Big sun in an empty space throws cold light on a slackened upturned face. What made you sit down and what did you think, your best friend your lover your daughters, arms slack and burning could you have stood you would have hurried home but that’s not now it works not even sometimes, in that instant sleep came to your struggling heart and you lay your shaggy big ol’ guy head down to rest, how many times had that head made me smile made me laugh so hard sometimes I couldn’t breathe, now I feel again a dumb loss of breath – I remember you. I remember you. I remember. Your house your yard your brother’s room your mom, hoop and susan and one long starry night throwing the nut under glaring happy happy happy light. I remember you and I love you Tim. You were just exactly right.
As a self-taught authority on all things Biblical (we call ourselves Bibliophiles) I look to the sky today prayerfully, with wonder and hope. Darkening clouds wash hestitantly, with a real pretty trepidatiousness across the dome of heaven, seeming to portend a gentle fall of rain on our blessed state of California. We pray instead for a unicorn-annihilating downpour like the one that prompted that guy to build a big boat in the Old Testament book of…Rains. O Lord, remind us of the Book of Rains and the promises made there in the immediate wake of all that hollering and drowning. Let the faithful be reminded every time we lift our eyes and are gladdened by a rainbow that this miracle is but God’s promise to probably not get mad again, as foretold in the book of Rains. “And after 40 days and nights the dark clouds parted and the Lord sent a rainbow over the mud-covered lands where no living thing crept but the earthworm and slug and a few other yucky hermaphroditic losers, saying ‘Behold the wrath of the Lord your God who in his judgement washed clean the sinful Earth, sparing only slugs and stuff because, honestly, you need hands to really sin big. Heretofore I shall span the sky with a symbol of my so-so promise to probably not do this again’.” Let today be the breaking of that promise from a Lord known to run pigs off cliffs and set bushes on fire, because we really need a lot of rain. Let us join hands — Malachi, I said HANDS! How many times do I have to tell you?!
As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.
Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.
Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.
In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.
The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”
When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”
My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.
This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.
In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.
Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.
At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.
A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.
At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch. Love you, Pat.
We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.
My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”
It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.
“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.
Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.
Morning sun paints the low mountaintops while in the foreground a Big Brand tire store anchors an immediate tattered blandscape, one can imagine Big Brand and the other dumb little buildings there of stucco and lesser stucco rising and melting and rising and melting and rising and melting in a Rod-Taylor-in-The-Time-Machine daydream of sick and meaningless renewal, the mountains in that time-lapse just standing there, unmoving and unamused nightclub bouncers with their arms crossed. The sun doesn’t know ‘paint’ or poetry, is an insensate fire set by forces describable with chalk and arithmetic, it nevertheless holds our hope(s) and this is how to encumber a fire that wants only to convert one thing to another in a soundless ‘space’ (as it’s known) but for that blowy roar that could be a burning tree. What of it. A star is exhaustible and at the end goes down swinging in a sad burst of gamma or something, an embarrassingly grand display of nuclear failure, falls in on itself and shrinks as if to compensate for eons of unearned braggadocio, eons of radiant literature thrown off in a laundry list of exotic rays. Sinatra had them screaming in their socks at the Paramount and may even have punched Ava Gardner if you want to talk about astronomical largesse, and in the end he doddered around his house not feeling great and would only occasionally join his house guests in a game of poker, emerging from his large bedroom in pajamas, a mountain a fleeting thought a tachyon. Yeah, those are the choices. Deal with it.
Well, that which we had most feared has finally come to pass. The global threat now posed by the marauding Ebola virus is such that it is possible today to imagine someone beginning to sing the chorus of an old Doobie Brothers song, then being quickly brought to heel by remembering we’re all dying of Ebola. We who remember the old Doobie Brothers may ruefully recall that Michael McDonald’s sudden appearance likewise had the devastating effect of an attacking microbe on that band, the bearded pathogen punching through the Doobies’ cell wall, charging into the mitochondrial matrix and ruthlessly reprogramming the group until it lost its Hell’s Angels double helix and finally collapsed under the weight of all those swirly perfumed Michael McDonald ladies who wear heels to concerts and dance with their eyes closed and their arms in the air while saying ‘woo-hooo’. We will not be spared.
Ebola. Three little words that strike cold fear into the heart. These are the scourge-times, what with easy air travel, the splashy fecal dispensaries of your average African village, and an Information Age news cycle with as greedy a maw as that cone-shaped planet-killer that so tormented William Windom. While All Hope is not lost, it is almost certainly in that closet under the stairs about whose contents we routinely say ‘it’s not lost, but we’ll never see it again’.
Ebola is on everyone’s lips these days; if not Ebola itself then a comment or opinion about Ebola. And in our haste to welcome a human-race concluding, ratings-boosting doomsday, we have already brushed past the forgotten earliest victims of Ebola – the Democratic Republic of Congo Realtors whose previously prized holdings along the river Ebola, after which the virus is named, are now not worth the spraying diarrheac output being attributed to the unfortunate river’s namesake. Best to pull up stakes and reinvest someplace untouched by the tragedy. A large purchase of land around the lushly forested Lake Penile Palsy will surely reverse the sliding fortunes of these innocent speculators whose only crime was snapping up acreage along the banks of a river whose name is now synonymous with blood gushing like hose water out every hole in the body. It’s been reported that Disney was offered the riverfront properties as a possible spot for a Sub-Saharan theme park, but passed when their hastily convened focus group turned up their noses at the proposed new slogan; “The Hemorrhage Place On Earth”.
This Ebola bug (like most annihilating microbes, a cheery bit of yarn when glimpsed with a scanning electron microscope) has drawn up some wild survival plans over the lazy eons. We could take a page from the Ebola Self-Defense book. The skin of the Ebola virus wears a glycoprotein with which it binds itself to and then pierces the hapless living cell, leaps unhindered through the ripped outer membrane, runs in like an overexcited thug and, for reasons known only to the fragrant mysteries of Intelligent Design, irreparably smashes the cellular furniture. Then, as the Keystone Antibodies perk up at these loud indications of cellular slaughter and rush in to help, the Ebola virus exits the wrecked cell and manages to push another glycoprotein out the other side, an actual decoy with which the pleased and thoroughly duped antibodies busy themselves while the real culprit slinks off in search of more cellular mayhem to wreak. No kidding. It’s amazing and grotesque and inexplicably mind-like; nature in a nutshell. Medical illustrators like the marvelous Bernie K. are at pains to explicate such minutiae as comprise the brick and mortar of our bewildering Existence, and the colorful, mechanistic renderings lay out the cogs and gears of these things in thrilling and horrifying detail, reminding us anew how wonderful and nauseatingly incomprehensible Life is in the details. Again; if this is all a machine, what is it doing? Whether this killer yarn is Intelligently Designed by an increasingly puzzling “I Promise This Is All Part Of The Perfect Plan” God, or came by it’s exactingly tailored design through the numbing mathematical exigencies of Trying This Then That Then Another Variation of This over the course of many trillions of days and nights of a very very slowly stirring biosphere, the Ebola virus looks to be, at the moment, in the ascendant. Or to address the issue in more scientific terms, our world is under attack by blank-faced nano sex robots.
Luckily this ancient and canny bug is not – repeat is NOT – conveyed by the furiously sneezing crazy guy in the back of the bus I’m riding as I type this; one of those guys whose sneezes escape him like prisoners angrily breaking out of confinement, and whose greatest threat to my well-being is the likelihood I’ll minutely wet myself every time he screams. The Scream Sneezer blasts his atomized snot-cloud into the air without preamble, and sounds like he’s being grazed with a blowtorch when he lets loose. “sghnAAAAAAGGH!! sghnAAAAAAGGH!!!!!
Yes, if you ride the city bus to work every day you feel the growing panic, even though this plague is, as they continue to say with strangely declarative authority, not an airborne pathogen. But we’ve seen this movie; a miscast Emma Thompson, playing this time a Shakespearean virologist, assures an uneasy world the situation will soon be under control, and in fact the screenwritten danger is comfortably distant. In the first reel an innocuous case of the sniffles appears across an array of urban and rural settings portrayed in typical Hollywood shorthand – brusque and unlikable grey-suited derivatives trader in NYC sneezes demurely into a Pierre Cardin kerchief, portly Heartland corn farmer in an ill-researched straw hat and overalls blows his nose on the wife’s gingham apron to her chuckling delight, Los Angeles yoga instructor in gold lame briefs and ponytail raises a ringed hand to his pierced nose and emits a ladylike nasal hiccup. Each cinema-sneeze is followed by an Industrial Light and Magic sequence of wildly painted flagellants rocketing through the room, up into nostrils made cavernous by our Need to Know, and straight down into the protean basement where sympathetically portrayed cells are swarmed and violated by anthropomorphized Ebola gangs, whip-like arms a-waving to a thumping minor-key tragedy theme composed and conducted by James Newton Howard. By reel 2 we’ve got staring, shuffling armies of tax attorneys with their arms outstretched, some of them zombies. Yes, life may be about to imitate art, hopefully not the art of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, though. Life imitating that art could be worse than Ebola.
But this slow-motion plague is conveyed exclusively by exposure to body fluids, we’re told by Ms. Thompson’s real-life counterparts. Though many of the deaths in Africa are happening in Lagos, a variegated, skyscrapered congestion of modern metal and glass, we’re told even heavily urbanized Africa lacks the West’s feces-disposing acumen and that the poor souls are victims of their culture’s childlike propensity to splash body fluids with inept abandon. Meaning the several thousand persons in Africa who have been infected and largely killed by the virus were more likely vomited on than sneezed around, more likely to have tripped into an open sewer or embraced the dissolving corpse of a loved one than to have been virally attacked in a more bespoke westernized fashion. There is in the comfort-bestowing comparisons of Them to Us the usual patronizing posture. Of course it’s rampant in Africa, just look at them! Oh, and someone in a hazmat suit in Texas caught Ebola by removing her gloves wrong. So there is some assurance that, barring a Mr. Creosote-like vomiting frenzy or the less than completely thoughtful removal of specially constructed anti-Ebola gloves, we’ll all be okay.
I’m not in a panic about Ebola, but I marvel at how we are already being polarized by the comfortably small-seeming outbreak. Of course the disabled do-nothings in our nation’s nerve center are taking the usual productive tack of setting absolutely everything else aside to politicize and blame, the possible pandemic brought unsurprisingly to bear on the always top-of-mind issue of getting rehired to do nothing some more. So hopefully they can be used as guinea pigs in the search for a reproducible cure. Maybe they can do some good after all, if against their will.
Several friends have taken me mildly to task for flattering the dimwit media’s feverish 24/7 coverage with any attention at all. Yeah, I know Ebola is curable, but not often. If/when it gets to a truly crowded place like India, it doesn’t seem naive or pessimistic or fabulist to believe the sheer numbers will be uncontainable. It’s just boring old math that says so. For now the quality of mercy is being strained and there are public cries to close the borders, deny entry to the feverish, and otherwise Look Out for Number One. The headline-grabbing Ebola virus may just be the latest McNews to occupy a bored and sated West, but the dust-up usefully points out that we are not Creatures of Light or spirit beings, and that dumb replicating germs continue to occupy the head of a pin in greater numbers than angels.
I turn in my seat to watch as they quietly enter the Arlington’s half-light in whispering twos, threes and fours, peering through the murk with a touching vulnerability, expressions brightening at the sight of friends, hands raised in greeting. The hushed army of once and future glam-slammers and barricade-stormers, they who would have turned the world on its head some 45 years ago, now furtively take their seats, apologizing for the inconvenience as they sidle past in their chinos and Chuck Taylors. They settle in and lean into each other, murmuring. The dusky Arlington cavern already has the hushed aspect of a church service. They’re here for Bowie, yeah. But there’s the luggage, too.
David Bowie Is. The omnipresent-tense of the film’s title suggests a quasi-religious experience, and the congregants approve. Bowie was (is) a special case; part accident, (large) part calculation, and part Divine timing, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and inserting himself and his message into that weird demilitarized zone between the 60s conflagration and the 70s blow dried confusion; between the exhausted Stones, the divorcing Beatles, the drowned Hendrix and the approaching polyester Me Generation steamroller. Just at the moment the fires were being doused and the broken masonry swept up in prep for James Taylor’s entrance (mustn’t get brick dust on those white trousers), here comes Bowie like an escapee, with One More Thing To Say. Dismantling the Establishment is for squares. Why overthrow the old order when you can find an elliptical orbit that obviates the need for any order at all?
The film itself was a strangely (not to say deceptively) promoted documentary, a tour of a celebrated Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an exhibit so freaking anticipated by a global public still starved for Bowie that it (the exhibit, you understand) is itself touring the world like a rock star, with stops in Toronto, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Melbourne. David Bowie, at 67 and reportedly not in great health, has attained that level of cultural hegemony that allows his shirts to tour in his stead. In the movie two talking heads walk the movie audience through the exhibit’s Twelve Stations of the Cross, as it were, the gasping experts gesturing and talking earnestly at the camera. We see Bowie’s famous costumes (notably for this writer the psychedelic skin-tight tea cozy he wore in his watershed Top of the Pops performance of Starman in ‘72), his childhood ballpoint sketches and odd doodles that seem to suggest designs for movie sets and character creations.
Like most little kids with light bulbs for heads, little Davie Jones had big weird ideas and recorded them prolifically and energetically; unlike most kids he carried them into adulthood as action items. When, at 15 years old, Davie was mightily popped in the left eye by a schoolyard chum in a brief tussle over a girl they both liked, the die was cast. The eye was saved but the pupil paralyzed, an interesting oddity for the shaggy folk-Bowie of 1966, but an absolute badge of deep-space authenticity when he later invented Ziggy and let his addled wife dye his hair a color not found in nature. Unlike say, Perry Como (another estimable chameleon whose startling collection of cardigans could make his audience dizzy with dislocation and excitement), Bowie did not inhabit or typify his time; he infused it. Emerging from a decade that sought exaltation and strangeness, this eyebrow-free wraith with the mismatched pupils and strange, melodic gift wrote his own and our tickets.
So, yeah. We of course took along our 12-year-old daughter that night, grateful for the opportunity to introduce her to a more artistically nourishing time when pop stars could legitimately be thought to have come from outer space. You’re so lucky to be seeing this tonight, Stel! (she nods once, bored already. “How long will the movie last?”). Stella, though, has yet to be seduced into the Earbud Army, and to her credit nods off every night to a long Carpenters lullabye (whether or not the reader finds that a taste assault that trumps all others) – but today’s shuffling deaf-mutes, anesthetized teen and tween droids with wires hanging out of their ears, music blaring minutely in the middle of their wallpapered crania through hours and hours made mundane by the ceaseless, seamless soundtrack. They buy gum, cross the street, scroll their i-things, text their professed love, kiss, and occasionally talk to each other with skinny little Ariana Grande and the gasping Demi Lovato et al marauding through the middle of their heads like an earwig army. And the teeny songs songs tend toward that thrill-ride motif, the honking synth loops and hammerblow bass they blast at 1000 decibels as you try not to bark up your funnel cake on the mischaracterized Alpine Toboggan at Earl Warren. Our musical heroes in the Day were larger-than life avatars who scarcely seemed containable in ordinary rooms. Bowie was like an androgynous reptile, Jim Morrison a radiant Dionysus in sterlizingly tight leather pants. Our daughter’s pop idols look like paperboys and kickball champions. Justin Bieber might be here to mow your lawn. You want to rush the stage and help them with their math homework. And they never leave the heads of our earbud imprisoned kids. In the 70s (he dared venture) my audiophile friends and I would crowd into my friend Dave’s acoustically pristine bedroom, dim the lights and listen to Genesis’ Musical Box or One for the Vine at crystal-clear high volume, or Supertramp’s Hide in Your Shell. It was a special gathering – like going to temple or church, but without funny hats or those tiddly winks they put on your tongue. I challenge you to try dialing up a Supertramp song with your twelve-year-old in the room. “Daaaduh! Can I change the song!”
But…yeah. You reach a certain age and, as if by some hideous magic, hear your jawbone broadcasting stuff your own mom and dad used to say, and it makes you blush in terror. The effort not to sound like an historically predictable parent/philistine when remarking on the kids’ music choices – it can be tough. But our folks still take the cake! They weren’t possessed of the frightened self-awareness we wear like a postmodern millstone. They didn’t care if they sounded like Parents, they reveled in that, saying the dumbest summary things without hesitation. One evening at the age of 16 or so I was listening to Elton’s anthemic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” on the living room stereo, in the days before my very own Zenith Allegro Home HiFi entered and transformed my life and drove me into my shuttered teen bedroom for good. Just as my dad entered the living room that evening, Elton was singing “frozen here…” (on the ladder of my life) , and my dad yelled “Frozen beer! What the hell?”
“Frozen here!” I shouted.
“I heard frozen beer!!” my dad yelled back. I knew immediately this lame shouting match was not the sort of telling generational schism that would feature on a PBS documentary about the dissolution of the American family. It was the only time I can recall our having raised our voices to each other. Yow. Rock and Roll.
Back in the Arlington a theater full of grown teens breathe deep the gathering gloom, to quote an old song. All those long teenage nights behind the locked bedroom door in our parents’ houses (our parents! our parents!), feeling the centrifugal energies of a world spinning like an idiot top. Did all that really happen? Why did my denim bell bottoms have so many zippers? Why did I let my hair puff out like that? Why did I have to borrow a shirt from John Videan for my senior portrait? This Bowie evening is a rocket ride back to the whole of the teen whirlwind, where lead routinely turned to gold and the world could still surprise the shit out of us, could still drive us back to our locked grottoes to sort things out. I would stare wonderingly at my blacklight MC Escher poster, or spend hours lying in bed and listening to Sparks or Kate Bush or The Who’s Tommy with the lights out, the stereo painting almost tactile sonic pictures in the dark over the rumpled twin bed with its embarrassingly childish sheets and untested box spring, the bittersweetness of LPs stacked on a spindle.
*Jeff writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a print version of this particular piece can be found this week.
SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 20/October 4-18
When he boarded he saw in his familiar annoyed periphery the Beautiful Teenage Typical, already looking off with her studied thousand-yard stare, her paralytic nonchalance. ‘Yeah, I’m Beautiful. It is my misfortune and I can’t unlearn it now. I have seen it in the helpless puppy eyes of the boys since fourth grade recess, where it startled me at first. I’ll have nothing to do with you now but a masked drinking in of your helplessly flung gamma.’ But he brought his iceberg zeal to the demonstration, as he had done for a lifetime, since Lisa devastated Tony. He took his seat and opened his book without looking up. If you are beautiful you have been furtively glanced at enough already. This will be for your own good. I can see it on your expression of studied indifference. Rewarding you with even a glimpse would be pouring gin down the neck of a furniture-smashing golem. Awkward girls and boys with dated hairbands and tucked-in shirts bought off the wrong rack, they are the prize, you are the wallpaper. Your carefully arranged, traditionally attractive sphinx-face is as thrilling as a spiral notebook. I’m still on fire, still on fire, I believe you broke me that day, and in the many days after that day. In Mrs. Petrie’s third grade lunch line at Clark Elementary in Cheyenne we waited in blanched sunlight and you told my penurious friend Tony, my quiet buddy with the always-mussed hair and worried expression, the farm kid, you said that of all the ink-clumped mimeographed recipes shared through our weekend assignment, his was the worst. ‘We tried your Breakfast Cookies and they were awful.’ Tony looked down and away, horrified. He’d worn the same checkered shirt all the previous week, the hem shiny and frayed with wear. Your macabre attack was an air horn in a stilled chapel. My scalding blood sprayed into my head and I saw stars. What did she say? Someone can say that? I looked sideways at Tony, his eyes brimming, and I crushed my beige circular milk ticket in my shaking right hand oh god! oh god I could have killed you, Lisa! I could have maimed you! In too many dreams that year I lunged at you, madly clawed your beribboned hair, your self-satisfied little face, your beautiful little ferret face with its cheekbones and haughty forehead. If you’d taken a shot at my mom’s Angel Food Cake recipe at that moment I might have torn you like a phone book. Rage at all the well-built assholes who criticize our Breakfast Cookies! ‘Well-Lisa-we-tried-your-cake-and-it-was-terrible!’ I bleated in cracking girl-voice, a Tourette’s attack that seemed to gush from someone else before I knew I was saying it, I could not believe these goings on. And you said ‘Ha ha! My recipe wasn’t for cake, liar.’