Different Floors of the House

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ten Songs That Would Make My Mother Cringe...If She Only Knew...

A note before the storm: Here's a little story about a kid growing up in the 70's and 80's in America. Some of the content herein may not be suitable for all readers. There's nothing totally crass here, I think, but my opinion rarely matches up with anyone elses...

1. Freebird—Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not because she hates southern rock but because that’s the song Billy Schaefer was playing on his portable transistor radio when him and his cousin Jenny Cramer and me snuck out to the pipe at the swamp that summer. It was a huge concrete drainage pipe. It wasn’t even a pipe really, to us it was a tunnel. It was long and dark and smelled like swamp gas—which is pretty much like what the bathroom smells like after your dad takes a big dump. But on the other side of the tunnel was the secluded clearing where even the sun couldn’t see us. Billy would pay his cousin quarters to drop her pants for us. She was two or three years older than us and she called it “hot-buns” because she would force me to drop my pants and…well, you get the picture. Billy called it “humping”. But I kind of knew that word meant something else…

2. How Deep is Your Love?—Bee Gees. Because of what I saw when I ran in the house that day. Stupid Shane Travis had to chase me and Donnie Miller all the way home because Donnie said Shane’s girlfriend’s butt was as big as the Hindenberg. I didn’t really know what the Hindenberg was, but gauging from the size of Alicia Skidmore’s ass-end baggage, it had to be colossal. Anyway we split up at the edge of the woods behind the school. The plan was to meet back at Donnie’s house. He jumped over Mr. Greerdon’s hedgerow and outran The Juggs—Mr. Greerdon’s hungry-fanged Rotweiller. Shane and I stopped a few paces away from each other and watched Donnie disappear. I smirked off a taunting little smile—shouldn’t have done that. I ran out of breath turning the corner on Center Street. I had some ground on him, but he was big, I knew he wasn’t going to stop. I ducked into the True Value Hardware Store. I was out of breath and dripping wet with sweat. I thought I’d lost him, and pretended to be in the market for a new garden hoe, but there is a distinct sound the bells on the doors make when an angry fourteen year-old bully comes crashing into proximity with his prey. I bolted through the back, past the garden hoses and immature tomato plants, back through the warehouse and out the huge bay door. I never looked back. I just assumed he was on my case. I made it down Alton Street passed 43rd and finally to Donnie’s house on Shattuck. I blasted through the door. I had never knocked before since Donnie’s house was my after-school home. I wish I’d knocked that day. There were the Gibb boys squeaking out the worst love song ever. And there was Donnie’s older brother, Chad, and his girlfriend, in the buff, on the couch…which was doing some squeaking of it’s own.

3. Glory Days—Bruce Springsteen. Because that’s the song that was playing on Chad’s boom box when my cousin Billy hit a baseball through the windshield of Glenn Nevin’s brand new Toyota 4x4. Something about that rock and roll rhythm makes boys hit the ball harder than seems possible. And since the song glorifies baseball anyway, I think we should have blamed Springsteen for subliminally enhancing our 11 year-old physical prowess. Bet you didn’t know a song with an organ and a ukulele could be so potent. But it was—especially if you swung the bat right at the end of the verse, when the chorus hits that first power beat. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Curly Alfred (which was the “nice” nickname people had for him…all the boys called him Poopred Noodlehead) was best friends with Shane Travis—who everyone hated. So we all got together and decided to blame Noodlehead—who wasn’t even playing that day. Not that it makes anyone feel better, but I cried when I heard Noodlehead getting his ass whipped by his dad that night.

4. Once in a Lifetime—Talking Heads. Because this is the song that Tony put into the tape player the time that I found myself “behind the wheel of a large automobile”—my mom’s Ford LTD automobile. You see, Tony knew I could get the keys and his girlfriend lived way out in East County and I still owed him for beating up Chance Parker and he was leaving town and he would jump off the Freemont if he couldn’t see her one last time and his mom was drunk on the couch in her bathrobe and his sister was blowing coke smoke through the vents into his room… Ok, Tony had some issues, yeah, but I agreed to do it. The old tradition of getting what we deserve has been displaced by a sheer meaninglessness—I think that’s what the song says. But you can’t drive and attempt to sift David Byrne’s lyrics through the waters of that funky, new age…thing the band was doing. It’s dangerous. And I’m sorry that dog died, I really am, but Tony kept grabbing the wheel, laughing, pushing on my knee so I’d accelerate… There’s really nothing more to say. I’m sorry.

5. Wrapped Around Your Finger—The Police. I guess there’s a double meaning for me with this one. First, because of what my fingers were wrapped around that day: my first cigarette. Second, because of why I was smoking it: Maria Zora. My God, she was the world. Everything. Her hair, how it sparkled in the sunlight. And that smile, the one she had to tease me with. That song, a smooth, enticing melody intertwining with an echoing guitar that lingered like a stymied teen-age eruption of emotion. The song crept up louder and louder from some car parked at the bottom of the hill, and all I could think about was how laden with unrelenting truth it was. How she buried her toes in the sand as the swing gently swung. This was what love felt like, right? Like the feeling the song emotes?
Let me tell you. That girl was a witch. Biggest mistake of my teenage love life was falling for this vixen. You see, her sister Carmella, well she had it for me, big time. But I was to stupid to see it—or maybe I ignored it. We all went up to the park that day. They had all been smoking up there at the swings for quite some time, but I’d never tried it. I thought—I actually, literally, truly, for really real thought—if I smoked, Maria would like me. The thing about it is, I knew—I know I knew—she was the doom-bringing toxic-wrath bitchspawn of Lucifer. And Carmella, well Jesus man, Carmella was as sweet as any person I’ve ever met in all these years since. No one needs to know the details of my demise at the hands of this wretched Siren. Let me just say this: I am an idiot.
Now, twenty years later, Maria has been married and divorced three times (all ugly), Carmella moved away to New York or Miami or somewhere shiny to became a big shot journalist and I’m sitting here writing this with a cigarette burning in my ashtray.

6. Rock the Casbah—The Clash. It wasn’t the song playing in his car, it was the song playing in his house when we went in. “That crazy casbah sound”. Yeah.
I was at the homecoming game with my sister who decided to take off with her boyfriend to God knows where. That really pissed me off for some reason so I went behind the visitor bleachers to smoke a cigarette. Usually there were a few rockers hanging out there, but no one was around at that moment…except Marty Kilgore, who was about thirty years old and came to every game. He was sitting on the hood of that ’83 Corolla he had totally tricked out with teal and chrome. He could sense I was irritated and motioned for me to come over. I did. He offered to give me a ride home after we talked about the game for a minute or two. I agreed. He said he had to stop by his house to pick something up. He told me to come inside because he didn’t like leaving his car running in the heat. I did. He told me to sit on the reclining chair. I did. The song’s tinny resonance escaping some back room, the clapping percussions, the electronic jetfighters flying overhead, the raspy screech of words I couldn’t understand and those I knew too well:
“He thinks its not kosher
Fundamentally he cant take it.
You know he really hates it.”
And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

7. Bring it on Home—Led Zeppelin. Because this is the song my mom’s boyfriend was playing in his new CD player in his car when he picked me up from J.D.H. I still don’t know how he was able to get me out; he wasn’t my dad or anything, just my mom’s rich boyfriend with a Porsche and a CD player. The song starts out slow and bluesy, you know, and I was depressed and muddled. I knew I would be grounded at least until I was 32. He didn’t say anything, just put the Porsche in that special “I’m one cool mother fucker” gear that only Porsche’s have. We drove. Neither of us talked. The blues. He’d glance over at me every now and then, I could sense it, but I just stared out the window at the streaking tracers emanating from the highway lights. But then the song starts bustin’. He started dancing in his seat. It was the first time I can remember anyone dancing while sitting—and doing a damned good job of it. I’ll never forget that big ass smile and his wide, bright, happy eyes. He kept nudging me. “Can you dig it?” Nudge. “I know you can dig this.” Nudge, nudge. I guess I could “dig it” a little bit. I started bobbing my head slightly. He nudged me some more. I started getting into it, dancing, waving my arms around. I smiled, which made him laugh, which made me giggle hysterically which made Jimmy Page rip off an extra crazy riff, which made Robert Plant the happiest Tommy on the planet. Then, for three encapsulating minutes, the chaos of my teenage wasteland dissipated. We rolled up to my house and parked out front as J.P.J. brought it on home and the song ended. He told me he had straightened everything out and that, as long as I wasn’t dropping acid with my long-haired hoodlum friends at the train station anymore, my mother would never need to know about that night. And that, I certainly could dig.

8. The Temple of Syrinx—Rush. Because one of my long-haired hoodlum friends starting singing this song while we were breaking into the basement window of St. Ignatius. Actually, I was there with two other guys, and neither of them had long hair. In fact, we could probably just say they ran with the crowd that didn’t particularly care for hair all that much. Sledge, he was the guy that looked like what Sid Vicious would have looked like if he weighed 225 and had a swastika shaved into the side of his head, and Shea, who was a shorter, meaner version of Sledge and always had two or three switchblades hidden somewhere in that bomber jacket. Those were my partners in crime and wine was our mark. Shea said he knew where they locked it up. But when we got to the cabinet where the holy sacrament was supposedly kept, it was empty, save for a folded piece of paper. Sledge couldn’t read all that good, so he gave it to me. I tried to read it, but it was hard to do in the dark. Shea snapped open his Zippo, the one with the double lightning bolts on it, and I read the words in the flickering light: “If you want the wine, Mass is at 11 a.m. every Sunday. See you there. Father Mellhouse.” Shea got pissed and started knocking shit over at random, but Sledge just started singing louder. It sounded good in the cathedral. A crisp, acoustic echo. “We are the priests!” We sang at the altar. I mumbled the words I didn’t know, but Sledge knew the song by heart. We would have stayed longer, but Shea got mad when he found a candleabra under the pulpit. “A Candleabra? What the fucking whore is this Jew shit doing in here?” He shoved the thing under the flap of his jacket and marched off, der brave soldat Schweik, to dispose of it in the river. After the golden article of transgression had splashed down in the Willamette, we continued to sing:
“Look around this world we made
Equality our stock in trade
Come and join the brotherhood of man
Oh what a wide contented world
Let the banners be unfurled
Hold the red star proudly high in hand”
Blatant ignorance. No idea what we were singing. No idea what we were doing. No idea. That’s all.

9. Hey Joe—The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Because usually fag bashing was an organized event. But on this night it was completely and hopelessly random. For those who don’t know, fag bashing in the 80’s was nothing like it is today. Today some kid gets on Youtube and posts a comment like “this song is gay” and that kid has successfully fag bashed. In the 80’s though, the activity was a sport—or at least at times involved baseball bats or a three iron—but it always culminated in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I didn’t go in for it, wasn’t really my style. Sure, I talked like I hated any pretty thing that wouldn’t “screw to save his species”, but I didn’t really hate any isolated thing. What I hated was an undefined, intangible abstract only loosely described as “everything”. Saying I had nothing to do with fag bashing isn’t entirely a self-acquittal, however. In fact, my sins…well, they are vaster and infinitely sadder.
So we’re walking downtown on Park at about closing time. All the bars were pretty much emptied by then. In the 80’s downtown was pretty much dead after midnight…except for one area. I don’t know maybe we were drunk, or trippin’. But this guy, this flamer, you know the kind in straight clothes but with the Robert Palmer girl make-up and slicked back hair, comes sauntering up the street, smiling, lisping to himself, walking his gay hip-waving walk. Shea looks at me like he can’t actually believe this guy is going to keep walking toward us. Chris Zigler was with us that night. I was pretty sure “Ziggy”, as we called him back then, was schizophrenic, but everyone else just assumed he’d taken too many drugs into his system. Anyway, Ziggy and I stop while Shea advances toward the guy a few steps. The guy almost gets past us but, and I’ll never understand this, as he was almost past our hating gazes and on with his life, he stopped. “What? You want to hurt me?”
No one answered.
“Well. What are you waiting for? Go on. Hurt me.”
Ziggy and I shot confused glances at each other.
“Yeah. This window right here.” He was talking right at Shea now.
“Go ahead. You want to bash my head into this window? I want you to do it. Do it!”
Then he took a step toward Shea. The last step he would make that night. At one point the gay guy had dug his nails into Shea’s arm so deep that he yelled for Ziggy to “Hold down this Mary’s arms!” Blood? Probably, but I don’t remember. I just remember the guy laughing and laughing as Shea pummeled him, bashed his head into the glittering concrete, kicked him all over his body. I remember Ziggy holding the guy up by his pony tail as Shea slapped his face—hard, precise, sharp, deliberate back hands. And I just stood there. Vaster and infinitely sadder. I said nothing. Smoked my cigarette and looked up past the skyscrapers at one solitary bright star hovering above the evils of the Earth.
And that’s when the song happened. It was a red Mercedes coupe, I believe. I think it had been parked there the whole time, because I never saw it arrive. But the doors opened, and the song that was previously playing in a muffled, subconscious distance filled the street and echoed off the buildings. Jimi’s voice came pouring out, and it seemed to me that either he or his sweet guitar, or maybe both, were crying.
Two black guys got out. One of them stood by the car. The other had a long leather trench coat on and walked slowly toward the foray, yelling: “Hey! What’s the problem here?”
Shea got off the gay guy. I was pretty sure this was going to get worse. Ziggy went running down the street. Shea and the black guy took steps toward each other and the closer the black guy got it became apparent that he was quite possibly the tallest man on the planet. Shea’s stride slowed as he realized the size of the guy. I was standing about twenty feet away, and I could tell, this guy was an NBA player. Shea probably made the best decision of his life at that moment when he turned and ran after Ziggy.
Me? I just stood there, staring at a star, thinking a million guilty thoughts, letting Jimi’s blues wash over me until the police came.

10. Go Your Own Way—Fleetwood Mac. Because this was the song playing in my mom’s car stereo when we drove home after Sledge’s funeral. Because one chapter of my life ended, and I realized on that long slow procession that things…they were a changin’. There’s something prophetically funeralistic about that song. I can’t quite put my finger on it and everyone else on the planet says it’s a song about escape and freedom—I just think it’s about separation and death. Maybe I’m just as morbid now as I was then. Or maybe the chiming guitars in the song remind me of a place we’ll all eventually go. Anyway, I went my own way after this. I got a job a few weeks later and enrolled in college the following year.
So why would my mother cringe at this song? Not because Sledge’s death probably saved my life. No, I suppose in some way she probably realizes this is true. And I suppose, being my mother, she’s in some way happy things worked out like they did, in the end. I know Sledge’s death released me from a bond most of those guys only got out of the way Sledge did. He was leader of this gang of dealers and robbers. Nothing happened he didn’t know about. Without him we were vulnerable and weak. The thing about Sledge’s death is that I was literally this ê ê close to him when he died. And that’s what it took. A chest riddled with bullets and shards of bleeding glass. He writhed there, a gasping, spitting boy, soldiering to the end in a world of deceit and pain. Dying a death we all openly pretended to admire. My salvation was a child, rapt in the skin-headed vestige of confusion, sorrow and thuggery. And I was glad, unrepentantly relieved, he was dead—I cringe at that thought now, and would certainly hope my mother would.
When I think back on all these people I knew, I think about Donnie and his infatuation with poetry and the beautiful things in life and how he met his end in a foreign country, fighting a foreign war. I think about Shane Travis, the bully, who now owns his own company and is one of the great, benevolent men we all aspire to be. I think about Shea and his dad who taught him how to hate, about Maria and Carm—and I think about her a lot, I find myself not remorseful, no, not a bit. I’d say I’m as incapable of comprehending any of this now as I was back then. Just as ignorant, just as befuddled, I suppose.
But sometimes, something happens. It happens when my ten year-old daughter is riding her bike or brings me a glass of ice cold lemonade she made all by herself, and I look at her smile, and I think of myself: you don’t deserve this, you aren’t good enough for this, and I want to scream and laugh and weep and quiver and I want to rend open up my soul, grab the little girl in my arms because I don’t want her to know about that ugly world out there and I can only hope I absorbed some of it for her. I want her to believe that there is a desirable, beautiful place somewhere out there past all the evil. That there is a place where grace endures and hope remains. I want her to know beyond doubt that in this place:
“Everything’s waiting for you.”