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.

Order The Glass Character from:

Thistledown Press


Dirtbags: go look in the mirror!



what are you doing in Father’s office

all the time?

[JO kicks her steel-toed boots

onto the desk]

JO: writin smut

wanna read it

MEG: …yes

MEG: all right

we’re off to the play with


JO: don’t wait up

AMY: can I come too?

JO: don’t be ridiculous

AMY [whispering]: I’m going to burn what you

love and marry your boyfriend

JO: what

AMY: have such a fun time

at the play

[MEG runs into the room]

MEG: I’m getting married!

BETH: Congratulations!

AMY: Congratulations!

(JO is idly poking at the ashes in the


MEG: Jo, did you hear me? Mr. Brooke

proposed to me and I accepted him!

[JO draws a dick in the ashes]

JO: I heard you

JO: has anyone seen

my manuscript

MEG: no

BETH: no

AMY: no

saw a fire that looked an awful

lot like your manuscript though

[The girls are ice skating on

the pond]

AMY: i’m tired

i’m tired and this sucks

winter sucks

take me home

[Amy falls through the ice]


JO: sorry

cant hear you


JO: let me know if you see my manuscript

down there

[JO skateboards over LAURIE's head]

JO: I got your note

you’re not my boyfriend

JO: I got a haircut

what do you think

AMY: oh, Jo!

how could you

your one beauty

[JO climbs into AMY's room late one night

and begins to shave her head]

JO [whispering]: Oh, no, Amy

how could you?

your one beauty

[JO draws a mustache under AMY's nose]

AMY: who did this

JO: who did what


JO: you dont look any different to me

LAURIE: oh, Jo

please marry me

JO: no

LAURIE: but why

[JO strikes a match on LAURIE's chin and

lights her cigar with it]

JO: because that’s exactly what they’ll be


LAURIE: who is ‘they’?

[JO slowly rollerblades offscreen without


MEG: Beth is dead!

JO: Oh, my God.

MARMEE: No, no –

AMY: can I have her room

MEG: Oh, my God.

AMY: sorry

may I have her room

I want to tell you exactly why I find this so sickening.

I found it, of course, on Facebook. All the comments

were screamingly positive. Everyone found it hilariously

funny, irreverant, etc. etc.The implication was, if you don't

find it funny you're un-hip,probably old, and don't

understand contemporary satire.

When it comes to satire, I've seen piles of horseshit

that are funnier and wittier than this. This thing sends up one

of my favorite books from girlhood, a book that has been

made into a movie at least three times (most recently with

Winona Ryder as Jo, an unlikely choice - but hey,

we also have the very dishy Gabriel Byrne as her love

interest, Professor Bhaer).

Aside from my horse stories, this was my favorite

book in childhood. Like Anne of Green Gables, Little

Women was set in another time, an era when people made

their own entertainment and pleasures were simpler.

While waiting for their sainted father to return from the Civil

War, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy took part in boisterous yet

highly literate activities such as the Pickwick

Club, which implied they all knew how to read. (The

screamers here probably don't get much farther than

Cosmopolitan.) The characters were well-developed, and in spite

of the quaint setting and manners, all believably human. How do I

know this? After seeing the June Allyson version on TCM, I recently

downloaded the manuscript from Gutenberg and read it again.

This is a very well-written book, with shades and

nuances beyond anything you see in children's literature

today. In a way, it's far too good for girls. The people making

these vulgar comments (yes, vulgar, though I could use a worse

term) probably have not read Little Women at all, but have

only seen the latest movie version. Even in the 1960s, which

seem like a great literary flowering compared to the scorched

earth of today, there were many references that sailed over my

head, such as Apollyon and Vanity Fair (NOT the magazine!).

These were references to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:

not a jolly book by our standards, but a classic with great literary

depth. Meaning: intellectual depth, which seems to have

virtually vanished in today's shallow and virtually illiterate world.

Much is made of the feminist nature of Jo March's matriarchal

household (which is loosely based on Louisa May Alcott's

unconventional upbringing),

and while Marmee does insist her girls be educated

(apparently, by an early form of home-schooling, or they surely

would not be reading John Bunyan), she also tutors them on the

value of never speaking when angry. In fact, when very angry,

women were expected to leave the room, a baffling instruction

in a day when everyone speaks their mind even if they don't

have one.

Though I can see where it's coming from - I'm not THAT much

of a fossil - Dirtbag Little Women is not a funny piece. It is lousy

satire, without even a glimmer of originality or wit.We won't

even get into the implied lesbian stereotypes embodied by the

butch-ish Jo.True satire has an underlying respect for its

"target", which adds an extra dimension, somehow makes

it funnier. It isn't just primitive spitting, mocking and throwing

mud and shit at a classic that millions of people once cherished,

loved and learned from.

In short, this is a cheap shot.

I don't even know if girls read Little Women any more.

They are much more likely to read the scummyand unfunny

Dirtbag version, which is both sad and shocking.

I'm not saying we should adhere to the quaint morals of the

Civil War era, in which even the most liberated family adhered

to a strict moral code we can never understand. But can't we

keep a modicum of respect for writing of this depth, writing

that until recently has stood the test of time? Is it all getting lost?

What is wrong with these people? Why do I feel so alone in this,

why does everyone shriek and guffaw their approval in the

comments? "OMG, ROTFL, I HATED this book and I'm so

glad you fucking trashed it." Some of us aren't so glad.

It dismays me, not so much

that someone would rip this thing into bleeding pieces but that

the jackals of conformity would so quickly swarm the carcass,

eager to display their hipness with their shrieking

and jeering.

I used to think human beings were herd animals,

but now I realize they flock like chickens or even run in packs,

as surely as jackals or wolves.Almost no one has any individual

courage any more. It makes me sick and fills me with despair.

Sure, go ahead and eviscerate a classic, make it "hip" and "funny"

and distance yourself in the most cowardly manner possible.

That way, you won't even have to form a real opinion.

Pack animals don't have to think: in fact, in the

grand scheme of things, it's better if they don't. It's

one of the immutable facts of nature. Don't think for yourself.

Don't even THINK of thinking for yourself. Just follow the leader.