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Monthly Archives: May 2012


Image Source: Larry Clark

I don’t remember anything whatever from leaving the house until it happened. That is all gone. I remember a squeal, and spinning. I was smoking a cigarette, and I remember it flying off into the back seat. I remember fearing that something would catch fire. This thought occurred while I was staring at the dome light and feeling the car hurtling into a violent spin.

And then…nothing.

Silence. An odd, peaceful silence, as though a pillow was wrapped around my head. Then sounds, muted and gauzy, started to come into focus. Gravel. A tire spinning. The sound of water running.

I opened my eyes, and the brightness of the sky made me sick to my stomach. I saw James, fuzzy and dark, standing outside the car. Then I noticed light dancing across a hole and a thousand cracks in the windshield.

The light was beautiful, shimmering like a diamond. I smelled beer and cigarettes, and saw it was coming from James outside the car. I smelled gasoline and tasted something metallic, like a penny.

I noticed the blood on my dress, and I wondered where it came from. Then I saw blood on the cracks in the glass, and saw that some of my hair was stuck in a crack. I suppose you could say that this snapped me out of my spell.

I put a hand to my forehead, and it was covered in blood. Why, I never screamed louder in my life when I realized that I was bleeding so! I saw myself in the rear view mirror, and all the blood terrified me. But it also partly fascinated me. I kept staring at my own reflection, screaming. This must have gone on for several moments, but it seemed forever. Then the sound of a siren way off in the distance started getting louder and louder…

They say the road was slick, and James was driving too fast. Funny how fast it all occurs. In a matter of seconds, your life changes forever with one slight miscalculation.

###
Thanks to everyone who stopped by to check my guest-post yesterday. And thanks to the Bluebird for hosting me!

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Image Source: Digital Horizons

And suddenly she was there, gray green and more magnificent than life in the mist of morning.

Ten days aboard a transport ship from Le Havre or Gibraltar had led to this moment. 1,200 men all topside, all fresh from the horror of Guadalcanal or Burma or the Remagen Bridge or Omaha Beach. They were men in the sense of experience, but most were barely old enough to shit by themselves chronologically. And here they were, all returning home from the dirty business far overseas.

The ship sailed through the Narrows, into the greatest harbor in the world, heading for the West Side piers. And from there, home. Abilene and Albuquerque and Boise and Bangor and Chattahoochee and Consohocken. Des Moines and Decatur and Exeter and Esperance and Frankfort and Framingham. Gainesville and Greenville and even Gettysburg. All ports of call all across the great America. All home.

As the ship passed into the harbor, the Lady, enlightening the world, stood guard, and these men, so recently removed from such unspeakable bravery and valor, began to cry. This was what it was all about. This was the symbol of their cause, the reason they went through such hell and agony. This was the sight they had dreamed of, sweltering in Pacific Theater bunkers or freezing in European foxholes. This is what they were seeing…and what so many of their valued platoon-mates were not seeing. This was Lady Liberty, lighting the way Home and holding high the torch for a world settling into a just and lasting peace.

This lady is what they fought for. And here she was, lighting their way Home.

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Image Source: Thomas Hoepker

It was hard to avoid The Gimp. You wouldn’t believe how good that damn cripple got around town, and hell if I know how he did it. Ain’t seen nothing like it.

He had a little board with roller skates, and he managed to paddle his way around with his change cup. And Lord, did he ever get around! You’d go to Dolly’s in the morning for a cup of coffee and he’d be out front. Later that night you’d go to the pictures and he’d be out front before the show. The Gimp got around better than most people get around with two good legs.

There were lots of stories. The Gimp got hit by a train. He took shrapnel in the war. A jealous wife chopped ‘em off. No one really knew. The Gimp was kind of an outsider, and nobody took the time to get to know him. They clapped when he did a handstand or some other trick, dropped a few coins in his cup and moved on, and that was that.

Well, I wondered about The Gimp, so one day I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. And wouldn’t you know, he was just a peach of a fella.

His name was Ward Denton, and he came from Cleveland. He found work in the mill, but then he got burned on both legs in an accident on the job. Both legs got infected, and they had to take them. Ward started drinking pretty bad, his wife left and he lost the house.

He didn’t have nothing left, but I never talked to no one more sunny about their prospects. He had cleaned himself up and was doing okay with the spare change. He got by, sleeping with relatives and at the charity hospital occasionally. And he was hopeful about finding some kind of work again, someday, somehow.

Ward Denton didn’t blame nobody for his troubles, and he didn’t spend time moaning about what he had done to himself. He just picked himself up and got back to business. He lost his legs, so he taught himself to crawl. He lost his way to make a living, so he did what he could. He lost his home and family, so he taught himself how to do a handstand and sing for his supper.

Just goes to show: sometimes it’s hard to avoid a fella every day, and you think you know him. But if you take the time to ask, the real story might be even better that all the talk around town.

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Image Source: Mikey Dee

All train wrecks occur on a timeline.

Everything is, and is exactly how it should be, and everything is inevitable. Life happens exactly as it should, every breath and occurrence unfolding perfectly at the perfect time, and we don’t get to pick and choose the outcomes. All we can do is piece together the aftermath and try to consider ourselves wiser.

I was twenty seven and old before my time when I met Mikey Dee. After years of going nowhere by myself and dreaming, I had finally started to get my shit together, becoming a staff writer for The Noise. Mikey was an editor, and I had seen his name on thank you lists in various liner notes. Big Time Boston at last.

I got an e-mail from Mikey, addressed to “Mikey’s Pals,” inviting me to a party at his house. I was so painfully shy and socially awkward that I thought he might have invited me by mistake, so I called his office at The Planetary Group, where he was Director of Radio Promotions. I called at 8:00 PM, or some such ridiculous hour, figuring no way he’d be there and I could leave a voice mail and ask for an e-mail.

He answered the phone. Shit.

“Um, well,” I stammered, “I haven’t been on staff for long, so I just wanted to make sure that invite wasn’t a mistake.”

“No way, man!” he said, amazed at my emerald green. “C’mon out!” I did, and we became fast friends.

Mikey Dee was a writer, an editor, a DJ on WMFO Tufts, a radio promotions tsunami and a fierce advocate for the Boston scene. He was a life force: a respectful Jew who devoured pulled pork from Redbones, a fanatic of all things Hollywood and a delightful cad (his take on …ahem… subtropical interactions with Amazon Redheads: “I’d pack a lunch and stay all day!”). He was out at live shows six nights a week, always front and center, air-drumming like mad and having the time of his life.

Except for Sundays (“It’s a day of rest!”) when he’d be home making his famous breakfast bonanzas, doing the Times crossword and generally chilling.

If he didn’t like your band, he’d play you anyway and say, “You COULD be great. IF…” If he loved your band, he’d use his benevolent pulpit to shout, “BEST BAND IN BOSTON.” And he took me under his wing and ample nose. ME! Who the fuck was I to get such friend treatment from such an untouchable?!?

Oh, life! The throwaway moments that seem like nothing at the time, but end up resonating forevermore. One night at the apartment I had the balls to say, at twenty seven, that I felt old. Mikey sized me up a nanosecond and said, “You’re what, twenty seven? Well, I’ve got ten years on you, and I’m still rocking!”

So subtle are these gifts, so gently offered. The message: straight-up Andy Dufresne in Shawshank: get busy living or get busy dying. That one throwaway line, proffered out of love on a nothing night in the late autumn of our lives, 1999, changed my life and worldview. Now, at thirty nine, I feel younger than ever.

Mikey’s roommate Tina called me at 4:00 AM, three months after we had all met, when we were so young, crying, “Mikey didn’t make it through the procedure!” I was on the first subway to Children’s Hospital. He went in the night before to have a shunt inserted into a cognitively narrow aorta. In and out, a few weeks recovering and back to normal.

No, three massive brainstem strokes.

I arrived at the beginning of the rest of Mikey Dee’s life, and I was there for the first thirty-six hours, from the first utterances of the word “stroke” to the talk of “baselines” and “prognosis” and well beyond. From that moment a group of friends came together, dubbed “Team Dee.” We fought like hell, and did everything possible.

Mikey’s strokes had left him in a locked-in state: cognitively all there, but unable to speak or move. We did everything we could, moving him to Spaulding Rehab Boston, and instituting Sunday Singalongs at Spaulding.

If you were there on a Sunday, you would have seen anyone from T-Max, Publisher of The Noise, to Boston rock mainstays Sean O’Brien and Linda Jung and Lynette Estes and Pete Sutton to Boston Rock Opera founders Eleanor Ramsay and Mick Mondo to Kay Hanley and Mike Eisenstein from Letters to Cleo to Gary Cherone from Extreme and Van Halen to Sir David Minehan from The Neighborhoods strumming an acoustic and singing Beatles songs at 11, while our wheelchair-bound friend Mikey bobbed along internally. No publicity, no big deal at all. This is what we do for one of our own.

At first I felt completely responsible: for informing all of Mikey’s Pal’s of every millisecond of movement and every blink-once-for-yes-twice-for-no movements. I wanted to be there every nanosecond of every day, and never let anyone down, ever. I was the rock for Team Dee, right? No fallibility here, never mind that I had only known the guy for three months.

After a while I distanced myself a bit from Team Dee. My band played along with 140 bands for the second round of For The Benefit of Mr. Dee! Shows in 2001, and I visited whenever I could. Eventually my “Yoko” came along from Seattle and we moved to my home of Portland, Maine.

And on July 6, 2003, Mikey Dee passed away. Official cause: pneumonia. Unofficial cause: dying well before his time of an unexpected stroke three years earlier.

I still wish that I could have done more for my friend: I couldn’t instantly cure him and heal all of his friends and well-wishers. But I still to this day carry the lessons that Mike imparted on me: don’t feel sorry for yourself, live like it’s your last day and mentor whenever and wherever you can.

The first line of this piece came from Michael Wolff’s heartbreakingly poignant cover story in the May 20, 2010 issue of New York Magazine, and I give full accreditation here.

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Image Source: Lisa M. Robinson

I came here often after I kilt her. Maybe I was hopin’ the snow would purify my mind, or cleanse the blood. I don’t know that it did, but it sure was a pretty place to sit ’n think.

I don’t know why she done it to me. I always treated her decent, gave her money ’n took care of everything. An’ she done gone steppin’ out on me. Sure, maybe I deserved it, always drankin’ and steppin’ out myself. But I never laid a hand on her or nothin’. Besides, a woman is suppose’ to stand by her man, right?

This is a hard land, with hard people. Nothin’ but snow and nothin’ for miles around. Barren lands and barren minds. Takes a certain kind to be able to stand up to it. And maybe she want that kind.
But settin’ here, lookin’ at all that snow, it sure makes a man think. Ain’t nothin’ but pure, unbroken white. Undisturbed, like a man should be. One set of tracks in that snow, and the whole landscape is out of balance. Kind of like our relationship. She brought that other set of footprints in, and everything done went haywire.

Sure, I shouldn’t’a done it. But a man don’t like havin’ his balance thrown off.

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(This is a very short ode to the infamous Troggs Tapes. Neither this post, nor The Troggs Tapes, are even remotely safe for work. Cheerie-o!)

“No, it’s all wrong!” Sir David Sebastian was spraying hot spittle in the main room of Studio B at Twickenshire Sound. “The decay on the delay is too quick! This guitar passage is supposed to sound like a swan gently gliding onto the surface of a pond, NOT a swan gently gliding and doing a fucking face-plant into a rock! Add another four tenths of a second of decay!”

The second engineer, Arthur Nevins, was sufficiently chuffed at his restraint over the course of the session. He dealt with Sir David’s tantrums and constant demands. He put up with Sir David’s barrage of insults and drug deliveries. And he suffered all with jolly good humor. But after three hours of knicker-soiling over milliseconds of echo, Arthur Nevin’s patience was about to run out.

“Look, David,” he said. “Are you fucking deaf, or are you a fucking blind rotter?!? If we add another four tenths of a second, the fucking listener is going to wonder when the fucking swan is going to land! We’ve been back and forth over this for fucking hours, and we ain’t getting anywhere! Cause you want your fucking swan to keep circling over the pond like it’s waiting for fucking permission to land from the control tower!”

“Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?!?” Sir David said. “Do you have any idea how many quid we have invested in the fucking record? And you, a ten pence errand boy, are trying to crash my fucking swan! Add another four tenths of a second of decay, you wanker!”

“Why do you hate your swan, David?” Arthur said. “Why do you want to see your swan never landing, never coming home to roost? It’s just going to fucking stay up there, yeah? You swan is just going to glide for-fucking-ever, never seeing its fucking swan family again! Because you won’t let your fucking swan land!”

“Why do you want to kill my swan, you heartless bastard?” Sir David said. “Why do you want to see my swan fucking die in a fiery crash? Do I need to call fucking animal control?”

The argument went on, until the first engineer suggested two tenths of a second.

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Image Source: Stephen Shore

Ain’t nothin’ here on the outskirts. The gold rush done left, if it ever even got here. Times are hard, an’ the town is beat. I’m hopin’ for a comeback, but…

I’m hangin’ on here, chargin’ half a buck a cut. That new place next county over, the one that’s chargin’ two bucks for a razor cut, they’ve taken some of my business, but I got my loyal customers. They just want a good, honest trim and a good honest price. Don’t know where I’d be without them. I’m lucky enough to own my buildin’, so I don’t gotta worry about rent and all. And it’s just me, so I ain’t gotta pay any salary. But still, with maintenance an’ upkeep, it ain’t easy.

But we all help each other out around here, as much as we can. That’s the nice thing about this town. Got a real sense of community here. Course most of us is just as hard up as the other. It’s been bad since the factory shut down. Lot of good people got thrown out of work, and it’s been a hard go of it since. But we’re proud. We take care of each other.

I do what I can. Sometimes someone in town is a little hard up, I only charge two bits. Sometimes I don’t charge nothin’. It’s a little bit I can do, an’ it all comes out in the wash. Maybe one day I’m the one that’s a little hard up, an’ where would I be then? So it all evens out, an’ it makes me feel good and Christmas-like to be able to help a little.

Lot of outsiders stop in while passing through, an’ that helps. Sometimes it’s suits, an’ you think maybe, just maybe, they might be talkin’ about opening up the factory again. Gee, that would be a big thing. Mostly it ain’t, though. Mostly just folks passing through.

But again, I know all my neighbors, and we’ve got it nice ‘round here. It’s a good, nice community, an’ you just don’t get that in the big city. An’ I wouldn’t trade it. Times are hard, but we’re proud. We take care of each other.

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Verrazano Bridge

8:41 AM Tuesday: I am sitting in the Cube drinking an iced coffee: Green Mountain Lake & Lodge blend, with half & half. The taste of this coffee is bringing back associations, random spectral presences that aren’t quite connecting. I have no idea why, but the taste of this coffee reminds me of Brooklyn, and my grandmother’s apartment.

I see windows with keystone arches, laundry on the line and the Verrazano looming over the scene from my bedroom. I remember the glow of vacuum tubes in the TV, blue and orange through the vents in the back of the set. The TV sat on a gold stand that seemed too rickety for it. I remember French doors, glass knobs and a threadbare runner over hardwood floors. I remember grandmother’s diploma and class photo from nursing school, the pole in the closet and more threadbare carpeting. A musty – but very pleasantly so – smell in the bedroom, mingling with the fresh smell of the Narrows. Somehow a box of Ivory laundry detergent plays into the scene. A copy of the NY Times with a photo of Richard Todd – the man who replaced my idol Joe Namath at quarterback for my Jets – celebrating a touchdown throw. Grandmother’s etched-gold Manhattan glass. Planes in the night heading to or from Kennedy, or maybe LaGuardia, and static as they passed over the antenna. And all the lights of the city seemed green and safe.

We’ve returned from somewhere, probably the Museum of Natural History or the Central Park Zoo. I remember driving by the old Brooklyn Gas tanks. I remember the red and white checkerboard pattern at the top of the tanks, and I likely drew them and colored in the squares. There is talk of a gas tank fire, possibly my dad telling of the time he and my mom were stuck on the Jersey Turnpike due to this fire. I’m scared: I don’t like fire, having seen the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert burns the church down by leaving a lit pipe in the basement. I’m always afraid our house in Brunswick will get hit by lightning, and all my toys will be lost. And driving into the city in the early ‘80s, the height of the financial crisis in New York, I see burnt out buildings everywhere, and my dad tells me that landlords sometimes burn their own buildings down to get money from insurance companies. I feel unsettled all over again, seeing the scorched shells of buildings and the gentle smell of smoke in the background of these 30 year old memories.

Why are these snippets of memory triggered by the taste of coffee? I was no more than eight when I last stepped foot in that apartment, and certainly not a coffee drinker at the time. This makes no sense. How much is true, and how much is co-opted from multiple experiences, overheard anecdotes and misinterpretations? How much have I imagined or wished for nonexistent narratives to be mine? How much have I invented and re-assigned after the fact?

How strange memory is, and how it presents itself, demanding I revisit and back-fill the story.

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donald "duck" dunn - the blues brothers

I’ve long been a passionate fan of the sound of Stax, but today I’m obsessed: the passing of Donald “Duck” Dunn at age 70 has really taken me home, in a good way.

Certain musicians congregate in a certain area, drawn together by community roots and a common sonic passion. Happy accidents, you could call it. You could also call it fate. Soon their location and sound are synonymous: Liverpool means The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers and the 1960s British Invasion; New York means The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie and 1970s punk and art rock; Memphis means Stax Records and the sound of Memphis Soul.

The organist Booker T. Jones, the guitarist Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, the bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and the drummer Al Jackson congregated in Memphis in 1962, and formed Booker T. and the MGs. With supplemental help from The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson on trumpet and the recently-deceased Andrew Love on tenor sax), the MGs became the house band for Stax Records, appearing on hundreds of albums from artists that defined a generation: Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket and, most prominently, Otis Redding.

The sound was raw and immediate. When I hear the word “soul,” I think of Stax: Sam & Dave, “Hold On I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man”; Otis Redding, “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Shake.” Sure, I also passionately love the soul proffered by Aretha and Stevie and Marvin on Motown (Detroit means Motown). But to my ear, the Memphis sound is a bit more of the real deal. A little edgier, a little more stripped-down and less produced. Cropper’s guitar is clear and bright, just on the edge of overdriving the amp. Duck’s bass lines are solid, never flashy or out of place (the role of the bass is to provide sonic color to the kick drum; to feel the groove and be felt, as it were). Together, they formed a rhythm section that, in the immortal words of Donald “Duck” Dunn, playing the role of Donald “Duck” Dunn in The Blues Brothers, could “turn goat piss into gasoline.” So damn true.

The music is timeless and immortal. But the real lasting legacy of Duck and the MGs goes well beyond the grooves in the vinyl.

Hyperbole is our natural default setting. We as humans, especially when talking about great art, have a grand passion for understating, and overstating, the obvious. The MGs were so understated that it’s easy to overlook what can’t be overstated enough.

In mid 1960s America, Booker T. and the MGs was a band that was fully integrated.

This amazing band, which hailed from the Deep South, was evenly integrated, and they made nothing of it. No soapbox, no billboards or telethons. In a time when far too many good young Americans were dying in war and dying in their own neighborhoods over the issue of race, Booker T. and the MGs was an even mix of black and white, and they led by example, making great music without a word of protest or acknowledgement.

I can think of few other cases of such unconscious racial interaction from that time period (the St. Louis Cardinals of Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver come to mind, but that’s another story), and I can only imagine the impact it had. The rise and fall of President Kennedy, the rise and fall of Dr. Martin Luther King, the striving for consummation of the radical dream that all men are equal and deserve an equal shake…this is the backdrop against which Booker T. and the MGs set out. The fact that they set out and did their jobs with such quiet professionalism cements a proud legacy well beyond the music.

I’ve long been a passionate fan of the sound of Stax, but today I’m obsessed: the passing of Donald “Duck” Dunn at age 70 has really taken me home, and really made me think of the impact one can have merely by doing their job and doing what is right.

Pt. 1 of 6: do yourself a favor and watch the rest

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