Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Refuge of the Roads... Small Pleasures

Back in May, my car got broken into, right in front of my house. It was part of a weird little wave of crime that rolled through my generally very safe neighborhood in Chicago before the cops got a handle on it. I think it had to do with the huge wave of gentrification that has roared through the area; gang-bangers got bumped from houses in which they had lived with their parents until the parents sold and moved to Bensenville or Rolling Meadows or wherever, and the dumbass gangbangers pooled their petty theft and drug money and got apartments in the area. The cops and landlords got right on it and they were gone within weeks, but not before a bunch of cars and garages got broken into-- and a few murders, including that of an old friend, occurred.

In any event, a couple of years ago, I was financially confident enough, after years of inhabiting the ranks of the working poor, to buy a few cd's-- used cd's mostly, but cd's-- to add to the collection of downloaded music. Some cd's you want the whole package. A few examples of this for me are "Talking to the Taxman About Poetry," by Billy Bragg, "London Calling," by the Clash, "Exile on Main Street," by the Rolling Stones, and "Reckoning" by REM. So when my car got broken into, I thought Hejira was taken-- I thought it had it had been in the storage thing under the car stereo.

For some reason, I never bothered to check my damned cd rack. Just a little while ago, I checked it, and there it was.

I felt a really strange sense of relief-- the album had a lot of sentimental value; I still have my vinyl copy of the album that I bought when I was in high school. To buy the cd was really indulgent. It's such a beautifully written and performed album-- she had Jaco Pastorius and other jazz guys playing on the record-- and I don't even like jazz. It was a record waiting for the cd to be invented. I just loved the sound, her voice, and mostly the lyrics. From the first song, "Coyote:"

"We saw a farmhouse burning down/In the middle of nowhere/In the middle of the night/And we rolled right past that tragedy/Till we turned into some road house lights/Where a local band was playing/Locals were kicking and shaking on the floor...."

Or the next song, Amelia, where she mourns an old lover who's left:

"I wish her were here tonight/It's so hard to obey/His sad, strange request of me to kindly stay away/So this is how I hide the hurt/As the road leads cursed and charmed/I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm."

The album is a journal and a travelogue, her on the road, licking her wounds, considering her mistakes and then, in the end, getting ready for more adventures, and another romance. At the end of the album, she waxes philosophical and irreverent, sitting in a gas station, looking at a calender. The doomed*, bi-polar Jaco Pastorius plays a brilliant bass while she sings, in "Refuge of the Roads":

"In a highway service station/Over the month of June/Was a photograph of the Earth/Taken coming back from the moon/And you couldn't see a city/On that marbled bowling ball/Or a forest or a highway/Or me here least of all/You couldn't see these coldwater restrooms/Or these baggage overloads/Westward and rolling taking refuge in the roads."

To buy this record, with its music and even its cover-- beautiful, arty and indulgent-- its not about the things I think about all day. I worry about things like "how can I be a better parent/husband/teacher/friend, a better human being-- can I save someone from starving today, or give some guy a sandwich or tell whether that guy really did run out of gas and needs help." It's silly, but I feel like spending ten bucks to purchase something simply because I find it beautiful, feels horribly indulgent.

But there is a place for beauty in this world, however flawed, however indulgent that beautiful thing may be. I am confident-- I have faith-- ironic, since I'm an athiest-- that we will solve our problems. That there will be a day in which no one goes to bed hungry; that no one feels compelled to take from another person, because they will already have enough; that we will learn to control our inner and outer demons and have a less violent world. And as we work toward that, we have those little reminders of that future: watching your kid play little league; a bike ride with the stepdaughter; seeing the pleasure the wife takes in getting flowers; watching a Jim Jarmusch movie; a lava lamp; cooking a paella; watching some dumb old favorite movie for the eighteenth time; hearing an old favorite song come up on the radio; an email or call from an old friend; and of course, finding that you didn't lose Hejira after all.

* Pastorius was beaten to death by a bouncer in 1987 after drunkenly trying to force his way into a pre-comeback Santana's club gig in LA

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