Last week I write about the difficulty I experience in confirming the death of one of my long time pen-pals, an inmate at a state prison in San Diego. This week, finally, my cards and letters, one by one, are being returned. They are stamped”return to sender” and on each is handwritten the word “inactive.” My observance of this year's Days of Awe is pretty inactive too. There is a website called 10Q. For each of ten days a question is posed. These answers are returned to the writer via e-mail the following year. I do not avail myself of the option to post my responses publicly. Essentially the questions refer to regrets, shortcomings and future hopes for oneself and the world at large. My shortcomings are that I eat too much, write too little and spend too much money. My whole world stuff is about justice, equality and peace. I object to the public posting of my responses because they are so lacking in imagination. The final question posed is about your anticipated response to receiving these answers next year. The truth is, at 57 I don't expect much resolution of the things that have dogged me and the planet for as long as I can remember.
The third question on 10Q is about a memorable spiritual experience of the past year. A year ago, right after the High Holidays, I take Joe College to Riot Fest, a music festival in Denver to see the reunion, after 22 years, of my favorite band, The Replacements. The band before the headliner is Iggy and the Stooges. Iggy is still in great form but I hope there are paramedics nearby for the Stooges. The Replacements take the stage in cowgirl skirts. They are having fun and do a number of great songs and sound amazingly good for being old farts. The moment I would characterize as the best spiritual moment of the year, was when they break into my favorite song of songs, “Alex Chilton,”a song about loving music. “I'm in love! What's that song?” It's one of their best and it's no surprise that they perform it or that it makes me go all gloopy. What I will always cherish though is upon hearing the first few notes, Joe College steps closer, looks me in the eye and hugs me, genuinely delighted that Mom is blissed out.
One of the great gifts of my life is that there is another person on the planet who understands what a few familiar chords can do for me. When I arrive at the office, no matter what is pressing, the first thing I do, before even grabbing coffee, is turn on my music. I mainly listen to the same crap I've listened to for years but Joe College has an ear for the yearning urgent sound I have a taste for and is dead on in choosing newer music that I like.
I meet up a few years ago with an ex-boyfriend. He'd been a Deadhead and had stereo speakers the size of a restaurant freezer. It is a boring lunch. His kids are perfect. His wife is beautiful and accomplished. His career is successful. Lots of equity in the house. Finally, I pose, “What are you listening to these days?” “Oh, I don't really listen to music anymore.” It is all I can do to keep from blurting out, “But that was the only thing I liked about you.”
I don't even bother to downplay my Replacements obsession anymore. There is a documentary called “Color Me Obsessed” (after the song “Color Me Impressed” by frontman Paul Westerberg, allegedly written in response to a fling with Winona Ryder). There is no footage of the band. The soundtrack has none of their music. It is simply interviews with fans talking about what the band means to them. I avoid the film for a long time thinking it will just make me feel embarrassed and nerdulant. Finally I succumb. The fans are so articulate and the interviews so heartfelt that I am able to step out of the closet. I love the Replacements and making the decision to fly to Denver for their reunion concert is not a difficult one.
Coachella however is beyond my realm of possibility. It is weird to think of them playing so close by and not being there but the heat and the expense and overwhelmingness of the festival put off this hardcore fan. The band does a number of festivals over the summer and a show with another of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady. If money hadn't been an object I would have attended a number of them. A show at the Summer's End Festival in Tempe is announced. Joe College isn't available and I know better than to ask Himself who actually sort of liked the band until I played them so much he wanted to blow his brains out. I seriously consider going to the Arizona show by myself.
Respecting privacy, I am usually coy about mentioning my friends here but I figure I have some license with Marion. Her mom is Nora Johnson, the daughter of Hollywood luminary Nunnally Johnson. Nora wrote “The World of Henry Orient” and a number of other novels. She has also published a series of very frank memoirs about her family so I figure Marion's skin is pretty thick. I meet Nora a couple times, most recently last summer in New York. Marion is there attending her eldest son's graduation and I am helping Spuds vacate his dorm room. Marion's twin daughters are great friends with Spuds so we plan a multi-generational meet up. Nora's 81 and arrives at the restaurant with her walker. A girlfriend of hers, back from her Smith College days, also walking with assistance, joins us. The ladies are fabulous. They're way more up-to-date than I am on books and films. And both enjoy a goodly amount of wine. The picture of my mom in the later years of her life still haunts me and seeing tack sharp Nora and her pal helps give birth to hope.
Marion joins us for dinner at Casamurphy. I mention that the Replacements are playing in Tempe. “Oh shit,,,” mutters Himself. “I know what's coming now.” “I was just thinking about it,” I respond. “I'll go with you!” pipes up Marion. So I pick up some cheap tickets and find a hotel bargain. After the die is cast Marion admits she's never heard of the band. Knowing that the “Mats are more than a little idiosyncratic and rooted in punk mayhem I suggest she might want to chill at the hotel while I attend the show.
I put together a playlist for the car and lard it with a few other more familiar bands like REM and Wilco in case the Replacements aren't her cup of tea. We mainly talk so I can't really gauge her response to the music. The weather report is scary. Thunderstorms and floods are predicted. I pack a raincoat and think about Woodstock.
I have never been to Phoenix or Tempe or really east of Indio on Highway Ten. I am surprised by the desolation and the beauty of unspoiled desert for as far as you can see. We cross the border into Arizona and highway signs flash with flood warnings. Our cell phones get emergency weather advisories. So we might not even make to Tempe in time to wallow in the mud. The clouds on the horizon though move east as we do. There are a few light showers but the rumors of flood danger are greatly exaggerated. The weather predictions cause the show to be moved into a small hall. The venue makes Al's Bar look like Lincoln Center. My shoes still reek of Coors.
I sit out the other bands and an extremely drunk young man chats us up about Iowa and Niagara Falls. The original guitarist, Bob Stinson was fired from the band years ago and died shortly thereafter. Chris Mars, the original drummer has a successful career as an artist and I glean that even if that weren't the case, he'd want nothing to do with the band. All that's left is bass player Tommy Stinson and Paul himself. Paul wears a smoking jacket and Tommy comes on stage in a Teletubbie suit. They are having fun but it feels that after a year of touring, maybe they're bored performing the same old songs. Paul has had a steady output of solo material since the breakup. He's written a number of beautiful songs but nothing approximates the work he did with The Replacements. With the exception of a song (“Love you in the Fall”) written for the animated feature Open Season, they stick to old material.
I feel the same when I see Steely Dan a few months ago. What would it be like to know that everything that you will be remembered for was accomplished when you were in your twenties? Although, The Replacements were bitter then too. Marion enjoys the show and even though it doesn't have the mind blowing magic of the Denver set, so do I. I try to remember if I fell in love with band the first time I heard them or it took time for the sound to grow on me. I remember years ago my cousin mailed me a cassette and I played REM for the first time and I knew instantly. I just don't remember the first time I heard The Replacements which is probably due to being in an altered state of consciousness.
The show ends at after two a.m. It is impossible to buy ice cream in Tempe, (the home of notorious party school ASU) at this hour but this isn't the case with alcoholic beverages. The bars, including Hooters, have lines around the block. Some of them have “short lines” which cost $5. The girls' standard uniform is an extremely clingy short dress and six inch heels. And alcohol is added to this equation. I can imagine the emergency room does a brisk business on a Saturday night. The drive back to L.A. is uneventful except I notice the mini mart has a big NRA section, including a selection of children's t-shirts and toy weapons. And we stop at a deserted coffee shop in Indio. The lounge in the back is hopping with sun grizzled bar flies and evokes a David Lynch tableau.
At home I begin one of Nora Johnson's early memoirs Coast to Coast about going back and forth from New York to Hollywood after her parent's divorce. It is one of the least cliché things I've ever read about Hollywood. I have a stack of other of her memoirs to look forward to. Nora's most famous work I believe is “The World of Henry Orient” which was published when she was in her twenties. Two bands that I admire have never really surpassed the work they did at this age. They've thrown in the towel now and are “nostalgia acts.” Marion says that Nora writes every day. Recently she has a piece in the New York Times about aging and forgiveness which is one of the most gorgeous, economical, delightful pieces of prose I've read in a long time. Her perseverance and maturity shine though.
I've been at it here now for over a decade. My efforts to reach a larger audience through publication are disheartening and apparently futile. But, I do it just about every week and my writing, I think, has improved over time. Maybe by the time I'm eighty I'll have something good enough for the New York Times. Maybe not, but every week I get a little better. If nothing else, I hope that I keep active until I'm inactive.