Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Top of the World, Except I Really Wanted to Be Geddy Lee

An original story by Mutt Ploughman

HE'S NO NEIL PEART, but the dude from Cinderella probably put it best when he observed, and I think he was the first to do it, that “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone”. That guy really hit on something. Because although today I’m turning 40 and I’m still alive and I’ve got a pretty nice family and we’re all more or less healthy, back in 1987 I was sitting right on top of the world. The crazy-ass thing is, like the man said, I didn’t even know it. But now I do.

That guy – the Cinderella man – wasn’t really the man, though. I’ve known who that was for decades now, before I was even in high school, from the very first time I ever heard Exit… Stage Left on my rockin’ big sister Charlotte’s record player sometime around 1983. But the story I want to tell starts even before that. To do this right, I have to go back to that Christmas present.

I believe it was 1982. That was the year Signals came out, but I wasn’t tapped into that vein of utter rock genius yet, which explains why I was such a spindly, unmotivated loser. That and the fact that I was still only twelve years old. I think I did hear “Subdivisions” on the radio a few times, but all I knew about it was that it had a lot of keyboards and it had that weird computerized voice in the chorus actually intoning the word. “Subdivisions”. I wasn’t alert to the fact that I was living inside the same world that song described and denigrated.

A couple of years before that was when Charlotte had first started letting me come into her room on weekday afternoons after school to hear some of her hundreds of records. There was a ten-year age difference between my sister and I; she was in community college by then and I was still in the grade school across the street. That gap explains why she was nothing but affectionate with me and never treated me like the big pain in the ass that I usually was.

I was gawky and shy and didn’t have any frickin’ friends – the perfect candidate for a Rush fan. Charlotte was tall, big-boned, with very long brown hair, huge dark eyes, and freckles on her cheeks. She had a monstrously loud laugh and was friendly to virtually everyone. She made me believe I didn’t care about any of my little problems. She’d let me come in and sit there while she taught me about rock n’ roll against the wishes of my hard-working, traditionalist father.

Somewhere between the ages of 1o and 12 I said out loud that what I really wanted to do was get a hold of an instrument so I could someday play in a band. Whether I knew what I wanted is debatable, but what can’t be debated is that Charlotte prompted the remark by playing all those records, and also that my mother heard it. She started saving up loose change, of which there wasn’t a whole lot to be found, without clueing anyone else in on what she was doing.

Christmas wheeled around on the calendar as it always does, and the only present I remember getting is the only one that mattered. My parents went completely against prior precedent and bought me a brand-new Ibanez bass guitar down at Rondo Music on Route 22. I say my parents, but it was really my mother. My father’s reaction to me opening the gift, which I’m sure he didn’t even know about until that morning, was to tactlessly question her: “What the hell are you giving him that for?? You should have gotten him a pencil and a calculator to play, so he can apply himself to his goddamn grades.” My mom weathered it, and I understand now why it was worth it to her.

I remember that bass the way many people remember their prom date: fresh, virginal, a brand new set of clothes, looking fine. And believe me when I say I wanted to take that bass out on the town, 12 years old or not. Only problem was I didn’t know how to play it. I don’t even know why my mother chose that particular instrument. She probably thought it was an electric guitar. I never cared what the motive was. What mattered was that the bass was spectacular, and it was mine.

For about a year and a half that bass was my most treasured possession; I bragged about it, and showed it to anyone I could get to come in my room, which meant no girl ever saw it for at least four years. I spent hours just looking at it, propped up against something. But I couldn’t play it. The thing was nearly bigger than I was. It was like a piece of sculpture, a great pillar of beauty and symbolic power, a kind of monolith that drew me to it like those towers in The Lord of the Rings. It kind of vexed me, though. I couldn’t get my head around how to take it on. But it really was a problem of the heart. I needed to feel the bass; I needed to get inside of me somehow, not through my ears, but through my gut.

That didn’t happen until one summer night in 1983 when Charlotte, my beautiful big sister – the one I lost to cancer eleven years ago – hollered at me from inside her room, “Come in here, little man. I want you to hear this.” I plopped down in the easy chair in that bedroom she had, which in my head still seems like a rock-n-roll museum and shrine rolled into one, and heard this nasal, nerdy-sounding voice say, “This is the Spirit of Radio” followed by an explosion of screaming fans. And that’s when I discovered I wanted to be Geddy Lee.

the guy said to me, you might be able to fight your way out of this, on your own, without having to turn to the court system. isnt it too late for that, i asked. its not too late, he said. but its gonna be a prolonged fight. youre going to have to work on it harder than youve ever worked on anything before. you have to reinvent yourself as someone who works harder, digs deeper, and wont accept the other alternative.

By the time we got to “YYZ”, which is the third song on that side of the album, I knew two things. They contradicted one another wonderfully. One was that no one else was as good at the bass as Geddy. I still don’t think there’s another bass player, living or dead, who is or was capable of playing those three solo fills in the middle of “YYZ”. I’ve tried it; it can’t be done. Yet this dude was going out there on stage and replicating them every damn night. The second thing was that I really wanted to play the way Geddy did, even though the first thing I had learned was that nobody ever could.

It wasn’t too long after I first learned about who Rush was that they came out with Grace Under Pressure, in 1984. I rode my bike to the supermarket a couple of towns away and plunked down $5.99 immediately for the LP. This was back when they used to inexplicably stock records and tapes at the Pathmark food store right next to the toothpaste. I remember trying to get it home in a bag that was coming apart because it was raining and trying to steer the bike while keeping the LP in the rupturing brown paper. Younger readers won’t remember how cumbersome carrying around records could be, especially while riding a bike. All I remember feeling was if I had to choose between keeping the bag together so the new Rush album wouldn’t slip out or keeping my hand on the bar in order to steer, I was gonna preserve the record.

Talk about grace under pressure. Somehow I got it home. I remember laying it on my utter piece of shit record player in our unfinished, cricket-infested basement and letting those first chords in the nuclear-era anthem “Distant Early Warning” blast through me like a sonic shockwave. The rest was the fallout. Alex Lifeson was never my favorite guy in Rush – I almost felt bad for him, having to contend with that lights-out rhythm section every night – but his guitar sound on that record was muscular and bone-rattling. If you don’t believe me ride your own bike home and dial up “Red Sector A” on iTunes. Do me a favor and turn it up loud. That sound thrust me back into a bean bag chair and I just lay there, overrun.

Well before then the Rush haters were telling me and everyone else how much they sucked. Geddy had been getting killed for the way he sang from the very beginning; this has never waned. They said he was like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin only more annoying. He was anathema for being skinny and ugly and having a huge beak for a nose. None of that mattered. His singing worked for me. I didn’t give a shit what he looked like. Had anyone ever looked closely at Plant? Besides, some of the screeching he did early on in Rush’s career was awesome. Who can forget when Geddy takes on the earsplitting caterwaul of “the priests” on “The Temples of Syrinx” from 1976’s ambitious rock/space/glam opera "2112"?

They were also getting creamed all along by critics and the public for drummer Neil Peart’s heady and semi-intellectual lyrics, based on his reading material, books by the likes of Ayn Rand and Tolkien, and later based on his general churlishness. Again, they got blasted for putting too many keyboards into their music for the Signals album in 1982, and for most of the decade that followed. Rather than go out and bring in a keyboard player my man Geddy took on the responsibility of playing them himself, both on their albums and live, so that from tour to tour he would juggle as much as three distinct musical roles in one song if you include lead vocal duties – and that’s not even counting ancillary stuff like effects pedals and the all-important Mini-moog. But people still wanted to say that the guy sucked and had no business being up on a stage.

Years later I remember this chick I worked with in the warehouse at Cub Foods telling me what a genius The Edge from U2 is, after seeing them perform on one of their ridiculously huge summer tours, because he had gone to one side of the stage and played the keyboard part during “New Year’s Day” and then switched back to the electric guitar in time to play the solo. What preposterous twaddle to force upon the discriminating ears of a Rush fan! “Shit,” I spat, adopting a tone of justifiable contempt, “Geddy Lee’s been doing that for two and a half hours a night for thirty years, but nobody’s calling him a genius.”

Blasting keyboards, screeching vocals, quasi-profound lyrics – not to mention the Olympian thunder of Neil Peart’s legendary drum work, a whole other story – all of these could really go by the wayside for me: all I heard when I put on a Rush record was the sublime bottom layer of Geddy’s bass. It was a lot like he seemed: limber, sinewy, aggressive, fearless. It’s all over the place no matter what Rush song you put on, from any decade. His bass makes its presence felt and draws your ear below into the foundation of the song, where you can gawk at the beauty and the functionality of the sonic architecture.

When I listened to Moving Pictures, Exit…Stage Left, Signals, or Grace Under Pressure, it made me simply want to crawl inside the hollowed-out part of my tobacco sunburst Ibanez where they screw in the pickups and live there for the rest of my life. All it took was Geddy Lee to get me going. I plucked my own bass up from whatever it had been leaning against for the first 18 months I had owned it and started working it over day and night with my soft, un-calloused fingertips until I couldn’t see straight or fell asleep with exhaustion.

I was almost fourteen, going on fifteen, and thought my life was largely meaningless and insignificant and that it wasn’t going anywhere worth going to. And yet those hours upon hours spent in my room, fully immersed in the exhaustive groundwork that is inherent to mastering any craft – repetition, mundanity, failing at something over and over again until the failure is hammered out – those were some of the most fulfilling times of my entire forty years. Because I thought about literally nothing else except trying to make that bass sound the way it sounded in my head, the way Geddy made it sound.

read the account of the prodigal son in the gospel of luke, he said, the father gave him all that he asked for in advance. and the son went off and made a series of poor decisions and had to get to a very low place before he could turn himself around. youre telling me i’m like that guy who ended up feeding pigs, i asked. im telling you where things stand, he replied. you asked me for help, and i’m going to provide it, but i think you have to start by acknowledging exactly where you are. weve looked at all your numbers and i am saying you must return to the beginning and start over. its a purgation. and until you do it this is not something youll ever get out from under.

I was the one my parents ended up putting their hopes behind, not really on purpose, but it’s just the way things turned out. Charlotte was never all that interested in school, probably even less than I was. She basically mailed it in on a few community college courses but never really had a plan for higher education. She had kind of a wild streak in her, although she was good and generous and immensely responsible when it counted. But she still liked to go out with big groups of friends and stay out a long time and see indie rock bands in clubs in the city and that sort of thing. She lived under my parents’ roof all through her 20s and she never seemed to mind, though it got to my father after a while. He would pressure her to move out and on with life and she would just laugh and tell him that it would happen one day when the time was right. It was never fair how she felt that way whereas whenever my Dad applied pressure to me I’d drape it around my shoulders like a lead suit jacket and wear it for years.

Her prediction rankled my old man but it turned out to be accurate because soon after she turned 30 she met Tom, a soft-spoken math teacher, a gentle giant-type at 6’6” who was the exact opposite of her in terms of temperament. He was the only man she had dated who was somehow able to make her seem small, since she was six feet tall herself with an outsized personality that normally crushed everything in its path by sheer inertia. Tom had a way of bringing her into check. She wanted to live huge and laugh and have a good time, and Tom was quiet but driven, trying to put himself through a doctorate program at Rutgers University at night, a man whose ultimate goal in life was to teach math at Princeton. They seemed like an odd match but they clicked.

So they got married when Charlotte was around 31 or so, and by that time I was living out in Ohio and was busy inscribing my own entries in my parents’ ledger of disappointments. Charlotte was still Charlotte, bold and loud and slightly crazy, and she did still love her rock n’ roll, but I knew she really wanted to settle down and be there for her mathematician. They struggled with infertility for a couple of years and then Charlotte was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time at 33.

She fought that illness off and on for the rest of her thirties, their family plans continually deferred. But she never did get to start that family or see her way to age 40, because it killed her at 39. I was 29 at the time with my own child and I could not get my mind around her dying so young like that. I could have used her laughter and her snappy attitude and her love later, for my own problems were just beginning.

In 1986, though, I was sixteen and wildly unpopular, skinny, dismal at every sport and anything else that would have gotten me in with the popular crowd. But I had an ace up my sleeve and I knew it, and I was biding my time waiting for the right chance to throw it down. That ace was my bass, as it were, and didn’t that become someone’s band name later on or some shit?

Once I latched on to that Ibanez and started working it over there was no stopping me. As far as I was concerned I had gotten into college already and had muscled my way into the most requested course on campus - Professor Geddy Lee, presiding. I knew I needed to work on what I liked to call my “road gear” even though I didn’t even play in a band let alone ever go on the road. “Road gear” to me meant basically an amplifier and my bass, with a case to carry it around from gig to nonexistent gig. Surely the time was coming when I would need equipment for when whatever band I was a part of started booking gigs, getting the word out, and touring the house party/high school dance circuit.

Through the school newspaper’s classified ads, no less, I found an old Gorilla amp that some senior named Chad “Butt” Buttersworth was selling for 50 bucks – a good chunk of money to me, but it wasn’t the $300 that a new amp would have cost down at Rondo. I knew if I ever got up on stage with this piece of shit when guys in our school had Peaveys and Marshall stacks, I’d get laughed off of it before I even got to lay down any pipe. But I figured I’d cross that bridge if ever got into a gig situation.

I never knew until later that Butt had fleeced me even on the 50 bucks I had put down, which was half a week’s pay from my after-school job as a janitor, but evidently he had, because the speakers on the amp were blown. I didn’t know shit about sound equipment so I couldn’t tell. It was only when I got started in a band and made good friends with the guitarist, Greg Lyons – who everyone called “Mikey” because he looked like the kid in the LIFE cereal commercial – that I found out the truth. As soon as I plugged in for our first rehearsal early the next school year Mikey said, ‘How much you pay for that again?” I told him, and he said, “You better keep standing then, because Butt pounded you straight up yours on that deal, and you may not wanna sit down for a long time.”

Butt-pounded or not, I played on that thing for years because it was all I had and there was no way in hell I could afford anything better, a glimpse of the world to come. Even if I could have saved for it, my Dad wouldn’t have let me “waste” my money on a new amp for my bass when I had college to think about. In a way it worked to my advantage because even though it looked like a joke, and was basically taken in high school as a metaphor for having an insubstantial piece of very different equipment, it sort of gave me my own signature sound.

The amp held together all right, but Mikey was correct that the main speaker was blown to shit, and not only that but if you were plugged into the thing for more than two hours at a time it would start overheating and would literally send tiny electric shocks through the metal strings into your fingertips. But I only took these as encouragement from the gods to keep right on rocking; kind of like Jason in that one Friday the 13th sequel where he gets zapped by lightning, it only fired him up.

The greatest thing about this beleaguered piece of “stage” equipment, as I alluded to before, was that it made my bass sound different from any other bass in rock history. It sounded exactly like an insane, thousand-pound wasp, screaming in anguish while stapled to the blade of a running buzz saw, with the whole thing chucked under water. At first it was kind of a punch line, but later on I turned the whole joke back around on everyone else.

It’s funny how I look back on all that from where I sit today and remember how I thought life was rough for me then, in high school, when my biggest difficulties were trying to keep my father off my back, avoiding schoolwork or any thought about the future, and, above all, figuring out how to infuse my fingers with more talent than they actually had. The game plan was to learn the bass so well that someone put me in their band, and from there I could springboard into popularity, a much-improved social calendar, possibly a good looking girlfriend, and what else was there? Dared I dream of something beyond? A future in rock n’ roll? Was it possible that the elder person’s expectations that I might validate would be my big sister’s rather than my parents’?

For a while there – mainly my senior year – it looked as though my life was headed precisely according to that romanticized destiny I had mapped out. But then I couldn’t avoid going to college, because Charlotte hadn’t really gone – not with any serious intention – and my parents were dead set on it. So I conceded, but if I was going to do it I wanted to get away from the house, so through a long series of uninteresting twists and turns that included some grant money and one over-zealous alum-turned-high school guidance counselor, I ended up attending Saints Peter and Paul College, a tiny private school outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was located in a little dead end town with tree-lined streets, a couple of Denny’s restaurants, and a big flea market where you could buy trinkets made out of wire and burlap sacks. No one tells you how boring the rest of Ohio really is outside of the one or two decent-sized cities there.

Anyway I found college not particularly to my liking either, although in the early going it did get me into a couple of very shitty bar bands where I actually did get to pound out the occasional Rush cover tune. But both my musical prospects and my aptitude and/or motivation for a degree dried up fast. And I ended up dropping out just like Charlotte, only it counted as something worse, because I had finally landed myself a steady girlfriend whose parents I moved in with for a while, and because I didn’t have a job or any real prospect for the future. I can understand now why my parents were so egregiously angry with me for years following these shaky decisions, especially my old man.

I told them at the time that the only thing I knew I was going to do for sure was marry the girl – Sherry is her name, and thankfully we are still married today. This failed to mollify my mother and father for some reason, and they made me swear I would wait at least two years, until I was almost 22, before I actually took such a drastic step. They argued that I owed them that much after they had sacrificed so much to send me to college and I had pissed away any chance to fulfill their vision for my life.

Well, beyond being with Sherry, whom I really did love and care about deeply and still do, I didn’t worry much about the future back then. I actually believed for a while that I would find my way into some bands and maybe see if I could get in with one that would make a record and tour behind it. That never happened, but what did happen was Sherry and I got married at 21 and 20 respectively, moved into a tiny rat-hole of a one-bedroom place in Reynoldsburg, and a year later we were pregnant with Billy, our son, who is now 17.

its not going to be of any help to you if im not completely honest. your fundamental insolvency is at such a level that you are going to have to use every means at your disposal. every dollar you earn is going to have to be employed in the direct service of one thing only which is to keep you afloat. the first thing we have to do is hammer out a budget based on only what you bring in the door. your days of spontaneity without thought to consequence are over forever. i call this place you are now entering proverbs territory, as in the book of proverbs, and welcome to it. im not making a joke. once we knock out your new budget youre going to strain every single muscle you have trying to stick to it. then you start looking for stuff from your old life you don’t want or need anymore so you can cut it away.

It wasn’t until the early summer before my senior year that things finally began to start falling into place to set up my rock n’ roll future. Better late than never. My birthday is in early June, right around the time when the school year ended. That year I got a Rush songbook specifically for bass – one wild guess as to who I got it from – and aside from the bass itself it was like the greatest gift I ever got, because it had in it a little something that music insiders call “tablature”. Tablature is a method of writing out how to play the music to a song on the guitar or bass for those who cannot read music. It works by indicating with a number placed on a series of lines that resembles a musical staff (four lines for a bass, six for guitar) which fret on the neck of the instrument to place your finger behind, and on which string, in order to hit the correct note.

That songbook covered from their first album up through 1985’s Power Windows, and it laid out exactly the right notes to each song, so I didn’t have to learn them by ear listening on a Walkman and attempting to play along. I had been using this method with only marginal success since I was about fourteen. It wore out my rewind button.

Man, did I work that songbook over backwards and forwards that summer. I tried every single tune over and over. My respect for Geddy only grew; how the hell did that man play some of the shit he played? It is hard to quantify how many times I attempted, without ever getting close, to bring off those two bass runs in the song “The Spirit of Radio” which I can only describe as being like sonic representations of someone falling down a set of stairs, only to recover their balance at the bottom and slip right back into a groovy swagger. Only Geddy Lee could do that.

Hold Your Fire was Rush’s brand new offering that year. I was utterly obsessed with it. The critics virtually ignored it, which I thought was basically grounds for criminal prosecution or at least dereliction of duty. What the fuck were these people listening to? Madonna? Phil Collins? Anyway, I was entranced with the lead-off song “Force Ten”. There was Geddy right out front, playing chords, no less, on his bass. You expected other than ground-breaking innovation? Rush has always pushed the limits. I listened to the entire album ad nauseam.

As I mentioned before, I knew from around age 14 on, when I started working the bass (mainly under Geddy’s tutelage, but also with some of his musical progeny, like Steve Harris of Iron Maiden and Les Claypool from Primus), that it was going to lead me in a natural progression towards greater glory. And it needed to, was my way of thinking at the time, because my grades were pedestrian at best, and I hadn’t exactly lit up the SATs. As soon as my senior year started I was collared by Mikey Lyons, a junior, who said, “I heard you were a bassist. Is that true?”

“Hell yes,” I answered confidently. “Been playing since I was 12.” Slightly inaccurate.

“Shit man! Why the hell haven’t you said so? I got two buddies, Craig Epp and Jerry de Fazio, who want to form a band. Craig plays guitar, and so do I, and Jerry – well, actually, um, it’s his little brother Doug, he’s only a freshman, but – we need a bass player. You want to get together and jam?”

That was how I got into Bloodmonkey, one word, garage band extraordinaire, denizens of the way-way-underground hard rock scene of the late 1980s. Our drummer, Doug, sucked – I’ll just admit that up front. He had only received his drum kit a couple months before because his parents, who were wealthy, thought he would like it and didn’t mind the racket. He could barely knock two sticks together, let alone keep a beat. I had not discovered my Neil Peart in this pimply dimwit. But we needed him, because his basement was our practice facility; and his parents, God love them, let us play there for hours all year long.

I hit it off beautifully with the two guitarists though. That first time was when Mikey made the comment about my amp, and I made sure it was the last time he had any misgivings about me. I knew by sheer instinct that if I ever got anywhere close to a band setup I was going to blast that amp as high as possible and play the way Professor Lee had been instructing me. The first song we ever played as a unit, before we were even Bloodmonkey yet, was “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. Ok, so that tune isn’t exactly a graduate thesis when it comes to rock bass. But then again you have not heard my version. It got me in the band, let’s put it that way.

Was I overplaying? Fuckin’ A I was! You could argue, as many have, that Rush’s entire catalogue consists of overplaying. My philosophy was you don’t make a band by showing up to an audition and fading into the wallpaper. You get up there and pound the shit out of the competition. (I didn’t really have any. There weren’t a ton of high school bassists. But hell, I didn’t know that.)

Besides, Geddy Lee, he was probably getting his ass kicked all over the schoolyard before he strapped on a bass. He was skinny and not real attractive and probably unpopular as hell. The story of my life. But once he got up on that stage, rockin’ that bass was like a flexing of heretofore unperceived muscles; he had power the naysayers knew not. That was my entire approach. You want a bassist, Mikey, well now you got one. Step to your side of the stage and feel the thunder.

Bloodmonkey rocked out almost every week for that whole year. We played for two or three hours, when we could. At that age and in that setup I could have gone on for four or five hours a night, easily, every time. We learned fast, too. Since our territory was everything on the heavier side, from flat-out metal to punkish stuff to progressive rock, we soon had a repertoire that included tunes from many legendary bands, including Deep Purple, The Clash, The Who, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and solo Ozzy, KISS, Judas Priest, Rainbow, AC/DC, and, needless to say, Rush.

We didn’t rein in our own creativity, either; we wanted to write original material. And we did, tapping into an undiscovered vein of collaborative gold to create all kinds of music, from rebellious rock anthems (“Problem Child”, “The Sun Don’t Shine on Those Who Rock”) to thunderous head-bangers (“Crack the Whip”, “Fire & Acid”) to conceptual thinking man’s sagas (“Origin”, “Hysteria Forever”). Then there was “Maul”, the Bloodmonkey classic that sort of stood in its own category, mainly because it was three chords and about eight lines about a guy utterly annihilating everything he came into contact with for no reason; yet it was also partially inspired by the work of Captain Kangaroo.

Good times. By Christmas of that year Bloodmonkey was its own suburban nuke just waiting for DEFCON 1. We were living after midnight, wild in the streets, metal thrashing mad. The only thing we didn’t have yet was a place to plug in, ascend the stage, and deliver to the people what they were begging for. And without that, I was never going to transform myself into Geddy.

Who would have guessed that six years later I’d be a college dropout, married, with a son on the way, in a mortal stand-off with my own parents after tossing away my education, working a bunch of meaningless jobs in eastern Ohio to put some money away for my domestic future? But that’s exactly how it went down.

I am not lamenting that I got married or started a family. Our son Billy was a miracle, and I could recognize that. He kept Sherry and me afloat during meager times for almost an entire decade. He always helped us to regain our footing with one another when things got hard and we loved him for it. The problem was that I held on to my rock dreams for too long, too deep into my twenties, and by the time I figured out that I was not Geddy Lee, I had a dead sister, a second baby coming, a mortgage I could not afford and a huge millstone of debt for a necklace.

I got a job working in the warehouse of Cub Foods, a massive wholesaler place, at age 25. It was supposed to be yet another stop-gap while holding on for something better. We lived in a tiny four-room apartment just east of Newark for about 9 years, from when Billy was born in 1993 to 2002 just before we had our daughter. I started as a temp, got hired for the second shift full-time while Billy was only a year old, which was hell on Sherry; then got a permanent day shift, with benefits, in 1996. So at least I was protecting my family to some extent, but the wages were paltry and our finances were extremely tight. Too tight, really.

The only way I was going to make a decent salary was to bide my time and compete for a foreman’s position; today, at 40, I am finally next in line for one. I could have left for another job, but without my degree I couldn’t find much better pay anywhere. By then I was squarely in that place where it’s too late to go back because now you have those real, grown-up responsibilities that tend to come along with age, which is why they tell you to stay in school in the first place.

Just before the millennium year I went home alone for about three weeks while Charlotte was dying. After it happened I seriously contemplated not going back. My mind was not functioning well then. My parents had little to say to me. Sherry and Billy were at her mom’s. I got my Ibanez out of my car trunk, where I had stuffed it for some sub-conscious reason, and stared at it for three hours one night, wondering what to do. I thought a lot, of course, about my long-suffering sister, who had wanted her own family so badly. How could I abandon mine? My love for them won out.

Two years later we were pregnant with our second child. Interestingly enough she was going to be about the same distance in terms of years as there had been between Charlotte and me. Didn’t plan it that way, but there you have it. The baby, a girl, was born in 2003. Guess what we named her?

hows the new budget going. i said it was tough to track it so that every single spare cent not accounted for by utter necessity elsewhere was being put back towards the cumulative balance due. thats simply because you never really applied self-discipline before, he said. not the sort that this requires. it gets easier. but what do you do in the case of critical, one-time expenses, like you need to get a new pair of glasses, or lets say you want to sign your child up for something important, that you think they really need. plan ahead for it, he said. save a little at a time until you have enough for that expense without missing any other payment. or if you have something you don’t need, sell it and pay for it with that. or have the kid go without it.

We felt all along that all Bloodmonkey needed was one shot to get up on a stage somewhere and show the people in our town that if they were craving sonic sustenance, there was a new rock n’ roll hot dog vendor in town serving it up piping hot. And we got it that next spring when the school decided to organize its first ever Battle of the Bands as a fundraiser. You had to put together a group of about five or six songs and perform them in front of a committee of “qualified” judges – members of the Student Council, who were in those roles to begin with because they were part of the “in crowd”, and thus by definition didn’t know shit about the fuck-the-world quality that was essential for real bands like Bloodmonkey to do what we did. But we had to punch that ticket in order to be invited to the venue. So we auditioned and we got in easily. Then it hit me that I was going to have to stand up and play and sing in front of the entire student body.

Have I neglected to mention that I was also Bloodmonkey’s lead vocalist? Somebody had to do it. Mikey and Craig Epp couldn’t have carried a tune if you spotted them a hand cart. Early on we realized it was a role that we were gonna have to handle internally or farm out to some other doofus we knew in our little crowd. It was hard to imagine anyone I might have considered a friend taking command of a stage as the lead singer of a rock band without getting laughed the hell off the other side. We didn’t make it to the second rehearsal before I realized that I myself was the de facto answer. It made total sense, because after all, my role model was Geddy. What rocker who aspired to be Geddy Lee could do so and be afraid to stand up and sing? I stepped up to the one spare microphone in de Fazio’s basement that we had duct-taped to a music stand and belted out KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Night” the first time we tried it. We never looked back.

Charlotte was a big source of encouragement, as usual. She agreed that it was on me to step up and take the lead. “You were born for it,” she cried. “It’s your shot at glory. So get up there and own it. That’s what your man Geddy would say.”

She was working a couple of retail jobs then, living at home but away a lot, either at one job or another or out with friends. When I could track her down I’d tell her the stuff we were rehearsing for the Battle and she would give advice on songs. We’d sit down and listen to records and talk about them. She was always tired because she worked all the time. But the more tired Charlotte got the louder she would laugh and the sillier she would become. She rarely got moody or withdrawn. That just wasn’t her. She never even heard us play until the actual battle, but she said all along we would nail it.

And we did. By the time Bloodmonkey hit that stage in the high school gym in April, we all knew we were more than ready. We played four cover songs and two of our hardest-rocking originals, “Problem Child” and “Ride of Your Life”. Our opener was “Shout it Out Loud” by KISS, a superb call by Mikey I must say. I was absolutely petrified when the Secretary of the Student Council, one of the hottest chicks ever to grace our high school halls, announced our band that night while we stood behind her shrouded in darkness. That was as close as I had ever come to that girl, by the way. But as soon as the lights went up and I started playing that bass and stepped up to the mike, every misgiving and nervous fear in my body evaporated in the same instant. Bring on the rock! The biggest danger I had was over-shouting the vocals out of a pure heroin-like rush of energy. Not that I knew anything about a heroin rush.

In that one evening I understood exactly why every single rock star that ever lived does what they do. I certainly felt like I knew what drove Geddy Lee every night, year after year, tour after tour. I don’t know what it feels like to be God, but after He got finished creating everything and He stood up there on top of the world, and He looked down to see all the trees clapping their hands and the great seas bum-rushing the planetary stage, it had to have been a lot like what I felt at the end of Bloodmonkey’s first-ever live set.

“Thank you very much from Bloodmonkey!!!” I screamed, sweaty and exhausted and giddy with energy and a new purpose. “We’ll see you soon!” The crowd went nuts. After that, everybody suddenly decided I was cool.

Now, however, I’m that guy you can thank for the whole financial crisis that finally hit. I never meant for anyone else to suffer for my own poor choices. But we had been renting a small place with one child for almost a decade at the time we bought our house, with a second child coming, and we needed a nursery and extra space. Frankly I thought I was going to be able to secure the foreman’s position a lot sooner than it has panned out, so I was expecting to be in a better place financially. We got one of those interest-only loans that later changed into an adjustable-rate mortgage. We were given the keys to a house that we were never really in the correct position to afford.

In the decade or so before we bought the house we had amassed a considerable amount of credit card debt. But about a year into life with two children in the new place with no significant raise to speak of and me not getting the overtime I once counted on, we found ourselves relying more and more on plastic. We missed one or two payments, the interest rates shot up, and suddenly we were hemorrhaging money from month to month. In 2009 it started to look as though the bank would foreclose on our house.

I didn’t know what to do. The stress level in our house was so intense that I’m actually proud our marriage did not splinter. We got into some very dark places in our relationships to one another, and in our minds, psychologically. One time we ran completely out of diapers and wipes and didn’t have two dimes to rub together for another four days until I got paid. Plenty of times we ran out of food or close to it. We couldn’t go out to eat at restaurants or take Billy to a movie. Speaking of our son, he was plenty old enough to understand that our family had no money and that it was the result of our inept stewardship. He was around 15 and 16 when it really started getting bad, and he would chuck our failures in our faces during power struggles. He disclosed to me once he didn’t particularly enjoy telling his friends that his father was a loser.

Finally, far too late, we stared seeing a counselor on the side who worked for an organization that assisted people financially as a ministry. I’m not always comfortable with the preaching involved, but the man they assigned to us puts in his own time on our problems and meets with me regularly. He’s a straight shooter too, a retired Marine who can still pack his shrapnel. He says we’re not going to lose our house if we work aggressively and if we pray about it. Which we do, believe it or not. All the time. It’s amazing what hard times and trying to cope with the negative effects of your own questionable judgment on your children will do for your prayerfulness.

The one I worry the most about is Charlotte, our little girl, who is almost seven. She’s the one who was born just as this mess was really starting. She’s the one who had to listen to fight after fight at home while Sherry would be feeding her or carrying her on her hip. She’s the one who has had to go without so many things that I or even Billy got, everything from toys to baby classes at the Y to clothing, because we simply couldn’t afford anything extra anymore. She’s the one with the brown hair and the big wet brown eyes that remind me of her namesake, the one who has a thing about me and only seems to want my love, who isn’t even aware of all that she is missing.

One time about six months ago, after we had been visiting with the counselor for a while and were on a new budget and everything we earned, it seemed, was going to credit card companies, Sherry and I got into a humongous argument that morphed into this profoundly depressing night of near-despair and desperate efforts to buck the other spouse up, without much success. It all started over Sherry bringing up for the nineteenth time how badly Charlotte wanted to sign up for soccer in the Fall so she could run around and play with the other kids that were taking it. It would just do wonders for her self-confidence to play in a team sport, Sherry argued, and I did not disagree. But the class cost 75 bucks and we had to explain to her that we just didn’t have it. Charlotte nodded her head glumly and seemed to forget about it, but of course Sherry and I did not.

The next morning I got out of bed around 5 a.m., troubled and shaken and without having slept very much, and went downstairs. While I drank a cup of coffee, listening to our house creaking and groaning in its private silences, it suddenly came back to me that I used to keep a journal, before we had Charlotte, where I would record my struggles and fears on early mornings. It seemed to help at the time, but I had forgotten all about it. I was pretty sure I had put it in a box or a crate somewhere in the storage room of our basement, so I went down to see if I could find it.

That small cinderblock room was an unholy mess, with one naked light bulb burning over head and all the flotsam from a life of disorganization and inefficiency. As I rummaged through it all, looking for a small leather-bound notebook stuffed full of ineffectual lamentations, I started to wonder about what the point was of crying into a journal in the first place. What you need to do is own up to all of this, I thought. Just clean this shit the fuck up, get organized, and take care of it. My eyes lapped the clutter. It was at that moment that I spotted the black case, standing on its own in the corner. The monolith, the tower of power. My Ibanez. It had been a really long time since I had even looked at.

I pulled it out, switched off the light bulb, grabbed a rag from somewhere, and sat on the steps to our basement in the shadows. Laying the case at my feet, I opened it up, wiped it off lovingly with the rag, and basked for a while in that warm tobacco sunburst that glowed irrespective of the quality of light. For as long as I had owned the bass, which was more than 25 years, it was still in great shape, for I had always cared for it, administered to it, treated it like, well, one of my own children…..

Then it hit me what I had come down for. Why my eyes had been drawn to this bass, this instrument that once embodied my own dreams, that helped catapult me to a place where I felt confidence beyond anything I ever imagined was possible for a young misfit like me.

I sat there in the brooding dark, placed the bass on my knee, and started playing “Limelight” from memory. I sang the words quietly to myself, for my own benefit, turning myself into Geddy one last time:

Living in the limelight, the universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation, the underlying theme….

Then I closed it up, went upstairs, put it in our hall closet, sat down at our computer, and chucked my old bass out on Craig’s List. Eight days later a guy paid me $85 for it. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and the deadline for Fall soccer registration had not yet passed.

youre doing well, the man said. you seem to be sticking to plan. but our life sucks, i said. we can’t really do anything. bullshit, he replied. look here, son. the ministry doesn’t like it when i do this, but as we used to say in the corps, time to drop your socks and grab your cock, as it were. get on with it. you lost a sister and you still think life sucks – with a healthy family. good point, i admitted. well, there is one piece of good news. what’s that. i was finally promoted to foreman. ten percent jump in annual pay and increased overtime. you see, that’s a sign. god will reward your diligence. things can only go up from here.

At the hospital about three weeks before the end, in 1999, Charlotte said to me once: “Before all of this, you know, plays out, there are two things I need you to know that I know. Okay?”


“The first one is, I know the men in my life love me. Tom, Dad – and you too. All right?”

“What about mom?”

“It’s the men that need the reinforcement.”

I considered that for a moment.

“What’s the second thing?” I said.

Charlotte lay there motionless for a while. She didn’t look very good. Her eyes were sunken and her white scalp was like a hillside after a brushfire.

“The second thing is that no matter what you end up doing down the road, I know, and I have always known, that you – my own little brother! – frickin’ ROCK.” Then she laughed.

At the time it kind of blew past me. But now I know that, while I may never have turned myself into Geddy Lee, I did somehow manage, in spite of all my failures, to achieve the next best thing.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Reflections on White Jacket

Melville, Pennsylvania Project - Book III

Typee (1846) you can characterize as the “debut novel” that put Herman Melville “on the map” or whatever first-time success cliché you want to use. Omoo (1847), though I have not read it yet, is clearly a sequel, an attempt to deliver on the promise of the first novel. Mardi (1849) is the bolder, idea-driven experiment, the attempt to branch out, and even though it failed, it is still notable for its heft and philosophical bent. It nods towards the mightier Melville novels to come. Then there’s Redburn (1849), a back-to-basics novel, a shorter and more palatable coming-of-age story. Later, of course, there was Moby-Dick (1851), the masterpiece, the epic journey, the Great American novel.

All of this to get around to the following: White Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (1850), to this writer, is a head-scratcher. I’m not sure what I can make of this novel from the great Melville, other than to say it’s a mailed-in effort, an attempt to appeal to the same people who might have found Redburn interesting, a way to earn some money. And you can believe me when I say I don’t have a problem with that. But I do find it hard to swallow the idea that there wasn’t, at least in its conception if not in its execution, some kind of subterranean raison d’etre to this story, some unique point that Melville was trying to make in this novel alone, other than just to describe in detail life on board a man-of-war ship in the nineteenth century. This point, if it does exist, eludes me.

Maybe there isn’t one after all. The key may be in the sub- or alternate title: The World in a Man-of-War. Originally I took “the world” to mean just that – our planet, our civilization. The whole wide Earth. But it could be that the emphasis in that curious alternate title should not be in the phrase “the world”, but rather in the preposition “in”. The world in a man-of-war. Or, put another way, the world is the man-of-war, and White Jacket exists to tell you about everything in that world.

The novel opens with a rapid-fire description of the garment that gives the narrator his name – crafted by his own intrepid skill using a needle and an old shirt, in order to try to protect himself from the elements while at sea. Soon after, the frigate man-of-war Neversink embarks on a journey to New York City from somewhere in the South Pacific.

The first portion of the novel describes the rank-and-file of the crew, the social/hierarchical structure in place among it, and the various duties and pastimes they engage in as the ship sails south, navigates the treacherous passage around Cape Horn, and heads back north along the eastern edge of South America, bound for home. In this first leg of the “journey” you might call White Jacket, not a whole lot happens. Still, it is notable for several reasons.

We are guided along by one of Melville’s vaporous narrators, who tend to introduce themselves and then fade quickly and almost entirely into the background for long stretches of his novels. All we know about “White Jacket” is that he is a common sailor, not a person of rank, and he made his own “jacket” from a white shirt which not only fails to protect him from the weather but also draws the negative attention of the crew towards itself. Nonetheless it seems clear that he is no “greenhorn”, like Wellingborough Redburn in the previous novel, and can hold his own on board the ship.

Characteristically, Melville devotes the majority of his attention to the eccentrics surrounding the narrator. We are introduced to several. The most favored of these is clearly one Jack Chase, who holds the position of “captain of the top-sail”, which seems to be a job for a seasoned, well-respected noncommissioned officer-type. A veteran sailor whose men have his back secured. This figure is presented in bold, colorful terms and appears to have a kind of iconic status, at least to White Jacket.

The ship’s leader, Captain Claret, is described as a competent, reasonably well-liked skipper; he’s not the conniving despot presented in Redburn (Captain Riga) nor is he the tortured lunatic to follow in Moby-Dick. He has the misfortune to have been assigned to transport a “Commodore”, an elderly officer whose life has been devoted to the Navy, back to the United States. This is tricky, because while Claret remains skipper, the Commodore outranks him, and has to be shown constant deference. The descriptions of this man “condescending” to wander among the crew from time to time are humorous and hold up against the military of today, where the divide still gapes between senior officers and common troops. I recognized these types of scenes from my time in the service.

Another character on board is Lemsford, a bookish sailor who aspires to become a poet, and spends whatever liberty he can acquire from his rigorous duties on the frigate in the service of his craft. He scribbles poem after poem and puts them in a wooden box, which he then hides in a cubby hole near one of the cannons he’s assigned to maintain and operate. This leads to one uproarious moment when the frigate, suddenly called into a brief skirmish, has to fire their cannons – only to have Lemsford’s gun blast out a pile of loose poetry manuscripts he had hastily shoved into the barrel. One character quips that blasting poems out of a cannon is truly “the way to publish”.

The first third of the novel is most notable, however, for its colorful and by all accounts authentic portrayal of flogging, the capital punishment used by naval officers on wayward crew members around this time. The story goes that the description of this brutal practice in White Jacket was so accurate and vivid that it forced Congress to take action to ban the practice in the United States Navy. Once you read the chapters, it isn’t too much of a surprise that the Congressional action occurred, since Melville appeals for it directly in the novel. His arguments against the practice of flogging sailors are certainly forceful, and the descriptions are full-blooded, to say the least.

The middle portion of the novel finds the Neversink docking for a rest at Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Although the ship remains in port for some time, the soldiers are not allowed shore leave, in spite of a passionate appeal from Jack Chase to the ship’s leaders. So any hopes the reader might have of getting an impression of 19th century Rio de Janiero are dashed; you won’t get a guided tour of the town like readers of Redburn do of a sordid and grungy Liverpool. Instead, there is more passage of time, minute details about various aspects of the ship itself and what sailors do to while away the hours, everything from theater to games and gambling to battle drills and observations of what the elderly Commodore does while strolling around the ship, receiving laurels from everyone and everything.

Even more than the flogging chapters, an account of an on-deck amputation of a sailor’s leg that was shattered by a bullet at mid-thigh is one of the most visceral and gut-wrenching accounts of primitive surgeries I have ever read anywhere; it actually made me feel queasy. The eccentric surgeon turns the procedure into open-air theater, inviting surgeons from other vessels to watch while he arrogantly waxes about his own skills. This sequence becomes even more chilling when the patient expires during the procedure, a fact the dispassionate surgeon casts away like the blood he wipes from his own fingers, and the poor sailor, whose suffering has been borne in full view of his mates, is cast overboard in a rudimentary burial.

After what seems like a long and rather uneventful layover in Rio, the ship finally casts off for home, and Melville extends the tour of the Neversink to even further corners, to the point where the reader wonders if there is any aspect of the sailors’ lives or their surroundings that has escaped a detailed accounting. By the time the ship is making its final run for New York and Melville enters into a weirdly dramatic rendering of what he calls “the massacre of the beards” – an episode in which the captain orders the crew to shave their heads and their long beards, and the crew emphatically revolts against the idea – one wonders why so much attention is being attached to such a trivial matter, even with the distance of the centuries and the knowledge that facial hair had a different quality of fashionableness in those years. Indeed, anticipating this, Melville explains that the revolt has had historical precedents reaching all the way back to Roman times, but this didn't lend the episode extra weight - or velocity - in my own estimation.

Melville described both White Jacket and Redburn as “cakes and ale”, strongly implying that they were commercially-driven books, as indicated before. But in my opinion, the latter novel is superior to the former. In a coming-of-age tale like Redburn, everything is new for the character, and one can understand the openness to all experiences and the need to account for them. With White Jacket, however, the extraneous detail and lack of a narrative focus are harder to explain, or forgive. Each of Melville’s books to this point had been at least partially set on ships, and all of them have some account of the sailors’ existence. There’s simply not much new to say in White Jacket, and there’s a gaping hole in this novel, at least to me, where a sense of purpose or narrative drive should be filling, or carrying us past, the space.

Melville succeeds here in performing the duties of we might call an early version of the “embedded journalist”, even though the story is presented as a fiction. But he fails roundly in performing the duties of a storyteller. That’s not to say you come away from White Jacket having wasted your time. Melville’s prose is as vivid and muscular as ever, and his sense of humor is effective and amusing. Nonetheless, while one can always expect a certain degree of moralizing in Melville’s books, White Jacket seems particularly didactic at times; one gets the feeling that they’re being preached to. Preaching is always more welcome to those who have specifically sought after it than to those who, seeking a good story or some other end, find themselves subjected to the sermon instead. You might argue that Melville was always actively preaching, of course; but in many of his other books, the sermonizing comes rigged up to a gripping narrative that whisks us along with its momentum.

What’s really interesting to me is that Melville completed this puzzling, unsuccessful book in New York, but then relocated in 1850 with his family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, into a farmhouse he called “Arrowhead”, purchased with assistance from his father-in-law, the Chief Justice of the State of Massachusetts. There, according to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville for the “Penguin Lives” series, he settled not only with his wife and young children, but also numerous other relatives hanging around what sounds like a rather rambunctious household. Yet he moved immediately on to write the great Moby-Dick, and in spite of all possible distractions and literary hardships, he managed to bury the harpoon of his creative energies into the flank of the mother of all narrative drives: an obsessive quest for a huge, white whale.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

More Quick Hits by Duke Altum

Who?? Yeah that's right people, I still pay attention to this blog... I just can't keep pace with my writing fiend brother, who despite an insane schedule and many commitments both professional and domestic, somehow manages to crank out solid stories, essays and web posts... I don't know how the man does it but I'm glad he does, since it's helping to keep the content - well, if not exactly 'fresh' here, at least still edible!!

Anyway, here are some quick thoughts/links/musings I thought I'd share with y'all...
  • Excellent - and surprising, considering the source?!? - Op-Ed on the great work that Christians have been doing around the world to help those in need... hats off to World Vision for leading by example and living out their Gospel calling in the world! (link here)
  • For all you movie fanatics like me - especially those who appreciate films that raise important questions and challenge us to question and attempt to understand our common condition - the excellent blog Arts & Faith has posted their list of the 100 most important films of all time... it is a great list! Reminds me of how much work I have left to do in my film watching... check out the list here!
  • Book/Film Mashup - My thanks to my bro and fellow blogger Mutt for giving me as a gift recently the novella by Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King. It's a strange and funny satire of British imperialism, with two ex-officers of the British Army deciding to travel from India into the mountains of Afghanistan, where a remote tribe dwells that they feel they can take advantage of, and in effect become "kings"... what made it an interesting (if not somewhat unsettling) read in this day we're living in is the thought of Afghanistan as the "graveyard of empires," and the futility/absurdity of thinking one can just come in an understand/take over a culture that has been there for some time... anyway, one of my favorite filmmakers John Huston made a film version back in 1975, so I decided to queue that up via NetFlix and take a shot at it... it's not a perfect film by any stretch, but it features two of the most charismatic British actors of their time hamming it up in fine form - Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Any chance to see these two working together on the same screen, especially playing against type in comedic roles, I'd say is worth it... it's a fun, if not completely satisfying, movie. Convincingly shot in North Africa by the capable Huston, who was always up for adapting great books into films (this one, Under the Volcano, The Red Badge of Courage, The Maltese Falcon, Wise Blood... and let's not forget James Joyce's famous story "The Dead," his last film!).
  • Is this quite possibly the greatest action sequence ever filmed?? Many seem to think so... I don't know about that, but it sure is funny as hell to watch!! Here's to Bollywood!?!
  • Fascinating article on a subject I don't think I've ever heard discussed before, by anybody... if you're into world literature and, more specifically, the great fantasy tradition inspired by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis, and carried on by Le Guin and Rowling... then you'll certainly find this to be of some interest. The title alone is intriguing and provocative: "Why There is No Jewish Narnia"... why don't more Jews write fantasy literature?? Some of this guy's answers are surprising... and thought-provoking.

That's all for now... yes these are pretty random postings but some of the links anyway I felt were worth sharing. Hope you enjoy!!