main point. Since I was about forty — i.e. over the past five-plus years — I’ve been increasingly alarmed at just how stupid and self-destructive our species can be, especially vis-a-vis attacks on the Freedom of Speech.

    I have a purpose behind bringing up such things; it’s not just random bitching. And music is always playing in the psychological background when I bemoan the modern day: music the likes of which we’ll never hear again, the same way in which there will never be another Roman Holiday, or another Mary Weiss or Patty Loveless or Arlene Smith. It’s all somehow connected with freedoms that the majority of America seems willing to give up. It’s about that resignation to mediocrity — in every arena — and the imitativeness even among adults.

    (Imitation? Imitability? How about impressionability. That’ll work.)

    There are actually people who believe that “hate speech” should exist in a legislative capacity. The chances that someone who’s genuinely prejudiced against one type of person or another might gain access to a microphone, or some other media conduit, are scarier to some people than the prospect of going to jail for words!

    Have so many come to take their liberties for granted to the extent that they demand fascistic measures in their own country? Is this the result of less civics being taught in public schools, maybe? There’s humor in it, of course: They call themselves “liberal.”

    I’m getting around to Kent State, believe it or not.

    Public apologies — i.e. apologies to a bunch of strangers, rather than anything resembling a heartfelt one-to-one — don’t make anyone less prejudiced. They mean nothing, especially if they’re based on fear: of losing one’s job, say. Being forced to apologize probably only makes a true “-ist” of some kind even worse.

    Anyone who holds another person’s job over his head, pending a public apology, should be arrested for treason. Personal freedoms, including that of expression, are so damn important. Millions of pre-America people, some missing their tongues, others missing their heads or suffering from burnt flesh or child bereavement, all of them guilty of simply saying things in conversation that those in power didn’t like, were staring hard at our forefathers while the Bill of Rights was being written up, crying, “Don’t you let us down.”

    So today’s shared mindset should be: How *dare* anybody tell someone else how to talk!

    Of course, there’s no positive shared mindset in any capacity. Now it’s a recessive hive-mind.

    Surely people knew at some point that their personal freedoms had to be closely clutched and doggedly defended. The Freedom of Speech is one of those hard, bitterly won elements of our civilization that you alluded to in your 2017 entry about Mother’s Day.

    I’ve always wondered about the fright aspect. Why be afraid of being called an “-ist” or “-phobic”? Why fear being termed something that has nothing to do with your intentions — getting a laugh, say — and everything to do with someone else’s baggage? Whoever you are, nobody gets to tell you what you mean. Nobody gets to say what’s really in your heart.

    Nonetheless, we live in this weird, apologetic civilization now. It’s nuts. Those who demand apologies aren’t interested in solving anything, of course. It’s about control.

    The subject of Trump is also coming up. I’m working toward some actual points here, I promise again.

  6. Humor and horror can often walk hand-in-hand: Everyone on Earth but me walks around with Orwellian tracking devices that they call “smart” phones. I know this is a lost battle, but I won’t be long on this particular topic, all above evidence to the contrary. I can’t really be the only one exasperated by all the heads facing downward and the eyes fixed all day on little screens, drool leaking from the sides of mouths……it’s as if I’ve awoken in a digital Stepford.

    New popular music is constantly derivative of prior million-sellers (sellers in what form? CDs? downloads? banner clicks? I’m out of touch — quite deliberately), while being altered just enough to avoid copyright infringement. It’s possible that I’m not looking hard enough for good stuff, or at least original stuff.

    On the other hand……Van Dyke Parks once said something great. (I know — hard to believe, right?) He said that he doesn’t criticize *anyone’s* songs, even if he doesn’t like them, because at least the motive is to add music to the world, as opposed to creating explosive devices. I need to get better at keeping that in mind.

    Companies that have replaced human workers with robots have not lost a lick of business since this practice became known. Amazon, Google……no consumers change a single habit, even if they profess to like it when humans have jobs. (I might as well recommend the superior alternative to the evil Googles: http://www.startpage.com.) Even the self-checkout registers are popular. People appear to give no thought to anything that might lead them past the ends of their conveniences.

    Wholesale conformity to mobile phones — I call them immobility phones when I’m being especially jaunty — indirectly enables stuff like this. It normalizes electronics as inseparable devices from flesh, which leads to the wide acceptance of robot employees and even microchipped humans. Someday, they’ll just be able to turn your chip off if you say something contrary to the status quo. Access to your bank account and even the locks on your house will thus be cut off. This won’t have to be imposed on anyone — people will allow it to happen, thinking that making themselves traceable and scannable is “convenient.”

    When animal owners started microchipping their pets, I told a friend that it was the first step in normalizing the intrusion of trackable electronics into flesh. It was laughed off, and I realized that I was starting to sound like a weirdo, so I swallowed the thought, along with a dose of blind hope.

    When I read a couple of years ago that some people have finally been dumb enough to let themselves be scared into chipping their kids, a great deal of my inherent, life-long optimism drained from me all at once. I lost faith in humanity and realized that the species is, essentially, played out.

    It was as close to depressed as I’ve ever gotten. Selfishness can sure be a savior: I’m positive about my own life, but not the country’s or the planet’s.

    Still, I admit that I no longer want to live to be 100, as I once did.

    I feel like a humorous hobo who’s standing alone in the middle of the street, clutching my Shangri-Las records, my Beach Boys boxed sets and my books full of Beatles recording stories and Zappa interviews, shouting, “You’ll never take me alive!”

    In spite of being a middle-aged guy with no upstairs wires having become disturbingly crossed, I can vividly evoke my initial infatuation with Mary Weiss’s chills-inducing voice. I recall hearing on 45, as a kid, “Remember.” I wondered why the girl’s singing gave me goose-bumps. Once the needle first dropped onto my uncle’s (aunt’s? second cousin’s?) copy of the song……well, I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered.

    I subsequently bought every record I could find with the name “Shangri-Las” on it. I saw The Story of a Sound a few years later, in the mid-’80s. As you recall, the Shangs exploded onto the screen in the middle of said documentary with no warning. Not fair!

    Something about that Shindig performance, which made me happy and which I loved immediately, just like the Shangs records I had managed to find between the initial “Remember” goose-bumps and the documentary viewing, nevertheless bothered me; but for years and years afterward, I couldn’t put my finger on it. That, in fact, might have been the point.

    “Psst! Hey, kid. This is the voice in the back of your brain. I’m here to faintly whisper stuff that you already kinda know, but haven’t completely acknowledged yet. That girl who’s singing lead, and appears to be around your age, is actually just slightly younger than your parents now. She doesn’t exist anymore. Not that way. Not as that person. Not really. And a voice like that will never exist again. There will be other striking voices, but none like THAT.

    “You don’t quite realize it yet, but the Shangri-Las records on which you’ve spent allowance money over the past few years, and the many more you’ll buy from Goodwill, the Salvation Army, etc., will have a powerful, long-term effect on you. It will wind up not mattering what Mary looked like or how old she was when she recorded those songs. As you mature, that surface stuff will be transcended. With every Shangs song you hear for the first time, her voice will more deeply dig a gouge into your heart that you’ll never quite be able to fill.

    “The reason? Hmmm. Well, one of the songs you haven’t heard yet is called ‘Heaven Only Knows.’ If women ever thought that way about their men, and sang so genuinely about those feelings, they sure don’t anymore. I don’t care how handsome you’ll consider yourself when you grow up. It won’t matter how big your ego gets. No girl will ever be that romantic, let alone as “into you” as that singer sounds. Most of them will be manipulative. Romance is an unrealistic scenario. It only exists in the songs you love. Deal with it.

    “Oh, sure, a girl will pretend to love you if you’re rich, but you won’t grow up to be motivated by money, so you can count that out. You’re the creative type. Deal with that, too.

    “It’s the eighties, kid. The emptiness of modern popular music reflects the emptiness of its consumers. Girls who actually have real feelings for guys, express empathy, and incidentally sing like angels in pain of mysterious origin have gone extinct. In fact, by the time you get to your forties, many women will have gone beyond merely burning bras, and will demand special treatment and equality — at the same time. They won’t see the paradox, because nobody will be all that smart anymore.

    “It won’t even be the women’s fault. Men will enable it. Men will actually agree to walk around with an apologetic attitude simply for being male, in spite of the fact that civilization, medical science, etc. were all created by men, who will still repair essential things when they break down or stop flowing into houses. People will get a sense of the Jetsons from their dumbphones, whereas you’ll see 1984 instead. This will set you apart to a greater and greater extent.

    “Be thankful that you enjoy solitude so much. When you grow up, don’t bother getting married and having kids, because men will no longer be respected as the heads of households, and they’ll be annihilated in family court whenever relationship problems arise.

    “But there’s good news. Those records will always be there for you, and you can visit Mary and Ronnie and Martha and La La and Darlene anytime you want, for the rest of your life. You can sincerely admire them without appearing to be weak to them because you’re not mean. And they’ll be real people to you, while you’re listening — just as real as the ears you’re listening with.”

    I never liked Johnny Thunders’ voice, or his glorification of dope, but I have to admit, he was right about one thing: You can’t put your arms around a memory.

    It seems as if every artist, male or female, whom I truly admire is either dead or far past myself in years. Just earlier, I was hanging out with John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye and Etta James. Thank goodness for the science of sound reproduction. Men, I’m grateful.

    I listened to bits of my own subconscious advice. Never been hitched, no kids. Watching what bandmates, cousins and coworkers have gone through just to visit their children twice a month has been nothing short of heartbreaking. The wife has only to get bored with her “merely dependable” husband to get a divorce, and she can even be on drugs, while the dad’s a great one; but she’ll get the kids and most of his money and possessions, because vagina. Everything is skewed in favor of women now. If they truly weren’t treated properly decades ago, there’s been an overcorrection, to say the least. This doesn’t help men OR women.

    This isn’t as anti-woman as it’s probably coming off. Again, I simply don’t look at a woman and see a victim — nor do I see a child who can’t understand that self-victimizing is not empowering, and that nobody can have special treatment and equality at the same time. I’ve admired the skills, the brilliance, the work of too many women to buy the fragile-and-oppressed act.

    But there’s always humor to be found. “Good men are hard to find.” That’s a beauty. Spend thirty years deriding Ward Cleaver, and then wonder why nobody wants to be Ward Cleaver anymore.

    Watching guys I’m acquainted with become victims of false accusations, after which the women in question didn’t even get slaps on their wrists upon admitting that they had lied, also contributed to my thankfulness that I’m a loner. Girls are raised to know that no lie about a man will ever be doubted when they grow up, and to consider themselves somehow more valuable than men.

    Since I love so many female singing voices, and grew up on so many love songs, this has all been a tough reality to swallow. Deep down, I’m a romantic. In other words, deep down, I’m unrealistic.

    At least I always have the music. It’s never let me down.

    You can see another reason why the writings on your website have hit me so hard.

    My favorite music stopped being made, with very few exceptions, in the pre-disco ’70s. That still leaves me with thousands of wonderful songs, from ’50s R&B onward. My deep love for the music hasn’t diminished a bit. Certain voices can still, as you once put it about Mary, alternately wound and heal.

    This is impolitely long again, so I’ll give this poor, overtaxed page another break, and finally tie all of these ostensibly loose ends together in the next “comment.” (Maybe I should replace that term with “novella.”)

  7. Even the songs I write are now showing traces of my unanticipated disdain for humanity. There’s nothing funnier than playing a nice, sixties-esque chord change behind vocals that convey a pretty melody while lyrically explaining that what the world needs now is a plague.

    So, yes, there’s humor in it all, from a distance. In fact, from a certain angle, we’re living in a big Monty Python skit.

    I’m trying to return to writing more upbeat stuff, but hey, songwriting is the only therapy I’ll ever be willing to undergo, so I might as well be free about it.

    I really don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to live in the past. As cliche’ as it sounds, though, things were indeed better once. The past that’s been preserved on, say, YouTube is a nice one, because everything was great……………right?

    This is why it helps to read about things like Kent State.

    It has, to paraphrase Gilda Radner, always been something.

    I try to keep that in mind.

    I mean, sure, a decade before those awful Ohio murders, there was Phil Spector getting ready to form Philles Records and make some great music — but, I must remember, the Cuban Missile Crisis led, around the same time, to the sales of many bomb shelters in the part of New York whence was emerging Ellie Greenwich.

    I should know better anyway. Even I, the should-be-privileged son of a doctor, didn’t have the greatest past, en toto. When I was 19, the only girl I ever fell for deeply, and considered building a family with (18-year-old Melissa with the red hair), was driving to the store when her car was struck by a drunken driver. She had my daughter inside her. I had known about this unplanned conception, and had taken flying lessons in anticipation of providing for a family. I quit the lessons when Melissa died. My younger brother had started taking lessons as well, without knowing about my own piloting plans.

    (I had expected to surprise everyone upon receiving my license. “See, Dad? I’m not just a garage musician! I’m responsible, at least by your definition!”)

    I didn’t want to steal my brother’s thunder. He had always been second in line to get positive attention — typical Italian family — and now he was doing something awesome on his own. Today, he’s an airline captain. Attaboy.

    He currently resides in Vegas with a wife and a couple of kids (my name for that city: Hell on Earth). I’ve never told him about my own flying lessons, of course. It might make him feel some kind of bad, in which there’s no point.

    Fortunately, the inebriated driver was killed as well, or I’d have been in jail instead of an unreliable Ford product. I say that because, being too dumb to talk about the incident with anyone, including my folks, and too macho to properly grieve for my suddenly nonexistent family, I got a bit mean for a while, eventually getting into such a huge argument with my dad about the length of my hair that I moved out and lived in my Ford Aerostar for about six months, before I could afford an apartment. I was hungry and burying guilt for how I’d treated my folks, but still, y’know, FREE.

    “I’m gonna be a rock star anyway. They just don’t understand.” Hell, after moving so frequently throughout my youth, I was perfectly equipped to live anywhere, even in a van, and equipped to tour with sanity intact. I didn’t yet know that I would find the record deals offered to me grotesquely unfair, and even have to replace musicians who would grow angry with me for turning down A&R men and quit the band. I must keep creative control, period. There’s more to life than money, damn it.

    Sometimes, I stole balloons from the fronts of car dealerships and decorated the inside of my van, just to make it more festive. I didn’t want to think about self-enforced homelessness, and I certainly didn’t want to think about death. So I went the “Wheee! Rockers have fun, right?” route.

    I didn’t want to sleep in the band’s rehearsal room because it smelled like beer (I was the only non-drinker), so I was lucky that we had a fan named Gail who convinced her mom to let me park my van alongside their house in a nice section of Albuquerque. It made for safer sleeping than choosing a parking lot. They even let me wander inside when I wanted to use their shower and eat their microwaved mini-pizzas.

    One of my favorite old songs of my own: “Can I Park on Your Curb Tonight?” Dedicated to Gail and her mom, of course.

    All these years later, I sit in this nice half-a-house I rent, acquired alone and deliberately inhabited alone, and write music, along with, evidently, inordinately long “comments” on the only website I really like. I visit a car dealership on weekdays to get money. (That’s how I describe my “job.”) I do website stuff there — not sell cars!! — which means that I goof off a lot and get paid for it. Sometimes, I steal balloons from the lot and let them float around my office.

    I bring this up because while “working,” I’ve occasionally taken to watching forty-to-fifty-year-old films on YouTube: films of nothing in particular that would have interested me before. It’s the *age* of said films that draws me. Just kids playing, sometimes. There’s not a trace of creepy-guy in me. I just like the non-“over it” innocence.

    I’ve watched a few family barbecues, people helping each other in blizzards, and weather reports from All in the Family commercial breaks. There’s no whining about word choices and no championing of nihilism. There’s no society-wide trauma fetish: “My past was worse than yours! Yes so! Yes so!” There was straight talk, and there were parents who weren’t afraid to draw firm lines for their kids. Not everyone was a winner, and that made the losers try harder, so that they might also be winners.

    Feature films could be funny without a trace of jaded irony. Even drama has no uplifting quality behind it anymore. Not only will there never be another Hepburn, but whole movies like that are no longer possible, at least if you ask those who pay to have movies made. They’re enabled, of course: It’s as if moviegoers now feel that they must force themselves to keep watching as someone on screen pukes, gets tortured, etc. If a film is touching or moving, it’s “corny.” If it’s exciting, some mockery of masculinity must be inserted. The devaluation of the male continues, even in our fiction media.

    Lazy English and illiteracy-aiding abbreviations were once frowned upon, even among, say, high-school students. And something endearing or comical wasn’t always considered hokey or in need of detached parody.

    But I must remember that things like Kent State happened “in the good ol’ days,” too. And even as amazing music was being made, gangsters were ruining careers. I’ve simply got to keep such things in mind. Idealizing the past isn’t possible without being a downer about the present, and I don’t want to be that guy……even though I seem to be turning into him. Maybe too much alone time isn’t good for anyone, even if he likes it. I don’t know.

    Never before could I have seen myself watching a father I’d never met take his kid fishing on a recently digitized family-vacation Super 8 reel and thinking to myself, “Yay: complete sentences. Cash is nowhere near to being phased out. Nobody’s microchipped. When the people laugh, there’s no ‘irony’ in it. I wish I could figure out how to build a time machine and go back.”

    Music could be charming, atmospherically optimistic and even smart-alecky without a trace of nasty sarcasm. To revisit an example from earlier in this “comment” — i.e. this sequel to War and Peace — if “Give Him a Great, Big Kiss” were released today, complete with 21st-Century disco beat (call the top-ten styles anything you like…I know disco when I hear it!), either it would be deliberately, self-consciously contemptuous of puppy love, or the lyrics would be (ahem) quite different.

    I know, Mary, I know…………I can never go home anymore.

    One of the reasons I’ve been performing rock music for almost thirty years may be that, in spite of the fact that I focus on original songs rather than covers, it’s the closest I’ve been able to get to living inside all of those old songs I treasure. Those who perform them are more real to me — more tangible and certainly closer — than my nearest coworker or the person taking my order in a coffee house.

    It’s funny how I’m coming off like a Negative Nancy. That’s so contrary to my usual personality. I’ve always been the upbeat, goofy guy full of silly voices.

    It’s been quite a juxtaposition lately.

    Concluding (<–believe it or not) with Trump. Stay tuned, if you're still awake after all that!

  8. At least there’s a president in place at the moment (for what that’s worth, considering that the real power seems to lie with the banks and the large corporations) whose gloriously “incorrect” speech might rub off on the impressionable majority, and loosen the P.C. sphincter of this increasingly unfamiliar America.

    He’s also the first president during our lifetimes to come completely from outside the crony-politician system, the backscratching-into-office paradigm, the handed-the-job-by-worthy-investors pattern that I never thought would be broken. For once, the new president owes nobody any favors. At least that turns out to be possible!

    If he does wind up being a disaster……well, I dig anything that causes massive change. I just like seeing the applecart getting upset, and society shaken up. As I’ve surely made clear with the several million examples above, I have no emotional attachment to the Way Things Are.

    Consider that the vast majority of America is complacent. When it comes to any kind of loud, consistent and even violent demands, we’re lazy. I sure am, concerning politics. There’s not enough time in the day as it is, let alone enough to undertake some kind of activism! Only when an immense number of people are enraged, terrified or both will the very system that got Trump, Obama, Bush, etc. into office be altered.

    So if Trump really screws up something major, it’s the best chance the country has at some kind of uprising. One way or another, he definitely represents change. And it’s not as if the Way Things Are has really been working for 99% of us.

    For some reason, even during the current disillusioned chapter in my story, listening to the Shangs, the Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Go-Gos, the Fifth Dimension, et al. makes me nicer to people. At least on that given day. I don’t know why this is the case, but I’m glad it happens. Nobody wants a temperamental wop in his vicinity.

    Thanks for enduring this. Reading your material really fired up my brain! Maybe I should have just left it at, “Thank you for writing about the stuff that you write about. Songs are, for varied reasons, the story of my life, too. These days, the reality in old songs is the only one I really like. The optimism I have left resides in music from the past, excepting some of my own. So it makes me feel better that someone exists who will take, say, a Red Bird 45 seriously enough to write the only intelligent reflections on it that have ever existed.”

  9. Hey Chris. My eyes cleared up today so I was able to read this straight through. (Yesterday, I thought it might be a while!) First let me say, brother, you’ve got one helluva life story so I’ll just reiterate that if you ever want to guest post, the offer will always be open. Just say the word.

    Of course, these comments add up to sort of the same thing and I can’t tell you how glad I am that you chose this venue to let it all out. In a lot of ways our journeys parallel, but I’ve never had to endure anything like what happened to your girlfriend, for which, I just want to express my condolences. I have to believe something like that is impossible to ever truly get over. And living in an age of Cultural Collapse can’t make things easier.

    Just to give you a shorthand version of my own journey (I’ve written out the long hand version in the posts you’ve been reading): The three things that have guided my life are a profession of Christian faith (when I was nine); the discovery of rock and roll on the radio (when I was fifteen); and my decision to devote my spare time to writing fiction (when I was nineteen). My attitude toward marriage was a bit like yours in that I was never going to be married just for the sake of being married (a mistake I’d seen too many others make). I was only going to pursue marriage if the lightning struck. It struck twice. The first time I wrote about in my piece on Brian Wilson. The second time was some years later and the woman was married. (If i had met, or re-met Michelle later in life, I’m pretty sure it would have been three…and I’d have had the advantage that my folks already liked her!) Of course, neither may have worked out…no idea really if either girl would have even wanted to date me, though I had some reason to believe they would have. But, in any case, I learned to accept my relative isolation.

    Like you, I’ve made only a few close friends and, thankfully, kept them all. Sounds like I’m probably closer to my family than you are to yours….helps being the baby…so I might have the advantage of you there. And, as you note, like you, I’ve found a tremendous amount of necessary solace and companionship in music, film, books, etc.

    One element you mentioned a few times above, which I hope is only a phase (I’ve been through them so I can relate) is the temptation to feel disdain or contempt for or fellow humans. This never lasts long with me because my faith doesn’t permit it. My NATURE permits it–practically demands it–so it’s a hard fight sometimes, but one I find well worth winning. However you come to it (I’m not a proseletyzer) I hope you keep working at it and find ways to stay positive. It probably also helps, in my case, that I chose writing fiction as an outlet because I realized early on it was a dream I could pursee my whole life–which is exactly what I’ve done. No success so far, but every year for the last thirty-seven, I’ve convinced myself it’s right around the corner. (This year is no different as I’m getting ready to start submitting a detective novel with a rock and roll them and a local setting to local publishers…I’m an eternal optimist!)

    Nonetheless, I feel ya’ brother.These are VERY gloomy and perilous times. I even share your guarded optimism about Trump (or “Trumpism”). I see it as a one in a million chance that things will get better balanced by a one in a thousand chance they’ll get way worse. All that weighed against a hundred percent chance they’ll continue getting gradually worse if we stay on the present course. Some days I think Trump understands that he’s in a war…some days I don’t think he has a clue. Some days I just don’t know. I don’t think you’re missing anything by not following the news!

    But reversing cultural collapse is much harder than reversing social/economic/political decline and that’s the job before us. I feel like what I’m doing with this blog–and what I hope you’ll be able to do with your music–is keep reminding my small audience that glorious things are not in our distant past but in our living memories. One of the themes I’ve hit occasionally here is that I don’t miss the past–one reason I post the Kent State stuff every year is to remind myself of what you mention, that things were hardly perfect “back then”. What I miss is the future that never arrived. I don’t think it would have been possible to listen to the radio in the sixties (or follow the space program or any of a hundred other things) and foresee just how dreary and frozen and lifeless the immediate future would be. We made a literally insane choice in the eighties to freeze time and collapse our own narrative (all in the name of doing the opposite of course–that’s how these things go!). The chance that we’ll get back on course is slim but still worth fighting for. The only alternative is a new Dark Age that will make the last one look like Paradise. (Ha! How’s THAT for optimism!).

    And BTW: There’s at least one other person out here who ain’t got a smart phone. But you probably guessed that!

    I’m probably going to reference some of the things you’ve mentioned here in future posts. If I don’t mention a direct connection, you’ll still know where it’s coming from. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought.

    On a final note: “Harmony” was a lovely little B-Side (of “Benny and the Jets”) that I discovered in the stack of 45s I wrote about at the link below, in reference to another of my teenage record-collecting adventures. Synchronicity pehaps?

    http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=2825

    jwr

    Keep ’em coming.

    JWR

  10. First and foremost, thanks for being so gracious about all of that verbiage. I’m surprised to learn that you felt it was worth reading in one shot, as I thought it might get a bit tedious in spots. I consider it a massive compliment that you even wanted to, so: Thank you. (I’m relieved that I didn’t introduce any textual dams that were thick enough to stop the flow and produce take-many-breaks monotony……I tried my best to structure it all, but it still amounts to a brain bleeding all over your comments section. Your writing resonates with me, and I felt it was only right that you should hear the overtones bouncing back at you.)

    Second and also foremost (I know that’s mathematically unsound, but never mind), break a leg with the detective-novel submission! You WILL achieve what you’re shooting for. Hell, you could submit to any publisher the link to this site alone as part of your CV. I hope something winds up happening with that book, because per your description, I want to read it!

    Third and foremost, I hope your eyes stay better!

    Regarding whatever American culture is now (we’re pretty distant from real jazz and real rock and roll, let alone Indian pottery and loomed rugs), you’ve clearly got a better grip on the big picture than I have. This is probably one reason why I learn so much from reading your applicable entries. I don’t necessarily regret that I haven’t spent much time trying to hone the fine art of looking with detachment through a zoomed-out lens, as it would probably lead to my Living in the Past (Tull, anyone?) even more.

    I’m probably wrong, but so far, it seems to me that being more optimistic about the world would, at this point, necessitate no longer caring about it. That sounds defeatist, but it’s more about…insular optimism, and rejecting the Fear Sure Sells, Doesn’t It? media. With no offspring, I should find it easy to stop caring about the future of the humans’ world. I have my own. When I was very young, my father was kind and perceptive enough to acknowledge that. “You’re always in your own goddamn world!”

    Anyway — exactly! It was that very Elton B side. My folks were smart: From when I was a toddler, they figured that if I was going to sit around playing records every time I wasn’t playing outside, they might as well buy me music that THEY liked. They were going to have to hear it constantly, and one can stand only so much Sesame Street.

    The first fascination I ever had was with records. Listening to them was almost all I did, until I got into books. Then it was both, with equal measures of captivation. I learned how to place the needle at the beginning of a song when I was two. My mother had a white, fold-out, RCA turntable, which had been a gift from her mother a few years before I’d come along. It gradually came to live in my room. She just decided to let me have it when she got a newer stereo, because I sat there listening so often.

    Most of the records that I’d found around the house by the time I was three were singles (which were badly named; they were actually doubles, since both sides could be played!). I’d sit in front of the phonograph and just stare at the record going around. I thought that the label was a face, which was of course singing to me. (I wasn’t the brightest kid.)

    When I was four and learned to read, thanks to Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss and my folks, I was thrilled to discover that I could find out what each song was called, and who had performed it, by looking at the mouth. This made things a bit easier. Truth be told, I already knew what all of my records sounded like, based on the shape of each face.

    Unfortunately, my second fascination involved peeling the label off anything that had one.

    (I won’t draw any hokey analogies. You’re welcome.)

    Records, cans of food, you name it. It was so much fun. You know that slight sparkle of pleasure you get when you pull a sticker off something? Especially when it all comes off at once without leaving that bastard paper layer underneath? It’s very satisfying. Who knows why?

    When my Nani (Italian for “Grandma”) came to town for a visit, she naturally wanted to cook. That’s just what they do. She complained to my mom that she couldn’t tell what anything was in the cupboard. My mom defended my odd label-peeling hobby, claiming that it kept me occupied. (Good thing there weren’t any guns in the house.)

    As a result of the record fixation and my fondness for the Muppets, I thought that everything had a face. Our brains have an evolved knack for trying to find faces anyway. It probably has something to do with distinguishing between the friendly fellow animals and the predators. (Too bad it doesn’t work anymore.) My friends were the clock, the clusters of leaves in the trees outside my window, and the knots in the wooden ceiling above my bed.

    When I was five and I actually started listening closely to the music on the records, I realized that I had favorite songs. I guess I had finally acquired taste!

    Like you, I have a story for every record. Mine just aren’t as interesting. They’re normal life things, with none of your sociological insight. But it’s funny, the things that can stick with you, isn’t it? When you write about a particular artist, even in passing, memories pop into my head. I remember being freaked out by a Dad selection, “You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt, on orange Capitol. I’d made the mistake of listening to it at 16 RPM. (To this day, have you ever seen a 16 RPM record?!) I thought that some angry monster was singing.

    This was redressed when he bought me Linda’s amazing cover of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” on blue Asylum a year or two later. What a record!

    Anytime I smell unexpected popcorn in a department store, I recall entering a Lakewood, Ohio store called Gold Circle, where my mother bought me an album of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger songs, concurrently with “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli, on the A&M label with the rectangular logo on the left side. That was the first time I ever heard Frankie.

    This reply was just supposed to be about “Harmony,” so I’d better return to that before I reverse your eyes’ healing. Thankfully for me, my mom was into Elton during his best (I think) phase. At some point in the mid-’70s, she bought me the “Bennie and the Jets” 45. That was how I acquired it for later listening with my first girlfriend and first ignorance that I had a girlfriend.

    I first heard the Beatles when I was very young, but it was their last recorded album. I liked Side 2 a lot more. It started with “Here Comes the Sun,” which was happy with me. It was in a good mood. “Come Together” was scary. It was angry with me. That was how I interpreted the sounds as a toddler.

    I was also frightened of “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John. I hated when the old bag at A-B-C Nursery School played it for us. In the pre-chorus, he sounds like he’s lost his temper. That sort of thing clearly reminded me of my dad when he was angry. It happened very rarely, and he never laid a hand on us, but I was a reserved kid.

    The other kids liked the song, because of the silly part. They’re probably all assholes now (I add for comic effect only — I know it’s a popular Elton song).

    I’m convinced that riffs and licks sound mean or happy or whatever – ominous or friendly, etc. – because they remind our brains of human speech patterns. They’re at least as significant as the vocals, in that sense. The lead melodies against the harmony instruments, which all together make up one big, shifting chord against the rhythm, are the most significant parts of any piece of music, in terms of whether or not one likes it. The lyrics — their literal meanings, apart from the vocal melodies — are the least impactful elements in any song.

    The words can obviously be a fun bonus, but even the vowel sounds themselves affect the ear a lot more than what the lyrics actually mean, which can certainly act as very agreeable icing, and even listener-comforting or -galvanizing. But still: It’s the phonetics. Certain words can be sustained easier, and so forth.

    Growing up, whenever I received any goodies at all from grown-ups, they were records. They all knew that those were perfect gifts for any occasion, because I was always thrilled to get something new (or used!) to listen to. It provided an easy way for them to get rid of things that were, for reasons that continue to elude me, no longer wanted. Pleasing me was never an expensive prospect. I was easy. Just give the kid a couple of records!

    My much-older cousin Mark gave the six-year-old me some Three Dog Night 45s. I really liked “Shambala” on black ABC / Dunhill. There was also “Joy to the World” on yellow same, but I preferred the B side, “I Can Hear You Calling.”

    I have a very fond memory of standing with a few cousins in the basement of my aunt’s house (Mark’s mom), banging on various percussive instruments that had been lying around down there for some reason. We were creating a giant noise while “Joy to the World” played. I was banging maracas together! I could have broken them. I liked the sound they made, though. This battering party had started out of nowhere, and we had a major blast. Then the song ended and we all went upstairs like nothing had happened. Kids are awesome. Well, they can be.

    Mark once showed me the album Are You Experienced?, but he didn’t give it to me, so his good sense hadn’t completely abandoned him, despite all the great 45s he had given up to me as gifts. I remember feeling a bit spooked by the face on Jimi’s shirt. My mother walked up, pointed at Jimi and told me that he was dead because of drugs. That was the first time I’d ever heard of drugs in a non-aspirin / cough-syrup context. It took until I was sixteen to get into Jimi. It was obviously an amazing discovery. I went gloriously overboard and bought everything he had come out with during his life, which was, to my ongoing surprise, bettered in quantity throughout the years AFTER his life. I wonder how much of what’s been dug up has left him stationary in his grave.

    I remember something funny about that “Joy to the World, Thanks to Durable Maracas” trip back to Buffalo: My mom and I went to a department store or the mall, where she bought me “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. We returned to the car and discovered that one of the tires was flat. (We had borrowed someone’s vehicle.) I thought that we were stuck there indefinitely, never to return home, because this part of the car was broken. Mom thought that was pretty funny, but I was freaked out. There was no parking-lot record player to be found in any direction, you see.

    This was supposed to be a brief response about the Elton John 45, I swear it!

  11. Okay, the test worked so I’m gonna try this again!

    (Sorry my first reply went off into oblivion…but I think I can remember the gist!)

    First of all, thanks again for your kind wishes. I’m very enthusiastic about the book. My others were deemed “too long”…so I kept this one short. We’ll see if that works. BTW: My admittedly much briefer experiences with what is left of the publishing industry bear some resemblances to yours. My last interaction with a small publisher was along the lines of “This is great. If you want to entirely rewrite it so the main character is the only character we might have something here.” Big publishers are, of course, worse. But I’m learning the game.

    Again, I think our life experiences have some key parallels. I had much the same response to books that you had to records….and the records came later (I can link to my post explaining how a Frankie Valli record became my first purchased 45 if you haven’t red that one…just let me know).

    And I’m truly happy to find at least one other person who appreciates Linda R’s version of “Blue Bayou.” I finally realized a few years back that her version was the more intimate (not what I necessarily expect from her) while Roy’s was the more abstract (not necessarily what I expect from him)…but that’s what geniuses do. They zig when you expect them to zag, and they make it work!

    Also,you make a great point about the importance of sound–how it transcends even the most powerful meanings conveyed by lyrics (not an easy admission for a writer, I can tell you). I really started this blog to focus on voices, and, though I stray to other things, I keep coming back to them. But your point enlarges mine. The really great singers meld their voices to the arrangement/production/lyric mood etc. They let themselves be made bigger by what’s surrounds them and thus convey depth that surpasses the words (our beloved Ms. Wiess being a prime example–those songs have been covered again and again without anyone coming near matching her). I have a running theme, too, about the SOUND of voices themselves–the element that allowed Al Green to capture the feel of the inner city crack epidemic ten years before it happened, or Patty Loveless to do the same with Appalachia’s opoid-driven White Death, ten years before that happened and twenty years before it made the news. They did this without ever once addressing the still invisible “issues” lyrically and often seeming to focus on other things entirely. But if you go back and listen now, you can feel what’s coming. There are other examples but those two stand out to me.

    And BTW, I meant to mention before that your L7 story was both hilarious and unsurprising. I’ve spent thirty years listening to various hardcore female bands and it’s probably unfair (some of them are very accomplished), but I can never quite get Charlotte Caffey’s immortal words out of my head: “We’re the Go-Go’s…and you’re not!”

    There…I think I remembered everything! Onward and upward….

    jwr

  12. “Too long”?! Ah, post-attention-span America. It’s a shame that you have to learn how to play ANY games — as if it’s not difficult enough to put together a well paced, consistently compelling story with endearing characters — but you’ll succeed anyway, as you’ve certainly played more difficult games before!

    “They zig when you expect them to zag, and they make it work” — SUCH true words. Linda’s “Blue Bayou” is one of those very few covers that beat the originals (to me). And outdoing Roy Orbison is obviously no mean feat.

    Yeah, L7’s fatal flaw, to my ears, was that they couldn’t really sing. They were powerful in performance, though.

    But still……”We’re the Go-Gos…and you’re not” indeed! In fact, speaking of “We’re the [X] and you’re not,” I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard a certain couple of other covers that beat the originals (again, just speaking personally, here). I anticipate that you’re not going to agree, especially in the case of the Dylan one, but they’re such different takes on their predecessors that they’re worth hearing:

    • Intriguing and in a good way. These two cuts make me want to get hold of the album, which is not a response I had when Concrete Blonde was on the radio. (To be fair, I didn’t respond all that well to grunge/alternative when it was happening, maybe because I wasn’t far enough removed from my own suicidal phase.) Have to listen to the Dylan cover and its original more to know if I have a preference, but I like both a lot. (Blood on the Tracks is the only post sixties Dylan album I’ve ever gotten into and that was only recently. I hope I’m still growing…the alternative is that I’m lowering my standards!)

  13. We had the same response to grunge and “alternative.” (Once it had grown extremely popular, I thought, “Alternative to WHAT?”) I wasn’t into depresso-rock, and the best “alternative” stuff I happened to hear ripped off riffs from the ’60s and ’70s. Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” for instance, is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

    But Concrete Blonde, I was surprised to find upon hearing a friend’s copy of the Bloodletting album, didn’t belong. They were almost NON-“alternative.” They sounded to me like they’d listened to a lot of Linda Ronstadt — no particular song, really — but wanted to be heavier, both instrumentally and emotionally.

    Also recommended: the studio versions of “Tomorrow, Wendy” (a stunning song about losing a friend to AIDS), “Free” and, for the band’s more joyous, kinda ’60s mood, “Happy Birthday.” Just for when you’re next in the mood for a YouTube evening!

  14. Indeed! And my favorite twist on that is something you wrote about the Go-Gos: “When there is only one of something, there is usually a reason.”

  15. I should qualify something, more for my own satisfaction than in the interest of sharing some kind of new insight, since you’re keenly aware of it already: Sometimes, a lyric can be sung with such personal investment that it leaves the realm of being a mere vehicle for melody-friendly phonetics, and defibrillates the listener with its literal meaning. Maybe it’s such a special occurrence because it’s more rare than not. The two examples that spring to mind immediately are Elvis Presley and Brian Wilson — although there are, as I’m gradually being reminded by your phenomenal “How Much Can One Record Mean” series, others.

    In fact, a rhetorical question springs to mind: Would the Shangs’ Red Bird debut be so stirring if the word “remember” were replaced with “potato”?

    And I wish I liked country more, because a line written by Jeff Barry for Glen Campbell, “Even a blind man knows when he’s walking in the sun,” is one of the most brilliant sentences I’ve ever heard. It’s solidly in the “Wish I’d thought of that!” category.

    Okay, damn it, I admit it. Words can really matter.

    Speaking of Elvis’s music, I got it back. About time, too. I sat down with a great cup of coffee and “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care),” “Don’t,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Trying to Get to you” (the late ’60s remake) and a few other favorites, and I couldn’t believe I’d taken such a long break. Your writing prompted me to do this, as it ultimately caused Elvis’s entire pre-1970s library of music to play in my head simultaneously. Much obliged!

    • Yeah, I think what we both mean by the lyric/sound issue is that sound can sometimes marry to a lyric so intensely that it opens a level of meaning even the greatest lyric can’t quite access. But, of course, the words matter greatly….still I must say, “Po-ta-to, walking in the sa-a-a-nd/Po-ta-to, walking hand in ha-a-and” has set some very disturbing serio-comic visions dancing through my head. I, uh, may have to take the rest of the day off…

      And I’m happy to hear you’ve reconnected with Elvis, happier still if I played a role. If I’m gonna write so much about the past, nothing’s better than helping someone get a piece of it back!

  16. Well said — the “meaning behind the meaning,” as you’ve written. The perfect marriage of word with sound can be a great 1 + 1, but the result is exponentially more than 2 if the singer is great and the vocal thus an inseparable part of the song. This is why some cover versions just don’t work, and others transcend the originals. (As Otis said of Aretha’s “Respect,” “Yeah — THAT’S what I meant!”)

    I can only imagine how Carole felt when she heard “Natural Woman” for the first time.

    • The other thing that’s always interesting to contemplate is how we’d feel about an original if the transcendent cover version never existed. How would we hear Otis’ “Respect” or Gladys Knight’s “Grapevine” or Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” if the original (or anyway first heard) version was all there was? DIfferent, yes, but how different….Might be a Philip K. Dick type alternate universe story hiding in there somewhere.

      Definitely interested in the other but I’ll probably have to ping you tomorrow. Packing in Overtime tonight in preparation for a trip.

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