Hey, it's his shower
They're throwing away the key
I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me?"
"Red Telephone," Arthur Lee
Wednesday morning shower is usually where I decide what "Page Two" is going to be about. Sometimes I've already written a bunch, which more often than not gets abandoned as the fine-tuning turns into rewriting and refocusing. Just as often, if I'm planning to start writing as soon as I get to the office, the painful process of trying to shape words into what I'm trying to say finds me emerging at the other end way past deadline, having written way too much. The cutting usually finds me losing every idea I had started out determined to make. Then what's left still has to be polished; in my case, this is best done with a hammer and a crowbar.
This morning I started off thinking about a letter I'd just read in The New York Times, which argued that every terrorist we kill in Iraq is one less we have to confront here. Maybe I should go back to the question, "Is the war on terror fought on our terms or on those of the terrorists?" But I've written too much on Iraq recently, essentially saying the same things each time. Besides, though supporters' arguments keep evolving, they need not be answered. Maybe it's time to tackle the issue of why the left loves the oppressed so irrationally. Hating oppression and fighting against it are crucial, but ennobling the oppressed tends to perpetuate injustice (beatifying of one group, demonizing another). Someone wrote me, "[Oppressed people] have right and morality on their side. They possess courage and resolve." "No," I wrote back, "oppressed people are just oppressed." If oppression is so ennobling, making the victim not just better than the victimizer but better than all of us, wouldn't this in some way make oppression desirable much the way a monk may renounce all earthly pleasures for the starkest and most difficult lifestyle as a way of most purely serving God? Most lefties I know, for example, when it comes to Israel, will say how tragic the situation is and how all sides are wrong, but all the specifics will venerate Palestinians and vilify Israelis. And so it goes, on and on, as the water runs hard. Hey, it's my shower.
But I keep returning to a morning last week, on the way back from driving my son to school, listening to KGSR. Ian McLagan and the Bump Band performed a song on the Kevin & Kevin show. When they left, knowing the particular geography of the stations, I switched to KLBJ, where the band also performed. After the song, the station's Bob Fonseca encouraged them to do another. They chose an old Faces song. The window down, the air not yet overheated, I settled into the deepest smile.
We're driving through Worcester, Mass., sometime during the summer of 1969. We're lost because we are in Worcester; if we weren't lost, we would have gone around the city. There are four of us in the car. We're rowdy, loud, and probably stink (we wouldn't notice, but I bet this is the first thing almost anybody else would have noticed about us). The radio is up loud, AM still the norm. Suddenly, on comes that voice: "Over Bridges of Sighs/To rest my eyes in shades of green/Under dreaming spires/To Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been."
For the moment, there was nothing but the song: "What did you do there? I got high/What did you feel there? Well, I cried/But why the tears there? I'll tell you why/It's all too beautiful, it's all too beautiful." Now, memory is an often-deceitful master: I would have sworn that was the first time we heard the song, which is the way I've always remembered it. Only that has to be wrong. Ian McLagan's group the Small Faces (which also included a former and much missed Austinite, the late Ronnie Lane) had a hit with it in the summer of 1967. I also vividly remember that we sang along at the top of our lungs. All of us except for the driver, who kept begging us to shut up as we were singing out, "We got high there!!!" in the middle of Worcester, Mass. During the summer of 1969, that was very likely to invite the wrong kind of official attention. But we were jerks and proud of it, so we just kept singing.
I just finished teaching a course at UT on the history of American independent film. Two decades back, when I was a graduate film student, whenever we fell in love with a new film we would try to track down and see every film by the same director (every one!). Back then, before video/DVD and multiple cable channels, this quest was difficult and consuming. Now, though, when accessing a filmography is so much easier, it seems that a student who falls in love with a film is more likely to watch it over and over than to track down the rest of the director's work.
My 13-year-old son is this way with music. When a song excites him, he may dabble in the album's other songs, but he'll listen to it over and over. After years of attempting to get him interested in some of the things that fascinated me at his age (I think I've been buying him copies of Allen Ginsberg's HOWL since he was 10), quite by accident I turned him on to my passion for Arthur Lee's group Love. I regard Forever Changes, their third album, as one of the great contemporary masterpieces (it is thrilling that Calexico's cover of "Alone Again Or" is currently getting so much airplay on KGSR). In this case, my son actually fell for three songs: "My Little Red Book," "7 & 7 Is," and "Red Telephone." Last year, when the CD player was hooked up to play through the radio, he would listen to these endlessly. This year, it's more iPod.
On the way to school that morning, instead of last-minute studying for finals, he had split his headphones, offering half to his longtime comrade in the back seat, co-chairman of the shadow government that runs the world in which they live, a world that occasionally (sometimes, even often) coexists with ours but is never exactly the same. He wanted him to listen along to "Red Telephone." They love the song and find it hysterical. It begins: "Sitting on a hillside/Watching all the people die/I'll feel much better on the other side/I'll thumb a ride." Next verse: "I believe in magic/Why, because it is so quick/I don't need power when I'm hypnotized/Look in my eyes."
But all I hear is their harmonizing, each with a single headphone glued to his ear. First silence, then, "Watching all the people die," a line they cherish, followed a bit by " ... it is so quick." But they sing out every word on the last lines of the next verse: "I feel real phony when my name is PHIL." Long pause. "Or was that BILL?" They just crack up, but continue: "And if you think I'm happy/Paint me (white)," almost yelling "(YELLOW)."
The last part of the song is the following lines, chanted over and over: "They're locking them up today/They're throwing away the key/I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me?"
It reminds me of Boston in 1968, of the fear in the air deeply drenched by possibility, of the concern over the Vietnam War and the government's increasingly hysterical actions in defending it. Of tear gas settling like mist on a park as protesters ran and tactical police beat them. A friend and I sat on a park bench, arms around each other, holding a big bottle of wine. Hoping if we thought we were just winos we'd look like just winos, which is more or less what happened, as the very lightest scent of tear gas drifted pass. Waves of protesters screaming and running ebbed and flowed around our bench, while cops quiet and focused chased and beat them. "They're locking them up today."
In the car on the way home, a radio station played Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth": "There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear/There's a man with a gun over there/Telling me I got to beware/I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound/Everybody look what's going down."
This morning in the shower, as I was remembering Worcester and Boston, cars, songs, protests, and fear, "Red Telephone" kept going through my head: "I wonder who it'll be tomorrow ...?" Over 30 years later, as I turned off the cold to let very hot water soothe my arthritic hands, I found myself thinking that, quite sadly, it was still a pretty good question.