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Monthly Archives: August 2012


Image Source: Ernst Haas

American cloudburst, out on the road, out on the plains. 400 miles to nowhere: time to shut it down for the night.

All I want at the end is a place to lay my head. Jesus. Ten hours straight, and at least as much tomorrow. It’s a long, lonesome road. I don’t know if I was ready for that when I started this racket. But I know it now.

Lousy room, spackling chunks on the wall and awful flower paintings, and the air conditioner is loud. But the bed is soft. Damn, breakfast seems like years ago, but it was today. 400 miles and eleven hours ago. Same thing again tomorrow. Damn.

I should grab a bite to eat at the coffee shop, but I’m almost too tired. Maybe watch the television…nothing on. I could call somebody on the telephone…but who? Food…..too tired…..

Lousy room, but it’s a place to lay my weary head. I have to do this all over again in the morning….and again the next day…

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Image Source: Houston Press

Pete Burdon was in the mood to get extremely fucked up and have a good time. It had been that kind of day/week/month, and sometimes a good drunk cured all. And if it didn’t, he would die trying.

He ordered a Schlitz and turned a five into quarters for the juke. He flipped through the selections until the record he was looking for, without realizing it, presented itself: Highway 61 Revisited. He dropped in his quarters and loaded the entire album.

“Like a Rolling Stone” segued into “Tombstone Blues”, and Pete sat in his booth rocking out to Mike Bloomfield’s guitar leads. He was early into the night and enjoying the feeling of liberation. Life was spiraling out of control: he had left Austin after Lila had left him, he didn’t know anybody in town and he wasn’t having much luck finding a job. Money was getting tight, and he was worried about making rent and eating.

But all those things would eventually work out, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it right now. Tonight was all about blowing off steam and relaxing. Pete was aware of his habit for hanging on to his worst thoughts and letting them take over. But tonight he was just going to let it all go and have some fun.

After the up-tempo barrelhouse blues of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “From a Buick 6”, the album slowed down and got surreal on “Ballad of a Thin Man”, with Dylan’s tin-pan piano and cryptic lyrics. Pete was working on a new Schlitz, and he felt the shift in mood.

He thought about Lila, wondering where she was and what he did to cause her to leave. He entertained those thoughts for a minute, then pushed them away. “Fuck her,” he thought to himself. “And fuck it all! Let it go and have some fun for a change!”

A fresh round arrived in time for “Queen Jane Approximately.” Pete was still feeling a bit wistful, in spite of his efforts, but he tried pushing it all away. “Pretty remarkable record,” he thought. “Not one, but two ‘I told you so’ fall from grace songs: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’” He sang along under his breath:

Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

“Kind of like Lila after walking out on me!” Pete thought. He pictured himself in the Dylan role, taking Lila back after her fall and reckoning. “Like a repo man!” he sang to the tune of “Like a Rolling Stone,” melding the two songs into his own mission of redemption.

“God DAMN I miss her,” he suddenly said out loud. But the only reply was the clink of a fresh round on the table.

By the time the album closed out with the Spanish-influenced guitars of “Desolation Row”, Pete Burdon had given up all pretense of not giving a shit. Lila was on his mind and he couldn’t get her out. She had just walked out: cleaned out their apartment and left, with no letter and certainly no forwarding address. “Pretty cold way to operate,” he thought, or maybe said softly. “Just like that, she leaves? And I get no say? And no answers…SHIT…”

Pete realized he was pretty wasted, but he wasn’t quite done yet. The record had ended, and the bar was momentarily quiet. He called for his check, paid and walked out as a regular loaded the juke with old cowboy songs from Hank Snow and Buck Owens.

He staggered a bit on the sidewalk, righted himself and stopped at the general store for a quart of Old Milwaukee. Schlitz was bad, and Old Milwaukee was piss in comparison. But this was not a night for high standards.

The train whistle blasted through the late-night small town calm like an explosion and an invitation card. Pete found himself shuffling toward the trestle. “Yeah, GREAT idea!” he thought. “Drink a cold one on the trestle, stare at the river in the moonlight for a bit. It would be beautiful!”

“As beautiful as that BITCH Lila!” Pete yelled at the stars. “Yeah, how does it FEEL?!? TO BE ON YOUR OWN!!!! With no diRECTON HOME TO ME!!!” He downed the quart and threw it against a tree, loving the sound and feel of the smash.

Pete got to the tracks and walked out on to the trestle. The moon was huge and shimmering on the river in oblong orange crescents. He thought he felt the bridge vibrate just a touch, but the thought didn’t register compared to thoughts of THAT BITCH who’s BOUND TO FALL Lila.

He had to piss desperately, so he unzipped, whipped it out and held on to the steel while letting go.

Half-way through he looked right and thought he saw a pair of fuzzy lights side-by-side way down the tracks. The light on the lower left soon enough melded into the light on the upper right, and suddenly it was one headlight, and the bridge was vibrating like crazy.

The other side of the trestle was not at all far off, but Pete couldn’t get himself to start running. The light was so hypnotizing, so calming while it was so terrifying. He kept staring at the light as it got closer and closer and the whistle blew, louder than anything he had ever heard in his life.

The blast of the whistle finally snapped Pete out of his dreamscape, and he started performing mental calculations. He only had another ten feet to run to cross the trestle. On the other hand, the trestle was only ten feet above the river, and it wasn’t very wide. Pete could barely swim, but he could swim just enough.

He thought, amazed at his ability to slow down time and fight off his drunken fog to do so, of that line

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

and he clenched the outer edge of the trestle wall and made the decision that would likely mean the rest of his life…

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Wall

There
at the edge of the woods
the old stone wall
mossy and cold
sturdy as any
New England storm

We walked and sat
upon the stones
when we were young

Life ahead, so much life!

Now
at the edge of the woods
the old stone wall
colder than any
New England storm

I walk and sit
upon the stones
alone

Not much life ahead, not much life

not with you

gone

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Image Source: UMA

I was never more culturally awake and alive than I was during my four years at UMA. On the surface, the University of Maine at Augusta was not much more than a sleepy community-college-esque hub campus in the University of Maine system. Oh, but what lies beneath the surface.

From my sophomore year in high school on I was in (marching) band and jazz band. Our marching band played football games every Saturday, and we were mortifyingly bad. Combine nobody-ever-practiced-to-save-their-ass with cheesy songbook featuring “Iron Man”, “Paranoid” and “Smoke on the Water.” Add fire-engine-red polyester coats and hats with plumes, and the fact that I had a kid hauling my bass amp around in a wheelbarrow with a generator. You can see how the band missed nearly every touchdown because its members were off in the woods stealing a smoke, copping a feel or doing ANYthing but sitting ready on the risers.

On the weekends I was in the heavy metal band Rampage. Yes, I named the band and nicked our logo slightly from Metallica, the band that supplied half of our repertoire. We played a few talent shows and keg parties, to absolutely glorious and hideously ignoble results.

By the time I entered my sophomore year of 1988/1989, I was burning out on metal, and my old Smiths, Smithereens and R.E.M. influences were kicking in. But more than anything, thanks to our psychotic friend Dana, I was getting into Bix Beiderbecke, Glenn Miller and eventually Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

I’ve fictionalized Dana in this essay, but it’s all true, including the soundtrack. Thanks to Dana I started listening religiously to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR every Sunday night, and I heard a lot of greats. So all these disparate influences started to coalesce around 1989, and by the time I got to UMA in 1991, I was so ready.

Immediately I started absorbing the jazz history and theory lessons of the esteemed Thelonious Monk scholar Gary Wittner. Immediately I started sucking in the ear-training wisdom of Chuck Winfield, who played trumpet with Blood Sweat & Tears and Babs on Broadway. Immediately I gave in to the brilliance of the aforementioned Don Stratton.

I studied Latin percussion with Alberto Del Gado, who was in the original Skitch Henderson Tonight Show band. I took guitar lessons from Gary Clancy, who produced The Joe Perry Project and played with Tiny Tim. I sat in with visiting clinician Eddie Gomez, who played bass on numerous Bill Evans Trio records, and with Milt Hinton, who played bass with Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Jackie Gleason and Dick Cavett.

I played in student teacher ensambles every semester, sharing the universal language with amazing players. Every semester I had to get a band together and play a song in Jewett Hall for recital lab. Often this turned into a last-minute-miracle affair of finding anybody who was available, picking a standard at random and sight-reading live. And it always turned out great.

For four years I lived and breathed and beCAME jazz. And at the same time I was playing the Augusta circuit in a Grateful Dead/Phish/Zappa cover band, so I was seriously oozing chops.

By the time I was supposed to be close to graduation, I realized that I was slightly lacking in academics, and I was completely burned out. I took a semester off, and transferred to my dream school, Berklee College of Music in Boston in September 1996. The dream left me disillusioned, and I spent the next few years adrift, lost to depression.

But eventually I would right my course, and the lessons – tangible and spiritual – that I absorbed during those four magical years at UMA would stay with me for the rest of my days. It was a full-on mind, body and soul immersion in the American song book, and I can’t imagine my life without it..

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Image Source: coffeeshop poetry and prose

“YOU ARE GOING RAPIDLY FAR IN THE DIRECTION YOU DON’T WANT TO GO AND NOWHERE IN THE DIRECTION YOU DO WANT TO GO.”

There it was, fixed in the tangible form of my notebook in bold all-caps script: a clarion call to revolution. My mid-life crisis at age 26.

It was a Sunday afternoon in August, 1999, one of the first days of the ending summer that hinted at football rather than baseball. I was in the basement of Curious Liquids Boston, latte and notebook on the table, trying to tell myself something about myself.

This was an optimistic line, since I was also going rapidly nowhere in the direction I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t really know it yet. I had been working 50-plus-hour weeks as a temp for John Hancock: my boss seemed to like me and there was talk of moving me to a permanent position. But all the talk was thin, rapidly melting ice.

Curious Liquids was a lovely coffee shop directly across from the State House on Beacon Hill. Don’t go looking for it: it’s now the Fox 25 studio. The liquids weren’t curious, exactly, but they were damn good, and there was a stone basement room that felt like an extremely cozy Medieval prison. I tended to gravitate there on Sundays, when I could kick out on a leather sofa and while away a few hours writing.

I wrote the line as part of a larger journal entry, and I remember staring at it. Epiphany time. I didn’t hear the Hallelujah chorus, no sirens or disco balls appeared and no confetti dropped from the ceiling. But I felt a change, and I knew that this would be an important moment in one year, five years, ten years, and I would remember it.

What direction did I NOT want to go? Corporate life. Button-down, soul-sucking, divide-and-conquer 9:00-5:00. What direction did I WANT to go? After several years away, I wanted to play in a working band again, but bigger. I last worked playing the Augusta cover scene, and I would have rather drank hairspray than play “Sweet Home Alabama” for a room full of tooth-deprived backwoods drunks ever again. I wanted to play originals in Boston, one of the greatest scenes in America.

And I wanted maybe to write. I had thought of writing a bit, and the writing in some of the fan ‘zines covering the Boston scene was pretty atrocious. Maybe I could do that. And, I thought, if I’m writing, it will be easier to overcome my painful shyness and start circulating among musicians…

I left Curious Liquids that day and immediately went looking for a copy of The Noise, one of the longest running and most prestigious ‘zines. I had never written for even a high school newspaper, and I knew nothing about word count or editing or anything. But I thought I could at least write a little better than some of what I had seen.

On Friday, September 10th, my position with John Hancock ended, starting a two-year descent into instability and depression. The next week I whipped together a few bogus writing samples and mailed them into The Noise. Several days later the phone rang, right in the middle of Sally Jessie Raphael (or was it Rikki Lake?). It was T-Max, publisher of The Noise. I expected a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, but no, I was suddenly a staff writer.

From there I started writing live and CD reviews and started circulating. From there I landed in several bands playing originals in Boston. From there I recorded several CDs and got a decent amount of airplay. From there…

I had my first mid-life crisis at 26 in the basement of a Boston coffee shop that no longer exists. I have gone rapidly far in the direction I want to go, and I continue to follow that direction as my goals and dreams shift. I think I may have been on to something pursuing that writing thing. I have a long way to go before I achieve literary self-sufficiency, but that is the goal. And it’s fixed in the tangible form of my notebook in bold all-caps script: a clarion call to revolution now as I’m days away from 40.

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(Watching out for the next attack)

Right away I didn’t fit in. As we’ve seen, immediately upon my arrival from Florida at age 14 I was marked as a weirdo, a perfect target. And the trauma began immediately.

Once my new chums discovered that I was nervous and jumpy, the Hot Ass became a go-to trick. The Hot Ass was a pithy variation of the Hotfoot, wherein the perp held a lighter under my plastic chair until I would jump out of said chair, shrieking in agony and, hopefully, tossing my books and pen around the room. This was especially popular during tests, when my bewildering antics would make me the focus of the quiet room. Often my perp – usually Mike Welch – would say something snarky about my causing a disturbance as the eyes of the class bored into me and their howls of laughter carved into my soul.

Because my toes turn in (“Just like Jackie Robinson!” I would say to the great amusement of my chums, who couldn’t have given less of a shit about Jackie Robinson), they said I ran like I had a brick shoved up my ass sideways, thus making gym class especially traumatic. I would usually skip class and run laps in the gym after school, then walk the four miles home. It was easier. Much less humiliating.

Remember the Cookie Monster anthem, “C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me!” I was serenaded with my own personalized version! “W is for Westbye, that’s weird enough for me!”

But nothing would ever come close to the hell and agony of being known as Twacker.

In the long view, I love the fact that this incident occurred in the very same gym that inspired Carrie: at the time it was my own version. Freshman year at Lisbon Maine High School: I was standing at a urinal shaking off after using the urinal for its intended purpose just before gym class. Kevin Lerette came up behind me and jumped to the conclusion that would break me for the next two years.

“HE’S TWACKING OFF!!! HE’S TWACKING OFF!!!”

I knew in those first few nanoseconds that this was going to be a game-changer for the worst, but I couldn’t imagine how bad it actually would be. Word spread like so many proverbial wildfires (or Hot Asses), and I became known as Twacker, thus indirectly preceding Pee Wee Herman and Fred Willard on the path of infamy.

It stuck. In a quiet science class, my desk-mate Katie asked if anyone had any hand lotion. Mike Welch immediately piped up, “Why, is Westbye horny?!?” The memory of the entire class laughing and staring still burns under the scar tissue of time.

And so it went, and it didn’t stop until mid-way through my sophomore year.

It took me years, and years of therapy, to come to terms with the word “trauma.” I always blew it off. Trauma is what one experiences after seeing their entire family bludgeoned before their eyes, or after escaping a fiery plane crash. Not me! Not someone who just got picked on a little. But the more time I spent on the couch and analyzing myself, the more I realize that I was traumatized. There is no other word to describe the toll that was exacted on my psyche during those years.

I have come to terms with it all, and I am becoming okay with it. And I’ve had many last laughs over the years (Lori, our prom queen, is one of my best friends now, and she didn’t even remember Twacker. And I doubt that Mike Welch’s band has sold out the House of Blues Boston on a Tuesday night.).

Still, trauma runs deep, and it will take many more years, if ever, before I can undo that level of damage…

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Hennepin Avenue Bridge
Image Source: Notsuoh Photography

Rick Nillsen walked half-way across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge clutching a business-size envelope against the chill October breeze. He walked the bridge all the time, often stopping in the middle to take in the sweep of the Mississippi toward St. Anthony Falls. Even with the traffic hurtling by it was a peaceful spot, a place to gather his thoughts and find his balance. But today it was all different. Rick’s entire life was different thanks to the arrival of the envelope.

The hand-writing on the envelope was achingly familiar

Nillsen
2541 Nicollet Ave
MPLS
55404

Nothing more than that. Nothing more was needed. Rick opened the envelope and pulled out five Polaroids and a piece of lined notebook paper. In the same script was written

funny how every photograph is a LIE
Goodbye

Nothing more than that. Nothing more was needed. Rick looked at the photos: he and Dana leaning against the hood of the Dodge, he and Dana by the Spoonbridge and Cherry statue in the Sculpture Garden, he and Dana in front of the Christmas tree, Dana smiling on the stoop, Dana as Mary Tyler Moore tossing her beret on the Nicollet Avenue mall. He fingered the pictures, and read the note again. And again. And again.

And it was all so true.

They were so damn happy in those pictures. And it was a lie, like all photographs. Nothing but a snippet of life, with no context at all. Not that we intentionally lie when posing for the snap of the shutter, but the moment captured is nothing more than the surface view. There’s always much more going on below the surface.

He thought of his favorite picture of himself with his dad, taken just after tossing a football around in the snow, both of them beaming smiles and happiness. But dad probably already had the Hodgkin’s that would take his life when that photo was taken. And maybe he knew it as they were tossing the ball around.

He thought of the one with dad and mom, taken on New Year’s Eve, mom rosy and glowing and tipping her Martini glass. There was one drink in the picture, but Christ only knows how many she had that night.

He thought of those moments captured in the Polaroids in his hand. Dana was apparently never happy with him, so it was all a lie.

Nothing more than that.

And nothing left…

When a relationship ends, a life ends. Everything ends. Routine, pattern and repetition, comfort and security. Everything familiar and needed comes to a sudden, sickening end. And nothing will ever bring it back.

Dana is gone. My life is gone.

The wind howled on the bridge as the sun left the sky and the Grain Belt Beer sign lit up for the evening. Another Minneapolis winter was coming, one he could not stand to take alone. Nothing left…

Rick slowly, methodically ripped up the envelope and the note. He then ripped up all the Polaroids and, one by one, dropped the torn-apart pieces over the side, into the river. He leaned over the rail, watching the pieces scatter into oblivion, leaning over a little further, trying to find peace with what was to come…

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Image Source: Elaine Mayes

I have spent my life driven to find out what else is out there. What am I looking for? What do I think I’ll find if I ever get to that mythical “somewhere else”?

I’m always looking for the other side. Other side of those mountains, other side of the river, other side of the tracks. What makes life so much better over there? Who knows and who cares?

Still, I’m driven on to find out. You can’t go if you don’t know, and you can’t know if you don’t go. The Great American Unknown is out there somewhere.

Hit the gas and hit the road. Spin the wheel and spin up some dust, see what’s out there. Maybe it’ll be better.

Maybe I’ll find a memory. Something to recontextualize my life and give it fresh perspective. Another highway, another sunset. 2 AM mist and haze pouring in through the car windows. Beach instead of snowstorm. Toes in the ocean, toes in the lake. Rocky Mountain high, Death Valley low. Embarcadero skies, plains of the Badlands. A slice on the Coney boardwalk, or fresh San Diego tortillas. Chicago dogs, St. Louis ribs. America, American, Americana. I want it all.

I want something else. Somewhere else. And I want to take it all home…

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