My first scribblings as a forty-four year old man. Sitting in an airport 6:50 a.m., legal pad and Uniball pen, Pete Townshend’s “I’m One” on the headphones. Halfway to eighty-eight, that being ten years past average for an American male. At thirty-nine I acknowledged that I was at my life’s fulcrum point. At forty it just made sense that I was going to live to eighty, then eighty-two, etc. At this rate I may be immortal.
There are two different impulses wrestling beneath my shallow skin. One doesn’t want to make it to eighty-eight. Never mind 88, that impulse sees great relief in death, the sooner the better. No more watching the world crumble. No more waiting around for my body to betray me. No more fear, no loneliness. No worries. But the other impulse is reptilian, dangerous, murderous. It will do anything to stay alive.
These two are always in conflict, the rational and the animal. I like to think that I would never steal, never kill, never betray, never have the surgery or take the chemo. This is not a heroic posture. There’s just too many people here. We’re an infestation, and frankly staying alive is simply impractical. Eventually I will contract a terminal illness. I could drain my meager finances in hopes of extending my futile and worthless life a couple of years, or I could let nature take its course free of charge and leave something for my children.
But that lizard brain is a mean motherfucker. It’s not interested in logic, family, or finances — only rhythmic heartbeats, measured breaths, food, water, sleep, sex. Fueling the cell replication machine, keeping that bastard up and running 24/7 until there’s nothing left; until the factory is churning out more defective cells than good ones and shuts down.
I am supposed to be writing about music, or more specifically about where music and life intersect. The stories behind an iPod playlist. That’s the task I chose, and it has been a pleasurable one. Right now I’m listening to Phillip Glass’s Low Symphony, an instrumental interpretation of the first of Bowie’s three Berlin albums. I could talk about discovering Koyaanisqatsi during art school, or I could take the Bowie road and write about the Berlin albums. I could tell that tired Phillip Glass knock knock joke:
Phillip Glass who?
Phillip Glass who?
Or I could disregard the music in my sleepy ears and talk about something else — get back to the main narrative, perhaps. Back to age twelve and the tangle of neuroses and anxiety that was me then rather than me now. Then birthdays were a solution, each one a year closer to adulthood, independence, freedom, choice. One year closer to getting the hell out of there. Age is a panacea for children but on the other side of the fulcrum it’s a weight, a burden. The accumulation of debts and wrongs committed. It is a death sentence of indeterminate length.
REM in my ears now: It’s crazy what you could have had.
Lee G. REM always conjures Lee G, always will. Easily the oldest and dearest friend I have known, though we haven’t been in regular orbit for twenty-five years. I think we’ve seen each other three times since I left for California and not once in the last fifteen years. We last spoke briefly on September 12, 2001. The Internet has been a great boon to friendships such as this, preventing them from becoming nothing more than dusty snow globes cluttering forgotten shelves.
I have tried to write about Lee G several times, as he is as much a part of my Southern childhood as I am. From the time I stepped into my fifth grade classroom, or so it seems, I rarely took a step without hearing his feet behind, beside or ahead of mine. He was the last friend I said goodbye to late on the evening before we headed to Los Angeles, “we” being a young woman who has yet to be introduced into the narrative and myself. Just the two of us headed westward at sunrise, doing what Americans do. I said goodbye to Lee G and we drove toward another life or away from ones we didn’t choose, I’m not entirely sure which.
She picked up where he left off as friend, confidant, compass, mirror, muse. She has a small plot of land in my REM real estate, too. Eventually I will get to that evening in a Statesboro gym. Together Lee G and she account for roughly one-third of my life and we’ll see how many stories of Why It Matters. Whatever the final tally turns out to be will not surprise me.
REM in my ears now: Don’t talk to me about being alone.
And now my wife and children are invoked by REM, too. While Lee G and I were terrorizing the Piedmont with eyeliner and bad haircuts my future wife was busily growing up in the Pacific Northwest with her own soundtrack. Many years later our childrens’ lullaby was “Swan Swan H,” almost whispered to them by their adoring mother. And many years after that our little family would see REM along with The National and Modest Mouse at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. In a quiet moment between songs our then nine-year old daughter screamed “Play ‘Swan Swan Hummingbird!’ to the amusement of many. I wonder if the band would’ve consented if they knew why it mattered to her.
REM right now: Leave it all behind.
Lee G grew into a gifted musician. REM cannot claim full credit. The man comes from a family of gifted musicians: his mother, a teacher; his father, a composer and pianist; two siblings who are talented musicians. But as I remember it REM was Lee G’s spark in exactly the same way that The Beatles on Sullivan ignited the generation before us. I don’t know where he first heard them. I bought Murmur when it came out, so that’s a possibility; regardless, once he got ahold of them he was on fire. He ran out and bought a Rickenbacker and started working on his jangle. I can see him clearly sitting in his bedroom, playing the same riff over and over until he had it down. Five years earlier we sat in the same bedroom listening to a 12″ remix of M’s “Pop Muzik” repeatedly.
REM right now: This is all I am, it’s everything.
He grew his hair into the Michael Stipe poodle mullet and made regular pilgrimages to Athens, Georgia. He even picked up the banjo, composing a little piece he called “The Haybailer” that would’ve fit nicely on Life’s Rich Pageant.
Telling tales of Lee G and music will take months, not hours. That’s enough for one morning. Life, death, love, loss, the end of the world as I know it, and not one mention of “Shiny Happy People.”