22. Promised land.

 

Together in space, together in time

We’re all dressed up, serene and wild-eyed

And here of possible worlds is where we might find a promise kept

On day’s departing light

A spider’s web across the skyline

Something for Kate, Down the Garden Path.

 

This is a wee piece I penned near the beginning of our journey. I think this is its rightful home.

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Trust, such a small, such a commonplace word. Until her, I don’t think I ever really knew what it meant. Now that I’ve found her, that word has become redolent with meaning, fertile with emotion.

I trust her.

I say those words and, for the first time in my life, I know without a shadow of a doubt that this is entirely, unambiguously true.

I’ve waited a lifetime to have that, waited a lifetime for her.

How easy it was to fall in love with this soul, it seemed to happen almost of its own volition. And, deepest of wonders, as this amazing event revealed itself in my heart, I saw the same process unfolding in hers.

If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never understand what I did to earn such a blessing.

No one has ever had me so completely. Always with others I kept a piece of myself back, too afraid to be vulnerable or exposed. With her, it has been so different.

From the moment I began to feel myself falling, I wanted nothing more than to lay myself open to her. Everything was on the table, everything was hers to pick up and examine. It was as if all my inhibitions had simply evaporated away.

And that is the most valuable gift that anyone has ever given me, love without fear of judgement; true love. The emotions that wash over me as I consider all of the ramifications of this are not complex at all, they are very, very simple, but they are deeper than any ocean and eternal.

I love her because I trust her. I trust her because I love her. She is my circle. And she encompasses my world.

 

Image used in this post is my own.

©2016

Rolling stone preacher from the East

 

“The spiritual life is going to be a life of mystery. Why would you not be humble in the face of that mystery? Why would you assume that the answers can be handed down to you, A to Z, no room for doubt? That’s child-like, that desire for answers. Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have any answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything. I don’t advocate anything. I just live with it. We live in a tragic world, but there’s grace all around you. That’s tangible. So you try to attend to the grace.” ~ Bruce Springsteen

“In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn … but nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot … That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people,” ~High Fidelity

“Any song by the Boss, makes me think of hanging out with my dad when I was young. Makes me realize how much I’m like that man. Flow with the river, and life is clear.” ~ YouTube user Stallz Zeee

 

There are, for me, three distinctly different Springsteens; three separate variations on a theme which together make up the creative whole.

One of the great pleasures in following a performing artist whose career covers a long stretch of time is getting to see how they have changed and matured through the years and what sort of character those changes have stamped upon the work.

Springsteen is a particularly interesting study to me due to the pronounced delineations between the various periods of his life; both creative and personal.

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Photo credit: Peter Cunningham

The first Springsteen I think of as the high-spirited youth.

This version was a perfect physical manifestation of the music which burst out of him like water from a busted tap through those early, heady years. In his haphazard hats and frayed jeans (barely clinging to his emaciated frame), his scraggle-beard and mane of comb defying hair, he was a ragamuffin street prince right out of one of his own compositions.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night
With bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat-up old Buick
But dressed just like dynamite

Lost in the Flood, Spirit in the Night, New York City Serenade; this was Springsteen’s ‘mythic’ age. His songs played out like modern fables told in a fever dream. The Asbury Park boardwalk of his creations could never truly exist. The drama was never that big, the racing that all consuming, nor the girls so wedded to their porches.

Mary inhabits that porch in Thunder Road the way the Fates inhabit their cave in ancient Greek mythologies. The hero must come to her and, despite the urgency with which he implores her to join him; there is no substantiation given that she ever does make the walk from her front porch to his front seat.

The ceaseless street racing that is a feature of not a few songs has all the heat and fury of a Steve McQueen movie, leading one critic to ask “does no one in these songs ever just get in their car to go down to the store?”

Emphatically not.

And the scene across the river (more mythological allusions) in New York is no less surreal. With overtones of West Side Story (and pretty much every Raymond Chandler novel you ever read), the city is, in Springsteen’s mind’s eye, a shadowy dream realm where many of his heroes go to die or come undone.

Billy he’s down by the railroad tracks
Sittin’ low in the back seat of his Cadillac
Diamond Jackie, she’s so intact
As she falls so softly beneath him
Jackie’s heels are stacked
Billy’s got cleats on his boots
Together they’re gonna boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot
It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute

Bob Geldof (who really needs to take himself about 1,000% less seriously), once disparaged Springsteen’s Americana with the pithy comment, “I don’t believe Springsteen, he writes fiction. The Magic Rat did not drive his sleek machine over the Jersey state line.”

Really Bob, you don’t say. How about you tell us all about the time you wrote a better song than Jungleland.

Uh-huh.

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Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The second Springsteen, I call the son.

At this point of transition, he was still fairly young, but his yearning to understand what it meant to be a man lent his music a new and more grounded depth and maturity. The street racing continued unabated, but there was a palpable difference between the brash Hero of Born to Run and the world-weary protagonist in Racing in the Streets.

It was in this incarnation that Springsteen began to openly explore his fraught relationship with his father. Songs like Factory, My Father’s House, Independence Day, and Walk like a Man all spoke to his need to make some sort of peace with the man whose house had once been filled with so much tension and miss communication. This was Springsteen in therapy, working his life out.

Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now
And you can’t touch me now
They ain’t gonna do to me
What I watched them do to you

It was also the period when he discovered Woody Guthrie’s take on America and this too contributed immensely to his development. Whereas the earlier Springsteen just wanted to make music and be listened to, this version had something to say and a need to be heard.

Along the way, love came along and derailed the train of thought for a bit (as love is want to do). The rush to marry ending in an affair and a divorce now seems like a strange blip which seamlessly resolved into his long and happy relationship with now wife (Jersey girl) Patti Scialfa and the birth of three children. This more than anything else, I feel, was the genesis of the current Springsteen.

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Photo credit: Danny Clinch

The third and current version is the father.

The grizzled voice and knowing gaze of this latest Springsteen have become his signature over the past decade or so. It speaks of a thousand miles of road and the dust that travels on the winds of disaster and disappointment. It speaks of gravity and resolve. This is Springsteen as patriarch.

Even those who despise his music, grudgingly respect him, because the authority he brings to his performances is reassuring in these anything but reassuring times. Famously, in the aftermath of 9/11, the story is told of Springsteen sitting in his car at some lights in Asbury Park and the driver beside him rolling down his window to yell “we need you now”.

This reputedly led to the album the Rising, which dealt with the loss and the emotional complexity of the post 9/11 world, though, not without a certain amount of controversy. The album contains a beautiful track, Paradise which seeks to tell the story of a suicide bomber from his own perspective.

In the crowded marketplace
I drift from face to face
I hold my breath and close my eyes
I hold my breath and close my eyes
And I wait for paradise
And I wait for paradise

America was not yet ready for that level of magnanimity towards her perceived enemies – she may never be.

But that’s Springsteen, ever trying to forge a true path for others to follow. Whether consciously or not, Bruce Springsteen has become the father figure to a nation. His music is a pure distillation of a very particular America; certainly not everyone’s idea of America, but in many ways it is more forthright, more inclusive and far less nihilistic than other versions I have encountered.

In songs like Sinaloa Cowboys, American skin, and the Line, Springsteen writes with brutal honesty about issues faced by immigrants and minorities in this era of global upheaval. In Death to My Home Town, Easy Money and Jack of all trades he pours scorn upon the robber banks who wrought their financial chaos upon the world; expressing in terse, immediate terms the growing anger among an ever increasing number of dispossessed.

So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

Despite his millions, he has managed to remain the quintessential everyman, but one who nowadays has the ear of Presidents. That’s a good trick unless it isn’t one. In truth, no one can achieve that status if at their creative core they are not one hundred percent genuine.

Springsteen’s music has always been that, through all his incarnations; father, son, and free spirit*.

These three aspects coalesce to both form and define the man from Freehold New Jersey who has somehow never stopped growing, learning and, most importantly, teaching.

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*Any scriptural allusions are purely tongue in cheek.

 

Special mention: If you enjoy the style and content of my music-oriented posts, you may also wish to jump over here to the ‘Yeah, Another Blogger’ blog where you will find many interesting posts such as this and this.

©2016

21. Hurry up sundown

 

Strength is vanity and time is illusion
I feel you breathin’, the rest is confusion
Your skin touches mine, what else to explain
I am the hunter of invisible game

Springsteen, Hunter of invisible game

 

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I don’t think I’ve seen anything in my entire life to surpass a New Jersey fall (I should say an Eastern fall, I suppose, as parts of Pennsylvania I’ve seen are no less spectacular).

I was arriving, this third trip, into a veritable riot of colour, though, I had no real inkling of what was in store for me as my plane touched down. I’ve always had a yen for classic autumnal scenes and I was certainly going to be treated to some fantastic examples over the month ahead.

That was nothing, of course, in comparison to seeing my girl again.

There she stood as I walked through those familiar doors, beautiful as ever and brimming with barely contained joy. That first embrace still defies adequate description. There should be a word for the first hug after an enforced separation (no doubt one of the Mediterranean languages probably has that covered).

The intensity of our emotions had only increased over the past seven months. During that time of long and frequent Skype sessions, our connection had certainly deepened; more layers peeled back. As hard as it can be, there is something to be said for a relationship that can be given space to grow and mature free from the often stupefying repetition of domesticity.

Not that the domestic aspects of life are to be in any way disregarded, but they do sometimes have a tendency to disproportionately dominate our lives and are often a barrier to couples focusing on the relationship proper.

Jersey girl and I both have experienced long-term relationships, she a thirteen-year marriage and I two separate relationships amounting to twenty years of full metal domesticity, so we both know what’s what on that particular score.

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This time, for both of us, is very different. Rather than rush into domestic bliss (possibly the most ironic phrase in the English language) we have been given a gift by dint of circumstance, a chance to really get to know each other’s pure substance before the endless distractions of life close in.

These visits, each of around a month’s duration, have allowed us to experience life under the same roof without some of the inevitable pressures; what a rare opportunity.

And that’s basically what we spent that month in the glorious Fall doing. I slotted back into the flow of the house with relative ease, making sure the kids all got fed when Jersey girl had to work and helping the youngest with homework in the evenings. They insisted that I walk them to school in the mornings and meet them in the afternoons, which I was only too happy to do (great light at those hours for picture taking). I even developed a regular morning repartee with the local crossing guards.

Just an aside here; that’s a weird term to my ears. Crossing guard makes me think of Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War. When I was growing up, we called them lollypop ladies because of the big round signs they carried (not so John le Carré).

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I found it all great fun. And when the responsibilities of the day were done and the kids were finally asleep, there was always this thing that was just for us. Like an incredible calm descending around us, enclosing us in our own private world. Inside that bubble, that’s where all the real stuff happens.

But I can’t write about that.

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All images used in this post are my own.

©2016

 

 

 

20. Lonesome day

 

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

Springsteen, The Rising

 

Stupidly, I’d only booked a three-week stay that second trip and they flew by with alarming speed. There is so much you need to cram in when time is short. Ultimately, it can never be enough. And so, too quickly, the day came when, once again, we had to say our farewells.

This time, the kids insisted on coming with us to the airport and I had four people to say goodbye to instead of just one, so my sorrow was multiplied. I knew it was tearing Jersey girl apart, but she kept a brave face for the kids and I tried to do the same. As I held her in one last embrace, I felt a void begin to open in my chest which only continued to grow over the course of the long flight home.

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I remember dropping my bags on the floor of my apartment when I got back and just breaking down. How much longer could I keep doing this?

By now, you’re thinking, what is your problem man? Why not just move there permanently and be done?

Those are good questions; very good. The answers require a little background context.

I’ve mentioned already that I, like Jersey girl, am a parent; I have a son. He is a beautiful young man; intelligent, handsome, and conscientious to a fault. At the time Jersey girl and I began, he was about seventeen. He lived with his mother in a small town called Castlemaine about an hour and a half outside Melbourne by train; a fact which had made the years of shared custody particularly grueling. His mother and I had parted when he was small (her choice) and she’d quickly remarried and moved him out of the city.

I’m not quite sure why I didn’t make this more difficult for her, I probably should have, but in the end, I agreed not to veto the move. And so for a good ten years, I had to make the regular trips out to the country to pick him up and drop him off. I mention this only because I believe all that travelling together helped build the incredibly strong bond he and I share.

As soon as I was quite certain that my plans with Jersey girl would eventually mean relocating to the States, I sat down with him and we discussed the ramifications. To my relief, he was all for it. He was just glad in the end that his old dad had found a bit of happiness. I realized at that point he’d been worried about me for a while, probably scared I was going to end up alone.

With my son’s blessing, Jersey and I began to plan how I would make the move to her side of the world. It was all progressing slowly but surely and, if things had gone to schedule, I’d currently be writing this in New Jersey instead of Melbourne.

What’s the old saying, man plans, God laughs?

I was out with some friends one Saturday evening when I felt the familiar vibration of an incoming text. We’d just climbed into the car to head home and I remember struggling to get my phone out of my Jeans pocket. When I looked at the screen, my world suddenly swam around me.

Dad, mums sick. Dad, she has cancer.

I could feel his shock and panic in the phrasing of the text and I well understood it because I had just been punched in the face by those self-same emotions.

What came next was very hard on my boy. The cancer was terminal and all there was for him to do was be there while his mum slowly faded.

All of this almost feels too personal to write about, but I feel I have to because it has had such a lasting impact upon all of our lives.

His mother’s fight lasted about a year. During that time, I was there for him as much as I could be, not as much as I wanted to be, and he never ceased to impress me with his grace and strength. I had lost my own mother to the bastard disease (though at nowhere near such a tender age) and I knew the pain he was facing.

I was carrying some myself.

Though my relationship with his mother had ended acrimoniously, I had shared my life with her for nine years. We had been through the birth of our son together and I had cut the cord which joined them with my own hand. You don’t just disregard such bonds.

On her final day, I travelled up to Castlemaine to see her one last time. She wasn’t conscious, but I sat with her, holding her unbelievably frail hand and let myself feel the realness of what was occurring. It was the opposite of the void I had felt at the airport as I left my love behind. It filled me like a welling spring bubbling up from deep down below. It was grief and despair. And it was inescapable certainty.

As if the whole thing were a scene from some heavy-handed movie (or perhaps the song Lightning Crashes), the sound of another woman, in the throes of her labor, were coming loudly through the wall from the adjacent room.

His mother passed in the middle of the night and I felt the cold certainty that my son’s life would now never be the same.

It was at the funeral service that I finally realized my child had become a man; and such a man. When his time came to speak, he stepped up to the podium, looking like a young Ulysses. He laid his notes down before him and then gazed out into the crowded room taking in every face. When he began to speak, his voice was deep and calm as he recited the lay of his mother.

He compared her to a tree, under the branches of which, he and his younger sister had grown in safety and contentment….

“She always stood true to her intent, no one could tell her otherwise. The imperfections of her character were few. Burns and broken branches – as any good tree will have – did not stop her from flourishing in her own modest way. And in retrospect, even they served as selfless lessons for our benefit.

“She worked hard, from the beginning of her life until the very end, her every action a valiant choice towards her belief in a better future for us, ahead of herself and the more immediate opportunities she could have had in her time here. We were so lucky to be her children.”

He never wavered, not for a moment. Even when recounting his mother’s passing.

“But when the fight was done and all the final goodbyes were said, only when the last watchmen went to sleep did she pass, as selfless in that moment as ever.”

The room was weeping now, but his face remained serene. He gazed out past us and began to speak without looking down at his papers.

“She was so fundamental to me that I could describe her as elemental; unflinching and stubborn as mountains, fierce and beautiful as fire, as intricate and intelligent as the veins on a leaf, as kind as an autumn breeze, and as real as the smell of the earth when it rains.”

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At least twenty people came up to my side at the wake specifically to say, you must be so proud of him today. Pride didn’t begin to describe it. I was in awe of my son. And I was terrified.

He was too calm, too composed. I knew he hadn’t even touched upon his own grief yet and I was in fear of what would happen if it were delayed too long. Understand, this is an incredibly empathetic young man. Some people can process their grief and pass on from it seemingly untouched. I knew my boy; there were deep, deep wells of pain within him, but he wasn’t even ready to dip a toe yet.

I knew then, I couldn’t just up and leave; not for a time at least. And indeed, the months that followed were an undeniably hard road for him, he needed his remaining parent to help guide him through. Jersey girl was in complete agreement. It would be tough on us both, but we had always said, the kids come first.

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Over a year has now passed since his mother’s passing and I see him growing into a stronger and more resilient version of himself with every passing week. He has moved to Melbourne and was recently offered a place at University, having worked diligently at a fairly menial job for the better part of this past year.

Last weekend, He travelled to Tasmania to carry out his mother’s last wish; that her ashes be scattered over the Gordon River, a place that she loved.

He is still troubled at times by all that has occurred, but he has taken measures that have helped him begin to come to terms with it all.

I, at last, feel that I can pick up my own plans where I left off.

It was difficult to write this post, many memories have been stirred up from the sediment of my own psyche. However, I can see that things have slowly come back into line and that my son is now looking mostly ahead. I am so grateful for that.

I’m also grateful for all the patience and support that Jersey girl has shown throughout this long ordeal. It’s just further proof, as if any were needed, that she is the one.

The images in this post are my own.

©2016

Dream baby dream

 

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During my second sojourn in the UK, I found myself living in a small village in Buckinghamshire, just North West of London, called Wooburn Green. Nestled along the river Wye, in the Thames valley, this village forms part of a chain along the A4094 (a secondary route running between Maidenhead and the A40 into High Wycombe).

It was an odd place to live, neither urban enough to be exciting (at least not to a lad of twenty) nor quiet enough to be peaceful. The stretch of the road that wound through our village was simply too busy. Trucks roared up and down it day and night despite the obvious fact that it was narrow and winding and not at all suited to such heavy use.

All the villages along this road suffered similarly from this noisy, noxious blight.

There was, however, one nearby village that somehow stood apart. Situated on the banks of the Thames, Cookham, as I recall it, was a unique island of calm. These days it is said to be the second richest village in Britain (translation; a lot of filthy rich people live there) with current residents including John Deacon of Queen fame, former Goody Tim Brooke-Taylor, and at least one of the stars of that Downton Abbey thing that everybody seems to love for some reason.

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Cookham bridge by Timmy Mallett

I, of course, knew nothing of any of that on the day I walked there, just to see what was what on the other side of the bridge. What I found was an idyllic, sleepy little place with a very old and historic church, a lot of quaint cottages, and very little else. It was pretty perfect, actually, and I wandered around for hours just soaking up the quiet and appreciating the Englishness of it all.

I don’t have a clue if there were any famous folk living there at that time (circa 1982), but I do know a little about one of the village’s former residents.

Stanley Spencer (30 June 1891 – 14 December 1959) was born and raised in Cookham. Spencer was a painter of some renown who loved the place of his birth so passionately that he created a series of paintings depicting scenes from the bible as if they had occurred right there in the village of Cookham.

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The Resurrection by Spencer

That sounds a little eccentric, I guess, but it has me thinking that it’s not a million miles away from what Springsteen did in his early musical excursions.

Just as Spencer elevated the simple life of a sleepy English village to the level of biblical allegory, Springsteen mythologised his familiar denizens of the Jersey shore.

His first three albums all, to varying degrees, used Asbury Park as an evocative backdrop for his mythic tales and larger than life characters. The world the songwriter wove around his cast of misfits, gangsters, carnies, pimps, and boy racers regularly took on the mythic proportions of a DeMille epic.

Where Spencer projected scriptural figures such as Christ, the disciples or Mary Magdalen amongst the simple folk of Cookham, Springsteen populated his seaside town with the likes of the Magic Rat, Wild Billy, and Mary the circus Queen of Arkansas.

Whoa, and a press roll drummer go, ballerina to and fro
Cartwheelin’ up on that tightrope with a cannon blast lightin’ flash
Movin’ fast through the tent Mars bent, he’s gonna miss his fall
Oh God save the human cannonball.

Wild Billy’s Circus Story

 

This ability to imbue the mundane with a sense of the magical is a large part of the attraction of the first three albums; Greetings from Asbury Park NJ, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run. These densely layered lyrical sketches fill the mind’s eye with half faded colours, incessant movement, and desperate yearnings.

On the sun bleached seaside boardwalk, grand and nefarious deeds are performed. True love is won and more often lost; fortune smiles, and tragedy strikes.

Beyond the Palace hemi powered drones scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you out on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

Born to Run

And Power’s girl, Little Angel, been on the corner keepin’ those crazy boys out of trouble
Little Angel steps the shuffle like she ain’t got no brains
She’s death in combat down on Lover’s Lane
She drives all them local boys insane

E Street Shuffle

 

These elements are the very essence of myth. And what is myth, if not the world we escape to?

Christ in Cookham
Sir Stanley Spencer,  Christ in Cookham: Watson Bequest

 

 

©2016

 

 

 

19. She’s the one

 

Don’t run back inside
darlin’ you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinkin’
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me

Springsteen, Thunder Road

 

The Boss’ fans tend to love that line, you ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright, finding  humour in the protagonist’s seeming ambivalence towards his girl, but what is Springsteen really saying here?

He’s certainly not implying that the girl, Mary, is unattractive. No one woos a girl they’re not attracted to, certainly not with the determination of this song’s Rev-headed hero. No one (other than the smitten) uses the phrase ‘like a vision’. And few notice when an unattractive girl’s dress sways.

I think the truth we all know is that Mary is indeed a beauty; in the eyes of the protagonist at least. When I picture her, I see small town, ‘girl next door’ pretty. I see the kind of beauty that the unobservant sometimes call plain; the kind of beauty that suddenly bursts forth in the smile that lights up a room and eyes that glitter with secret delight.

I see my Jersey girl.

I fell in love before I really knew what she looked like, I think I’ve probably already mentioned that. And, of course, the same was true for her. Yes, we sent each other pictures, but pictures lie, or rather we are liars to ourselves – and the world – in the pictures we pick to represent us. It’s a subconscious process generally, a form of self-interested censorship and we are all guilty of it to one degree or another. Photos, therefore, give a sense of the person, but it is a woefully incomplete representation of the reality.

No, only when standing face to face can one see the true skin.

So, when the moment came, what did I see?

Remarkably, a perfect physical reflection of the extraordinary woman I’d come to know – and love – in the cyber realm. Her eyes were so deeply dark they were like near black pearls (the sort of eyes women once poisoned themselves with belladonna to achieve), becoming sparkling crescents whenever her lips formed a smile – and oh that smile.

Above all else, it was that smile.

When this jaded curmudgeon deigns to smile, it’s as if my cheeks must first become cranes, hoisting up the reluctant corners of my mouth. At such rare times, the rest of my face retains, at best, a pensive aspect; refusing to commit to the moment. By contrast, when Jersey girl smiles, her whole face joins in and it’s as if someone suddenly brought the house lights up in the middle of the show.

The moment I saw that smile, I knew I was lost. I was never going to be out of love again.

You ain’t a beauty Jersey girl, you’re the beauty and the light by which I now view my entire world.

So roll down that window and let the wind blow back your hair…

©2016