Look Both Ways
Was it just me, or did it feel like the world was coming to an end on Wednesday, November 9, 2016?
I had not slept well the night before – one of those nights when I go to bed too late and then wake up for an hour with my mind racing over all sorts of topics that can’t be solved any time soon – and the drive in to school was eerily calm, the streets practically empty.
Then when I arrived at Chamblee, a hazy smoke hung in the air. This was not a delicious backyard grill kind of smoke. This was the smell of a large brush fire, evidence that the earth itself in flames, burning somewhere. It was, I learned, a result of forest fires in north Georgia. But it seemed like a sign.
And there have been signs – some more ominous than others – for some time now: it hasn’t rained in forever, the Cubs won the World Series, Brad and Angelina split, reports of clowns roaming the countryside. Now there was fire.
I had to sit down. I had to snap out of it, clear my head. Only I couldn’t. I was reminded of snowboarding.
I’ve only been snowboarding once about 12 years ago. My then girlfriend (now wife) loved to snowboard, and we went with a few friends out to Colorado for a few days. It was my first experience seeing the Rocky Mountains, and they put a whammy on my Southern brain. I was accustomed to the Appalachians, but these were MOUNTAINS; the real deal, not foothills. I was in awe.
Then I strapped a snowboard to boots, got on a ski lift and went up a mountain. A part of my brain – the useful part probably – was shaking its head in disbelief. “Really?” it said over and over again. “Is this happening?” And it was: I was in uncharted territory about to attempt to slide down the slope of a mountain covered in a foot or more of snow. I might as well have been on Saturn skateboarding on an ocean of diamonds.
But, I gathered my will, told the useful part of my brain that this would be OK – at which point it left and went to get some hot cocoa (It is yet to return) – and began a descent. I will admit there was a moment of euphoria when the snowboard and my soul seemed to “work.” Then I caught the front edge of the board in the snow and flipped face-first into the mountain. Hard.
It was the first time since I was a kid that I had the wind knocked out of me. Momentarily dazed, I was unsure of my footings. Gravity was on vacation. As the initial shock wore off, I found myself hunched over trying desperately to catch my breath, rush oxygen back to my head to make sense of what had just happened and how I would get off this crazy mountain where I did not belong. It was at that moment that a kid about 13 years old slid to a stop beside me and said, “You OK, mister?”
I wanted to strangle him, but instead just felt defeated.
And that’s how I felt on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Smoke and ash hung in the air. I had trouble catching my breath. Cubs. Clowns. The world I thought I knew didn’t make sense. And I can’t really tell you why.
Fortunately, our world has Jonathan Richman.
Although he has been making music since the early 1970s and I’ve been a fan for (gulp!) decades, I did not see him perform live until November 12. He’s best known, if at all, for performing the songs in “There’s Something About Mary” or for songs like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” with his first band, The Modern Lovers. His style now is laid back. His delivery practically wistful. He reminds me of a manchild, a sort of Peter Pan who can never grow up and thus has a fresh outlook on the wondrous world that us adults buried long ago.
He began his set – on acoustic guitar, accompanied by drummer Tommy Larkin – with a song that promised again and again that “this party’s for everyone.” It was welcoming. It was comforting. It was fun.
A few songs later, with a soft steady beat to back him, Jonathan calmly proclaimed: “I don’t want to go back to the old world. I say goodbye to the old world. I say goodbye to a fading world. To the comradery and elegance and the fear and the discipline of the old world.” It’s a reworking of a song called “Old World” that he released over 40 years ago. Gone is the nostalgia from the original lyrics. Present, to me that night, was resolution that the old world and its ways and its thinking and its fears need to go. That was powerful, affirming.
I walked away from the show breathing normally for the first time in days, my feet on more solid ground. The smoke and clowns and sense of dread gone for a while thanks to Jonathan Richman. And I can say that I recommend you give him a try. It helps.