Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Motor City madness: Bob Seger's East Side Story

Beneath the bare light bulb above
She gazed into the eyes of love
Bathed in the dirty neon lights
She begged him "don't go out tonight"
If we work out somehow maybe
We could find a way out baby
And he laughed and said "I got to go"

And she cried "no"
Johnny Johnny no
Oh Johnny Johnny no

His arms were warm and strong and young
"I promise I won't hurt no one"
"Oh baby when you gonna learn,
Them folks uptown got bread to burn,

When they see me flash my knife,
They'll be fearin' for their life,
They won't give me trouble this I know"
And she cried no
Oh Johnny Johnny no
Johnny Johnny no

[organ solo]

The night passed like a thousand years
The tenemant room had culled her tears
Then came a knock upon the door
Two men she'd never seen before

"Did you know Johnny Brown miss?
We hate to tell you this but
Has he a relative you know?"
And she cried no
Oh Johnny Johnny no
Oh Johnny why'd you go?

In posting this, I'm trying to touch something that is virtually untouchable. When I first heard this song, I was still sleeping downstairs, hadn't yet inherited my sister's room upstairs with its strange artifacts in the bureau drawers (garter belts, a rubber douche bag, rollers, several girdles, a pink angora sweater which I once wore to school, and a hair drier with a puffy plastic hat that you wore like a shower cap).  I had a radio beside my bed and constantly listened to CKLW Detroit: we all did, it was just what you did when you lived in Chatham (within striking distance of Windsor, Detroit's boring younger brother). I remember Chatham days now with a kind of ecstasy, which is strange because I did not have a happy childhood. Maybe it's just the escape to something once known, or revised brilliantly, the grass made of emeralds, and the crickets sounding like something out of Handel's Messiah.

When this song came on the radio, a funny feeling came over me. Electric. It's an opera in 2 minutes, a brilliant lyric really, tightly compressed, laden. The vocals are heartbreaking, the "no, no, nooooooooo" in the slightly choked voice that squeezes all the violence and pathos out of the scene.

A funny feeling. Electric. Buzzing. I was beginning to come awake. Given that this was 1966, and that The Doors hadn't even happened yet (or not full-on: that was 2 years later), the bridge and keyboard sound remarkably Morrison-like, meaning that Jim and the gang must've been listening to Seger. But didn't all bands listen to all bands back then?

I am convinced now that the first hormones were stirring in me, and probably I wrote a story about this song because I always wrote about everything. I couldn't explain it. It wasn't just sexual feelings, though I am sure they were included. They had to be. I had been sexual ever since falling madly in love with Maynard G. Krebbs in Dobie Gillis when I was six years old. It was something else, an elevation, a lifting of the vibration of my life. An intensification of the frequency.

Johnny, Johnny, noooooo.

I had some sort of a vision of a man killing a rat with a knife. There were no rats in the song, but at about the same time I watched West Side Story on TV, and the two things may have become conflated. The guy who played Bernardo,  he looked something like Johnny, tough, with his long-suffering girl friend begging him not to go. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, no.

I knew almost nothing then, had not "had sex", not even with myself (though I think that was going to happen pretty soon). I was somehow throwing myself into the centre of the violent scene, smelling the smells, sucking it up. That raw roaring Motor City sound was primal, dangerous, wild. The music came right up out of the core of it, bursting through the scalding pavement, immensely alive, but frightening.

When there was a gang fight, it was a rumble. When there was a biker race, it was a scramble. I had also watched The Wild One, or was soon to watch it, and even though Brando was fat and lethargic and mostly slept through it, there was something about that leather. The danger.

"I promise I won't hurt no one" echoes Brando in another movie, the touchstone movie of my life, On the Waterfront. He says the same thing to Edie when he pulls out his longshoreman's hook and heads over to confront Johnny Friendly and his minions for a final showdown. "And don't worry. I ain't gonna hurt nobody."

That's not exactly what Edie or the unnamed Motor City girl were worried about.

Why was I attracted to this stuff? A shy, introverted, slightly nutty, not-very-well-liked (some things never change) girl with unremarkable looks and way too much intensity for her own good? I wanted to be with that East Side Story guy, tame him down, or else go out with him, wild, my hair like Raquel Welch's in that prehistoric  movie, what was it called? A mane, a mop. I wanted to be with Terry Malloy, walk beside him, shine my light on him like Edie, change him. I wanted to bust out of dull old Chatham with its milk-horses and bread trucks and sugar beet factory and Lloyd's jute bag company and Darling's slaughterhouse that smelled like damnation on a hot day, the museum that should have been in a museum, and the medieval convent where I had to take my violin lessons. I was sick of the nighthawks with their skee-ix, skee-ix, skee-ix, and that bizarre roaring sound that I was later to learn came from air rushing through their flight feathers as they dove to the ground. All that stuff I ache for now, knowing it's gone forever. Most of those old Victorian -era houses would be ripped down, and I happen to know the house I lived in was made into a doctor's office.

My life wasn't, isn't important. Lord knows I've had that jackhammered home since joining Facebook (a handy way to top up your pain when the tank is low). I've felt out of kilter all through my life, and at my age it ain't going to change. I have been told, and I don't believe it by the way,  that "most people" feel like me, feel like they don't belong or fall short in some way. Bull-hoo. All I can say in my own defense is that I have kept my aliveness; even in the midst of howling anguish, experiences you would not wish on someone you loathe, the light has not gone out, I have not opted for deadness or shrinking a size so my shoes will fit. And I can't be around anyone who has made that choice.

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  1. Intense. I'd say your aliveness is definitely alive. But I'd also wager that more people are in our boat than you think--maybe not quite as many as Thoreau said, but quite a few. Some undoubtedly fake it better than others.

  2. Originality seems to be going into decline. There are still artists around, always will be, but it maybe shows my age when I say there will never be another Bob Seger, or another Jim Morrison for that matter (though I now see how derivative they were in their backup guitars/keyboard). I saw a YouTube of Seger recently in concert, and he looks pretty good, sounds good too, his voice ruined in a good way, as if he has given his all. He looks great too, leonine, with a massive head of white hair and a beard, low to the ground. Still on that road.