Gimme Shelter

I have lived my life full of longing to leave one place for another only to find myself after a time longing to go back.

Perhaps the pattern started in my childhood. The son of a Methodist minister, I moved every four to six years. But the pattern became my way of life when I started making my own decisions.  I left one college for another only to go back to the first. I left my first newspaper job for graduate school only to go back to the newspaper job. When I went through a divorce, I had a yearning for home and headed for Tennessee. I worked on a newspaper in Memphis for a year before heading off to graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I was there three years but almost left every year. Finally, I settled in Milwaukee. I spent the first three years looking for a way out before the city captured me. I was there for seven years, and I yearned to go back for a long time after. I spent the next eight years at the University of Utah until another divorce and another case of homesickness brought me back to Tennessee, this time Nashville. I thought I would stay in Nashville the rest of my life, but after a good ride at Middle Tennessee State University, the university had a major administrative change and I no longer felt I fit. Through the good graces of a former graduate student, I was able to go to Loyola Chicago. I loved the students there, but the administration treated me like I was starting over again and created more hoops than a man 60 years old ought to jump. I headed back to my job in Tennessee for a couple of years, but I loved Chicago so much I kept my primary residence there.

I am very good at complicating my life, and I am on the verge of doing it again, moving back to Chicago while keeping a small place in Nashville, for a little while at least. This move has made me remember all the moves but particularly the one I wrapped in songs. That was the one from Milwaukee to Salt Lake City in 1983. The University of Utah had offered me an excellent job in a program with a top ranked graduate division. It was the first place to ever offer me a job in large part for my intellectual strengths. I accepted the position eagerly.   But as one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs suggests, what looks like freedom can feel like death. The contrast between my waking life and my dream worlds as the move approached was out of Blue Velvet. In the daylight, I smiled and slapped my leg and said how glad I was to go. My dreams and fantasies told a darker, more tortured story. I coped with the duality of these feelings by compiling a list of songs. For the road? No, not that road. The songs were for the end of the road, my death.

As the summer went on, my songs or “the funeral list,” as I called it, evolved into a full-blown fantasy that included a service, mourners and a few remarks. My wife and I both hated to leave Milwaukee.  At first, we had thought of the city as a stopover. Barb believed we wound up there because I hated to fly and I could drive to the interview. It was a sleepy department in a building about ready to fall down that hadn’t made a hire in years. I was the only assistant professor. I liked some of the faculty members, but the biggest hook was that I thought it was a place I could have a role in helping to build something. The city had all the advantages of a big city, excellent museums, a wonderful park system, big league sports teams and, like Chicago, a shoreline on Lake Michigan.  It had been a city built by working men and women, and its politics still reflected that. The Socialist Party had been strong in Milwaukee, and until the 1960s, the city had a Socialist mayor. We arrived in the mid-70s, but you could still feel the winds of the 60s blowing through the city.

Milwaukee did have its downside.  Though it was large, it was a provincial city and a hard place for newcomers to get a toe hold. Tucked away from the major transportation lines, it was a city long on residents with deep roots to the city or rural Wisconsin and short on the kind of strangers who come and go and contribute to cities being more fluid. In Milwaukee, people remained connected to the people with whom they had attended high school and college and to the ethnic traditions they grew up in.  We felt out of place at first, but somewhere along the way, I fell in love with my students, tough kids mostly from working class neighborhoods, and I worked hard to help build a better department. Barb completed a master’s degree and found a job she liked working in public access cable. This was back in the day when it was still possible to dream a little dream about cable as a democratic force.  We both developed friendships and ties, and we fell in love with the city’s basketball team, the Milwaukee Bucks, or as we thought of them, “Don Nelson’s Bucks.”  We had season tickets for five seasons and watched a team almost good enough to win a championship climb and climb, but never quite get over the hump.

The city and the university proved much harder to leave than I thought when, hurt and angry from a bruising but successful promotion and tenure year, I said yes to a very good job in a highly ranked department at the University of Utah.  I was proud of the achievement. It was wonderful to wear, but when I came home and took my clothes off, the move filled me with dread. There were a lot of good reasons to stay: Barb had a full fellowship to work on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and promises of support at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern as well. I had taken the lead in recruiting good young faculty to our program who had stood by me during a dreadful year and were expecting me to become chair of the department.

Still, I see now that I had too much of the wrong kind of pride and would hurt myself and everyone who cared about me to exercise it. I had been taught better.  My father was a humble man, more of a healing minister than a builder or orator. His obituary captured this dimension of his life like this: “Imbued with a rare talent, Reverend Eason had mastered the art of living in brotherly love with his fellowman.” When he was nearby, I felt that I was learning a bit of that art as well. But after he died, I developed an exaggerated, if fragile, sense of myself.  The threat of defeat at one university tore a hole in that image. I had to reclaim it somehow. I imagined that I was open to counter arguments, but I really wasn’t and my wife and friends knew that. I had become one of those guys you can’t tell anything, a master of “You can’t do that to me. I won’t stand for it.”

The only problem was that my unconscious mind wasn’t with me on this decision, and it kept me thinking about death rather than new life. The song list, and plans for my memorial, though full of serious ideas, kept these dark thoughts playful.  The service was to take place at my favorite tavern, Tony’s on South Second, where some students late in the summer actually held a going-away party for me. In my fantasy, the small room was packed with true blue friends. No one attended in an official capacity. There were some wonderful testimonials to me as a teacher, friend and thinker and though my bones were in a small container near the tap beer, I floated somewhere above the bar, in tears at what a wonderful person others believed me to be.

The songs were the centerpiece of it all. I imagined them sung live and thought my friends Mark Lucius and Terry Perry could handle them. At some point, I thought people might take up a collection to bring Steve Young there. The list kept changing, but here are a few of the songs and some of the important lines that I remember:

So have all of your passionate violins

Play a tune for a Tennessee kid

Who’s feeling like leaving another town

With no place to go if he did

Cause they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid

“Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester

This song grew out of Winchester’s flight to Canada during the Vietnam War. I identified with his sense of being hunted and hounded in 1969, but the feeling had continued for me long after the war was over.  Its origins were probably in the prying eyes small towns turned on the minister and his family in the 1950s. I had grown up in a fish bowl that it usually took more than music to make disappear.

. . . The early dawn cracks out a carpet of diamonds

Across a cash crop car lot filled with twilight Coupe Devilles

Leaving the town in a-keeping

Of the one who is sweeping up

The ghosts of Saturday night . . .

“The Ghosts of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits 

This song reflects my urban romanticism and celebrates the liberation inherent in city life. I came to believe that I had found my greatest freedom in bars like Tony’s.  I would always carry a heart full of nights when I closed the place and drove home through a city that seemed to have been asleep for hours.

There were others, a John Prine song “Please Don’t Bury Me” to add a little humor, Gram Parsons’ “Wheels” to add a sense of movement, and a traditional spiritual “Peace in the Valley” to suggest some final resolution.

The only recorded piece of music was Nina Simone’s almost 19-minute version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a version where she adds many gospel flourishes and inserts a poem near the end by Last Poet member David Nelson titled “Today is a Killer.” Harrison’s version of the song is that of a man on a spiritual path and is therefore a song of great faith. Nina Simone turns the song into an agonizing call for a hidden God to reveal himself. The song moves from crescendo to crescendo in intoxicating rhythm. The phrase, “Won’t you show yourself Lord?” — repeated again and again–is the most succinct statement of the song’s plea. God must show himself in the words of Nelson’s poem, because “Today is a Killer.” Simone uses the words of this poem, sung alone with only her piano, to slow the song down and amplify her themes:

I often sit there at the sea and dream dreams

and hope hopes and wish wishes,

as I listen to the wind song dance for me.

But these moments never seem to last too long

because after the hopes, the dreams and the wishes,

after the singing of the dancing wind,

after you and me in a stolen moment of happiness,

after a glimpse of the timeless natural universe

moving in evanesce, moving in evanesce

moving in startling beauty

comes the reality of today

grinning its all-knowing fiendish grin

knowing everything I say

everything I feel

everything I think

every gesture that I make

today, today,

pressing his ugly face against mine

staring at me without life in his eyes . . .

Because today is a killer.

Today is a Killer by David Nelson

She adds “and only you can save us lord” as a transition back to Harrison’s lyrics. After what seems a journey through a hellish god-less world, the song ends with a powerful Hallelujah.

Back then, I thought I was a person who knew what was happening in me so I didn’t really explore the fantasy. Mostly, I just made a joke of it. Now I wonder, what was driving this drama? Was I merely reveling in my own sense of importance? Was it the return of my childhood fear of death? Was it just separation anxiety, a fantasy to tame my fear of the unknown? The answer I have settled on is that it was an act of mourning for a part of myself I feared I was losing.  My childhood had prepared me to perform a self that was expected of me. Ever since my father’s death, I had struggled against the artifice of that life, naively believing I could easily find a persona that was really me. My teaching position in Milwaukee had allowed me to simultaneously have the status of being a professor but also to fancy myself as a bohemian rebel.  My tenure battle had taught me that maybe it was impossible to live this dual life.  And the promise of Utah, an excellent academic department that offered to support me in ways I had never imagined, had to be balanced by a loss of personal freedom as I would have to fit into a department organized around cocktail parties in suburban homes, going to athletic events as a group in the university’s colors, and a score of other sacramental social events such as the annual soft ball game between the faculty and graduate students. Was a part of me that I felt was central to my sense of being going to have to be sacrificed?

Autumn came and I moved to Utah, leaving Barb in Milwaukee to sell our house. The university was wonderful in the ways I had anticipated and a struggle for me in the ways I feared. I drank more and more to hold it together or to imagine I was. But sometimes even strangers saw right through me.  On a flight back from Memphis, two years into our stay, I encountered one such person. She was going from Memphis to a professional meeting in Denver. I was heading back to Salt Lake from a professional meeting.  I was drinking straight gin, my sedative of choice when flying. We began a casual conversation that revealed more of our thoughts and feelings as the flight went on. This was not romantic foreplay. It was just a very intimate personal conversation between two people who would never have to face the consequences of anything we told each other. I don’t remember what I told her or what she told me. I suspect I talked the most. All I remember is that by the time she got up to go, I felt very naked. She had a tender, quality and seemed to be as touched by the conversation as I was. When she stood up to get off the plane, she looked down at me and said softly but fondly:  “I will always remember this plane ride with the saddest man I have ever met.” I felt both recognized and ashamed.

A couple of years later I stopped drinking and started the long process of changing my life. I didn’t make these changes fast enough to save my marriage or save either of us from some difficult emotional times. The world didn’t change magically, at least not for long. Still, I left Utah in 1990 with a clearer head and saw that road stretching from Salt Lake City to Nashville as one of possibility, not of death.

That one trip, of course, didn’t mean the end of wanting two things at once as my movement between Nashville and Chicago in the last 10 years attests.  I have given up predicting where I will be next or for how long. I am keeping one foot in Tennessee by holding onto a small place to stay when I’m here. But who knows? In five years I could be in two new towns or have added a third. I am not a road warrior. I don’t like the in-between.  I have come to think of myself as a transient in residence, a person who likes to burrow into the fabric of everyday life but never manages to stay long enough to see what the cloth turns out to be. If there is an afterlife, I hope it has many realms and that there is a special place for people like me where we can request reassignment periodically or at least move between realms. Surely such souls could come in handy where other lost souls continued to kill themselves again and again.

If it be your will

If there is a choice

Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will

(A number of writers offered support and suggestions on this one. I am particularly grateful to Lynne Butler, Bonny Holder and Barbara Bennett.)

Ruts All The Way Home

My wife Barb and I are on a state road somewhere between the Tetons and Riverton, Wyoming in August of 1984. There are deep woods on either side with an occasional grassy spot filled with wild flowers. Barb says the flowers are called Firewood. We are supposed to be enjoying the great outdoors because that is what Utah, where we have moved, and its neighboring states have aplenty. Things are not going so well between us, and the isolation in nature has just made our uneasiness worse.

We left our little resort this morning and are wandering around in the car before heading to Riverton to celebrate Barb’s birthday. When we move into a part of Wyoming that seems less made for the camera, we discover an Arapaho Reservation and an abandoned mining camp. Barb fell in love with the high plateaus of Wyoming on her way out, and this part of the trip brightens her spirits some.

I remain dour until we come upon what is, and will remain, my greatest discovery in the West, the ruts of the wheels the wagon trains made going west. After all these years, the residue of travelers a hundred years ago is visible in the land. I am in awe. My imagination was made by Western movies so where there are ruts I see a dangerous muddy pass to be negotiated, wheels mired down again and again, broken and stray wheels, wagons to be unloaded and then reloaded. “Ruts, ruts all the way home,” I say it to myself as if I have discovered a lost lonely line from a Zen koan. I feel certain if I could find the other line I would be able to state the puzzle that hides some ultimate truth about life.

Barb and I have been married eight years, and they have been hard years, some of it our own doing but much of it beyond our control.  We came to each other with enough sorrow to fill up a jukebox with sad songs.  The marriage was loaded with too many deaths and other losses that left wounds that had never healed.  In our years in Milwaukee, where I had my first teaching job, there were still more losses.  Only months after our first year there, my mother died a lonely death at 57. This was followed by news that we had to accept  we would never get custody of Barb’s daughter, born out of a college romance and lost in a dirty legal deal and then a few months later that we could never have children of our own. We had deep sympathy for each other. That was our greatest strength. We kept going by creating new ways to hope, but we didn’t have very many visions of  a shared future left.

We had come to Utah on the run from some hurts I had endured in the world of university politics. As luck would have it, we were able to run up the class scale and not down it. The University of Utah was a good school with an excellent Department of Communication that liked me for all the right reasons, supported me well financially, intellectually and professionally, and  would give me early tenure while promoting me to be the editor of an important national journal.

None of that really mattered much. We left behind our last good plan. Barb would go to graduate school to get her Ph.D., we both would be professors and we would have our summers to travel. She was accepted at a number of schools near Milwaukee with offers of support at Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin and a full fellowship at the University of Michigan. I liked teaching tough urban kids in a big city, and I had helped take the department up a few levels by working hard to recruit good young faculty and developing stronger ties to the news media. We had received a provisional accreditation the previous winter, the first in the department’s history. I was next in line to be chair, and everyone expected that to happen soon.

In my tenure and promotion review, an abnormal thing happened.  I was approved by department, college, and university committees, but the university president, for the first time, overturned 17 recommendations. I was one of them.  It took three months to get my decision reversed, but a lot of damage was done to my feelings for the university and some members of my department. I wanted out.  Utah was a way to move more than a destination.  I had to look the state up on a map before leaving on the interview. Barb went along with the decision even though for us as a couple the move was the wrong thing to do.

My job was about the only thing that went right for us in Utah. Selling our house  took 18 months. Barb tried to put together a Ph.D. program at the university, but it just didn’t work for her. In Wisconsin, she had felt desirable as a candidate; in Utah, she left like part of the price of getting a new professor.  She had decided to drop out of school after a semester and would eventually find a new path in healthcare public relations, but we would never again share a common dream.

As evening approaches, we drive into Riverton. The town is an ink spot on the map where fine dining is scarce but honky-tonking is a way of life. We find our way to Al’s Gaslight Café out on Federal Way. It’s a big room with an electric bar sign motif, a good crowd, friendly barmaids and a big dance floor. We haven’t even heard any music yet, and I feel better.

The music at Al’s, it turns out, is better than anyone in the state of Wyoming had a right to expect. The band is called Wyld Oats and is from Chicago. There are seven of them, and they have been living in a trailer out back of Al’s for a couple of months with occasional forays to other joints in the West. We learn all this from the drummer, who went to SIU, where Barb and I met, and who introduces us to the other members of the band.

What makes this band special are the two sisters who front it. Cecily and Chris are the daughters of Chicago’s WLS Jamboree great Bob Atcher and have been performing since they were children as part of his family show. Wyld Oats is a strange hybrid created to showcase their talents. It is at once a show band that puts the women out front to do a range of great numbers that should be both seen and heard and a dance band designed to get everyone on their feet and spending money at the bar.  The band is versatile. It can rock a little like Linda Ronstadt, cover what today we would call Americana (Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell), and do classic country (Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline in particular) and even some bluegrass classics (“Mule Skinner Blues”). The crowd wants the band to rock more, but Al, the owner, wants more country so there is a little tension with this gig that has risen and fallen periodically over the months. Wyld Oats tries its best to find a middle ground that will keep both the audience and Al happy. The band certainly keeps Barb and me happy, perhaps happier than we have been since she arrived eight months ago.

Wyld Oats is a wonderful find in an unexpected place, and everything about the evening is perfect. Cecily and Chris are polished enough to be on stage anywhere. Chris’s husband plays lead guitar and holds the band together. The band members are very likable too. When they aren’t on stage, we trade stories and get to know each other.

At the end of the evening, I ask them to do the Gram Parsons’ song “Wheels.” They know the song but hesitate because of the owner. They have done other songs we wanted to hear, so we give up on it easily. Then right at the end of the show, the last song is a wonderful a cappella version of “Wheels” that just knocks me out. I cannot hear the song to this day without remembering Cecily and Chris singing it.

We’ve all got wheels to take ourselves away.

We’ve got the telephones to say what we can’t say.

We all got higher and higher every day.

Come on wheels take this boy away.

We’re not afraid to ride.

We’re not afraid to die.

Come on wheels take me home today.

So, come on wheels take this boy away.

There’s another verse that ends “Come on wheels make this boy a man.” The song is probably not the right song for a couple struggling to keep their marriage alive. Still, it is the perfect song for a 42-year-old self-absorbed man, who still wants to believe that wheels can take him away but has enough experience to know there will be ruts all the way home.

(Barb in this story is Barbara Bennett of Owensboro, KY.  She is the author of a poetry chapbook Sightings in the Land of the Dead (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Barb offered some helpful suggestions on the writing of this piece. Thank you.)

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