The escape from Alcatraz, PA was successful - Part 1

As promised, I am sharing the different parts of my sabbatical journey in the only way I know how.  In story.

Because stone walls do a prison make 'n iron bars a cage, any man who says they don't - never been inside. 'Cause in time the bars get closer, and at night the walls grow tighter. Do you feel like there's a shackle around your mind? - Jim Croce

If you've ever spent enough time in one place, you know that place will slowly shape itself into your own personal prison over time. If you allow. And I allowed. One day you wake up and nothing that happens there is ‘good’ and no one who lives there meets your basic expectations for a reasonable human being over time.  And if that location happens to be an urban area in the northeast where people are auto-programmed to avoid interaction, the effects of this can be exaggerated on your spirit.  Especially if you grew up around extroverted, relational country people. The constant din of car horns, the sirens, the middle fingers, the absurd taxation, the crime, the barking mad schools, the traffic jams, etc. they begin to suck out the soul, the kind of damage a trip to Myrtle just won't repair.  You become that stereotypical Pittsburgh basement dweller. And the longer you wait to plot your escape (albeit temporary) the harder it becomes to actually follow through.  

But I went. The odometer on my life now rolling closer and closer toward that great salvage yard in the sky. My recent 18 month tour with Long Covid has heightened my sensitivity to the brevity of this life. I had to get away and see if there was any of the pre-urbanized me left in the tank to pour into new music.  The longer I spent away from people and music, the louder the imposter syndrome self-talk became. A self-esteem struggle I've faced my entire life, despite public accolades and achievements to the contrary.  One of the strangest realizations about life is that it doesn't really matter what people say to you, about you. It matters what YOU say to you, about you. Perhaps that's the sand in the oyster that produces a pearl?  But maybe that season was now over.  I wasn't sure.  

In a fit of despair I sold a bunch of my guitars this past winter, took some of the funds and signed up for a songwriting retreat with one of the premier songwriters in the country. A follow-on story about that soon. 

In planning, I assembled as many bucket list items as I could think of to do on the way, as I don't take vacation very often.  I know! I'm going to Woodstock NY to see hippie town (because I fit in there), I'm going to a remote Catskills inn to hear silence. I'm going to Bethel Woods to hear and see the Woodstock concert museum, heading to the Martin Guitar factory to hear and see how my beloved guitars are lovingly crafted from a tree to round out my mecca pilgrimage. But first things first, I'm going back to where I started (figuratively speaking).  

This first 5 hour leg from Pittsburgh found me in this magical place just west of Philly. Easter weekend in the previous home of one of my biggest heroes and influences - Jim Croce. While here, I met 2 truly remarkable, beautiful people, leaned on the porch railing where Jim Croce gave perhaps his last taped video interview and reflected at the kitchen table where Jim penned the lyrics to more than half a dozen smash radio hits in 7 days. “Operator”, “Time In a Bottle”, “Photographs & Memories” just to name a few. I sat there late on the first night pondering the near misses and near death experiences in my own life, and quietly recited my gratitude to God for allowing me to come this far despite my earlier ignorance & silliness in life.  As I sat at the table I was left with a lot of ‘what-ifs’ as I looked through my new songs. The farmhouse walls were silent like a cave. The only sound was the occasional hiss and snicker of the boiler heat radiators. I thought I'd come here and write, but I ended up just sitting.  And thinking.

On Saturday my dear friend Mary Muehleisen and her husband Ray drove not a short distance down from New Jersey to visit with me. Mary is the younger sister of Jim Croce's sideman Maury Muehleisen, who's playing style I copied early in my career before even knowing his name. If you've ever seen video of Jim playing, you've seen Maury right beside him. A humble instrumental prodigy, and a towering young songwriter in his own right, he was the yin to Jim's yang.   

While other guitarists my age in the 1980s were learning to play stratocasters and Pink Floyd & Eagles licks with a flatpick, I was learning Maury's solo for I'll Have To Say I Love You In A Song with my fingers. I've always been a bit a misfit if we're being honest. (I know, shocking…)

It wasn't clear if they were going to be able to make it in earlier in the week, but when I saw them pull into the driveway in between the farmhouse and the adjacent auction building, I suddenly felt like I was waiting for family at Thanksgiving as a kid. It didn't take long to be confronted with the understanding that there are connections in life that are not understandable with the analytical mind. I had never met them in person, but always had a specific gut feeling as we kept in touch periodically on social media, email, etc.  And it was immediately confirmed, although I don't have the paperwork to back it up. Yup, they were my family. 

It was like reconnecting with your 1st cousins you haven't seen since that summer vacation in 4th grade. You know, the one where the yellow jackets invaded the tent, everyone was sunburned, your mom wore the gigantic straw hat as she spread out the red & white checkered picnic table cloth.  The electric Kool-Aid from Coleman coolers in those green plastic Uncle Si Tupperware tumblers before we swam in 65 degree Fahrenheit water that no parent dared enter.  The cheese sandwiches.  That one. The smell of hot dogs & the bite of gramma's homemade coleslaw are now making me hungry.  The picture where all the adults were communally smoking cigarettes from their little leather pouches, laughing, sitting on aluminum fold out chairs in a circle and appearing to be genuinely having a ball in the now browned, curling Kodak photos, with the 2 digit month & year stamped on the bottoms.  Back when families had get-togethers - just 'cause.  The original FaceTime.  You remember.  That feeling.

Many aspects of my songwriting and performing style are/were oddly related to her late brother, although unintentionally in most regards. My somewhat unorthodox fingerstyle playing technique, my shyness, height & build, hair color, my abiding love for family and friends, my downright masochistic desire to write & perform music at a commercial level in my early 20s. Right down to the unknowing selection of the exact same Martin dreadnaught guitar models.  Enough to make me think ‘hmm’ on more than one occasion. 

As Mary and Ray visited with me in that tiny farmhouse apartment, I learned about the loss of Jim & Maury in the 1973 plane crash from a different perspective, and learned that like anything, the headlines only tell a tiny part of the story.  There's books written about the life of Jim Croce, but it's mostly topical stuff, timeline oriented documentary except for his wife's autobiography. Now these two songwriting masters were becoming real to me as told through the words of someone who lived that time with them.  The grief & loss of her brother and Jim were still palpably present now 50+ years later. As I sat on the couch with them, I picked up my D-18 and fumbled through a lesser-known Jim & Maury song that I hadn't played in at least 7 or 8 years, then one of my originals that showcased some of the chops I had borrowed from their recordings 35 years ago. They'd undoubtedly heard others do far better covers of the Croce songs thousands and thousands of times. The internet is replete with people singing those songs, some of them quite impressive.  Some not so much….

As Mary and Ray reminisced about the tiny apartment where Jim & Maury built their many hits, she could remember the orientation of the furniture and how her brother slept on the couch facing the fireplace, long ago removed from the apartment. Maury would remain in the apartment practicing his leads as Jim left and took odd jobs to make ends meet. In my overactive imagination I could see Jim and Ingrid harmonizing while Maury played his effortless, angelic riffs. I could see AJ the toddler sneaking away, struggling to ascend the treacherous servant staircase to the upstairs bedroom. I could see Jim entertaining people from all walks of life, as he was frequently known to do here. In my mind's eye I saw icons like Arlo Guthrie, Maury, Jim, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffett laughing, handing guitars back and forth, which they were all known to do in this little room. Things were different in the early 70s. Music was different. It was a fraternity. And guitars were just tools back then, they were borrowed, used for a bit, and then given back.  Like a box wrench lent from a neighbor's garage. A standard American made Martin also didn't cost $4000 back then. Expensive then no doubt, but still not out of reach for the normal person.

They were also kind enough to take me to the cemetery where Jim was buried before a very small handful of mourners in 1973. Something I had quietly wanted to do for many years, and had intended to do very discretely without telling anyone. The public information for this cemetery was that it was now closed completely to the public and further, the marker was rumored to be not exactly easy to find. I wasn't sure if I was going or not, but there was no grouchy groundskeeper going to keep Mary out. She remembered precisely where it was as we pulled up. A few steps and there I stood staring at what was a surprisingly spartan bronze marker for someone I had idolized for 3 decades. Again the imagined life of your heroes stands often in stark contrast to their actual day-to-day lives.  I marveled at the array of dimes and Jewish mourning stones adorning the simplistic marker. (Jim was Italian, not Jewish, but that's a story for another time).

“…and you can keep the dime.” 

He had been interred - quickly. No one was ready for this in 1973, and likely few actually knew back then, as there was no social media to blitz the tragedy in real time. The recovery of his body from the crash site, then the long trek from Natchitoches, Louisiana back to PA. Not a lot of time. A nondescript monument to the life of someone who's arc had literally just begun to launch into orbit. Had his life not been cut short, he'd have been considered amongst the Mt. Rushmore of American songwriting legends like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. No question. Maury & Jim were the blue-collar version of Simon & Garfunkel minus the insufferable egos & drama. They were the closest of best friends, which makes their fate all that much more difficult to reconcile. Maury at a bare minimum, would have become one of the most sought-after session guitarists in the world. 

I could feel the open door of Jim's impact on me closing a little inside. Closure from a vicarious friend who had taught me so much, whom I had never actually met. As I felt like perhaps it was coming time to leave, I wondered if someone would ever be touched enough by my own words to be compelled to lean over my grave and wonder as I was doing.

As I kneeled over his grave, I was taken by the overwhelming feeling that no one had been to this grave in a very, very long time.  I removed the bronze flower holder now full of water & debris, and it exposed the vertical coffin chamber space below. As I emptied the cup with the top of the grave chamber opened, I heard her voice quietly whisper “Hi Jim”.  

You see loved ones are never completely gone, as long as they are remembered. 

For a brief moment as I continued to reassemble the vase in the frame, I was no longer the silent visitor or some long-distance admirer, but a posthumous fellow mourner in that small, shocked group of people on that late September afternoon. For a second, 1973 was not very long ago.

 Thank you for that moment Mary, I will treasure it as long as I live. Every brother hopes/wishes they have a sister like you. You are an inspiration. 

As we returned to the car, it occurred to me that strong people are often not born that way - they're created by circumstance.

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