Stories from the sticks

I won't release my catharsis. No one wants to clean that up 

Everyone has a passion.  Like a bellybutton.  Mine has always been music.  In some ways its one of the least realistic passions a person can pursue.  It has and always will be an emotional rollercoaster me. As an insecure kid who lacked confidence, performing in front of people seems an odd occupation.  I've seen some incredible highs and..... well.  In between those euphoric moments, is the daily grind of the day job hustle and the dreaded down-time that makes me wish I'd learned to make pottery or be a painter or something less stressful.

People say to me all the time - "Why can't you just play your instrument for your own enjoyment like my uncle Lou did with his piano?"

Why? I'll tell you why. Because after you invest 15 or 20,000 hours in becoming competent at something, you have a insatiable desire to share it. Like owning a Corvette and leaving it in the garage and playing with the radio.  I have heard myself play and sing 9 million times. Unless I'm working on a new song, it doesn't entertain me much. All I hear are the flaws. The energy that is present when you peek out from behind the curtain before your set and hear the din of the crowd chatter?  That's the life-juice. That fear & excitement is something I live for.  It's a high.  Like a skier standing at the top of the slope right before they push off.  The fear of potential failure is almost overwhelming at times.  But the adrenaline from the risk is worth it.  The knot in my stomach that I used to untie with bourbon.  That one.  The connection I sometimes make after I calm down from the first song, the connection that keeps me from selling all my instruments and learning to golf.

Music is not unlike any other creative personal interest, whether it be painting, pottery, crafting, golfing, etc.  Mine just so happens to connect me to people, and make no mistake - there's major power in music which in and of itself is very addictive.  You have the power to connect with strangers & change how people feel.  And they'll willingly let you do it.  Not too many other hobbies like that, unless hypnotist is your hobby.  It's why 81 year old Bob Dylan still accosts unassuming millenials with his shriveled, nasal voice and moribund piano playing.  If it weren't Bob, they'd hurl things at the stage.  It ain't about you.  It's for - him.  And I get it.

I have performed for over 3 decades in all sorts of various places, big and small, fancy and...let's just say some were 'eclectic'.  Chicken wire we'll call 'eclectic' for the moment. I've been booed, cheered, mocked and ended songs that were intimate and meaningful to me only to hear deafening silence. It hurt.  And it made me determined not to suck that bad again. I learned that the threshold for entertaining people and not being noise or a curiosity is one not passed easily. I got my first guitar in 1989 because I thought it would help me get laid. Didn't take long for me to realize I actually had to actually be fairly good at playing before any woman's clothes would magically fall off.  Being "fairly good" takes a really, really long time.  I once sang a song in a bar and someone walked over and put money in the jukebox.  Humility is an easy thing as a musician.  It gets delivered for free.

I moved to Pittsburgh in 1997, and after my first child was born I opted to use my music ability in local churches, as they were safe places to be a musician and still do something with your craft. I will say I've never played for a more demanding and difficult crowd than a corral of stone-faced, Altoid sucking, sleep-deprived churchgoers. I was happy just trying to be a decent dad.  I didn't feel like the late night pub crawl was something I wanted to be doing while my kids were real young. I feared drifting back into that scene for reasons outlined in previous blog-a-stories. Once my kids were older, I started back into the local music scene in 2009 with the help of some friends I still have to this day. I quickly discovered Pittsburgh wasn't like San Francisco or Atlanta or even West Virginia for that matter.  There's a couple kinds of music here and you either play that or you don't exist. You have to cope with the bizarre and yet still mostly unexplained connection between Bruce Springsteen-rock and middle aged Pittsburghers. Yinzer rock or CMA country.  Or a Rolling Stones cover band.  Take your pick. You have some decent blues bands, and they can be quite good depending on the band, but I'm none of those things.  I try to imagine John Prine or Jim Croce trying to make it in Pittsburgh or really any other mid-sized non-music city.  They would have departed after the 100th wobbling drunk mumbled 'hey yeh know any good Stones songs? Mind if I see yer guitar?'

The groups that still own the music scene in this area haven't had a charting song since Bill Clinton was president.  And that's exactly how they like it. It's their city. I'm the outsider. 'Yinz all heddin dahtan t'see deh Clarx?"  Scott Blasey a legit genius songwriter, but still lives in a non-music city.  Sad really.  His solo album 'Don't Try This At Home' is one of the most underrated albums ever released in my opinion.  Masterpiece of songwriting.  But not released in L.A.

Lots of talented folks making noise, but nobody really going anywhere not named Gabby Barrett. There's the occasional pop-tart or country diva that has emerged from the metro area, but they've mostly done it with significant financial support to push them to a national level and they promptly leave for greener pastures.  Don't believe me?  Name one band from Pittsburgh that has been on national radio in the last 15 years.  I'll wait here. All music acts now are following a pipeline that starts with a select handful of agents, promoters and PR gurus.  A handful of labels who work with streaming services and dictate the songs that appear on playlists.  No successful artist is bouncing around to craft breweries singing on gravel patios to people swilling IPAs and eating fish tacos.  There's people FROM Pittsburgh who've been very successful, but they had to leave first.  That same story is true in all but roughly 3 cities.  If you aren't lucky enough, or unlucky enough to live in those cities (Austin, Nashville, or LA) you can't exist on the national landscape.  You can spend all your time and resources trying to gin up local interest and create fans, but and unless you somehow get on a TV singing competition show and win it, you will be deeply disappointed in the results of your labor.  Even if you are really really good.  

Back when I was a kid, before the wheel, it was special just to own an instrument, let alone play it at a professional level.  I remember how unique my dad was because he could play the piano.  He's even more unique now, since no one plays piano anymore.  If you could do that back then, you could still spend your entire life trying to make it in Nashville and never hear your voice on the radio except in your dreams.  Now?  You can get your music on streaming services without too much effort, but a cabal of curators controls who gets on the coveted playlists, which is exactly what happened in the 1970s with DJs & radio stations.  Except you can't send a leggy bombshell into the radio station with your album....

In 2015 I came close to buying the farm after I ignored a seemingly harmless dog bite too long and it became sepsis, nearly killed me graveyard dead.  Short time later in 2016 I was laid off from a high-stress, middle-management job. Those 2 events helped me realize the utter futility of being a corporate creature, and helped me shed my fear of making mistakes or taking risks.  My identity changed back in some respects to the person I was decades earlier.  Gone was the complacent corporate ladder climber, and back was the masochistic writer with a chronic case of wanderlust.  I still visit with that dangerous and unstable person from time to time.  Usually right after I open my guitar case.  He helps me with my hair....

Those back-to-back events gave me a renewed sense of purpose, and shook me out of the daily grind that had numbed and dumbed me down into a routine-addicted, NASCAR & cable news junkie.  I had devolved into a 60hr a week, stressed out tool for my employer.  A serial work addict who's identity had been co-opted and transformed by mindless careerism and false notions of job security.  It spurred me to take some risks, knock on some doors. Write some new material. 

For someone who is allergic to conflict and rejection, I forced myself to pretend I was worthy of a listen. Serendipity's only requirement, is the act of participation.  The last 6 years have been magical at times.  No way to describe how being part of a label and having amazing people surrounding me has enriched my life.  When you see and experience others doing amazing things, it rubs off. 

But the in-between times....the clock moves so fast.  The saying "all things come to those who wait" was said by a very naive person.  Life is for the takers.  Just reality. 

There really is a point where you have to sort of **** or get off the pot though.  And the fear of that arbitrary milestone is sometimes nearly debilitating.  In music, being old isn't a sin, however looking or acting old is.  A few years ago I asked a famous music legend for any advice for an aspiring 50 year old songwriter.  His reply?  He smiled a fatherly smile, came over and gave me a really long hug...and said nothing.

The years drop so fast now, I agonize at the passage of them.  The inevitable what-ifs rear their ugly heads during slow times.  The self-imposed pressure to make up for 2 decades of not doing the necessary footwork required to be a 'successful' performer nags and irritates like a rock in my shoe.  Just being happy with the now becomes so challenging.  I still have so much to say.  I have songs that I knew darn well were good years ago but was afraid to share them. 

I'm not afraid of that anymore.  The only thing I fear is time.  And my accelerating hearing loss.  I have been wearing hearing aids now for 5 years.  Most people don't know I struggle to hear basic conversations.  If you aren't facing me and I can't see your lips, I probably won't understand what you're saying.  I have to plug my ears in a certain way to get the internal bones of my face/ear canal to resonate so I can tell if I'm singing in tune.  You'd be surprised what you'll come up with when you are desperate. 

I'm not at the exit of my road (I hope) but at 53 I can see the lights of the City from here.  The accelerated expectations of myself and the subsequent ones I place on others can be a brutally unrealistic. I can become a taskmaster one day, especially if there's some goal or target on the horizon.  The next day I'm thinking about selling my guitar collection.  It really is a type of madness or schizophrenia-lite. 

A Nashville publisher offered me a contract for my catalog of songs back in 2018.  Told me that my songs were marketable, but I was way too old (48) and wouldn't look good in skinny jeans and an earring.  (Aren't we all glad that fad is over?) I explained to my jaded & arrogant new friend that I was not a "country" singer, nor did I have any desire to be classified as one.  I asked him if he liked John Prine, and he said yes, that's 'country'.  I can only talk to a wall for so long. After a dear friend reviewed the contract and advised me to decline, I never went back to Nashville for anything.  But here I sit.  Waiting on time. In music purgatory.

The material I have I believe is as good as any Nashville hit-maker.  Every songwriter believes that.  But I lack the willingness to drop everything and spin that wheel.    

Let's be honest - To willingly do any sort of live performing or really anything that subjects you to any real public scrutiny - makes you different than most others.  Most people wouldn't consider being paralyzed with fear in front a crowd of potentially unfriendly strangers something to look forward to.  It's not nice fear at times, it's terror.  Let alone have it be the driving purpose of your life.  I mean pottery, or golfing or Harleys are less stress.  You don't realize it, but you're wired different.  

After a particularly grueling show this past April, I closed the pub hustle door after 33 years.  It was sorta worthwhile 20 years ago, but once you have a certain level of exposure in a given geographic area, it stops being a conduit for new fans and becomes a side-job in some ways.  And the competition for these local venues is something I would classify as - absurd.  You end up competing with 3 chord cowboys who know parts of 2 Neil Young songs and maybe 2/3 of Wonderwall.  I'm not a superstar, but I don't stand and read from a music stand for 3 hours.  I care about my audience. You paid money to hear me.  It needs to be good.

I'm also no longer hauling $4500 of gear and guitars out to chase a pub owner around to pay me for a $150 gig.  Especially after I just made them $2500 in food and booze patrons.  As if they're doing me a favor letting me entertain people and keep them in their seats eating & drinking for less than it costs to mow their lawn.  I've grown to despise restaurant and pub owners.  Seriously.  How they disrespect legitimate musicians, and then look down their nose at me as a folk artist.  Also, the physical toll begins to be an issue.  The difference between age 43 and 53 is significant in terms of stamina and energy.  But I still enjoy doing special events that are for real music fans. But I can't haul stage gear anymore.  Can't do it.  And it was the right decision, even though I truly miss the human connection. The Grass Roots Festival a few weeks ago was just amazing. But there are times I really do think about when to close this chapter of life.  Then I go get my guitar out of the case and sure enough it still shouts and whispers secrets to me in the terms of madness all over again.

Confessions From *The Car* 

The question actually comes up quite a bit.  "How do you routinely play music surrounded by people drinking when you don't??  Doesn't it bother you?"  "Weren't you a....you know...a..."

The simple answer is well - Yes it does bother me from time to time.  I still enjoy performing, and I wouldn't mind having a glass of wine now and then, but I cannot drink.  

If you're still reading, I've only shared this with a handful of people, mostly my very immediate family in the last 25 years. I mean they won't whisper behind your back, so.   And when you're done reading you'll understand why I don't talk about this.  I'm far enough away from it now, that it doesn't have the same weight as it once did.  But I won't discuss this in detail beyond this writing.  And I'm not even sure how long I will leave this up.  You know how people are, and frankly I just don't want to talk about it all that much.  It's not that much fun.  But as I said in my book, my goal with the remainder of my time on earth is to look for opportunities to pay it forward.  So here it goes.  

I'm not a 'religious' person in the sense that I embrace the lifestyle that American Christianity puts forth.  I am still rough around the edges, and probably not ideally suited to sit on your church board.  I enjoy church though, and especially covet my grandmother's bible, but no one would ever accuse me of being particularly religious, in the American sense.  Especially my immediate family which would describe me, as Ralphy did his father in A Christmas Story:

"My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master."

Which perhaps is something I should work on come to think of it.  But I am what I am, bent edges and all.  However, I am living evidence of Joel 2:25.  I had an encounter with God.  Or at least what I think was God.  Yes - you read that correctly.  And I occasionally act like it. 

I'm uncovering a difficult season of my life because maybe there's the possibility someone out there is actually still in this place I'm about to describe.  I know I survived it for a reason, and that reason becomes more apparent as I get older.  And on the 25th anniversary of this dubious event, maybe your brother or your sister are in the grip of addiction and, or dealing with some major depression.  The two tend to be roommates. Or maybe - you.

For those that lost track of me in the 1990s, it may come as a shock to hear that I haven't had a single drink in 25 years, as it was synonymous with my name for well over a decade.  A season I'd just as soon forget.

For a slight of build, bullied, insecure kid in search of an identity, alcohol held the promise of temporarily easing pervasive feelings of inadequacy, and a cancerous lack of self-esteem. It also held the illusory, Holy Grail of being considered an 'adult' by my peers.  I know.  Stupid. Same pressurized reason we all smoked.  Not stupid to a teen though.  Ah the crush to be 'older'.  If you were a kid in the 1980s, things weren't always so straightforward as perhaps they are now. 

Alcohol was a toxic, yet readily available prescription for someone self-medicating depression and anxiety.  Even though I didn't really know what those words meant back then.  Something associated with 'weak' people probably. Or somebody with a 'problem'.  Me?  I just worked hard & played hard.  In reality, alcohol was sewn tightly into the identity of manhood at that time, at least in my neck of Appalachia.  Drinking was a socially acceptable way of dealing with pretty much every aspect of life. Good or bad. Not so much now. If someone tells you how much they had to drink last night, chances are you aren't really that impressed.  But back then...

I had a desire to perform professionally after college and alcohol was just what the doctor ordered to calm the Pavlovian terror that gripped me whenever I stepped in front of people.  Alcohol also gave cover, to a degree, for doing things that would otherwise have not been tolerated of me sober.  I could throw "well I was drunk" in front of a lot of things that really were just me being a thoughtless, selfish jerk.  And it worked.  For a while. 

It was also very commonplace.  You couldn't drive a mile in West Virginia in the 80s & 90s without passing a packed bar.  It wasn't that unusual for men to die in their early to mid-50s from this lifestyle where I lived.  The connection between heavy drinking and mortality hadn't really been established like it has now. 

Besides before Facebook, it was where we went to interact with the world.  People did all sorts of stupid things back then, and short of a car accident, it was rarely met with any real consequences as long as you were drinking.  Again, that was a moment in time, things are completely different now.  Get pulled over for DUI now they don't take your cooler and send you home.  Nor should they.  But remember what the most popular show on TV was....(Cheers?)  The non-stop glorification of alcohol in beer commercials?

I spent a few years in the active duty military, planning bombing missions for pilots, which for someone struggling with alcohol addiction, was a recipe for disaster.  I wasn't mentally prepared for the things I would see and experience there, and it pushed me further and further into the darkness.  And at that time, soldiers drank constantly, or at least it seemed.  By the time I exited active duty in 1994, I was a sack of broken glass looking for a place to cut anyone unfortunate enough to get close to me.  A semi-functioning alcoholic.

There is a smaller window where we still accept young people 'sowing their oats' so to speak.  But a stumbling drunk, at age 27 had long expired whatever statute of sympathy and understanding that existed.  Even back then.  At some point, you're just an adult with a big problem you won't or can't fix.  You graduate from being the party-guy to an isolated pariah after a certain age.  It's no longer a party and neither are you.  The phone stops ringing, and people stop coming by.  Except for people who are equally or more messed up than you.  You get the picture.  The vicious downward cycle.

By 1997 I had spent a reckless decade careening from one disastrous situation to the next, not unlike the Shriners and their crazy little parade cars wildly zigzagging back and forth across the street.  Always wondering why the world seemed to have it's thumb on my neck, and the deck forever stacked against me.  Every valuable relationship seemed like carrying sand in my hands.  Most problems were either caused indirectly by my addiction or were worsened by it, which in turn caused me to drink that much more.  It was a place to hide for someone who didn't understand how the world really worked.

After a pretty serious industrial accident in 1995 in Marietta, Ohio (which oddly enough happened while I was completely stone-cold sober) - I lost use of my right arm from 1995-1996.  In the haze of medical bills, workers comp litigation, surgery, bankruptcy, Vicodin, being out of work, alone, trying to bathe with 1 arm, etc. my life careened completely out of control and kept spiraling until I hit the proverbial rock bottom.  If you've been in this place, you know there's really no guarantee you're going to come back from it, although it is the narrative we are all so familiar with in America.  But there's a reason the song says, "When you leave that way, you can never go back."  Not entirely true, but also not completely untrue either. 

I hurt all sorts of wonderful people who truly cared about me on my way down to the hole in the bowl. There are things I know I can never fix.  At one level, it wasn't really me.  But in fact - it was really me.  From the time of that accident in 1995, to the night of February 15th 1997, I was at no moment completely sober, I was just in between drinks. 

I had to learn guitar from scratch with a surgically rebuilt hand that resisted my every demand. I was in constant agony for several years from the numerous tendons that were surgically reconstructed, and when the doctor won't give you any more Vicodin, well - you make do.  Take that Tylenol with codeine and give it back to your dentist.  Just keeping it real.  The ER surgeon joked that my career as a musician was over.  He had no idea. 

I've forgiven him.

At that point I truly thought God hated me.  Just 2 years earlier I was in California showing off my songs for a handful of record industry people, earning the promise of being offered a chance to enter what was then called artist development.  In the music industry, that simply means someone is willing to invest in you.  They saw something they liked, kinda like getting through to Hollywood on American Idol.  The music industry was way, way different back then in the early 90s.  If you could just get your foot in the door, the possibilities were literally endless, but getting your foot in the door was nearly impossible.  It was just understood.  Now everyone can walk through the door, but standing out from 15 million other people who sound just like you is the challenge now.  I digress.  In 1993, even the hint of a career in the music biz was a really big deal.  But a year later in 1994 I learned quickly that the music industry is rife with change.  By 1994-5, the music industry underwent a sudden change, labels merged, the acoustic music revolution had been replaced with grunge and that was that.  Answering machines.  Poof.

 And now I had what appeared to be a life-altering disability, I was financially destitute and a need for intoxication or medication that drove my every decision.  I was convinced God hated me.  And I hhhhhated Him right back.  Or at least what I thought was God.  This angry cosmic being that routinely had fun randomly messing up my life.  To teach me another 'lesson' perhaps.  That 'god'.  I had all sorts of religious ideas about what God was and wasn't.  All were incredibly ignorant.  But I believed them all since they were from the church of my own experience, which up to that point was infallible

I became consumed in self-pity and anger.  A few years earlier, I had blown a college scholarship, numerous really meaningful relationships, a couple of legit engagements, and friendships that would never, ever be repaired.  Still to this day, there are people that I care about, who I cannot reconcile with.  I was bankrupt, suffering from neurological problems and ulcers, driving a green, $250 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with nearly 180,000 miles on the clock that should have already been crushed and stacked in a junkyard somewhere.  It had mold on the vinyl top and you had to open the driver's door from the inside.  There were stains on the seats that looked like something from an episode of CSI.  If there was an embodiment of my life, there it was in all its rusted, smelly, squeaking & leaking glory. 

I was also faced with a growing understanding that I was the common denominator in the litany of catastrophes that seemed to happen on a semi-monthly basis.  I became conspicuously duplicitous and shallow, a shadow of the bright-faced, thoughtful and tenderhearted kid who was able to charm, contort and people-please his way through his teens and early 20s.  Even at 27 my body had begun to seriously break down from the non-stop abuse.  At 25 I walked with my hands in my pockets because I couldn't stop my hands from tremoring. I smoked 2+ packs of cigarettes a day and coughed incessantly.  I frequently dug cigarette butts out of ashtrays.  It was a bad time. 

By the night of Saturday February 15th, 1997 I had burnt every bridge that I had a chance to stand on.  I was broke. I was friendless and radioactive.  Did I mention broke?  I felt like I had reached a point where there was no point in going on.  Depression plays terrible tricks on the mind and on decision-making.  Alcohol encourages those tricks to become really stupid choices.  If you know someone who is struggling mentally, try to make yourself available.  I know, it's not easy.  But you don't need to fix things, they're not really listening to your suggestions anyway.  Just be around.  You never know when you are the difference...

After a night of heavy drinking at a Valentines Day gathering, I left to swerve my way home from ditch to ditch as I so often did. But as I felt my way to my car in the pitch dark, I heard the crunch of my only pair of glasses under my feet.  As I stooped down to feel for the pieces in the mud, something broke inside of me.  

Back then glasses were ridiculously expensive, and for some reason in that moment, the sound of the crunching frames and having to drive home even more impaired than I already was, was just the last straw for whatever reason.  In hindsight it's weird that such a small relatively meaningless thing became such a life-altering event.  But when you're living on the edge, small things can suddenly become really big things. 

Unlike what people some think, I really didn't sit around thinking about putting an end to my life.  When not stupor-drunk, I pushed through each day just like everyone else.  But something cracked inside of me that night as I got in my car and twisted the key into the ignition.  Yes even the stupid ignition key was bent.  You could start that car with a flathead screwdriver.  It was like a pressure cooker that finally exploded and all the steam left.  Also the myth that there are always signs, also not true.  I can tell you that I gave absolutely none. 

Depression robs you of the joy of getting over things, then alcohol puts rollerskates on that pain and launches you to crash wherever you crash.  Alcohol had contributed to a previous unsuccessful attempt on my life once before in 1989 that I somehow survived.  That's a whole other story about grace.

I won't go into a lot of detail about what I did on this night in 1997, it's irrelevant.  But every alcoholic knows exactly how to end their life.  You just do.  And I did it.  I do remember immediately losing consciousness, and momentarily looking down at my motionless body on the floor of my living room in front of my black faux leather sofa, in my tiny little house on East Pollock Street in Paden City, West Virginia.  I always found it odd there wasn't a West Pollock street.  Anyway, the only sound was the hum of the furnace, me and the furniture.  I had purchased the furniture set shortly before I went bankrupt from the accident, and it was really all I owned other than 'the car', a few guitars and my clothes.  I bought this crazy looking lamp with like 3 long arms that looked like some sort of sea monster.  But it was mine. 

But anyway, it was done.  Or so it seemed.  And I remember the weight of what I had just done being on me.  It seemed like someone else laying there.  But I knew it was Brad Malone.  Like I had murdered my best friend and was suddenly confronted with it in all it's horror.  I was fully dressed, sober, awake, alert and completely aware of my surroundings.  I was there for what seemed like only a few minutes.  Then I was taken somewhere else.  There were no singing angels, no clouds, gates, bright white light, no beautiful flower gardens, none of that stuff you hear from people who experience near-death situations where they flatline.  There was also no devil with horns, no cauldron of fire, no smoke or pitchforks, accordions (kidding, polka fans), Taylor Swift music or any sort of other tortuous things going on.  And certainly not the 'nothing' that I had really expected.  I can't go into a lot of details about what I experienced over the next 24 or so hours because it seemed far shorter and some of it still to this day doesn't really make any sense, as things make sense on earth, other parts are simply not easy to put into words.  You wouldn't believe me if I tried.  But I was somewhere else.  I remember vividly, like it was yesterday.  It's ok now if you think I'm a kook.  Really, I'm ok with it. Someone else might read this and it could help them.  Go on with your day.

I awoke the following Monday morning around 4 am sitting in a different part of the house, sitting perfectly upright on the end of my bed with my feet flat on the floor, in just my underwear.  But I wasn't relieved to be alive.  I was covered in sweat, and terrified.  Almost hysterical.  I felt like I needed to run, but to where?  From what?  I couldn't call my parents, what would I tell them?  'Hi Mom, I tried to kill myself mom, but I apparently screwed that up again too?"  What if that got out?  People already looked at me in a negative light.  What then? People will think I'm insane, in addition to being suicidal.  I had images of being locked in a padded room in a clean, white straightjacket.  The things that went through my mind...

I had made sure that if I ever 'pulled the trigger', so to speak, there would be no outs.  So why didn't it work?  I still don't know the answer to that.  I told you there was a reason I kept this to myself for 25 years.  This isn't the kind of thing you talk about at dinner parties.

I showered, brushed my teeth and went to work at the chemical plant where I was employed as a temp.  A coworker there had routinely tried to reach out to me about God, which I dismissed outright as I did most religious people and things.  But I knew he knew God.  You just know those people when you meet them, right?  There's something different about them.  I waited in his office cubicle at 6am for him to arrive and to his shock, there I sat, imploring him to help me sort out what I had just survived.  I'm sure I sounded like a lunatic.  I'm not sure I even let him take his coat off.  I remember him telling me to slow down and that he had a friend named Mike Lenz who could help me.  I was too scared and ashamed to tell him I had just attempted suicide, so I told him I had seen things in a terrible vision.  I mean how do you explain messing that up?  After all, he might call the guard shack and have me taken to the hospital for a mental evaluation, and I couldn't afford that, even though in hindsight that really might have been the right thing to do.  I had no insurance and was clinging tenuously to a temp position that barely paid me enough to live.  I had no idea how he would react, he really hardly knew me. But he could see right away that I was really, really serious, and really shaken up.  I needed answers, and I needed them fast.  Thank God for Tim McHenry, that church, Barry & Brenda Bullman, Chris & Mike Lenz and all the others who helped me at United Christian Fellowship.  They had no idea the situation they were really dealing with. 

But suddenly, I was in a place where I was truly open to God and he met me right where I was.  My life utterly changed for a second time in just a matter of weeks.  Night and day.  Broken to whole.  Crushed to new.  Lost to found.  I'm no longer afraid to die.  I peered behind the veil for a brief moment and saw what I saw.  I just wish I'd have taken someone's word for it beforehand.

The change in my life was so abrupt, rumors swirled for months that I had literally lost my mind, had some sort of nervous breakdown, became schizophrenic, joined a cult and otherwise jumped the shark.  I get it now.  People who cared about me stood in my living room almost exactly where I had just tried to end things weeks earlier, and declared me unstable.  They didn't know. 

But I knew

Once people have you in a box and labeled, they don't always like it initially when you bust out the side and exit.  You're affecting their grip on reality.  But regardless, I never took another drink.  And now you know the 'why'.

Even though I lived, you can't do what I did without paying a steep price, and I'm still paying it here some 25 years later.  Its a miracle that my body still functions as well as it does.  A few years later I learned that I had permanently damaged my liver, and it contributed to a worsening series of neurological problems, so much so that I spent years with specialists shoving me into MRI machines, trying to sort it out.  It has been a tough road.  I thankfully have meds to control the periodic seizure-like symptoms.  Small price to pay though.  I'm still here.  I can still sing and play and tell stories.  And tell you God is good, and there's a chapter after this one.  I'm not sure what would happen if I actually drank again, I'm just too grateful for every day of life to think about opening that door again.  So it's easy for me to say 'no thanks' and watch others enjoy themselves. 

Blessings~

 

I had the strangest dream last night. Thanks a lot Bruce. 

I had the strangest dream last night.  I've been in a weird place (I know big shock) recently.  I've crossed so many things off my bucket list in such short order, I'm suddenly not sure what the future holds.  And it’s a weird feeling.  I'm not feeling driven like I was last year.  I'm feeling reflective and insular.  The pandemic I believe is taking its toll on me mentally.  Maybe when I stop moving with a clearly defined purpose, I start to focus on the things I can’t control.  Who knows.  Either way, I'm not sure what the next chapter holds.  Maybe I'll start writing about it.  Perhaps it will be cathartic.

Anyway, my daughter and I wrapped up re-re-watching the first season of Stranger Things on Netflix around midnight (I think we've watched all 3 seasons at least 5 times in total), and I turned in for the night.  5am comes earlier than ever these days, and I've been oddly fatigued and tired as of late.  Abigail and I are preparing for the upcoming season 4 premier of our now favorite show coming in July.  Truth be told we'll probably watch all 3 seasons again before then.  We've connected with characters like I did with the cast of M*A*S*H or Cheers or even Parenthood to a lesser degree.  Great shows connect you on a subconscious level.  They just do.  If you've never watched this Netflix series and you were a teen in the 80s, do yourself a favor and pay for a month subscription & check it out.  Make sure you start on a Friday evening, because you won't get up for a couple days.  The painstaking level of realism is truly breathtaking at times, a time capsule to my adolescence. Even the Radio Shack walkie-talkies, the SoundDesign Boom Box and the HAM radio are 100% legit.  The cast plays Dungeons & Dragons in the basement.  It just doesn't get any more 80s than that.  A blend of Dr. Who and the 1986 movie Stand By Me for you Rob Reiner fans.  I really don't watch TV or anything else really for that matter, movies included anymore.  I struggle with things that mess with my emotions in any way now.  Everything seems to have an overt agenda rather than just entertainment for entertainment's sake.  I hate it when Hollywood tries to manipulate me.  So I stick with Westerns and comedies.  But I watch this series.  It is just pure fun.  

For me, the 80s are sort of the lost generation in the omnibus of celebrated American history.  There's still wild romanticism surrounding the social upheaval & iconoclasts of the 1960s and the debauchery and experimentation that characterized the 1970s, but few choose to recall the decade of teased hair, mousse, hard rock, MTV, mullets, stonewashed jeans, IROC Z's, red, white and blue Nikes, the asinine popularity of cigarette smoking, Asteroids, beaded shoestring safety pins, Toughskins, and Miami Vice inspired apparel.  Ok we could forget the last one.  And most importantly, the enormous power that music held over my generation.  Even though by the 80s, much of commercial radio music was pretty cookie-cutter & fundamentally lousy in many respects.  ('We Built This City' anybody?)  We were still riding in the FM radio world of "classic rock" from the decade before.  The 80s were the only decade in my lifetime that did not involve a really serious war.  It was a time of decadence, self-indulgence, yet colored in part with the expectations and values bestowed upon us by The Greatest Generation who were our grandparents.  And in the final analysis, it was an apt title from Mr. Brokaw.  A time of relative calm and peace.  The term Generation X was accurate.  We were/are an enigma, and as such, a generation that has been been mostly overlooked in media and entertainment circles.  Our few, meaningful contributions to the lexicon of American slang, are now gone.  Although occasionally I still sometimes say 'duh' or 'cool'.  "Tubular" only uttered around other Gen X'ers.

Anyway, I didn't come here to tell you that.

I fell asleep rather quickly and just moments later I awoke back in my native West Virginia, standing in my grandmother's tiny, and I mean *tiny* one bedroom bungalow, where I was so frequently found during my teenage and childhood years.  It was an almost miniature 4 room house by today's standards, maybe 30ft x 30ft.  Way before tiny houses were trendy and hip.  You had to go outside to change your mind - small.  The shower was a spot on the floor in the basement with a shower curtain hung around it.  But I could always fetch a meal there, and every teen needs someone blind enough to think they walk on water.  This was the place I got - that.  I have had recurring dreams here, but none quite like this.

Rarely a week passed when I was a teen when I didn't ascend those wobbly cinder block steps to darken her door and check in on her.  She did not drive, and was always thrilled with company.  I'd stop by if I hadn't heard from her or when I just needed to feel accepted as-is.  I was never in any trouble there.  My then late-grandfather bought it sometime during the great depression and it was sort of hidden at the mouth of this insanely narrow and twisty, maple & willow tree lined road that outsiders dared not traverse lightly due to the corduroy, 2-way, single lane, tar and gravel surface or "road".  And I use that term 'road' very loosely.  Oil Ridge Road.  An homage to the 19th century oil boom in the area I suppose.  It is exactly like your imagination paints it. In the summer, the smell of the fresh tar sprayed to seal the surface would hang in the air for weeks.  I loved that smell.  Still do.  Ah, the sweet smell of napthalene in August.  This hillbilly car path, was hewn into the side of the ubiquitous, towering West Virginia hillside that would make even the heartiest goat reconsider, lest they tumble to their demise.  The entire road owing it's continued existence to the persistence of monster trucks burrowing out the ditch so deep you could bury a Volkswagen inside anywhere along it's circuitous path.  The other side an unguarded and perilous cliff emptying into a gorge a couple hundred feet below at its highest point.  Anyone who has ever driven Oil Ridge from the Paden City side knows the cliff I'm talking about.  Near the no dumping sign that directed everyone to the location to dump their junk.  Straight down.  The end.

Sadly, the house is not much more than a rotted pile of rubble now, a hollowed out husk of a once warm home owned by very proud and strong people, who never once thought of themselves as poor, and acted accordingly.  After gramma passed, the 'people' who bought the property proceeded to use it as a rusted boneyard for part-ed out cars and trucks and whatever other miscellaneous garbage they could decorate the property with.  Rapidly the property fell into disrepair and squalor. Yes, sometimes the stereotype shoe of my beloved hills fits like Cinderella's slipper.  Gone was the elaborate vegetable garden my grandmother and dad tended to and plowed, along with the blackberry bushes and the groundhogs she would scare away with a shotgun.  Gone were the memories of sitting on the porch snapping beans and helping can vegetables.  In it's place a bombed out looking house trailer that looks like it had been on fire, used in a demolition derby and rolled into it's current position.  It was surrounded by just enough rusted junk to start a Neil Young tribute museum.

But in the 1980s it was just a really nice little place.  Just big enough for a restless and confused kid and his gramma.  The wood plank porch had an enormous green cast iron glider, and if you weren't fortunate to ride one of these rusted old cast iron Cadillacs in the summertime, you really missed out on something.  The constant slam-bang of her unattenuated wooden screen door was commonplace and inoffensive and was just part of the country family din, especially during family gatherings.  That would drive me bonkers now.  It was the sound of precocious grandchildren running in and out squeeling from hide 'n seek and nobody minded. 

I would rock the glider until it would clang on the travel stops.  Oil Ridge foot travelers would just randomly wander up to the porch, lean on the handrail and talk.  No pre-calls or appointments necessary.  Some wore suspenders, but all seemed oddly thin, old and rarely clean shaven.  Many with varying amounts of teeth.  I don't remember one who didn't have on Dickies work pants, and all looked to be 100 years old, at least to a kid.  Everybody pretty much knew everybody.  If no one could identify you as so-and-so's sister's aunt's cousin, well!  You were probably suspicious!

Eventually some harried adult would emerge from the house and tell me to knock off the clanging with the glider.  I rarely fully complied. I just banged it lighter.  It was on this very porch in 1986 that my uncle handed me a nylon stringed guitar he magically produced from the trunk of his car.  Turns out he always had it with him in case of the need for spontaneous music.  Like an emergency medical kit for Irish people.  He proceeded to create sounds on this instrument that dazzled me, like watching a really good magician and his favorite card trick.  He placed it in my lap and said, "naw, its easy.  here I'll show ya.."  He proceeded to effortlessly belt out folk tune after folk tune, perfectly accompanying his songs in his disarming, folksy irish-influenced manner.  He was a real good person and a real good musician.  My dad and his brother also never actually met a stranger.  They were able to find things about anyone to like, almost inexplicably trusting.  And people reciprocated.  Still do with my dad.  Everybody loved my family, well except (ahem) - I'm not everyone's cup of tea.  We'll just leave it at that.  I wish I could be like them more than I am.

So Uncle Otis left me a battered song book and a bunch of typed out songs in a loose-leaf notebook and disappeared back to the impossibly far away country called Pennsylvania.  I mean after all, it was a long-distance phone call.  Expensive.  If the call was long-distance back then, and you had to dial a (1) before the number, you officially lived far, far away.

Back to the dream.  Focus Brad.

In my dream last night, I was there doing whatever in the heck it was I was doing at gramma's, when someone knocked on the rattle-y wooden screen door.  At first it appeared to be a stranger, but after he took his jacket off, it was...Bruce Springsteen? Wait, huh?  Yes.  Bruce Springsteen.  Here in my dream.  At my grandmother's door.  But a very young version of the 3 chord Telecaster-clad rocker.  Why? I have no idea, but with most dreams involving me in my underwear, amused classmates and a school locker I can’t remember the combination to, I was game for this.  But what the h-e double hockey sticks is Bruce doing at my grammas??  I know.  Just wait, it gets weirder-er. 

I open the door without question or hesitation and welcomed him in, he clearly already knew others in the house that was suddenly and oddly full of other people.  He seemed to know everyone except for me.  My grandmother didn't even get up or stop what she was doing.  I could feel the immediate tension of being around someone famous.  You know what I'm talking about.  I've felt that sensation in real life many times, its a wonderful and yet uncomfortable tension.  (Dear God please don't let me say something stupid...)  Google Chris Farley with Paul McCartney.  That's what I mean.

He wasn't unfamiliar to her for whatever reason and she went on about cooking something for us to eat.  I mean she was perpetually trying to fatten me up, why I'd have slid right down the shower drain if I didn't start eating.  Boy she'd sure be proud of me now...

He indicated he was only stopping by for a moment to say hello, and that he would be on his way shortly.  I suspected I knew the real reason he was there:  The noodles.  Of course, it had to be the noodles. Specifically, Virginia's homemade chicken noodles.  These little cherubs of gooey, starchy goodness are the stuff of culinary legend.  The kinda' stuff you fight with your brother over and your mom has to intervene and divide the portions evenly.  Somehow the legend of her exquisite diner-style cooking had traveled all the way to Asbury Park and inspired Mr. Springsteen to reroute his travels via a tiny, forgotten river town to sample them for himself.

While waiting for dinner in this dream, we sat and made small talk and I asked him if he'd like to see one of my guitars.  He was incredibly kind to me, and I remember feeling really appreciative of that.  I was anxious to see what he would do.  He agreed to show me something as he commented on my instrument.  I told him I was a songwriter and he smiled as he began strumming something.  I sat in frozen awe for a few moments, then frantically scrambled to find another guitar to accompany him as he sat on a kitchen chair beside my grandmother's 1950s chrome bound dining room table.  You know the kind, with the Formica top.  I mean I couldn't just SIT there.  Poof, another guitar appears.  Aren't dreams great?

He told me to...'keep it simple'.

I have lots of dreams, most are frankly unpleasant and gladly forgotten upon awakening.  Sometimes I get one like this though, that sticks with me.  I'm not sure if Bruce was really my late uncle strumming a song for me at his childhood home or some spirit visage of the famous musician trying to impart some cosmic wisdom to me via a meal of heavenly noodles with a side of creamed lima beans.  But it was Bruce's face and Bruce's voice.  But either way, he was supposed to be there.  No one was surprised at his presence, except for me. 

I don't really listen to Bruce, nor am I what anyone would call a fan of any measure.  Which is somewhat odd, because in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen is STILL big, as he has a direct connection to several prominent area musicians, namely one Joe Grushecky.  I would note that his album(s) 'Ghost of Tom Joad' and 'Nebraska' being 2 notable moments in his music for me.  And let's be honest, "I'm on Fire" is just a killer song.  But I am a bigger fan of lots of other artists.  I think there was an Aaron Lewis song recently that called him out for his alleged claim that he would exit the United States if Donald Trump were reelected.  I seem to remember being moved emotionally by that song, and at the same time, disappointed that a song of such depth and honesty would likely only be remembered for a dig at someone who at one time represented average Americans.  Bruce's 1980s working-class hero persona connected with my generation, especially those of blue collar Appalachian roots.  Regardless of his actual personality, which if to be believed is not exactly the mechanic rolling from underneath the Camaro.  However, that narrative stuck.  Call it great PR or whatever.  I was disappointed that music was being used to deliver overtly political blows.  However deserved or not.  I always hated Neil Young's bashing of Nixon.  But I really enjoyed Neil's music overall.  Of course Nixon deserved it.  But it's just too easy as a songwriter.  Low-hanging fruit.  It's A Dark And Stormy Night cliche kind of easy.  Would be like me writing a song about Trump or Biden.  I can the feel eye-rolling and groans already.  It was also a blunt reminder the 80s are over and along with them my elusive innocence & adolescence. 

Meanwhile, back in my dream I told him I really loved Pete Seeger (not Bob Seger fellow yinzers) and other early folk music, he turned to me suddenly, his eyebrows raised and he made direct eye contact with me.  We talked about Pete's music for what seemed like a really long time.  We talked about how Pete used to go around to schools promoting music and encouraging kids to pursue it.  We both remembered.

As my grandmother began to bring those succulent noodles of bliss into the little 12 foot square dining room where we had to push the chairs in to get to our seat - I awoke.  Damn.  Hate it when great dreams end. He got away with the noodles and my helping of creamed limas.  But he did leave me with a curious song inside my head that didn't float away immediately.  I googled Springsteen and Pete Seeger today and saw that Bruce did an entire tribute album to the late banjo-wielding folk singing hero a decade ago.  Well whadya' know.  Never knew that.  That is the weirderer. 

I grabbed my phone from the side table and began to jot down the lyrics that were still bouncing around in my head.  Its not often that voice from that distant place speaks, and I know now to immediately write things down that awaken me at 4am.  I've learned.  I'm not the writer, I'm the conduit.  

What a wonderful trip back in time courtesy of Stranger Things, Harry Malone and the The Boss.  Oh and Bruce Springsteen.