The early 70s were rich in musical opportunities for a kid of 14. My older brothers had plenty of albums to play, but they did not really want me touching their stuff. Still, I’d sneak a play of their Beatles stuff when necessary. And it was necessary.
Whether by kindness or to protect their own albums, my brothers gave me a set of albums of my own. My father had fixed up an all-in-one stereo player with blonde wood and a couple of decent speakers buried behind matching fabric. I thought this was the shit, I’ll tell you. Having my own stereo to play my own record in the second-floor room overlooking the crumpled asphalt of Gates Street in Elburn, Illinois was all I wanted or needed at the moment.
Here were some of the albums they gave me:
- Neil Young: After the Gold Rush
- Yes: Fragile
- Yes: Close to the Edge
- Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection
- David Bromberg: Midnight On the Water
- Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die
- David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- Bob Dylan: New Morning
- George Harrison: All Things Must Pass
Some of this music was downright challenging to appreciate. That David Bromberg album made me feel weird for liking fiddle music. I thought my friends would think I’m nuts for appreciating Bromberg’s squeaky voice and lyrical stylings of folk music.
The Neil Young album had such maturity and depth I struggled to apply it to my life because after all, I was only fourteen years old. Yet there was plain urgency in such lyrics as “When you dance I can really love.”
When you dance,
Do your senses tingle?
Then take a chance?
In a trance,
While the lonely mingle
Every high school dance was a rehearsal of those same lyrics. I was a skinny cross country kid with a slack jaw, a pile of thick hair and a nearly perpetual boner. Which gave away my urgency while locked in the arms of a cheerleader named Joanie who plucked me out of the crowd and pressed her hard thigh between mine and ground me into a near state of climax.
So yes, my senses tingled, and the next time I listened to that song I better understood what Neil Young meant by “the lonely mingle with circumstance…”
The same could be said of that Ziggy Stardust album. There was existential coldness in the lyrics of the song Five Years:
Pushing through the market square
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones
I saw boys
electric irons and TV’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse
It had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things
to store everything in there
And all the fat, skinny people
and all the tall, short people
and all the nobody people
and all the somebody people
Never thought I’d need so many people
Already in my youth, there was a pressing feeling that the things I valued were both the most important things in the world, and yet perhaps not important to other people at all. The races we ran and the training we did felt so urgent and real, but the classmates I had were not capable in some ways of understanding how pain translated to greater comprehension. All I knew was that it hurt and simultaneously bared the naked fear and anxiety that ruled my mind so many days. Yet through this honesty the running also emboldened me to try, to not give up and to care about other people because I felt all opened to the world after real effort.
I went on to buy more albums of course. I specifically recall visiting a record store in Geneva. I’d saved up my paperboy money and wanted to buy the new Honky Chateau album by Elton John. Sure, the hits like Rocket Man were the driver, but ultimately it was the poetic nature of songs like Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters that floored me:
Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the lord
There’s people out there like you
I thank the lord there’s people out there like you
Those lyrics were urban as hell, but they reached across the open cornfields of Illinois to salve my ears against the high school politics and family troubles common to so many teenagers.
I’d started writing poetry and prose at the age of fourteen. This too was uncommon among my friends, and some lampooned it. Yet the day that I read the lyrics to Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters aloud in English class, my peers got quiet and the teacher walked over to me and said, “That was wonderful.”
And I liked that feeling as much as running. The two have gone together ever since. I’m not one to experience writer’s block much. More’s the case that I haven’t enough time to work on the projects in progress. Right now I’m working on two separate books. One is titled Sustainable Faith, a layman’s guide to practical spirituality. The other is titled Nature Is My Country Club, a playful examination of the environmental ethic (or lack of it) in our golf course world.
I also write for a living, blessed now to be working in Communications for the City of Batavia. I love my job and it gives me the opportunity to give back to the community where I lived for 20 years.
So empty pages are not much the problem for me. Yet the lyrics of the song Empty Pages by Traffic stick with me all these years because they show so clearly show the connection between work and love.
Found someone who can comfort me, but there are always exceptions
And she’s good at appearing sane, but I just want you to know
She’s the one makes me feel so good when everything is against me
Picks me up when I’m feeling down, so I’ve got something to show
Staring at empty pages, centered ’round the same plot
Staring at empty pages, flowing along in the ages
Often lost and forgotten, the vagueness in the mind
I’ve been thinking I’m working too hard, but I’ve got something to show
The economy of those lyrics still shakes me. The grip on life itself, and the basal appreciation of how love and support help you get through life. It is these lessons and the running that have carried me through all these years. I’m proud of myself for getting that all those years ago, and still getting it today.
About 15 years ago I actually picked up the guitar again after abandoning it just after high school. I learned to play songs again but I’m not guitarist. I don’t “think” in music the way real musicians do. So I seek out days to strum and sing the lyrics I’ve grown to love. One of my favorite albums of songs to play is Bob Dylan’s New Morning. I consider it one of the most underrated of Dylan’s albums, and perhaps one of the most underrated of all time.
The song The Man In Me is just one example of the clarity that album seeks and delivers.
The man in me will do nearly any task
And as for compensation, there’s little he would ask
Take a woman like you
To get through to the man in me
The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen
But that’s just because he doesn’t want turn into some machine
Took a woman like you
To get through to the man in me
There’s truth in that song for any type of relationship. We hold each other accountable and when that fails, we prop each other up. And sometimes it’s the grip of a teammate or friend after a hard race, when we’re too exhausted to stand up on our own, that a hug sustains us and the words, “You did a good job” mean everything in the world.