Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No. 309 – Can’t Find My Way Home

Performer: Blind Faith
Songwriter: Steve Winwood
Original Release: Blind Faith
Year: 1969
Definitive Version: The original studio version.

As I write this, Laurie and I are coming off a benefit performance at the Metro—a hallowed Chicago rock barn. One of the songs was a cover of About a Girl by Nirvana—the electric version.

Although I suppose a lot of people know that that song, made famous by Nirvana’s Unplugged performance, was originally an electric song, I wonder how many know that that’s also true of this song. OK, maybe the original version wasn’t electric, but Blind Faith recorded an electric version of this song. As far as I know, it surfaced only on Steve Winwood’s The Finer Things album and a deluxe copy of Blind Faith. I’ve heard the electric version of this song once.

I remember that night well. Debbie and I planned to go out to dinner with Sharon and Roger, Debbie’s best friends in Columbus, whom we saw a lot. The night in question, sometime in 1998 or 1999, I think, was to celebrate Roger’s birthday. We went to dinner at a restaurant that long has slipped my mind. What I recall, however, was that a storm of positively cataclysmic proportions was forecast to hit the city that night.

The local news was apoplectic in their dire predictions of devestation—nothing unusual, really, when it comes to reporting storms—and from the radar, it did seem to be a big one. A tornado watch was put into effect, like, days before the storm’s arrival.

Anyway, our plan had been to go from dinner to Sharon and Roger’s house for birthday cake and post-dinner drinks, and the timing was such that we’d be leaving the restaurant right at about the time the storm was expected to hit. We had dinner in Worthington, and Sharon and Roger lived in Gahanna, so we had a fairly long drive ahead of us.

As we got into Roger’s car, the sky just lit up, as though someone turned on a strobe. It was—and still is—the most incredible lightning display I’ve seen. The only storm that I could recall coming close to matching it was the night I saw the tornado when I was a little boy in 1973. But this lightning was almost overhead, just north of I-270, and it was constant to the point where you couldn’t see where one flash stopped and another started—a strobe light, like I said.

I figured that rain, hail and for all I knew frogs were about to bury us on the freeway, but if we had five raindrops hit the windshield, we certainly had no more than that. We got to Sharon and Roger’s feeling as though we got home just in the nick of time, but a funny thing happened: The storm missed us completely.

The lightning continued to rage, seemingly just to the north of where we were—we could see it out the skylights in Sharon and Roger’s great room—but that was all. We turned on the TV to the radar channel, and the storm—massive, all right—was bearing down on Columbus from the north, but it seemed to curl right around I-270. Every time we checked, it continued to bend around and miss the city when there seemed to be no reason we wouldn’t take a direct hit.

At this point, it no longer mattered. We were safely indoors, enjoying cake and libations and the music over Roger’s newly installed 5.1 sound system (one of the first of those I remember seeing).

Sharon chose the Winwood album, and when this song came on, I voiced my surprise. I had no idea Blind Faith did an electric version of this song; I couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. To my complete lack of surprise, the electric version failed to stand out in any way other than its mere existence, which probably is why its existence has been all but forgotten.

Speaking of electric, when it was time to find our way home home, Debbie and I discovered that the conditions there matched those of Gahanna farther to the south. The storm of the century, which was spectacular, was a dud in terms of impact. We didn’t get a drop of rain.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

No. 310 – The Needle and the Damage Done

Performer: Neil Young
Songwriter: Neil Young
Original Release: Harvest
Year: 1972
Definitive Version: Live Rust, 1978

When we last left our intrepid voyagers …

Some stories are really strung out (ahem), but that’s entirely the nature of the beast when you write not in chronological order. I last wrote about the senior-year trip Dad and I took in 1982 more than a year ago (Good ol’ No. 767), because no other songs from that trip fell between then and now.

So, when we last left our intrepid voyagers, we had skipped ahead to the L.A. portion of the vacation. This was another song that Jane’s son Doug played that night, but we’ll get back on chronological track, at least as far as that particular vacation goes.

Dad and I arrived at Salt Lake City late in the afternoon and went straight to the lake. Aside from the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Salt Lake was the first body of salt-water I’d ever seen, and it certainly was unique for a number of reasons.

As the sun began to set behind the Stansbury Mountains, we took off our shoes and hiked out into the water, which was warm and briny. It didn’t smell like dead fish, but there definitely was a particular odor that bordered on the edge of being unpleasant.

We waded way out in the lake, 100 yards from shore, 200 yards, 300 yards. By now the water was almost up to my knees. I’d never been in a body of water so large that was so shallow. My understanding is that the deepest part of the lake is 33 feet, so I figured we probably could have hiked a mile out before it got over my head. We just tromped around for a while, and Dad took some great sunset pictures as the sky lit up in red and orange.

One other thing I remember was this bizarre, seemingly Arabic themed, well, not a casino, but some sort of resort building that was built close to the shore. I’ve since learned that it’s a place called Saltair that has had a rocky history since it opened in 1981. In fact when we were there, it was closed due to flooding.

After spending the night just outside of the city in our first hotel since Denver, we embarked on what easily was the longest and dullest day of the vacation—the epic drive from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nev.

If you’ve never taken that drive, the indication of what lies ahead is the first road sign you encounter after you leave Salt Lake City on I-80. It’s a mileage sign, and the first town is Wendover, Utah, at the Utah-Nevada border. It’s 110 miles to there. The town below is Reno; the distance: 510 miles. Another first. I’d never seen a city more than 200 miles away on such a sign.

The reason for this became evident over time: There literally is nothing between Wendover and Reno. OK, that’s not enitrely true, but it’s close. Anyway, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

The first part of the world’s most nothing stretch of highway actually is interesting. It was through the Bonneville Salt Flats, which, of course, used to be all salt lake in prehistoric times, and the road through it is as flat and straight as you can imagine. I’m not exaggerating much to say that if there’s no traffic you could set up the car to steer itself and not drive off the road.

And even if you did, you’d just zip across the salt flats for miles before you ran into anything. There were no trees, no plants, no nothing but white powder—salt. We stopped to take some nutty pics.

After Wendover, dullness set in. The sky, the mountains, the brush and the ground all seemed to have the same gray color. Whereas the mountains in Colorado and Wyoming are spectacular, the ones along I-80 are just … there. There’s nothing scenic about them.

I drove most of the way, because it was my turn, and the only time we stopped, aside for food, was along the road when we passed … well, I assumed it was a house, but who knows? It was this three-story building that looked like it could have been a cult church. Ramshackle might have been the word to describe it decades ago; now it was just bizarre. Saltair had nothing on this place.

It appeared that the owner picked up whatever garbage had been tossed along the freeway and hammered it to the side of his house. We stopped to take a picture to document and then stopped again a half-mile down the road. Apparently, the neighbor, not wanting to be left out, had began to doctor his modest one-story shack the same way. (I since learned that it’s this place.)

When we finally got to Reno, it was like reaching an oasis. Finally, civilization, if you can call Reno that. We stayed in a regular motel but went to Circus Circus for dinner. The only reason I remember that is a trapeze artist performed overhead. Dad and I played a few slots, and my first gambling experience left me with no desire for more.

San Francisco was the next stop. Ah, seafood. Now THAT’s something to which I could look forward.

Monday, July 29, 2013

No. 311 – Me and Sarah Jane

Performer: Genesis
Songwriter: Tony Banks
Original Release: Abacab
Year: 1981
Definitive Version: Three Sides Live, 1982

And now for the next stop on the post-breakup misery train …

My breakup with Beth also necessitated a change in plans. I’m not sure I mentioned this, but originally the plan was that during Spring Break at Northwestern in 1987, I was going to drive to Columbus, pick up Beth and take her back to Chicago. She invariably would stay with Lisi and Amy (wink, wink), and we’d have fun around the city.

Events, however, negated those plans, and the last thing I wanted to do was be in Columbus for a second longer than absolutely necessary. I’m not sure why I did this, but I felt as though I would need immediate cheering up. So I invited Scott to go to Chicago and hang out instead. I’d bring him home—as I would have with Beth—the next weekend.

It was a poor substitute, sure, but to no fault of Scott. Scott and I more or less did a lot of things that Beth and I were going to do. We went to the Hancock Tower and knocked around the Water Tower Place. I don’t recall that we went to any museums, but I remember we went to see a movie called Tin Men.

Did you see this? It was a drama about rival aluminum-siding salesmen in the early Sixties, and the plotline featured a turn where one of the salesmen seduces the other’s wife then calls him up to brag about it.

Well, gee, THIS is JUST what I need to see right now! Scott said later he thought I was going to walk out at that moment. I didn’t because Danny DeVito’s character’s reaction was priceless: He yells out, “GOOD!” and goes home and throws all her stuff out the window onto the front yard. I was cheering. It probably was one of the most cathartic moments I’ve ever had in a movie.

Aside from that I remember almost nothing about the time Scott and I were in Chicago. Oh yeah, I took a picture of Beth that I had—my favorite picture of her, where she’s in this smoking hot red dress on top of her father’s red Mustang—and burned it in the sink at my residence hall, or at least tried to. I’m sure I had to have been pretty miserable company for Scott.

When it was time to take Scott home, there was one more piece of business to which I needed to attend. That was boxing up everything Beth gave me, every little knickknack that meant something, all letters and pictures (but not the Baseball Encyclopedia she gave me for my 19th birthday, of course), and giving it back to her.

I took the large box over to Beth’s house, and she was, shall we say, less than happy to see me. It wasn’t a bad scene. We started to argue, but that quickly stopped, because neither of us wanted to go down that road. (She was alone in her house.)

Instead, finality set in. It was clear we weren’t going to get back together again, and this was it—the very end. Although it didn’t happen that way, it sure seemed as though this was the last time we’d ever see each other again. We had been together for nearly five years, but now it was over.

We both cried as I stood on her doorstep, she just inside the doorway, like seemingly all of our previous partings. I kissed her twice, just like after our first date—the perfect bookend—and we both said, “Goodbye.”

I don’t think I played this song on my Walkman every day after that, but it sure felt like it. The song hit all the right notes with me, and I always smiled to think that it was written by the nerdy keyboard player in the back, not the charismatic singer who wore his heart on his sleeve.

Only recently, however, I’ve seen indication that my interpretation of this song is completely wrong due to mishearing a few words. It doesn’t matter in the end, and it certainly doesn’t change the history of this song. Wherever I went in spring 1987, this song spoke to me: “Walking down the streets and finding nothing is the same.” I absolutely know what that feels like.

As I sat on the shore of Lake Michigan at night, contemplating what if anything my future held, the tide rose, yes, in the form of waves crashing on the rocks, but I stayed firm on the shore. My music anchored me, even as my life felt as though it were diving beneath the waves.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

No. 312 – Only Us

Performer: Peter Gabriel
Songwriter: Peter Gabriel
Original Release: Us
Year: 1992
Definitive Version: None

I suppose a haunting song, like this song, ought to have a somewhat haunted story attached to it, and so this one does.

Us, which might be my most highly anticipated—and long-awaited—album of my life, came out just weeks if not days before my split with Jenna in October 1992. Consequently, it became the soundtrack—one of them anyway—of that fall, in which I spent much of my time resembling a beached whale in my apartment. Even though I knew the relationship likely would be short-term, it’s demise still hurt.

But what’s any injury without a little insult attached? At about the same time that Jenna and I split, a co-worker from the backshop at The Journal, Brooke, was getting married. Before the split, Jenna was going to go with me. I thought this might be the thing that helped to take our relationship a step beyond where it was, and I was excited to go.

After the split, I had zero interest in going—zero. Let’s face it: Any wedding ceremony would’ve been counter to my mood anyway, but I don’t think there would’ve been able to think of anything else other than … Jenna was going to be here with me.

I gave Brooke my regrets, saying I wasn’t coming because my date had backed out, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Brooke kept at me, telling me at one time that there would be “a lot of hot girls” at the wedding.

In retrospect, maybe I should have gone with that in mind. At the time, however, my head and heart weren’t in it. Besides, I had gotten a better offer subsequently—driving to Chicago to help my sister move into her new apartment. It was the same weekend as Brooke’s wedding. Perfect. I went to Chicago, which I recounted more than a year ago.

When I got back, I found out that Brooke decided—and told everyone—that I didn’t go to her wedding, because I didn’t want to see her get married, because I carried a torch for her. What the Hell?

Brooke and I had a little history—emphasis on very little. I had gone to her place a couple of times to hang out, and I helped her and a friend move into a home she rented. She also took me to Saginaw once to see this really crappy cover band, which I also mentioned. They did Alive by Pearl Jam, which was the first time I ever heard that song, so it was memorable for that reason.

Nothing happened, and nothing was going to happen. At the Saginaw show, Brooke introduced me to her new boyfriend—the guy she ended up marrying months later—who was a tech for the cover band in question. There might have been something between us if we had hooked up a year before, but that moment long had passed.

For most of the past year, I instead had been busy obsessing about another woman. Brooke was right about one thing: I WAS carrying a torch, but not for her. It was for the woman who I had briefly and let slip between my fingers.

Seeing Brooke get married? I couldn’t have cared less about that. But that wasn’t the narrative that was being floated about my absence, even though I told Brooke specifically why I wasn’t going to go to her wedding. Brooke and I had almost no contact after that, but it wasn’t because I was mad at her. I didn’t care enough to be mad at her. I had bigger fish to fry—beached-whale size fish.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

No. 313 – Don’t Let It Bring You Down

Performer: Annie Lennox
Songwriter: Neil Young
Original Release: Medusa
Year: 1995
Definitive Version: None

This is an important song in that to a certain extent, it’s a rubicon-crosser. Every song from here on is one of my favorites to the point where I could hear it over and over and not get tired of it … well, maybe if I played it 100 times in a row, I might get a little bored, but you get the idea. Before this song, I couldn’t have said that about each song.

Anyway, after I moved to Chicago in Fall 2005, Job No. 1 became finding job No. 1. Believe it or not, I started my job search with an interview the day after I moved.

While still in Columbus, I applied for a job as an associate editor at a pair of magazines that were run out of a single office in Highland Park. I’m pretty certain that I knew ahead of time how much the job would pay—$33,000.

On the one hand, it was almost half what I made my final full year at The Dispatch and wasn’t nearly enough for the job itself. On the other hand, beggars can’t be choosers. I took the interview.

The interview was around noon, which gave me time to at least see a copy of the publications. I went to the Highland Park library as soon as it opened and borrowed the most recent copies of Winnetka and Hinsdale magazines.

They were pretty much what I was expecting—pretty much what anyone who’s familiar with those communities would expect: The magazines consisted of features and news—on very glossy paper—that involved the upper crust of those two upper-crust suburbs. It wasn’t a job for me, but I had ulterior motives. I thought that by introducing myself to the editor, I might be able to wrangle a free-lance writing gig out of the deal.

I met with Susan, who was the editor of the parent publication—Chicago Home & Garden—and she quickly agreed that I probably wasn’t the right person for the job. But she said she, too, wanted to meet me and maybe I might be interested in doing some writing. She said she didn’t have anything now but would get back to me later in the fall. OK, we’re off to a good start.

A portfolio of free-lance gigs that paid enough for living expenses was ideal. I certainly had grown accustomed to setting my own work shcedule for the past two years, and free-lance could give me some flexibility to look for an ideal full-time gig if I needed more money—all while finishing up my book.

So I turned to looking for work full time. My job search consisted of looking both on free-lance sites and job sites, and before long I established a routine. I’d get up when Laurie did to go to her job, allowing her to clear out first while I ate my breakfast. Then I’d shower, get dressed and head out.

I had only dialup Internet service at Laurie’s apartment, and that wasn’t suitable to conducting large Internet; i.e., job, searches. However, my now 4-year-old Clamshell iBook didn’t have a Wi-Fi modem, so I had to go where I could get online via Ethernet.

I found two places that had such a connection, and I went to either depending on what else I had on my agenda that day. If I went to the gym or I had other errands to run, I’d go to Sulzer Library in nearby Lincoln Square. If not, then it was the Northwestern University library, where, as I think I mentioned, as long as I arrived before noon, I could get in without showing a student ID.

I liked going to Northwestern better, not only because I had more room but also the scenery (college-age babes … look at em!) beat that of the rabble at the public library. I also liked that going to Northwestern meant taking a long ride on the L, so I could play Sudoku, which I just discovered and to which I quickly became addicted.

Going to Northwestern, however, required a longer Ethernet cable, so I bought a 6-footer, which gave me enough line to connect to the Ethernet ports that ringed one particular reference room on the ground floor from any desk in which I set up shop.

Then I’d get to work—checking CareerBuilder and JournalismJobs and other sites. I had a rotation of about a dozen in addition to getting automatic notices. If I saw something that attracted me, I’d write a cover letter and tailor my resume to the particular job. I think I had about a half-dozen different resumes depending on for what type of job I applied.

In those days, I sent almost everything by mail, because few sites accepted attachments and clips. That required a separate occasional trip to Kinkos to copy clips and then the post office to mail off my file. Not having a job meant I could run all my errands during the day when lines were short.

I’d like to say that as the days grew shorter and chillier, the rejection notices piled up, except most companies don’t bother to reply to candidates in the negative. I suppose they probably get too many resumes to send out a rejection letter to everyone, but I respected those that found the time.

Eight years later, I ALWAYS call—not write—anyone I interview, whether it’s for a job or a writing assignment, whom I reject. I believe it’s just common courtesy. My policy undoubtedly is a reaction from the days when I was beginning my job search—hearing the telltale of silence—while Laurie seemed to have Medusa on every other day.

The good news was I heard back from Susan around Thanksgiving after two solid months of rigorous but fruitless activity. She had an assignment for me if I were interested. I said I was. Finally, a breakthrough.

(To be continued)