Monday, July 2, 2001

As If Everybody Knows What I'm Talking About

When I left my home and my family I was no more than a boy/In the company of strangers in the quiet of a railway station running scared/Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go/Looking for the places only they would know..."

It was a hot end of summer Sunday when my Mom and Dad dropped me off in my dorm at the beginning of freshman orientation week at Macalester. As we were driving up Dale past 94 my nerves tingled as I didn't know quite what to expect nor quite what I was doing. It would have been just as easy for me to continue to live at home while taking classes but I decided it was better to become fully involved in campus activities. I had spent my whole senior year of high school brooding, just wanting out, wanting a change. One of the factors in my choice of Macalester was that no one else from my high school was going there. I indeed would have a fresh start, be able to establish my own name and voice on my own without anyone ever knowing the difference.

About the only information I had gotten from the college was a slip of paper telling me the name of my dorm (Wallace) room number (220) and roommates names (Dr. Pete and Boozin' Bruce). As I checked in at a table in the downstairs lobby I heart began pounding. As we trudged our way up the marble stairs more than half of me wanted to turn around and pretend it was time to really wake up. It was the exact same feeling I got when my Mom walked me to my bus stop during the first days of kindergarten.

Bruce and Pete and their families were already there setting up the room. Pete had claimed the bed by the windows and Bruce the bed nearest the sink. I was left to unload my stuff in the far corner bed underneath the fire alarm. Introductions were awkward. My parents quickly departed, leaving me to eat dinner with the other families. I maybe said a word or two all evening but certainly not without being asked a question first.

My whole freshman year was an odd and solitary experience. I in essence didn't make any friends all year, not because of a lack of effort by others nor necessarily a lack of effort (at times) by me. I just needed to sort out where I had just been, where I wanted to go, and the voice I needed to get me passed and there. I spent a lot of time taking walks, sitting down and writing around the area. I soon discovered the joys of walking down Snelling to Cheapo Records and picking up a used LP or two a week.

Towards the end of the year just after a spring shower, I made my semi-regular walk down to Cheapo and after looking around the bins decided to buy a copy of Paul Simon's first solo self titled LP. I was a fairly big Simon and Garfunkel fan having grown up listening to my sisters play the duo's songs on the piano and later learning many of those same songs myself after I was through with the rigors of that week's piano assignment. In high school people thought me such a fan of the duo that the blondest person in the school, Pam Mundt, declared to me without much provocation that she hated the song, "I Am a Rock."

It was that kind of memory I was leaving behind as I was under the impression that Simon's solo work wasn't as good- the stuff I heard like "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" didn't strike me the same as the older songs (plus they weren't as easy to duplicate on the piano).

I got back to the dorm room and pulled the record out of its jacket. I cleaned it before I put the needle of the album down on the vinyl and brought the lyrics sleeve to my bed. The first words from the first song "Mother and Child Reunion" struck a chord inside. "No I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day/But the mother and child reunion is only a motion away..." The song was about being disconnected and apart from the familiar.

The next song "Duncan" completely won me over. It's essentially about a lost soul who finds some sexual redemption underneath the stars and despite other troubles is satisfied if only for a moment. "Holes in my confidence/Holes in the knees of my jeans/I was left without a penny in my pocket/Oo-wee I was as destituted as a kid could be."

All the songs on the album hit upon similar themes but in a much looser, much more funky style than anything Simon and Garfunkel ever did. Simon was under pretty big expectations with his first solo effort- he had to prove he was the talent of the two (and undoubtedly he was being the writer of the songs) but beyond that he had to prove he could be not only just as good as the two, but better alone. And the LP does that beyond a shadow of a doubt. From references to having his chow fon stolen, to a Detroit Red Wings right winger, it really is the best middle finger with a smile song cycle ever recorded.

There were many times my freshman year when I felt like declaring it time for a forfeit (or as Twins' fans are now calling it, "throwing in the Hector") after attending a class where there were all these bright and talented minds flinging about ideas and questions that made me wonder why in the earth I could consider myself even a little special and why I had thought I was at all qualified among the over qualified for the profession I wished to pursue. It was so draining to return to my room full of doubt when I would play the LP and be SO inspired to know I was on the right journey and it would take some time to find my true voice.

The next few years things really began to fall in place for me. I made some of the best relationships of my life and I was "discovered" somehow for the one thing I always wanted to be noticed for- my writing. I found others that I could discuss the many intricacies of the things that mattered most to me.

Then for what ever reason (call it a life pattern) things came crashing down around me toward the end of my junior year. Maybe it was the realization that I soon really had to begin making some serious choices about what was next again, and maybe it was the little girl next door (that I once knew) but something just wasn't right anymore.

It was after another walk down to Cheapo that I fell in love with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The LP remains the one in my collection that I play nearly every week, and I appreciate more and more each time I hear it. There is so much to the music, from bold and bald pure expression of melancholy and longing to absolute wonderment of the human heart's frailties conveyed by those gorgeous melodies and harmonies.

Flash forward to a few months back when I read that Brian Wilson and Paul Simon were touring together and coming to our town. Being a fan of both I knew I had to go and despite the pain of purchasing my $66 ticket via Ticketmaster online, I filed it away as a rare evening to look forward to and enjoy. But with the extreme pain of the personal heartbreak(s) of the past few years and the grinding annoyance of the professional experiences of the past few months, to be frank, the concert didn't even register on my conscious radar. I knew it was sometime in June but I figured like most everything else going on these days, I'd deal with it whenever it arrived. It was merely another scribbling on my calendar (a poor person's palm pilot).

I looked up enough last weekend to take note that on Tuesday I would have to work my way over to the Xcel Energy Center (if this is where my energy bill contributions are going, bring it on!) to try and relax and enjoy an evening out.

One quick observation that was probably obvious to anyone who hadn't consumed too many beers: the pairing was a rather odd matching. Simon and Wilson really don't have anything in common other than both being icons of the 60's. While the cerebral and studious Simon was busy singing about a "brother" who went off to Vietnam, Wilson was writing songs for his real brothers about having fun (fun, fun) until her daddy took the T-bird away. It was clear from the people around us that a greater percentage were old folkies and young wannabes who would never take into consideration the considerable merits of one who has written more than a few surfing classics.

Brian struggled during his set to connect to the crowd. The sure fire stand up songs, "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," "Surfin USA" got people on their feet after a bit of prodding from the writer (who sat awkwardly behind his keyboard without striking a key all night). The absolute highlights from the performance were the two Pet Sounds classics, "Sloop John B" and "God Only Knows" followed by (who would have thunk it possible?) two tracks from the aborted never to be classic Smile "Heroes and Villains" and "Surf's Up." Could anyone with a lighter really appreciate what was happening on stage with a solid and sure vocal from Brian of those songs?

The crowd was much more into Simon's rather workmanlike if not at times spirited set. Sure, the new songs from the Grammy nominated You're the One didn't inspire the same response as the familiar songs from Graceland and the Simon and Garfunkel tunes ("Sounds of Silence," "Homeward Bound," "Mrs. Robinson") but the highlights of the evening were a sterling "Hurricane Eye," a rocking "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and a rather obscure tune from 1990's Rhythm of the Saints, "Spirit Voices."

I appreciated the company of the most attractive sweet smelling (and again) blonde dancing next to me (don't touch me) who at least got her dancing right at the right times. Unlike those around us who howled with lines like "and I stepped outside to smoke myself a 'j' and "it was against the law, what the mama saw, was against the law..." she is a knowledgeable Simon fan to appreciate and move to inspired writing like "sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears" and "may twelve angels guard you while you sleep/Maybe that's a waste of angels I don't know/I'd do anything to keep you safe from the danger that surrounds us..." As we left the energy center with ears a-buzzing I harked back to my freshman dorm room and was able to let go enough to appreciate I wasn't in a State Government Finance Committee hearing listening to Rep. Philip Krinkie, but instead was enjoying a couple of artists who have made all the difference in the world to me.

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