“While in the West the Beatles stepped on all the rules
The 60’s beat was echoing through all the Soviet schools.
Every Russian schoolboy wants to be a star
Playing Beatles’ music, making a guitar.
Teachers looked upon this as if it were a sin,
We were building Communism but the Beatles butted in.
‘Nyet’ to Beatles music. ‘Da’ the students said.
Even Comrade Brezhnev sadly shook his head…” (1)
- “Yeah Yeah Virus”, Yury Pelyushonok-Olga Sansom, c. PLY Publishing 2000.
Rock music has only been around for only about 60 years now. But it has become such a part of our culture that we may have forgotten that. When it started in the 1950’s, it was considered only for teenagers and adults didn’t take it seriously. Its early pioneers Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, etc. were just trying to make as, boy genius/ producer, Phil Spector said, ”little symphonies for the kids” but only of 2-3 minutes duration.
Its early founders almost all came from the southern U.S. There are reasons for this, because early rock n’ roll was basically a combination of two forms, rhythm- blues and country (which some have called white man’s blues, like Hank Williams’), which at the time could only have been heard in the South. Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., said if he could find a white man who could sing with the soul of a black, which he did with Elvis, he could have cross-over hits. And he was also to do that with rest of the million-dollar quartette, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. These white artists called this new music they created “rockabilly”.
Where a performer came from had a lot to do with the kind of music they created. Rock is a hybrid and rock comes from the cities. Black blues musicians may have originally come from rural areas (again the South), but it wasn’t until such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker moved north for jobs after the war, that blues turned closer into electric rock and became the Chicago Blues and Detroit Motown. Texas is interesting, for example, because so many artists came out of it: Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, for it had not only the two prerequisite forms but swing and Tex-Mex too. Other cities became centers that became known for certain sounds or styles, Nashville (country), New Orleans (Jazz, Acadian, R&B; Prof. Longhair, Fats Domino), Memphis Soul and later in the 60’s, San Francisco(psychedelic) and L.A. Even folk (although rural originally) wasn’t popular until it moved into the clubs of New York City and Boston. Liverpool was a seaport, as was Hamburg, Germany, where The Beatles got exposure to American records. Bob Marley came out of Kingston, Jamaica and helped combine ska and American Soul to form reggae. Chuck Berry, probably more influential than Elvis, was from St. Louis, half way between the North and South and wrote perfect little vignettes using black music to reach white kids. In other words, it required a cross-current of cultures and styles to reach a greater (but, ironically, more accessible) synthesis. As Charlie Gillett’s classic book’s title says, rock is truly the “Sound of the City” (1970). Rhythm from black music combined with more melodic white music and made a new form- rock, which helped lead to a wider racial intergration of society even.
But there have also been, I think, several myths about rock. There seems to be this idea that the closer an artist is to its roots, the more authentic he or she is. There has been this concept that somehow the more pure it’s form the better, such as blues-based or acoustic folk. The whole history of rock is in some ways the ‘borrowing’ of black music by whites, as jazz also came from black culture. But too many white rock artists, I think, have tried to sound too much like black singers in their voices. Rock has been mainly for white audiences, until fairly recently. Still the myth has persisted. The same with folk music; Bob Dylan realized he had to compete with The Beatles by moving to electric despite the purist’s boos and Jimi Hendrix showed how the electric guitar could express more than acoustic. Bands like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin , because of their closer blues influences , have been considered by some critics more “legitimate” and rock. Whereas, The Beatles were considered more of a pop band, because they came from that background too. The elitists always looked down on popular culture, because it was popular. In the 60’s, fans were often split between the two; The Beatles being the “good guys” and the Stones the “bad boys”. When in fact, it was more because of marketing images created by their managements. They were actually friends and the Beatles had written the Stones’ first hit for them and had helped them get their record contract. Often the Stones would follow The Beatles in their directions and even album names and covers (Sgt. Pepper, Satanic Majesties’ Request; White Album then Beggars Banquet’s, Let it Be, Let it Bleed). The Beatles were the artistic revolutionaries and the other groups almost always followed in their lead. Someone said The Beatles moved from being pop stars to becoming artists (rare) and Dylan moved from underground folk to pop acceptance. And of course rock always had that rebel persona. It seemed if an artist lived fast and died young (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain all died at age 27), it could only help your legacy.
Another myth was that rock has to be “working class”. Interestingly, white blues guitarists like Eric Clapton would dress-down in blue jeans while many black originators like B.B. King, would dress-up in 3-piece suits. Bob Dylan, although he was a Jewish upper middle-class kid from Minnesota , fabricated a whole Woody Guthrie 30’s dustbowl image. Later Rolling Stone Magazine would try to cast Bruce Springsteen as the new working-class Dylan. But most of the 60’s rock artists, like most of the “hippies” came from affluent backgrounds. Even The Beatles (although working –class by North American standards), except for Ringo, came from lower middle class homes. Mick Jagger’s father taught at The London School of Economics. Madonna was a Catholic girl from conservative Michigan before she became the Material Girl and professed Woman power. Michael Jackson sang ‘safe’ black music for white audiences and middle class blacks mainly, and thus claimed to be the King of Pop, not Rock. Punk, although it may have been working class originally in England with the Sex Pistols, by the time it reached North America, became embraced by performers and kids from the suburbs. And Andy Warhol- influenced ”decadent/art” rockers like Velvet Underground and David Bowie were actually bourgeois. So there’s always been a bit of a shell game in rock.
As I said, where people come from determines the type of music they make. Canada is more known for its folk singers, like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Again it was a mainly rural environment. Its best and few rockers, the Guess Who and Neil Young, both came from tough city Winnipeg. The Band were part-American and learned from Ronnie Hawkins from Arkansas. Alanis Morrissette would follow Madonna in her female middle-class angst. And as Ottawa’s best 60’s-70’s rock bands, The Staccatos and Five Man Electrical Band, leader Les Emmerson said, Ottawa “always had the harmonies”, reflecting its government town homogeneousness. Reading Ottawa born Paul Anka’s recent autobiography shows just how rock n’ roll has changed.
Before Elvis came in the mid-50’s, pop music was pretty sterile. And again right before The Beatles in the 60’s, it had become mainly manufactured teen idols or “Bobby Bobby’s” as Jerry Lee Lewis called them, mainly from white northern immigrant backgrounds But The Beatles changed all that and wrote their own songs. Even Elvis didn’t write his own songs. Adults and critics didn’t take pop music seriously until The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s. And suddenly it became art as well. At its best it could be “poetry in motion”.
It seemed whenever rock music became too predictable and pretentious, a reaction would develop and try and shake it up. But by the 80’s and 90’s it had become too bloated. Record companies had become too big and radio stations were owned by conglomerates with set play lists. Rock always had its theatrical side (Chuck Berry’s duck walk or Jerry Lee Lewis’ and Little Richard’s jumping on the piano), but with MTV, video became more important than the songs. Rap and Hip Hop which had come from the black ghetto began to take over, but, like disco in the 70’s, it consisted of mainly repetitive beats with little melody and words that seemed made up on the spot. And pop music for the most part seemed to regress to all the facility of a commercial. The Baby boomers, the first generation to carry their music on into their maturity, found their own beloved songs used nostalgically to try and sell them cars and consumer products.
Pop music seems to have reverted back to the manufactured pop and teen American Idols like the early 50’s and early 60’s eras. But there are likely to be no more Elvis or Beatles to rescue it, because they were unique to their times. And technology also changed everything. Music became available 24 hours a day and is perhaps taken more for granted by a new generation that can just download it for free (and not have to pay the artist). There are few record companies so artists have to be their own and yet compete with everyone who thinks they are a musician and can be a celebrity, posting their own videos and hoping they will go viral on Youtube overnight(often only the most superficial) . Every performer calls themselves an artist even though a whole committee may write their songs and it all has begun to take itself too seriously. Pop music has become ubiquitous , but it seems to have lost a lot of its charm. As I say, rock often has gone through these periods before and been rescued. But it’s been years now since anyone has really shaken it up. And with all the technological and cultural changes, it’s unlikely to happen again unless a truly revolutionary, unforeseen, artist or artists would somehow emerge in the future.
Long Live Rock n’ Roll!
Book review of Chuck Klosterman’s ”I Wear The Black Hat”(2013).
This is a subject that has long interested me, having run a record store for thirty years and having been influenced even longer by pop music and culture. Why do we like or dislike the things we do or don’t? It’s always fascinated me why customers (and myself) were drawn to certain artists or certain kinds of music. Of course, this also applies to movies, books, art of all kinds, sports, even politics, etc. Why do certain people like certain things and not others?
The cliché is that there’s no accounting for tastes? Well, there must be. I’d often ask my customers who was their favorite recording artist or style of music, the first time they came into my store, just to know how I could direct them to what they might like. Often initially, they wouldn’t seem to know or express it. But usually if I could get them to open up a little, they would finally tell me their preferences. And sometimes, after dealing with the public after several years of doing it, I developed an almost sixth sense about guessing in what they might be interested. Probably over all this time, even in my modest establishment, and in my various locations, I would have interacted with perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, even.
And this made me also wonder, what made me like or dislike certain cultural things too. So I’ve always been curious why human beings ”indentify” with certain cultural objects and how we actually make our choices.
We live in a modern time in which pop culture has dominated our lives and in an increasingly media- influenced era. In fact, it is so pervasive, especially in this social media age, many of us, especially a younger generation, probably don’t even think about it. Maybe most of us never consciously did. But as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, perhaps because a lot of it is unconscious, it has an even more powerful effect on us.
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but several brain studies have shown that we almost always make our decisions emotionally first and then we rationalize them. Even if we say it comes from our “heart’, it’s actually taking place in certain brain centers. Also a lot of pop culture’s appeal is primarily emotional as well as visual and aural. And we attach a lot of meaning to these cultural objects.
But again why do we each personally like certain things and may even be turned off by others?
I guess anyway, it would have to have something to do with what we’ve been exposed to and at what age. What and whom we grew up with. We’re supposed to be more susceptible to things at earlier ages. And it was often when we were teen-agers when we were most exposed and influenced by the pop culture of the time. There are of course racial and ethnic differences and gender ones too.
And this raises the even more controversial question of what is art and what is it not? When does a pop culture item become art and why? Does something become art just because over time it becomes recognized as such? Otherwise, perhaps, anything could be considered art. Remember though, there’s that old caveat that it’s the conquerors who write the history books. And what is “good” and what is “ bad” pop culture or art?
Two contemporary pop culture authors who’ve written especially on this are Carl Wilson and Chuck Klosterman. Wilson wrote for the Toronto Globe and Mail and in his 2007 book, ”Let’s Talk About Love: Journey To The End of Taste”, he examines the mainly disdainful attitudes of critics like himself towards the popular Canadian songstress, Celine Dion, and her often, what some would call “over the top “ music. He sites class differences and gender differences, between her audience and the critics, but admits to even his initial biases that force a re-examination of his own.
And Chuck Klosterman, a writer for Spin, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, etc., has written several books on pop culture and its effect on us. I first ran across him with his first book, “Fargo Rock City”, about the influence of heavy metal music on him growing up. What got me about him was his always interesting writing, often about music or sports or TV shows or movies that I didn’t grow up with, but that I could still understand why he was influenced. And then he followed up that book with his 2003 classic book,”Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”. For example a passage in it explains, why Johnny Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues” was so authentic to even hard-core inmates. He describes in the song how the prisoner can hear the trains nearby and dreams of the passengers just having a cup of coffee, and not necessarily of a new lawyer or freedom first. Klosterman often really writes about other things than what he appears to on the surface. A quote from the introduction of that book, I think sums it up: “In and of itself”, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever “in and of itself”.
So he first helped me realize some of my own prejudices and attitudes when it came to pop culture. Most of us,I think, like to think of ourselves, as being open to things. But are we really? And with the advent of the internet and social media, I think it’s probably made us, ironically, only more polarized. People only tend to go to websites, which reinforce their own interests. Users mainly communicate with Facebook friends who like the same things they do. And these days we get almost all our information through some form of media, entertainment and news both. Human beings are social animals and have been since the cave man days. Now we have the whole world we can communicate with, but most of us just get in touch with those we probably already agree with.
Also we have this idea, that we live in a somewhat conservative society, but we don’t ,I maintain. We live, in the West anyway, in a liberal one and in even a politically-correct one. Most of us want to be popular and liked. We want to be part of the crowd (although again we tell ourselves we’re individuals). After all, it’s called “popular” culture. But why should it matter who’s popular and No. 1? All our cultural choices are constantly being ranked in orders and lists. A lot of people would deny this, (and some would even pride themselves that they are above all that), but an examination of our culture would, I think, prove that’s so.
Critics, often look down on artists when they become popular, as if they are more qualified than the masses. After all they often get access to new artists and their works before the public, but because they see and hear so much as part of their job, they also can become somewhat jaded and tend to look for something that is “different”. And, I’ve noticed too, they themselves have their own hierarchy within their ranks, and tend, with few exceptions, to follow their own crowd. They have power because again, it’s usually the way most of us hear about new works and they are part of the media. And they often do have a tendency to be elitist. So a lot of us who are interested in pop culture are often torn between what the critics might say and the masses.
But, many of us would just reply, “Well, I make up my own mind; I think for myself.” “I know what I like.” But again, just how free are we to make our own conscious decisions. And what are they really based upon?
As I say, I’ve examined this many years in many others and in myself. I’ve observed in myself for example, how I seem to make my own decisions about cultural objects. Some of this is no doubt due to what I was exposed to at an early age, where and when I grew up, my culture, and my personality, etc. I‘ve often disagreed with the mainstream and even with critics over the years. What I’ve learned is that often my first reaction to music, movies, books, art is in fact visceral. It’s only later that that I probably intellectualize it. Often it”moves”me or it doesn’t. So clearly that’s an emotional reaction first. Someone said the worst thing “bad” art can do is not cause any reaction or bore us, put us to sleep even. And I think that’s true. I’ve lived long enough now, I think, to come to perhaps certain conclusions, about myself, anyway. Sometimes things will grow on me, over time or with re-examination, and often those become my longest lasting favorites. And sometimes I will even “test” myself by exposing myself to something I don’t think I will like and when I’m surprised I do like it, it bowls me away despite myself. But that is rare. I often read several critics first (some of my friends, refuse to read critics, as they think it might influence their decisions and they think they can make up their own mind). But I realize even a critics opinion is in the end his own anyway and have usually been reading them enough to know where they’re coming from and take that into account. When I read a book review, for example, I see who the reviewer is and what he’s done himself. So I weigh all this with my own experience with the work later. But again, with few exceptions, I seem to usually return to my initial reaction. I realize most people don’t probably go through such a complex and conscious journey to get there. And maybe I’m just fooling myself too. But this is what I try to do anyway. But it’s likely again that most of us are just “identifying” with the object in some form. A lot of us, it seems in the end, just want a mirror of ourselves and our views, if we are being honest. People have always fascinated me. I always saw my shops and interacting with people as somewhat sociological experiments. And even now I’m often more interested in how the media cover and the public in turn react to entertainment and news events.
I never cared much for most sports, partly no doubt in reaction to where I grew up, where it was almost like a religion. And the same now that I’m living in Canada, people here seem just as obsessed with hockey (and its violence). I understand how people want to feel a part of a team, but the whole flag waving, nationalistic part of it I’ve been uncomfortable with; even the Olympics, pits nation against nation, despite its lofty ideals. We make excuses for doped athletes because we think everyone is doing it.
And politics is in many ways just trying to do the same thing. What politics is really about is making its supporters feel they are better than the other side. And despite politicians’ speeches to bring us together, it’s usually to make us feel superior. But of course it’s more important than sports because governments directly affect our lives. And because I majored in Political Science and History in university, it still interests me. But like popular culture, it’s a bit of a shell game too. “Liberals” forgive leaders like the Clintons and the Kennedys for their sleazy transgressions because people like to see themselves as not being prudes. Chuck Klosterman examines this phenomenon in one of the essays in his latest book, “I Wear The Black Hat”, about how we secretly admire bad guys and gals, especially if they’re handsome or beautiful. And amazingly, even feminist women forgive these womanizers. The most popular TV shows , even on cable, are lovable criminals(Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men). Of course, the conservatives are just as corrupt but they usually aren’t so adept at hiding it. Why because, like with pop culture, we like to think of ourselves as more “open”(when most of us probably aren’t). But who wants to think of themselves as not progressive and thus being politically correct has become a big part of our culture. We feel guilty about our less fortunate and how certain minorities and racial groups have been treated and still are. So we compensate by sometimes trying to bend over backwards, and it makes for some strange contortions. For guilt is a big part of our affluent cultures and our religions. And that’s also reflected in our arts and media.
So who is really wagging the tail in our choices and lives? And what can we do about it and become more aware and conscious? Do most people really even want to? We like to be
comfortable in our cocoons, don’t we? And as I said, we seem perhaps, increasingly so in our modern media age. Perhaps we first have to realize that things aren’t always what they appear.
And we have to really want to shake up our worlds and not just give lip service to it. Most of us are just too busy running around trying to keep up and pay the bills. We’ve got to have the latest device and consume more things. Most of us have the necessities now so, as Klosterman points out, it’s now about trying to fill our desires and escapes. We didn’t achieve it in our previous generations and I doubt if many of the new generations are either. They and most of the developing world want what this new technology is supposed to give. Youtube and the internet is as Kosterman says, not even about content anymore. It’s the perfect capitalist tool; it’s now about who can rack up the most followers and customers (it’s interesting that term “followers”, not leaders or individual thinkers). Everybody thinks they can be an artist, a celebrity and, be ”liked”. It’s no coincidence they’re called Youtube, Myspace, Facebook, I-Pads,I-Tunes, and now we even have “Selfies”. It’s all about “Us” and “ME, ME, MINE”, it seems. We’ve reverted back to amateur pop Idols and divas whom compete to be the most superficially outrageous. Most of our popular movies are based more on fantasy and special effects and with our innocent childhood comic book heroes, their dark sides are being emphasized. It’s hard to value even our true artists and their works when we can download them for free 24/7 (with the artist not getting compensated). Perhaps this is just human nature and always has been, but as McLuhan said, technology changes us, good and bad, in profound ways. The more we become conscious of how, the better we have a chance to use it and not it us, and that goes for both pop culture and politics.
What I like about Klosterman’s writing and books, is how he’s able to uncover our true motivations as humans and how we react to art and popular culture and it’s often unseen influences on us.
Essay by Alan L. Chrisman (2014)
I’ve always been fascinated with dreams. Since my childhood I’ve had them where I’m usually lost or I’m up somewhere high (I’m afraid of heights) and can’t find my way down. Sometimes I just wake up in horror (I call those nightmares-negative) and am just relieved I’m still alive. Other times I somehow find my way back to earth (I call them dreams-postive) in sometimes quite unexpected ways ( like sliding down an unseen ladder) with a sense of relief and peace. I also have learned that these can give me creative ideas.
I’ve read that supposedly what the human brain does in sleep, is try to put all the various stimulations( a lot of it unconscious: sights, sounds, smells, emotions, etc.), we’ve had over the day into some kind of sense or order. We used to believe that by the time we reached maturity our brains basically didn’t grow much more. But we now know that our brains are much more “elastic” than we realized and can grow our whole lives, if we exercise them. And that teen-ager’s brains especially, are susceptible to this. That basically what the brain is doing is pruning down to the connections that we most want and need. We build neurons, depending on-to what we’re exposed. The more we’re exposed to something, the stronger those connections. Now this can be both good and bad. That’s how we can learn and retain tasks, like leaning to play an instrument or anything else. But it’s also how people become addicts; they begin to focus on only their drug. So the brain has to find some way to filter through all this information. And this is the work the brain does at night. Also the brain has to make some logic of it. We file away things and remember things in reference to other connections, including emotional ones.
So the brain has a natural tendacy to put things in order. Things seem to “fit” together and that way of classifying information has a profound effect on us as humans. And perhaps our dreams help us to sort through things unconsciously. That’s why, except to the dreamer, when we tell them to others they don’t seem to make sense, although at the time it seems somewhat logical to us, even though there may be all kinds of time and space contradictions. They sometimes may even tell us things about ourselves.
So humans seem to like stories. And Art was created possibly to try and help explain things. It’s a way for us to escape into a man-created world (somewhat like dreams), where we can experience things and yet still come back down to earth. Director Roger Corman, talking about horror films, for example, says they allow us to live through our insecurities in a dark theatre, but yet still be safe at the end, perhaps harking back to our dark but warm womb. So these are primeval emotions and needs. And art helps us explore various scenarios and our imaginations. So with each art form, film ( tells stories), music ( random notes and tones which we make harmonize), painting( visual pictures and textures) etc., they help us see or hear or feel. Much like the human brain makes us perceive all our stimuli. We don’t actually see all the spectrum colours of light or hear all the range of sounds. Some species see and hear the world different than us. Our world and our reality is but a reflection of our human brain and ways of looking at things. And we like things to have answers. We like beginings and middles and endings. It has to be rational. And have a purpose. We like Happy Endings. And that’s why we also developed religions. We want to believe there’s a spiritual part that carries on, a Heaven, a Paradise even.
We like to organize things in groups. And we are a social animal. We like to be with others (most of the time). We cheer for certain sports teams, wave flags, join political parties. Again this can be both good and bad. We can form groups and organize civilization. But it can also be used to for ‘us and them’ mentalities, so anyone who is different can be perceived as a threat. Or we can want to just follow the crowd. We’ve even built our digital computers and our machines, out of a reflection of our minds, to work by making connections with other bits of information. And most of us mostly use only sites or make connections with others like us and those who usually are interested in the same things we are. But we make most of our decisions and what we like or don’t like, often based first on the often unconscious more primitive parts of our brains, or past experiences and leaned behaviors. And then we rationalize them later. And that goes for our preferences for art and everything else too. So we may not be as “open” to things as we like to think we are perhaps. All of us, humans. But art has the ability to reach us in different, not always only just intellectual and logical but emotional ways, much like dreams. So there are connections between dreams, the brain, art and our desire for happy endings.
"STRAYS" A Short Story by Alan L. Chrisman (2014)
I had run out of food late one night for my cat, Ninja. It was one of those bitter cold Canadian winter nights (-30c with wind chill), but Ninja had to have her food.
And I knew there was a discount store in my neighborhood that should still be open, so I drove there. Sure enough, they were still there. But when I got to the catfood shelf, her favorite kind, Meow’s Pal, was sold out. Now Ninja’s a pretty smart feline, the smartest I’d ever had, even though I’d found her as a stray as a kitten. So what was I to do?
But then I remembered a trick I‘d seen in an old Elliot Gould movie, where he’d been in a similar situation with his cat. So like him, I had to buy the other brand left on the shelf. And Gould just opened the other brand and put it in an empty can of his cat’s favorite kind, disguising it for his cat. It worked for him and maybe it would for Ninja too.
But as I was at the counter, getting ready to pay, there was a pretty woman lined up in front of me. And I couldn’t help but notice her. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, and looked a bit like the actress, Scarlett Johansson. But there was also a tinge of sadness about her too. A Paul McCartney song, ”Another Day” came into my head for some reason, when I saw her. And I couldn’t help notice the few items she was purchasing- pasta, sauce, crackers, dark chocolate and cat food. She paid for her items and walked out the door. My car was parked in the same direction as the bus stop she was heading towards. As I said, it was a bad night out and I knew there wouldn’t be a bus very often in these conditions. I walked up slowly to her and said, “I see you had to buy cat food too, even in this weather!” She fortunately smiled and said, “Yes, my cat only likes a certain brand but they were sold out, so I had to get what was left”. So I quickly told her my little trick. She laughed and seemed friendly. I offered her a ride back in my car and with the weather and another smile, she shyly accepted. It turned out she only lived a few blocks from me.
On the way back we talked of our cats. I asked her if she liked music. She said “Yes”. And I asked what kind and she said she liked The Beatles and especially George Harrison’s. Now I was a big Beatles fan too, so we seemed to have that in common too as well as cats. I told her I played guitar a bit and wrote my own songs. I happened to have one of my CD’s in the car and gave her one. Sometimes I would just give them to people and they usually accepted, but you never knew if they really even listened to them. But I noticed she did seem genuinely interested and was already looking at the liner notes as we talked. She said she worked as a clerk at a local store, but she liked to “escape” by reading and music too. Soon we were at her apartment building and as she got out she said, “Thanks for the ride and the cat tip. And maybe we’re run into each other again”. I said, “I hope so; that’d be nice”. As I drove away, I realized that I’d forgotten to get her name and I hadn’t given her my name either. But at least she had mine on my CD. I didn’t always remember names, but I usually didn’t forget faces and I’m sure I wouldn’t her beautiful face, even though I had just seen it briefly.
I went home and tried the cat trick on Ninja and she was so hungry it worked. So I shared with Ninja, my running into this fascinating Catwoman I’d just met. Later Ninja, who was a good judge of humans, seemed to purr her approval as I described her. There was just something haunting about her, besides her beauty and smile, and I just couldn’t get her out of my head.
I was a bit of a stray myself. My parents had been killed in a car accident when I was little and I had been raised by my grandparents. So when I was old enough to enlist in the army, I had joined. I was sent to Afganistan. At first it was alright. We had been told we were fighting the Talban and for democracy for the people. But like in Iraq, it soon became not so clear. We spent most of the time, stuck in our compound in Kabul, with only occasional search and destroy missions out into the countryside which could be very dangerous indeed with hidden IED’s. Some of my fellow troop members were killed and you never knew if you might be next.
But after a couple years there, I began to wonder if it was worth it. And the farmers whom we were supposed to be helping could make more money on their crops of poppy plants (made into opiate drugs) than on the other crops we tried to get them to switch to, so who could blame them for resisting our “civilizing” efforts? But Canadians did build schools and females could attend for the first time in years and we were able to do some good. But after a while it felt like having to hold back a leaky dam. The Afgan government was corrupt and would only put in power members of their own tribe. And much like Iraq, it might well end up in a protracted civil war, once we left. So when my tour was finally up, I was ready to come home. And I was lucky to have returned in one piece, when so many of my buddies hadn’t. But still it wasn’t easy adjusting to civilian life. I had suffered from PTSD. I had gone to counseling and was a lot better, but still had nightmares about it. I had drifted from job to job. And I had lived alone for awhile now, except for Ninja. So I could often sense strays.
But luckily, I had gotten a job as a caretaker for the apartment building where I lived and had a small apartment in exchange. It was a small building and the tenants seemed to like me and I’d do small repairs for them and clean and rent it out. So it wasn’t so bad. I was more or less my own boss, which I liked and it still gave me time to pursue my other interests like music and reading. I’d write, as I say, my own songs and record them at home on my computer. Nothing fancy, but it was soothing for me.
I kept hoping I’d see her again as I was curious about her. And finally one day a few weeks later, as Spring was finally coming through, I did. I ran into her on the street and again she was very friendly. She said, she had listened to the CD and liked it. I told her that I would be performing some of my songs at an “Open Stage” soon. She seemed interested and she said, “By the way, my name is Jan. I think I forgot to tell you before. And you’re Don, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes, glad you liked the music and you might like to see me perform sometime”. So I gave her the upcoming date (not expecting her to come). And I was glad to finally have a name to match her pretty face.
After I went home and told Ninja about our second chance meeting with the Catwoman. Ninja purred again her approval. After supper I sat down to write a song about this captivating woman. I called it, “Jannie With the Light Blonde Hair”, a bit of a take-off of Stephen Foster’s tune, “ Jennie With The Long Brown Hair”, a song I’d liked as a kid. The words came to me easily, describing both her beauty and her mystery. I practiced it for the next two weeks and planned to perform it for the first time at the upcoming next “Open Stage”.
That Saturday, I arrived at the small coffeehouse where performers could get up and perform a couple of their own songs. When my time came I was nervous but prepared. I sang my first song and it went fine, and then it was time to do my new “Jannie” song. Just as I started out it, but who do I notice but Jannie herself come in and sit at the back of the coffeehouse. Then I was really nervous, embarrassed somewhat that she was in attendance, as I sang it live in front of her. But somehow I got through it and everybody seemed to like it. And she had a big smile on her face too, knowing it was about her. She came up and congratulated me and said she was touched.
After, I walked her home on that beautiful Spring evening. And she came back to my apartment and met Ninja who again purred her approval as she sat on Jannie’s lap. And we were like three strays who had somehow found each other.
By Alan L. Chrisman (2013)
It was a cold wintery night when I first saw her. She was standing by the roadside trying to catch a ride. I was just coming off my night shift, driving cab. It had been a long day, with the storm and all and I just wanted to get home and into my warm bed. There were hardly any cars on the street. Outside it was not fit for man nor beast, let alone a woman.
I pulled over and offered her a ride. She got in, lowered her parka and brushed the snow from her hair. She had long dark hair with a touch of gray. I asked where she was going and it happened to be just a few blocks from where I lived. She said she had just gotten off work as a hostess at a local bar/restaurant but had missed the last bus home that night in the storm. It was only a short ride but it would have been a long cold walk if I hadn’t come along, so she said she really appreciated it.
I noticed immediately there was just something special about her. She was perhaps in her 40’s, but didn’t look it. Some women are just ageless, like Sophia Loren. And she was like that. Her premature gray only made her even more beautiful. And she had a killer smile and laugh and seemed quite intelligent. There seemed to be an innocence about her, but with a sexiness underneath.
Soon we arrived at her house and she took out some money to pay me for the ride, but I refused. I told her I was on my way home and my taxi was off duty anyway. She thanked me heartily and said her name was Shelly. I told her my name was Bill. And for some reason I blurted out, “If you ever get stuck again, don’t hesitate to call”, and gave her my number. But thinking I’d probably never be so lucky to see her again.
I couldn’t get her out of my mind that night. I tossed and turned, in and out of dreams of her. But early the next morning, I was awakened by a call: it was as if I was still in a dream. “Hello, this is Shelly, the lady you were so kind to give a lift home last night”. I wanted to thank you again. If I’m not imposing, I am kind of stuck again. My daughter is sick and I have to take her to a clinic and get her
some medicine and the busses aren’t running with all the snow. So I wondered if you could give us a ride? Of course, I’ll pay you extra.”
As I said I never thought I was likely to see her again. But I said, “Fine”. I was very curious about her. And it was my day off. I dug out my car and stopped by her address. She and a little girl got in my cab. Shelly introduced her daughter, “Mary, this is the nice man I told you about who gave me a ride home last night in that terrible storm.” Mary looked thin, but a smaller version of her mom. I brought them to the clinic and waited while they saw the doctor. Mary was able to get some medicine there. After the ride back, Shelly insisted on paying me and added in a nice tip as well. But I said, “Maybe if you really want to thank me, we could go for a coffee sometime.” She smiled that enticing smile again and said, “Yes, I’ve got you’re number and I will call soon.” But she didn’t give me hers.
I had been driving a cab for a while now. I’d done many jobs before-short order cook, janitor, construction, working in a warehouse, etc. But for the last few years, I had been driving a taxi. And basically I liked it. I enjoyed being my own boss. There weren’t many jobs left anymore where you could really be that. Oh sure, even the taxi business was different now. When I started you could own your own car and set your own hours, but that was changing with almost all the cars being licensed by the big companies and with all the new technology from cell phones to computers on board and GPS. But I still owned my own cab and had my own schedule, the late-night shift usually. I was one of the few white guys still doing it, with it mainly being taken over by immigrants, with its long hours and relatively little pay.
I spent so many hours in my car, it felt almost like my second home. And every day was different. You just never knew whom you might pick up. I’d given rides to all kinds: businessmen, people going on holidays, and way too many drunks, of course. But most of the time, it was just regular people going to and fro. Sometimes people would talk, sometimes not. But I used to play a little game with myself, trying to figure out who they were. I could come pretty close on most people, just by their dress, accent, their body language even. Later they might say where they had come from or been or what they did, and if I was right in my” hunch”, I’d smile to myself. But occasionally, I’d meet someone whom I couldn’t figure out and this only made me more curious. I liked a little mystery too, to keep me on my toes. And Shelly struck me as being a bit mysterious too.
When I’d gotten back from the war (and I was one of the lucky ones who’d come back in one piece, as so many others hadn’t), I’d had many jobs and drifted around many places, for a long time, before having settled here finally. For the war had taken its toll on all of us, even the ones who’d survived-some with missing limbs, some with PTSD, but it had changed us all. It seemed to be hard to stay focused on any one thing, to stay in one place long, on one job, to be committed to a relationship. And I had turned to drinking heavily to try and escape the bad memories. It was even partly to blame, perhaps for my marriage failure, even though my ex-wife and I had remained on good terms and we didn’t have any children. I had finally gone to rehab and had been sober these past five years.
I guess driving a cab, constantly moving in my car and meeting strangers all the time, allowed me to fill up part of my restlessness, while maintaining the illusion of having a home and settling down. I had a bachelor apartment that was small but was warm and comfy. And I had my books and music, for my days off. I went to the library often and found it amazing I could order almost any book, movie or Cd and borrow it for free. I especially liked reading and seeing 40’s detective books and films (perhaps I identified with their anti-heroes and I was fascinated by their femme fatales, with their innocence outside, but sexiness inside). I even wrote my own little stories about some of my customers, and the characters I would meet. Money had never been a big drive for me and I had always lived simply. I still suffered from recurring nightmares and flashbacks from the war. And I did get lonely sometimes. I’d get depressed. But it was it seemed, always a matter of somehow keeping things in perspective. But I had become a loner and preferred to fly alone, with no strings attached.
The week after I had taken Shelly and her daughter to the clinic, she did call me and she agreed to meet me for coffee at a quiet little neighborhood bistro. It wasn’t long before we were in an interesting conversation that just seemed to flow between us. She said she’d had a somewhat rough life. Her daughter had a rare illness that required constant medication, but she seemed to be stable now. Shelly had gone through a divorce and had gotten the hostess job at night, so she could go back to university during the day. She was working on a librarian degree. So we had our love of books in common. And we happened to have the same basic schedule and days off. I offered to give her and her daughter rides anytime. She said that could really help and, in fact, we made an appointment to do so on our mutual next day off. She just seemed like a nice single mom, trying to get back on her feet.
Shelly still didn’t give me her number and asked that I not come by her job (I guess she liked to keep her life private from her work), but she said she would call me whenever she needed me. Soon I was taking her around often, doing her shopping and taking her daughter to doctor’s appointments. Well, maybe my luck was changing finally, I thought. I hadn’t met anyone for a long time (and never anyone quite like her). I liked her and she seemed to like me, although she hadn’t come right out and said it. But one night she called and asked if she could come over to my place. It was her first time there and she seemed upset. We talked late into the night and then she asked me to hold her. I did and she spent the night (her daughter would often stay with a neighbor friend). We ended up in bed and it was even better than I had dreamed. We started spending more and more time together and making love often. I was falling head over head in love with her. And she seemed to be with me too. She was my new addiction.
But one day, out of the blue, she said to me, “Actually, I’m kind of in a sort of relationship”. I was shocked, having never seen her with another man and she hadn’t mentioned anything before. But she continued, “Before you, I had met a much older man at the bar where I worked. He seemed nice and friendly. As I said, since my marriage had fallen apart, it’d been quite a struggle, with my daughter’s expensive medications, and paying the bills on my own and all. My ex-husband had defaulted on his support payments and he had just disappeared. So I was in a vulnerable position. And this gentleman, whom evidently was a very successful businessman, heard my plight, and offered me a big ”loan”. I was able to finally get a nice apartment and pay for my school too. But as I was soon to learn, there were strings attached. And then he wanted certain favors, in return. At first, it seemed perhaps workable, because he wasn’t often in town, and I and my daughter had the apartment to ourselves and again he had seemed like a decent guy at first. But as time went on, he became more and more jealous and thought he owned me. Now I’m stuck. I don’t have the money to pay him back and lately he’s become abusive even. Sometimes I wish I could just make him disappear too. I even have thoughts of him maybe having an “accident”. She also said he told her that if he ever found out anybody else in her life, he had the connections to do something about both of them. I guess my instincts had been right about this woman; she did have a secret side.
I was surprised with all these revelations, but I liked her. I liked her a lot. She was a survivor and I couldn’t blame her for that. She was soft on the outside and tough underneath, like I had learned to have to be. I hadn’t really spoken to anybody in years about my war experiences. But somehow I felt comfortable with her. As I say, it changed us all. When you’re in the jungle fighting, it also becomes a case of survival. It’s them or you. Kill or be killed. And I had witnessed and done many things, I had tried to repress in my drinking, but that still came back to haunt me in my nightmares. Of course, they said it was for king and country. But gone were the days of clear cut wars and many had declared that that one especially, had been an immoral one even. I had discovered sides of humanity that civilization shunned, but usually didn’t have to confront. And in myself I had found I had a dark side too. Perhaps everyone did. Maybe even Shelly. She did have that killer smile. But how could I help her with her situation? Ass I said, money had never been important to me. I had enough to get by myself, but certainly not enough, a considerable sum, to get him off her back. And even if we could come up with it, would he still not want revenge on us? She said he had a dark side too and would use it to get her back. So what to do? Could I trust her even? Was she telling the whole truth? Was she really as helpless as she appeared? I had been fooled by people before, despite my instincts. Was she just a femme fatale, for which I had an admitted weakness? I didn’t know. All I knew is that I wanted her and I was hooked on her. My dark side and dark thoughts that I thought had gone away began to resurface again. I had done it before in the jungle. Could I possibly do it again? Perhaps it becomes easier each time. My dreams and nightmares now turned to scenarios about how to “remove” him. There seemed to be no choice now. I had done it before in the war and the jungle. Was it so different in civilization, just because we glossed it over? It was just survival in the end, wasn’t it? Us verses Him.
Shelly and I started meeting at my place often, making love and after, planning his “accident”. When he was away, he’d let he ruse his car sometimes, so we could make a copy of his keys. If I could get access, I could work on the brakes. We would do it in winter, which was now here again, when accidents were common, when it wouldn’t be so suspicious. This was our plan: the next time he was in town, he would come to the bar where she worked. Her job was to get him to drink( which he did anyway), and then get him to drive home early by himself to sleep it off, and to tell him she’d have to stay late and help clean up and that she’d take the bus home as usual. While he was inside still, I’d mess with his brakes in the dark, where no one could see me. They had never met me at her work. And he would have an “accident” on his way home on the wintry roads. We went over the scenario many times; we couldn’t fail, we thought and with no strings attached.
So over the holidays (which is the highest accident time), he was in town. A big ice storm had arrived and we put our plan into action. He willingly went to her bar as was his custom. I waited in my car, with my lights off around the corner. She kept him occupied while I “fixed” his brakes. Later, he came out and drove away, on the slippery road. He wouldn’t get far before he’d crash and hit a telephone pole. The storm meant there’d be few other cars out that night to see anything.
That night after work, she came over to my place; we celebrated and made love. We were finally free, and there would be no strings attached!
And sure enough, the news announced the next day that he had been in an accident, and had been killed alone. They had found alcohol on his breath. We decided it best not to see each other for a while, just in case. His insurance company accepted the accident. So we thought we were free. We had planned everything well.
But a few weeks later, we found out the bar’s insurance company was also being sued for allowing their customer to drive home after drinking and they investigated the accident too. And they discovered that the man had helped pay for Shelly’s apartment and her schooling with his big ”loan” to her. Also unknown to us, the man had had before that put in new brakes in a different city, so they were suspicious.
They referred it to the police. And the police found out about our connection too. Both Shelly and I were called in for question, but separately. Shelly went first, and under pressure, she had finally admitted our involvement. But she said it had been my idea all along. And in exchange for turning prosecution evidence, she would only get probation.
For the next few months, there was my trial for murder. The main witness against me was Shelly. And the jury believed her story. After all, she had been a nice innocent-looking single mom, with a sick daughter (despite her killer smile). And I had been the lone drifter and alcoholic who had been trained to kill in war.
So I’m writing this now from my prison cell. I got 20 years. I lost everything-my freedom, my cab, her. Oh I could blame it on the war, my dark side, femme fatales, even Shelly. All I have left now is some books and my little stories of my life and some of the characters I’ve met, and the nightmares. But at least I’ve learned that in real life--there’s never no strings attached!