Rudderless

Rudderless

My mom died recently and now, with both parents gone, I feel rudderless. I’m 47 and feel like a child. With my mind wandering and thoughts scattered, the obsessive synapses have been firing full force and I’ve sought direction through cleaning the floors, through fly-fishing, and through music.

Music has always been a big part of my life and in the days after my mother’s death I’ve thought about two music-related episodes in my childhood years that served as wayfinding points, one involving my father and one my mother.

Mom and Dad split up when I was three. To be honest I’m not sure how old I was, but anything hard to peg down at that stage in life I label with “age 3.” I was the only child and lived with mom. We were like Mutt and Jeff. Dad lived close by so I saw him frequently. We were cut from different cloth but loved each very much.

One of my elementary school friends, Kyle Baraloone, and I fell hard for the band Kiss in 1975. Kyle had some developmental issues that left him at least a foot shorter than everyone else. But the only thing he ever ate was Kit-Kats, so mom and I weren’t convinced the problem was beyond his control. Kyle and I loved Kiss, especially the Destroyer album and the cover of Kiss Alive 2 that featured a very sweaty, psychotic-looking Gene Simmons spitting blood. We’d put on Kiss performances in my basement and dress up as Kiss for Halloween. Kyle was always Peter Chris, the Cat. I was always Paul Stanley. I didn’t know what Stanley’s character was at the time, but had I known he was “the Lover” I would have chosen to be Gene or Ace.

Dad caught wind of my infatuation with this band and, somewhere around my seventh or eigth birthday, I opened a card from dad and out dropped two concert tickets for Kiss. Yes, my first concert was a Kiss concert. In 1978. At Madison Square Garden. I was eight years old. Do you know how many times I’ve unearthed the “what was your first concert” challenge?

“What was your first concert?”

“Rick Springfield at the Brendan Byrne Arena, 1985. It was cool, but my sister was annoying. How about you, Darron?”

“Kiss. 1978. The Love Gun Tour. Madison Square Garden. Don’t even try to match that.”

Dad had no idea what he was walking in to, but he walked into it with dress shoes, suit pants, and a buttoned-down Oxford. We were stage right, way up in the nose- bleeds, where the pot smoke was thickest. I remember two things from that night. First, I am positive I saw Gene stick his surgically augmented tongue out and spit blood and breathe fire, the Holy Trinity for any Kiss enthusiast. Second, when dad brought me home and we walked through the front door, I projectile vomited all over the entryway rug. It must have been the epic performance, near-toxic levels of secondary smoke, and the speedy ride home as my father got the hell out of Manhattan as fast as humanly possible.

Fast-forward five years. The path you might expect a Kiss Army squadron leader to take was not the one I took. By seventh grade my mother’s influence on me became stronger and I became a nature loving outdoor enthusiast. Keep in mind the setting for this story is Parsippany, NJ and not Boulder, Colorado. But mom must have taken me to visit every square inch of public forested land in Northern New Jersey and splash in every stream, no matter how orange the water. I’m tearing up as I write this. I have a very full mental and visual Rolodex of those times together.

Beyond those paired expeditions to the woods, summers back in the day were like every suburban 40-something person describes: After a hearty breakfast of Fruit Loops and chocolate milk it’s a “Mom – I’m going riding bikes with Paulie.”

“OK, be back by dark and, for God’s sake, don’t rip those new jeans I just bought you. And will you pick me up a pack of Salem Lights at the 7-Eleven?”

But between the summer of sixth and seventh grade mom sent me off to summer camp. One of my best friends, Doug, was Jewish and he had been going to a religious summer camp for the past few years. From the stories Doug told, the nature of his summer camp was firmly focused on fondling the opposite sex and sounded like a lot of fun.

But I wouldn’t have Doug’s luck at the Vershire Outdoor School in Vershire, Vermont. Focused as I was on the woods and waters, my first year’s camping experience was filled with hiking and backpacking and rock climbing and canoeing. I have near total recall from those two weeks: the home-base cabin, the enormous grassy hill we had to climb to get dinner, scoops of mashed potato I thought were scoops of ice cream.

There was also a self-proclaimed Satanist in the group of happy campers. Stories around the fire invariably drifted toward goat sacrifice. We all thought he was a nut until he lost the pentagram-decorated ring he wore on his left middle finger and proceeded to become violently ill. When he was medivacked off the south slope of Camel’s Hump we knew for sure Satan was real, that this kid was his disciple, and that he would suffer terribly at the hands of Satan himself for losing that ring.

But this story isn’t about Slayer or Merciful Fate; it’s actually about the Grateful Dead.

One of our other campmates was a Dead Head. It was 1983, the Brent Midland years, and this kid spent two solid weeks connected to his Sony Walkman via fluffy foam headphones singing songs, complete with pitch-perfect guitar riffs and the screaming falsetto of background vocalist Donna Godchaux. Counselors begged him to unplug and enjoy the great wilderness. “Oh, my friend – The Grateful Dead and wilderness are one,” was his retort.

I never met anyone as devoted to a band as this guy. It made my earlier reverence for Kiss seem shallow.

I never actually heard the Grateful Dead’s music during that entire summer camp experience because those headphones never left his curly haired head. Nevertheless, I must have went on and on about the Dead to my mom on the car ride home to Parsippany, because the next week, God love her, mom went right out and bought Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead. (You can’t blame mom for not knowing that the Dead were a traveling show, not a studio band. You can’t blame her for failing to track down an appropriate bootlegged recording of a good early-70s show. No matter – Skeletons from the Closet was the perfect gateway drug for me).

I sometimes wonder if mom was trying to outdo dad’s birthday present from years past when two Grateful Dead concert tickets dropped out of my 13th birthday card. New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne arena, 1983, two full years before that poor kid who had to suffer through Rick Springfield.

Mom fit the part. She was a beautiful woman, 40 at the time with long, straight, brown hair. She would have been a flower child if she were born a few years later. Mom and son strolled through the crowds. I bought an ugly poncho. We laughed and joined the spinning dancers. The tunes didn’t sound at all like the ones I’d memorized from my cassette and I remember being slightly disappointed they didn’t play Casey Jones so I could scream, “… high on cocaine” without repercussion. But that concert opened up a new world of adventure for me. And I didn’t projectile vomit when I got back home.

***

Through music, both parents took risks with me, measured risks that inspired a lasting sense of adventure and love for music. Though my direct ancestry backward is gone, I now think about transferring that sense of adventure and love for music forward to my own kids. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all that I jumped at the chance to take my two teenage daughters to see Justin Bieber. I’m guessing they’ll remember it and remember just how awkward their father was: almost as awkward as my own poor dad up in the nose-bleeds at the Garden.

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