Brotherhood and The Dead

         As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, music and lyrics were used as a primitive Rosetta Stone to decipher a confusing world of mixed messages about love, social responsibility and any form of authority. As a third child, I benefitted and at times, paid a price, for emulating my older brothers. My siblings were accidental role models whose every word and action would be registered and filed in my mental folder of what could be defined as “cool”. Their clothes, hobbies, habits and especially their music were all fair game to be plagiarized, borrowed or stolen to fill the white canvas of my vanilla existence.

At night I would listen to songs that would concuss through my older brothers bedroom doors. Downstairs, in my father’s den, he would grimace at the rattling light fixture, enduring a ten-minute instrumental artillery barrage from massive JBL and Bose speakers.

“Turn that shit down!”

But not unlike the proverbial problem tenant in any upstairs apartment, the music never stayed down for long. I would tap my pencil on the living room table as the electric riffs of Carlos Santana, the whimsical musings of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, bellicose Jim Morrison, the smooth midnight sax of John Klemmer, the precise Eric Clapton, sweet Joni Mitchell, dulcet a capellaof Poco, the confederate militancy of the Allman Brothers, the twisted dirty love of Frank Zappa and a dozen other long haired iconoclasts invaded our home. Each lyric was a revelation and each note pulled you through the looking glass urging you to shed the conventions of your risk averse, soft suburban life.

As a kid, we spent hours listening to music. It was the centerpiece to any gathering and the accompaniment to every significant personal milestone – your first girlfriend, the break up, the epic eight keg party that got you grounded until 1989 or the week spent on Santa Catalina Island. When combined with the raw emotion of adolescence, music left an indelible mark and would forever allow you to instantly relive any moment when the initial chords of a particular song flickered to life. If your tastes took you toward rock or easy listening, you might find yourself quoting Jackson Browne or Kenny Rankin. If you were edgy and unsettled, you would search for musicians who gave words and sound to emotion that was struggling to swim to the surface of your own inarticulate existence. At 13, you were too young to know The Man but you were sure he and all his other controlling authoritarian friends were working overtime to keep you down.

Music was an emotional thread that bound us together in a time of social change. To adopt someone’s music was tantamount to patching into a gang. With the knowledge divined from hours of listening to artists, I formed a bridge to my brothers and to an older tribe of teens who had seen the Garden, tasted it’s forbidden fruit and not spent the rest of the night throwing it up.

Older brothers were a two edged sword. On one hand, they lived to torment you. Years later they are identified in therapy as the genesis of your inability to accept your own body image. Twenty years of being called “pumpkin head” can make buying hats problematic for a guy. Yet, brothers are a blessing and important lines of sight in the shrouded topography of youth. Big brothers were always one step ahead of you in the jungle of life – walking point, vanquishing bullies, explaining life on simple terms and most importantly breaking in your parents with “firsts” — the first car wreck, the first suspension from school, or the first unsanctioned party. Brothers are family standard bearers that help modify the bar of unrealistic expectation.

My eldest brother was exposed to the greatest radiation of hyperactive parenting. He was my conservative father’s first introduction to a world he could not control. A son was a tenured employee who could not be fired for various acts of grab-ass that would normally invite a pink slip at work. My eldest brother Miles was the first to battle with a patriarch who became a parent believing that he brought children into this world and he had a right to take them out of it. By the time my older brothers, Miles and Tom, had gone to college, they had domesticated my parents and left my younger brother and I with guard rails that had lost much of their electricity. By 1976, the year of our nation’s Bicentennial, my parents had initiated the withdrawal of their ground troops, abandoned the embassy and reluctantly afforded my younger brother and I a level of self governance. The youngest, Patrick, flourished under this laissez faire regime while I took full advantage of this new freedom to find trouble.

I owe my brothers many things. They were human shields unlucky in their birth order but more adroit in navigating the more punitive reactions of a loving but determined neocon as he desperately tried to fight the socialistic riptides of the sybaritic and psychedelic 60s.  Their bedrooms were wallpapered with posters of peace signs, pot leaves, surfers and Dennis Hopper flipping off America from his hog in Easy Rider. But the posters were chump change compared to the music. The acid rock and seditious lyrics bugged my Dad. It was the clarion call of war – one generation declaring management no longer fit for duty.

One band in particular seemed to offend all conservative, Nixon loving hard hats. This particular San Francisco troupe captured the essence of the decade’s commitment to sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Their music and lyrics were Trojan Horse vessels disguising drug use and reckless behavior. Their skeleton riddled album covers identified them as The Grateful Dead. Most just called them The Dead.

While The Grateful Dead became heroes to a generation who felt the need to find a new community to follow, the band was viewed by anyone in authority as gateway to trouble. Any group with a name like The Dead must be a nihilistic bunch of freeloading potheads who lived like cockroaches in the lava lamplight of the Haight in San Francisco. The neighborhood was a notorious hotbed of acid, promiscuity and socialism. It might as well have been an annexed suburb of Moscow.

Conservatives shook their heads at this group of druggy miscreants. Their lead singer looked Jewish, had a Hispanic surname and was missing a finger on one of his hands. He had probably lost his digit helping Huey Newton and the Black Panthers make pipe bombs. The other guitarist looked like a deadbeat with deep-set serial killer eyes and a hustler’s dimpled chin. The band exuded waste and consumption. The more the establishment derided the Dead, the more drawn we were to their melodies.

The Dead sang about life – a hardscrabble and entangled existence filled with complicated relationships, drugs, free spirits, lost jobs and abandoned love. They were the mongrel offspring of blue grass, psychedelic rock and gritty Southern blues. It seemed the axiom held true even in our own house – one man’s white trash was another generation’s treasure.

Dead concerts were rumored to be a massive electric Kool-Aid acid test where individuals would alter their brain chemistry in search of a deeper meaning to the music and as an excuse to rotate uncontrollably for hours. The Dead were not just a band, they were a frame of mind and a vibe. The Dead Nation was a series of rippling concentric circles whose core was populated by roadies and travelling Dead Heads and whose outer rings were comprised of posers and people who just wanted to sing the refrain to Casey Jones. The concerts ranged from strange meandering acoustical journeys to raucous benders. The Dead did not always headline their concerts and shared the marquee with some legendary bands and performers. The combinations were often epic and spontaneous. The core of every concert always swirled around the self anointed laity of Dead Heads — a permanent diaspora of misfits and free spirits who would follow the band as they criss-crossed the country and continents.

As fans, we each had our favorite songs and albums. Like Rob Norton in Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, there was a Dead Song for every occasion and a top ten list for each life moment. A blue circumspect mood might invite Unbroken Chain or Black Peter while an afternoon beach party would not be complete without Sugar Magnolia, Franklins Tower and Eyes of the World. The orthodox Dead Head was more resolute in their obsession. Favorite songs would include dates and venues and invite debate until dawn over where one might have heard the best rendition of Bertha or Momma Tried.

“No dude, you’re wrong. Cassady at the Orpheum July 16, 1976. That was Bobby at his best!”

“Nay. I must disagree, my good man. The Dead opening for Chuck Berry at Winterland 1967. Get real! Garcia earns his nickname, Captain Trips.”

“Excuse-e-moi. Three words. Fillmore East 1970. The Dead and the Allman Brothers.”

“Bonehead, you were like ten when they played at the Orpheum.”


“Listen man, my buddy played me this radical bootleg of the concert. It’s all you need to know…”

Other merry wanderers would delight in producing barely audible bootleg tapes of concerts or quoting obscure songs written by Hunter and Garcia or Weir and Barlow. A Dead enthusiast might know that the song Ripple was as rare as California rain and played a mere 38 times across a fifteen year period from the mid seventies to late eighties.

The goal of every aspiring Dead Head was to work across a dozen weekends to accumulate enough scratch to buy tickets to a concert. A Dead concert was your baptism to the sacred and the profane. It was where the future was waiting.  Every kid lied about his or her experiences at  concerts. Not unlike the forbidden book of liars known as Penthouse Forum, pilgrims returned from Dead shows with exagerated reports of behavior not witnessed since Caligula’s Rome. Most came for the music and left on two feet. A few ended up discovering some new boundary, which meant missing most of the concert because they were either throwing up under the grand stands, frantic because they forgot they ate some magic mushrooms and could not understand why the moon was now following them or simply worn down from trying to get the phone number of a spinning ballerina named Prairie Flower, a wispy free spirit whose Mendocino commune did not have electricity or an address.

Neophytes attending their first Dead show were appropriately wary and at the same time, naively desperate to seek out excess and in doing so, perhaps they might discover some latent aspect of their personality that could only be revealed in the uninhibited cocoon of a Dead show.

We felt a part of an exclusive but accepting tribe. We were not alone. According to website, Bio, merry Boomer deadheads included an odd mixture of liberal and conservative from Bill Walton, Barak Obama and Steve Jobs to Walter Cronkite, Ann Coulter and white collar executives who were desperate to temporarily escape a predictable life. The ultimate sin was to become what Jackson Brown referred to as a “Pretender” living in the shade of a freeway.

My first Dead show preceded my 17th birthday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. I found myself wandering among a new breed of people who lived outside my suburban bubble. The natives moved like wild life across the green grass infield, spinning and dancing like human dreidels. Inhibition had left the city limits and in its wake left a visceral Summer of Love zeitgeist. The contact high was both symbolic and genuine as the police and security retreated into a soft, midnight blue perimeter. After eight hours of multiple bands and artists headlined by the Dead, we found ourselves separated from our friends and unable to find our ride home to Los Angeles. We navigated two miles to an onramp of Highway 101 and hung out our thumbs to hitchhike to an agreed gathering spot. Up to this point I had been afraid to take a public bus. A beaten Ford coughed to a stop as four Dead Heads bound for San Diego and the next Dead show welcomed us into their vehicle.  A hundred miles later, we spilled out of the  station wagon and caught a cab the rest of the way home.

Over the years, I would scour the Sunday Calendar section of the LA Times and would delight when I saw the Dead coming to any venue within 500 miles. I would abandon whatever trappings of responsibility I had accumulated to that point and disappear among the hippies and free spirits. There was never any judgment, only great music. I’d return the following Monday with stories and a sense that I had once again pushed the reset button of my life. I was still truckin’, looking for familiar faces in a sea of joyous humanity.

Over the years, my obligations overcame my sense of adventure and I found myself becoming a father in every sense of the word. I religiously listened to their music but stopped attending Dead shows. In times of intense responsibility, I found myself daydreaming of following the Dead to Egypt – perhaps to climb the Great Pyramids at dawn with Bill Walton and Bob Weir. To follow the band was to live a tumbleweed existence rolling from venue to venue sleeping on couches and park benches. I have friends who have followed artists. But bands broke apart and best friends  self destructed as a result of egos and hubris. Very few tribes could replicate the sense of total self-determination that came with the life of a Dead Head.

The band never won a Grammy for an album nor for a song in the fifty years that they had performed for millions of fans. They were finally rewarded a lifetime achievement Grammy but one wonders whether they might ever find the fickle Rock & Roll Hall. They represented something deeper to a generation that was told it must choose between a two road highway system defined by success or want. Happiness was a destination all dividend accomplishment not a state of mind. We did not drink the Kool-Aid but instead looked for door number three.

Just as Jeff Bridges Big Lebowski struck a chord with GenXers who had become cynical to the material finish line that they was unattainable, a generation of Boomers before them were disaffected with the notion that their life’s goal was to meet or exceed some predetermined standard of living. Materialism seemed in conflict with joy. Happiness was getting what you wanted but it had an expiration date that came all to soon. Joy was measured in minutes of freedom and days spent living in harmony with and for others. Your new job description was to break the shackles of angry, Old Testament patriarchs who viewed contrarianism as tantamount to social anarchy. The ethos of the music was about love and disappointment, human frailty, success, failure and the gritty reality that so many people find as they navigate the shoals of real life – a life that bore no relation to the  Brady Bunch. Our time on earth was Howl’s Floating Castle. It had no permanence except in experience found in other people and other places. The Dead’s music and lyrics could transform the darkest alley into a calm illuminated fireside with a single ballad.

37 years later across a half lifetime of change, I found the Dead again. A series of farewell concerts would take place over five nights in Palo Alto and Chicago.

On a soft Sunday night, a light San Francisco Bay breeze swept across a tangled sea of gray hair and tie-dyed shirts as a thousand illuminated phones flashed like fire flies in the twilight. I was a spiritual swallow descending on Levi Stadium. I was accompanied by two of my kids, my older brother, his wife and a close childhood friend who called Menlo Park home. Each pilgrim, fueled by nostalgia, came for a different reason. Most came just to once again smell the perfume of their own adolescence and to gather for a final time to celebrate the music of their lives.

We were suddenly all eighteen ( bad backs and all ), ready to leap tall building with a single bound. On the second night of a three night set. 75 year old Phil Lesh, the bassist, and a liver transplant survivor, thanked the audience and rhetorically laughed about their fifty year run.

“Who would have thought?”

My mind drifted to the distinct vocals and guitar work of their missing leader, Jerry Garcia. His spot had been taken that night by Trey Anastazio, lead singer from the band, Pfish. Bruce Hornsby assumed keyboards filling in for deceased Brent Mydland.

Fifty years. They had taken me to exotic places like the Mars Hotel, Franklins Tower and Terrapin Station. They introduced me to women who could wade in a drop of dew while wearing scarlett begonias. They told stories of menacing Dire Wolves and Jack Straw who murdered his best friend. They helped me relate to the mythology of life and love — always encouraging me to “keep on truckin”.

When the lights came on and the last encore note fell to earth, I hugged my brother and his wife and we high-fived. We wandered back across an expanse of green golf course and a thousand memories to our friends.  The car was heavy with circumspect middle age fatigue until someone whispered, “Man, that was awesome”. It was indeed special to have been able to say thank you to the minstrels and muses, my band of fifty years — and to experience it with my brother and family like so many tangled roots in a massive living tree of my life. I kept thinking about the lyrics to so many songs written by Robert Hunter. One particular refrain kept coursing through my head. It summed up my life’s journey and the road that still lay ahead:

“…The shoe is on the hand that fits, there’s really nothing much to it. Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s all right. Oh well a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway. And that was all I had to say and it’s all right.

I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive. We will get by, we will get by, we will get by, we will survive…”

Under a Neon Moon

As Long As There's Light. . .
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Under a Neon Moon

When the sun goes down on my side of town, that lonesome feeling comes to my door. The whole world turns blue. There’s a rundown bar cross the railroad tracks. I’ve got a table for two way in the back where I sit alone and think of losing you. I spend most every night beneath the light of this neon moon… If you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely to watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon .  Brooks & Dunn, “Under A Neon Moon”

A guy can’t really ever become a dude until he’s suffered from his first broken heart. There’s nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road. Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music – the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching . It’s just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us.  The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually  rejoin the long gray line of “dudes”.

I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2000 miles of summer. My dream job had landed me in Missoula, MT as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship.  As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.  It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest – – finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.

I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates –  a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.  Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone’s affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped – or as they like to call it, “bucked off a filly”.

The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about “fixing me” – – admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.  We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love’s ship of fools.  I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.  While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check out girl at the local Super Save.

I was told to abstain from “wimun” for thirty days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: “Take a few beers and call me in the morning.”  Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.  We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk – –  seven dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.

The juke box played only country and western music.  In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through.  The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes.  Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.  The lyrics seemed written just for me and each night, a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem. Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.

The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a ten gallon hat.  A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of ten wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful Wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.

There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls – driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants – lifting ten times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Georgia.  The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.

In the summer of 1981,  country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy.  I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.   In ” It Ain’t Nothin”, Whitley is “lower than well digger’s shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues.” In his haunting signature song, “ I’m No Stranger To The Rain “, Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. “I’m no stranger to the rain. I’m a friend of thunder.  Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me ?  I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me…”

I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics.  Above all, this music was all American.  The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks.  Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life –butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.  Country is not about serving yourself first, it’s about putting service ahead of yourself – – to your country, family and those less fortunate.  They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.

Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It’s music fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.  It serenades those who live, love and labor — and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It’s all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.

In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass – perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point — tomorrow’s another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something.  And don’t forget to give it everything you got. After all, that’s what it means to be “country strong”.

History 101: The Golden Age of High Fidelity

Jerry Garcia in 1969
Image via Wikipedia

History 101: The Golden Age of High Fidelity

 “If the King loves music, it is well with the land. “ – Mencius, 300BC

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – before Apple’s IPod or Sony’s Walk Man, there was the high fidelity stereo system.  The amplifier, tuner, turntable, speakers and tape deck combined to intensify and dilate the pupils of an explosive era of rock and roll.  Music was recorded in sound studios in Hollywood and West Los Angeles with one hour of music condensed on to a two-sided 12” diameter vinyl disc called a long play record album or LP.  The LP was played at 33 revolutions per minute on a high fidelity stylus device known as a hi-fi turntable. 

The LP was packaged and sold in retail establishments called record stores.  It was not uncommon to spend the blistering mid-afternoon hours of an August summer inside a retail record establishment with names like Rhino Records or Musicland perusing pop, easy listening or rock albums.  Among the densely packed, alphabetically sorted albums, a hobbit like band of bearded musical savants worked –offering advice and counsel to the musical challenged.  These centurions of sound could not recall the last time they had bathed or eaten but they could recite the lyrics from a “never released recorded on a bootleg tape at Red Rocks” ballad by Jerry Garcia. They would speak reverently and with conviction about artists as if they had just returned from being backstage with them on their recent European tour – when in fact, they had not left their own city limits in years.

Each album had its own unique casing called a record cover. The record cover was an artistic expression for musicians – a canvas where one could graphically convey a picture or symbol of the lyrics and music that were embedded along the analog grooves of the LP.  LPs were created and marketed by the recording industry.  The music business was run by gold chained, silk shirted, hyperactive, restless legged visionaries infused with caffeine and cocaine. Everything was about promotion and record sales.  Albums went gold if they sold 500,000 units, platinum and multi-platinum if they sold 1M to 2M respectively and Diamond if they 10M copies.  

In the 1970’s, The Eagles “Greatest Hits”, “Led Zeppelin IV” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – all sold over 20M albums. World –wide, AC/DC’s 1980 “Back in Black” sold 45M copies and Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” sold an astounding 43M copies – presumably to a lot of drunken Russians.  It was a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  Hunter S Thompson, a writer who created his own method of participatory reporting, known as “ gonzo journalism” best described this era of mega music as “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side”. 

This was the golden age of rock stars and rock concerts.  It was a time for bands where the performers actually sang and played their own instruments.  In a time before Milli Vanilli or Brittany were caught lip synching music on stage, musicians wrote and performed their own songs.  To the 60s and 70s rock and roll enthusiast, it was a time for scrimping and saving to buy concert tickets, a coveted new album or perhaps a first stereo system that would legitimize you as a true audiophile. To teenagers tossed and turned in the Class V rapids of generational and social white water, music helped explain feelings and facts of life. Your LPs and a stereo system were essential accessories to understanding a world whose cultural plates were constantly shifting. Your music and the system that amplified it made a statement about whom you were.

As a teenager, your primary focus was the acquisition of your first stereo system.  Once acquired and assembled, suburban houses would transform into thumping, cocoons of adolescent isolation where the refrain, “ turn that racket down “ became as familiar a routine as eating and sleeping. 

The stereo system that brought these albums to life was a critical accessory to daily life.  Stereo junkies would spend hours in febrile lathers evaluating Pioneer, Kenwood, Infinity, Sony, Dolby, and Harmon Kardon components.  Acoustical kings and princes would lead you into rooms that were living shrines to their “Marantz 2330b receiver, Thorens TD-165 turntable, Frazier Model Seven speakers, and Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck”. In the most advanced bedrooms and college dormitories, the stereo configurations resembled NASA workstations.  A friend might not have one – but two amplifiers – including a 50lb monster Power amp that cranked out 250 watts per channel and could knock down a dog at fifty yards.

The Pioneer PL-530 turntable was as delicate as your Southern aunt Mildred with slim arms and a stylus that would nervously jump if your neighbor got out of bed too quickly next door. The SG Equalizer with its silver faceplate had 12 slider controls and promised a signal to noise ratio of 96 decibels.  I had no idea what that meant but it was a great line to drop on a date when you were trying to pass yourself off as a musical Mensa member. The amp’s sliders gave you the mistaken impression that you were a genius capable of bending sound waves – creating never heard before combinations of bass and treble. The Pioneer tuner boasted a 5-gang variable capacitor for tuning.  Again, no idea what that meant, but the stereo geek, excuse me –the audio consultant, could not stop drooling as he described the performance of the super tuner.  

Once purchased, an adolescent spent countless hours connecting more wires and entrails than a human intestinal tract.  The speakers would be positioned for maximum enfilading noise and in some cases, purposely directed toward a parent’s office wall to shake pictures that hung delicately on the adjacent room.  The system lights would illuminate and a record would be placed on the turntable and dropped where a stylus would descend and transform a suburban bedroom into Altamonte Pass with Mick Jagger egging on the crowd with only the Hell’s Angel “ security” guards missing to complete the picture. It was a golden age of high fidelity stereos – a time for physical and technological expression.  

Between 1990 and 2005, the world of the stereophile compressed.  Big was out and compact was in. LPs became CDs.  Empire State sized speakers reduced to ultra light, “low frequency with no audio distortion, high sensitivity modules” that were the size of a paperback book.  The stereo system became something to be hidden in plain sight.  The goal was to make one’s system invisible. This sinister “happening” was subtle and occurred over many years.  In my own home a systematic genocide was beginning focused on my modest trousseau of furniture, art and any possession that came to symbolize my life before marriage.

It was subtle at first – an Ansel Adams photograph with a cracked pane of glass went missing.  An off color, ragged beach towel vanished.  A pathos plant with a Guinness Book of World Record 40 foot long tendril was “ mistakenly” tossed out. And finally, my beloved stereo system was relocated to a darker, less frequented guest room.  The stereo had become an embarrassment – a large gaudy relic of a period of gigantic sound and consumption.  The speakers had become a physical “hazard” when my two-year-old toddler tried to climb on them. My wife did not realize that my highly emotional reaction was not fear for my child but the terror that she had punctured the delicate tweeter.

With the arrival of our “ home entertainment system” the stereo was consigned to the prison of our basement storage room completing my emasculation. The Harmon-Kardon components all looked at me as if to say, “ after all we have been through, and you’re just going to let her send us down to be defiled by spiders and mice?”  I looked away.

The Infinity speakers were disconnected and euthanized on a black, October morning. I looked up at my spouse hoping for an eleventh hour death sentence reprieve.  She just smiled that frozen “ my will be done” smile and instructed the installer to hide the new speakers on an upper bookshelf.  The technician installing the new system replaced my corpulent components with sleek foreign 300 watt per channel models who weighed less together than just one of my speakers and were the size of a box of matches.

To this day, my Harmon Kardon stereo and Infinity speakers wait restlessly in a basement purgatory.  I cannot part with them.   I sometimes secretly visit them.  We share stories and I remind them to be patient.  One of my kids will soon go off to college and “monster speaker” mania may come back in vogue. Then, they will be faithfully dusted off, reconnected to a tuner and amp, and pointed out a window to blare revolutionary lyrics and music while Frisbees fly and people gather. 

Perhaps the golden age of hi-fi may dawn again.

Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics

I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

You hold my hand, rough up my hair, it’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

I am a Child, Neil Young

The band was Buffalo Springfield – Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  It was 1968 and they had released what would be their final album – The Last Time Around.  A teenaged hippy baby sitter named David was watching us for the evening.  I am certain when my father saw him in his psychedelic shirt and Birkenstocks, he mourned for the future of America.  The teenager was holding a number of record albums under his arm. “ Hey, little dudes”, he cooed as he flipped back his hair, surveying the four boys under 13.  My dad gave my mother that one last “ are you sure about this look”.  She smiled.  He was the oldest son of one of her dearest friends and was a great kid.  “ let’s go, Miles” she said.

Within seconds of my parents reversing onto the street and driving off toward some exotic liaison with other adults in a land of tinkling martini glasses and swirling perfume, the loading mechanism was dropping an LP on to the rotating turntable.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young initiated the first track called On The Way.  As David grinned and fell into my father’s favorite lounge chair, I gathered on the floor and listened.  Eight songs later, a gentle harmonica led Neil Young into a soft ballad about being a kid.  “ I Am A Child” was the first melody where I can recall hearing the lyrics that were about me and how I felt.  The question of “what is the color, when black is burned?” came to symbolize for me a unfiltered world filled with innocent wonder.

Someone once reflected that “music is what feelings sound like.”  When you become a teenager, music, lyrics, books and perhaps your best friend are the only things in life that can be trusted.  As a writer filled with teenaged angst, I fashioned myself a lyricist and wrote bad songs – I mean, really bad songs, inspired by a counter cultural generation of poet songwriters who used words and music as a wedge to liberate feelings that lay trapped behind a generational door.  Whether it was Jackson Brown warning me that the “ the (earth’s) fuse was burning” or Stephen Stills reminding me to savor “ those top down nights when the air was red wine”, these sages of song seemed to know what lay ahead on the highway of life.

My first exposure to the mystical power of the lyrics was in 1977 on a silky Southern California summer night as we sat in my friend Phil’s bedroom screwing up our courage to play the White Album by the Beatles backwards.  It was rumored that the Charles Manson and his blood thirsty “family” had slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca along with actress Sharon Tate after hearing hidden messages on the White Album’s Revolution Number Nine.  “ If you play it backwards, the song says, ‘turn me on dead man’.” Sean warned.  Our other friend Brian nodded, knowingly. He was clearly disturbed by our experiment.  It was if we were playing with a Ouiji board on his grandmother’s grave.  He and Sean were devout Catholics and this all seemed like some great cosmic felony to be gathering like devil worshippers to play an LP that divined satanic messages to druggies and psychopaths.

We turned the record in reverse and slowly increased the volume.  It was scratchy at first- perhaps sounding the way Thomas Edison’s voice groaned as he invented his talking gramophone.  But, I could hear it, amidst the swirling mayhem of anarchic music in reverse – a ghostly moan repeating: “ Man-yon-min–man.  Man-yon-min-man”.  In retrospect, it was complete gibberish.  But at that moment, as I looked Brian, who sat like a stupefied granite statue, I felt a cold chill.  Had we sent some demonic homing signal into the night that could only be heard by murderers and long haired Satanists.

“ Did you hear it? He whispered.” I heard it!”  Not wanting to be left out, I agreed that the cryptic modulation could have been from beyond instructing us to go out and wreak mayhem on capitalists – whatever those were.  Just then Phil’s Mom stuck her head in the door and we all jumped ten feet into the air, looking guilty as if we had been caught using bloody chicken feet to outline pentagrams in some secret Satanist ceremony.  “Boys, it’s time to ride your bikes home.  It’s getting late and Mrs. O’Brien just called.” We looked outside and realized that the lingering afternoon had descended into sinister night.  “ You guys gotta go.” Phil confirmed. It sounded like a death sentence.

Brian and Sean disappeared together under weak, intermittent streetlamp light that barely fought off the shadows that sought to take over the empty road.  A van passed slowly and seemed to hesitate as it rolled by.  I was suddenly convinced that the entire Manson gang was following me home ready to plunge forks into my body and carve Helter Skelter in my rear end.  On that fateful night, I broke a land speed record covering three miles on a ten- speed while making countless deals with God that in exchange for my safe passage I would never tamper with the occult or malevolent lyrics again.

Yet, while others devoured music, I savoured the lyrics.  While people fawned over Dylan, I drank in the truth of Simon and Garfunkel and became a closet acolyte of Paul Simon, the songwriter– an oracle who lived in a province governed by emotions and physical forces.  In my lifetime, his lyrics have led me through the ghettos of Soweto and into the lives of the inspired, lost, indigent and misunderstood. “Kodachrome” reminded us how we gild the colors of our past and “ Me and Julio” introduced us to Mama Pajama in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He urged us to go look for “America”.

Lesser known artists created singular works of art – testimonials to the marginalized of their generation.  Janis Ian summed up the broken glass and dark corridors of adolescence in “Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles who married young and then retired. The valentines I never knew. The Friday night charades of youth were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth. And those of us with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn’t all it seems, at seventeen. “

John Lennon’s “Imagine” challenged us to think about a world devoid of war and hate. Don McClean’s American Pie became an anthem to America and rock and roll. Jim Morrison’s tortured literary genius was posthumously set to music and released by former band mates Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzerek and John Dunsmore in An American Prayer.  I feasted on every offering of free verse, attempting to conjure up my anthems to the sacred and the profane – dead Indians, women in ginger nylons, angels and sailors.  This turned out to be more difficult to accomplish in a sedate suburb cocoon where ballads about men with leaf blowers, postmen gone bad and car pool moms who choose to turn left and never look back did not seem to capture the imagination of anyone except perhaps, a child psychiatrist. I would have to wait until life led me into darker, rugged places where the raw minerals of insight and truth could be mined and forged into lyrics that could change the world.

I continued to listen between the lines of the music.  I became a boorish anthology of stories and useless anecdotes about the genesis of songs and the truth behind the music.  My world was shattered one evening when watching a special on the 60’s band Iron Butterfly.  The song, Indagaddadavida, soared up the charts in 1968 and was heralded as the convergence of psychedelic rock and heavy metal – a fulcrum moment in the evolution of the school of rock.  The seventeen minute song was analyzed, memorialized and canonized by legions of bobble headed burn-outs in search of truth and a party.

Years later, band members drummer Ron Bushy and Doug Ingle purportedly admitted that the title song was really intended to be called “ In The Garden of Eden” but that Ingle was so drunk during the recording session that he slurred the words to the track and the alternative version stuck.  All the years wasted trying to define the origins of the word

“Indagaddadavida”.  Sometimes, I learned, the lyrics were just in fact, words and the music was in fact, just music.  Things can be exactly what they appear to be, like the world seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child:

You are a man.  You understand. You pick me up and you lay me down again.

You make the rules, You say what’s fair. It’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

Too Young To Die

Too Young To Die

I recall my so called misspent youth
It seems more worthwhile
Every single day
Cruisin’ Van Nuys and acting so uncouth
All the joys of runnin’ away

There was no speed limit
On the Nevada state line
The air was red wine
On those top down nights
Just you and me
My old roller skate
And the common sense
To know our rights

Sweet old racin’ car of mine
Roarin’ down that broken line
I never been so much alive
Too fast for comfort
Too low to fly
Too young to die

David Crosby, Too Young To Die

She was already a decade past her debut and she was struggling to capture her audience’s imagination.  She was an aging actress – tempermental, unpredictable and the shakes in times of stress.  She was a true platinum blonde, a bantam weight whose critics maligned her for her Bavarian simplicity.  She traced her parentage back to a German industrialist who in concert with Adolph Hitler had conspired to create a legion of utilitarian vehicles known as “the people’s car”.  Her friends nicknamed her “Bug” presumably for her endearing hyperthyroid eyes, curved muscular frame and an evolutionary sense that she could somehow go on forever.  I adored her the first time I set eyes on her.

Her gas gauge would stick and often needed to be gently tapped to avoid a humiliating walk down a lonely road with a gas can.   Despite her pecadilloes, she was intelligent and resourceful, a marvel of engineering genius, deploying a clutchless manual transmission that offered all the joy of a stick shift without the hassle and wear of a manual clutch.  She could go forever on a gallon of gas and would fearlessly transport me on inexpensive road trips without so much as a whimper.  She was cautious on corners having been born just before her siblings were fitted with strut front suspension.  She punched her weight using her tiny base and light weight to maximize a 1.6-liter, 60 horse engine. And, she was all mine.  It did not matter that she was a diva and that I was ingénue arm candy.  She would spend the next several years opening my eyes to a brave new world.

Her death was a sudden, surreal crash of twisted metal and burning rubber. As we left a summer tennis match with friends, we were broadsided by a Nissan that was unable to navigate a hairpin turn, crossing the yellow lines to broadside her.  As I staggered from the wreck, I saw that she had yielded as much of her door as she could in an effort to save me.  Her side had accordioned under the pressure of the collision and the chassis was a hopeless pretzel of scrap metal.  I somehow understood that we were never going to see one another again.  Her job was done. As she lay dying, it was clear she wanted me to find a younger, more contemporary companion.

The insurance adjuster wrote me a check for $ 5,800.  She was callously referred to as a“total loss”.  It was a profane transaction.  In my mind, she could never be replaced.  I was in mourning but life in the land of freeways went on. I needed a new partner.

I moved on to a copper-toned beauty from the far east– a Datsun 280Z 2+2, I found her at a used car lot which is the equivalent of saying you met your spouse at an airport cocktail lounge.  I could tell she had been around the track but it was hard to gauge her true age.  She seduced me with promises of high speeds and a front seat that would never be without a blonde or brunette. It was a stormy romance riddled with public outbursts that left me stranded at parties and broken down along desolate stretches of interstate.  Her ancient fuel injection and manual transmission left her wild and unpredictable.  She required constant maintenance and even with bills mounting, I remained with her out of a misguided loyalty.  A phone call changed everything.

My father had received a Renault Alliance as part of a special promotion from one of his advertising clients.  This 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year could be mine for cost.  She was French and given the French’s penchant for elegance and passion, I divined this would be the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hermes tie.  Our first date was disappointing.  She was seasick green with a thick ankle, square chassis. She had an unimpressive interior and instrumentation that resembled an arcade video game. As with all French, she was whimsical and preferred short work weeks.  She was incontinent and often left embarrassing oil and fuel stains in the garage. California traffic overheated her delicate disposition and in the end, she just sat down and went on strike.  She was the Maginot Line of automobiles. Yet, c’est la vie, we were together less tan a year and she was a cheap date.

I graduated to a rugged, patriotic stage and decided to buy an American truck. We had liberated Kuwait and oil was once again out of harm’s way.  The Chevy 4X4 was the Clydesdale of sports utility vehicles.  She would croon country and western ballads as we knifed deep into the mountains on ski, fishing and backpacking trips. It was constantly dirty from the mud and chaos of weekends away.  Yet, as I rose in business, I felt the need to find a more dignified vehicle that would come to symbolize my success. A truck simply did not convey the image that I wanted to project to the world..

My need to reinforce the perception of my progress in life began to spiral out of control. Through a series of what seemed fortuitous events, I purchased a Jaguar XJ6.  It was a car not really suited for a 30 year old American but for people who wore Burberry, spoke with a feigned Eton accent and were never seen needing to use the toilet.  They were the elite of society and I wanted in the club.  My veneer was shattered one day as I drove my wife and in-laws into San Francisco.  A VW bus filled with long haired Dead Heads pulled up alongside the Jaguar as we waited politely at a stop light.  They motioned me to roll down my window.  I lowered the tinted glass expecting a request for directions or perhaps even a compliment on the car’s incredible lines and form.  The red eyed, bandannaed twenty year old jutted his lower jaw and with his best country club lockjaw asked me, “pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”  There was an explosion of laughter and exhaust as the VW drove off.  I suddenly felt like I was driving me father’s car.   I resigned myself to return to my humbler German roots and find a partner appropriate for my standing.

I am now back in the bosom of Audi and am content.  I get restless at times and when I occasionally see a sleek Italian model, I feel like she is mocking me for even coveting her.  She seems to be suggesting that I could never handle her power or price.  When these green shadows of envy creep in, I remind myself of how happy I was in a simple yellow VW bug with a broken gas gauge, a microscopic engine and a tortoise like sense of invincibility.  I knew that when the traffic died, the bling dissolved, the advertising ended, the rain stopped and the dust and gravel setlled, she’d still be there – – two of us alone on some ancient stretch of desert road.

“Too fast for comfort, too low to fly. Too young too die. “