A rocking good read about a hard rock musician turned folk singer that I read at pretty much the same time that the latest version of that old screen favorite "A Star Is Born" hits the theaters and like that movie this book tells the true to life story of a singer saved and then alternatively brought to ruin by drugs, booze and sex with a final fade out due to terminal illness at the end ala "Love Story." Replete with mischief including gunfire at spiders adorning a bathtub and consecutive orgies brought to film and journals, it ends with a tear jerker. Recommended to one and all. Five stars.
Once again, we have here an excellent book of verse by Robert L. Penick who explores love, death, and the loss and gain of life better than most books by others this reviewer has seen. Notable poems include "Riddle" in which he talks about mailing his box of secrets (no one should be without one) to Madagascar and back, "What To Do When The Night Is Done With You" in which he discusses just what is to be done with those fields on a moonless night, and "boneyard" where he explores the aftermath of death where "Eternity waits/as quiet as a cloud." Suggestion: Go ahead and buy this book and explore all its many verses. You'll be glad you did. You'll find it available atwww.slipstreampress.org.
What a delight this book was! Full of old ghosts woven from bits and pieces of bark and fog and riddles too woven out of time. It has reminiscences of old relations, thoughts on artwork that summon up images better than any Rothko by itself could do and prophetic visions of cities washed over by the waves. I wish I knew better how to describe it. I recommend that you go out and buy a copy and see for yourself.
When I was 12 and the boy next door was 10 we took off across hill and mountain and roadway to where a boy in my class lived. "Come on in, you runaways," his family of big sisters beckoned with a laugh. The boy beside me smiled. I frowned. I felt that was no way to look at our little adventure.
But, curiously enough, that didn't make me put away my wandering ways. No, it just made me more determined to go places and see things and do my own unheard of deeds.
And for a while, just a while there, I did...
What A Mad World
Within a year or two of Woodstock the teachers at my school, a bunch of flower children hoping to bring the Word to the clueless masses, put on a musical of their own in our Southern town drawing in elements from all the great hits of the day including
Godspell and others. They hoped thereby to ask some meaningful Question with a capital "Q" of the times but what question that was remains to be seen other than, hey, perhaps "What's up, Dude?" Perhaps it's not surprising in retrospect that I was chosen as one of a select group of little kids with beards drawn on all our faces to sing that old Cowsills hit "Hair" which we did in an awful tumbling, stumbling fashion, mostly just repeating the refrain aloud over and over, "Hair, hair, hair, hair gets in my spaghetti" before we all headed out for a round of sundaes and to stare soundlessly into the dark of our rooms with the black lights on.
It was a crazy time to be a kid not least because the adults all around us were as clueless as to what life was all about as we were. My parents who just a little bit older than the rest managed to stay above the fray except to make sure that we got all our haircuts on time ("styled" as they put it) and stayed squeaky clean, also getting our baths at the appointed times every evening. The fact that we were a privileged generation, largely sheltered from the world around us, hardly made any difference. The world was insane and, so, simply put, were we. So we sat in the darkness of all our rooms, stared into our black lights and at our psychedelic posters and went wild with the world. That some of us couldn't stand the contrary pressures of the times is not surprising. The only wonder is that we didn't all break sooner. We were all mad and the world knew us not and that was just how it all was in those all long gone days of laughter and song and plenty.
The Art of War
The day before the battle the soldiers were gathered in all their bunks talking about what it might be like on the enemy side. They were rookies to the scene and all they had left, aside from their battlefield preparations, was their imaginations.
"I imagine some won't be able to walk again," said one soldier with some hesitation.
"And some will never talk," said another.
"While some will never be able to see again," said another out of the dark.
"I would think that some of them will end up coming out as if they were women," said one soldier with an odd smile, nearly asleep in his bunk.
"I imagine it'll just be a bloody mess," said one British soldier sent over to join the Americans in the art of war.
Finally, they settled down for the night. The sergeant and his corporal who had joined them for the discussion exited to head back to their own quarters. On their way back to their beds, there was a surprise enemy attack with aircraft zooming in from all directions. One blast blew off the mess tent. Another destroyed the headquarters. While another decimated the bunkhouse they had just left. The sergeant and his corporal sheltered in a ditch and watched the whole thing unfold. Finally, the aircraft left, day came around and the sarge and his aide-de-camp returned to assess the damage.
At the bunkhouse, they were sure to find some soldiers who would never walk again, some who would never talk again, some who never see again while some soldiers (among them was that soldier with the odd smile) who, for all the good it did them, might as well be women. The rest was just a bloody mess.
That then was what war was all about.
Then we boys stood at the top of Mount Mitchell, tallest mountain in the Appalachians. We were all of 14 and 15.
"How are we going to get down?" I asked.
"We'll take the van down, Silly," another said. "How did you think we'd get down?"
"We'll go right down that trail over there," I said.
"Are you kidding?" he said to me. "That's Suicide Trail. No man can go down that. It's too damned steep."
"Watch me," I said.
And without another word I leaped upon that trail and slid down the last 50 yards to the bottom of the mountain on my rear end. Then, getting up with a smile and a laugh, I said, "See. Wasn't that easy?" And, one by one, they all followed me and slid down to the mountain's bottom.
Afterwards, my mother would fuss at me at no end for she could never get the stain off the rear of my pants but I was only happy for I was the first of my lot to slide down Suicide Trail. It was well worth the ride.
It Comes Naturally
We were all busy talking up a storm here in my apartment the other month, my brother, his wife and I, when suddenly my cat came running from the other room, ran between us and immediately jumped on top of the bookcase and began pawing at the window where on the other side of the glass a bird was perched on the ledge right there singing at my cat.
"Gone hunting again," my brother's wife said.
She smiled. I smiled. My brother smiled. We all knew what a beast my cat was.
Come, Take My Hand
To live life in the shell that is time.
To look death in the eye and say, "What am I?"
To approach it all naked and full of grace.
I know not more what more to do
except to put the past behind,
the future ahead
and dwell in the present
as the shadow of night covers all.
This is the season of life.
This is the season of death.
Let us do the dance and live and die together.
Amid The Shadows Of The Evening
"God, I hate arty people," Hemingway said and wrote another line. He fought his fight. He drank his whiskey. He sought his place in time. And he never claimed to be anything but a man against the bull of life. Alone there, he typed another line. Alone, he died.
But, he lived with the world as hollow inside he wrapped his arms around another and then another. He never found what he was looking for but, God, does anybody?
And so when Ben E. King was still a very young man he came up with that crazy cool tune "Stand By Me" which all the kids loved to hum as they went about their way. The fact that he composed dozens, maybe hundreds, of other songs over the years to come hardly even mattered. That was the song that people longed to hear. It sent a shiver right down all their spines. That it was given even more life as the theme song to the movie of the 1980s of the same name made the requests come even more frequently down Ben's way.
Never did he ask, "Don't you want to hear something else?" Instead, he just gave that old sad grin and sang his song again. It was, after all, one for the ages. And when at last, they laid him in the ground that song, "Stand By Me" could be heard yet again. That was Ben's moment. And not once, no, not once did he ever grow tired of the same old song. It was his to claim at the very end.
Where The Road Ends
And then I dreamed that I followed that damned road as far as I could. It trickled out into one gravel lane and then a dirt road that ended just past a couple of lousy, rundown cattle gaps. I was in no man's land and hoped for the best. Slowly, I began the walk forward, seeing what good might come out of me now...
Then there was that moonless night about 35 years ago when I joined my buddy for a round of drinks there in his hometown of Thurmont, Maryland and it was now time for him to head on to his college and time for me to head to mine.
“Race you?” he asked, surely joking.
“Sure, I'll race you,” I said, meaning every word.
So we were off with his car the better made but with me as well the more daring driver.
Whizzing around bend and down hill at speeds topping 80 and 90 miles an hour (this back in the days when a federally enforced 55 mile per hour speed limit was the law of the land), passing the signs for Lewistown and the Cactoctin Furnace where daredevils of another age manufactured cannon balls for the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and then speeding up to nearly one hundred miles an hour, only one lane allotted to us in our direction, him slightly ahead of me, it seemed all for nothing...until in the distance we spotted an old jalopy driven by one little old lady who insisted on driving forty miles an hour no matter how, our cars slowed to a crawl, we hogtied her tail. Until, finally, I eased my car onto the shoulder of the road and stayed even beside my buddy and the little old woman. They looked at me as if I'd lost my mind (which surely I had) until the woman signaled and then got off at her exit, waving – I swear this is true – a little white handkerchief out her window.
My man and I then stayed side by side, he on the road, me on the shoulder, for the remainder of the single lane stretch until the road divided and, with a lane apiece and with cars now all around us and not a cop in sight, we zipped and roared for the final ride, swerving our way around one errant vehicle or another, we completed our race, neck to neck, as I exited onto Hayward Road (then just a country road in those days with meadows lining the way) for the back entrance to the community college while he headed on down the highway towards his university. It was the end of one more road among many. We were young and reckless and alive and having the time of our lives. We gunned our engines in salute and then we were gone.
And then there was George Willig, "The Human Fly," who walked up to the old World Trade Center in New York City back in 1977 and, as casual as you be, he grabbed onto ledge and windowsill and climbed from floor to floor up that mighty building. High above the crowds, among the high winds, he kept climbing until he reached the top where the police were waiting for him and with a helicopter they took him away to court. When the judge asked him why he'd done such a thing, Mr. Willig replied simply, "It was there." Then when the judge handed down the fine of a penny per floor and Willig paid it he passed away into legend. And in such a way was the old Tower sanctified.
For The Secret To The Blues Look In Your Soul
So they said that Robert Johnson was buried close to the crossroads by where he sold his soul to the devil for the secret to the blues. Truth is, no one really knows where the man is buried.
The location of his remains are a mystery to all. But the mystery lives on of how the worst guitar player in the world overnight became the legendary blues singer of all time. And some say it all happened right there where those two roads meet...
Freddie's Show Of Shows
And so when the critics accused Freddie Mercury, singer with the band Queen, of alienating his audience with the sensation he caused wherever he went with his procession of male and female lovers, Freddie could only reply, "Darling, don't you know a show is all there is to this life?"
So he danced and he sang and he made love all the night through and when he died the critics had to admit something died right along with them...
And then a fevered dream came to me this morning of me as a little boy in my overalls on the porch of some young black family's shack as they all gathered around me and cooed and ahhed over me and said "He's all right" to each other. The year was 1965 and I was alive in a way as a little boy I would not be again for a very long time. Then I woke gray-bearded and old in the early morning light. Blinking my eyes, I knew only that I would have to start over all over again. It was a quick trip to my window to be sure of things and then I was on my way.
Then, too, I think of Alma, the fat bellied cook at the restaurant down the road from here that drove her dishwasher friend and me all about the county some summer nights all while we guzzled our whiskey and beer and joked and laughed and made fools out of ourselves in the night. Alma, who drank not a drop and kept a stern eye on us boys so that we didn't take our shenanigans too far. Alma, who cackled with ease as she told us dirty jokes on the midnight hour.
"Alma!" I called out to her. "Have some whiskey. It's on me!"
"What do I want with that?" she asked.
"Well," I said with a chuckle. "I'm told that it puts hair on your chest."
"What if I don't want hair on my chest?" she asked.
"Well then you don't have to drink it," I said.
"You got it, boys," she said, laughing. "I don't have to drink it."
And so she drove us around another bend of the night and we drank and joked some more. Soon, she left us out. Soon, we moved on. But for now the night was ours. We were young and alive and the whiskey tasted good. We looked ahead. The night rolled on and so did we.
Another Time, Another Place
I'll never forget Walt. Him, just standing there in the doorway, smoking a toke - or toking a smoke, if you prefer - with his Afro, his halfgrown beard, and his horned rim glasses, saying, "Come on in, won't you? Come on in." And then there we all were - Beebee, short, round and black and constantly in a lotus position like the Buddha he resembled; Betsy there, having made her way out of Vietnam at the height of the exodus at the controls of a renegade helicopter; and Veronica with her bushel load of kids. Oh, yes, and me, Josh, with my long stringy dirty brown hair and halfassed goatee coming in for just a short stay from the country.
All of us, yeah, short moments from eternity fitting somehow luxuriously in those four large rooms of Walt's as if we had planetwide spaces to spare there.
It was as if we had all our lives to live there, drinking that cheap rotgut wine by the bottle and smoking joints as big as Groucho Marx's cigar. Never mind that it was already the 1980s and Ronald Reagan was in office with his greasy, slicked back hair and his welfare cutting ways. We made believe that time was ours and it would all stand still if only for us.
And then came the time to move on. We were growing up finally, kicking and screaming, throwing all our tokes out the door. Beebee ended up checking into a drug rehabilitation clinic never to return. Betsy got involved with Vietnam Veterans of America and rode her motorcycle out the open door of Walt's house, likewise never to return. Veronica's kids simply grew up, she needed another place. And, me, I was destined to give graduate school another shot, taking my schoolboy classes places where they had never gone before. All of us without exception were growing past it all. Past the tokes. Past the rotgut wine. Past those alternate states of being. There was no looking back.
Deep in the country of my dreams there is a home for me called Every House. And in this Every House lies every house I ever lived in, every bar I ever got smashed in, every roadside ditch I ever slept in, every alleyway and desert highway I ever crept through. Many are the fantastic rooms of this house. Many are the corridors and the faraway lands. And as I lie down for one more afternoon nap I wonder which door I will enter and which I will return by. When I come back will I be a new man or will I be the same old mean scoundrel who has raged down many a night? I know not. And yet I open that door and peer down its long dark hallway of secrets. Forever is the moment.
The Restaurant At The End Of Time
I woke up on the4 o'clockhour this morning with the strangest dream. It seems I was sitting in a large, spare dining room with three companions, none of whom I recognized outside of this dream, but all of whom, inside it, seemed – somehow - intensely familiar to me.
The four of us were seated around a large mahogany brown table that despite our small number we appeared to amply fill. Our chairs were wooden and carved with intricate designs of perhaps mystical meaning which none of us could quite divine.
Quiet, we four - me, dressed all in black and with my goatee hanging low to my Adam's Apple; the Professor, as I thought of him afterwards, with his gray hair, haggard face, and all-white cotton clothes; the woman I thought of as simply, “that gorgeous dame,” with short, crisp hair turned about a round face, and – like me – dressed all in black; and the little fellow I called “the college kid,” with his immaturity, short crewcut, and braggadocio about some unknown ethnic origin – we said hardly a word to one another. Just downed the froth off our beers and looked about the darkened hall as we interspersed the language of silently creaking bodies and the touch of cold mead upon our throats with that of loud laughter echoing about the bar and coming back to haunt us from the shadows.
The bar itself was a lonely place. There appeared to be no one there but ourselves in the corner. The counter from which the drinks were served was empty but for the small clean glasses on top. Spigots cast shadows upon the sink and no bartender was in sight. Yet I had a feeling that the Professor, seated with us casually, downing his brew, was the owner and sole operator of this establishment. Not until the dream's end, however, would I know for sure.
Over in a recess in the wall, set apart by veils, was the object of our fixations, the place where magic resided. Here, in bright, shining paint that even the veils could not shadow, were the words on walls, formed of some unusual substance none could identify. The signs there shined so far out that we could easily make out the words through those veils, and the signs, too, appeared to be in plain English but I know now they could not have been. They were more likely signposts to hell than to that which they claimed to lead.
Here is what they appeared to read to my own eyes: “Britain AD 1000 – 19th Century,” “India-Pakistan: The Wars, The Tribunals,” “Ethiopia: The Forgotten Queen,” and, oh, so much besides. There seemed to be an infinity of times and places for our beckoning, and we – all of us – were drawn to the portals as if our very lives depended on them. But the words, those bright, shiny words were so vague in their spell that it's a wonder any of us took heed to them. Perhaps we were mesmerized by them in the way that a man, on his way to shelter, is sometimes cast into a daze by a passing car. Who can say? I myself may never know for sure.
One by one, each of us downed his own beer and entered the shining walk. All of us, that is, except for the Professor who remained in his seat.
The kid entered first and I followed him with that almost -omniscient eye that is so often present in dreams. I saw him go in a flicker of eye, a haze of brightness, into the Pleistocene Era, into a jungle, that is, where ferns grew as tall as the lizards, themselves as tall as the highest buildings in my hometown of Frederick, Maryland. Immediately – before he could even scream – the raptors found their prey in him and ripped him into bloody parts with their teeth and long claws. I would have broken down into yells and tears myself but the sight of those fearsome lizards was too much for me and I could say nothing at all. Finally, he disappeared into a flurry of red and my eyes were drawn back to the table.
Next up, I entered the portal. I disappeared into a Dickensian hell of the British Industrial Revolution, working like a doomed Oliver Twist in a grownup slave labor, emerging days later (but seeming like years) with sores aching and my clothes well ripped. I had survived – yet still was mesmerized by the signs.
The third, and last of us, to enter the portal was that “gorgeous dame” I mentioned earlier. She simply ruffled her hair with her hand, smoothed out her black-sequined dress, and ran off into the Roaring Twenties, twisting her hips every which way as she went in. When she reemerged from her travels (I had not dared follow her progress as I had the kid's), I asked her how it'd been. “I was dancing,” she said and the twinkle in her eyes told me this was true.
Then suddenly the dream changed. There was a quick flicker of brightness across the room and the lady I'd been talking to was gone. Now it was just me and the Professor – and neither of us was at the table any longer.
Rather, he was behind the bar wiping the counter down. For my part, I was a few feel away admiring a stand of hats made totally out of the fur of some small exotic animal and fitted together in places without mark or seam.
I was aware, too, that years had passed. The Professor looked even older and more haggard. In addition, he had grown a beard that was all-white albeit neatly trimmed. I knew as well that my own features had aged though I beheld no mirror to tell the difference.
“How is Mrs. Simmons?” he asked as he smoothed out his white apron and wiped down the shiny bar. I said nothing though I could recognize the fact by now that “Mrs. Simmons” was the woman I had spoken to earlier about her trip to the 1920s, that “Simmons” was indeed my own name, and that she had been my wife. Also, I knew, as if the dream itself had told me such, that she had left me many years earlier and entered another one of those portals to a happiness I could never find, gone now forever from my dream of many dreams. I was able to discern that, yes, even at a restaurant at the end of time love can take its toll.
I fingered those small furry hats once more. Then producing a bill of some strange foreign currency from my wallet, I paid the proprietor for these goods. He said nothing. Merely handed me a hat that was completely different from those I had beheld. It was a black hat etched with detailed pictures of ladies and gentlemen from different eras on wings turned flat. It was a magic hat. I looked at the Professor once more. An old charlatan, he was up to his bag of tricks once more. He had not changed one bit. No, not a bit.
But by this time (if “time” counts for anything in a dream such as this) I was angry with fury past the root of my desire. I had had a failed marriage and had seen – eons ago – a friend tortured and killed. In addition, my youth was gone. I wanted no more to do with magic.
It was time to flee this dream of mad, awful love and desire. Pressing my palms together into tight fists, I closed my inner eye, concentrated hard...and succeeded.
It was, as I've mentioned, the4 amhour. Still early in the morning. My dream of countless time had taken but a few hours. I sat in smoky silence, looking for meaning where there was none. Then went back to sleep. Hoping for better dreams.
From SunDried, a journal of sorts
May 22, 1996
When A Deal's Not A Deal
While making my way through Manhattan in 1977 I came across a low class man dressed in the cheapest clothes possible. Yet they seemed warm on a winter's night. I envied him that.
"Hey, man, want to buy a watch?" he asked.
And he rolled his sleeves up, revealing row after row of glittering gold watches.
"Uh, no, I don't think so."
How about some silverware?" he said. And opened up his coat to reveal necklaces and forks, knives and spoons hanging from the lining.
"Uh, no," I said.
"Well, what can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well, what I'm really looking for is a ride to Canada," I said.
"Well, now let's begin to haggle," he said. "How much money do you have?"
"None," I said. And I showed him my empty wallet.
"Well, then you just give me that watch on your arm," he said, "and I'll get you straight off to Canada."
"You get me to Albany first and then I'll give you the watch," I said, wondering what I was getting myself into.
"No, sir," he said. "Just give me your watch and a deal's a deal."
"You're full of shit," I said at that point. And I walked off.
"Hey," he called out to me. "You'll be regretting this when somebody takes your watch for nothing."
I sighed and walked on. Somehow I knew it was going to be another one of those nights. I wrapped my hands in my sleeves and I walked back into the darkness. It was cold and the hours were steeped in desperation. Just another step forward. And then another. I was gone.