Monday, July 24, 2000

Wayward Proximity

"And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him... and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was---I don't know how or why---but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way."
-Bob Dylan accepting the Best Album of the Year Grammy for Time Out of Mind

One definition of the line that separates sanity from madness is the ability or inability to distinguish between reality and your perception of reality. For some, more than others, this is a very narrow line indeed. Pencil thin, the reader might say. A much broader canyon is the one that distinguishes a breakdown from a meltdown. The end result may be the same but the process one uses to get from here to there must be distinguished for those scoring at home. Thus begins our fable about Elijah the nihilist, and Grace the survivor once known as the "cryptic mystic." The two friends were living in times where their highest elected official needed an explanation of what "is" is before he could reveal his side of the latest scandal to those he was supposedly representing.

Elijah was insufferably marginal, the type of person who was easily forgotten by even the best intentioned. Grace on the other hand, was adrift, occasionally displaying bursts of great manic exhilaration. The two shared a lot and had a lot in common. They spent much of their time together building crazy walls with sensible bricks.

What was the connection that brought the two of them together? About ten years ago Elijah had lost his muse. Grace told him she could relate for she had once lost her voice. She said that loss was ironic because a mere year ago she had marveled at how her neighbor's dog across the alley, despite its imposing size, never once barked at her. "What a nice doggy," she said with a emulating style. However that kindness evaporated and the situation reached a point where every time Grace took a mere step out of her brick house the dog would yelp in warning. What had she ever done? What had changed? It occurred to her that the dog had never been nice in the first place- perhaps it had a case of laryngitis that caused the silence.

It was a summery Saturday night in a blue collar bar in Northeast Minneapolis. The local polka band, Tubby Esquire was playing a set in front of an unsympathetic crowd. There was a middle aged couple sitting in the back corner whose evening seemed to be winding down. The woman rested her head comfortably on the man's shoulder, her eyes closed, her face far away. In the center of the room was a table that had two men sipping beer talking knowingly with a member of the band. To their right sat a fidgety Elijah trying to overcome his growing agoraphobia, trying his best to blend into the background. He was pretending to watch the TV in the back corner (facing away from the subdued couple). Scenes from Grumpy Old Men flashed unsaturated across his face.

The band started up powered by the jaunty sound of Harry Pulver Jr.'s accordion and John Schech's bass. The crowd looked on somewhat amused, somewhat tepidly. The set included terrific covers of two Hank Williams songs, Dear John and Honky Tonkin' along with a sprightly reading of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. The band took requests from the audience leading to definitive versions of The Beer Barrel Polka, Oklahoma and an infectious Happy Wanderer. By this point a few from people from the other room had trickled back and were dancing in front of the stage. A smile beamed on the Elijah's face. "Val or rie, val or rah, val or rie, val or rah hah hah hah hah hah hah hah ha..." His head bobbed along with a man dancing obscenely, remembering the delight of one of the first songs he learned to sing, a song he sang often when he was happy as a kid.

The highlight of the evening were consummate versions of two of the bands best songs, Tubby's Advice ("Don't ever cheat on your wife. She cooks your dinner with knives/If you break her heart you'll be missing a part/Be true to the love of your life/Unless someone looks like your wife...") and Saddest Hour of the Day ("Oh I hope and I pray that some night you will stay, past the saddest hour of the day...") Elijah was reminded of what he liked in the band for the first time he listened to their CD- the joyful mixture of observant melancholy with skeptical and sharp humor. The band was one of the few who could mix contrasting volatile emotions and be versatile enough musicians to pull it all off.

His mind turned to Grace the first to get him to dance in public since high school when he watusied with a chair. She appeared out of the haze one morning, an unexpected angel- a heartbreak waiting to happen. He was reminded that no matter how blue he was feeling he had been blessed enough to within days stand near his favorite writer, Bob Dylan, who had looked deep into his eyes with a searing intensity; a few hours before he had been in front of Ralph Nader, the man who would probably get his vote for president, and now he was lucky enough to hear his favorite band again. The lesson learned was that being close wasn't so much a matter of proximity but rather a condition of the heart. You can feel close to some people without even knowing it. You can feel closer than ever to some people without them even knowing it.

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