Thursday, April 21, 2011

On the Road Again

May the wind take your troubles away.
May the wind take your troubles away.
Both feet on the floor two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away. 
Cars and music. Could one exist without the other? Stop for a moment and look back on your life. How many times have song and road converged to perfection? More than you can remember? Think back on the soaring highs and crashing lows you've lived with your hands on the wheel, music in your ears, and the road before you. There is just something about the strictly mechanical act of driving when coupled with the free rhythmic flow of music. It's a very situational thing. Mountain curves, long straight shots across plains, fast songs, slow songs, happy songs, sad songs, morning, night, driving fast, driving slow, sitting still. You just never know when the road and music will join in harmony.

Alone or with others, sometimes we feel the discomfort of being able to find nothing to listen to. You dig through your CD's, you scan your iPod, you search through Sirius (all while carefully watching the road, of course), but you find nothing that fits the mood; nothing that can translate the doldrums of the moment into some higher joy or understanding. You have little to do but sit and half listen to whatever is on. No fun.

Then there are the times that you create with a calculated play. Think back to a random Friday night at some point in your very young adulthood. Four people in the car, all big fans of the same band. You've all grilled out on the back deck and gotten yourself "ready" for the night. It's time to go. The bar is waiting and "people" are "out" who you most certainly want to see. The night is young and calling. It's dusk on a summer eve and cicadas are yielding to crickets. You load up in your friend's SUV. It's got a really good sound system. He cranks it up and rolls down the windows. It's time to _go_. He hands you a book of CD's. Flip, too mellow. Flip, nobody knows this stuff. Flip, too aggressive. Flip, bingo. It's the perfect CD. Casey Kasem himself could do no better. You put it in and flip straight to That Track. As soon as the first note floats out of the speakers, smiles break out and heads start to bob. If you've really done well, high fives are exchanged. Of you _go_.  Little talking. Stop lights, turns, left, right, you could ride for hours (so long as the bars stayed open while you did). Nothing random about it. You chose the tune but its perfect nonetheless.

Sometimes, music and driving combine to form joy. Recall going on a really good date with someone you had a crush on in your youth. Good times, plenty of laughing, never an awkward moment. You drop her off and it is obvious the date has gone juuuuust right. Perhaps you get a kiss good night and a promise of another date in the future. You walk back to your car trying not to skip and hop - gotta look cool. You non-chalantly throw the key in the door as the porch light goes out. As your butt hits the seat and the door slams shut, you stop, take a deep breath, then let out a suppressed smile. You crank the car exclaiming "yes!" between clenched teeth - gotta look cool. You'd been listening to the oldies station to keep things upbeat and fun. As you crank the car, the joy of your moment is greeted by the quiet little arpeggio that begins Dobie Gray's "Drift Away." The road unreels before you in a ribbon of unadulterated glee.
Give me the beat boy and free my soul,
I wanna get lost in your rock 'n' roll and drift away!
Sometimes, however, we drive when we are sad. How many times have you left somewhere in your car feeling crushed for one reason or another? Think back to when you were young. You've just left a party where you found out you'd been betrayed by someone you thought was your friend. Gut punch. Bad feeling. Furious, embarrassed, and hurt, you get in your car to head out. You are done with the disloyal scad. Finished. Friendship over. Your other (more loyal) friends run out to the car and beg you to say, but you brush them off and peel out of the driveway. You grab the first tape you can reach in the passenger seat and jam it into the deck without looking. After five seconds of hiss, your rage is fermented by the first notes of "Rearviewmirror" by Pearl Jam.  
I took a drive today
Time to emancipate
  . . . .
I seem to look away
Wounds in the mirror waved
It wasn't my surface most defiled
Head at your feet, fool to your crown
Fist on my plate, swallowed it down
Enmity gaged, united by fear
Tried to endure what I could not forgive
Saw things, so much clearer
Once you, were in my... rearviewmirror...
The music gives you a frame of reference. The further you drive, the more you understand. By the time you get to wherever you are going, the enlightenment of the music combined with the elixir of the open road and the wind in your face has calmed you down; composed you. Everything is going to be okay. How many times has it happened to you?  

But then there are Those Times. The perfect moments of serendipity where road and song join into one. Those Times could never be planned or created. Cameron Crowe painted this picture for us perfectly. Think the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous - music and asphalt combined to form enlightenment. I had my own such moment in the late summer of 1994. My dear friend Zackary and I had gotten off of our senior cruise and set out for summer school in Athens not a week later. Taking my cue from a "Top ____ Albums of all Time!" list in Entertainment Weekly, one of the first things I did in Athens was pick up a super special collector edition copy of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album on my first trip to Wuxtry Records. (Much, much more on this in future editions).  It was an exceedingly hard time in my young life for many reasons. Times were just bad. I finished summer school and drove my sister Beth's '91 Accord down to Panama City to meet my family for a beach trip. I was emotionally banged up and my head was not in the trip (or anything else). One night way after dark, I had to get away. I took the Accord out by myself. Turning left out of the resort onto highway 30, I rolled down all the windows, and soaked up the steamy haze of an August night on the Florida panhandle. I rode in silence for awhile. Somewhere out near Laguna Beach, the traffic starts to thin, the road starts to open up, and you can actually see the ocean. I gained speed and the tires started humming to the road, barely audible over the roar of the wind. The moon was low in the cloudless sky. Metallic sprinkles of light reflected off of the rippled black glass surface of the ocean to my left. The garish lights of the resorts in town put a glow in the sky behind me. It was one of those times in your young life when walking around strength seems hard to summon and your soul feels threadbare. The Accord had one of those old Pioneer six disc changers mounted in the trunk, and I had no idea what whoever drove the car last had been listening to as I stabbed the volume/power knob and turned it up. A whirling, dreamlike flutter reached out of the speakers and grabbed me followed by the straight shot of a drunken singer's voice:
Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine
With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye.
Oh, couldn't see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love.
Berber jew'lry jangling down the street,
Making bloodshot eyes at ev'ry woman that you meet.
Could not seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love. 
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song (you sing) your favorite tune.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun. 
For that unforgettable moment in time, everything was okay. The music and the road converged into one. "Warm, like the evening sun."  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Wait

"Just a little patience. Yeeeeeaaaahhhhh..."

September 16, 1991, 11:30 p.m. I am wide awake upstairs at my family‘s brick cottage on 14th Avenue in Cordele, Georgia. My bedroom is lit only by the single bulb lamp on my desk. The walls are plastered with the indicia of "rebellious" youth: posters of bands with names like "Poison," "Metallica," and "Motley Crue," Camel cigarette ads featuring "Joe the Camel" in leather bomber jackets and such. There's ignored homework spread out all over my bed and a half-eaten late night snack on my desk. I'm laying on my bed with my headphones on, listening to some band or another but not hearing it. I’ve been dressed and ready to go for over an hour. Finally, it's time. I stand up to leave. There are three twenty dollar bills rolled up tight in the front right pocket of my jeans. I pat anyway to make sure they're still there. Appointed in my black Guns ’n’ Roses t-shirt and Nike cross trainers, I kill my stereo, leave my bedroom, and tiptoe down the single flight of stairs. The third one from the top always creaked if you stepped in the middle. Shhhhhhh. I pull the back door open gingerly (it was hardly ever locked, even at night) but the old metal weather stripping makes its inevitable clatter. Shhhhhhhh. Mom knows I’m leaving, but everyone is sleeping and I can’t wake little sister Meg. I’ve been working on this for months, pleading with Mom in an effort to convince her that it was absolutely safe for me to be out in the O’Neal neighborhood on my bicycle after midnight. 

I slip outside. It‘s not summer but not fall on the coastal plain of Georgia; still muggy outside even approaching midnight. I pause to savor the moment. It’s finally almost here. The Day. The rock supernova that was Appetite for Destruction (a topic unto itself) had started to flicker around ‘88. The release of Lies in ’89 had kept the fire burning, but it was a mash up of the band‘s punk origin live recordings on the A-side with an all acoustic B-side; a bit hard for my young mind to digest. The nearly two years that followed were interminable for the faithful. For months and months and months, nobody had known when The Day would come. At first, there were vague hints, unconfirmed rumors and innuendo focused on one date or another. Then, there were the vicious teases declaring that this date or that was The Day, which gave way to the "no kidding I know someone whose cousin’s friend used to date the band’s manager and saw them on Sunset Strip back in ’85 and he told me for absolutely sure _____ is The Day." Rumors of the band breaking up and getting back together. Nooooo! I cannot say for certain how I finally got iron clad confirmation of when the waiting would end, but I believe it came in the form of an announcement by Riki Rachtman on Headbanger’s Ball. It would be September 16, 1991. The Day.  

That was a different time and news was harder to come by. In 1991, a person wanting information had essentially the same options of a similarly curious person in 1950: pick up the phone and call someone, cut on the television, read a printed source (newspaper, magazine, the family encyclopedias, etc.), head to the library. It was like the Stone Age compared to the information megagrid we live in today. Trying to figure out when The Day would come was thus frustrating for an impatient 14 year old. Metal Edge magazines came to the Big B drugstore down the street once a month. I could not bring them home because Mom would never tolerate that. So I’d ride my bike down there, get a Pepsi out of the machine out front (they were colder than the ones inside) and stand there staring at those pages for hours as if there was some enlightenment to be found in the angry grimaces of the pseudo warriors of Heavy Metal that graced the pages. I was young and full of energy that was as unbounded as it was unfocused. To nearly any 14 year old, there comes a period of time when you are pissed off at the World and the World is pissed off at you. (The truth of the matter in hindsight is that you are fortunate and blessed to have a warm home and parents who love you and provide for you, but you just can't see it that way when you are living on testosterone overload.) Heavy Metal thus gave a quarter generation of disenchanted (real and imagined) American youth an outlet for its collective anger … until Grunge came and wiped its cousin Metal right off the map, at which time another quarter generation had a whole new channel for its rage. “The news of revolution hit the air,” to quote Mike Cooley. But that’s a different story.          

Two singles off the records had hit that summer, both with accompanying videos. “You Could be Mine” came first. The world premeire was on the radio on a Saturday afternoon. In 1991, the only way you could hear a song before you got the tape or CD in your hands was to hear it on the radio. The only way you could hear the song more than once every few hours (assuming it was popular and on "heavy rotation") was to record it off the radio. I had thus camped out in my bedroom with the door shut waiting for the magic moment when it hit the airwaves of Rock 103, my quivering fingers perched on the “play” and “record” buttons. As soon as I heard the DJ say the word “premiere,” I hit them both. Hard. Stared into my player to make sure the tape was turning. It was. Good. No time for a mistake now. A massive kick drum explosion followed by followed by a looping guitar riff of increasing ferocity until. Bam! 

I’m a cold heartbreaker, fit to burn
And I’ll rip your heart in two,
And I’ll leave you lying on the bed!
Rock. And. Roll. Only the bass rumble that starts Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Crossfire” would shake me out of the trance and remind me to stop the tape.... Must call Mitch immediately...  Yes! Yes indeed! It’s awesome!

A couple of weeks later my dear childhood friends Jim and John Shipley came down from Perry and picked me up to take me to Amelia Island. I think it was July. Terminator 2 had pop culture abuzz and “You Could be Mine” was on the soundtrack. Jim had been 16 for about zero months and getting Mom to accede to a trip to the beach in his white Chevy Beretta with him driving had been a massive feat of parental manipulation (i.e., deception). The car didn’t need gas to run, only a constant stream of that song, followed by “Civil War,“ which was on the flip side, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. We must have driven 1,000 miles on that island that week. Besides an interlude of REM’s Out of Time album (Jim was a couple of years older and his tastes slightly more refined) and a trip to the theatre to watch Days of Thunder, I think it was a non-stop blast of “Yoooou could be miiiiine, but your waaaay, out of liiiiine…” 

By late summer, the second single had dropped. “Don’t Cry.” Even though I was too young to get a learner‘s permit to drive, that song made me feel like I’d loved and lost a thousand times.

Talk to me softly
There’s, something in your eyes.
Don’t hang your head in sorrow
And please don’t cry . . . 
That song could make an arm’s length slow dance at the school gym seem like a monumental life event. By the point of the super long drawn out “Toniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiuuhhhhiiiiiiiiiiuuuhhhht!” that ends the song (who knows whether Axl Rose could actually have held a note that long without computer assist -- I had my doubts even then), I was always nearly in violation of the directive that was the song’s title. By September of 1991, the swirl of rumors about The Day coupled with the exhilarating tease of the two advance singles had the rock world whipped into a state of ultimate anticipation.  

Back to 14th Avenue and September 16, 1991. It’s now 11:40 p.m. I slide open the door of the old garage, which unleashes its usual rumble creak. Shhhhhh. Can’t let Coach Fachini see me leaving or I might catch heat at golf practice (I was awful no matter how much sleep I got). I slip my cinnamon red 10 speed Kent Nottingham out of its dock and point it out of the old dirt driveway, down the concrete pitch at the end and right onto the darkness of 14th Avenue. I catch the slight downhill headed down towards First Street and feel the air on my face. There is no stopping me now. No cars on the road this time of night. Taking a left onto First Street under the orange light of the old streetlamp, I can see the shopping center that is my destination. Past the Episcopal Church on the right and still accelerating. Almost. There. An eternal minute later I blast past the Big B going too fast to be on a sidewalk and stop short of the Music Mart. Everybody there but me is certain to have arrived in Mustangs, Camaros, and trucks. Ten speeds will not seem cool to them.

The bells hanging from the door sound my arrival. The room is full of cigarette smoke and a band of late night miscreants and Metalheads that are far more “experienced” than me and infintely "cooler" by late 80's/early '90's Cordele standards. We are talking very long hair, tight ripped up black jeans, high top tennis shoes, leather jackets, and every sort “satan worshiper” (80’s shorthand for angry teen) overwrought death metal T-shirt imaginable. Some type of Heavy Metal is blaring from the stacked speakers at a volume loud enough to make interpersonal communication difficult. This is not the crowd I had promised Mom would be here. Taking a deep breath, I walk in. “Speeeeeence!” Good old Bob the store owner. He was my buddy and I spent hours a week talking to him, but now was the wrong time for him to be drawing attention to me. “What’s up, Bob,” I respond in a terrified half whisper to mask the crackling post- pubescence of my voice. A line has started to form at the counter. I don't know any of the thirty or so people packed into the store. Having nothing better to do, I eagerly jump in line and claim the third space. Most of the people there are far too “experienced” and “cool” to show any hurry to get up there and get in line. Unlike me, they have absolutely no curfew. Ever.      

11:59 p.m. The excitement builds. Tick. Tock. Bob can obviously start selling the things whenever but it is probably fun for him to watch all of us fret; those of us that aren't high or drunk, at least, and I am neither). FIVE, FOUR, THREE .... Bob pulls two boxes out and put them on the counter. There. They. Were. Perhaps 100 copies of Guns 'n' Roses, Use Your Illusion, volumes I and II. A box full of orange covers and a box full of blue. The Ben Hur of 80's and '90's Rock 'n' Roll! Bob takes out a previously opened copy of volume I and sticks it in the tape deck. Yes! All of a sudden I feel comfortable and cool. I was about to have the third, fourth, and fifth copies of both records to be sold in Cordele! (The twenties in my pocket belonged to me and my buddies Trey and Mitch.) These people are my friends

The line starts to move and my heart starts to accelerate. Two stacks of three each hit the counter in front of me. Kapow! I am almost afraid to touch them but the fear subsides quickly. As I scrape up my change, Bob tries to tell me something, but I am out the door. Fast. I place the tapes in the black saddle bag on the back of my bike. Gingerly. Never could I ever cause them any harm. Back by the Big B and the Pepsi machine at the speed of light. Off the curb and hard left out of the lot. Stand up on the peddles. Must. Go. Faster. Right onto 14th at the edge of control. Back out of the seat. I can't see but I don't care. Up into the driveway and down it with a cloud of moonlit dust behind me. Hit the garage at near full cruising speed and skid to a stop. Across the yard at a run, breathing hard and sweating. Stop at the door. Can't go in this fast. Can't wake up Meg. Crack the door and slip in. Can't hear the old metal weather stripping now. "Mom, I'm home" in a loud whisper and up the stairs like a bird taking flight. Miss the third step! Good. Into my bedroom. Close and lock the door. Hands trembling as I pry the cellophane off the tape. Crack it open. Savor the sharp smell of pent up plastic. Which side is side 1? There it is! Into the player. Grab the headphones. Lay back and close my eyes. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. It's just me and the music now. Time drags to a crawl and my thoughts collapse into a black hole with Axl Rose and his band on the other end ...
When you were young and your heart,
Was an open book,
Used to say live and let live....