Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is It Only Rock and Roll?

In preparing for this trip, and really in preparing for the last couple of decades of my life (the two concerns got wrapped up in one little worry ball back in the spring), I decided to unload some ballast that had kept me hugging the surface of my biography.  I called my friend Lance Worley, who has a business dealing in old paper products.  He has a real talent for taking someone’s stuff and finding just that one person for whom it will be treasure. And he makes a little money in the middle.  Everyone’s happy.   I guess I have known Lance for about as long as I have known Knightsmama—about sixteen or seventeen years—but we went through a long period of not keeping up.  Well, we found each other and in the spring, I ask, “Are you still selling books and shit.”  He answered to the affirmative, and so we have been finding time to get together, grab a quick lunch, and talk about books, and history, and our generation. The only problem with Lance’s talent is that he also found a couple of books about the settling of the West—someone’s stuff that became my treasure—that I packed up in the caravan.  Most likely, I won’t read them until we hit New Mexico and Utah, so these two book will do their small part to reduce my overall gas mileage for, say, 8,000 or 10,000 miles.  Lance and I have talked a good deal about Lewis and Clark, so I have thought a good deal about Lance, lately:  at the Museum of Western Expansion in St. Louis, at William Clark’s grave in St. Louis (which I visited as I tracked down William Burroughs’ grave also.), and at the abandoned park in Cairo where Lewis and Clark prepared their men for their adventure.  
Parts of "The Wall" at RRHF

I have also been thinking about Lance because the things he took off my hands have returned in my memories recently on the journey.  First, in St. Louis, I drove by an old building with “The Sporting News” grandly painted on it.  One of the first things I passed on to Lance was a bookcase full The Sporting News publications, including decades of the annual publications The Baseball Registers and The Baseball Guides.   I inherited about forty of these publications, each, and a stack of magazines from the thirties.  For a few years, I continued to purchase the annual Guide and Register, but in the late nineties I stopped.  When I decided three years ago to fill in what I missed and to begin again, I discovered that The Sporting News had ceased publication of these books in favor of something more appropriate to the fantasy baseball crowd.   You know, the world changes.   And sometimes I don’t have to change with it.  I can’t even keep up with real baseball, much less a fantasy sport. 
I also had inherited a two or three hundred baseball score cards.  My father was a great baseball fan.  He even played in local semi-pro leagues in Southern Illinois for most of the thirties after he graduated from college.  In the closet, I had stacks of score cards from games he attended.  The St Louis Browns was a favorite in the thirties and forties.  Then the Cardinals took precedence.  In married and family life, he attended many minor league games in Nashville and Birmingham.  When we took family vacations, he would catch games in Pittsburg, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Houston, and Arlington.  I read through many of the cards, looking at his score keeping, and read the names of the players he saw play:  Gehrig, Ruth, both DiMaggios, Lefty Gomez, Slaughter, Banks, Greenburg, Koufax, Marichal, Mazaroski, and his hero, Stan Musial. In Nashville, he saw Chuck Connors, the Rifleman, who played there.  These are treasures, thanks to Lance, someone else now appreciates.  But I kept a few.  I held onto the two from the day, my father said I was conceived in St. Louis, July 4, 1952.  There were fireworks that night!  I kept one card from a Cardinal game during the war, before he met my mom.  A girlfriend, Claudia Tucker, had written a flirty comment on it that I enjoyed.  And I packed away his score card and mine from the 1963 All-Star Game held in Cleveland.  By that time, at age ten, I had learned to keep my own score card.  Lyman and Lyman Jr.   In St. Louis this last month, I caught a game between the Cards and the Pirates, and I have the score card in the Caravan and I maybe I will save it for my sons to figure out what to do with.
Besides Willie Mays, who is an American wonder himself, what I remember about our trip to Cleveland in 1963 is the pollution of Lake Michigan.  I am not sure if my memory of Mays running deep into center field and catching the ball on the run is something from film clips or something I saw that day or if my vision of him dealing with some shoe difficulties out at the fence was something I saw him do that day, but these are “memories” I associate with Willie Mays and with Cleveland.  Memory is so malleable.   It seems that the more I think about a memory, the more I handle it, knead it in my brain, the warmer and softer it all becomes and begins to pick up flecks and flour from other memories.  But what I am sure about, because it is a singular memory, is the flotsam and jetsam and dead fish and a little fire floating on the water I saw at the docks of in Cleveland after the game.  I guess my dad just wanted to see Lake Michigan, but as we walked to our car after the game we strolled over to the docks and peered over.  Now my mom and dad were no environmentalists, but even they knew something was wrong, that industrialization should not begin to kill something so large and magnificent as Lake Michigan.  
Back in Austin in late July, this year, as we were attempting to move every little bit of our material lives into storage, I stared at my record collection in a state of despair.  How long has it been since I had an adequate turntable?  Would I ever have the time or inclination to listen to these 700-800 records?  No one in my house wants to be in the same room with me when I listen to America or Chicago or Led Zepplin or Jethro Tull.  Knightsmama is dancing in the kitchen to the Indigo Girls or KD Lang or Anne Lennox.  The boys are rattling the walls with Jay Z or the Black Eyed Peas or Kanye West.  My study, upstairs, was already filled with books; no room for albums there.  And now any music I want—be it Charles Ives or Miles Davis or Jerry Jeff Walker—I could purchase fairly inexpensively on-line.  It was time.  I called Lance, as if he were part of a Wet Team and I had some inconvenient, bloody bodies that needed removed. 
“Lance, I have a job for you.” 
Lance is a taciturn West Texan.  He says, “I’ll be there in ten.  No one will ever know.”  Then he asks, “Are you okay?”  He knows these moments can be traumatic.
“Affirmative. I’ve already got them boxed up.”
And everything did go well, except that Lance, who is more or less my age, admitted that he was getting too old for this kind of work.  Albums are like water.  They begin to weigh a lot even in small quantities. 
My relationship with Colleen is one of the wonders of my life—I cannot explain at all how and why we have lasted as a couple for seventeen years.  She is fifteen years younger that I am.  Either because she has always been mature for her age or I have been immature for mine, we have found a meeting place in the middle where there are really few differences and difficulties.  But music is one of those places where the differences in our ages matters.  She can be really vicious—I mean, fangs dripping gleefully with blood kind of vicious—when she alludes to my fanboy relationship to Poco, America, or Jackson Brown.  She will tolerate my love for Rick Nelson.  It is not that she does not have her soft spots for soft rock—you should hear her squeal when “Dancing Queen” prances on to the radio.  But I think she would rather boogie with my Southern Unruly Redneck Self to my Southern California Sensitive Guy Self.   She prefers the ironies of ZZ Top,  Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Charlie Daniels to the sincerities of Richie Furay and Graham Nash.
So it was with a mixture of joy and melancholy and relief that I separated myself from the rest of the Waller Grant Caravan and spent an afternoon in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by myself.  A sixty-year old dude can wander the four-story complex in a few ways.  One is purely and simply as a nostalgic indulgence. “Ah, I loved Janis Joplin, and there is her Porshe.”  “Gee wiz, there are the lyrics, handwritten, for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ I remember listening to that song in my 1967 Comet on 57th Street in Temple.”  “Paul Cotton’s shirt that he wore on that album cover for Poco!  I love that record.”  “Stevie Nick’s dresses—I was seeing a woman named Donna when those records came out.” 
Another way to walk through The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is as a ritual in Hero Worship.  As I write this, in an RV park north of Boston a couple of weeks past the experience, I am a bit surprised that I am becoming a little blank here.  Throughout my life, I think people would say that I was prone to hero worship. I was always looking for role models.  At various points in my life, I wanted to be Scott Fitzgerald or Roy Bedichek, Walt Whitman or C.S. Lewis.   But as I passed through the exhibits, I didn’t pause slack jawed and wish that I could reach through the protective glass to touch Paul’s Beatle suit, nor did I cry when I saw that George’s guitar was missing, on loan to another museum.  In fact, I began to drift toward heresy in this Cathedral of Rock and Roll Relics when I paused to wonder why I was looking at some many outfits worn by Jimi Hendrix or if I really cared about Jim Morrison’s childhood doodles?
One of my favorite thousand songs from my youth is “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” by Roger McQuinn and the The Byrds.  Like the song suggests, I did pick up a guitar and learn how to play, but I learned only basic chords and, since I can’t sing a lick (and could not envision any other role but the lead singer with guitar), I never had the desire to learn to play one song all the way through—I was never going to stand on a stage and sing for a crowd.  Maybe I am fooling myself, but as I walked through the Hall of Fame, I did not feel the backwash of sorrow from a wasted life and a missed calling or neglected dream.  Maybe that has surprised me a bit.  I do not wish I were Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison or Brian Wilson, Tom Petty or Bob Dylan.  It’s not their lives that I envied, the day to dayness of fame and fortune.  I think, maybe, this is a revelation for me, but it all seems like such a load of trouble.  The wonder isn’t that we’ve had the tragedies of Jimi, Jim, Janis, Sid, Kirk, Elvis, and Michael.  The wonder is that Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, and Eric Clapton have remained as sane as they have.  Ah, but I do wish I could have written “Caroline, No,” or “Working Class Hero,” or “Beware of Sadness,” or “Psycho Killer.”  To write those songs, now that would have been a trip!
A third way to wander through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is as an historian or cultural anthropologist.  This would have been my preferred method because Rock and Roll, to me, has been more important as a cultural force than as an entertainment activity.  I know that all entertainment is a cultural force, so it boils down to what the entertainment is and how one looks at it—my point would be, however, that Petticoat Junction does not have the same cultural force as All in the Family.  Still I don’t think you can pull apart all the threads of racial integration, the questioning of authority, the feminist movement, sexual liberation, the beginnings of acceptance of GLTB, environmentalism, the introduction of Eastern religion and practices, and probably even the resurgence of conservative Christianity. All of them get intertwined into one thick set of cables forming the suspension bridge from the nineteen forties to the present day.  Sure, all those ideas and forces existed in the earlier decades of the twentieth century.  But individually they did not each exert the resonance that rock and roll did for them together.  Together, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Little Richard, John Denver, George Harrison, and Aretha Franklin deposited as much cultural coinage as did anyone else in their day.  They, and hundreds of others who picked up guitars and other instruments and believed in the power of a rock song, changed the face of the United States.  It was all aided and supported by Hollywood movies and television, radio, New York publishing interests, and college professors.   And basically it all boiled down, I believe, to one big message:  quit being small town squares and bigots, open your minds and your hearts, liberate yourself and celebrate the liberation of others.  “Come on, people, now.  Try to love one another, right now.”  (Wait a minute—isn’t this also the message of Mark Twain in many of his books?  Am I beginning to see the development of a theme?)
From “Rock around the Clock” to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” to “Traveling Man” to “With God on Their Side” to “Natural Woman” to “Light My Fire” to “Fortunate Son” to  “Whats Going on”  to . . . .  make your own list . . . . the world changed.  I am not going to argue that it was all good.  I am not going to argue that we haven’t lost a great deal in the transition.  I still love The Ozzie and Harriet Show and The Andy Griffith Show, and my family is only mildly tolerant of this affection/.   When I watch Frasier, it’s the echoes from Jack Benny that I enjoy the most.   But do I want Blacks riding in the back of the bus, suburban moms bored at home and denied meaningful work, corporations polluting air and water at will, gays and lesbians hiding in guilt or fear, half of us ignorant about sexual pleasure and sexual responsibility?  No.  And I believe Rock and Roll was the primary force in changing all of that.  Not the only force, but the major force. People talk about the “soundtrack to my life.”   Rock and Roll was not merely the soundtrack to my political and cultural development.  It was the substance of it, or if not the substance, then certainly the container.
So I loved my four or so hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—what’s not to love about a beautiful building on Lake Michigan designed by I. M Pei filled with memories my youth and early adulthood?  Still, it all seemed a little heavy on generational self-congratulation.  There were certainly many more gray pony-tails than hipster beards wandering around. So much for the past having relevance for the young.  So thinking of the future, I wonder if there might not be a moment when someone figures out that those willing to shell out twenty-two dollars for nostalgia have all died, and, the only thing left to market is historical and cultural significance?  Maybe our stuff will become someone else’s treasure.

Soundtrack:  Peter, Paul, and Mary:  "I Dig Rock and Roll Music."


  1. Oh, my. Once again you've painted a picture of a place that holds the same memories for me. Although I will probably never visit the R&R Hall of Fame, I feel that I walked with you, both in the past and that day you actually walked there. Love your writings.
    Rick Wright, another child of that generation.

  2. I know it's only rock and roll, but ....