Saturday, March 29, 2014

All Of My Friends Were There: A Short Story



(***AUTHOR'S NOTE*** The following story is NOT based on any person, place, or event in my life. It is simply based on a dream I had several weeks ago where some friends who I have not seen since high school had shown up, like ghosts, at Thanksgiving but only I could see and talk to them. I had the dream around February 2014, began writing the story shortly thereafter, and finished it in early March 2014. Here is the finished product. It's my first stab at a short story and I hope you enjoy it for what it is; I'm a big fan of science fiction, supernatural, and horror books (think: Stephen King) so it's my first foray into that type of writing in a short story format).

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It's my birthday today.

I hate this day.

Every year it's the same thing: a family get-together, food, drinks, cake, celebrations. I know that all sounds nice, and it is. That's not why I dread this day.

It's because of them.

My four best friends from childhood. We grew up together and we were always there for each other, through thick and thin. I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to have grown up with and I'm pretty sure they'd say the same about me...if you could ask them. But you can't.

Because they're dead, you see.

Actually, you can't see them. But I can. I see them, every fifth year on my birthday. And that's why I get sick to my stomach every time my birthday is looming. My wife and kids think it's because I'm getting another year older and so they tease me accordingly. What else can I do but play along? If I tried to explain it to anyone, even my wife, they'd think I was crazy. Raised eyebrows, quick glances, and whispers about my sanity are not the sort of things I need in my life, especially at my birthday party; I'll gladly take the ribbing about getting older instead.

I woke up this morning after a very restless and fragmented night tossing and turning in bed...I refuse to call it "sleep." Even though this happens every five years, the anticipation winds me up as the day approaches and by the time I go to bed the night before, my stomach is in knots and I can feel my heart hammering in my chest as the sweat starts to bead on my forehead.  By the time my wife crawls into bed an hour or two later, I'm calm enough that I can fake sleep until I hear her slip into slumber, at which point I just lay there and stare at the ceiling, turning every now and then as the hours go by. I've never understood why time can go by so slow when you want it to speed up, but when you're dreading what's at the end of your wait, those hours peel away like seconds.  That's life, and that's my birthday eve every five years since I turned seventeen.

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My wife has set the start time for the party for eleven o'clock so that everyone can arrive and mingle a bit before we have lunch. One of the curses of having a birthday in the middle of the winter is that we can't spend any time outside; not only does that mean we can't grill or enjoy the pool, but that means I have nowhere to try and escape to when they show up. My friends, I mean. My dead friends.

If trying to sleep the night before my birthday is always a waking nightmare, the morning hours leading up to my party are just as bad. I'm barely able to eat breakfast and I spend the entire morning putting on a front for my wife and kids, gamely smiling, trying to hide the cold sweat I'm breaking out in, and using some dodgy food from last night's dinner as an excuse to continually disappear into the bathroom to nurse my cramping stomach.  Strangely enough, a sense of calm overcomes me around a half-hour before everyone is due to show up, and by the time the guests start arriving and I'm distracted enough to stop dreading what will eventually happen, I've forgotten all about it; I'm actually having a good time visiting with all of our friends and family.

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It's around one o'clock and I'm standing with a plate of food in one hand, a cold beer in the other, and sharing some laughs with a friend from work when I hear someone call my name behind me from across the room. As I freeze up and my laugh comes to a dead stop halfway through, it's all I can do to not drop my plate as I feel my stomach drop. My blood runs cold and I'm sure I've turned as white as a sheet in front of my buddy since he gives me a quizzical look and asks if I'm alright. I do my best to assure him that I am and that I just remembered I'd left something in the kitchen as a lame attempt to extricate myself from the conversation. I turn slowly around and start to walk toward the stairs when I see them sitting there at the table. All of the food and drink is laid out on the table so no one else is sitting there except for my friends. Dennis, Patrick, Joey, and Nate are sitting there talking and laughing amongst themselves when Denny looks up at me again and calls my name, smiling. I skip a step when I see what they look like this time...I'll get to that later...

"Hey, why are you ignoring us, man?" Denny asks as I make my way slowly over to the table. They're siting on the side of the table against the wall and I'm standing across from them, thank God, so that my back is to the room and everyone else. If I stand still and talk quietly, I'll just look like I'm getting some more food or standing lost in my own thoughts. Please, God, let me get this over with quickly.

"Hello, Denny," I quietly say, almost under my breath.

"Hey, Wes, what's up? Long time no see, you're looking good!"

I often wonder what they make of me as a middle-aged guy at this point (this is my 42nd birthday, after all) while they're still stuck at seventeen forever. Do they even realize?  No, they don't. That's part of what makes this so bizarre every time I see them again. I'm clearly older, a bit heavier, a bit balder, and a bit greyer than the last time they saw me five years ago, never mind the first time I saw them after they died. But they just keep on acting as if I'm the same seventeen year old Wes. It's been twenty-five years for me, but to them it's just like it was in the weeks and days before they ended up dying.

I know all too well why they torment me like this every five years. Maybe torment is too strong a word because all they want is to see me and act like they did when things were great and they were alive. No, they don't come to torment me. They come to remind me.

To remind me that I should have been with them.

To remind me that I should be dead...

...just like them.

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Trust me, I know that I should be dead. Every day when I wake up, when I see my wife and kids, when I go to work and when I come home, after every run or game of pick-up basketball, the first thing I think of is "I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be alive...I should be dead." And it's all because these guys won't leave me alone after all these years. Why won't they? It wasn't my fault! Well, not directly, it wasn't. Here's what happened...

It was our junior year of high school and we were all planning on going to see our favorite band in concert in a few weeks...Pat had gotten the tickets through his older brother Jeff who was going to college in the city and would meet us there with his roommate. We lived a couple of hours from the city and were going to drive in and meet them at a pizza place for a quick bite to eat before heading to the arena for the show. The plan was to then crash on Jeff's dorm room floor and drive back the next morning. Since the concert was on a Wednesday, we'd have to leave school early to make it in time and we'd have to miss classes on Thursday since we'd be driving back. Sounds like no big deal, right?

Not to my parents.

They refused to let me go at first. We had gotten the tickets weeks in advance so I knew I had a bit of time to work on them. They put forth all of the usual arguments, all of them reasonable and all of which I very well may use on my own kids when they're old enough to try and get away with the same thing (although maybe not...I like to think I've learned to be a bit looser than my parents were, within reason). Anyway, a week before the show, after getting pressured by the guys, I finally convinced my mom and dad to let me go. Problem solved, right?

Not so fast. As is often the case, matters of the heart arise at a somewhat inopportune time. A girl I'd been trying to date for months, Maggie, who I'd had a crush on since junior high...she finally noticed me and stopped by my locker to talk after school as I was getting ready to head to baseball practice. Being the bold and cocky teenager I was, I asked her out that weekend and she said yes, she'd love to go out with me, but she was going out of town to her grandparent's house this weekend. She was free Wednesday, though. Would that work, she asked? Of course it worked for me; I'd been wishing for this moment since I was twelve years old, no way in hell was I going to blow this opportunity!  As I watched her walk away, I suddenly realized I had just asked her out for the same night as the concert...how could I have been so dumb? However, I was so thrilled to finally have a date with Maggie that I didn't even hesitate to bail on my friends. This was the girl I'd been secretly in love with for five years, who was not only really pretty but had a great personality and who I wanted to get to know better. Our favorite band would always tour again and come back to the city...I could go see them next time. But a date with Maggie? This could be my only chance!

That night I got home and called Pat's house. He wasn't in, so I tried Denny. Same deal, he was out, as was Nate. Finally, I lucked out (if you want to call it that) and got a hold of Joey. Of the entire group of guys, the one I was least closest to was Joey. That's not to say we didn't get along; we got along just fine and considered each other friends. But there was always a slight bit of tension between us. I always chalked it up to two things: our slightly different personalities as compared to the other three guys, and the fact that he was sort of brought into our group by default since he lived next door to Nate and they'd known each other since they were babies. Of all the guys to break the news to, Joey was alternately the one it would be easiest to (because we weren't as close) and the most difficult (because we weren't close).

His mom put the receiver down and yelled for him. I could hear him shuffle over to where the phone was and pick it up.

"Hey, Wes, what's up?"

"Hey, Joe," I said, figuring if I just came right out with it instead of beating around the bush, it would be easier. Joey and I never had too much to talk about unless we were in the larger group with the other three. "I'm not going to be able to make the concert this week."

"What? Why not?" he asked, sounding irritated.

"Well, you'll never believe who finally agreed to go out with me Wednesday night?"

"A girl? You're ditching us over a stupid girl? Dude, we've been looking forward to this fucking concert for months!" He was almost shouting at me at this point

"Yeah, Joey, I know but Maggie Harris said that was the only night she was free and I can't pass up that opportunity."

There was a bit of a pause before he spoke again. "Man, I understand that but you've been after her since seventh grade...what's another week?"

"Joe, she came up to me to talk...I think she's finally noticed that I like her. Hell, maybe she likes me. I gotta take this chance when I can, maybe I'll never get another."

"Wes, we're seventeen, it's not like you're gonna marry her or whatever. Just push it back a week and let's go to the show. If she won't wait, then she's not worth it anyway. There will be other girls"

I don't know what about that made my blood instantly boil...maybe it's when he said there would be other girls. I know it's probably something that every teenager hears and thinks the opposite, but I really did think Maggie was special and didn't want to lose my chance.

"Sorry, man, my mind is made up. I'll catch them next time they tour. Give my ticket to someone else...I already paid for it so do whatever you want."

"Whatever, dude...you'll regret it. The other guys are gonna be pissed." I heard him chuckle under his breath and mutter "..for a fuckin' girl?" That sealed the deal for me.

"Hey, Joe, one last thing?"

"Yeah, what?" he said snidely.

"FUCK YOU!" I shouted it with as much bile and venom as I could muster and slammed the phone down. In that initial adrenaline rush of defiance, I felt great, especially since Joey was the one guy in the group who I didn't particularly care for either way. Sure, we'd known each other for several years but like I said, there was always a bit of a disconnect between us and if I could still stay close with Nate, Pat, and Denny, I didn't care. I didn't even bother to call the other guys up...Joe would call Nate as soon as he could since they were so tight and the word would get to Pat and Denny right after. I didn't even think about it...all I could focus on was getting to tomorrow night as fast as I could so I could finally go out with Maggie.

I didn't get a single phone call the rest of the night and it didn't bother me in the least. I'm sure all of the guys were pissed off with me. Go ahead and let them be angry, they could tear me apart all the way into the city on their way to the show...they had a good two hour drive to do it! I knew that the three of them that I actually cared about would forgive me because we were so close. This would blow over, I'd catch the band the next time with them, and I'd get to have my date with Maggie. Whether it went well or not, at least I had my chance and took it.

When I got to my lunch period the next day, the guys had already been dismissed early and were on their way to the city; I'd succeeded in avoiding them all morning. Whatever. I didn't care. I spent the last few hours of school daydreaming about Maggie and I spent baseball practice trying not to get hit in the head during batting practice because my mind was not on hitting fastballs. After getting home from practice, I took a shower, got dressed, and drove over to her house to pick her up at 7pm like we'd agreed. I met her parents, who were very nice, and Maggie came downstairs ready to leave. She was wearing jeans and a sweater, nothing too fancy, but I thought she was just the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, with long red hair and a smile that lit up the room. We said goodbye to her parents and walked down the path to the driveway, and when she grabbed my hand after we heard the door close, I just about died and went to heaven. We got in the car and commenced with our date. It wasn't anything fancy, just a bite to eat at the local pizza place and a lot of talking. I was supposed to have her home by 10pm (this was a school night, after all).  We got to her house at 10 and she popped her head in the door to let her folks know she was home. Then we stood out on the porch talking for another hour before I realized I was going to be in deep trouble when I got home. We even had our first kiss that night before she went inside. Despite my best efforts at sneaking in the house, my mom heard me come in and she and my dad promptly grounded me for the weekend. I didn't give a damn, though...I was flying so high after that date and she had agreed to see me again the following weekend. I gladly took the grounding and I didn't give a second thought to the concert I was missing at that very moment.

And that asshole Joey was wrong; there wouldn't be another girl. Maggie and I have been married for twenty years at this point. If iPhones had existed back when we were in high school, I would've called him right then and there and told him to go fuck himself.

In any event, my wonderful night took a hairpin turn for the worse because after my parents grounded me, my mom told me that Patrick's older brother Jeff had been trying to get a hold of me all night while I was out. He'd left the number of the pay phone in the arena lobby, as well as the number for his dorm room, and told my mom to have me call him no matter what time I got home.  I started dialing the arena pay phone and got no answer. I called his dorm room and woke his roommate (it was close to midnight by now) who told me he was still out. I kept calling the number at the arena, not wanting to wake his roommate again, when finally there was an answer at about 12:30am.

"Wes?" a frantic voice asked as soon as he picked up. I could recognize it as Jeff but he sounded pinched and worried.

"Yeah, Jeff, what's up? How was the show?"

"I don't know, man, I barely saw any of it. My buddies were in there but I spent the entire show either in front of this phone or checking the front of the arena. Where the fuck are Pat and the guys?"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing...was this a joke?

"What do you mean? I don't know! Last time I talked to them was yesterday at school...they didn't show up?"

"No, they didn't. They were supposed to be here by three/three-thirty but they never showed. My mom is a fucking wreck and Nate, Joe, and Denny's parents don't know what's going on either. My dad has spent the entire afternoon and evening driving back and forth between home and the city trying to find them. Man, this is bad."

I felt like I'd just gotten kicked in the balls and I couldn't speak. I had to remind myself to breathe at one point because the whole world felt like it was spinning. Faintly, I heard Jeff call out, "Wes! You there, bro? Fuckin' A, answer me!"

I'd dropped the phone in my moment of disbelief. I picked it up and whisper-croaked "yeah, still here."

"My dad called the police a few hours ago so they're looking for them. I gotta go now and get back to campus but if you hear anything, anything from them, call me right away. I don't give a fuck what time of day or night, CALL ME. I'm gonna skip my classes tomorrow and camp out by my phone so call my room if you hear anything. I'll do the same for you if I hear something. Alright?"

"Yeah, you bet. Christ, where are they?" I almost wailed into the phone.

"I wish I knew, bud, I wish I knew. Anyway, talk to you tomorrow. Later." Click.

"Yeah, bye," I said into the phone belatedly. I'd heard him hang up already but my mind was working in slow motion. I just stood there like a statue for what seemed like all night. I hadn't even heard my mom come into my room when she quietly asked me, "Wes? Everything okay?"

"Sure, Mom, everything's fine..." but I turned to look at her and I could see on her face that she wasn't buying it. I took a deep sigh and sagged onto the side of my bed. "No, it's not. The guys never made it into the city for the concert. No one knows where they are. That was Jeff, he's worried sick and so are their parents."

"Oh, God..." my mom trailed off.  "Denny's mom and Nate's dad both called after you went out on your date, but neither of them said anything. They just asked if I'd heard from the boys and I said no. Before he hung up, Nate's dad asked me if I knew where you were, and when I told him you were out on your date, he asked me to have you call him in the morning. Then he hung up. I had no idea what was going on..."

She sat down on my bed next to me and wrapped me in her arms the way only a mother can and comforted me as best she could. Eventually, she left and I laid down and tried to get some sleep but the best I could do was toss and turn and doze in small spurts...sort of how I slept last night before my birthday, as a matter of fact. I ended up getting out of bed around 5:30am because I figured it wasn't worth laying in bed not sleeping any longer. The first thing I did when I got into the bathroom was turn the radio on the listen to the news while I was showering and getting dressed, to hear if there was any information on the guys. Maybe the cops found them? Maybe they had decided to goof off in the city last night instead of going to the concert and had lost their way? Boy, were their parents going to be pissed off with them when they got back home! I was trying to think of any and every possible reason for them to be missing that could end happily.

There was nothing about them on the news...they hadn't been missing long enough yet for the police to really be concerned; you needed to be gone twenty-four hours before the alerts went out...at least that's the way it was back in those days. I got on with my morning and drove myself to school early. I was pretty down all the way there but instantly perked up when Maggie called my name and ran up to me at my locker and hugged me, right there in front of everybody. She took my hand again and we walked down the hall towards our first period class (we both had English). On the way there, just being with her and talking to her improved my mood and caused me to forget about wondering where my friends were. I made it through the morning in one piece and couldn't wait to get to the cafeteria for lunch to see Maggie again...after English, she and I didn't have another class together until history in the afternoon. I found her sitting at a table with her friends and sat down next to her. We were talking and laughing when I noticed little by little, everyone at all of the tables around us started murmuring quietly and glancing over at us. Finally, some kid I barely knew, I think his name was Brian something-or-other, came up to me and said "hey Wes, sorry about what happened to your friends." He looked down at his shoes when he said it and shuffled away before I could ask him what he meant. Just then, I heard my name over the loudspeaker, asking me to please go to the principal's office. I knew I wasn't in trouble...I was a good kid in school and never crossed any of the teachers, so I knew it had to be something else. As I stood up and started walking down the aisle, the entire room got awkwardly silent and I felt like I was on stage as every pair of eyes traced my path out to the hallway. I was about halfway down the hall when I heard Maggie yell my name.

"Wes! Wait up!" she called as she ran up to me.

"What are you doing?" I asked her.

"I'm coming with you," she said. I couldn't believe that we'd been in school together for years but only really connected on a personal level the night before, yet she was coming with me for support. It's one of the many reasons I love her as much now as I did all those years ago. This time, I took her hand and we walked to Mr. Switzer's office. I knocked on the door and went in while Maggie waited in one of the chairs in the reception area. When I came out of his office not more than five minutes later, she must have seen the look on my face because she sprang out of her chair and caught me as I fell into mine. I just sat there sobbing into her shoulder for a good ten minutes while she tried to soothe me. Eventually, I was able to gather myself and make my way to my locker. Switzer gave me the rest of the afternoon off and told me to go home. Maggie came with me and drove me in my car to my house and insisted on coming in. Normally, having her over while both of my parents were at work for several more hours would have been a dream come true...but I was so upset that all we did was watch sitcom reruns on TV while I laid on the couch with my head in her lap and her arm around me. My parents found us like that when they got home at eight and didn't say a word except to thank Maggie for staying with me and telling me they were so sorry. My mom drove Maggie back to the school to pick up her car and my dad sat down to talk with me.

I'm sure you've guessed by now why I was so upset. They eventually did find the guys. They were dead. All four of them. Worse still was how they died and how the police found them.  My friends went to the city to attend a concert and they ended up dead.

And I was supposed to have been there with them.

Call it survivor's guilt from a distance, but I felt sick to my stomach when I heard the news report after they recovered the bodies, and I mean that literally. I spent an hour in the bathroom hunched over the toilet throwing up my insides and crying uncontrollably.

They had been driving in Pat's car, with Nate next to him in the front and Denny and Joey in the back. The car was found at the bottom of the river; they'd driven off of the bridge on the outskirts of the city, right after the toll booth. Nate had a single bullet hole in his forehead. Half of Joey's head had been blown off. Pat and Denny were alive when they hit the water and drowned trapped inside the car. The medical examiner had figured that out by all of the water in their lungs, as well as their bloody hands and knuckles where they'd tried to break through the windows and claw their way out of the car. The worst part was when they fished the car out of the river...since they'd all been sitting in there for a day and a half when they found them, they were all white and bloated.

In the days that followed, the police pieced together what had happened based on witness accounts and circumstantial evidence. The guys had been driving toward the city, and in order to get into downtown from the direction they were coming from, you've got to go through a really rough part of town. This is well known to anyone from our town who likes to go there; usually you just keep your doors locked, look straight ahead, don't call attention to yourself, and drive on through. Apparently, when the guys were stopped at a red light, some gang members came up to the car and started talking to them through the closed windows. When the guys wouldn't roll down the windows or open the doors, then it got ugly. The gangbangers yelled at them to open up and get out of the car, and witnesses said that the kid riding shotgun (how ironic...) mouthed off to them. Joey. Of course it would be that stupid fuck Joey...he pissed them off real good and they ended up smashing in the windows with the butts of their guns. Before Pat could drive off, one of them put a bullet in Nate's forehead and the other one blew half of Joey's away with a sawed-off shotgun. At that point Pat gunned the engine and in his panic, looked back to see if they were being followed...big mistake. He didn't face front to see the sharp curve up toward the bridge until it was too late and they went straight through the guard rail and into the river.  At least Nate and Joey were dead at that point...Pat and Denny were very much alive and frightened when they plummeted into the river and sank to the bottom, and they were aware of what was happening the entire time the car filled with water and they drowned.  I can't even imagine what must have been going through their minds as they struggled, trapped in that metal tomb on wheels with one of their friends next to them who was dead and chunks of the other one's head all over them. If you ask me, Nate and Joey got off easy...at least they didn't suffer for minutes on end the way the other two did. They never caught the guys who shot my friends and no one in that neighborhood was willing to talk...you know, that whole "stop snitching" code the gangs go by. The cops couldn't do anything more and that was the end of it. Just four kids from the suburbs who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And one who wasn't.

The next few weeks passed by in a blur...I went to the wakes, to the funerals, and I was numb. It's as though I sleepwalked through those days, and the only people that kept me sane and functioning through all of that were my parents and Maggie. I was excused from school for a few weeks to grieve and spend some time with a psychologist to get over my guilt. Just as I was feeling better about it all when I went back to school, the questions started coming at me.

"Hey, Wes, good thing you weren't with them, huh?"
"Weren't you supposed to be with the guys that day? Lucky for you you weren't!"
"Do you ever stop to think that you'd be dead if you had gone?"
"What made you stay home instead of going with them?"
"You're parents must be glad you're not dead, right?"
"I bet Maggie is glad you went out with her instead of getting killed that night, y'know?"

And on it went. I ended up at home for the rest of the school year. My teachers sent my lessons and homework with Maggie, who brought it to me at home every afternoon and stayed with me hanging out and studying because I just couldn't bear to be alone for weeks after. I wasn't sleeping and I stayed inside with the lights off and the shades down all day, no matter how nice it was outside. My coaches let me off the team for the rest of the season and I was pretty much a hermit in my own house until my senior year started up in September. The only people I saw all that summer were my parents and Maggie. Senior year was alright, though, as I started to get back to normal and the kids at school moved on to other things and pretty much forgot all about Wes, "the lucky kid who didn't die because he bailed on his friends that night." I was able to sleep normally by then, and the next few years were actually pretty great. I played baseball that spring, Maggie and I kept our relationship going and we ended up going to the same university after graduation, where we continued to date before getting engaged during our senior year.  It's a good thing I had her then, because that last year of college is when I turned 22 and when my friends made their first visit to me since their death. I was trapped in my small single dorm room when they came to hang out and if I told you I was terrified, it would be an understatement. I'm not ashamed to admit that I wet myself the second I heard their voices in my room; it was 5:30am on my birthday and I was still sleeping when it happened. I thought I was going mad and was about to throw myself out of the window to get away from them when my RA pounded on the door to see if I was alright. My screaming alarmed him, he said. I assured him I was okay, just feeling ill. It was all I could do to hold it together there in the doorway in front of him, not least of which because he looked all around my room and didn't notice the guys even though they were standing right there behind me, chatting away amongst themselves.

I learned that day that I'm the only one who can see and hear them.

After my RA left, I turned around and they were gone. Thank God. Unfortunately, that was the only time they visited where they left that quickly...in later visits, they stuck around for random lengths of time. I didn't tell Maggie anything about it when she came over. She skipped all of her classes to nurse me back to health when she heard through mutual friends that I "cracked up." She guessed easily enough that it had to do with my friends, but no way in hell was I going to tell her that they came to see me that morning.  She knew all about my guilt, but I was never going to make her feel guilty about being the reason why I ditched them that night (even though she knew I was supposed to go with them). But more than that, I was embarrassed to admit what had happened. I'd already seen a shrink and I just wanted to move on from it all. Call it stubbornness or whatever you'd like, but I'm a man and we're supposed to keep all of this stuff inside. I didn't want to burden anyone else with this sort of stuff and I certainly wasn't going to be a drain on Maggie, my friends, or my parents with all of this.

Anyway, Maggie and I got married after we graduated college, got jobs, bought a house, had kids, the usual stuff. And every five years, on my birthday, the guys came to visit me. I never knew what time of day it would be: early in the morning, during the day, late at night...they came whenever they wanted. The only thing is, each time they might stay for a long time or not, and...

...the worst part...

...every time I saw them, they'd have degenerated a little bit more, for lack of a better word. What I mean is, they started to take on the injuries that killed them, little by little, with each successive visit.

The first time I saw them after they died, they looked normal, just like on the day I last saw them. The next time, a little bit of Joey's head was missing, Nate had a dark red spot on his forehead, and Denny and Pat looked a little bloated. It went on like this each time...I don't want to get into details; I'm sure you can use your imagination to figure out what they must look like today, on their fifth visit to me since their deaths.

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Speaking of today...so here I am, staring at the guys at the table across from me. Nate has a gaping hole in his forehead, ragged and raw around the edges, a black plug in the middle, weeping blood and bits of fluid down his face. His skin is white and puffy and his eyes are permanently rolled back a little more each time...right now, I'd say it's about 50%. Imagine hacking away half of a watermelon with a claw hammer...that's what Joey's head looks like. The half that's still there is white and doughy, his eye on his good side (hah!) is glazed over and translucent and his other eye is hanging out of what remains of the socket. Pat and Denny looks about the same, bloated with white, saggy skin that's starting to slough off in spots. Their eyes are opaque and blueish and really watery...they look like they're going to burst at any second. Their hair is stringy and hangs down in clumps over their foreheads. All four of them have wrinkly, bluish/white puffy skin, yellowing fingernails and a briny stink to them. Denny burps and a small fish comes out of his mouth, lands on the table, and starts flapping around as we all look at it and they start to laugh. Even I do, quietly...even though everything I've explained to you sounds awful, and it is, I'm used to it by this point. It doesn't mean I look forward to it, but it doesn't shock me the way it used to, especially since it's happened enough times that I know what to expect. I'm hoping that I stifled my laugh enough so that no one will notice.

"Man, aren't you glad you didn't come with us to the concert?" Nate asks me.

"Yeah, I guess I am...as always, I'm really sorry about what happened, guys..." I trail off. I've made this apology several times by this point but it's still not easy.

"It's alright, Wes, we understand," Pat chimes in, his voice burbling, sounding choked and a bit faint. "I wish we hadn't gone, too, just like you."

Joey makes some guttural, squelching noises and nods in assent...it's pretty hard for him to say anything coherent with a third of his head missing, but I nod and smile and say "thanks, Joey. No hard feelings, right?" He nods and makes what appears to be a smile on the half of his mouth that's still there and I give him a little wink.

"So how did it go with Maggie?" Denny asks, sounding muffled like he's talking through a mouthful of cotton while underwater. "She's so pretty and nice, did you have a good time?"

"We did...remember what I told you last time? We're married."

They all laugh at me, even Joey, as Denny says "Ah, man, stop shitting us, you're too young to be married! Seriously, how'd it go?"

I forget that, to them, I'm still seventeen. I sigh and give a little smile.

"It went great, guys...I think she's gonna see me again."

"Hey, that's great!" Pat says. "Hope you're having a great birthday so far?" he asks.

I give another one of those wistful smiles and look down toward the floor a little..."the best, guys. I'm glad you could make it." I muster a weak smile and lift my head up so I'm looking at them all again.

Nate answers me: "We wouldn't miss it for the world. Even being dead can't keep us from seeing you on your big day!"  They all laugh and start slapping each other on the back. They know...at least they know they're dead and that I'm not.  I'm alive.

Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and an arm slide under mine. I turn my head slightly and see that it's Maggie. She says quietly into my ear, "everything okay, honey?"

I turn to look at her in the eye and smile. "Yeah, everything's fine."

"I saw you standing there on your own...lost in your thoughts? You always seem a million miles away on your birthday...well, certain ones..."

It's as if I've been jolted awake...what does she mean? Does she know?

"Yeah, you know, getting older and all that!" I lamely try to inject some humor into it.

Looking me square in the eye, she just grins and lets go of my arm. "Say hi to them for me. I'll be in the kitchen with your mom and mine when you're done." I'm too stunned to say anything and I stand there like a fool, with my mouth open as she gives me a kiss on the cheek and turns to walk across the room into the kitchen.

She knows.  She figured it out.

I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my chest and like I can breathe again. All of a sudden I start smiling and laughing to myself, one of those silent laughs that makes your abdominal muscles hurt after a while.

"Nice one, Wes! She's a keeper!" the guys all hoot and holler as I turn back to them.

"Yes...yes, she is." I say. "Guys, I need to go into the kitchen for a minute...be right back, okay?"

"Sure thing, Wes!" Pat says.

I turn on my heel and walk toward the kitchen with a spring in my step. I've got my appetite back, I feel liberated, and I'm excited that this year, I can actually have a good time at my own birthday party.

"See you later!" I hear them call from behind me just as I'm about to go through the door into the kitchen.

"You, too!" I start to say as I turn around, but when I look at the table, there's no one there. They're gone. I scan the room quickly, but they're not here any more. If I'm being honest, I'm only a little relieved...but I'm actually pretty sad. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. For the first time after one of their visits, I don't feel guilty. I feel alive. More than that, I feel glad to be alive, as if I deserve it. I finally know that I do deserve to be living. I made a choice that night that saved my life and led to all that I have now.

I turn to go into the kitchen and, with a little grin, quietly say one last thing to them, wherever they are right now...

"See you in five years."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Finally Laid to Rest? The End of Blur...






In a recent article (diatribe?) I posted on here in January, I went off on one of my all-time favorite bands, Blur, and how they've done some damage (to whatever extent, I allow each individual fan to make up their mind) to their legacy with their endless reunion/Greatest Hits touring since their initially exciting reformation in 2009. I won't bore with the details of that original article...you can read it for yourself.

However, you'll recall from that piece that I referred to them cancelling their mini-tour of Australia and the mystery and misinformation that surrounded the ordeal. The festival organizers claimed Blur backed out of the gigs after being upset that they wouldn't be headlining the entire thing, and that the band did not return any of the money that had already been paid to them. I and many others online and in print criticized the band and their (increasingly inept) management for not responding to these allegations and telling their side of the story.  This was was not only puzzling and ineffective from a PR standpoint, but made it look more and more that subsequent insinuations and allegations by the festival promoters, which continued to pour forth, were rooted in the truth. In short, it made the band look bad, even amongst their most hardcore and longtime fans; it was hard for any of us to defend them.

Well, finally a week ago, Damon Albarn, who is busy preparing for the release of his first true solo album, Everyday Robots, in April, spoke up about the matter to a New Zealand newspaper. HERE is the link to the article, but a couple of lines stand out (I will direct you to read the article at the link before proceeding with what I'm about to say).

(emphasis added by me)


"Okay, here it is - this is as frank as I'm prepared to be about what happened," he says.

"That was going to be the last Blur show - the end of playing together - and I didn't want it to finish on anything other than a very positive note, because Blur is incredibly precious to all of us.

"But I was genuinely concerned that the whole [Big Day Out] thing wouldn't be quite as spiritually conclusive as we hoped it would be, because we weren't sure if the organisation was quite right, or supportive of our ambitions," he continues, cryptically. 

"They [the organisers] weren't being straight with me about things, which they needed to be, and at that point I became disillusioned because I didn't want what we'd done throughout the year, with Blur, to be undermined or tarnished in any way, by a show that wasn't going to be what we wanted to do.

"We'd been playing for six months solidly, around the world, so I knew that we would deliver a fantastic show, a great performance and a communal event, which everyone would have enjoyed," adds Albarn. "All I asked was that the organisation recognised that and I didn't feel they did. So, that's why, unfortunately, we couldn't come.

"I am truly, terribly sorry to everyone that we let down, but we just didn't want to be anything other than what I felt we deserved to be - our best. If we'd played - and not been that - it would have let people down even more," he says.

"Don't anyone forget that I had an absolutely brilliant time with Gorillaz only two years earlier in that part of the world - it was a fantastic experience - and I fully intend to come back and play there again, if I'm allowed. Until then, I understand I have to wait."


The first thing that is striking is when he says that "that was going to be the last Blur show...the end of playing together." Now, Damon and the rest of his bandmates are famous (infamous?) for making grand pronouncements on whether or not they'll continue, only to change their minds or contradict themselves right after.  However, this seems pretty definitive and based on what a lot of fans (myself included) have thought about this past year's tour, short a brand new album and tour to support it, it seemed to be the only logical conclusion.

The other bit, though, irks me a bit. It basically comes off as Damon saying "we wanted to do it the way we wanted to do it, regardless of what we'd agreed to, but they didn't let us, so we backed out."  Whether or not that's exactly what he meant, that's absolutely how it comes across and I think it again makes them look pretty bad in this situation. As a longtime and passionate fan of the band, this doesn't make me happy in the least.

However, if this is indeed the final word that the band is over, I'm glad because if we're not going to get any new music, I'd hate to see them continue to cheapen the incredible body of work they've already made by becoming even more of a nostalgia act than they've already become over the last few years.

What do you think? Agree/disagree with my analysis?  Let's talk in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour #53

All shows from the legendary Fillmore East in NYC...what an era of music and what a fantastic venue. Look at all of the bands that passed through there!

Derek and the Dominos - Fillmore East, NYC 10/23/70 (early show)
Derek and the Dominos - Fillmore East, NYC 10/23/70 (late show)
Derek and the Dominos - Fillmore East, NYC 10/24/70 
Traffic - Fillmore East, NYC 11/18/70
Jimi Hendrix - Fillmore East, NYC 12/31/69 (early show)
Jimi Hendrix - Fillmore East, NYC 12/31/69 (late show)
The Allman Brothers Band - Fillmore East, NYC 2/11/70
The Allman Brothers Band - Fillmore East, NYC 2/14/70 

Opening up this batch are the three shows Derek and the Dominos played at the Fillmore East on their one and only US tour in 1970. These shows were Clapton's peak and the last great thing he's done in his career (in my opinion)...the fire, intensity, and passion evident in his playing is staggering and his vocal interactions with Bobby Whitlock are wonderful. As great as Cream and Blind Faith were, this was the best band Clapton was ever a part of and it's a damn shame they broke up a year later. I have audience and soundboard sources for all of these shows and it's really neat to hear the different in atmosphere in the audience tapes after having heard the soundboard sources for so many years. Next up is a great set from Traffic in 1970, back to a quartet and supporting their classic John Barleycorn Must Die LP. Of particular note is the great band interplay and the showcase of Steve Winwood's talents not only singing and on organ, but his guitar playing. As a companion to entry #52 with the 1970 New Year's Day shows, here we have Hendrix' Band of Gypsys shows from New Years Eve 1969 (the night before). While the first show is a bit timid and experimental, the second show is more relaxed and they really let loose! Wrapping up this batch are two incredible shows from the Allman Brothers Band in early 1970 when they were supporting the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East. The passion and intensity with which the ABB played comes pouring out of the speakers and it's amazing to think that they were still an opening act at this time, although that wouldn't last much longer.




Monday, March 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87

The updated edition that is the subject of this review
In reviewing recent new books on The Smiths, including Morrissey's autobiography and Tony Fletcher's excellent new band biography, a better picture of the personalities behind the music and the beginning-to-end story of the band has emerged.  In musical terms, the Smiths were the Beatles of the 1980s and the body of work they left behind is staggering in its quality and still stands the test of time. The Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership produced, for the most part, a flawless catalog of songs that still resonate with fans and critics alike. For a band this important that is held so dearly to so many fans' hearts, it's only natural that a book offering an in-depth look at the music itself should be written, and in Simon Goddard's Songs That Saved Your Life, that's exactly what we've gotten.

***special thanks to Katharine at Titan Books for sending me a copy of this book to review!***




The edition of the book that I'm reviewing here is the newly updated second edition, pictured at the top of this post.  I also have a copy of the first edition of the book, which I'd bought many years ago when it first came out. While I will be focusing the review solely on the new version, I will make some references to the original for comparison purposes.

The original edition 
Taking his inspiration from Ian MacDonald's seminal book Revolution in the Head (which he acknowledges at the end of the book), Goddard has set out to write a scholarly song-by-song analysis of the Smiths' music and place it within the context of its time. The layout of this new edition is markedly different from the original and is a major improvement: whereas the first edition had a synopsis of each song followed by a blurb describing any live, radio, or television appearances it may have had, this newer version is much cleaner and easier to read. Each song is described with its recording date, release date (and format), and a more detailed synopsis. The performance discussions are saved for one of the multiple appendices (more on these later), greatly decluttering the main part of the book and making it more readable front-to-back. Enhancing the book and making it more than just a song catalog, interspersed throughout are paragraphs describing what was going on at that moment in Smiths history. Thus, the entire career arc of the band is described in parallel with the song analyses. 

One area in which this book is greatly improved upon over its preceding edition is with the input of Johnny Marr himself. There is a lot of new insight and information offered throughout thanks to Marr's memories and his setting the record straight. Because of this (as well as Goddard's own running commentary on the Smiths' career), the book really does a great job telling the story of the band through their music and gives a different perspective on their all-too-brief lifespan than a more traditional band biography.

The book begins with what I think is the only poor thing about it, which is an introduction that attempts some humor by detailing the original meeting between Morrissey and Marr and the formation of the band as a rewrite of It's a Wonderful Life, presented as a mock screenplay complete with guardian angels commentary. While innocuous enough, it comes across as unfunny and unnecessary; I can see what the author was trying to do with this, but in my opinion it falls completely flat and gets annoying fast. Luckily, it's not too long and is the only blemish on an otherwise fantastic book. The meat of the book is truly enjoyable to go through and reading about the writing, recording, and release of each of the songs brings them to life and offers new perspectives, even if one has heard them all countless times before (as I have). The addition of Johnny Marr's insights and memories is a massive addition over the previous edition and those alone make the book worth buying even if you already have the first one...but it's not the only reason to get this edition.

After the main part of the book, there are several appendices that are all informative and valuable in their own right. One deals with every Smiths song, whether it was performed live, and where and when the first and last performances of it were. Another describes each single and album release, complete with chart placement, cover art information, catalog number, run-off groove message (The Smiths were famous for these), and any important notes pertaining to the release. The final two appendices each chronicle the Smiths' performances on BBC radio and UK television. While the entire book is a treat for any fan of their music, these appendices are absolutely essential for anyone who is interested in collecting the band's music, whether on vinyl, CD, or bootleg live recordings.

There are a few shortcoming in this book when compared to its previous edition, and any real fan of the Smiths should own a copy of both. First, the complete lack of photographs in this new edition is rather puzzling; there was a section of some very nice photos in the first edition and while I can understand perhaps not including any band photographs in this new version, the complete lack of any images is puzzling, especially given how much the author hammers home the point that the band took the utmost care in the visual presentation of their music (ie single and album covers) almost as much as the sonic. Second, while the author does a great job telling the story of the band, including an excellent epilogue where a bit more light is shed on their 1987 split, that introduction is really quite bad...the fact that it rankled me enough that it's stuck in my mind and forced me to mention it for a second time in this review should tell you all you need to know. I applaud Goddard for trying something new with that, but I would hope that if there is ever a subsequent edition of this book that this introduction will be the first thing to be excised.

When comparing the new edition of Songs That Saved Your Life with the first, it is obvious when reading both that the entries for the individual songs are almost completely different (although many effective passages common between the two will be quickly recognized by anyone who has read both editions). The amount of additional information and the vastly improved layout of the new edition, not to mention the invaluable input of Johnny Marr, make this book essential for any fans of the Smiths. While any and every Smiths apostle must have copies of the two great band biographies (Fletcher's aforementioned book as well as Johnny Rogan's), if you're a real fan of the artistry and music of the Smiths, Songs That Saved Your Life is a must-have.

MY RATING: 9/10

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour #52

Getting into the heart of the "F's" and the beginning of a whole lot of Fillmore shows...

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead - Festival Thyme
The Byrds - Fifth Dimension
Sugar - File Under: Easy Listening
The Allman Brothers Band - The Fillmore Concerts
Frank Zappa - Fillmore East, June 1971
Jimi Hendrix - Fillmore East, NYC 1/1/70 (early show)
Jimi Hendrix - Fillmore East, NYC 1/1/70 (late show)
The Who - Fillmore East, NYC 10/22/69

 Trail of Dead's Festival Thyme EP, which preceded their Century of Self album, is a mini-album in its own right and has alternate versions of some album tracks as well as a couple of EP-only tunes and is worth having for any fan of the band. The Byrd's third album is patchy and uneven since it was the first since principal songwriter Gene Clark had left the band, but it contains some bonafide classics like "Eight Miles High" and "Why?" The final album from Bob Mould's post-Husker Du band, Sugar, is a solid if unspectacular album that has a couple of real gems on it ("Gee Angel" and "Can't Help You Any More"). Starting in on a whole slew of shows at Fillmores East and West, an expanded and revised edition of the legendary At Fillmore East album from the ABB, The Fillmore Concerts, has a few different mixes and versions of songs and is as much of a joy to listen to as the original album. Zappa's '71 live album is the peak of his "Flo and Eddie" line-up and has the famous "Groupie Routine" in the middle, as well as the true-story of the "Mudshark Saga"...it was at this show that John and Yoko jammed onstage with the Mothers (released as the Live Jam half of their Sometime in NYC LP). The final two shows from Hendrix's New Years Eve 1969/70 Band of Gypsys concerts are next and are really great...even though this band of his only played these four concerts (and an aborted show a few weeks later), these are some of his finest moments onstage and show a more relaxed and confident band than even the night before. Finally, a storming Who concert from late 1969 has them ripping through their stage act, including Tommy in the middle of their set...you can feel the energy pouring out of the speakers anytime you listen to the Who ca. 1968-73 and this is no exception.

Be prepared because the next entry or two will contain almost exclusively more Fillmore shows from the best era of rock.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Gregg Allman: My Cross to Bear


Having recently reviewed the new Allman Brothers Band biography and the definitive Duane Allman biography, it's only natural that I should round out looking behind the scenes of the band by reviewing Gregg Allman's memoir. Along with older brother Duane, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, Berry Oakley, and Dickey Betts, Gregg was a founding member of the ABB in 1969, the only lead singer (apart from several songs written by Betts or Warren Haynes) the band has ever had, and has written the majority of the band's original material from the very beginning. Celebrating his 45th year with the band (currently on their final tour) in 2014, Gregg has led an interesting life full of ups and downs, and his story and experiences are the focal point for his book, My Cross to Bear.

***special thanks to Emily and Sharyn at Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

As Gregg puts it early on in the book, even though Duane was only a year older than him, it seemed like so much more because of how worldly the elder Allman brother was. From their births, they were attached at the hip and did everything together...I won't go into the story of their childhood (I've already gone over that in my review of Duane's biography, which also covered it in detail), but the experience of their father dying when they were so young and being raised by their mother made them even closer than perhaps brothers would normally be. While they certainly had their arguments and shenanigans like any other siblings (Duane even tried to hang Gregg from a tree once!), it is clear throughout the book that there is nothing but real affection and love that Gregg has toward his late brother. Some of the stories he tells about Duane are laugh-out-loud funny, and Gregg covers their childhood, their experiences being sent to a military academy (not once, but twice!), and their eventual move with their mother to Daytona, Florida, where they formed their first bands and began their joint musical adventures in a very engaging way. With candid self-awareness, Gregg explains how he has always been shier, more insecure, and more introverted than Duane, who was a natural leader just brimming with confidence and belief in himself and others. This is a dynamic that would continue throughout the ABB's career and would grow more pronounced (and problematic) after Duane's death.

Whereas the aforementioned books on Duane and the ABB deal with the stories of the man and the man (as does Gregg's book), in My Cross to Bear, Gregg gives a more personal and intimate account of events, not just describing what happened, but how he felt and his reactions to events. There are also numerous anecdotes, many of them quite funny, especially given Gregg's writing style. He holds nothing back, both in terms of his language as well as the content, and his honesty can be quite shocking in certain instances.  The passages dealing with his drug and alcohol use, his marriages, and the many women he bedded over the years are oftentimes uncomfortable to read, but his honesty is refreshing, as is his ability to admit his failings and put a positive spin on the fact that he's been able to change many of these destructive behaviors over the years. His anger and frustration at their pre-ABB experiences in the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass also show that he was keenly aware of how necessary those trials and tribulations were to developing his talent at singing and songwriting, which would later come to fruition with the band his brother put together in March 1969.

One of the most heartbreaking sections of this book is, understandably, the one that deals with Duane's death and Gregg's reaction to it. His description of their last ever conversation, where Duane asks Gregg if he took some of his cocaine while he (Duane) was sleeping, and Gregg denies it (when, in fact he had) is quite sad. It's especially poignant when Gregg states, quite simply, that the last words he ever said to his brother were a lie, while Duane's final words before hanging up the phone were "I sure do love ya, baybrah!" ("baybrah" was the way Duane affectionately drawled "baby bro" and was his name for Gregg). The subsequent description of how Gregg learned of Duane's accident, the scene at the hospital after he rushed there, and the ensuing funeral and emotional aftermath are very touching; this was a man who dearly loved his brother and felt lost, confused, angry, sad, and devastated over his loss.

After Duane's death and the death of Berry Oakley a year later (where Gregg gives a sad but fitting account of Berry's final year: "I don't think he wanted to die, but I don't think he wanted to live, either"), the ABB ironically became the biggest band in the country by the end of 1973. However, the slow disintegration of the band due to drugs, money, and Gregg's relocation to Los Angeles due to his blossoming relationship with Cher broke the band up in 1976. From here, he describes the various reformations and break-ups of the ABB until their final line-up was settled on in 2000, which endures to the present day. He is also very forthcoming and candid about his struggles with drug and alcohol addictions, not shying away from describing his lowest moments and his embarrassment at certain situations. However, it is nice to read about the eventual conquering of his demons and his sobriety over the last twenty years, especially because he readily admits that he had wanted to get clean as far back as the early 1970s but simply didn't have the willpower and emotional support to do so until he finally hit rock bottom in the mid-1990s. The final part of the book discused Gregg's reflection on his brush with death due to hepatitis C, his recovery, and his newly discovered faith in God and showed that he is at peace with himself, his family, and his life and was very heartwarming to read.

If I have one small complaint with the book, it's only that it seems to skip over quite large periods of his life. While I completely understand (and enjoy) the fact that this is not a book about the ABB, but rather about his life (most of which happens to occur within and around the framework of the ABB), after the disbanding of the first incarnation of the ABB in 1976, it seems as though the book moved rather quickly and glossed over some of the details. It would have been nice to have had a bit more of Gregg's perspective, or at least have had it gone a bit deeper, into things like Berry's death, the escalating problem that Dickey Betts became which led to his ouster in 2000, and a few other things but at the same time, I was still completely satisfied with this book after I finished it, and at 400 pages it's already packed with stories. Gregg's relaxed, conversational tone and unvarnished take on his life are no nonsense and refreshing and make you feel like you're sitting across from him, relaxing with a cold beer and listening to his story.

This is definitely one of the best rock music autobiographies I've read, and I'm not just saying that as a huge ABB fan. If you're an ABB fan, this is essential reading alongside the Duane and band biographies, and if you're even just a casual ABB fan, you will still enjoy this book and get a lot of out it. Apart from having a hand in making some of the best and most enduring music of the past fifty years, Gregg has had a long and interesting life and career in music that's well worth reading.

MY RATING: 9/10

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 51

Embarking on the "F" albums!

R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction
The Kinks - Face to Face
Gorillaz - The Fall
Dream Theater - Falling Into Infinity
Oasis - Familiar to Millions
Rush - A Farewell to Kings
Spock's Beard - Feel Euphoria
Semisonic - Feeling Strangely Fine
Paul McCartney - Fenway Park, Boston 7/9/13
Led Zeppelin - Festival Hall, Osaka, Japan 9/29/71

R.E.M.'s third album was also the one that nearly broke up the band and it's a tense, uneasy, but also experimental and unique-sounding record within their discography and one of my favorites. Face to Face from 1966 is the Kinks' first great album from beginning to end and began their run of incredible albums that went up to and included 1972's Everybody's in Showbiz. Gorillaz' fourth and final album is really more a collection of ideas, recorded on the road during 2010's tour supporting Plastic Beach and done mostly on an iPad and portable recording equipment. It's okay but not worth repeated listens...listening to it in this batch was the first time I'd played it all the way through since 2012! Dream Theater's fourth album was the one that almost broke them up, when outside influence from their record company led to them being pushed into a more commercial direction, causing strife within the band (mainly between John Petrucci's camp, who wanted to acquiesce, and Mike Portnoy's camp, who wanted to stick to their guns and resist). However, it's a good album with some great cuts, most notably "New Millennium," "Trial of Tears," "Lines in the Sand," and "Hollow Years." Oasis' 2000 live album is solid if unspectacular...perhaps one had to be there, but even then I never thought they were a particularly good live band (I saw them once, in 2001)...very boring and static stage presence and they were never the greatest of musicians. It seems Oasis live were more a communal event for the fans than a chance to see a top-notch band blow you away with their act. A Farewell to Kings from 1977 was Rush's first complete masterpiece, where every track was a winner, and the second in their run of classic albums beginning with 1976's 2112 and going through 1985's Power Windows. Feel Euphoria was the first Spock's Beard album after Neal Morse's departure and while there are some good songs on it, it's quite uneven and not cohesive at all...the multi-part epic, "A Guy Named Sid" that closes the albums sounds forced and is a real hodge-podge that encapsulates the best and worst aspects of the album as a whole. 1998's Feeling Strangely Fine was Semisonic's high-water mark, commercially speaking, and included the mega-hit single "Closing Time," but the entire album is a great collection of their brand of power-pop. Rounding out this batch are two excellent live shows: Paul McCartney from Boston in 2013, a show I was at and which was one of the greatest concerts I've ever been to, and an absolutely storming and epic Led Zeppelin show from their wild and raucous first tour of Japan in 1971.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day!






Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of my readers and fans! I hope you have a safe and enjoyable celebration. I'm of Greek descent, but my wife is of Irish descent and we live in the Boston area, Irish capital of America, so we've all got some Irish in us. I'll be relaxing with some cold pints of Guinness tonight, hope you're able to have one, too. Enjoy!



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Interview with Paolo Hewitt, Author of Fab Gear: The Beatles and Fashion

Author Paolo Hewitt


I'm very pleased and honored to have had some discussions with author Paolo Hewitt about his excellent book Fab Gear: The Beatles and Fashion, which I reviewed here on this site last month. Paolo is an esteemed writer from the UK who has been covering music, fashion, and football (soccer to my fellow Americans) for more than three decades in various publications. He's also the author of over twenty books. As you read in my review, his book on the Beatles and fashion is excellent and highly recommended to any fan of the band and their classic 1960s look.  Paolo was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the book, his research into the subject, and his thoughts on various aspects of the Beatles and how, along with their music, they revolutionized the world with their style.

RNRChemist: Paolo, thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your book and the subject of the Beatles and fashion. What do you think it is about the Beatles' fashion that was so striking initially?

PH: Two things: their refusal to align themselves with just one style and their instinctive nature to continually change. Beatle clothes took in all elements. When asked if he was a mod or a rocker on Ready Steady Go, Ringo replied "I am a mocker" which gives you some idea of their wide eclecticism. Like their music, they were always seeking new ways of expression and that is what made them so striking. As soon as someone wore what they had worn, that was it, they were off in search of the new. That meant they continually looked interesting.


RNRChemist: In your opinion, what about their look still makes it so cool and modern all these years later?

PH: Apart from a couple of blips (Sgt. Pepper) they always maintained amazingly good taste in clothes and always opted for great style. You have to remember that they dressed as one which massively deepened the impact.

RNRChemist: Which is your favorite look of theirs, and why?

PH: Difficult. I love their looks around Revolver and the White Album. Casual but very smart, always striking. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I have been unable to carry the Paul McCartney hair style from 1966. Their dandy period (late '66-'67) is also interesting.

RNRChemist: Did it surprise you to learn that four working class scruffy lads were so clothes conscious even from a young age?

PH: No. The British working class have always loved clothes and been brilliant dressers.

RNRChemist: Do you think their impact on fashion was greater in the UK or the US?

PH: I think their fashion impact was huge everywhere. Especially their early haircuts, which were revolutionary at the time.

RNRChemist: Why do you think Paul was the only one who resisted going full-on when it came to truly long hair?

PH: Probably because he knew he looked much better with a shorter style. Later on (1969) it was his protest against what was going on with the band.

RNRChemist: Do you think the Beatles changed men's attitudes to fashion, ie made it ok for men to care about their hair/clothes/general appearance?

PH: Absolutely, although there were other influences. People such as John Stephen or Cecil Gee or John Michael were also very instrumental in helping shape mens fashions post-World War II. It was a definite movement which the Beatles were a major part of for many years.

RNRChemist: Do you think that any band these days could have the same impact on fashion and style as the Beatles did in the 1960s?

PH: Hard to imagine but I keep an open mind.

RNRChemist: What was it about their look, in your opinion, that helped their influence reach beyond simply the "rock musician" look and into general society as a whole?

PH: By being interested enough and intelligent and savvy enough to be plugged into many circles, they anticipated so much. For example, they saw what was happening on the Kings Road and then popularized it. In those days, fashion moved much slower, but by The Beatles adopting a look or a fashion, this allowed it to spread much faster and with much more import. In the same way that they brought new sounds and musics into the mainstream, so they did with their clothes and thus carried huge influence. Many fans not only wondered what the next record would sound like but also what the band would be wearing. And what the band were wearing, the world would be wearing not long after.

RNRChemist: Paolo, thanks so much for discussing this with me and I hope everyone reading this goes and gets a copy of your book so that they can enjoy it as much as I did. God bless!

(Paolo can be followed on Facebook and Twitter, and Fab Gear can be purchased at Amazon by clicking on the link within this interview).

Friday, March 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Skydog: The Duane Allman Story

When one thinks of the greatest guitarists of all time, Duane Allman is usually mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Townshend, and others, and rightfully so. His mastery of the instrument across a variety of genres and his revolutionary electric slide playing ensured Duane his place in music history long before his all-too-tragic death at the young age of 24. In addition to the music that made him famous as a founder and bandleader of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, he was also renowned as a top session guitarist in Muscle Shoals and contributed to the legendary album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. With the recent interest in the Allman Brothers Band at a high due to an excellent new biography of the band (which I reviewed very recently) as well as their final tour having just commenced a week ago, it seems an appropriate time to explore the life behind one of the individuals who formed and led the band during its best period and emerged as one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Whereas the new Allman Brothers Band biography obviously focused on the band as a whole and its constituent members, Skydog is (again, obviously) a book dedicated solely to the life and career of Duane. While there is some overlap of details between the two books, mainly as pertaining to the formation of the ABB and Duane's time in the band before his death, Skydog goes into much more detail and back story and looks at the man behind the music and how his life and experiences made him who he was.

Starting with Duane's birth in 1946, the book traces his and Gregg's childhood in Nashville, where they were both born and living with their parents before their father Willis, a WWII veteran, was murdered by a fellow veteran who robbed him at gunpoint while Willis and his friend were giving the man a ride home after a night out playing cards. Their mother eventually sent the boys to live with their grandparents for a while, where they both were bitten by the guitar bug and entranced by the blues and R&B radio stations they listened to. After a stint at a military academy that they both passionately hated, the Allmans moved to Daytona, Florida, where the boys would finish the rest of their school days. By this point, Duane had surpassed Gregg on the guitar and was spending so much time at home practicing that he simply dropped out of school to focus on the instrument full time! As with so many teenagers in the early 1960s who were captivated by the Beatles, Duane and Gregg formed a band, first called The Escorts before settling on the Allman Joys. They gigged in the Florida area and built up enough of a good reputation to even open for the Beach Boys at a concert in Daytona Beach in 1965. Eventually attempting to tour with the Allman Joys, the band made it out to California, where they were signed by Liberty Records and renamed the Hour Glass. While they were a top live draw during the psychedelic era of the 1960s, playing incendiary shows opening for bands such as the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane, their studio output was quite poor in quality due to the fact that they had no input into what they recorded. Growing disgusted with the scene, Duane and the rest of the band went back home while Gregg stayed to try and make a career as a solo musician. It was during this time that Duane worked his way into the studios in and around Muscle Shoals and became one of the top session guitarists of the late 1960s, playing on a variety of hit records including Wilson Pickett's cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

Eventually, Duane convinced Rick Hall, owner of the famous FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, to let him record a solo album.  However, during this period, Duane had grander visions of putting together a band the way he wanted to, and from his frequent travels around the American southeast, he brought into the fold fellow band founders Jaimoe, Butch Trucks (whom he'd known since 1966), Dickey Betts, and Berry Oakley. However, they couldn't settle on a singer until Duane insisted they call his "baby brother" Gregg and convinced him to join the lineup. The rest, as they say, is history, and I won't go into too much more detail in this review since the career of the Allman Brothers has been covered in detail in Alan Paul's excellent new biography that I've already reviewed.  However, where Skydog excels is in examining Duane individually in more detail during these years. His prodigious use of drugs and alcohol is documented, as well as his attitude to his music (which is admirable) and the wife and daughter that he abandoned (which is deplorable). In particular, reading the transcript of his drunken radio interview from late 1970 where he describes in a quite callous manner his thoughts toward his ex-wife Donna and baby daughter Galadrielle is quite unsettling. It's interesting, though, that his generally reckless approach to life was noted as early on as in high school by his classmates, many of whom didn't think he would live past thirty. Sadly, they were right.



While the Allman Brothers Band's golden era of 1969-71 was covered in the aforementioned One Way Out, Skydog digs deeper to show that Duane still maintained his ridiculously hectic pace of playing on studio sessions in the middle of the grueling schedule of recording sessions and tour dates with the ABB. Throw into the mix the fact that he played on one of the greatest albums of all time in Derek and the Dominos' Layla album and jazz albums by friends King Curtis and Herbie Mann, and it's staggering to realize just how much music Duane packed into such a short life. Even toward the end of his life, he was constantly on the go (apart from a short stint in rehab to try and kick his heroin addiction). His tragic and senseless death from a motorcycle crash in late October 1971 is all the more heartbreaking because it was so preventable: had Duane not been wearing his helmet with the chinstrap unclasped and had he not tried to pass the truck turning in front of him, he would have survived. The remainder of the book gives a brief but detailed history of the remainder of the band's career up to 2009. The various appendices are also interesting: a discography, a "where-are-they-now" of his friends and former pre-ABB bandmates, all of whom share their memories of Duane, and a final section chronicling the various guitars Duane used throughout his life.

Overall, this book is really good and enjoyable. It was well written and the pacing was excellent. If I have one complaint, and really it's the only one, I felt that perhaps it didn't dig down quite deep enough. While it didn't seem as if the author was writing superficially about Duane, there were certain sections where I felt the story was just begging for more detail, case in point: Duane's personal relationships with women, including the wife and baby daughter he left behind. While Poe spent some time telling us how cold and callous Duane was in discussing the situation on the radio, it would have been nice to have had more background into how they met, what the relationship was like, what led to him leaving, and so on. Perhaps this information wasn't available to the author, but I think much of it is (as I've read bits and pieces from other sources) and even a short discussion would have been preferable to completely skipping over it. This is just one example of several.

A message carved into the side of a Mississippi highway in 1973
It's certainly difficult to write a book about someones life, especially someone who died so young and such a long time ago. However, Duane managed to pack so much activity into his brief time on this earth and he left us so much incredible music that there is more than enough with which to fill a book. Randy Poe does an excellent job at capturing the spirit of the man and gives an accurate and compelling portrait of his life, warts and all. Duane was by no means perfect and he was haunted by his demons, but all of this just goes to show that regardless of status and talent, we are all human and all have the capacity to touch lives through what we do if we work hard enough and passionately enough. Skydog is a fascinating and enjoyable story of a man who spread the religion of his music and his brotherhood to as many people as he could during his short life, and it's a story that reminds us to maximize our talents and to treat every day as if it could be our last. Duane certainly did this, and thankfully he left a lot of great music for us to enjoy and ensure that he will never be forgotten.

MY RATING: 8/10