Saturday, July 1, 2017

Meatball Express, Chapter 1

Meatball Express
By Kevin Quigley

Chapter 1: Evan Hudzik’s Great Big Idea


            He’s not listening. Not when pinball’s on the line. My name is Evan Hudzik. My best friend, Dewei Lin, is about to beat his high score on the Tilt-A-Swirl machine at Big Fun Party. He’s not, we both know, about to beat Sophie Klein’s high score, but that goal can wait. The tournament isn’t for a month and a half.


            He’s always pronounced it “Dewey,” which I’m pretty sure is wrong. Whenever I’ve eaten over at his house, his parents give more of an inflection to the second syllable. I don’t want to offend them or anything so I basically don’t call him by name when I’m around them. I think they probably think I don’t know his name, or think it’s “bro” or “dude” or something. He’s still not paying attention to me.


            Now he looks around, a little. 75% of his concentration is on the table. Tilt-A-Swirl is the hardest game in here, at least according to Dewei. I can’t play pinball at all. Either I don’t have the motor skills or the brain skills for it. I’m not bad at Tetris though. I like fitting pieces together. Dewei is severely annoyed at me right now, I know that, I feel that, but he’s keeping it all locked in. I can’t decide if Dewei’s Vulcan-like control of his emotions is a good thing or a bad thing. I cry at movie trailers, so maybe I’m not the best barometer.

            “Evan, I do believe we are both clear on the reason we’re both here today.”

            “Yes, but…”

            “I do believe my intentions before we left your house were articulated succinctly.” He talks like this when he’s mad. That’s kind of his only tell. Sophie Klein hasn’t picked up on it yet, I don’t think. She drives him bats.

            “Dewei, you know I wouldn’t interrupt you if there wasn’t a good reason.”

            “A good reason?”


            “There’s no reason that can be more important than pinball.”

            “That’s where you’re wrong.”

            He sighs. “It’s a girl, isn’t it?” This has been a bone of contention in our friendship for about six months. For most of our friendship together, not being remotely interested in girls was one of the things that bonded us. Also the fact that we lived next door to one another. Then, six months ago, I was reading this book called Airship Warkiller! by this guy named Ron D’Andrea. There’s a girl pirate in it named Annie Huxley with all this red hair and a scabbard and a sword and a gun and suddenly everything changed. It was like I was blind to half the world and then someone gave me these magical prescription glasses and now I could see everything. There are girls. In my school. How come no one told me this before?

            Dewei hasn’t quite gotten there yet, thus the contention. I’ve wondered a lot if he might be gay. My Mom and Dad’s two best friends are gay. If he is, I wish he’d just come out and say something so we could check out hotties together at the mall. It’s awful lonely sitting in the food court and trying to share how major a girl is with your best friend, and all he wants to do is talk about pinball or Star Trek or The Avengers. Those things are fine, but jeez, Dewei, there’s another interest before us now. 

            “It’s not just a girl,” I told him. “It’s the girl.” And indeed it was. Madison McMasters. Dewei always says, “Madison McMasters, of the Boston McMasters.” Like she’s all stuck up or something. Or maybe he’s just jealous because the McMasters are kind of rich. Her mother invented something to do with software and then sold it to a company and it was apparently a big deal. Sometimes I wonder why, if Madison and her parents are so rich, they live in a rinky-dink town like Cork, which is so stuck in the past that it still has a record store and an arcade and a roller skating rink. A roller skating rink. To tell the truth, I’m a little jealous myself, but it’s easy enough to get over it. Because Madison McMasters is the hottest girl, not only in school but in town and – look, I’ll be bold and say it – the entire universe. She doesn’t have red hair but that doesn’t matter. Okay, well it hardly matters. It’s so brown it’s almost black. She sometimes wears glasses but not usually. She’s bigger, too. I don’t know women’s sizes very well, but the way she wears her shirts loose and her jeans tight just drives me bats.

            “Madison, huh?” he’s not really listening anymore, just filling space so that I’m not talking to empty air. Dewei doesn’t really approve of Madison, but I’ve had a hard time finding out why. Sometimes I think he’s sort of threatened by the fact that I have an interest that doesn’t involve him at all. Sometimes I think he’s put off by her size, even though Dewei isn’t that skinny himself. I am. I’m so skinny it’s almost tragic. Last summer I read the comic book adaptation of Moby-Dick and they had illustrations of the people starving on the life rafts. I’m a little bit heftier than that, but not by much. It’s kind of an embarrassment to my folks, though they’d never say it. They’re too nice. But they run a restaurant, and I think it’s a little weird for them to work in food all day and their kid is basically like a skeleton with skin. The restaurant is called Meatball Express, and they never ask me to be in the ads. That’s okay. The food’s good enough without my skinny self endorsing them in the local circular and on the website.

            But back to Dewei and Madison. More specifically, Madison. She’s surrounded by a bunch of girls because everywhere she goes, she’s surrounded by a bunch of girls. They fed a few dollars into the jukebox machine and now some music I don’t know is playing over the bleeps and bloops of the games and pinball machines. She is the most beautiful person to have ever lived. When she’s singing along to the song on the stereo, she closes her eyes sometimes. I bet she would close her eyes like that when she kissed someone. And if the someone is me, well, I wouldn’t say no.

            “You know,” Dewei says, shaking me out of my reverie, “she’s going away for the summer.”

            It’s an effort, but I managed to rip my eyes off of Madison and face my friend. “What? What do you mean?” All at once, it was like all the air had gone out of Big Time Fun. Good luck breathing, chumps, we stole all the oxygen. “Where’s she going?” I envisioned her having a cottage somewhere on some beach near the ocean, and she and her rich family would sit around all day and sip tea and do crosswords and talk about how dull the poor people are. The difference between me and Dewei is that he would envision this exact scene as a scathing argument against her family, whereas to me it feels like a nice way to spend the summer. Certainly the Hudziks don’t own beachfront property. Still, the restaurant is a good compromise. You don’t get free open-faced meatball sandwiches on a beach. I think.  

            “It’s her folks. They’re sending her to fat camp.”

            I gape at him, then back to Madison, who I have never had a conversation with but who is nonetheless perfect. “She’s not fat.” I say it out loud and I want to take it back. The word feels weird in my mouth. Madison McMasters is the pinnacle of every girl in existence, but she’s hardly an isolated case. There’s a girl in Mr. Hudson’s math class named Claire who is a lot bigger than me but not as big as Dewei, and she is stunning. Her brain is also a lot bigger than mine. No math I ever took in junior high ever prepared me for algebra, and she just breezes through it like it’s breathing. When they were doing the scoliosis checks at the start of the year, I saw her in just her halter top. That might have been when I had the first stirrings of “girls are something else now.” I mean, Madison has lived on my street for most of my life and I’d never noticed her that way before. I was noticing her now. And it’s not like she isn’t bigger. That’s how I’ve always described her. Bigger. Zaftig, which is a French word. But I never call her fat. It isn’t nice to call someone fat. Right?

            Dewei lets go of the flipper buttons and now turns to me. “Yeah, she is. She’s fat. I’m fat. Your parents are fat. That girl Claire in school you like is fat. You’re the only person who isn’t fat.”

            “You can’t say that.”

            “What? Fat?”

            “You can’t say it about girls, Dewei.”

            “You don’t think Madison knows? Her parents are sending her to fat camp. I think she has a pretty good idea.”

            I look from him to Madison and back to him. “Okay, fine, sure. But like … why? She’s perfect.”

            Dewei sighs, which he does a lot around me nowadays. “For you, maybe, Evan, but you’re a special little flower.”

            “All right, that’s enough of that.”

            “It’s true, though. Most people hate fat.”

            “I really wish you’d stop using that word.”

            He sighs again. “Look, I’m sorry that the girl you dig is going away for three months. I actually really am sorry about it. I don’t know what you see in her but I’m not, like, ignorant to the weird needs of my best friend.”

            “Liking a girl isn’t a weird need.”

            “Regardless, maybe these three months away will give you some perspective. I mean, even if I was totally okay with this Madison thing, it’s like this singular obsession. Singular obsessions are weird.”

            I place a hand on the Tilt-a-Swirl, looking from it to him and him to it and back again. “That’s in no way the same.”

            “You’re in love with a pinball machine. So, okay, yeah, I guess you’re right. Not the same.”

            “I’m not in love with a pinball machine. I’m practicing. For a tournament. And you’re deflecting.”

            “I’m not deflecting! It’s just that three months without seeing Madison every day…” Okay, here’s the part where I have to delve into some clichés. Because even though the McMasters have a guy who comes in and does all the chores around the house, is it completely out of the realm of possibility that she might have, at some point this summer, decided to mow the lawn? Maybe in a shirt that comes to her midriff, a word I learned in a book we had to read for school this year and now I can’t stop thinking about it. Midriff. It’s so descriptive. It comes midway down, and exposes a girl’s … well, riff? Is that right? Maybe it’s archaic. Anyway, Madison wears long sleeve shirts almost all the time and she never wears dresses and maybe that’s part of the reason why I like her so much, but the what-if is huge. What-if she mowed the lawn in a shirt that shows off her midriff. What-if she decided to sunbathe on the lawn wearing a swimsuit. What-if, oh my God, she decided to wash her Mom’s car in one of those old-fashioned shirts that girls tie in the front, maybe red with polka dots, and she’s wearing sunglasses and she keeps getting wet and I’m literally going to go crazy if I don’t get to see her every day, legitimately crazy.

            And just like that, I have an idea. Dewei’s not going to like it.

            “I have an idea. It’s a great big idea.”

            “I’m not going to like it, am I?”

            “Let’s find out. What if I went to fat camp, too?”

            Dewei stares at me. In addition to sighing, this is Dewei’s favorite reaction to everything I say. “Okay…” Now he’s looking at me like I’m a nutball. Am I a nutball? I glance over at Madison, who just put a straw in her mouth and now she’s drinking a root beer float and leaning up against the soda counter like she owns the place, and her stance is so effortless and easy and hot that I have to come to the conclusion that I am, indeed, a nutball.

            “I have some basic questions,” Dewei begins, slowly, as if I don’t understand words or what they signify.

            “I have answers to literally every question you could ask.”

            “Okay, first question: what?”

            As it turns out, I do not have an answer to this question. Look, Dewei had explicated the issues just moments before. I’m not fat. Not only am I not fat, I’m not even husky. Not chubby. Not tubby. Not “still holding onto his babyfat.” I am skinny. Skinny as heck. Like to the point that my Mom is sometimes concerned I’m starving myself. I swear I’m not. She sees me eat at the restaurant. Whenever I go to Babci Jadzia’s, she loads me up with more food than a boy can reasonably consume. They have a healthy lunch program at school, so I’m getting salads and fruits and legumes and all that at least five times a week, and it’s not like Dewei doesn’t make fun of me if I don’t finish it. I eat. I eat a lot. But it’s never enough. So I see Dewei’s point.

            “There are some bugs to work out,” I tell him, involuntarily letting my eyes drift up to Madison. She has yet to notice me and Dewei, but that’s fine. I think I might be perfectly content to watch her from afar as long as she lets me. She doesn’t have to notice me. Just let me look at her, and that’s all I’ll ever need.

            Then Dewei’s hands are on my shoulders and he’s shaking me. “Snap out of it, loverboy.”

            My head snaps back. “Quit it or you’re going to give me whiplash.”

            “Maybe that would improve your mental state. Now I’m having an idea.”

            “You’re going to give me whiplash?”

            “I should, but no. It occurs to me that we are both facing impossible challenges. You want to go to fat camp to be with Madison and you’re the skinniest person who has ever lived in history.”

            “I guess I wonder if hyperbole is necessary.”

            “I am facing the very real possibility that I will never be as good as Sophie Klein at Tilt-a-Swirl, and that’s unacceptable.”

            For the first time since Madison wandered into Big Time Fun, I commit my full attention to Dewei. “What is it with you and this girl?” I hold my breath, waiting for him to tell me that the rivalry is a big smokescreen and he’s really deeply in love with her and we can finally deal with things.

            Dewei sweeps his hand in an arc to indicate all of Big Time Fun. “You play on the arcade games. Have you ever noticed the initials on the highest scorer?” I shrug. I just play Tetris and I’m not great at it, but it’s fun. When we play games at home, it’s fun for Dewei too. I wonder if Tilt-a-Swirl is actually fun for him anymore.

            “Most of  them say SJK: Sophie Jane Klein. She’s good at everything here. And I’m not good at … well, let’s be honest, Evan. I’m not good at most things.”

            “Okay, now you’re being an idiot.”

            “Usually. You’re better at school and you have a handle on the girl thing. My parents are both successful. My older sister got into a good college without trying. What do I have?”

            “Besides that you’re just in general awesome?”

            A smile breaks over his face. “Okay, thanks. Sorry about the pity party. It’s just that I do love this table. I love it a bunch. And I know I’m good at it. But I’m not the best at it. Not yet. But I think I can be. With your help.”

            I looked at him and he looked at me. We both looked from the Tilt-a-Swirl to Madison, still sipping from that root beer float.

            From the smallest moments, the best summers begin.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Importance

I've been writing novels since 1999 - seventeen years now, and I like to think I've gotten better.  My first book was written in the shadow of an old relationship that faltered and in the brightness of a new relationship that seemed to be working out.  Shawn's also been seventeen years now, so that's been kind of tidy.

I've been writing seriously for a long time.  A little while ago, when I turned thirty and had a crisis of confidence, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't ever going to write an "important" novel.  Nothing that changed people in a big way.  Not only have I found it very difficult to secure an agent or a publisher interested in my books, I've sort of resigned myself to the idea that the books I want to write are accessible, and fairly contemporary, and not about Big Themes.  I'm never going to write 1984, for instance.  I'm not going to write The Grapes of Wrath.

I came to that way of thinking at a time when I was freaking out about being 30 and not having published a great deal of my fiction.  My nonfiction has done well.  I've written a few monographs of Stephen King and I'm well-known in that world.  I'm writing a bio/exegesis on one of my favorite bands' albums, and I hope that will be something, too.  But I've written 22 novels and only one of them has been published, as an ebook.  My short-fiction collection is available in paperback, but that hasn't really done gangbusters, either.  None of this matters and all of this matters.  I take my writing seriously, and not being published in the traditional way has been this huge burden I sometimes think about and sometimes don't.  I want my name on the dustjacket of a hardcover book you can pick up at the supermarket, you know?  Maybe all that's beside the point.

In 2009, following the completion of Roller Disco Saturday Night, I fell into a writer's block.  When the thing you love doing the most is something suddenly shut off from you, you feel adrift.  I'm sure a lot of it had to do with my impending fourth decade.  I spent three years writing about another writer's work and life, editing I'm On Fire and Roller Disco, and attempting a couple very long novels that shit the bed (Tangerine and American Storm).  Then, in 2013, something in me snapped and I sat down to write what I thought would be a novella called My Agent of Chaos.  It turned out to be more than that - not only a full-bodied novel, but also my writing salvation.  It was a serious book with something to say.  I don't know if it was Important or not, but it was real and it was something I could be proud of.

And look, I don't know what Important means - to readers, to myself, to publishing houses and agents.  I'm not sure.  What I do know is that I followed up Chaos with a book called Panic Town, the fifth book in a mystery series featuring private eye Wayne Corbin - a man I've followed since that first, furtive year of novel-writing in 1999.  Panic Town isn't really "Important" except how it's important to me.  It allowed me to remember, in a way Chaos didn't, that writing was hard work, but it was also super fun.  I wrote the book in a white heat and marveled that I'd finished in in three months. I'd blocked out nine.

I got to thinking about the books I'd liked so much in the past that I'd written - books the few readers I'd had seemed to like the best.  Find the River, written in 2001 - my first big books with a big cast.  The Legend of Jenny McCabe, in 2006 - a book from which I took minor characters from most of my previous books, made them major characters, and put them all in Minneapolis. That book was massive, nearly 300,000 words.  Maybe You're Right, written right after, a book about sex and love and writing.  Those were the ones I thought of as my "high points" of my literary work (though I'd argue that my fourth Wayne Corbin book, The Taste of Concrete On Your Tongue, might function that way, too).

My Agent of Chaos turned out to be good, and hard-won, but I don't know as if I'd put it on the top shelf of my work.  Right after Panic Town, I decided to jump back into National Novel Writing Month and bang out what turned out to be Things Have Changed, a book that felt Important in my head but turned out not to be.  It's pretty slight, despite the fact that it opens on a grisly suicide and features a character with possible multiple personalities.  It worked, but barely.

Then I decided to write Eating Animals.  A book that started out being about a cooking show competition and turned into a treatise on S&M and sin and evil and generational misdeeds.  The longer I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write my own East of Eden, and that I was succeeding at doing so.  It's a nearly 200,000 word book that I managed to write in 4 months.  I wrote one 5,000 word chunk in a single afternoon, fewer than 2 hours, just because it was too strong not to.  That book made me believe I could write Important things.  Stuff that mattered.  I think Eating Animals might actually be Important.  I don't know.  It was important to me.

When I wrote Who We Are, What We'll Do, and What We Won't, I intended it to be a little slight.  Of course, that didn't work out for me, either.  I wrote it for NaNoWriMo, anticipating a similar experience to Things Had Changed.  What I got was another My Agent of Chaos - almost among my best work, but I didn't stick the landing and it needs fixing.  And I will fix it.  It means more to me now than it did when I started.

What now?  What next?  I'm working on a nonfiction book about the band Blitzen Trapper right now, and I'm editing a book my father wrote.  Then: what I anticipate to be a long, long book called American Lonely.

My three favorite novels of all time are It, by King; East of Eden, by Steinbeck; and The World According to Garp, by Irving.  I've written my homages to the first two.  I think I want to write my homage to Garp next.  Not the story or even the style of writing, but the scope, the thrust, the intensity.  I want to write something that, even if it doesn't turn out to be Important, will be something that Matters.  I thought, when I was going through my writer's block, that I had not only ceased to write, but that I would never again write work that Matters.  I proved myself wrong.

I'm a good writer.  I'm a smart guy.  And I have a feeling that, if I treat it right and don't prioritize speed and page count over story, American Lonely can be Important.  That's how I want to start my forty-first year: doing something Important.

I'll let you know when I get there.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dennis Blunden Doesn't Love Me

Awhile back, I wrote for a magazine called A Bear's Life. It started out positive and ended up not, but they did publish a few articles I wrote dealing with my own personal gay experiences. At the time, all the nonfiction I was writing was either about Stephen King or Disney, so it was a welcome respite to write about myself.
My first article was in part about the first boy I was ever in love with and in part about my first celebrity crush. Both were straight, of course. The article was called "Dennis Blunden Doesn't Love Me," and I thought, since A Bear's Life doesn't exist anymore and since I retained all the rights anyway, why not share it with you guys. WARNING sensitive readers: it's a little bit PG-13 in here, so if you don't want to know about my naked teenage exploits, avoid.

Dennis Blunden Doesn’t Love Me
originally appeared in A Bear’s Life magazine

            The first guy I ever fell in love with was a crazy person.  No, I don’t mean “crazy,” like the fun kind of crazy like Bill Murray in What About Bob? or even the borderline-dark crazy of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, when all she really needed was some makeup and a few meaningful glances from Emilio Estevez to snap out of it.  No, my first love was clinically bipolar, afflicted with megalomania, and had a violent persecution complex.  He was also straight.  Let’s call him Eugene.
            I met Eugene in high school and I should have known what I was getting myself into, but the sociological climate of the early 90s was working against me.  Depression and vague rage were popular due to the advent of grunge music, and because I was in high school, all that stuff was heightened.  It would be beautifully narrative if I could think of my falling for Eugene as a symbol of our turbulent times – he was a brooding, mysterious loner, just like the misunderstood geniuses you see in Cameron Crowe movies.  And I was finally admitting to myself that I liked boys; figuring that out at sixteen in a high school world populated by slackers and overachievers and the heavily medicated might have made Eugene’s unique brand of lunacy appealing. 

            But mostly, it was the fact that he could grow a beard at seventeen.  That, and those blue, blue eyes. 

            Of course, like most straight-guy crushes, it ended disastrously.  After Eugene uncovered my intentions – via an ill-advised game of Truth or Dare, no less – he actually seemed curious.  What followed was an even more ill advised sticky-fumble session, during which I realized that while I was giving inexpert head to the love of my life, he was having an experiment he was only half-heartedly into.  Of course, this only meant that grunge suddenly made way more sense.  That Pearl Jam song, “Black”?  Totally written about me. 

            The lesson I should have learned is this: keep the straight guys untouchable.  This had worked great during my nascent gay days when I lusted after celebrities before I knew what lust really was.  Remember that 80’s show Head of the Class?  The first guy I ever crushed on was the chubby guy who sat in the back row wearing flannel and Chuck Taylors and cracked jokes and had this hair I used to imagine running my hands through.  Played by Dan Schneider, Dennis Blunden was the wellspring from which all my other attractions erupted.  The hypothesis goes as such: Dennis’s penchant for flannel begat my attraction for Al Borland on Home Improvement, whose beard got me thinking about Riker from Star Trek, whose hairy chest turned me into the bear-crazy cub you see before you.  Essentially, my lust is Darwinian; if not for Dan Schneider, this might be a column about how much I’m into the vapid clone scene.  Fetch me a Diet Red Bull, Marco, I’m late for the foam party!

            Sadly, me being me, I found a way to ruin my first crush, too.  You know that song, “Centerfold,” where the girl the guy is into is lodged in his memory as this pristine high school angel until he later sees her in a porno magazine?  My thing is like that, except for a sad lack of naked Dan Schneider.  See, I happened to stumble across his Twitter feed (“stumble across” in this case means “actively seek out,” because I am occasionally a lunatic myself), and signed up at once, perhaps hoping for a string of insightful self-reflective tweets captured brilliantly in 140 characters or less.  Instead?  His Twitter is almost entirely a marketing gimmick pushing the TV show he’s currently writing.  Completely understandable, entirely normal … and overwhelmingly disappointing.  When you’ve traced back every crush, every lust, every love back to one individual – one fictional individual – you’re inevitably going to feel disillusioned when you realize he’s just a regular working Joe trying to make a buck.

            For what it’s worth, though, I ended up running into Eugene again not too long ago.  I found him at random, bumping into him at a camping-goods store in town, where he was then working.  We went out for burritos, and maybe, yes, I did harbor some illusions that he’d gone gay somewhere along the way and would desperately want to make out with me.  Alas: he was still straight, and seeing a girl, and startlingly sane.  (And, I must mention, still bearded.)  No sticky fumblings this time, just one of those conversations between guys who went to high school together.  Near the end, he said to me, “I’m sorry if I fucked things up back then.” 

            Back in high school, our climaxes had been anticlimactic.  I’d been waiting years for real release.  Which goes to show, I guess, that sometimes even one-sided sociopathic first love has a happy ending. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Why I Blitzen

All right! A few (many) people have written to me and asked, "Hey Kev, what's the deal with you and Blitzen Trapper? Why are you writing a book about them? Why should I care about your Kickstarter?"
Awhile back, my friend Paul Chapman made a mix CD with the song "Furr" on it. I fell in love with it, because I apparently love songs about werewolves (see also Warren Zevon & MST3K). Later, another friend introduced me to "Black River Killer" and the casual evil in it just thrilled me - it was like the audio equivalent to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. And, because this is what I do, I decided not to explore any further. I don’t know why I do that.
Anyhow, in the meantime I’d become a Drive-By Truckers devotee. I was having an experience with them that I’d always wanted with Springsteen - the ability to follow them around, get close to the stage and the rock, all for a reasonable price. When they came to Boston a few years ago, I was excited that Blitzen Trapper was opening for them. The problem was that I also had tickets to see Patton Oswalt that night, and because I’m the world’s biggest dummy, I chose to see Patton over what would become a dream double bill. (Patton was awesome, by the way.) My rationale was that I was seeing both bands the following two nights in DC, so it was okay to skip one night. STUPID.
However, the next morning I flew down to DC and met with my buddy Ian Lekus, who’d gotten into DBT at roughly the same time as me (it might have actually hit harder for him because he lived in Athens for awhile). We waited the band, excited but not, you know, champing at the bit for Blitzen Trapper. Then the band took the stage and, sure, our first thought was prurient. Was EVERYONE in this band hot? Then - then they kicked off their short set with a song called “Fletcher,” off the album AMERICAN GOLDWING. Ian and I became psychic buddies right then, falling in love with the band IMMEDIATELY.
We went back to the merch table between sets and I picked up the album FURR, from which the title track, “Black River Killer,” and a whole slew of other fantastic songs come. The band played the next night and I was in heaven. We connected with the Trappers via social media pretty rapidly, and they were immediately responsive. At some point, I mentioned that I’d listed their live albums on their Wikipedia page, and they wrote back, “Thanks. Yeah, that Wiki page is so janked. Sorry about that.” I took that as a personal mission to write their entire page and make it one of the most thorough, well-researched, and accessible Wiki pages out there. The band was ecstatic.
Soon enough, I hit on the idea of writing a book about them. They were similarly into that idea, and eventually we whittled the concept down so that the book would be on their breakthrough album, FURR - what went into it, how it happened, why it was big; everything. It was going to be a labor of love for me, but one I really wanted to see published. When you’re passionate about stuff, you do it for the love ... but hell, I don’t make a whole lot of money, and being able to write a book like this with an advance (like real authors do) would be such a load off, and an incentive to get this book written quickly, and well.
That’s why I launched this Kickstarter, and why I’m asking for your help. I love this band, and I’m so excited to write this, but I could really use this advance money. It’ll help me get the time for research, some new hardware, and all the other expenses that go into constructing a nonfiction book. I ask, if you can, to help me out on this one. The band is super involved, and has even provided all the incentives at all levels, including backstage passes. I think that’s so cool, and I hope you do, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Meet Me In the City: Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden

            There are two pits for General Admission at Madison Square Garden: the one at the very front, allowing you the closest access to the stage; to get into this one, you had to show up early in the day and get a special wristband, and then come back later and be entered into a special lottery, and only if you were really lucky did you get shuffled into the pen containing the most dedicated fans around.  Then there’s the second pit, the one I’m in, a little further from the stage, holding all the general admission folks who couldn’t do the whole lottery thing, presumably because they got up at ass o’clock to get on a train from Boston and it’s technically a work day so they telecommuted all day from the aforementioned train and various Starbuckses and libraries around New York so they don’t lose their vacation days.  You know, I’m assuming. 

            Despite being further back, the energy in the second pit is palpable.  This is a bit of an unusual setup for me.  When I go to Drive-By Truckers or Blitzen Trapper shows, I’m right up front, usually touching the stage.  Back here, I expected things to be a little more blasé … but this is Bruce Springsteen.  At least in the leadup, everyone back here is pumped and ready.  Of course there are two gigantically tall humans in front of me, but if I stand just right, they serve as a window rather than a door, and I’ve got a direct sightline to the center mic.  Now, if only Bruce stays in one place the whole night, I’ll be fine.

            He takes the stage about an hour after I arrive and the place goes nutso berserk.  Everyone on their feet, arms in the air, cheering either inarticulately or shouting the name that sounds too much like “boo!” to the unsuspecting ear: BRUUUUUUUUUCE!  Every time I tell myself I won’t do it.  Every time I’m wrong.  Hell, I’m wearing the shirt of the show to the show.  I don’t care about being cool anymore.  I just want to have the time of my life. 

            Launching right into “Meet Me In the City” – one of the outtakes off The Ties That Bind: The River Collection – and Madison Square Garden is right there, already screaming the words along and knowing the call and response near the end of the song without having to be told.  It’s like when he went out for his first Rising show and everyone in the audience knew the words already.  Tears spring to my eyes because my emotional availability is sometimes a liability.  The band is in full form, chugging like a steam train down a track whose destination feels familiar but is never quite the same.  After “Meet Me” pounds to a close, Springsteen comes to that center mic, beautifully composed between the heads of my two Amazonian compatriots, and explains a little of what writing The River meant to him.  I’m not going to transcribe from memory, but the gist and the feeling was that this was the album about trying to find his place inside the world in which he lived.  The prior albums were all about being an insider, but The River was about finding yourself in a society in which you had to define yourself.  So that’s why, at least partially, it meant so much to me back in those dim days of 1993, when I lived alone and was searching, searching for some reasons and explanations as to why and how my life turned out this way. 

            Here’s what you don’t get from message boards, especially one as psycho bonkers as the Springsteen one: the feel of the place, the knowledge that you’re both a part of something big and that you’re experiencing this singularly, as an isolated person, and Bruce is singing directly to you.  He’s singing about cars and girls, two things I know so little about, but it all feels like my experience.  Out in the street, I walk the way I want to walk; I know about how the cool of the night takes the edge off the heat; hell, oo oo, I got a crush on you.  The message boards – boy howdy, guys; they’re all about conspiracy theories and how Bruce won’t stop lying to us and how the “well is dry” and it’s weird as fuck.  But here, in the thick of it, it’s nothing short of transformative.  How, in a fun little rockabilly song like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” can he perfectly address the weird nuance of being so sexually frustrated you feel mean?  That’s so specific and odd to sing about, and he does it with the same smile and incongruous joy that he would sing about existential futility in “Dancing in the Dark.”

            During “Hungry Heart” – he always lets the audience sing the first verse entirely, then he repeats it, because baller – he tramped off the stage and up to the riser between Pit One and Pit Two.  I was so close – almost close enough to touch, but we all remember that time during the Rising tour when I reached up and grabbed his hand in the middle of “Mary’s Place” and was so awestruck I didn’t know how to let go.  He ended up shaking me off without skipping a beat.  I didn’t take many pictures of the show – I wanted to live inside it – but I took a picture of him right next to me, before he leapt off the riser and crowd surfed back to the stage.  He’s in his sixties, guys. 

            I will give a shout-out to some of the denizens of the Second Pit, who paid the same amount I did to get here and who decided that their conversation was far more important than Bruce Springsteen.  I knew it would happen during some of the slow songs, but come on, folks, I’m trying to wrap myself up in the song that perfectly encapsulated my previously complicated relationship with my father, I don’t need to know about what Helen did at that PTA meeting.  I was on the verge of asking, “I’m sorry, is Bruce Springsteen interrupting your night?” when someone behind them shouted, “Hey shut the fook up!  New York, you’re my savior.

            Note: the song, “The River” is perfect in every way, especially live, and especially when the people in front of you are as invested as you are.  I’m pretty much sure tears came to my eyes during the entire first two sides of album, and we weren’t even on “Point Blank” yet. 

            Given the second pit’s macroaggressions, I was prepared to suffer through the final three-song suite, which are all slowish numbers that require a little more attention and care.  I think Springsteen must have anticipated that, because he recast them: “The Price You Pay” is epic enough on the album, but in concert, it’s another “Backstreets,” it’s another “Born to Run.”  Here, live, it attains the Biblical promise and intent of the lyrics, even though it’s just about people trying to get by.  The album’s final love song, “Drive All Night” has the potential to be dismissed; long stretches are just repetitions (“You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got my love, girl; you’ve got my love”) or frankly bizarre declarations (“I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes.”)  What happens here is that the song becomes all about buildup, slow, meditative, desperately and subtly erotic … and then the band crashes in, and it’s all release.  It’s a song that took me awhile to understand on the record, but here in this setting, it’s the closest to auditory sex Springsteen gets this side of “I’m On Fire.”  He finished off The River with a somber, bleak rendition of “Wreck On the Highway”: no gussying this one up, no concessions for an arena audience.  It gets dark and stays dark, because that’s the way he wants you to feel this one.  If he’d decided to play the entirety of Nebraska after this one, no one would blame him. 

            He didn’t, though, maybe because he knew we all needed a little cheering up.  “So that’s The River,” he concluded, and then hit the place with a one-two-three punch of “She’s the One,” “Candy’s Room,” and “Because the Night.”  Everyone was up and dancing.  One of the flannel giants in front of me turned to me and said, “Can you believe how cool this is?”  “I can’t!” I shouted, and then we both joined in the chorus. 

            Then, oh man.  There are moments that come into your life that are so elevated and unique that you can barely credit them as they’re happening.  My favorite song of all time is “Brilliant Disguise,” a song whose meaning has shifted for me since I first discovered in when I was 18, but has never stopped meaning just as much to me.  It’s the intersection of surety and identity, and how those two things are never as solid as we think they are.  In Springsteen’s book Songs, he refers to this as the sequel to “Stolen Car,” which he’d played earlier during the River set, and hearing them bookending like tonight, it makes sense: “Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” pairs so well, so hellishly well with, “so when you look at me baby, you’d better look hard and look twice / is that me baby, or a brilliant disguise.”  Who am I?  Why am I?  What the hell have I done?  

            I have never seen the song live, and suddenly, here it was, and I was this close, and those words I’d memorized over half a lifetime ago were drifting into me from the source.  I was unprepared and overwhelmed.  Never has not understanding who you are and what you mean to other people been so thrilling.   

            Then there’s the raucous bam-bam of “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising,” two songs that the message board assured me were “over” and “not worth listening to” and “no one really even likes.”  You wouldn’t have known it from everything going on in Madison Square Garden: everyone from the pits to the nosebleeds on their feet, singing along and dancing if they had a mind.  This occurs to me over and over, but it never fails to stun and thrill me: the audience’s total embrace of Springsteen’s newer material is nothing short of astounding.  I wouldn’t say “Wrecking Ball” got the exact response as “Thunder Road,” which came next, but it thrilled everyone to their feet and everyone knew all the words.  Is there any legacy performer for whom this is true? 

            We closed things out with Bruce spoonfeeding us what even the casual fans wanted: “Born to Run,” “Dancing In the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” with a grand finale cover of “Shout,” one final blast before we all had to return to the normal lives we lived that aren’t interpreted by a master songsmith.  I couldn’t leave for a little while, too enthralled by what I had seen and experienced to really move.  I wanted to absorb it.  I wanted to keep feeling it. 

            Of course these moments are fleeting.  They have to be.  No one can live forever on nerve endings and elevated consciousness.  Eventually we come back down to earth, and while it’s a somewhat duller, somewhat less thrilling life in the shadow of three and a half hours of pure passion and excitement, we take at least a little of that with us, and spread it into the world.  If that’s the price you pay, I can live with it.