A Question of Balance

(first appeared in Hamilton Stone Review)

 

Having been indoctrinated into the cult of manliness by my father during a league bowling night in 1960, I felt ready to handle any obstacle that females might place before me on the path to adulthood. In the men’s room of the bowling alley, a strange contraption hung, like a piece of Warhol art, above a row of porcelain urinals. If you put in a quarter, the machine claimed to spit out a small foil package containing something called a condom. Supposedly this device prevented disease and in a bowling alley restroom I could understand why that might have been a major concern. Terrified, I asked my father what was safe to touch.

            “What the hell are babbling about, boy,” he said.

            “Disease, disease. I don’t want to catch anything and die.” I answered and pointed to the machine on the wall.

            “You won’t catch that kind of problem on a toilet seat or anywhere else in here. Men have tried to use that excuse for years and it just won’t fly.”

            Confused, I asked him to buy one just in case. He laughed.

            “Look, this thing is what we men call a cut rubber. It’s like a balloon only you don’t blow it up. You put it on your pecker before you screw a woman, if you ever happen to be lucky enough to screw one.”

            “Why?” I said.

            “Women sometimes have germs that make your pecker burn when you pee. Now, I’ve told you all you need to know. I’m trying to bowl a 200 average for the night, don’t bother me with questions. As ugly as you are, this conversation will probably be as close to using one as you ever get.”

            Certainly, this was as close as my father and I came to having a discussion about dating and how a man might learn to pursue a relationship with a woman. My mother, on the other hand, felt differently about my prospects and my need for education in the not-so-subtle art of conquest. Yes, I said conquest. Mom learned gender roles in the 1950’s when feminism meant soft skin and crocodile tears, long before it could be considered a movement toward equality. Men were dominant and women were submissive. It was the hunter/gatherer Eisenhower era. It was understood by almost everyone. Nature desired each male and female to adhere to their natural, albeit unfair, roles.

However, mom believed also that any twelve year old male who aspired to success in his endeavors might someday require more than a cursory knowledge of the condom-on-penis conundrum as well. Women respected men who were civilized when performing their god-given duties as rulers. To that end, she enrolled me in Mrs. Kendall’s ballroom dancing class. This class, which the mortician’s wife Betty Kendall taught in the living room of their home, took place every Thursday after school on south Main Street in our little farm community of Princeton, Indiana. Connected to the makeshift dance floor by virtue of a single door was an adjoining room where dead people lived.

            The fact that embalming went on a few feet from us as the record player whirred out sounds of “The Tennessee Waltz” cast a pall of eerie claustrophobia, like a wet wool blanket, over the airy space cleared of furniture each week. When added to the eclectic blend of shy, male little league ball players, confused female junior high school debutantes, and Betty’s bizarre appearance – a kaleidoscopic melting of purple eye shadow into black mascara into ruby red lipstick and orange foundation – the surrealistic atmosphere of my new reality generated a recalcitrant outbreak of acne, sweaty palms, and nausea every time I entered the brick building. As I look back on it now, the close presence of girls may have influenced my complexion too, along with new surges of testosterone that often left my stomach feeling like I had ridden fast over a steep hill in the back seat of dad’s Desoto.

I stepped on Susan’s toes every time we tried to waltz and Judy laughed each time Mike or Barry bumped into Mrs. Kendall’s coffee table or tripped over a lamp cord. Still, I survived the first two weeks of the waltz, the cha-cha, and the foxtrot fairly well. It seemed as if I might actually become a gentleman after all in harmony with my mother’s dream. Then, Denise showed up for our third session. Every anxiety any psychologist had ever imagined wormed its way into my rattled psyche upon the arrival of my seventh-grade goddess. My new red corduroy trousers looked stupid. My shoes lacked polish and white socks were uncool. The purple polyester shirt I got for Christmas from my aunt was showing rings of sweat under my arms. I should have applied more English Leather and made my father teach me to shave. During the first cha-cha, I lost my balance three times, tripping over my own feet and falling into Susan’s perky breasts. On the third trip, I saw Denise smile at me as she glided swan-like across the floor, her hand in Mike’s hand. My cheeks flushed. I could never raise my head and stare into those beautiful blue eyes again. My mother had ruined my life.

 Then, our dance instructor, frustrated with the incompetence she was forced to witness, thought a change of pace might do us all some good and decided to let us practice more contemporary movements, undulations each of us had grown familiar with thanks to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and Chubby Checker. That’s when the beast was born. Judy called lady’s choice and now that there were three boys and three girls, Mrs. Kendall could rest from Barry’s toe-tapping assaults. Denise chose me. My knees buckled when she pointed her elegant finger as sure as if it had been a gun aimed and fired point blank at my heart.

White socks slipped and slid across the floor, buffing the varnished wood to the rhythmic angst of The Jarmels – A little bit of soap will wash away your lipstick from my face, but a little bit of soap will never nevernevernever erase, the pain in heart and my eyes as I go through the lonely years, a little bit of soap will never wash away my tears.

 We swirled and bounced, shifting from foot to foot, dodging the collective smell of Clearasil and English leather, ignoring the tragic reality of the lyrics. Denise arched her back, and stretched her perfect little breasts against her black sweater. Those nipples made me dream about being a hunger that she might dream about. Her small hands replaced the neck of a Louisville Slugger in my sweaty palms and we danced, not just the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Swim, and the Bristol Stomp, but something greater, more intricate than the footwork, wilder than the 2-4 drumbeat. We danced till we became the dance, as if the rhythm remolded us into strange new creatures whose only desire was to feel the blood boil and rise in our veins, then fade while Mrs. Kendall changed the record and then rise again with a new urgency created by Berry Gordy and his repetition of language and rhythm and melody.

                        Do you love me, I can really move

                        Do you love me, I’m in the grove

                        Do you love me, nnnoooww

                        That I can dance.  Do you Do you Do you

                        Do you love me, now that I can dance.

            All too soon the brief respite ended. I returned to the iambic pentameter of a waltz and the self-consciousness generated by the discipline of form, grace and the intimacy of close bodily contact. I’d like to report that Mrs. Kendall’s six-week ballroom dancing class made me a civilized gentleman. Unfortunately, my mother was proven wrong. I have remained clumsy and out of balance around women for the last fifty years. Never quite able to adjust when the feminist movement took hold, I continued opening doors and giving my seat away on the bus even when chastised by militants for being condescending. Once, I suffered the indignity of an harassment complaint for mentioning to a co-worker that I liked her dress. During the evolution of the sensitive man in the 21st century, I have been unable to believe that my wife’s monthly desire for chocolate has nothing to do with PMS, really. I will never accept that the cult of Oprah is open to males, or that women come from Venus while men come from Mars. Denise has married someone else, twice.

As for dancing, I quit altogether after I saw Saturday Night Fever in 1977. The idea that I would have to trade my levis and tie-dyed tee shirts in for a three piece white suit coupled with the fact that cover bands had replaced the Rolling Stones’ earthy tones with a sort of squealing Bee Gees mimesis terrified me to such an extent that I could no longer spend evenings in my favorite night clubs.

            Throughout my life balance in all things great and small has been what I have needed most. When I struggle and gain it, I’m forced to struggle even harder to maintain it. Maybe that’s just the way we all live, stumbling back and forth, caught in the ever-shrinking space that separates life from death. Some days I wake up to the waltz and other days, the twist. Most days I find myself balanced somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Chubby Checker, between the smell of lilacs leaking through the walls from the last funeral and the flush of blood rising with Denise’s touch, between the need for stability and the desire for excess. But, it isn’t such a bad place to be when you consider that the alternative to the struggle for balance awaits us all in that other room right off the dance floor.  

 

 

 

Call and Response

(first appeared in Bayou Magazine)

 

Educated and logical people have always defined talent as an unusual natural ability to do something well, especially in artistic areas that can be developed by training and practice. Superstitious people call talent magic, inspiration, muse, and many other vague words. Scientists label it genetics. The problem arises when we actually meet and associate with someone of great talent. None of these explanations fully captures what we are witness to when that talent is displayed. I confess ignorance of the reason, or reasons, myself as to why some humans have the ability to accomplish certain tangible things like painting a picture or playing a piano much better than other humans who practice more and study the skill harder. I confess that I enjoy reading James Joyce or Hunter Thompson more than Ford Maddox Ford or L. Ron Hubbard. I enjoy listening to Stevie Nix, Billie Holliday, and Alicia Keyes but not Brittney Spears so much.

            Whenever someone says to me, “Man, that (substitute any art form and artist name here) really has talent,” I always remember those days when a true definition of that word began forming in my mind.  It was the era between Eisenhower and Nixon and before the complete destruction of America by the corporation plague, a generation of citizenry was vaccinated with democracy and this preventative injection made it possible for people of all ages, faiths, and incomes to create and hear that most blessed of sounds known only as Rock. So it was in those melodious days, those days of incense and peppermints, when joy could still be plucked from steel strings and exuberance beaten from tom toms and conga drums that I heard the great Who gods of call and response play:

            From Hendrix, Joplin, Clapton, and Jagger to Page, Morrison, Plant, and Dylan, all the gods swaggered and strutted across stages, generating history before my eyes for less than ten dollars a seat. Brash brass notes escaped from Clarence Clemmons' tenor sax and rode the wind, revenants of the be-bop era. I was a young and easy audience in those wine bota and Zig Zag paper days, in the time before the demon Ticket Master came to rule the magical sounds of earth. I worshiped them all, even Elvis a little bit, with truth and reverence but not with knowledge.

            I thought that these gods were where they were because they had talent, a nebulous sort of shadowy essence mystically dusted over a few special beings singled out by some unknown energy from the herd of us less fortunate wannabe’s whose fingers could not pluck in harmony with our synapses firing and whose voices mangled the air with obnoxious grunts and squeals in places where there should have been song. Oh, it was true the gods did have talent in great quantities and they worked hard, practicing, sacrificing their lives in some cases, to make the music that defined my generation and influenced every generation thereafter. But talent, genius, the muse, inspiration, whatever you choose to label it, wasn’t their only gift. These artists also had clever business managers who were media savants, record companies willing to gamble millions promoting them, and most importantly, they were baptized by luck. They were blessed, or cursed depending on your viewpoint, to have been in exactly the right place at the right time in history and to have been heard by exactly the right people who could respond with national exposure and in huge dollar signs to their call.

            This insight, the knowledge that genius and fame are not synonyms came to me the first night I heard John Schilling play his Fender Stratocaster. He was the greatest guitar player the world never heard. When I think of the music of my generation, of all the wonderful concerts I attended in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Denver, even Montreal, events that are now part of our collective mythology, my memory always brings me back to one summer in 1972. This was during the first year I spent living in a small commune in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, sixty miles up the Palisades Parkway from the George Washington Bridge and the City, a million miles from my childhood home in the evangelical cornfields of the Midwest, and light years from the killing fields of Vietnam. In this place and at the time where the day-glo montage of “head” music began to drip like candle wax onto the leather sound of Southern rock, I became aware that the music creating my lifestyle meant most when defined by the speed, agility, grace, and poetry with which John Schilling’s vine-like fingers overgrew his guitar frets during a fertile and feral flood of imaginative improvisation.

            This journey into what lay beyond the minimal melodies of rock & roll began as a favor to Spyder O’Neill. I had ended up in New York because my friend needed a ride home after our final semester at Kentucky Wesleyan College and because, as the Chuck Berry song says, I had “no particular place to go.” Once there, the sexually open young women and the protective mountain geography around the towns of Chester and Goshen felt so comfortable to my war-broken psyche that I stayed.

Now, Spyder and I were camped in a ranch style home on Goose Pond Mountain along with six other friends of varying genders and I still drove the most dependable car of the three cars that spent most of the time jacked up and torn down in our gravel driveway next to our semi-organic garden. It was a 1962 powder blue Dodge Lancer with two hundred and thirty thousand miles to its credit and, like a Timex, it could “take a licking and keep on ticking.” Consequently, when John Schilling called his old junior high school pal Spyder asking for a ride to something referred to as a “gig” and said he would buy the gasoline, my friend deferred the assignment to the only unemployed member of our household, me.

            Schilling was already a legend in this eclectic but cloistered area of pine trees, Jewish resorts, backwoods bars and disco style nightclubs. An authentic “Johnny B. Goode” to the hipsters and the greasers alike, Schilling had quit high school to play music and made what could be considered a fairly decent living in those days traveling the music circuit around New York and New Jersey with three other band members. They covered popular songs that included everything from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Tumbling Dice” to strange Buddhist chants when the drunken audience demanded them. Because of this larger-than-life local reputation, I expected a cross between Jim Morrison and Eric Clapton as I drove along Main Street in Chester, New York, toward his downtown apartment. What I got was something very different.

            All the buildings in this area of Chester were a vintage from an ancient era, but unlike wine time had not improved their substance. A feed store built in the late 19th century to serve the dairy farmers in the county and vacant since the Great Depression stood broken and nailed shut beside unused railroad tracks that were overgrown with weeds in a cul-de-sac at the end of Main Street. I whipped the Dodge around and drove it up the other side, which was lined with an open but vacant pizza parlor, a shuttered general store that seemed consistent with some Green Acres episode on TV, a bar fronted by four drunks without four teeth between them, and a faded row of two-story shotgun houses. Each story in these rental houses provided families with small two bedroom apartments and landlords with more income than they deserved.

            In front of the last house and beneath a lamppost, John Schilling stood on the curb. Shrouded in a dim yellow glow from the bug-splattered bulb, he seemed a cross between a garish, poorly-dressed scarecrow and an anorexic tax accountant on speed. A cigarette dripped from the circle of what seemed to be a mouth without lips. A Navy surplus pea coat hung from his skeletal frame. When he reached for the door handle as I pulled alongside, I noticed his long, slender, feminine fingers ended at the tips in wide, heavy calluses such as a butcher or meat packer might have. When he opened the door and smiled, I saw his chipped teeth, blackened and crooked from years without dental care. The wraith of death had finally caught me. Or, so I thought until he spoke. He looked directly into my eyes with a clear penetrating honesty and he allowed me to look back, hiding nothing from me. I loved him instantly.

            “You going to sit there staring, brother, or help me load my amp in the back seat. I’m a fucking tiny little fellow,” he said, his brown eyes shining beneath a waterfall of dirty blond hair.

            In war, you develop a sense from someplace in your primal brain that allows you to size another person up quickly, and most of the time accurately. That intuitive ability helped keep me alive in Vietnam and returned with me to the States as part of my emotional baggage. John was not the person I expected. He was much more, and I felt able to trust him without reservation from the moment the car door slammed shut. Reaching into the huge pockets, he extracted two cans of Shafer beer, handing one to me. The metal was damp from condensation and cold in my palm.

            “Wife doesn’t like me drinking so much in front of the kid, so I sneak them from the frig,” he said and winked surreptitiously.

I grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from above the sun visor, shook one out and held it in front of him. He took it, lit it and then, mine. We settled in for the thirty minute ride to a small Jewish bungalow colony tucked away in the Catskills somewhere above Goshen. The mountain road was devoid of traffic, other than a few farm trucks and an occasional commuter on the way to his mountain paradise home after an anxious day on Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

The sun began to unfold into dusk covering the tops of pine trees in a cinnamon glow and the only sound was the uneven hum of the Dodge’s worn tires over asphalt. It seemed hypnotic, almost mystical, in this land where Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years. Neither John nor I could add anything to the moment other than the hiss of exhaled smoke. This silence also indicated how comfortable we each found the presence of the other to be. No adolescent need to exchange life stories, one-up each other with our adventures, or brag about our sexual exploits crowded the silence. Believe me when I tell you, John could have bragged. The better I came to know him and the more time we spent together, it never ceased to amaze me how often he got laid.  Even though we lived during an era when young adults traded sex the way children traded baseball cards and marbles, John’s diseased and disheveled appearance should have slowed down he onslaught of groupies he fought off after every show. It didn’t.

Months after this night, I realized that the guitar undressed them, drove its sound deep inside them to some primeval, previously unreachable, moaning point. This epiphany crept into my brain unannounced during the wee hours of a Sunday morning after a particularly energized performance of the band at a Staten Island night club on Saturday night. They had jammed for hours, improvising on standard melodies and rocking the house with genius and joy. John had caught the eye of an Italian cutie on the band’s last break and made arrangements for a breakfast solo performance in her apartment. He asked me to drive his wife home from the club. I gave her the ride and broke one of the cardinal rules required for male friendship by making love to her in the back seat of the Dodge Lancer in downtown Chester beneath the same streetlamp where I’d first met John. Later that day, guilt-ridden and overwhelmed with male ego angst, this thought blossomed - what motivated my lust was more the desire to get closer to John’s magic than the desire to put another notch on the old gun.   

***

“Turn here,” he said finally, and we followed a lane off the highway through the woods. The lane opened in a meadow, covered now with gray shadows of twilight. We could barely make out the small cabins ringing a lake. In the center of the colony, we found a gazebo and a deserted Quonset hut that appeared to be the clubhouse. A poster hung from the gazebo railing – Free Concert for the Children, Local Guitar legend Jon Shiling, One Night Only, 7-9 p.m. – and Japanese lanterns hung from the ceiling giving off a neon rainbow glow.  The place looked like a ghost town. We had yet to see another human, although a couple of well manicured poodles trotted by.

“When’s the rest of your band going to show up?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s just me tonight, brother. The owner didn’t want to cough up enough money for the band.”

“How are you going play dance music without a drum beat?”

“I’ll manage. Want to give me a hand?”

We slid the heavy Marshall amplifier across my back seat, set it on the ground, and rolled it up the ramp, placing it strategically in the center of the open gazebo. John went back to the car and retrieved his Fender while I plugged various jack chords into the receptacles he had shown me. As he connected his guitar to the amp and began quietly tuning the strings, a rotund, balding man with a thick gray mustache rose behind me as if he had  bloomed from the ground beneath my feet.

“You the manager?”

“The what?”

“The manager, the keeper of the schedule, collector of checks.”

I looked at John. He raised his head, shook his long, thinning hair from his eyes, and smiled his crooked smile. He nodded once.

“I guess I am tonight.”

“Well, we got ourselves a big problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

Cabaret opened tonight at the Drive-in movie on Route 7,” he said while staring at his shoes. “It’s got Liza Minnelli. She’s Judy Garland’s daughter, you know.”

“I heard that rumor a long time ago.”

The faint hum of the amplifier began to fuse with a few quiet notes from the guitar as John warmed up on the gazebo platform behind us.

“Well…”

“Well, what?”

“That means the camp is empty.”

“Empty? You mean there’s no one left here at all?”

“Not with Liza playing in a new movie. All the mothers took their children and that brings us to another situation, you might say.  Why should I pay a musician if no one’s here for the music?”

“Because you hired him and it’s fair.” In those early post-Vietnam days almost everything made me angry, or at least righteously indignant. Even though John and I were barely acquainted, the idea of his being cheated bothered me. My voice rose. “You think his time isn’t worth something?”

A low chuckle, almost like a burp, sounded behind me. I would hear that trademark laugh hundreds of times over the next few months whenever John found himself at the mercy of one of life’s situational ironies.

“Hey Mac…hey brother…easy does it…man’s got a point…a fucked up point, but a point nonetheless. No use playing or paying for music without any beautiful teenage Jewish girls to appreciate my brilliance. I may have a solution.”

What we worked out was this: Ten dollars for my gasoline and our time, a bottle of Wild Turkey from the man’s bar, and three hours undisturbed (unless the disturbance occurred as a bevy of young women) in the Quonset hut, along with a few of John’s other friends. Thirty minutes and a call from the pay phone by the tennis courts later, Spyder showed up riding in a car load of Chester hippies and tailgated by a beat-up Ford panel truck painted with the words Valastro Plumbing. In the truck, two of John’s very talented musician friends, Tom Nigra and Tony Valastro, had brought more equipment and a cooler full of iced down Little Kings Ale in wonderful bright green bottles.

What happened was this: We carried Tommy’s bass guitar and amplifier, along with John’s, into the hut. Tony unpacked his shiny chrome flute. We lit a candle. Someone passed a joint. We drank the bourbon and the ale and stared at the red pin points of light that blinked on the amplifiers like little dying stars in the dim shadows of the candle flame. John and Tom began a rhythmic pulse of barely audible bass notes and guitar chords, giving birth to an erotic old Bo Diddley melody that Ronnie Hawkins wrote for him in 1963.  

I walked 47 miles of barbed wire,
Used a cobra snake for a neck tie.
Got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made out of rattlesnake hide.                                         
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of human skulls.
Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,
Who do you love…

            As Tom’s raspy baritone howled the call, as we all sang back the response – who do you love, who do you love, who do you love – the darkened hut transformed to Sub Saharan Africa, where the American blues technique of call and response originated as part of the very structure of society. Prophets intoned their messages and citizens participated by chanting back, directing the village’s response and creating an exercise in democracy. More importantly, it connected the individuals and made them a collective. Most importantly, it set them free.

From that ancient beginning, that transformation of individual young people trying to survive ordinary lives into a primal, unified force for joy, our small crowd of appreciative listeners transmigrated onto a new plane of existence, flown there by the haunting lilt of Tony’s flute as it replaced the vocals. Not even the clink of an ale bottle or a cough could be heard as the flute song reverberated off the metal walls in the building. The only other sounds were the gentle rhythms of support from both guitars and the hiss of Tony’s breath as he sucked in air between the high notes. Oh, other things sounded in my mind in layers of echoing images, waterfalls,  owls and canaries, spring rain hitting a small lake, a summer breeze through willow trees, sunshine drifting into my bed on early mornings of love.

            Just when I believed it might be impossible to feel anything but fuzzy and warm, John hit a single note and a high pitched squeal, as if a tuning fork had been struck or a cacodemon turned loose, harmonized perfectly with the flute. Tony dropped back into a support rhythm and we transcended, energized by the crackle of fire that flowed between the Fender and the flickering candle, traces of light and waves of animated air shook our small group. John’s fingers tap danced between the frets so fast it seemed like the notes he played weren’t able to keep up. The amplifier's translation lagged behind like something you would expect in the sound track of a badly dubbed Kung Fu movie. I couldn’t contain a burst of raw and feral laughter as the journey began.

A river spilled over the blistered land, a silk scarf fluttered from a barren tree branch, marbles rattled over a tin roof, nightshade opened and flowered an intoxicating death, a crippled man hobbled around a lake six times and finally dipped his toe in, polyphonic flocks of grackles scored the wind while trees wheezed below them. My friends, poured into the air around me, rose and fell in rainbow waves as if some giant grandmother shook her quilt. I laid face up on the floor of the hut soaked by night sweats as the ashes of stars sifted through the sieve of John’s wa-wa pedal. Inside my brain, neurons wasted by smoke and bourbon struggled to connect, banging off the guardrails of consciousness like insane bumper cars at an empty carnival. A rubber tree moaned in the monsoon wind and I heard wet leaves whisper along its limbs, lover’s fingernails rasping for the soft coming of spring.

Then, the exhausted silence came. Thirty minutes had passed in an instant. The same could be said of the next few months. I practically lived with the band, chauffeuring John to rehearsal in Tom Nigra’s basement, following the u-haul trailer full of Hammond B-3’s, drums, and microphone stands to low rent backwoods bars and high end Long Island disco’s. I hunched over napkins in dirty, pre-dawn Waffle houses writing song lyrics for John’s music. Sometimes we all just lay on the floor of that Main Street shotgun house worn out, listening to the baby cry.  It was a time when I realized the possibilities for joy in life could come from the pursuit of aesthetics completely devoid of material goals, an idea in direct opposition to my Midwestern, middle class upbringing.

John Schilling never got rich or famous playing his guitar, but I never saw him unhappy. Music called and he responded. I’m sure he would have liked to “make it big” because that’s one thing all professional musicians grade themselves by, what degree of fame they attain. But that thought was a mere shadow hiding behind the reverence in his eyes when he held the Fender close to his heart, a vague aspiration tagged onto the pure pleasure he felt just tuning the strings. He would have liked to “make it big” with some record label because that was the goal of his band and he loved playing with them. But all he really wanted out of life was the chance to play music for and with his friends. He had three vices that I knew of, cigarettes, bourbon, and women. Rumor has it that one of those vices, or maybe the combination of all three, eventually killed him. I don’t even know for sure that he’s dead. I assume he is because John’s not playing the guitar anywhere and I can’t imagine his life with no music in it.

What I do know for sure is that rock & roll defined my generation, made us, for better or worse, who we were and how we would be remembered, more so than music ever influenced any other era in history. Not only that, but it allowed each generation after ours to imagine a new source of social power through the electronic voice of youth. And, what I do know for sure is that when someone says “hey listen to this great guitar player” that picker gets measured in my head against the best picker I ever heard.

            In one of his lectures, the great Spanish poet Lorca referred to an intangible quality present in some artists called duende. Lorca said it wasn’t inspiration or muse, but an entity more personal than either of those. Originally, I believe the Duende was some kind of monster in human form according to Spanish folklore that devoured its victims' souls. I've always thought of it as my being truly alive in the presence of death, of feeling the overwhelming sensory joy of living conflicted with the knowledge that I have to die. It's that ambivalent energy that brings out our best creative work. When duende flows from us, what we achieve ends up greater than the sum of its parts. Lorca didn't say we have it all the time. His message to us is that we should REACH for it ALL the time. Some people simply don't have the magic inside them at all. Some people have it and fear it so much they can't reach for it. But, a few people are willing to stand on the edge of the abyss every time they pick up a pen or strum a guitar or sing a song or play a piano or paint a picture. These people find themselves inseparable from what they’re doing and the culture and art of the world is better off for it.

            Schilling happened to be one of those people. The things he did with six strings generated magic and the magic was in the connection of the guitar to his soul. The essence of his being was joined to the instrument. In this way, the music came alive and when you heard it, you became part of it and more alive yourself. If that sounds a bit maudlin or overly sentimental, it may simply be that you never had the good fortune to hear him play.

 

 

 

 

 

The Road to Angst

(first appeared in Chamber Four Magazine)

 

Headline―Mexico Is Warm in the Winter:

 

I remembered Eva as a scrawny child, freckled and puppy-clumsy, the little sister of one of my best high school friends. But time passes whether you notice the changes it brings or not. You can see something in its infancy and it appears completely forgettable such as an orchid bulb or a block of marble owned by Michelangelo. Then, you return much later to find a rare red phalaenopsis has flowered or David stands in a pile of marble shavings. The transformations seem instantaneous, miraculous even, and you’re amazed at your own stupidity for not noticing these exquisite creations before. That happened to me with Eva

Where once threads of dark hair twisted their way around a pole between her head and shoulders, the god of puberty had spun a silk shawl that curled along her delicate pearl-colored neck. The pogo sticks she walked on were now elegant and graceful legs and each step she took, a ballet. The freckles that covered her face once now decorated the bridge of her nose as if stardust. Every single hackneyed and nauseating phrase I had ever read in a Rod McKuen poem or saw on a Hallmark card paraded its way through the Swiss cheese that made up my drunken brain. The drunken delusional romanticism that had plagued my life before was at it once again. At the time, though, I knew only one thing. The ugly duckling had become Leda the Swan, and suddenly I wanted to play Zeus

That was the infirmity I brought home from war, the inability to distinguish specific emotions, in this case the difference between love and desire. Because I had denied their existence in order to survive Vietnam, my spectrum of moods had atrophied and now I struggled to feel anything no matter how vague. On the occasions that I did feel a warm twinge in the back of my mind, I was never sure if it could be called an emotion or simply a reaction to my intellect warning me that I should feel something, anythin

It was cold outside in the Indiana wind. We were bored inside. The wine was cheap. The pot was full of stems. Hard drugs had hurt us all in one way or another and we had laid them aside years before. And Eva, a woman a few years younger than the rest of us, a few inches taller than me, and blessed with a smile intense enough to lighten a black hole in some distant galaxy said, “I wish I could go somewhere warm.”

“You’d like to go somewhere warm? I can arrange that, if you don’t mind riding in an old pickup truck with two burned-out hippies.”

“Sounds like fun,” Eva said

Sleeping bags and back packs, tie-dyed tee shirts and golden earrings, smoked oysters and Sterling beer, a dog-eared copy of Death in the Afternoonand a Rand McNally atlas, one ancient Ford pickup truck and one balding, ponytailed, be-speckled Jew whose constant good humor and kindness kept us sane driving through Kansas―these were the items Eva and I brought from Indiana. By nightfall we were well into Kansas, heading west and south at seventy miles an hour. The battered old truck rattled and shook, the wheels shimmied, the tires thumped like hoofbeats, but we kept moving forward as if Tom Joad’s ghost pushed us from behind. The sun had simply spread out like a pat of butter and melted into the dry toast landscape. I saw the same flat nothingness in the indigo night that I had seen during the day. The only difference was darkness. Joey slept against the passenger side door, his ponytail rubbing a slick spot on the glass. I drove and stayed awake by focusing on the night sounds led by his snoring and the occasional splat of a bug on the windshield.

Eva dozed, head resting against my right shoulder. She must have been dreaming. I watched her nipples harden, jealous at the unknown source of her sleeping lust, and lit a Camel to keep from kissing her. Outside on the highway, the headlights shadowboxed with a few sparse trees. The clouds cross-hatched the stars. Eva’s bare and beautiful legs stretched beneath the dash. She rocked slightly to the rhythm of the road harmonizing with the low hum of rubber on asphalt and night folding over the green glow of the radio like a spent squeezebox. Janis Joplin ground out a gritty prophecy for my future in Mexico―take another little piece of my heart, oh baby if it makes you feel good.

In a couple of weeks this vacation would end and I would lose myself in the disjointed myth that life is organic poetry, something to be suffered through, as I went back to work. All the while, the real myth slept beside me, lips slightly parted. A loose strand of dark hair slipped across her silk cheek and I reached to brush it back, one last chance at one more trip... I brushed her breast instead. She stirred only slightly. Steering the truck, my hand grew numb, my mind barely conscious that while Eva loved boyish charm, it was only sweaty danger that excited her. I remembered Norman for an instant, the blind butcher from my former home in Sugarloaf, New York, who used to levitate roast beef across a whirring electric blade with the power of a seer in his fingers. I wanted his magic. I wanted to stroke my friend Eva so gently that her own moaning woke her. I could have done it before Vietnam diffused my senses, making love an intellectual exercise too complex to simply squeeze and let go. In my mind I saw a vision of romance and tragedy, acceptance and rejection, a prophecy of love overwhelmed by the existential dread of an inability to live outside my imagination

“A self-fulfilling prophecy is an assumption or prediction that, purely as a result of having been made, causes the expected or predicted event to occur and thus confirms its own accuracy,” or so noted Austrian psychologist Paul Watzlawick once wrote. I spent my Mexican vacation affirming his words, but not before roaring into Tucson to watch my friend Jim Hayes pretend to be a Navajo and hammer out some beautiful turquoise and silver jewelry on the work bench inside his tiny adobe hut.

“We sell these bracelets to the white man. It makes him feel less guilty for the genocide of our people.”

“You’re not an Indian, asshole,” I said and opened an Olympia beer.

“I might be.”

“And I am Jewish,” said Joey. “So let’s get real with that genocide talk.”

“All I’m saying is that when you participate in the great peyote ritual your spirit commingles with the elders of the tribe.”

“Is that what they call tripping in Arizona―commingling?”

Eva asked the question with that particular tone of voice indicating her bullshit alarm bell had just been triggered. She asked us to drive her over to see one of her best friends from high school who had recently married a drug dealer and moved to Arizona. Tucson had two things going for it in those days: dry warm desert air that suited Midwestern retirees and a close proximity to Nogales and the Mexican border. I understood why the dealer had moved from Indiana. He had a partner and a refrigerated truck and they made regular runs into Mexico returning with packages of frozen sea food from the port cities along the Mexican west coast. This “sea food” was then driven back to the middle of America, rolled in Zig Zag papers of varying flavors, and smoked at parties to exclamations between coughing fits that sounded something like, “Boy this Acapulco Gold is good shit,” or “heavy, man, heavy.” By the third time around a circle the conversation tenor got serious, “Being an astronaut is a good idea if only I was smarter,” followed by “fuck being an astronaut, I am an idea,” and the conversation stopper “who ate all the fucking Fritos?”

For the man I’ll call Johnny, this line of work made perfect sense. He was dumb, fat, and cruel and looked exactly that way. A few years after our visit he found what he’d always sought, an early grave. What I couldn’t fathom then and still can’t after all my own unsuccessful relationships is the nature of attraction. His girlfriend, the one Eva came to visit, seemed intelligent and kind. She was definitely good looking, meaning she had nothing in common with Johnny. Almost any two people in the world can stand each other long enough to fuck, but once it’s over what makes the days and weeks and months and years of misery worth the effort of staying together? I have never come to a satisfying conclusion on this matter and, as old as I am now, doubt that I ever will. Certainly those of us raised as Christians learned early on that we were unworthy of happiness until we died. Maybe, that’s part of it, but it never seemed that simple to me. It’s almost as if there’s an overwhelming need for penance as a form of balance when in a sexual relationship because the sex feels too good. In my younger days that’s how I defined love, the struggle between joy and guilt

Headline―Alien life forms in the desert outside Tuscon:

“Didn’t I tell you?”

Hayes pointed over a slight rise and down into a ravine past some sage brush at the bank of a small creek almost devoid of water flow. Eva had remained in Tucson to reminisce high school over a few joints and a bottle of Boone’s Farm apple wine with her friend. The desert beckoned. We answered the call.

“You did, you did,” Joey said, removing his fogged up glasses and wiping his sweaty forehead with his tee shirt.

“Shut up, Joey, before you scare them away.”

“Hell, McGarrah, they ain’t rabbits. They know we’re looking,” Hayes said.

One of the most pleasant aspects of late winter in the Tucson desert revolved around the indigenous wildlife coming out from under winter cover and returning to its natural habitat. First of all, giant saguaro cacti bloomed with beautiful flowers and rearranged every image of the prickly plants in my mind created by cowboy movies. Then, desert scrubs swept the sandy floor fresh and clean. Rattlesnakes sunned themselves on rocks that seemed sculpted by Salvador Dali. Prairie dogs poked their heads furtively from burrows at random intervals, almost like I was playing one of those “pop-a-mole” games at a local arcade. Purple, orange, blue, and silver colored vegetation dotted the shadowed dunes with kaleidoscopic chaos and in alien shapes. Overhead a cloudless sky of pastel blue complimented the sun. Even the jungles of Southeast Asia could not compete with this environment for surrealistic beauty, especially when Hayes handed me the binoculars and I had a closer glimpse of the most magnificent creatures in the desert. Four young women sunbathed on blankets. They were topless and well-endowed with blossoming flowers of their own, or to quote Joey, “Look at all those beautiful tits.”

“This is why I love you Joey,” I said, “even though you’re twenty-five your penis is still fifteen years old, just like ours.”

Hayes smiled and jerked the binoculars from Joey’s sweaty hands.

Headline―Bullfight on Asphalt:

Even emotionally regressed idiots having fun can talk about tits and drink Olympia beer for so long before they realize John Berryman was describing them―“life, friends, is boring...” but “Even to say so means you have no inner resources...”―in his famous poem. After two days of “bird watching” we kissed Hayes goodbye, corralled Eva, and pointed the truck toward Nogales and the Mexican border. We crossed without incident―it’s much easier getting into third world drug-producing countries than getting out of them―and drove 250 miles along Highway 15 until reaching the port city of Guaymas in a jittery, cramped, exhausted bundle of flesh. Most of the anxiety came from driving in Mexico. I had forgotten since my last trip the trick to surviving Mexico’s highway system, especially at night. You must remember, first and foremost, that every truck driver suffers from the illusion that he was meant to be a bullfighter.

From pickup to semi, each vehicle’s cab gets wrapped in multi-colored Christmas tree lights and a statue of the driver’s favorite saint straddles the dashboard. As you approach a curve on one of the narrow mountain switchbacks and meet an oncoming truck, like a bull you will be forced to make a decision because you will be challenged by a cape of flashing lights surrounding the specter of a bobble-headed religious icon. You must choose whether to remain temeroso, a timid bull unwilling to charge, or decide to perform an acometida, charging the truck swiftly. The truck driver will always strike a desplante, or a pose where he dares you to charge, and at some point on a narrow switchback three thousand mile from your home you will meet your hora de verdad, the moment of truth. If smart, you will be a temeroso, a timid bull that pulls to the shoulder of the road and waits for the truck driver to roar past, his cojones enlarged and yours shriveled to raisin size in your pants

Headline―American Tourists Sodomized and Left for Dead:

I chose timidity for the most part until my irritated ego could no longer deal with compromise. We survived several close encounters, but the screams of Eva and Joey forced me finally into a sad little motel on the outskirts of Guaymas. We took refuge for the night in a room that could have been used on the Spanish version set of Psycho, paying our few pesos to a night clerk that faintly resembled Tony Perkins, in the dazed and crossed eyes at least. Nevertheless, a good night’s sleep, huevos rancheros with chorizo and some café con leche revived us. Departing for Mazatlan in good spirits, we felt buoyed by a bright white sun in a cloudless blue sky. Nothing dampened our quest for adventure during the 700 mile trek along Highway 15, not even the roadblock. Yes, that’s right. It seemed as if the highway system in Mexico required policing by little fat men in cowboy hats carrying WWII vintage Thompson submachine guns. For our protection, they removed us from the truck, searched Eva’s suitcase, particularly her underwear, for contraband, and after deciding we had nothing of value, let us drive on in exchange for a pair of sunglasses and a thousand pesos (about ten bucks in those days). Joey and Eva laughed. The episode seemed to them as a plot from a bad movie. On the other hand, I was relieved at the relative ease with which we escaped, having seen first hand in Vietnam what could result from the combination of isolation, emotion, and weapons

Headline―Tourists Rescued by Fun:

There are few things in the world more beautiful and calming to the spirit than the gentle ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean at sunset, especially in Mazatlan, Mexico. At least, that’s the way I felt as our dusty truck ran parallel to it. We found a clean, cheap hotel on the beach and settled in for a week parasailing, body surfing, sunbathing, fine dining, horseback riding, and general faux jet-setting activities that poor white trash from the U.S. could accomplish in Mexico where being wealthy meant holding a hundred dollars.

Joey and I prowled the savage back alleys of the port city late at night while Eva slept. We drank Pacifico beer and shot pool with greasy sailors off cargo ships in smoky bars barely lit well enough to see the cue ball. The drug dealers and dock workers wagered how much time would pass before one of us ended up sliced with a switchblade or clubbed with a pool stick. We smiled and lost our money with great dignity, which no doubt saved our lives. But, these kinds of common sense thoughts never crossed my mind in those days. I was Kerouac and Camus rolled into one, searching for the answers to questions that have none. Or, this was the romantic type of drivel I kept myself moving forward with and it was the danger that came from reading books like On the Roadand The Rebel while trying to deal with memories of war.

Eva did her own daylight explorations, maybe hoping to find a Latin Jim Morrison among the hustlers and tourists along the white sand. Mostly, she seemed in a perpetual state of wonder as if we had brought her to a paradisiacal planet in some unknown and faraway galaxy. Whether we dined on fresh sea bass, sipped white wine, and danced in elegant restaurants, oiled each other as we tanned, or scoured the crowded marketplaces for rainbow colored scarves and hand-carved soapstone chess sets, she laughed and played and grew emotionally from a reference point of honest innocence. Her face took on an expression of constant joy. I had never seen that kind of openness and freshness before. It came close to ruining my trip. Certainly, it turned me into a petulant child for a short time because I wanted something I could never have

Headline―Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Immature Male:

I wanted to be falling in love. In many ways I already loved Eva and she seemed certainly worthy of my affection, but in those early post-Vietnam days what little emotional substance was left to me after the war could be expressed only in generalities. Like discovering the location of a lion when it roars close the ground, emotion roared over me in diffused waves and paralyzed me with fear as I struggled to find its origin. Adoration, hate, anger, sadness, lust, joy all made the same loud sound in my psyche. They all felt like guilt. I discerned no nuance between love and lust and when Eva’s sweet body aroused me in her tiny black bikini, rather than accept the feeling for what it was―desire―I chose to objectify it romantically to assuage my guilt for wanting anyone so sweet and young and innocent. I could only live with my constant inclination to run my tongue over her nipples and twirl it around her navel if I believed the feeling meant something deeper. I had no idea then, nor do I now, what deeper meant.

Neither did I understand at the time that the process, the journey, has always meant more to me than the end result. Like a shark must keep moving or die, I am a person who must keep moving toward some goal. I drive myself relentlessly toward something until I reach it and then immediately search for a new pursuit or find myself dying of an existential ennui. I would have hated myself if I had reached my goal in this case and become bored. At least now I recognize that a sexual conscience is as much a delusion on one end as “free” love is on the other.

Whatever the reasons for my confusion, the consequences remained internal. I never discussed them with Joey or acted out any amorous intent with Eva. We spent our time in Mexico as it was meant to be spent in those days, as adventure and exploration, as hedonism and visceral joy, as a way to not grow older or more responsible. I never told Eva the way I felt, either. Part of the reason lay with my inability to make myself vulnerable, a holdover character flaw developed in the killing fields of Vietnam. But a bigger part, I think came from my own lack of understanding about feelings, what they were, where they came from, what made some appropriate and others ridiculous flights of fancy.

Ultimately what I missed, and still do from time to time, is that fact that once you try to discern the way you’re supposed to feel in a given situation and then create that emotion consciously, you’re no longer really feeling anything. I know, I know, I know it’s complicated being a fucked-up male full of ambivalent yearning and self-loathing. It’s not necessarily the way we’re made, but it is the way we most often end up making ourselves. I had a tremendous amount of good fun on this road trip as evidenced by the fact that I remember so much of it forty years later and still think fondly of Eva in that bikini from time to time.

On the other hand, as proof that good, Midwestern, Christianized men can never enjoy life without punishing themselves for their pleasure, I offer one last anecdote for your contemplation. The entire time in Mexico, I avoided the dreaded intestinal conflagration known as Montezuma’s Revenge, the Gringo Gallup, or the Aztec Two-Step by drinking bottled water, eating peeled fruit, cooked vegetables, and well-done meat at expensive restaurants. I went so far as to gargle every day using cheap tequila as a prophylactic mouthwash. On our journey up from the bowels of Mexico, my bowels remained in perfect working order. Consequently, I had a voracious appetite, and so the little white truck stopped for snacks frequently.

As we approached the border near dusk, intending to drive through the night until we reached Jimmy Hayes and his jewelry shop in Tucson, we spotted a clean looking restaurant barely on the Mexican side. Our last meal in country was a feast and, for me, included a bottle of Sun Kist orange soda to wash down steak, corn, shrimp, peppers, refried beans and fried ice cream. Against any possible vestige of common sense, I decided such a clean, well-lit place so close to the American border would surely have sanitized water absent those tricky little bacteria that brought about the fecal waterfalls infecting so many less sophisticated tourists. I splurged and ordered a glass of ice to chill the tepid soda, and by the time we left Jimmy’s two days later I traveled home seven pounds lighter.