Saying thanks to The New Yorker

FullSizeRender (20)

Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

image

Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

A siblings day remembrance

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Now it’s Mom’s turn

MOM

Last month, on the occasion of my Dad’s birthday, I shared a picture of him and a few words in this space. His clothes and his hair had changed over the 40 years since the picture was taken, but he’s still around and I’m very glad about that. He didn’t pull a David Bowie and die two days after his birthday (and yes, my dad is at the same age Bowie was when time caught up with him).

So today, a mere six weeks later, it’s my Mom’s turn. She too is in her 1970s finery, in this case a brown sweater that you can look at and almost hear the opening bars to Hotel California or Don’t Stop playing in the background somewhere. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, and while I love the music of the 80s, the fashions of the 70s were so much more interesting.

My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.

My hipster dad

Dad

About five years ago, or perhaps even longer than that, my parents gave me a box filled with old memories like report cards, event programs, birthday cards and, most importantly, pictures. The photos from my youth have certainly been fodder for many interesting #TBT posts on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Once a photo makes it onto the Internet, it can live forever in the online world. And so it is with this beauty, taken in the Summer of 1976. My dad, who was not yet 30 years old, is holding my baby brother, who is turning 40 years old himself this summer. I love the colors, the glasses, the hair, and the way this photo preserves a moment in time that can never be brought back again.

Today’s my dad’s birthday, and I wish him the very happiest of days. And, as a bonus, I offer this image of his bad self, so that 40 years from now someone else can appreciate that 70s style.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

pilateBowie

 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

Remembering what to be thankful for

patI learned today that Pat Elchlepp, a high school classmate of mine, passed away last night at the age of 47. He was a couple of months younger than I was, so the Grim Reaper has my full attention as I type this out, trying to come to grips with how very, very short life can be.

I write about death a lot, in this space and elsewhere. I drive through cemeteries and go to estate sales to remind myself that everyone’s number–mine included–will come up someday. But when someone that I was acquainted with three decades ago moves on to whatever comes next, it hits hard. We can’t begin to know how many more days and months and years it will be until our time is up, but we must keep on living them all, with an appreciation that our lives are meant to be savored for as long as they should happen to last.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. But the biggest blessing of all–and the one I will not lose sight of–is that I’m still here to get stuck in traffic, and taste a cup of coffee early in the morning, and sing along with an old song on the radio. They’re simple things, but my classmate Pat isn’t able to enjoy them anymore. I hope he’s in a good place today, and I thank him for reminding me to be grateful for today, tomorrow, and every day afterward.

R.I.P. Patrick Elchlepp

Griffin High School, Class of 1986

August 13, 1968 – November 24, 2015

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly

12244809_1488853644777666_7932008679637904120_o

Seeing a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album on vinyl this evening made me happy. It took me back to when I was a teenager living in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois.

I don’t have too many memories of that time in my life, other than wanting to move away and live somewhere else. Anywhere else. And I knew that starting college was the only chance I was going to have for making that happen.

So I did what I could to bide my time. I kept my grades up, but I would be a liar if I said I worked very hard at it. And I found escape in the music of the day. Def Leppard came along at the end of my freshman year of high school, and from then on it was a procession of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and what are known today as “hair metal” bands. There was some Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and some Led Zeppelin–lots of Led Zeppelin, really–and others like Night Ranger and Loverboy and even some Ratt. I owned at least two Ratt albums on vinyl, back in the days of my high school angst.

I never owned Def Leppard on vinyl, though. I had a copy of Pyromania on cassette, and even a copy of their first album On Through the Night on cassette. And I was in college by the time Hysteria came out, so I never owned that one at all. Loved the music, but never got around to buying it.

I took the copy of Pyromania out of its inner sleeve and looked at the grooves of the vinyl. I was reminded of what a tactile experience it was to hold an LP in your hands, so you could put it on the turntable and drop the needle onto it. CDs are smaller, and the feeling is less pronounced. And a cassette hardly felt that way at all. Maybe it was the plastic involved, or the portability of a tape that allowed it to be carried around in a car. Vinyl LPs never had any of that. You kept them in your room, or wherever the turntable happened to be.

As I was looking at the grooves of the record, my eyes wandered into the middle, where the needle would have gone to after the last song of a side was through playing. There were always a series of little scribbles or numbers in there, but nothing worth looking at too much. But Pyromania–at least the UK pressing of it that I was holding in my hands–contained a special little treat that I, as a cassette owner of the album, knew nothing about.

On side 1, in small but still legible capital letters, the words “IF YOU’RE GONNA BE A BEAR” appeared. I got a good laugh when I saw it, because it seemed like a weird thing to have on a record album. But then I started thinking about it: If your’re gonna be a bear, then what? The obvious thing to do was flip it over and see if there was anything else. And it turns out, there was. “BE A GRIZZLY” appeared in a similar place on side two.

The quote appeared in the movie Cannonball Run, which came out before Def Leppard’s album did, and so it’s possible–although not terribly likely–that someone was making a reference to that movie. The quote was originally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, so perhaps whoever did this had that as their source of inspiration. But whatever it was, it felt like an old secret was revealed to me tonight, and I’m happy to spend a few moments writing about it here.

Unta Glieben Glauten Glomen….

A Lincoln gallery

1294410_10201128170020883_556216449_o

One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Abraham Lincoln began the process of righting America’s greatest wrong. Slavery had existed for centuries, sanctioned by law and practiced by many of the men who spoke of human liberty when they applied it to white folks, but were more than willing to deny it to those who did not look like them. Hypocrisy at it worst, it appears to me.

But Lincoln upset that apple cart. He said that slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. He was elected president, and the slaveholding states (most of them, anyway) decided to leave the Union before they accepted him as their leader.

Lincoln held firm to his position that secession was not allowed for in the Constitution, and was therefore not a legitimate course of action. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and the rest did not leave the Union, because they could not leave the Union.

The first year-and-a-half of the Civil War was a fight about preserving the Union. But in the fall of 1862, Lincoln gave the abolitionists what they wanted. It’s true that not one slave was freed as a result of this action. It’s also true that slaves in Missouri and the other border states were not affected by Lincoln’s action. But the die had been cast, all the same. Slavery became the war’s defining issue, from that moment forward.

We can never do enough to honor what Abraham Lincoln did. I have tried many times to explain what Lincoln means in this space, and here’s a sampling of them on this day.

575375_10201457285368561_411392151_n

529795_4691496639894_1082733465_n   229301_1754527497501_4527807_n

10579986_10203315631146044_8441858777399213546_n

IMG_3767 (2)

I’ve said many times that Lincoln is with us still, so long as we want to see and acknowledge him and the new America that he brought about. May we never lose sight of this.