May 4th, 1970 is the only anniversary date I recognize every year on my blog. That’s when four students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. It was interesting today, fifty years on, to see the event marked by some of the Twitter feeds I follow, complete with photographs of the memorials put in place to mark the fallen in response to a peaceful protest in which I happened to participate in 1998. Though I haven’t been back since 2000–if you had told me then I wouldn’t be back for twenty years and counting I would have called you a liar, such is life–I have tried to mark the occasion in some way. For some years I stood vigil at the Viet Nam Memorial in front of the Florida Capitol buildings (yes, we have two) from noon to 12:28 p.m. (covering the time frame from the Guard’s initial deployment from their staging area to the shootings) I am physically past that now so I have lately contented myself with remembrances on the blog which can be easily accessed by going to my Archives and searching for the May 4th entries each year from 2012 to the present. Even had I been able to attend the anniversary ceremonies this year–even if this were not the first year since 1970 when American universities are shut down (a student strike, standing in for so much else, then, a “virus,” standing in for so much else, now)–I wouldn’t have gone. If standing vigil at our local memorial is beyond me, i would not think of tackling the long treks required to cover the Kent State campus, perhaps the only place in America where the past is so fully integrated with the present.
But I’ve not forgot. Alison Krause had been radicalized by the actions of the Guard on the previous weekend, which included chasing her into the nearest dorm with bayonets. Jeff Miller was an activist. When his grandmother heard news of the shootings she asked “You don’t think Jeff was there do you?” His brother, not yet knowing Jeff was a victim, said “Yes, grandma. He was there.” Bill Schroeder, an R.O.T.C. member who won bar bets by naming every Rolling Stones’ track on every one of their albums in order, was trying to figure out where he stood on the war and the draft and had stopped to watch the Guard in action. His military training led him to recognize the sound of live rounds instantly and he threw himself on the ground where a bullet that might have taken him in the ankle had he, like so many others, mistaken it for buckshot, instead found his spleen. Sandy Scheuer was walking to class. She fell along a straight line from the front door of her sorority to her next class. She was perhaps twenty feet from the “radical” Alison Krause.
If I’ve not forgot, it’s because I know how easily, with only the slightest twist of fate, any one of us could have been any one of them:
One quiet thing I wanted to do last week on vacation was stop off at the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center where I worked in the summer of 1979 and where, in the midst of an otherwise lovely experience, I made the worst decision of my life and thus acquired my most painful memory.
It doesn’t matter what the memory was. I wrote about it here, but it’s sort of incidental because this trip down Memory Lane is about the distance between memory, the present and the physical world that ties them together. The specifics matter to me, but I don’t want to get tangled up in them because I suspect everybody had their own set of specifics that could reach out and grab them at a given moment–I hope on that basis you’ll be able to relate.
You’d think if any place hadn’t changed much it would be a Conference Center run by the Southern Baptist Convention. Having not been near the place since the summer of 1982 (when I visited with my Dad for an actual conference week), any change was bound to deliver a bit of a shock.
Since, specifics or no, I was there to expiate the biggest mistake of my life, any change was bound to depress me, to make the mistake seem even larger and more irredeemable.
And I did expect those changes and those feelings.
What I didn’t expect was for the changes themselves to be so specific–to put new arrows in me because the only places that had been buried (as opposed to altered) by the expected changes were the places I wanted to see again.
The boys’ dorm is gone, under concrete now. The girls’ dorm is changed beyond recognition. I couldn’t even figure out where to park and the guest spaces were far too distant for me to walk (age and disease have sapped my legs).
So much for that side of the interstate, though I did make it into the building where reception and the check-in desk still remain, where they were nice enough to give me a map so I could find the place I really wanted to see, which was the softball field.
The only place I’ve ever written about what happened at the softball field was in one of my unpublished novels. Don’t worry, I won’t burden you with that scene. The important thing last week was that I wanted to see a place where I sat on a hillside.
The softball field is still there, more or less. It doesn’t look well-maintained but that could be because its the off-season.
The hillside is still there, just as I remembered, slanting steeply toward Interstate 40, which still divides the Boys Camp side from the Conference Center and Girls Camp side. The bridge you walk across to get from one side to the other remains.
It would have been great–and cathartic I think–to march half-way up that hillside (for that, my aching legs would have made the effort) and sit and think and remember a while.
Unfortunately forty years is a long time. Long enough for the hillside to have become covered with fifty-foot pines.
Which meant I did my thinking in my car, gazing across time, space, and the dilapidated softball field, listening, by pure coincidence if you believe in such things, to the very last music you should ever listen to when the memory of the worst mistake of your life is crowding in, namely the third disc of Rhino’s Lorraine Ellison box.
It consists of her singing/whispering demo versions of some of the haunting songs she recorded in the wake of the one song everyone knows her for if they know her at all.
Sitting there in my car, I couldn’t hear the music at all. It was playing. My ears were aware of it, but my mind couldn’t shake the song everyone knows her for, and, a week later, it can’t shake the idea that the idea animating the song everyone knows her for was part of the reason I made the biggest mistake of my life in the Summer of 1979, even though I wouldn’t hear of Lorraine Ellison or any of her songs for another decade.
Time is like that. Fluid.
Real time I mean, not what we keep by clocks and calendars. If it were only that, it would come and go and leave us alone.
If any one emotion ruled me in the Summer of 1979 (and the several years that led up to and away from it, in turn), it was Fear.
If any one song has ever defined Fear, it’s the song Lorraine Ellison is most known for.
Her best-known song has two people in it–call them the Leaver and the Left Behind. My greatest Fear, in the Summer of 1979, was being either one of those people.
I spent the Summer of 1979 having a good time…and failing to deal with my Fear.
I spent an hour last week trying to decide–yet again, as I have, off and on again, for nearly forty years–whether I’d trade every good thing that’s ever happened to me (and there have been quite a few) for the chance to go back and face my Fear, not only for the sake of repairing the damage I did to myself but the damage I now suspect I did to someone else who hardly ever knew I existed.
Heavy, I know. But seeing those pine trees in that one spot where I really wanted to sit again and wonder if it was ever really all that big a deal, made me feel forty years was a thousand…and an eye blink.
I came to no new conclusions. One thing I do know. The song Lorraine Ellison is known for–recorded on the one afternoon where she was the greatest singer in the world, deeper than Aretha, more intense than Janis, a year ahead of either being known for anything worthwhile–is the only record that can make me believe, for three minutes at least, that I might possibly have done the right thing.
[Note: This is oh-by-the-way, but if anyone ever wants to know whether Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spots are sometimes purely political, I recommend listening to Lorraine Ellison, who, even without “Stay With Me,” is ten times the singer Nina Simone or Joan Baez ever were, and ask yourself why exactly they’re in the Hall and, if you brought up Ellison’s name at a Nominating Committee meeting, no one would even know what you were talking about.]
The latest immigration “humanitarian crisis” probably came to a head today, with Peter Fonda tweeting that Baron Trump should be put in a cage and gang raped (I won’t link…you can find it easily enough if you’re interested) and Donald Trump promising to end the wailing and gnashing of teeth and sign an executive order overturning the laws passed by Bill Clinton with the understanding, previously adhered to by Bush the Younger and Barack Obama, that they would be selectively, rather than faithfully, enforced.
I was going to let it all go, but Fonda’s additional insistence that mobs target the children of Border Patrol agents by “scaring” them (which I assume need not stop at caging and raping them), put me in mind of what it’s really like to be anywhere near the front lines of human suffering.
My parents were appointed home missionaries for the Florida Panhandle by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. My mother was 60 at the time, already in terrible health. She passed away in 1987. My father was 59. He retired in 1989.
Perhaps things have changed since (I doubt it but I haven’t checked), but, in those days, the Panhandle was the dumping ground for Florida’s refuse population, home to most of the major state and federal prisons, the state mental hospital and the state’s largest and most notorious reform school.
The latter is where my father began his road to mission work by volunteering while he was still attending the nearby bible school. He was led to volunteer by a good friend of ours, a minister in training, like my father, who was already witnessing there.
His name was Joe.
What Joe and my father and, health permitting, my mother (whose biography convinced the Mission Board to take a chance on an oddball fifty-nine-year-old man and his ailing wife) did was minister to the lost: prisoners, inmates, mental patients, people abandoned in jails or nursing homes (often by their families), kids in reform school for rapes and murders.
My father once asked a twelve-year-old why he had killed his brother–Because he beat me up. How often? Every day. Was there no one to stop it? I did.
It’s a hard school, helping the forgotten.
Encountering, in the abstract, a tiny fraction of what Joe and my parents, and thousands like them who dedicate their entire lives to missions or social work, see in the flesh every day, broke Peter Fonda’s admittedly feeble mind. And made him feel good about himself.
Those who do the hard work never get to feel good.
They enter each day knowing that they will minister to a thousand in hopes of saving one. That they’ll be mocked or ignored or patted on the head when they fail and get “certificates of achievement” when they succeed. (A dear friend’s mother volunteered at a battered women’s shelter for three years, got such a certificate and a handshake from the Governor of Florida…and promptly split for California to run a pot farm. Did I mention it’s a hard school?)
One of my father’s best achievements was getting local tomato farmers to allow anyone who wished to come on designated days and claim the “culls” (perfectly edible tomatoes with small imperfections which are left to rot because they don’t look pretty on grocery store shelves). The chief beneficiaries were the migrants who picked the best tomatoes in the first place. That such an action has to be fought and bargained for tells you a lot about the world–and a lot of what you have to deal with if, by chance, you don’t get to sit in a Hollywood mansion and cherry pick your fights because you don’t like the guy in the White House.
When it’s your life, you don’t get to ignore sex trafficking and slave labor–as nearly every sobbing Hollywood celebrity managed to do for decades when the office they now deem responsible was held by people they voted for.
When it’s your life, you don’t get to ignore any of it–because it’s your life, the one you chose.
Your work is never done, or even ameliorated, and the “help” offered by those who are fueled by the grievance of the moment is worse than useless.
But one thing you (and those you live with) learn in such work, is that fighting fire with fire is never an option.
You are not permitted to hate. You are not permitted to scream back: Not at the people who swear in your face for trying to help them; not at the endless stream of bureaucrats (be they religious, corporate or government) who threaten your pension if you fail to sign a requisition for funds in triplicate; not at the likes of Peter Fonda, who ride in when there’s a movie to promote, a headline to be made, an emotion to be fed, and disappear whenever there’s real trouble. No one. No hatred. Ever.
And what do you get?
My father–healthy as a forty-year-old and uniquely suited by both temperament and experience to weather the emotional maelstrom–was forced into retirement at sixty-nine (he only made ten years because the people at the top of the chain, who remembered my mother’s biography–and her sacrifice–insisted that he be allowed to work until he could qualify for his hundred-and-twenty-a-month pension). The nonprofit clothes closet and food bank he had operated for years, so successfully that the honchos who had laughed at such an idea would have been forced to call it a miracle if they had believed in such things, closed in a matter of months. These days, such centers–many run by religious organizations, including my fellow Southern Baptists, specialize in “helping” immigrants. For profit, of course.
My mother spent the last three years of her life breaking down into uncontrollable, wailing sobs when an abused child appeared on a television screen or was even mentioned in a conversation.
Our friend Joe blew his brains out.
That’s what’s waiting for you when you decide to care in the manner that does not allow you to escape or forget or pretend your righteous anger has solved anything.
That and forever wondering if enough of you, who are trained to stand against the wind, will be left to make a difference when Peter Fonda and the like, who call for gang-raping children in the name of righteousness today with perfect confidence that the wind is at their backs, are running for the hills, wondering when the weather vane turned, and why the mob in which they placed so much misbegotten faith wants to set them on fire.
Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish-American baseball star. Also subject of the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, whereby hangs a tale, of identity…and other things.
I found this (which I strongly recommend to all my readers) linked to a Terry Teachout re-tweet.
The original tweet read, in part: “I have had two Jewish friends in the last week tell me that their families have moved money out of the UK ‘just in case we have to leave’.”
I imagine the feeling in the rest of “civilized” Europe is, if anything, more widespread.
Should this general unease turn to panic (rational or irrational), Jews will be down to, at most, a few destinations: Israel, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and here.
The tweet, and Mr. Jacobson’s column, brought to mind a memory.
About twenty years ago, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ baseball star of the 1930s and 40s (despite missing three years serving in WWII, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times apiece), was the subject of a good documentary which made the rounds of the art-house circuit.
There was a theater in Tallahassee (now long gone, alas) which showed offbeat movies, so I had a chance to see it on the big screen. The nominal narrative thread was Greenberg’s 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (60, set in 1927–Greenberg’s attempt, which came up two short, perhaps because umpires wishing, for especially unsavory reasons, to preserve Ruth’s record, squeezed the strike zone on him in the season’s final weeks, was the last real run at it until Roger Maris broke the record in 1961).
But the movie’s real reason for being was to showcase Greenberg’s struggles–and triumphs–as the first great Jewish-American baseball star.
I saw it with a close friend. When we were walking out, she asked if I had ever heard of Hank Greenberg before (she hadn’t). I had been a baseball stat freak in my youth so, yes, I had heard of him.
“I never knew he was Jewish, though,” I added.
“Seriously?” she said. “Greenberg?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.”
It’s true. I wasn’t.
She still found my ignorance a little hard to believe, so, for proof, I gave her another, better, example.
My first eight years of public school, in any class where seats were assigned alphabetically (which was most of them), I was always seated next to a girl whose last name was Roth. She was quiet, soft-spoken, studious, got exceptional grades. Her best friends were other girls–not always as soft-spoken–who also got exceptional grades. But even among them, she was counted elite. Not just by girls. The same boys (who also got exceptional grades–their fathers were doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers) who were awed by my ability to recite the batting and home run champions for every year the National and American Leagues had been in existence, were even more in awe of her–every single day.
I moved after the eighth grade and it was only years later, after I saw the Godfather movies (one of which featured a Jewish gangster named Hyman Roth) and read a novel called Goodbye, Columbus, a plainly autobiographical story by an author named Philip Roth, that I realized it was just possible the girl I sat next to all those years was also Jewish.
To this day, I don’t know it for sure. It just seems a pretty safe assumption.
Had I known it then, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.
Except to note it as an interesting anecdote about my childhood (that I probably sat next to a Jewish girl in school without having any clue she was Jewish), I don’t think anything about it now.
Like I told my friend: I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.
Assuming she was Jewish, though, my knowing it would have made one possible difference.
It would have meant that, if she was ever attacked or insulted for her Jewishness (or any other quality that left her in a lonely minority), it would have been my duty to come to her defense.
Whether I would have had the courage to do so–or the wit or strength to do so effectively–there is no way of knowing. Of all our motley public school crew, I may have been the only person less likely than she was to speak without being spoken to, to break my own public persona and assert myself in a circumstance where all of us–not just the studious ones–were expected to be quiet.
Had I acted according to my conscience, it would have been a supreme act of the will.
Instinct and my nature would have played no part.
My instinct–then as now–was to stay in the shadows, and observe.
As it happens, it never came to that. If the girl I sat next to in the deep South of the 1960s and 70s was ever made uncomfortable for having a Jewish name–and I don’t say she wasn’t–I wasn’t aware of it.
But if it had come to pass that she was insulted for being Jewish, and I knew it and failed to defend her, I would have been both keenly aware of my failure and ashamed of it. I would have known I needed to ask forgiveness for the sin of forgoing my faith in a testing hour.
I was raised to pay no attention to people’s names. and I was raised to ask, of my own volition, without prompting by ritual, for forgiveness of my sins–all sins, conscious (as this would have been) and unconscious–from the God of my faith.
And to seek to redress the consequences of those sins where possible. That would have included apologizing to Miss Roth and making my future willingness to stand by her side known to any possible tormentors.
Else living with immense guilt and a moral assurance that I was a coward.
It was a hard school, my faith.
It still is.
These days, it is most often called Evangelical Christianity. How it came to be called that in common parlance (when we never used the term ourselves in any church I attended growing up), and then came to be mingled with, and deliberately mistaken for, any number of other things–including, most ridiculously, the Shadow Force that runs the Republican party–is a subject for another day.
I will only say for now that, having known literally thousands of my fellow “evangelicals,” and having been made familiar with their carefully deliberated core beliefs in the most stringent intellectual and moral circumstances (among other things, my father attended a bible college when I was in high school–that was the reason we left the place where I had sat next to Miss Roth in school all those years), I have always found it amusing to note the tendency of the great thinkers of the age to mock us for our unwavering support of Israel one minute and accuse us of the rankest anti-Semitism the next.
That, too, is a story for another day.
Don’t worry. If I live long enough, I’ll get to all of it sooner or later.
These days, however, reading stories like Mr. Jacobsen’s, I find it all a bit less amusing, a bit more alarming.
Well aware as I am of my tribe’s actual sins–more aware than any without it, and most within it I assure you–I take cold comfort in knowing that, of all the tribes who might produce a person likely to spit on a Jew, in modern England or anywhere else, none is as unlikely as mine.
But, as we are all forced to contemplate the next run for the shadows–as Evangelicals themselves begin wondering, not without some justification, whether we’ll be left standing when the world is through with accusing us of being the secret cabal that runs everything and thirsts for the Apocalypse (supposed to be the real reason we support Israel, for instance)–I still haven’t forgotten my tribe’s most valuable lesson, one I’d have learned from no other that operated in my world, not even Miss Roth’s or Mr. Jacobson’s, concerned, as they must be, with their own interests and their own survival:
When you raise your children in the way they should go, teach them to pay no attention to people’s names.
And, like those who are not afforded this luxury, be ready to depart for some other land–or the next life–at a moment’s notice.
Well ain’t this a kick. I’m on a little bit of a Joe Jackson binge and I decide to look up one of my favorite singles from the black hole that was engulfing the Pop Charts from 1977–1980 or so, which was this one…from 1979:
Which, even at the time, I knew had nicked something or other from this (let me know if you miss the connection and I’ll be happy to point it out)…
Now, I never thought too much about this. Quoting/covering Shangs records was de rigueur for punk/new wave types (among others). I doubt any pre-punk act contributed more language, attitude or zeitgeist to every form of alternative music from the late sixties to yesterday morning.
And mostly that’s been acknowledged. Not by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or anything, but by the influenced acts themselves (The Dolls, Ramones, Blondie, Pink Floyd, Any Winehouse to name only the more obvious).
All these years I just assumed Joe had done the same.
Then I read this (from Songfacts):
Now, that is just one of those songs that started with the title. I heard that phrase somewhere and I thought that could be a kind of funny song about gorgeous girls going out with monsters.
Hmmmm. He heard that phrase…somewhere. And couldn’t quite pin down where it might have come from.
Surely not from growing up in England.
You know. The country where the song that starts “Is she really going out with him?” hit #11 in 1964.
When Joe was ten.
And didn’t go higher because it was banned.
And hit #3 in 1972.
When Joe was 18….wonder if he was listening to the radio by then?
And hit #7 in 1976.
When Joe was 22…by then, maybe?
Come on, Joe.
Nothing could make me love “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” less…but you’re better than that.
I mean, dude. I still got the 45…
…and it’s one of those they’ll have to pry from my cold, dead fingers.
Because it’s one more little sliver of proof that, unlike me and probably you, the Shangri-Las will never die!
My first instruction in the history of the Civil War was from the Soviet Agent who wrote the book pictured at the right.
His name was Charles Flato and you can read all about him on the internet now if you wish. But in 1968, when seven-year-old me received this as a present (not even my birthday!) from my father, whose inscription (my name and the date 4/22/68) is still on the fly-leaf, one could have been forgiven for thinking his credentials impeccable. The Golden Book of the Civil War was “Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War” and came with an introduction by Bruce Catton, the sober Yankee professor–Michigan born and bred–and founding editor of American Heritage, who was then (along with Allan Nevins, of Illinois) the reigning popular authority on the subject in question (a position now shared by the New Yorker Ken Burns and the North Dakotan James McPherson).
Flato himself was a “freelance” writer, working for magazines like American Heritage no doubt, when he penned the book for publication in 1960. The book was widely distributed to say the least. I don’t know how many copies were published or sold, but it was probably north of a million. If I wanted to sell my Eighth Edition from 1968, on Amazon or AbeBooks–which I would do some time after I let go my left arm–it would fetch something like four dollars.
I knew nothing about the backgrounds of the men who controlled the Civil War Narrative for “young readers” when I devoured the book in my youth, or when I referred to its battle maps (still the best I’ve seen in the lifetime of interest they spurred in that subject) in later years to give myself a clear set of referential aids to the mind’s eye before my actual eyeballs encountered the battlefields at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Murfreesboro (I regretted not refreshing my memory before still later visits to Vicksburg and Shiloh–I’ll not make that mistake in the future when I finally make it to Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam.)
Had I known, I doubt it would have made any difference to my appreciation of the book in question, or the later books I read or documentaries I watched, virtually all written or directed by Yanks.
One thing I understood about history–was given to understand both by my own instinct and my imminently practical parents–was that its always written by the winners.
I grew up then, in the deep South, with a very distinct view of the Civil War.
The view went for my Democrat father, who had attended a Tennessee college founded by an Abolitionist. It went for my rock-rib North Carolina Republican mother, who knew Democrats, up close and personal, as the people Franklin Roosevelt cut deals with to keep Jim Crow in place in return for the Solid South’s White Supremacist electoral votes.
Be proud of your heritage, your family, etc., then…..
And thank God the Yankees won.
Also, thank God it’s over!
In the sixties and seventies, that was as typical a Southern upbringing as any other.
And it was the only view I knew until I was coming on fourteen and we moved from Central Florida to North Florida.
That’s where I soon discovered that the Civil War was not over and was further surprised to learn that anyone born south of Gainesville was…a Yankee!
When I say surprised, I mean as in so surprised I forgot to laugh.
I really regret that missed opportunity, because laughing doesn’t seem to be an option anymore.
Too bad, because rooting around on Wikipedia this morning, trying to find out who Charles Flato was, I discovered that, besides being a Soviet agent in WWII (and likely afterward–the Soviets weren’t known for letting their agents just walk), and the author of a book designed to perpetuate a vision of the Civil War in line with Bruce Catton’s or Ken Burns’s (that is was worth it….and over….and worth it because it was over), was that he was a good enough friend of Suze Rotolo to will her his car when he died.
What Suze Rotolo was famous for–besides staunch leftiness–was the way she let herself be forever defined by her clinging devotion to a freewheelin’ young man, who had recently begun calling himself Bob Dylan, on the cover of his second album…and would drop her the minute Joan Baez came calling.
Now that’s really the sort of thing that should make you laugh out loud. And if there wasn’t all this talk about how we’re headed for a second Civil War, I’m sure I would have.
As it lay, I had to settle for a rueful smile.
I say all this to remind everyone–yet again–that I am not opposed to removing Confederate statues.
Nor am I opposed to leaving them standing.
Couldn’t care less.
I do care about what’s coming next–about seeing what’s behind the sudden fervor that has mobs of educated white people assaulting Bad Monuments to prove they themselves are not Bad People, even though everyone who ever fought to assure their Monument Assaulting Privilege was Very Bad Indeed.
And what I see is the same old, same old. The angry face of the mob.
I see it growing and growling in the heart of an Empire–not a nation–that is poised to go the way of the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Hohenzollern Empires at the end of the Great War. I see it coming because I see there is already nothing to hold us together when the wind blows–and nothing will have to become less than nothing before it becomes more than nothing again.
Or, as the freewheelin’ young prophet had it….
If you see something different–something other than the waters of oblivion–peace be upon you.
I hope you’re right. Really I do.
For now, just remember that History does not have Wrong or Right sides.
It has Winning and Losing sides.
I know the modern American has been thoroughly brainwashed into believing otherwise, that Right will make Might.
But even when I was seven–soaking up Yankee and Soviet versions of my own region’s history and thinking no more of it then than I do now–I knew the winners get to decide about the whole Right and Wrong thing. That the only real Lesson of History is always the same.
So it is as we watch Lee and Jackson fade into our History.
So it will be when it’s Jefferson and Washington–and Lincoln’s–turn.
The only question now, for the people who think the old Liberal/Conservative divide that sustained the Enlightenment and the first two hundred years of the American Experiment still holds, and that they’ll get to opt out of the Future, is what you’ll do when it’s not Robert E. Lee’s statue the Neo-Nazi Fascists and Antifa Marxists are fighting over but the Jefferson Memorial, like it’s Weimar all over again.
Whose side will you be on then? Whose side will you be on when “Liberal” and “Conservative” are no longer an option?
Better decide now, because the people who will be coming for whatever your cherished version of History is have one thing in common.
They aren’t going to let you sit that one out.
And they aren’t going to give you a whole lot of time to think.
I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.
That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.
It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.
It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.
Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).
Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.
It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.
Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.
So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.
But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.
Could she hold….that note?
I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.
So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.
I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.
I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.
Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.
Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?
I mean, she can…
But can she really?
I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.
Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.
(This was occasioned by an online poll seeking to name “The Best Album of 1979.” In something like the round of sixteen, the Clash’s London Calling (12/14/79) was pitted against Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (10/19/79). Given the typical voting demographic for such contests, the Clash were a guaranteed easy winner. And, as someone who is not averse to participating in such exercises now, and was positively enthusiastic about breaking rulers to “Death or Glory” then, I can say I probably would have voted for London Calling myself if I had worked up the energy to cast a vote. No shame in that for Damn the Torpedoes. In purely musical terms (i.e. the terms in which the premiere punk bands so often failed), London Calling is one of the most exciting albums ever made, the more remarkable because it’s a double. Then again, Petty could never be accused of the kind of naivete that manages not to notice that when “one or two” evil Presidentes “have finally paid their due” it’s usually courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, the point of the spear of a Military Industrial Intelligence Complex which has since developed sufficiently dread Leviathan characteristics that records like London Calling end up sounding like helpless bleats if you pay too much attention to the politics behind all that wondrous noise. Put another way, if I want to feel sufficiently detached from my surroundings to keep from screaming as I cruise through the American Night, running (albeit mostly in my head these days) along the crumbling superhighways of the Rust Belt or the Deep South or the West Coast or simply sitting in the Den Where I Keep My Records, I’ll play Damn the Torpedoes over London Calling every time. Same if I want to engage.That’s probably why I don’t end up participating in many of these straight up-or-down things. Still, arriving as it did at pure random from the internet ether, the main effect of this particular bracket was to remind me that, in the days when the 70s were turning into the 80s, “Train in Vain” and the hits from Damn the Torpedoes (“Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl”) were the most exciting things on the radio. if not the only exciting things on the radio. And thereby hangs a tale….)
Thanks to Rock and Roll Time, I know what I was doing in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Feb. 12, 1980.
I was going to see my mother in the hospital.
That, in itself, would not be memorable. My mother (b. 1919) was in the hospital a lot between 1960, when she had me, far too late in life for a woman in already fragile health, and 1987, when she passed away. Over time, the visits all ran together.
The only reason I recall this particular visit well enough to look up the date (no, I didn’t note it at the time, though I probably should have), is what happened while I was driving from our house in the Florida Panhandle to Dothan, Alabama’s Southeast Alabama Medical Center.
What happened was “Train In Vain.” It was the best new thing I had heard on the radio in at least three years. I knew it was new because it was everywhere, something no record older than a few months ever was. You could only pull about three stations that played pop music in the area (well, at least if you drove a ’71 Maverick with an AM-only radio). I kept punching between all three because, no matter how often I heard this mysterious new record which had obviously just been released (nothing hit that suddenly everywhere unless it was release day), I wanted to hear it again.
I also wanted to know what it was called.
Over twenty miles to the hospital, and, an hour or two later, twenty miles back, I heard it six times on three different stations.
Some dee-jay finally said it was “the new one from the Clash.”
I’d barely heard of the Clash and, as far as the radio in the Deep South was concerned, they didn’t have any “old” ones. Anyway, he didn’t reveal the important information: the name of the freaking record.
I wasn’t too worried. The name of the record was obviously “Stand By Me.” Or “You Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “(You Didn’t) Stand By Me. Or “(You) Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “Didn’t Stand By Me.”**
One of those.
Well, really, it didn’t matter. I mean anything that exciting that hit the radio that hard was going to be in heavy rotation for months. Somewhere, some time, some dee-jay would spill the beans….just in case I hadn’t tracked in down in some local record bin, under the letter “S.” Or “Y.” Or “D.”
One of those.
A funny thing happened though.
Make that a few funny things.
First funny thing: The next time I heard it on the radio was on a college station. Twenty-five years later.
Second funny thing: It wasn’t in any of the usual record bins. Not under “S.” Not under “Y.” Not under “D.” I tried riffing through a few huge bins (45 bins were still huge in those days, even in places like North Florida and South Alabama), to see if I could spot something–anything–by the Clash.
No such luck.
And that all led to the third funny thing…
A few months went by. One day I went into a department store in Dothan (Woolworth? Woolco? Some chain whose name I’ve forgotten? The memory hazes). It was a location I wasn’t used to frequenting and I was there for something else (a tire patch? a quart of oil?…the memory hazes) but I decided to see if they had a record bin.
They did. A small one. One small enough I could actually flip through every record. If I only had a reason.
I didn’t really. I knew department stores were no place to find what I considered “interesting” records. I could see, after looking at the first few records in the bin, that it was mostly the crap that made me stop listening to the radio that year.
(Which crap exactly? The memory does what the memory does…and you wonder why I don’t do drugs!)
But, still….it was a small bin. No more than a couple of hundred records. Probably not more than fifty titles.
I was about half-way through when a kid came wandering into the area. He was a big kid. Dressed in the redneck uniform. Jeans, boots, flannel work shirt. Just about old enough to drive. (Except for the boots, I was probably dressed the same….you know how it is, the memory hazes. But I always wore sneakers in those days. That was how you cold tell me from the rednecks. Kid I was looking at wouldn’t have been caught dead in those things.)
I was flipping idly through the records, not really imagining that he was there for a 45. He looked more like somebody interested in a set of speakers for his pickup. Either way, he did something I usually avoided like the plague. He signaled the employee who was watching over the electronics department, making sure kids like us didn’t steal anything for help.
The young man came at the kid’s call, very polite.
Very politely, the kid asked if they had “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
I was past the “H”s by then but I kept shut about it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen “Here Comes My Girl” but, since I wasn’t specifically looking for it (already had the album), I thought I could have seen it and not really taken note.
The employee in charge of watching over us said if they had it, it would definitely be under “H.”
They looked. It wasn’t there.
Then they wandered over to the album section.
The employee was trying to talk the kid into buying Damn the Torpedoes when this came under my hand….in the “T'”s.
I did a long double-take. I held on tight. It was the only one.
The kid who had come looking for “Here Comes My Girl” was telling the store clerk he’d really like to buy the album. Except he didn’t have the money. For the single, yes. Not the album.
I thought: “This industry does not work very well.”
Tom Petty was the kind of square who named his songs after the choruses. The kind of square who gets voted out in the round of sixteen by the hip kids four decades down the line. The kind of square who got the jeans-and-boots crowd looking for his single, which would actually be right where it could be easily found….if the store had it in stock.
And he was also the only other guy on the radio just then who had records as exciting as the one I now knew was, for some silly reason, called “Train in Vain.”***
I felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man who had found himself in a position with which I was intimately familiar. No bread….
So I did something I really never did. I offered my sympathies and some advice.
“That’s a really good album,” I said. “It’s worth saving up for.”
Maybe if the store clerk hadn’t still been standing there it would have gone over better–like a secret we could keep to ourselves.
As it stood, the kid was in no mood to thank me for my priceless advice.
“Yeah, well, I really only like that one song,” he said. “That’s a great song.”
He had felt a need to be accommodating to the store clerk, who was only doing his job.
Me, I was just butting in. It occurred to me that he probably had the money for the album. He had the look of a kid who was already working somewhere. He also had the look of a kid who only wanted what he wanted and didn’t need any advice from strangers about what that might be. He had the chip on his shoulder you found–and still find–in a certain kind of Tom Petty fan. The kind who are mostly from the South and whose other records are mostly by hardcore country singers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Or perhaps it had just been a long day. I was never to know because, on that note, he stalked away.
The store clerk looked at me and shrugged. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a sort of “what are ya’ gonna do?” look.
Well, I knew what I wanted to do.
I held up my copy of “Train in Vain,” and said:
“I’m ready to check out.”
(NOTE: **The actual lyric is “Did you stand by me?” I still hear “You didn’t stand by me.” I still don’t know–or care–if either way makes sense.)
(***To avoid confusion with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” Wikipedia now tells me. I’m not sure I believe that one either.)
Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.
“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.
“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”
(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)
Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.
The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:
Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.
I never went near it.
Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.
Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.
But why take chances?
Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.
Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.
That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.
The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.
My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.
It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:
For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”
Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.
Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.
And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.
I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.
One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.
I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).
Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.
Oh, no, far from it.
For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.
So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.
I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.
Such was not the case.
The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.
I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.
And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.
By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.
What to do?
Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.
My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.
It took me until the summer to wear him down.
We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.
And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”
Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).
Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.
Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)
Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)
Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.
On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.
I had one clear intention.
That was to buy “December, 1963.”
I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.
And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.
But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.
It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.
Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.
It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.
And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.
What to do?
Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.
Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:
“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.
I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).
Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”
And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.
The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.
This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?
You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.
For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.
Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.
In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.
Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.
I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?
It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.
The Four Seasons on Broadway?
Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.
I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.
I figured I could just barely manage it.
And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.
I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).
I began to have second thoughts.
I decided to do a little more research.
I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?
Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.
So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”
It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.
Jersey boys indeed.
I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.
I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.
But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.
To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.
So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).
Long and reliable then.
So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.
And I still wasn’t quite convinced.
Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.
I kept looking for a sign….
And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:
That’s when I knew I was going to New York.
* * * *
So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.
I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)
And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…
I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.
And still I wondered.
Would it really be worth all that?
Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.
Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.
Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
* * * *
Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.
I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.
Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.
Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.
I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”
Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.
It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.
Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.
That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.
The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….
which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…
…the only thing the show was missing.
But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.
My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.
*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.
I was in junior high in 1973. We had a touchy-feely curricula that included courses like “Worthy Use of Leisure Time” (where, among other things, we learned to play tennis with hard-to-break wooden paddles, easy-to-break stringed racquets being way too expensive) and “World of Work.”
I find that my memories of the latter have now been boiled down to two gentlemen:
The first was an “Agriculture” teacher who frequently snorted at the ridiculousness of the former, once showed us an egg he had plucked from his hen-house that morning with a half-formed chick still inside, and had his smart aleck assistant answer the question “What is the longest war in history?” after the rest of us had shot our bolt. (I had opined The Hundred Years War….after which virtually every other kid named virtually every other war you ever heard of, each of them apparently convinced that every war ever fought had lasted longer than a century–it wasn’t one of the classes that gathered up the smart kids).
Answer: “The war between man and bugs.”
Ah, the seventies.
I honestly don’t recall the name of the course the second gentleman taught (I’ll call him Mr. J.). It probably had “social” in the title, though. He was a youngish, cool, hip black guy. I think every junior high was required to have one back then. But, actually, as he liked to remind us, he was mixed race, which he assured us meant that, in the coming revolution, he would be shot by both sides.
Another thing he told us was that, in that same revolution–which he wasn’t advocating, just predicting–black people would have a distinct advantage. As I recall, his rap went something like: “Brother goes down to the mall and starts shooting, he’s gonna get fifty white people before the police shoot him. Probably take a few officers with him, too. Fifty to one. I like those odds.”
Honestly, we didn’t even think it was weird. Mr. J., he had it going on! Speaking the truth to the hopelessly square little seventh graders! We could dig it. We weren’t that hopelessly square.
I haven’t thought about him all that often over the years. Hadn’t thought about him in more than a decade I reckon.
Until I started hearing the reports from Dallas tonight, that is.
What, you thought the long hot summer I’ve been telling you about was going to be limited to Donald Trump rallies and art-house showings of Medium Cool?
I bet not.
And, hey, Mr. J, I can’t believe you didn’t play this for us!