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.