Chiseled In Rock
This story was originally published in Empty Mirror, which can be found here.
Literature is a morgue: I go there to identify my friends. One of them evaporated yesterday, March 6, 2013. The last pic he nailed through the ether toward me had his Woodstock cherry red 335 erecting from the lap into the skies. I was, obviously, born ten years after him, yet that tiny space in time made no difference.
If one were to study history thoroughly, one might decode many baffling current events, with the exception of the Electoral College and Dionne Warwick’s psychic hotline. Doubtless, Woodstock was for Boomers what whorehouses of Alexandria were to those stiffer than a four-Viagra night with Sheryl Crow. We stirred up the bonfire back then, these days we provide ashes.
I came back from London in the summer of 1973, and proclaimed: ‘I had a few shots with Him at the Marquee!’ My friends studied me as if I’d been granted weekend release from a correctional facility specializing in incurable psychiatric malfunctions: by giving me the opinions of the uneducated, they kept me in touch with the ignorance of the Yugoslav communistic community. People do have hard time believing the true stories, but they take any bullshit for granted; the herd mentality doesn’t take Matthew 7:6 for an answer (Don’t cast your pearls before swine). It will always be the same possibilities that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above idea. It’s amazing, the clarity that comes with psychotic jealousy. I turned around and faced those bastards, ‘When a man appears to be ahead of his time, it is only the time that is behind the man.’ As if I cared – ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision.
The rain was pouring force majeure in London, weather was savoir-faire in Belgrade. The memory of Soho’s muddy waters kept me brush off this Life of Brian moment. It also got me thinking if my friends were humans. Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word ‘buddy’. And what was my sin: I reach the station, where I ask for a ticket to London where the king lives. The lights will go out for all of us at some point or another, but unless there are race drivers, astronauts, test pilots, mountain climbers, and others prepared to make the supreme sacrifice in the name of the raw, hell-fire defiance of the odds, there is a legitimate concern that all of society, free of risk and snuggled in bed, will be so stricken with fear that no one will be brave enough to stand up and pull a Neo backflip.
How much more of my friends there would be if the hammer of a higher god could smash their small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave them in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down. If you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid in its weakness, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. An individual dies when he shrinks from both rash plans and rash acts, when instead of taking risks and hurling himself toward being, cowers within it, takes refuge there: a metaphysics of regression, a retreat to the primordial.
It was early Sunday morning, and the Marquee was closed up tight. ‘If this thing goes up,’ Alvin said, ‘they won’t even find our dental work.’ The noise, the heat, the vibration, the g-forces, the pitching and yawing of his guitar, the madness of the instruments around us. Perhaps our jam session was not so much a discovery through whim, rather something that re-emerged from where it laid buried in the memory, inaudible as a melody cut in a disc of flesh. It’s an environment you can’t even try to imagine with that tourniquet on your brain. The late Eddie Sachs once observed, ‘Anybody can drive a car that’s under control. The trick is driving it when it’s out of control.’
Ric pointed to a strip club directly next door and to a White Castle a block distant. ‘Open a liquor store across the street,’ he offered, ‘and this place’ll put Disney right outta business.’ My mind snapped like a cheap rubber band: I felt a jolt of electricity erupt near my temple, then my hands and feet were magically loosed from the neurotransmitters controlling them for the previous 19 years. Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths.
You don’t want to mention stuff like this to your buddies. You don’t want to mention stuff like this even to your kids eons later. Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own delusion, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer.
There’s a surprisingly narrow niche for eclectic observations of this sort, a fine focus reserved for fanatics fussing over the printed page. But to acknowledge these subconscious trap doors and trip wires is to reveal more than my mind cares to process. In a word, the Marquee drift was like touring Louvre with Matisse and Van Gogh. I thought to myself, either this epiphany will kill me or it’ll make me famous. Unfortunately, neither happened.
The Woodstock legend was almost accidentally created four decades ago and will surely produce more smiles among the closet anarchists of the world, which if the truth be known, includes most of us. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. But only when the reality has not been subsumed by foamy legends and fantasies that radiate outward from the actual event. Fiction, on the other hand, was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.
I came back from London, and all of a sudden I stand there, astonished, in a wide semi-circle: alone; as a very small dog trying to bite a watermelon. As I am seeking for the bridge which leans from the visible to the invisible through reality, the copper twilight clears slowly to a pale yellow. Understanding anything is what I like to think of as a necessary illusion. Fear is the mind killer. Tazio Nuvolari was once asked how he summoned the courage to race. ‘Where do you want to die?’ he responded. ‘In bed, in peace,’ came the reply. ‘Well then, where do you find the courage to turn off the lights each night?’ countered the great driver.
These days, as I drift gracelessly into my dotage, I can’t help recalling the glory days that supplied us with a combination of ingredients forceful enough to support an army on the move for a week: Benzedrine for playing on the stage, Quaaludes for sleeping, booze in between. We took the light-brigade approach and charged into life with sabers drawn. We flew across the common sense as if it weren’t there. My feeble brain is still fried from the frantic action at the Marquee, and Woodstock is indelibly inscribed on my so-called career portfolio that few conversations with strangers pass without the subject of the event arising. As Vic Elford once recalled, ‘You had to be bloody careful at that kink near the end, gently rolling off the gas and onto the brakes for a sec, lest the back begin steering the front and you’d take a tour of the woods.’
These are the perceptions that try men’s souls. That some day you might drive off-road, that some day you might need seating for your son’s entire graduating class, that some day you might need to tow the speedboat you haven’t ever owned, that some day you might need titanium brush guards to fend off a deadly collision with a charging rhino during your first date with Penélope Cruz. There is a big fat fly in all of this Be Prepared ointment, preparing you to live tomorrow and get ready today. The ancients call it stoicism, and I think it must be what some German lunatics mean (if they mean anything) when they talk about pessimism. The end may justify the means as long as there is something to justify the end. And put our ashes to proper use.
Yet somewhere there is still a lure, something that lays quiet and pale as March sunlight, the shadows upon earth aching with spring.*
*Homage to Alvin Lee, Ten Years After, and the Woodstock generation