Mars (live)

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Here’s the first video from my show at the Kraine Theater on 9/22/19. Thanks again to everyone who came out – the support was palpable and encouraging.

The band is:
Vinnie Armanino – guitar
Dan Paccione – bass and vocals
Chris DeRosa – drums
The camera work and background visuals are provided by Daniela Croci.

 

I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars
I hear they’ve got some really nice cars
And all those shooting stars
I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars

I’ve got a one-way ticket to the other side
I told my baby and she cried and cried
But it’s just foolish pride
I’ve got a one-way ticket to the other side

I’ve got a one-way ticket to the promised land
Eternal love in the palm of my hand
Oh, and ain’t life grand
With a one-way ticket to the promised land?

I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars
I hear they’ve got some really nice guitars
And all those shooting stars
I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars

Robert Hunter 1941-2019

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true love
All the birds that were singing
have flown, except you alone

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Photo by Jay Blakesberg

I am not qualified to call myself a Deadhead in the same way that I am not qualified to call myself a Christian. To be a Christian you need to believe in the divinity of Christ, and to be a Deadhead your favorite band needs to be the Grateful Dead. Still, I am a great admirer of both entities and in part due to the same thing: their words. Jesus wrote The Lord’s Prayer and The Sermon on the Mount, stone cold classics in any book. Many, if not most, of the greatest lyrics of the Grateful Dead were written by Robert Hunter.

In the early days of rock music when artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly did something that set them apart from most popular music of their time. They played and sang songs that they also wrote. For the next few decades most of rock’s lyricists were also musicians and/or singers. Robert Hunter, along with a few notable contemporaries like Eddie Holland and Bernie Taupin, left his mark on music history through words alone.

On the Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa, there are listings for The Band, The Supporting Musicians, and The Crew. Under the last heading is the line “The Words – Robert Hunter.” By their sixth album, American Beauty, seven names are listed as The Dead – the six musicians in the band and “Robert Hunter – songwriter.”

The inspiration behind songwriting is as close to divinity as anything I have experienced. As it was for Hunter, who remembers one sacred afternoon holed up in a hotel room with a bottle of booze and his muse this way:

Once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘To Lay Me Down,’ and ‘Ripple,’ all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.

In the swirling events of this season from the global (climate disasters) to the national (impeachment) to the local (Yankee playoffs) to the personal (some heavy shit), it is easy to lose track of the radar blip that was the news of Robert Hunter’s death. Lyricists of his caliber are so rare that those of us who love this music will be doing ourselves a favor if we block out the rest of the distractions in our life for a few minutes and meditate on the work of this man’s life.

Fare you well, my honey,
fare you well my only true one.
All the birds that were singing
are flown, except you alone.
Going to leave this brokedown palace,
On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside,
In my time, in my time I will roll, roll roll
In a bed, in a bed,
by the waterside I will lay my head.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
River going to take me
sing me sweet and sleepy
sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Going to plant a weeping willow
On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow
It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago
Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since i first left home
Going home, going home, by the riverside i will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul

 

Killing Christina – Part 4

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I wake with the dream still more real than reality.

There were three of us – me, Christina, and Death – sitting around a table. Death wasn’t in his stereotypical guise, with the hooded cloak and scythe. Instead, he wore a baseball cap, a T-shirt with something rolled up in its sleeve, and jeans. But I knew who he was. He seemed like a nice enough guy, except for his eyes. They weren’t tombstones or Xs or anything cartoonish like that. They weren’t rheumy or bloodshot, they were exceptionally clear. Too clear. Painfully clear. So clear that they looked not just through me but through time. His eyes were clearer than anything I’d ever seen – glass and mirror at the same time. I could look right through them and still come face-to-face with my reflection.

We sat together around a table and Death held both our hands. Christina and I also held each other’s hands so that we sat in a linked circle, as if we were attending a séance. Death’s hands weren’t cold and clammy like I expected. They were warm, and soft, and comforting.

“Don’t be afraid,” Death said to Christina whose teeth were chattering. Maybe his hand felt cold to her. Or maybe mine did. “When your time comes, I will be ready for you. That time is not now.”

“But you,” he said, turning to me with a welcoming smile, “you’re ready, aren’t you?”

I couldn’t answer.

“Don’t be mad at me, baby,” I said to Christina.

“I’m not mad,” she said the way women do when they’re so mad they can’t even admit it to themselves.

“You should probably get out of here,” Death said to Christina, “while you still can. The boys are going to play a little game.” He unrolled a deck of cards from the sleeve of his T-shirt and shuffled them.

“What’s the game?” I said.

“Solitaire.”

Christina got up from the table and looked at me. She needed me to say something, and I knew what she needed to hear, but for a reason that I don’t understand, I couldn’t say the words. She walked away. When I looked back at the cards on the table they were all the same: The face and back of the cards were blank, as clear as mirrors reflecting the snowfall. I saw into and through the reflections of a long, empty life without Christina.

Death held a card in front of my face. It reflected the sun and it also let the natural light of the sun through, into my eyes. “You love her?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“How much?”

I don’t know how to answer that. How do you measure love?

“You lose,” Death said. He picked up one of the cards and flipped it rhythmically across his long slender fingers.

“I can’t lose,” I said. “How can I lose? I’m playing against myself. If I lose I have to win too.”

Death smiled. It was Christina’s smile, but twisted. His teeth were mirrors and glass, reflecting her perfect smile, but backwards and conscientiously empty of all the joy in hers. I saw through his smile, at the sun, fighting a losing battle against the early afternoon clouds that hunched menacingly over the snow-dusted Catskill peaks. The end of the daylight comes too quickly to the valley.

* * *

I wake up but stay in bed for a long time – hours, at least – staring at the sky, and the falling snow, sweating and shivering and watching the steam of my breath, thinking about my dream, before I reach the sickening conclusion that my love for Christina isn’t the thing I came here to kill.

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Killing Christina – Part 3

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Uncle Bob’s cabin in December is the coldest place on Earth. The temperature might get lower somewhere else, it even gets lower here later in winter, but the shock of the first frost, in the heart of the longest nights of the year, puts a shiver in my bones that nothing can relieve except another warm body.

As the logs give themselves over to the flame, the frozen contents of my head thaw, the congestion melts away, and air begins to circulate through my skull again, filling it with familiar aromas. It isn’t just the smoky fireplace that triggers torrents of memories, it is mothballs, and cedar, and something that comes out of the cold stones when they are transformed with warmth. There is moisture locked in these rocks that has been waiting since prehistoric times for this particular fire to draw it out. Traces of an incense that I’ve only ever smelled at Uncle Bob’s linger in every room of his house.

Small sounds – dripping and clicking and ticking – take on their own familiar life and I realize that I’ve been carrying pieces of this cabin around in my head for pretty much my whole life. I get up from the fire and stand in the middle of the great room, arms raised even at my shoulders, eyes closed, and I listen to myself breathing and pulsing. When I find the space and the silence I have been looking for, that I promised myself would set me free, I open my eyes. None of the things I came to escape were left behind, least of all Christina.

Waves of memory pull me under, and even though my treasury of Uncle Bob’s Cabin Memories stretches back to childhood, the only memories that come to me are of Christina. The first time I brought her here we made love in front of this fireplace. The floor was too hard for her back so she got on top. When a spark from the fire popped onto her flesh she let out a yip but barely broke her rhythm. I gently rubbed the welt on her side while we finished together. Her sweaty hair was all over my face. I smell it.

The shadowy images of our fire-lit bodies fade with the last of the logs. The wind breaking against the windows and doors sends a chill through every part of my skeleton. I have a strange premonition that I have been sentenced, or that I have sentenced myself, to the intolerable cruelty of solitary confinement. The deepest horrors live in emptiness.

I step out onto Uncle Bob’s deck to get some more wood, to get some fresh air, and to get stoned. The air is fresher but is filled with just as many memories. The air is thin and too cold for any trees except the evergreens, still, undying memories fill my nostrils with a sweeter aroma that only comes in the Spring. I smell the thaw that sends rivulets of water, so pure it’s almost cruel, down the sides of mountains that were created to carry them. I see Christina in the water. She is barefoot, in a bathing suit, under the Kaaterskill Falls. I hear the sounds of her splashing and laughing. I see her little fingers stretching up through the Falls to Heaven and, from my perspective, touching it.

That was the last time she came here.

I see now that it wasn’t very long in the grand scheme of things before I became, of necessity, ordinary to her. Ordinary was the one thing that she couldn’t stand. I don’t blame her; I knew what an ordinary life had done to her. She told me that she loved me – it wasn’t that she didn’t love me. It was that the way she loved me wasn’t the same way I loved her. Hers had limits. She persuaded me that the longer we stayed together, the harder it was going to be for both of us, on the unavoidable day when we woke up from our sweet dream.

I see the moon poke its face out from behind the clouds. In its soft light float the first few tentative flakes of a storm that will cover the region in a layer of white that can be measured with a yardstick. I don’t add any more wood to the fire. Instead I go inside and close the doors, close the drapes, close the fire’s flue and grate. I take the two fattest quilts I can find, because I knew the bed will be ice, and lay them lengthwise and sideways across the empty bed. I slide between the frozen sheets and rub my spreading goosebumps. From the bed I can hear the fire dying and the house contracting without its warmth. I brought a collection of English poetry with me and try to concentrate on the flow of its words while my skin warms the sheets. I absorb the blows of each poem, waiting for my mind to grow weak enough to drift into dreams. Finally, I land on this one, by Louis Macneice:

It being in this life forbidden to move
Too lightly, people, over-cautious, contrive
To save their lives by weighting them with dead
Habits, hopes, beliefs, anything not alive,
Till all this ballast of unreality sinks
The boat and all our thinking gurgles down
Into the deep sea that never thinks.
Which being so, it is not surprising that
Some in their impatience jump the rails,
Refusing to wait the communal failure, preferring
The way the madman or the meteor fails,
Deceiving themselves to think their death uncommon,
Avid to possess the unpossessable sea
As a man in spring desires to die in woman.

I turn off the light and let the darkness take over. I feel dreams moving in, anxious to have their say. Then I sink into that black silence so familiar to poets and undertakers.

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Killing Christina – Part 2

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I tried telling myself lies about her:
She’s an idiot.
She’s unstable.
She’s not that beautiful.
The charms of her smiles, her thoughts, and her scents have no effect on me.
But every lie was so foul that it made me sick to pretend they were true.

I tried imagining parallel realities where we never met, or where we met under different conditions, ones that made us immediate incompatibility.

I tried to push thoughts of her out of my mind, but even that involved thinking about her, and once that starts, I’m lost.

So I came to the most remote place I know to strangle the life out of my love for Christina and give it a proper burial.

I felt from the start that we were on a timer. The weight of my feelings for her, compared to the weight of hers for me, made us too lopsided a couple to stand together very long without tipping over. When we came to the inevitable crash-and-burn part of our relationship I had to get away from everything – not just Christina but every habit and object in and about my life – to find canyons of silence and emptiness where the enormous resolution I need has enough room to move around and to find me. If it can find me anywhere, it will be in this most sacred space: halfway up a mountain, in my Uncle Bob’s cabin in the Catskills.

Uncle Bob is an old vinyl guy and the depth of his record collection fascinated me even when I was a boy. I pick out a disc at random and put it on the turntable, then I grab a beer and start a fire. I don’t look at the album cover so I don’t know which one I picked until I hear the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong hitting the nail a little too sharply on the head, singing:

In my solitude
You haunt me
With reveries of days gone by
In my solitude
You taunt me
With memories that never die

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Killing Christina – Part 1

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Lies are dangerous things.

None are more deadly than the ones we tell ourselves.

Of all the lies I’ve known there is none worse than the one I told myself about Christina, that she could love me as much as I loved her.

* * *

Time has its own way of breaking things down. Even plastic and styrofoam biodegrade eventually. There is no rush. People don’t retire when they reach a certain age because they can’t do our jobs anymore. Most jobs, unless they require physical labor, are done more quickly and easily by people with experience. The reason we retire is that the rationale behind our occupations inevitably falls apart, like newspaper in a gutter. Love is the only thing I know of that resists time’s efforts to break it down. It withstands onslaughts of alcohol and infidelity. It is almost indestructible. So, if my love for Christina is going to die, something is going to have to kill it.

Before we go any further, I would like to alleviate any apprehension I’ve caused by calling my story Killing Christina. You could be forgiven for imagining that this is going to be another of those stories where a sick, possessive man commits an act of intolerable cruelty against a woman. It is not. I am not going to kill Christina. Neither is anybody else. I would not see any harm come to her. I am in love with Christina and it is that – my love for her – that I have come here to kill.

We met in the most enjoyable place two people can meet: a bar. My first image of Christina was on a bar stool, reading. A song was playing that I hadn’t heard in years and I got a little more excited about it that I should have. I bumped into her and spilled her cocktail all over the bar. She might remember it differently but the way I remember it, I let out an astonishingly unmanly shriek. I grabbed a handful of napkins from the bartender’s plastic caddy and tried to sop up her drink. “I’ll buy you another,” I said.

And she smiled.

Just that. Just a kind, simple smile to a bumbling stranger, and I was undone. I knew, as sure as I know how to breathe, that if I have a moment before I die, to look back at all the strange and wonderful moments of my life, that handful of soggy napkins is going to be part of one of them.

“It was a martini,” she said. I interrupted the bartender who was cleaning up my mess to order two martinis. “I’ll pay for that one too,” I said, pointing at the spill.

It wasn’t until the drinks came that it struck me that I’d never had a martini. “Cheers,” I said and we clinked our glasses.

I sipped and  watched her long slow swallow. The lighter fluid in my mouth didn’t taste like anything I wanted to swallow. As badly as I wanted to spit the martini back into its glass, and would have in front of anybody else, I couldn’t do that in front of her, so I forced it down. In an attempt to distract her from the repulsive look on my face I pointed to her book and said, “I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf.”

The skin of her nose wrinkled, disclosing freckles that reflected the neon lights above her. “You should,” she said, and within minutes we were locking in an intense conversation about Haruki Murakami. We’d each read a few of his books, but none of the same ones.

After an evening of deepening conversation we went back to my place and talked some more, about books, and the exploration of our solar system, and the development of photography, and its impact on our sociology. We talked about her beloved second-grade teacher and my despised Little League coach. We talked about insects and religion and dreams.

“So,” she said during a pause in our inexhaustible revelations, “What do you think?”

“About what?” I said.

“About me.”

“You’re devastating,” I said. She smiled. She knew that about herself. She just wanted to see if I knew.

We continued until the sun came up and our talk of dreams rolled into the one where we were lovers and the universe belonged to us.

 

Falling

There is a reason we call it falling in love
We are always looking forward
and neglect to see the thing
lying at our feet, across the path

It only takes a little tangle in our
toes or in our ankles
to bring our tower of illusions crashing down

Crumbling rationality and reason
independence and clarity
future and past
continuity
sanity

Love leaves us humbled, lying flat
squinting up at her blinding light
grateful for the warmth

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