Stevie Ray Vaughan
It was in Pennsylvania, I realize, when I seemed to wake up on this cross-country trip. It started the night before in Clinton County as Cheryl settled in to a nap, the man-boy fell into his bio on Lennon, and I fell into a trance of sorts as the freeway bucked and fell through the lush countryside, the winter sun a shattered orb more south than west as it set. The series of farms that in my reverie, I committed to memory without realizing it. It was in central and western PA, normally a flyover zone on an airplane that one doesn’t think of much, if at all. And, despite its angular, box-like shape (and size) in the atlas, the state has little resemblance to the huge geographical blocks that make of the Mountain West. Still…as we barrel towards Ohio, I remember those farms nesting in the hardwoods as if they were the atomic stain of an America obliterated by time and technology.
In Ohio, the traffic becomes earnest, instantly more congested, more development. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and lest we forget, its Museum, is suddenly in the forefront of our minds. Until we get to Youngstown, it is the reason Ohio exists–except for the one Mormon in the car, moi. True to my neurotic attachment to my own people, Ohio is about the Kirtland Temple. Why did I remind Cheryl of that when we first considered making a pit stop in the state that helped give George W. Bush his second term? I think it was so that she would be reminded of how well I know history—at least my own little stake in it. Or maybe it was to remind her that it still somehow matters to me—this 19th Century temple made by the early saints in what is now a suburb of Cleveland. A temple whose walls still glitter in the light from the ground-up china believers insisted on putting in the plaster. There were many visions that came out of its eight-hour dedication service in 1836, including a personal visit of the Apostle Peter himself. There was the sound of rustling robes and a Pentecost-styled fever dream of flaming tongues. At least that’s the story, canonized later. There was also, apparently, a great deal of booze being consumed on that holy day, but that was revealed only much later during the “new history” of the previous decade in which the “new historians” were summarily excommunicated—at least those in the Utah-based church.
When I mentioned the site the day before, as we were streaming through Clinton, County, PA, Cheryl looked over the rims of her glasses at me like I was a recovering drunk who had just recommended a favorite watering hole from the previous life. “No way,” she said, the atlas turned back to profile from landscape in her lap to reveal the little ragged shield that is Ohio. “But it’s a National Historic Landmark,” I said, which is to legitimize my quaint little faith to the lapsed Episcopalian who is still a little snooty about the religion of my childhood, if you ask me. “This is a family vacation,” she rejoined. “We want to have fun. You think Joe’s going to care about Mormon history?” End of conversation. There was a time I would have felt really wounded by this corrective. Maybe my parents and siblings are right. Ever since I first met Cheryl as a missionary in Maine, she has dragged me away from the Gospel, with a capital Mormon “G”…and thus my family. More accurately, it was I who set her up years ago to be the fall guy for that. It seems to have worked brilliantly for nineteen years. And, in typical Dave fashion, I have remained the hapless one, controlled by a wife that my people still refer to as “Gentile,” along with everyone else non-Mormon, including Jews.
The temperature outside hovers in the mid 40s. Not too cold for a December day above the 41st Latitude, but cold-wet enough in this eastern clime to know that you’re still not out west. The plan is to fly through Ohio with a pit stop in Cleveland for our rendezvous with all things Rock and Roll, then zoom through Indiana, Illinois, across the Mississippi into Iowa and to Iowa City where we will overnight. 644 miles, not counting the detour. Whew!
Now that we are in the Buckeye State our mood has improved. More progress. The way west. Yippee! I-80 becomes the Ohio Turnpike and the tolls that annoy me and baffle Joe. Why do we have to pay money to go on the freeway? he asks. Ah, true child of the west. This leads to a discussion about taxes. “Tolls are actually a pretty fair system,” explains Cheryl. “You don’t have to pay it unless you want to use the service.”
“Yeah, but ten bucks to cross Ohio?” I say. “It seems exorbitant.”
“Someone has to pay for the upkeep,” she continues, nonplussed. “If you don’t drive a car, you don’t pay the tax.”
I know that she is right. When we lived in New York we shuffled more coins and dollar bills into the sweaty hands of union toll booth attendants every time we ventured five miles, it seemed, from home. New York toll booths were the reminder that you lived on an island, or grouping of islands. The way I look at it, it’s the reason the Dutch settled there back in the 1600s. The terrain was perfect for nickel and diming everyone to death through tolls.
Still, it annoys me that she is such a bleeding heart liberal. Only I get to be that, and only when it suits me. Right now, with our toll out-put approaching $100 since we left Boston, I’d just as soon maintain the God-given American privilege of complaining about high taxes, even at the risk of being considered a tea partier. “The fact of the matter is, Dave, she says, we pay less taxes now than we have anytime since before World War II, but we’re all screaming now about big government. This even though our entitlements in this country, like Medicare, are off the charts. We get more but pay less. Not exactly a sustainable model.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” says Joe from the back. “I mean someone’s got to pay for these great roads. They’re getting us back to Salt Lake pretty fast.” He pats me on the shoulder, consoling me.
Shit. You can take the Yankee out of New England, but apparently you can’t take the new England out of the Yankee. Same with the grandson.
It pleases me to think that I new about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here in our impromptu drive west. It’s the sort of thing you know as a flight attendant winging in from city to city, even though I’ve never been to the museum. And now that we’re just a few hours outside of Cleveland, the rock talk gets more animated. Coming from a family of twelve kids, I learned that there’s only one thing more frightening than too much talk among the sibs–and that’s not enough talk. Silence was a weapon to keep the rest of the family guessing and thus, lacking control. I know. Even approaching 50 I find myself playing the old silence game with my folks. If you want to call it a game. Just to keep them guessing. Out of their control zone.
And thus it is with me. Joe has no excuse now not to answer my steady stream of questions. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Little Wing” is playing.
“What do you think of this guy?”
“What about him?
“How does he rank? As a guitarist?”
“He’s really, really good.”
“Better than Jimi Hendrix?” Trick question. He pauses. Even though I’m driving now, I can see him in my mind’s eye, tightening his lips in thought.
“Second best,” he announces finally. “Hard to say who was the best. Vaughan didn’t create that song but…he’s still excellent on the guitar. So if you’re just talking skill on the guitar….”
I ask who the other greats are. These are real questions. I haven’t a clue. I guess I was swimming in this stuff to some degree while Joe is standing on the bank years later experiencing it from a distance. To wit: somehow I completely missed the phenomenon of U2.
“Jimmy Page,” Joe continues. He’s trying to rank them. “Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Vaughan…I don’t know there’s just so many of them. They’re all pretty brilliant.” He hates ranking anything. Ask him if he likes chocolate more than caramel—Die Hard One vs. Die Hard Two–he’ll always come back with “Both. Equally. Pretty much.”
“Stevie Ray died early too. About the time I was born,” he says. That was October. 1993. The month I became a 32-year-old grandfather. Step grandfather, I guess. Technically.
We pass Ravenna, Ohio, known for the spot along I-80 where the watershed for the Eastern half of the U.S. divides—east to the Great Lakes; West to the Mississippi. There are bridges everywhere, not like in the West. Water everywhere. We cross the Cuyahoga River, long, sweeping arches underneath us. We catch only a glimpse, and then it’s gone and I-80 draws us forward, as if we’re on that frozen river of Joni’s. The turn off to the William McKinley National Memorial shoots by. Wasn’t he a U.S. President? Assassinated by someone with an unpronounceable name who believed the rich had stuck it to the working class just one too many times? Something about “direct action” faintly emerges from the mental murk of a college history class. In this post-middle class age, where Cheryl and I are living at the level of practical poverty, tea partiers are claiming the legacy now of direct action. This is very confusing indeed, considering that Emma Goldman and the assassin of McKinley—anarchists both, have somehow given birth (or a hideous miscarriage) to Sarah Palin.
Could someone please turn the lights back on?
There’s a sign for Akron. Joe’s second father now lives in Akron, although he’s probably back in Salt Lake right now for the holidays. I know for a fact that Eric was good to Joe, even though that wasn’t the story we heard from Julie when she split from him five years into the relationship. (Exhibit T.) Joe was 12. It was shortly after we returned to Utah from New York.
The Charlie Rose in me continues.
“Hey Joe. You know about Akron. That’s where Eric lives.”
“What do you think of Eric these days? Doesn’t he still come by at Christmas and send you birthday cards?”
“He’s cool. He introduced me to the guitar some too. Estella. Really good guitar and really old too.”
“What happened to it?”
“My mom has it.”
“Why does she have it?”
“I don’t know. I guess it was part of their agreement.”
“You seem to know a lot about this kind of music.”
“I’ve been hearing music like this since I was really young. So I know a lot of it.”
(Yeah. That and a lot of other things, too. Exhibit….)
“I’ve had a kind of a lot of parent figures.”
“Who’s on the short list?”
“I don’t know I don’t think a lot about it.” And then he angles the conversation back to music. “I just know a lot of the groups and a lot of the styles.” And then he submerges. Away he goes. Bubbles rising. I can see him sinking into the depths, his back white and flat in the refracted light of the sky through water, his almost-shoulder-length hair aloft in the drift. He’s fingering the I-pod buds back into his ears, kicking his legs slowly, his shoulders rocking slightly back and forth. Disappearing towards either the Great Lakes or the Atlantic. Take your pick. For now anyway.
Truthfully, I’ve never cared for John Lennon. The Beatles were cool, even though in 1968 I remember sitting pajama-ed in front of the tube in Palo Alto, California with my three older sisters and mirroring my religious parents’ disgust at the black-and-white sight of American girls screaming in ecstasy in front of chain-link until they fainted or were carried off by policemen, or both. As with many, by the time he was doing sleep-ins with Yoko and posing nude for Annie Lebovitz—his sickly white left flank bent over the clothed and tight-lipped Yoko, her black-black hair spent on the carpet of their Dakota apartment–I was like—yeah, whatever. Peace, dude.
In Dublin when I was at the International Communication Conference as a graduate student, culture studies were first angling to be a legit academic subject. It was there that a graduate student spent an hour rhetorically dissecting the outpouring of public grief at Lennon’s murder as told through network news. Even then I was like—this is obscene. Who gives a shit really? The guy was completely full of himself and Yoko was a crappy artist on top of it. “Imagine.” That was the single word in three syllables that even one of my best friends showed up one day emblazoned on his shirt along with the abbreviated self-portrait of this member of the Fab Four. The intellectual one.
This was 1988, eight years after Lennon was murdered, and he was still being immortalized by Boomers—my friend, like Cheryl, eleven years my senior—while at the same time on television Alex P. Keaton a.k.a. Michael J. Fox was kicking his liberal parent’s ass in Reagan’s last year of spending the country into utter oblivion. And now this. My grandson, for all intents and purposes at this point, my son—though not (more on that later)—is enraptured by vinyl LPs, 8-track players, Camaros and…Lennon. I’m not sure if I’m Alex Keaton, his exasperated father with a dusty bong in the closet or some weird combination of the two. Cheryl was not exactly a fan of the 60s—epitomized in her view by the iconoclastic Students for a Democratic Society. (She actually wanted to go to class when she was in college).
And me? I was seven in 1968, treading water in Mormonland where blacks weren’t admitted into full faith fellowship until, staggeringly, 1978 and where later, at Provo High School, the most compelling question one could be asked by friends after graduation was: “When are you going on your mission?”
So where did the man-boy get these proclivities?
This is the thing about kids that makes their parents craziest. They aren’t like them. Ergo, the kids are idiots.