Many thanks to those who, privately or publicly, have said kind things about "Seventeen/Forty-Seven: Darkness & Magic" which I posted the other day. I really don't normally post unpublished poems here, not so much because I'm afraid somebody will plagiarize them but because posting them publicly generally means they won't be considered for publication elsewhere. In this case, I think the work found its audience here - much more so than it would have in a literary journal or whatever. So, thanks. It means a lot to me.
I wrote an elegy for Danny Federici when he died a few years ago (it's gotten some kind comments from editors but hasn't been published yet - maybe I'll post it here sometime). For those who may be unfamiliar, "Phantom Dan" played organ and accordion in the E Street Band, and he died of melanoma in 2008. I was unexpectedly shaken by his passing - in a very literal sense, as it turns out, because my part of Indiana experienced a rare earthquake in the predawn hours of the morning after Danny's death. (Yeah, that's in the poem.) More importantly, I was unexpectedly and deeply moved by the graceful way in which Bruce and the band dealt with his loss. They were mid-tour, and the first show following Danny's funeral has taken on legendary status in the Springsteen fan community - I wasn't there (though I will admit to having investigated plane fares before realizing it was completely impossible for me to go) but I've heard recordings of it, and it was both ferocious and tender, both raging and celebratory. Springsteen's eulogy was tremendously moving, as well. And Bruce has always written about how to cope with aging and death ("you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore" - he wrote that when he was what, twenty-three or something?) but some of his most recent work, like "Kingdom of Days" and his song for Danny, "The Last Carnival," tackles it with a grace and wisdom that moves me so deeply.
I started thinking about the whole thing, and about what it meant to work with somebody in a creative situation (like in a band) for so many years - all one's adult life, really - to share all those experiences, from fighting and grubbing to work in smelly little clubs to touring worldwide, performing music that ultimately stirred millions of souls - and then to suffer that kind of loss. I started thinking about the legendary "brotherhood" of the E Street Band. It could all be a big act, you know. We fans love to believe in it; it's a fable, a wonderful story, and it means a lot to us. But they are performers, these guys. It's a show. And we know the image that's presented onstage (and in the media) is always, always, always at least partially a fictitious construction. (This goes for everyone with a public image to maintain. You don't think rockstars act like they do on stage 24/7, do you? Some of them try to, but it's a pretty safe bet that anyone who has friends that still speak to them after some years has given up and accepted that they can be a rockstar on stage but they had damn well better be a human being at home. And you know Patti Scialfa would kick Bruce's butt if he came home and announced "It's Boss time!")
Now, to be clear: I don't know anyone in the E Street Band personally. I've met Max Weinberg once, briefly, and he was very nice - but that's it. If it's all an act and they really can't stand each other offstage, or if they are jerks, I wouldn't know about it. I truly believe that it's not an act - I know enough people who know them at least somewhat, and have read & heard enough things about them over the years, to believe that the whole "brotherhood" thing is based on a deep truth. I've seen the way they look at one another onstage and I do not think any of them (Steven Van Zandt's stint on "The Sopranos" notwithstanding) is a good enough actor to fake what I see there. What's more, if Bruce Springsteen kicks puppies in his spare time, I neither need nor want to know about it. Guy writes songs like he does and gives shows like he does, he can do what he wants when I'm not looking. Even if the sentiment in songs like "Land of Hope and Dreams" were fake for him, it's very real for me. And the image of him - and of the band - that I have in my heart makes my world a better place to live in. So, consider that your official disclaimer there.
But I started thinking - what if you had a couple of bandmates who'd been together that long, and who had the whole Bruce-and-Stevie (or Clarence, but my character's a guitarist)/Mick-and-Keef "bromance" thing going on onstage, but for them it really was all an act, and they couldn't stand each other in real life? (Mind, this was before I read Keith Richards' autobiography where he says some not-very-nice things about Mr. Jagger. I thought I was making up this story.) And furthermore… what if they couldn't stand each other in real life because they couldn't stand that the love they showed onstage really did reflect something about their feelings for one another? Being afraid of one's feelings is one of those universal human things I can hook into and identify with, and wrestle with in poems. And then the characters jumped into my head and started talking to me, and since I can't write fiction worth a shit, I started writing poems.
And it was the most fun I've ever had writing poems, I think. I had some poems about them being young and playing in shitty smelly clubs, and a bunch of "on the road" poems that I hope I got more or less right (never having been a touring musician myself, you see - any actual touring musicians reading this who'd like to read a few of them and offer feedback are warmly invited to do so). Oh, and then the guitarist starts liking the rockstar lifestyle a little too much and starts missing rehearsals or showing up too far under the influence to be any good. And the singer/protagonist fires his sorry ass and they stop speaking to one another for years and it's all very, very sad. (I was listening to "Bobby Jean" and Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go" a lot while I was writing some of the poems in this part.) And then the protagonist finds out through the grapevine that the guitarist is terminally ill (hepatitis, I think, though it probably doesn't matter) and in the hospital, so there's a touching deathbed-reunion scene and then a death scene - my fiction-writer friends always talk about how it's really fun, in a twisted way, to kill off your characters and boy howdy, that is really true. And then the whole coming-to-terms-with-grief part of it, which lets me make the sweeping grand "THIS and THIS about HUMANITY" sermon poems I'm unfortunately so fond of (I think a lot of poets are, though, even if they won't admit it). And because it's poems, not fiction, I really haven't spoiled anything by giving y'all the plot. Really. :)
So that's "Chasing Angels." Angels being, at first, the girls they think will pay attention to them if they become rockstars - there's always an angel or two in the front row for them to play to and fall in love with for the two hours that they are onstage, and the challenge of course is to win the audience over, to make the angels fall in love with them - and as the story unfolds, angels become something more problematic and complex.
And I haven't been working on this manuscript for the past year or two, because I'd kind of lost heart with it - but it's time for me to return to it. Because I'm thinking so much about Clarence Clemons, and about the heart and soul of E Street, and about the heart and soul of all of us (see? more sermonizing - jeez, it's too bad I'm allergic to religion; I could've gone to minister school instead of library school). Because I'm back to feeling that how rock & roll affects us says something about who we are as human beings. Because I'm all too aware that you gotta say what you need to say before it's too late.
Hopefully, you'll be hearing more.