Friday, February 14, 2014

Of Cars, Guitars and Dogs - A Retrospective


In 1974 I had a kind of gold/brown Dodge Dart I nicknamed "The Slug".  In the somber tones of a superhero voiceover, I'd invoke our motto: "Nothing can stop The Slug".  Indeed, it took no less than 9 collisions - famously, three of them within an hour in a single trip from Fairfax to Novato that ended only halfway to its destination at the Blue Roof Inn.  In a joke no one (but me) thought was funny, I always insisted that it was an unbreakable rule that The Slug should always be stocked with enough drugs to kill an elephant, because one could never trust those damn elephants.  Some years later I was to learn the complete insufficiency of such an interspecies survival strategy when I tried to prevent a large Brown Bear from eating my salami (and me!) by throwing her the Quaaludes.  Although it generated more annoyance than amusement, I never gave up on the joke about The Slug and elephants, right up to the day that the slug finally threw a rod at the Cheese Factory out west of Novato.

Also in 1974, I had a dog.  Not just any dog.  I had a year old Husky Collie cross, one of the smartest, strongest and uncontestably most beautiful canines since their original domestication.  Named after the mythical and never-actually-seen "Old Man Rooney" in the great old Burns & Schreiber cabdriver and conventioneer comedy skits, I called him Rooney.  He was so smart and so eager to please that I trained him to respond to hand signals - having had an abiding fascination with non-verbal communication going back at least to the novel Dune, and probably before that.  And in those timeless, endless days where every night was a party and every week a vacation, Rooney was my constant companion.

I have this image, a kind of a multi-sensory mental photograph of a moment in time.  Driving through West Marin in The Slug with the windows down, Rooney at my side and the AM radio set to KFRC, playing loud through that single cheap dashboard speaker.  It was a song I hadn't heard before, but it exploded with power and urgency, and even more than that, for the first time I knew what Chuck Berry meant when talked about "playing guitar like ringing a bell".  It was 'Born to Run', it was my introduction to Bruce Springsteen, and it was that day with my dog on that little country back road amid the pines and buckeyes and cedars, that dusty West Marin smell my sister and I called "dried up rattlesnake grass" (we called it rattlesnake grass because the seed pods sounded like little rattlesnakes when the wind blew) blowing in the windows, a moment in my personal history that resonates with so many.

Because down through the years, from the beginning of Rock n Roll down through the decades to today, there have been many in rock royalty, from The Beatles to Mick to Elton to Bowie to Axl to Tupac and so many more, but having arrived here in 2014 there is one elder statesman, one rocker who represents rock n roll and all we love about it, and that's Bruce.  He has experimented with all kinds of songs and lyrics and voices, but he still seems to love to play, he's unapologetically political and he is, for three generations, what we mean when we say rock n roll.

It wasn't very long after I heard that guitar, the urgent lyrics and Clarence's ethereal sax that I went and bought my first copy of Born to Run.  I quickly filled out the back catalog, discovering the gritty brilliance and honesty of 'The wild, the innocent and the E Street Shuffle" and the Springsteen work that has always been my favorite, the perfect blend of anger, fear and hope that underlies every successful rock n roller, "Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ".  Whereupon I heard "Lost in the Flood" for the first time and knew I'd found a home.

Turns out I missed a lot of interesting music because I tended to avoid pretension and afectation in music.  I liked the tee shirts and loud guitars, I liked lyrics that spoke to me poetically, I liked a little grit and pain alongside the the pure, unfettered joy of that beautiful noise.  And to this day, every now and then I'll go back and play 'Born to Run', and I'll hear those three notes, that amazing bell-like guitar sound that sounds like nobody but Bruce, and I'll remember those summer days in the mid seventies with my dog and I'll smile, just a little bit.