Saturday, September 3, 2022

AN AMERICAN PRAYER

A few days ago a friend posted something on Facebook about An American Prayer, the posthumous Jim Morrison/Doors album. This is a significant album in my life, tied to a very specific time and place. I commented on the Facebook thread that it was the soundtrack to one of the most intense, and ultimately toxic, friendships in my life.

Five or six years ago I was experimenting with writing creative nonfiction. I had a plan to delve into some of my experiences through the music that I associated with them. The first one I did was about An American Prayer. Though I have shared it with a couple of friends I have been reluctant to put it out publicly. It’s fairly personal. It involves real people in my life, though I’ve changed the names for obvious reasons. This is my memory, seen through my eyes, with a little artistic license thrown in. It might not be be entirely accurate or true. It’s been forty years. I think it’s time.


Note: Lines in italics are quotes from songs, copyright their original owner.


Is everybody in?

It was 1984 and no one was watching. I had been out of college for a year and after splitting time between a couple of part time jobs and internships I landed my first professional full-time gig as a counselor for the Greene County Association for Retarded Citizens. I worked there for two years until adult life got boring and I escaped back to the womb of grad school. In that time I became the co-supervisor of one of the group homes.

We were in the midst of a staff meeting in the kitchen to discuss one of our residents who had been causing tremendous chaos for everyone. He was not an appropriate placement in our system, and we were sitting at the table with the director of the GARC and someone important from the state to hash out the fate of this poor young, bipolar man with severe developmental difficulties.

The somber conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. When I opened it there stood Dion, unannounced and unplanned for, drenched in sunshine and sweat, pupils dilated in a face more manically animated than anything I had ever seen on the resident we were discussing.

‟Dude...”

I’m pretty sure he actually said ‟Dude.”

‟I dropped acid and I’ve being tripping for three days!” he said, grabbing me by the shoulders. I could see fractals in his eyes. ‟You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen! I gotta tell you about it!”

I somehow managed to steer him away from the house and get back to the meeting. I still don’t know what things he saw.

Strange days.

***

Dion isn’t his real name, but he was a self-professed follower of the Dionysian, so I’m going with that. He was Italian, handsome. His chest was hard and brown. He had a boyish quality about him that accentuated his good looks, a touch of innocence in the face of a man. His smile was a cauldron of charm. It was like that optical illusion... you know, the one that looks like a beautiful woman from one angle and an ugly crone from another. Once you’ve seen both you can never unsee it.

Dion was my nemesis. My opposite number. The Joker to my Batman, and probably the other way around. He was my friend and enemy years before the term frenemy came into fashion. He’s the only person I’ve ever felt really competitive with. He was a narcissist, a self-destructive alcoholic, and a sociopath. An asshole, in more prosaic terms. We brought out the worst in each other in one of the only truly toxic relationships I’ve ever experienced.

Man, did we have a lot of fun together.

***

Like a lot of intelligent young men with artistic aspirations and pretentious tendencies I got really, really into The Doors. I was only a kid when they were a thing, though it’s likely I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a Sunday night ritual in my house, one I resented because it meant I could never watch The Wonderful World of Disney. I know I heard the classic tracks during my teens, ‟Light My Fire” and ‟Riders on the Storm” if nothing else. But, in the costumes and flash of my teen rock idols I remained mostly unaware of Jim Morrison.

There must have been a resurgence of interest in The Doors in the early 80s. Maybe it was the anniversary of his death. Maybe I just became more aware. A friend of mine had a poster in her dorm room, a shirtless Morrison with the lyrics to An American Prayer. She was really into it, but at the time I was diving into New Wave and some of the more accessible fringes of Punk, so her enthusiasm didn’t rub off on me. I was looking forward, I thought, and not as interested in music from the 60s.

Dion was the person who really turned me on to The Doors. Not surprising, really. Has there ever been a bigger pop culture avatar of art and excess than the Lizard King?

***

I met Dion in college. We were the same age, but he had started a couple of years late so he was still taking classes after I graduated. We were part of the same social group, though on a small campus it was easy to sort of know everyone. As often happens with people in our lives I don’t remember exactly how we became friends. And we were friends... I think. I may have been the first person Dion ever thought of as a friend, as much as his sociopathic heart would allow friendship.

He was arrogant. He told me that he always knew he was smarter than anyone he had ever known. The sad part of this statement is that it was probably true in lots of ways. He was easily able to manipulate people, and had no real moral compunction not to. It also meant he never developed respect for anyone. He saw them all as weaker than himself.

I think I challenged him. In a rare vulnerable moment he told me this was true. I have an element of intellectual arrogance myself, much more so then than now. Life and experience have worn down that rough edge. Smarter or not I wasn’t easily manipulated by Dion. I called him out on his bullshit. He couldn’t get over on me the way he did others. This earned me something like respect from him. Something like respect, but probably not actual respect. In me he saw a challenge. In him I saw... I’m not sure. A dark reflection? Is that too poetic? He gazed deeper into the abyss than I would allow myself, though I was certainly fond of the view.

Dion’s intelligence, good looks, and charm were a deadly combination. These led a lot of women into his bed. I probably don’t need to say that he didn’t respect them either. I’m still friends with a couple of these women and I can’t speak for them and the nature of whatever relationship they had with him, though one of them told me she had completely forgotten about him, which says something. I know what I witnessed over time. I saw the tears, and heard the stories of those he threw away when someone new came along.

I worked with a woman I thought of as a friend, and though she wanted more from me I just wasn’t interested in her in that way. Our friendship ended badly and, in my youthful way of not knowing a better solution, I was unnecessarily cruel to her at the end. She told people we were dating. We weren’t. She told people we were sleeping together. We weren’t. Dion did sleep with her, and couldn’t wait to tell me. He seemed disappointed when he discovered I wasn’t involved with her.

‟That’s the only reason I did it,” he confessed.

Another friend told me of the time she went to a bar with him... She had one drink and the next thing she remembered was throwing up in her toilet at home.

‟Do you think it’s possible he put something in my drink?” she asked me. I don’t know if he did, but do I think it’s possible? Yeah, I do.

***

I heard An American Prayer for the first time at Dion’s apartment. He was surprised I hadn’t heard it and was genuinely excited to share it with me. I remember it now as a nearly sacred experience. The room was dark except for a couple of candles. There was beer and probably pot. This was something important to him and sharing it with me was, though neither of us would have used the term at the time, an act of intimacy. I understand this about music. There was a reverence to the way he placed the disc on the turntable and lowered the needle. We sat and just listened.

Morrison’s words were invocation and invitation. He spoke of gods and their abandonment by the modern world. He spoke of sex and despair, ghost gods and young women, kings and magicians. So many things that felt oh so important then that feel a little pompous and sophomoric to my now middle age sensibilities.

How I wish anything spoke to me in the same way now.

Morrison recorded most of this album as a spoken word recitation of his poetry not long before he died. Years later the remaining Doors recorded music to go with it. It is unlike any other Doors album. Morrison had become the ghost god himself presciently narrating his farewell. ‟I’m getting out of here.” ‟Did you have a good life when you died?” ‟We live, we die, and death not ends it.” ‟Death makes angels of us all.

This was a good night with Dion. We had many. Over time he opened up to me in ways I don’t think had ever done with anyone before. He admitted he had never had friends and wanted me to be one.

He related strongly to the Dionysian qualities of Morrison, and arrogantly claimed the god as a personal avatar. He strongly believed in the idea of cleansing the doors of perception, as the Aldous Huxley quote the band took its name from famously puts it. He wanted to break on through to the other side. His behavior with others was an attempt to challenge the bonds of societal expectation. Like the Beats and the Hippies he saw alcohol and drugs as gateways to this other side, even though a closer inspection shows that substance abuse more often than not clouds the doors of perception, and sometimes closes them entirely.

Dion longed for some kind of heightened experience beyond the daily grind. But, for all his affinity for the god of ecstasy he harbored an Apollonian side as well. He loved poetry, and when not immersed in this he read philosophy, with the probably obvious leanings toward Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. There was the night he reverentially read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot to me, because it mattered to him and he wanted to share it. He would do the same with e.e. cummings, and the Beat poets. Together, in his dim apartment, we visited The Wasteland and slouched towards Bethlehem. This gave me glimpses into his true self and a vulnerability I’m not sure very many people ever saw. On one sacred night he read to me the poetry that no one else knew he had written. He told me the secrets of some of his hidden scars, but never mentioned the actual ones across his wrists.

But there were so many of the other kinds of nights, the ones when I would arrive at the apartment and find him sitting in the dark with a twelve-pack high stack of empty beer cans next to him. The times we were out with friends and he would just start pushing me to see how much of his bullshit I would take. The times he tested our friendship to see if I was worthy. I called him on it, usually. A couple of times I simply left, abandoning him to find his own way home. I rarely fought back. I would simply disengage. A few days later he would find me and start a conversation as if nothing had happened. This was the only language of apology he knew.

The height of this behavior took place one night when we were hanging out at his place with a couple of girls. We were drinking. There was music, and in my mind it is always The Doors whether that is true or not. Things were fine, until the moment they weren’t. We were in the kitchen and he pulled a knife on me.

Dion had applied to be a summer counselor with the college Upward Bound program I worked with. He had been turned down for the job and in that drunken moment blamed me for badmouthing him to the woman in charge, which he saw as a betrayal. I either trusted him far more than I should have, or was suffering from macho stupidity. When I saw the knife in his hand I said, ‟What are going to do with that? Stab me?” Even in this heated moment I felt the need to deflate Dion’s power play. The women intervened immediately, as I’m sure he counted on, pulling us apart. I left with one of them while the other stayed behind to calm him down with sex. A few days later he approached me like nothing had happened.

Thing is, he was right. When someone from the program asked if I thought he would be a good fit I said no. I simply didn’t trust him with the vulnerable high school kids we served.

This incident occurred just a few days after he had shared his poetry. It was Dion’s pattern. He would let me get close, and then do something to push me away. He wanted the friendship but was afraid I would leave, maybe because he recognized he needed it more than I did. So to maintain a feeling of being in control he occasionally tried to drive me away before I simply left.

I was not entirely the innocent in this. I saw what was happening but I kept going back for more. I was chafing at the bounds of my world at the time and was seeking something bigger as well. My closest friend and a couple of the other people I hung out with had all moved away to college, leaving my social life a little bereft. I was in my early 20s and still living with my parents. I was working but I was aware that this was a ‟for right now” type of job, but had no idea what came next. My fear was that ‟what came next” was simply more of the same. I was perched headlong on the edge of boredom and convinced I was wasting the dawn. I was more afraid of drink and drugs and rejection than Dion. Mostly I was afraid of leaving the secure womb of what I had always known. Apron strings and velvet chains, forged from love and support, were invisibly holding me back.

I was not as influenced by the poets and philosophers as Dion. I wouldn’t find the classic writers that really spoke to me for a couple more years. At this time science fiction, and fantasy, and comic books provided the bulk of my metaphors. If I’m honest, they still do. My reading material was more pop culturally prosaic, though I maintain that if you haven’t read the comics of the 1970s you have no idea how psychedelically metaphysical and trippy a lot of them were. Through these I discovered classic mythology, and many other deeper, more meaningful works. The headier books that influenced me then are a list of the clich├ęd greatest hits of the hippie generation; Man and His Symbols, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the entire run of books by Carlo Castaneda 

The Castaneda books in particular had a profound effect on the way I viewed the world. I say that now fully realizing that they are problematic in ways far beyond the scope of this conversation. Even then I read them more as fiction and metaphor than anything else. The elements of the fantastic in these ‟autobiographies” keyed in to my love of comics and all of the rest. Somehow this made them more readable and accessible to me than straight-up philosophy. At the same time I was reading a comic book series called Coyote. This character, based on Native American trickster mythology, was a superhero peyote trip on paper. Coyote was arrogant and foolish and funny and passionate, a perpetual adolescent attempting to understand the new, greater power he held. You know... just like everyone in their early 20s. These two sources led me to exploring a lot of Native American mythology and storytelling. I read, among other things, Black Elk Speaks and the more difficult anthropological work The Trickster by Paul Radin.

So while Dion was wrestling and identifying with the Dionysian/Apollonian split in his nature I was more in tune with the metaphorical holy fool. Both of these ideas collided in the person of Jim Morrison. On An American Prayer he tells the true story of seeing a car accident when he was a child. There were, as he says, ‟Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding.” He goes on to say that he believed that the ghost of one of these Indians leaped into his soul... ‟And it’s still there.” Much like with Castaneda, whether Morrison actually believed this or if it was poetic license is beside the point. He thought of himself as a modern day shaman when on stage, leading his followers on a spiritual journey. ‟Give me an hour for Magic.” By today’s definitions this was probably cultural appropriation, but at the time provided a powerful alternative spiritual metaphor to mainstream religious belief.

I was looking for that, and I think that Dion was as well.

The end of this beautiful friendship was not an explosion, as you might have expected. It died the slow death of separate pathways. I moved in with a girlfriend, someone I have known since we were babies, and applied to grad school. I spent most of the last six months before classes began with her and her children. That romance didn’t last, but she remains a lifelong friend. Dion got married, and try as I might the details of this development remain vague. Probably because I was wrapped up in my own love story. His wife was the daughter of an older woman we went to college with, and in my memory they met and got married really quickly. The obvious reason of pregnancy was not a factor. I don’t think the entire marriage lasted a year and I simply can’t put all of the pieces together.

It was summer, the last few weeks of my stint at the ARC before moving away. I had taken a couple of my clients on a walk. We were in a nearby playground when Dion’s new wife walked by. She stopped to talk. During our conversation it quickly became obvious that she was inviting me back to their apartment for sex while Dion was away. I didn’t. I was living with a girlfriend, and didn’t want the drama with either her or with Dion. I'll always be true. Never go out, sneaking out on you, babe. But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. Partly because she was attractive and sexy, but mainly because it would have put me one up on Dion. Not a very noble reason to sleep with anyone.

I left for grad school. So did Dion, though a different one. I occasionally heard about him from a mutual friend in the same program, but in very short order Dion simply slipped out of my life.

Skip ahead about seven years. I was living in Pittsburgh and had already abandoned the career I pursued in grad school. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, a woman who had given her virginity to Dion. We hung out naked a couple of times before she told me she was still in touch with him. I felt hesitant, but finally agreed to a meetup.

It was a fun-filled disaster, just like every other time. We drank, we joked, we pushed each other. It was good to see him and it was bad for both of us. Over a few short hours in a nearly empty bar I felt it all coming back. The competition, the theatrics, the darkness, another night we tried to die. My worst tendencies had been asleep and were quickly roused by his presence. At the end of the evening we exchanged numbers and agreed to hang out again. I gave him a fake number and haven’t heard from him since. It was an act of self-preservation.

Over the years most of my closest friends have been more straight-laced than I. Less inclined to explore drink and altered states and sexual abandon. I love the friends I have gathered on this thin raft, and thank them all for providing a rock to attach a tether to. I think I have the self-control not to self-destruct, and my experiences with Dion tell me this is true. But still, the abyss also gazes.

I’ve tried to find Dion since then, on the internet if not in real life, but he has proven elusive. I don’t want him back, but I’m curious. Did he fake his death in Paris and move to Africa? Was he eventually ripped to shreds by his Dionysian excess? Did he die in a dark room, An American Prayer on repeat, with a stack of empty cans and his poetry beside him? Or did he settle down, get a job, and have a family? Why does that last option seem the most tragic to me?

Morrison famously screamed, ‟You cannot petition the lord with prayer!” yet the final words we hear from him are from a prayer he had written. God grant me another lifetime to perfect my art. I’m not ready for the record to end, but eventually the music’s over. No one here gets out alive.

Turn out the light.

Friday, April 29, 2022

RIP Neal Adams

 Neal Adams was easily one of the most important and influential artists in comic book history. I know this because he told me that himself when we met a few years ago. From anyone else it would have sounded arrogant. From him it was simply a statement of fact. I had told my students much the same thing about him just a few weeks earlier.


For a list of his credits and achievements there are many online resources, so I won’t take up space repeating them here. I want to talk about meeting him. He was one of the first comics artists whose style I was able to recognize when I was young, and one of the first artists I was a big fan of. A few years ago he flew into Pittsburgh to appear at a convention and to do a signing at Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland. I had the privilege of picking him and his wife Marilyn up at the airport. I’ve met a lot of big names in the industry in my life, I’ve interviewed Stan Lee, but I felt a little nervous. He was one of my first heroes. I didn’t want to just gush my fanboy geekdom all over him immediately. We had a lovely conversation about Pittsburgh as we drove back into town.


Neal Adams was a larger than life character in real life. He was loud, and opinionated, and obviously felt pretty good about himself. But this was all expressed in an open and friendly manner. He was a sideshow barker – he had actually been one of these at some point in his life – and carried that demeanor with him. He was knowledgeable and passionate and talented, and as far as I could see while he was at the store, genuinely kind to everyone he met. Before the signing was over I got something signed, an art book of his I have had since I was an early teen, and got to do my fanboy gushing. I then drove him and Marilyn to their motel.


Neal had some pretty out-there ideas about the world. Hollow earth and expanding planets, and a bunch of frankly crazy sounding nonsense. You can find videos and posts about this if you look. I was treated to some of his rambling theories while we drove. I don’t believe the things he did, but it was entertaining to hear first hand. I was also treated to a rant about how all hotels should have Thomas’s English Muffins instead of any other brand. Honestly that may be my favorite moment, just because it was so very human.


So RIP, Neal Adams. Thank you for Batman and the X-Men that you gave us. Thank you for Ms. Mystic and Skateboy. Thank you for your tireless work for creators rights. Thank you for opening up a world of art and story to this young mind.


I hope Heaven has Thomas’ English Muffins. If not, I’m sure you’ll tell them about it.


Neal Adams with the Phantom crew


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Big Slim

In a recent conversation with Dad (he’s 102 years old), I discovered more of his history with local music back when he was young. The conversation went something like this:


Me: I was reading a book about old Country music. It’s one based on the Burns documentary. It was talking about Grandpa Jones getting his start in Wheeling on WWVA. Did you ever see him?”

Dad: Oh yeah... we used to run into him all the time.


I grew up watching Hee Haw and seeing Grandpa Jones every week. If Dad ever mentioned that he knew him it escaped my notice.

Grandpa Jones began playing the character
when he was 22 years old.

My dad played guitar and mandolin in a family band. His mother played piano and accordion, but it was her brother Clark and his sons who were the musicians. Uncle Clark, who a I remember only slightly, was a barber in the small village of Time. He played the fiddle, and his boys and my dad rounded out his ‟Back Porch Band.” Dad couldn’t remember if that was their official name, or if it was simply the Phillips Family band. He thinks they played under both names at one time or another. Dad says he mostly just chorded along, and did some singing. His cousin Ray was apparently one of those classic back woods prodigies who could play anything with strings. They played frequently at local community get togethers and fairs, participating in contests. Dad mentioned playing frequently at Golden Oaks Park near Rogersville, PA (the site of this park is near my high school and is currently where the garage for their buses is). Sometimes they got paid (Dad remembers making at least a dollar once in awhile), and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes these affairs were contests and the Phillips Family Band was good enough that twice they won the opportunity to play on the stage at the Wheeling Jamboree. This would have been in the late 1930s and early ‛40s. He played some after he returned from the War, but not as frequently.


This circuit of small community venues was frequented by a lot of the country music stars who were getting airplay on WWVA at the time, including, apparently, Grandpa Jones. Dad says they were never great friends, but they were certainly friendly when they ran into each other. Given the rules of Kevin Bacon, this make me three steps removed from everyone in the country music business.


Another country star of the time, who was never as famous as Jones, was Big Slim the Lone Cowboy, and Dad was genuinely friends with him. Slim had a radio show on WWVA and played on KDKA in Pittsburgh. He did live shows all over the area, including a lot of the small community events my Dad played at. Slim had a band, and in his live outdoor shows he would bring a horse. He did rope tricks and Dad saw him, many times, flick a cigarette out of his wife’s mouth with bullwhip (Slim a had number of wives, and did this trick with at least two of them. Dad knew his third wife. More on that later).


You can read more about Big Slim HERE. One of the things that struck me in this article is the mention of how Slim’s actual history is a bit of mystery because over the course of his career he told various stories about where he was from and what his life entailed. This struck me as funny because one of the things Dad said to me was, ‟I liked Slim, but you couldn’t believe a word out of his mouth.”


Slim was also a coon hunter and dog trainer, both of which were things my dad did as well, which extended the scope of their friendship. In addition to hunting, Dad also participated in Field Trials, a national dog racing competition. This is not the greyhounds running around a track you’re probably picturing, but a far more feral outdoor in the middle of nowhere activity my dad was part of well into his 70s (which deserves a much larger explanation and a blog of its own).


At some point, Dad sold Slim a coon hound for $125.00, a lot of money at that time (according to the US Inflation Calculator I just used, thats $1,458.24 in 2022 dollars). These were the days when the dogs were used for both the races and for hunting, before the two activities became more specialized. He saw Slim later and asked him how the the dog was doing for hunting. Slim told him at first he thought the dog was worthless. He was out hunting and the dog was barking on the trail, and kept circling around back to him. ‟I thought he was chasing deer,” Slim said. ‟I figured the next time he circled around I was just going to shoot him and get it over with.” Suddenly the dog started treeing deep in the woods. According to Slim, when he found the dog he was barking up a pine tree. When Slim shined his light into the tree there were seventeen coon in it staring back at him. He shot sixteen of them, but the last one got away. Best dog he ever had. He said he wouldn’t take $1000.00 dollars for him now.


Can’t believe a word he says.


The other story was a trip to the Kenton Nationals, or Leafy Oak as it was called back then. This was the biggest field trial in the country, near Kenton Ohio. Dad and Mom, their friends Ken and Elsie Shepherd, and Big Slim and his third wife, all stayed at the same motel. At first, when telling the story, he couldn’t remember Slim’s wife’s name. A few days later, on the phone, he says to me, ‟I think Slim’s wife was named Bebe.” Sure enough, her name was Bebe Bernard, the ‟Annie Oakley of West Virginia,” as she was billed in his act. ‟She was a whole lot younger than Slim,” Dad told me.


Anyway, they all got up early in the morning and Dad, Ken, and Slim piled into Dad’s car while the women all rode together in Ken’s. They went to to the race and spent the day. Apparently Bebe got completely shitface drunk over the course of the day. Passed out on the way home in the car with my Mom and Elsie. Slim carried her into the motel room and put her in the shower in her clothes to sober her up.

Elsie Shepherd and Mom, one of her
"best friends ever," at a field trial. Elsie drove
the car with drunk Bebe while Mom
tried to take care of her.

The article linked to above said that Slim took a number of young and upcoming country stars under his wing. One of them was Hawkshaw Hawkins, who died in the same plane crash as Patsy Cline. Not to spread unsubstantiated rumors seventy years later, but Dad says everyone at the time believed Slim was Hawkins real father. I know of no actual confirmation of this.


I’m 60, and still discovering fascinating things about my parent’s lives. Part of me is stunned that Dad never mentioned knowing Grandpa Jones, or if he did, me not remembering it. But then, by the time I was old enough for this to register it would have been forty years in the past for my Dad.


You can hear some of Slim’s music on YouTube. Here’s one of them.

https://youtu.be/pEavlT1KU7I