I GIVE MYSELF UP TO THE ROAD…THE ROAD GIVES BACK

Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.

But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.

Here’s what proved itself last week:

Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.

Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.

But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.

Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)

It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.

Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.

And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.

But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.

This time…Aftermath.

And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.

But first…Aftermath.

In its UK version.

Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!

I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!

After that, I was excited for Between the Buttons. And, just like always, I stayed excited through what used to be the first side.

Between the Buttons The Rolling Stones (1967)

After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.

Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)

And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.

Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.

Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)

There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.

It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.

it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.

As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)

I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.

But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”

After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.

And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.

It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).

Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.

Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)

Choice?

Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?

And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.

And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.

It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.

Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.

But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.

And?

Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.

Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.

That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.

Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.

But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.

And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.

Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).

Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…

And then on like that for most of another hour.

At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.

But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.

Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.

That’s what the road is for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

ALABAMA GOODBYE (Harper Lee, R.I.P.)

Harper Lee...Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, in her father's law office while visting her home town. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In one of the few interviews she gave for public consumption before she ducked down the rabbit hole for good, the chain-smoking, Scotch-swilling, Methodist church lady, Nelle Harper Lee said what she really wanted to be was the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama. Austen being Austen and Alabama being Alabama, she was probably therefore doomed to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misconstrued, misrepresented and misappropriated.

Nelle being Nelle, she was also bound to let it lie.

Her one great novel was immediately hijacked by the same style of do-goodism which had long since suffocated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to within an inch of their respective lives. What those flawed masterpieces had done for slavery–provide balm for White America’s troubled soul–To Kill a Mockingbird would do for Jim Crow. It thus entered the small library of prickly pear texts that must have all their thorns pulled by journalistic-cum-academic discourse so they can serve a higher good.

The movie, fine as it was, didn’t help. The shaded, human-scale Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared immediately under Gregory Peck’s ruggedly handsome mien, never to return, which was most of why the not-entirely-detached version of him (Atticus, not Greg) who appeared last year in Lee’s prequel/sequel) caused such an odd mixture of consternation, dismissal and “say it ain’t so.”

HARPERLEE1

The small town lawyer shouldering a necessary, not particularly welcome, burden on the page, became a hero in a western, with a lonely courtroom replacing a dusty street. Watching the movie by itself, detached from the understanding of the source which has eluded the book’s admirers as frequently as its detractors, it’s actually hard to understand what the big deal with racism is. All the good white people in the movie are on Atticus’s side, after all–the Sheriff, the Judge, Miss Maudie (turned from a salty old broad familiar to every southern childhood into a cupcake familiar to no one outside of a movie set). From Hollywood’s version, you’d think Maycomb County was run by white trash, against whom lawyers and judges and sheriffs and such stood all but helpless.

And, of course, it is that vision which has stood–so much so that lots of people who have read the book over and over still write as though they can only see the movie in their head while those who have never read the book at all insist they don’t have to because the movie and the crit-illuminati have already told them everything they need to know. In the American imagination, the black people rising in the balcony for Atticus’s “stand up MIss Jean Louise. You’re father’s passin’.” moment are forever doing so over an empty courtroom, paying an homage unseen by anyone but his children.

It made for a great visual.

In the novel, Atticus leaves first, while the white people are still there.

All of them.

So it’s undeniably an homage, yes, but also an act of defiance, one Lee was far too skilled to draw a line under.

For those who ever get around to reading what’s there, instead of what they expect to find, the whole novel is like that: quiet, skilled, defiant. Like it was written by a sharp-minded lawyer’s girl, grown to womanhood, remembering.

It was meant to take the noise out of your head, draw a circle around a particular time and place, one which Lee herself felt deserved to be remembered.

She feared it wouldn’t be and not without reason.

It was vanishing as she spoke, in the sixties, though it could still be glimpsed when I moved to North Florida (a hundred and fifty miles from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, with a state line between, and one county over, minus the state line, from where her father grew up). Within a decade of my arrival, the old black man who drove his mule-cart through town weekdays and the old white men who sat around in overalls and spat tobacco in the shade above the tiered-stone sidewalks in front of the drugstore nobody called a pharmacy would be gone from everything but memory.

For better and worse, that small town south, with it’s old men and soda fountains and lynching trees, has its own place in the American imagination. It’s a place that would not be nearly as well defined–for better or worse–if the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama had not captured it so well.

Believe me. I’m from here. My being born on Florida’s rocket-launching Space Coast was a fluke. Before that, my small-town southern roots went back a long way on both sides (on my father’s side, to the founding, of Tennessee anyway), and, once I was brought back, at thirteen, I never left. The world imagined by our famous Goths–Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams, McCullers–is hardly untrue. But it isn’t all there is. If anybody not from here wants to feel what it was once like–for better and worse–to actually live here, it’s Harper Lee’s novel that will tell you quicker than anything I know.

That might not be much of an achievement next to driving a spike in Jim Crow’s temple, which she also did. But it was what she set out to do, and, if she happened to become part of some grander design along the way, I’m no less grateful for small favors.

As to why she never wrote another book, I recommend Charles Sheilds’ fine biography, Mockingbird, which will likely remain definitive, for this and other insights. I’ll also state that I tend to disagree with his well-researched and delicately nuanced conclusions (which involve the usual sound reasons: an aversion to fame, a loss of confidence, deaths in her publishing team etc.).

One of the other things that happened when I moved to North Florida is that my father became a home missionary, responsible, among other things, for ministering to prisons, jails, reform schools and mental homes throughout the panhandle, which, in Florida, is where the state tends to build such things.

I did not go into a lot of “yards” with him. Just enough to know what the air in prison is like.

Let’s just say I do not consider it entirely coincidental that Nelle and her even more sensitive childhood friend, Truman Capote, were, even before TKAM was published, already collaborating on In Cold Blood.

He’d take credit for that….and, at least sometimes, To Kill a Mockingbird, too.

Most likely it was closer to being the other way around (Shields is very convincing on this score).

Either way, neither wrote anything of note again.

I don’t find that surprising.

Breathe prison air for more than five minutes and you learn one thing.

It isn’t only murderers who leave their souls on death row.

HARPERLEEEND

Wherever she is now, enjoying her earned peace, I hope she’s found what she lost.

And that they have a better class of critics there.