The River's Badge

Saturday, June 16, 2018


Dad died in 2001, but he was gone long before. I'd moved 600 miles away when things turned bad; when he became someone else; someone elemental -- a newborn who lived a life deep inside. It was so gradual, so gentle. Dad had always been eccentric. That's what fascinated me about him. He was a constant surprise. As a little girl, I worshiped him. If I have any sense of imagination, it's because of Dad. Maybe he taught me to be a daydreamer; maybe it was genetic. I'd follow him around the farmyard as he tended to his chores and repairs, and he'd make up a silly song or a goofy phrase that I found captivating. Often I didn't understand what he was saying, but it didn't matter, because it spawned a wondrous life of its own.

As the years passed, I disdained him. He descended into alcoholism; falling-down drunkenness. He drove my mom crazy, which drove my life crazy. A switch flipped on for me around age twelve, and it didn't flick off until I was old enough to acquire a modicum of wisdom about the vagaries of life. (It took a long time.)

My mom committed him to the State Hospital For The Insane, which in the sixties also claimed to treat alcoholics, but actually didn't. It warehoused those who couldn't handle life. Then she did it once again nine months later. The "cure" never took. What it did, though, was break him. The whimsical oddball Dad had always been evaporated. He turned docile; subdued. On our infrequent visits, he was tentative. He traversed the stone walkway with us as if his bones would shatter if he made an untoward move. I mentally distanced myself from the whole imbroglio, resolved to X off the days on the calendar until I was old enough to get the hell out and away.

Once I made my escape at almost nineteen, I dispensed with the whole mess, but home was a ghost that whipped the curtains. I was gone but never gone. Early in 1976 Mom informed me that Dad was back to drinking again. By then she was resigned. The years had become an endless stabbing needle of Dad's meek compliance interspersed with bursts of defiance. Mom told me that he had checked himself into a rehab center; one more in a long string of healings that had never once taken.

This time it did.

I don't know what Heartview had that the other places didn't, or if he just surrendered. After Dad's six-week stint in Heartview, he never again took another drink.

I never once told my dad how proud I was of him. We didn't say things like that in our family. We actually never said much of anything to one another.

Instead I did what I knew how to do -- I wrote him a song:

When Dad was in Heartview, I learned that I was pregnant. Thus, two lives began. My little boy celebrated his first birthday at Mom and Dad's home, but it wouldn't be long before my parents decided to start a new life. They sold the business that had turned into a bargain with the devil, and moved to a real house, where Mom baked banana bread and Dad chased the rabbits out of his garden. In more than thirty years of marriage, this was the first calm existence they enjoyed. Dad carried his white coffee mug with him everywhere, attended AA meetings every week; stubbed out his cigarettes in a sand-filled coffee can in the garage. He became Dad again; goofy, amused by stupid seventies TV commercials.

In 1978 my second baby boy came along. He had dark hair and dark eyes; a genetic generation-skipper. He looked just like Dad. My boys spent many a Fourth of July sunset shooting off fireworks in the street in front of Mom and Dad's house, alongside their cousins and kid-like uncles.

The last time I visited my dad he existed in a world all his own. Mom said she had to set an extra place at the dining room table for Dad's "friend". He talked to his friend late into the night as he rested in his blue corduroy recliner. I went to bed in my little sister's old bedroom and fell asleep listening to Dad talk late into the night. His voice was so gentle, I felt like a little girl again, snuggling on Daddy's lap.

I wasn't there for the end. I prefer the memory of my dad's soothing tones as I drifted off to sleep. That's how I want to remember him -- the same beginning; the same end.

It's been seventeen years and I still miss him.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. My heart aches from missing you.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


(What better way to get all the hits?)

At the start of 1977 I had a two-month-old baby and had lost my girlish figure. Granted, I'd lost that the moment I learned I was pregnant, at which time I indulged myself gluttonously. Someone remarked that she was sure I was having twins. Whatever, bitch.

A new president was inaugurated in January, unfortunately. Forty-odd years of listening to this sanctimonious guy proselytize, as if he wasn't an utter and complete failure. I blame him for ushering in an era of bad music. He had an innate knack for bringing everyone down. 

And speaking of bad music, it's not so much that disco was bad as that it quickly became monotonous, with its "four on the floor" beat, which didn't leave much room for variation. The Bee Gees, however, seemed to take to it effortlessly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The year began with this song that was featured incessantly on the Midnight Special:

My baby and I spent many two a.m.'s in the living room rocking chair watching old Maverick reruns. He couldn't really follow the plot, but he gave two little thumbs up to James Garner. This episode featured some no-name actor who was never heard from again:

Rich people in 1977 owned something called an "Apple Computer", although they couldn't really do anything with it except show it off to their envious friends, because there wasn't yet anything called the "internet". Plus it was ugly as hell. At some point in the future these Thurston Howells were able to utilize their pricey trinket to play Pong.

In winter fashion, we bulked up on cowl-neck sweaters. All the better, in my opinion, to conceal the baby fat. These were best paired with tan polyester wide-legged pants.

In February, some band called "The Eagles" had a hit song. These guys apparently didn't get the Disco Memo that was circulated to all artists with record contracts.

These guys were around, with their Conair-styled hair:

Prime-time TV was devoted to Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days (when Richie still had a big brother named Chuck, who later entered the witness-protection program) and my personal favorite, Barney Miller.

There was apparently a lot of killing going on in '77. We had the Son of Sam and Gary Gilmore, who was big news because he chose to be shot as his form of execution (I preferred the Tommy Lee Jones portrayal to the actual real-life event). 

CB radios were things that people bought and then didn't know what to do with. Rod Carew of my Minnesota Twins was named MVP. 

Elvis died. 

There was a song by a female vocalist that I liked a lot. She would later go on to sing Baby and Johnny's theme song.

Speaking of babies, a Baby Gibb brother would foreshadow the tsunami that was to come, by having a disco hit with this:

Sure, disco was bad, but put in perspective, nothing could be worse than these two hits:

We washed out our ears with this:

Late in the year, I got a night out (with my mom). She wanted to see the year's hot new movie. If you've never watched an R-rated movie with your mom, it's an awesome experience. As you slump down in your seat during the sex scenes and huddle on the floor amidst yesterday's spilled popcorn kernels, you wrack your brain trying to decide how to comment on the movie on your way out of the theater. "John Travolta's silk shirt was pretty." "Wow! Those...disco lights!"

Nevertheless, aside from Patrick Swayze, this was the awesomest dance routine performed in any movie, anytime:

And thus, this little band of brothers from Australia embarked on a whole new career and will forever be known as THE phenomenon of 1977:

Thanks, Bee Gees, for the leisure suits and gold chains.

Sunday, May 27, 2018


(Can you imagine taking your music with you?)

1979 was in many ways a depressing year. We had a depressing, nay, dreary president. He could sap the fun out of any gathering. He lectured us on TV about our "malaise", not realizing that he was the one who caused it. It was as if by telling us how disappointing we were, we'd snap out of it.

One exciting event of that year was the exploding Ford Pinto. When you drove a Pinto, it definitely took you for a ride. Lucky for me, I had a Chevy Vega.

The Iranian Ayatollah decided to take 44 Americans hostage in December, which resulted in the launch of a 10:30 p.m. TV show called "Nightline", starring Ted Koppel's hair. Our hapless president only managed to make things worse by authorizing an ill-fated mission to rescue the prisoners. The operation went spectacularly wrong. 

In household news, Black and Decker introduced something called the "Dustbuster", It was ingenious. Everyone who was anyone raved about their little cordless vacuum. One pitfall of the new invention was that the batteries went dead right in the middle of sucking up toast crumbs from the shag carpet in front of the sofa. Yet we all felt so "with it". 

ESPN came into existence in '79. I never watched it, because---sports. On the other hand, a new network called Nickelodeon showed up on cable and we watched it religiously, because---kids. Otherwise we watched 60 Minutes on Sunday nights and followed Mike Wallace as he stalked some unsuspecting scofflaw around dark corners. 

Jack Tripper and Chrissy and Janet lived upstairs from the Ropers and sexual innuendo ensued. Eventually, Suzanne Somers wanted to leave the show because she felt her salary was a mere pittance; so thenceforth she phoned it in, literally. Every episode featured a shot of Chrissy on the phone with her apartment-mates, to convince the TV-watching rubes that all was all right on ABC Tuesday nights. 

Friday night was "Dukes of Hazzard" night. My three-year-old was obsessed with the show. I wasn't sure why. I did get a kick out of the fact that my son thought the sheriff's name was Roscoe PECO-Train. For my part, I liked the theme song that I surely knew was performed by Waylon Jennings, even though they only showed his hands, but not his face on TV.

Musically, we still possessed stereo components. Sure, Sony had this new gadget that claimed to let one port one's music, but that was kind of goofy; silly. Why did we need to carry our music with us? We had the car radio! This seemed to me akin to the Dustbuster; a sad trail of dead batteries.

Country music was sad, and not in the traditional way. Our big stars were Kenny Rogers and Dave and Sugar.

There were a few sparks, though. This song featured Linda Ronstadt on the original recording. This performance, however, does not. But she couldn't be everywhere. I do want to say, thank you, Rodney Crowell. If it wasn't for you, 1979 would have been lamer than it already was.

Speaking of the Dukes of Hazzard and Rodney Crowell:

In kids news, a McDonald's Happy Meal was a treat that was affordable, even for us, at $1.00. The Muppet Movie was the tenth highest grossing film of the year, and taking a one-year-old and a three-year-old to the movie theater was an experience no parent should miss, for the wailing and the seat-climbing and the chaotic showers of popcorn. Oh, and the movie was good, too.

To relieve the stress and relax my tendons, when we reached home I listened to this:

Anne Murray was still making hits, and I liked this one:

Fashion-wise, we favored bib overalls. Beneath those, we wore blouses with puffy sleeves and a tiny bow at the neck. Throughout the seventies, women wore one-piece contraptions that were hell to undo when one had to pee. Therefore, we were careful to limit our liquid intake. I worked part-time at a retail establishment, so I had to dress up. Since my hourly wage was $2.65, I shopped at K-Mart for work attire. I picked up some below-the-knee skirts and twin sets and high-heeled plastic slides. I purchased my pantyhose at Woolworths, however, because they carried the size that fit best. I honestly don't think I took home any money from that job, after laying out all my earnings to buy appropriate work attire. Wearing pants to work was unheard of. Velour was also the fabric of choice, but if I ever owned a piece of velour clothing, I've blocked it from my mind.

At 9:30 p.m., when I landed at home after work, I poured myself a glass of....Coke...because I didn't drink. I slipped the stereo needle on this:

One can't underestimate the influence the Oak Ridge Boys had on country music in 1979. Aside from Kenny Rogers, who wasn't country, no act was bigger. This video is notable for the lack of giant white beard on William Lee Golden's chin:

In a nutshell, the biggest country acts of the year, aside from Kenny and the ORB's, were Eddie Rabbitt, Crystal Gayle (yes), Moe Bandy, and Don Williams. Some were nearing the end of their careers, some were one-offs, some had a couple of decades yet to go. 

In the daytime hours, TV was what TV was -- game shows in the morning, Days of Our Lives in the afternoon. In between, advertisers took great pains to inform moms what they needed to feed their kids to keep them happy and healthy -- KoolAid, Ore-Ida french fries, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese -- all the nutritious choices. On the plus side, however, mothers were still a "thing" then. And kids. 

Also, AT&T urged us to reach out and touch someone. I didn't know many people with whom interaction required a long-distance phone call, but if I'd made any "friends" on vacation, trust me; I wouldn't have called them.

Generally with music, I chose to avoid chaos. Life was chaotic enough, with two kids under the age of four, and with my part-time job that ostensibly "contributed to the family coffers". Better days were to come, but that's what days generally do, if one is lucky. 

Meanwhile, I relaxed to this:

Monday, May 21, 2018

What Makes A Good Song?

As one who has toiled and sweated over songs, I know how hard it is to come up with a good one. I know what constitutes a good one; it's just that I don't know how to create it.

While there are time-tested elements that go into their construction, good songs, too, are subjective. I thought about that while my husband and I were watching a documentary about Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. CSNY are revered, yet I don't get it. They maybe have one song that I semi-like. As the documentary tripped along, clips of the various incarnations of the four guys splashed across the screen. Crosby and Nash at one point formed a duo, and as the commentator stammered that these two guys "were so...were so...", I blurted out, "boring?"

Granted, I don't see the point of acoustic music. I like a good beat. And if I'm looking for introspection, shoot, I can do that on my own dime.The early seventies were like that. Because music fans were lame. "You just call out my name...and you know wherever I am...I'll come runnin'". Okay, thanks. Old dudes like John Kerry think this kind of bad poetry is revelatory. And don't even get me started on Joni Mitchell ~ another "icon" whose songs are like fingernails on a chalkboard. My cat warbles better tunes than Joni ever did.

While I'm primarily a lyricist, I don't put a lot of stock in lyrics. Few songs have ever compelled me to really hear the words. And those that did, just said what they needed to say. They didn't tie them with a baby blue bow and proffer them to me like bewildering puzzles.

Here are two that touched me:

I don't ascribe to the theory that "if you don't understand it, that means it's deep". No, that just means it's self-indulgent.

As far as CSNY goes, here is the (indisputably) best song any of the four guys ever did. And I don't give a rip about the lyrics:

Music is feel. That's why it's music and not poetry. Feelings are non-verbal. 

Figure out that formula and you've roped me in.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Happy Bir....

(To my friend, "Your Name Here")

My birthday isn't until tomorrow, but I'm choosing to celebrate it tonight. 

When I was a kid, I considered the year 2000 and thought, wow, I'll be forty-five! Essentially on my death bed! The good news is, it's 2018 and I'm still kickin'. And I know now that forty-five is nothing. When I was forty-five, gravity was still averted. You know that picture you run across from 1945 in the ragged family photo album and you think, really? That's my mom? Turns out that, yes, we all were young and dewy-skinned once. I don't look like myself anymore, but I'm so used to my countenance in the morning mirror that I don't give it a second thought. It's only when I (accidentally) see a photograph of myself that I realize some grievous calamity has apparently occurred.

I've given up on regaining my lost figure. It just doesn't work anymore. I'm not going to become one of those delusional fitness fanatics. I've never exercised more than ten days in my life and I'm not about to start now. Plus, I deserve to eat.

The thing about turning 63 is that I spend more time looking back than forward. I mostly choose to remember the good things. It's not that I've forgotten the bad. I can conjure up those memories in a snap if I choose to, but when I do, I tend to view them philosophically, like a neutral bystander. Humans do the best they can do with what they have. I don't hold it against my parents for what they did. They didn't damage me on purpose. 

Today I received some birthday wishes from my co-workers. My best work friend Barb brought me a single-serve DQ cake. It was awesome. The cake had a cobalt-blue plastic butterfly ring atop it and I slipped it on my finger and wore it throughout the day. Everyone I encountered chose to ignore the humongous butterfly encircling my finger; sure (no doubt) that I'd made an unfortunate fashion choice. That made me giggle. A boy (really) that I trained four years ago asked me about my birthday plans and we got to talking about retirement. I told him that 2020 is the year. He said, "It won't be any fun here without you." I didn't realize I was still "fun". I used to be fun back in 1997, when I commanded a department at Aetna (US Healthcare), but I essentially just feel tired now and don't have the energy to be engaging. How lame must everyone else be, that I am regarded as the "fun" one?

I blame (or credit) Sirius Radio with my current state of look-back. Every single song I click on evokes memories. I hover between classic country and sixties and seventies rock; and sometimes fifties rockabilly. Some of the songs make me cry, for reasons only known to me. My best friend died in 2000 (when she was only forty-five). The songs we shared together are bittersweet. I almost feel embarrassed to still love those songs, because Alice is gone and she and I can't share them. 

When I hear John Lennon's voice, my heart breaks a little. John was my education in "real" music, beginning when I was nine years old or so. 

I don't "sum up" when it comes to music. Songs are quicksilver. Songs are not dissectable, like some scientific experiment. Anyone who slices and dices music is not a music lover. I love a song by the Honeycombs and one by Tommy James, and one by Steve Wariner and "God Bless The USA" by Lee Greenwood just because. I like Boston and Gene Pitney and Bobby Bare and Dobie Gray. Nobody needs to know why. 

Happy Birthday to me.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


I don't think we recognize the happy times while we're living them; or perhaps we think we'll always feel this way, and therefore, this feeling is normal. We don't even recognize the emotion as happiness. Maybe it's the absence of worry, jitteryness; an embrace of the big blue sky.

I've pinpointed 1985 as my "happy time".  I was thirty, which is actually the perfect age, all things considered. My boys were at the fun age; the world opening up to them and me along for the ride. My job was perfect for my lifestyle. I worked second shift at a job I really liked -- interesting, yet only occasionally stressful. My mornings were my own. I even enjoyed setting up the ironing board in the living room, flipping my TV dial to MTV and pressing my hospital uniform, while this flashed on my screen in the background:

Even the music was optimistic in '85, and why not? We had a president who made us feel like everything was going to be okay. Our country was safe, tucked in. President Reagan had everything under control. And everyone felt it. 

I drove to the local mall with my youngest son, and as I slid into the parking slot, this song came on the radio. Matt knew a few of the artists, but I pointed out some he didn't know; some he needed to know. We made a game of picking out the voices. 

I had a savings account at the hospital credit union, and dutifully deposited twenty-five dollars out of each paycheck -- our vacation booty. Come July, I'd descend the steps to the hospital basement and acquire reams of traveler's checks and sign each one in the presence of the teller. Then, mid-month, we'd pack up our travel trailer with coolers full of New Coke, bologna, and Hostess treats and steer down Highway 83 toward Belle Fouche and ultimately, Rapid City and the exhale of the Rafter J Bar Ranch nestled within the tall pines. 

The campground had an outdoor pool and my boys made a beeline for it before we'd even pounded the camper stakes into the ground. In the setting sun, an Oglala brave would dance in full Lakota regalia as we tourists sat, cross-legged, in the tall prairie grass. At sunrise the next morning, we'd wind along the curvy two-lane logging road on our twelve-mile trip to the tourist town of Keystone so I could buy a Black Hills gold ring and my kids could ride the helicopter for a close-up view of Mount Rushmore.

1985 was the year of bands that have never been heard from since, but their hits are so iconic, it doesn't matter.

And a few who've stood the test of time:

Television was what it always was. Shows were "good" because we had nothing to compare them to. I watched Kate and Allie and Newhart and Family Ties. There was, however, one program that offered a glimpse of how good TV could be. It was on NBC on Wednesday nights, and since I worked second shift, I had to utilize my trusty VCR, because I was not about to miss it. Maybe working in a hospital made the show more special to me, but in reality, it was just a damn good show:

"Okay, smart guy, who's the president in 1985?"

"Ronald Reagan? Is Jerry Lewis Vice President?"

The eighties were the most fun period for movies. This classic was released -- guess when? 1985.

The country was optimistic; I was optimistic. 

I was happy.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Record Albums

The memory is a wonderful thing. We all remember the awesome albums, the "Help!" and the "Easy Come Easy Go".

We overlook the fact that we spent countless dollars throughout our lives on albums that were essentially worthless.When I was around thirteen and finally had $4.99 to purchase a record album now and then, my modus operandi was hampered by the fact that one of the only stores that was traversible by city bus was JC Penney. Penney's basement not only housed their booming catalog department but also bins of record albums. Unfortunately, the store management didn't want to take space away from the fiberglass drapery displays and shiny aluminum percolators, so the record racks were skinny. We had Loretta Lynn and George Jones, Melba Montgomery and, of course, Johnny Cash. If Alice and I showed up at just the opportune moment, we might snag a Merle Haggard. I had the damnedest time locating Waylon Jennings' RCA debut. So I bought a lot of stuff I didn't even want because I just wanted to buy something. If someone were to look at my record collection, they'd think, wow, she must be a big fan of this "Carl and Pearl Butler". No. This was what the store had.

I eventually amassed a decent collection of albums by artists I actually liked -- Merle, of course, Lynn Anderson, Faron Young. However, the records released by some artists I truly admired were awful. Tammy Wynette would stick two hits on an album, the first track on Side A and B, and fill the remainder with dreck; cover songs or vanity songs written by a distant relative or friend of the producer. Country albums weren't viewed so much as "artistic" as they were regarded as "$$". Rock fans wanted albums; country fans wanted the hits. It took Merle to change all that.

In the seventies, I bought Barbara Mandrell albums and a lot of Statler Brothers, some Gatlin Brothers; one by a new group called the Oak Ridge Boys; some gems like Gene Watson and a brand new girl named Emmylou. I was in love with Eddie Rabbitt. Albums got better, but I mostly dropped the phonograph needle on the hits, with a couple of deep tracks thrown in. Barbara Mandrell's albums, for instance, could be counted on to feature crisp clear renditions of her latest hits and a bunch of forgettable stuffing. There were artists who never quite garnered a lasting career, but should have, like LaWanda Lindsey. I also remember purchasing a disc by someone called La Costa. It turned out she was Tanya Tucker's sister. I was enamored of her album for a while. She had a track called "Best of My Love" that I really liked. The credits beneath the title read, Frey and Henley. No clue.

By the eighties, I knew what I wanted and what I wanted to buy. By then, at least, I had Musicland, which was one quick zip away from my house to the local mall. My sister sent me a gift certificate for a CD. I didn't own a CD player. So I bought one. The very first CD (free, thanks to my sister) I bought was "Keys To The Highway" by Rodney Crowell. I took it home, scraped off the shrink-wrap with my fingernail, pried open the hard plastic clasp with a kitchen knife, inserted the flat circle into my new player and stood back and let the crisp music caress my ears. The CD wasn't even that good, but that sound!

Thus began my collecting phase. I determined to buy every single George Strait CD and I did. But as much as I love George, every album wasn't a gem. Every once in a while George released one that made my heart soar, but frankly, I granted George a whole lot of leeway. Dwight was more dependable. Dwight was my "other collectable". The eighties for me can be summed up by the names George and Dwight.

By the nineties I had Mark Chesnutt and Diamond Rio and Restless Heart. One cannot go wrong buying an album by Mark Chesnutt.

And then I stopped.

I now have lots of digital albums that will dissolve like ether once my current computer dies. Now people buy "songs", which isn't a bad bet. Albums, aside from the Beatles and Merle, are money suckers.

My work is done.