Round the Dial
Wednesday 16 October @ 10:07:52
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Abuse is abuse, and when you’re terrorized, you’re terrorized...sometimes you can cut out parts of yourself to survive. It’s much easier if you numb those parts a little bit, put some ice on them.”
SONG OF THE WEEK: “If You See Her, Say Hello”
It had been a wild summer—days spent mindlessly packing overpriced groceries in bags and boxes, hungrily accepting the puny tips that would fund each evening’s drink and debauchery; nights at a campground by the Tanana River, hooting, hollering, and howling towards the dawn with a steady string of just-as-crazy fellow campers. By the end of September, though, the temperatures were slipping down into the single digits at night and the Fairbanks, Alaska, park rangers were starting to seriously enforce the area’s no winter camping laws. When my partyin’ buddy and I awoke one nippy fall morning to find that the gaggle of hard-nosed, bibulous bikers in the tent next to ours had fled during the pre-dawn hours, we knew it was time to move on down the line.
After a short stint sleeping on the cramped floor of a tiny trailer belonging to a transplanted Okie oil rigger with a massive appetite for fine Northern Lights bud and a serious Jesus hang-up, we followed our erstwhile host to a sprawling, three-story monstrosity of a house 10 miles or so outside of town. There, we were promised, we would be allowed to pay only what rent we could afford for as long as we needed, giving us a leg up towards saving for the one thing most nonresidents of Fairbanks with any sense are dreaming of as winter encroaches: Escape. It was there we met Charlie and Nanita.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that there were a few little catches to our nearly-free lodgings. It was simple, really. All we had to do to enjoy the comfort and safety of a warm, clean bedroom for the next five months or so was to groove into the Jesus thing, have our heads dunked in a bathtub full of lukewarm, iron-heavy water, and bow in prayer before every meal. As we stepped outside after dinner on our first evening at The House Of Peace for a smoke and some serious rumination, we caught our first glimpses of The Terrible Two. Sitting in a dilapidated Chevy van rust oozing from its pores like the pimply run-off of a fourteen-year-old’s face, tires filled unevenly so that it leaned precariously to the left, the strangled cries of Mickey Gilley emanating from the barely-cracked side vent windows—were a pair of shadowy figures, smoke wreathed around their bobbing heads.
Hanging out with a couple of freaks in a van while we smoked looked a tad more tempting than standing outside in the freezing North winds, so we approached the hulking mass of steel and glass and rapped on the driver’s side window. “JESUS CHRIST!!” a gravelly voice bellowed with surprise. The window came down slow, one excruciating crank at a time, grating against the disintigrating steel door with a high-pitched protest that resembled the squeal of an angry dental drill, and we were face-to-face with Charlie. “What the hell do YOU want?” he barked, propelling a blast of fetid, tobacco and beer-soaked breath our way. I involuntarily gagged and stepped back a foot or so. “Hey!” I greeted, “you guys mind if we hang out and keep warm while we smoke?” Charlie peered suspiciously over the halfway rolled down window, taking in the less-than-inspiring sight of two shivering Cheechako white boys dressed in ragged jeans, holey tennis shoes, and fading Levi jackets, then burst into paroxysms of doggish laughter. When his fit had passed, he slammed one boney fist into the shoulder of the hidden figure seated in the passenger’s side of the van and snapped, “Hey, you! Get yer ass out and open the back for dese guys!”
Nanita was probably no more than 24 or 25 years old, but looked twice that; with her long, black hair split into two ratty braids, permanent bags under her nearly opaque eyes, and a series of fading yellow and purple bruises staining her high, once-proud cheekbones, she more closely resembled a Skid Row junkie than a full-blooded Eskimo. It was clear by the speed of her response to Charlie’s order and the defeated stoop of her shoulders that she’d weathered more abuse in her brief encounters with white men than either of us lard-headed, smoke-choked country boys had ever imagined. She fairly leapt to attention, fumbling her way out the door to slide open the side panel and allow us access to the dark, stinking recesses of Charlie’s humble home on wheels.
As we clambered over torn boxes of pots, pans, plates, newspaper-wrapped glassware, crumpled beer cans, ancient, oozing balls of fast food wrappers, milk crates filled with broken, scratched Country-and-Western records, and decimated black trash bags plump with reeking, rotting shreds of laundry that would never recover, I felt a sharp pang of warning: We didn’t belong here, and something bad was going to happen if we stayed. Screw it, I thought. It’s warm, it’s free, and there’s no Jesus fee. Charlie half-turned in the driver’s seat and regarded us with cold, half-lidded brown eyes. With his graying hair clipped short, a dark brown mustache, and mirrored sunglasses cocked back on his forehead, he could’ve passed for Charles Bronson’s yellowing, alcoholic twin brother. “So,” he grated, “don’t you guys know that Jesus don’t like smokers?” And with that, he took a long pull off of a 40 oz. bottle of cheap brew and brayed mulish laughter. We fired up our butts and looked longingly at the bottle gripped tightly in Charlie’s nicotine-stained fingers.
Four hours and two liquor store stops later, we were all in the same shape Charlie’d been in when we first met him. Nanita regaled us with tales of life in the village, and how she’d gone from a respected position as the chief of the tribe’s eldest daughter to selling her ass at raunchy local beer joints. Seems oil wasn’t the only thing flowing smooth and clean out of Alaska’s half-frozen, tundra-carpeted soil. Along with it went the pride, the traditions, and the very life-blood of the country’s eons-long inhabitants—Nanita was but one example of the broken promises and cruelty strung out behind the white man like a trail of bad seeds left to wither and die. She wanted out. So did we. And Charlie was too drunk to care one way or the other. When she rolled him effortlessly out of the driver’s seat and onto the back floor of the van, we cheered and cracked her another cold one. When she hopped behind the wheel and tore out of the liquor store parking lot like a bat out of Hell, we clapped her on the back and refreshed her beverage. And when she hit the highway towards Canada and the promise of freedom, we sang at the top of our lungs along with the radio (“Don’t pull your love out on me, baby/If you do then I think that maybe...”) and passed her the bottle of peppermint Schnapps.
Seventeen miles outside of North Pole, it happened. Nanita turned her head to grab a cig from my outstretched hand, and for a split second her eyes left the road. Long enough. We hit the corner going 65 or 70, and shot straight off the cracked, pitted highway and into the air like we’d been launched from the barrel of the world’s largest cannon. Caught with our pants down, like Jethro Tull without a flute; Slade without the bad spelling; Sammy Hagar without the Red. In the two seconds or so that we defied gravity and hung suspended under the gigantic Alaskan moon like a bizarre steel whale leaping with abandon from the chilly depths of the Bering Sea, I literally saw my life flash before my eyes. I glanced at my friend, and his eyes were wide as saucers, his mouth hanging open in a tiny, impotent “o.” Nanita gripped the wheel as if it were her last hope for salvation, and Charlie rolled towards the front of the van like a bundle of wet, stinking rags. And then we hit the rock. Jutting from the earth like a crooked finger of fate, it met the underside of the vehicle with the force of a small bomb, pushing the motor up through the hood and simultaneously shattering every piece of glass around us. When we hit the ground, the van end-overed once and then rolled twice again on its side, finally coming to rest upside down.
I came to a moment later, covered in beer, grease, blood, gasoline, rags, and some viscous black liquid I’d later come to identify as 40 weight oil. My pal was thrown clear of the wreck, and sat shaking his head as if he’d just gone a round or three with a boxer twice his size. Charlie lay prone next to me in the mounds of garbage and clothing, snoring gently; he’d never know how close to death he’d come that night. Nanita stumbled around the tangled mass of twisted metal and broken shards and took his head in her lap. “I’m sorry, Charlie...sorry, sorry, sorry...” she moaned, one thin trickle of blood wending its way down her left cheek like a hot, liquid indictment of every sin, venal and mortal, that the white man had ever committed against her people.
But she wasn’t crying because she’d almost hurt Charlie, or because our young, inebriated lives had been put in jeopardy, or even because she was relieved we were all at least still alive. She was weeping in fear at what his reaction would be to her wrecking his vehicle and partying it up with a couple of dingy longhairs while he slept. She knew what she was in for. After the requisite drama involving the police, ambulance, and hospital, we walked away with minor cuts and bruises, and other than the slight ridge on my skull where a flying tire iron connected with bone, today I bear no visible marks from that horrific, exhilarating, eye-opening night under the cold Alaskan stars.
I never saw Charlie or Nanita again—later, I heard they’d finally hitch-hiked across the frozen landscape to the Canadian border only to be turned back for lack of cash. I don’t think of that night too often, preferring to sprinkle my automatic recall segments with recollections of better weather, better company, and, above all, better music. This time of year, though, I always find myself watching the leaves fall and gauging the chilling breezes with a critical bent. Got to move, say my feet. Got to move, say the goose bumps on my arms and neck. Got to move, say the flocks fleeing south over my head.
So what, you ask, does all of this have to do with CD reviews? After all, that’s what I promised last week in this column—more CD reviews. Well, I’ll tellya. Sometimes, the feel of a certain album or live gig triggers an inherent flashback mode buried deep in my liquified brain, and memories come flooding back to me like the rush of beer, oil, and blood that covered my head the night we wrecked Charlie’s van. I hear the songs, the melodies, and the cry of the singer’s voice and can recall every scent, every tiny detail, every rush of adrenaline and urge to run, run, run I’d felt “back in the day.” Such an album is local jangle-pop outfit The Beatifics latest, The Way We Never Were (2002 The Bus Stop Label). %@!#$&, even the title speaks volumes about the past; memories, fleeting recollections, and urgent blasts of nostalgia. The song titles take it a step further: “Sorry Yesterdays,” “February,” “When It’s Whenever,” “Different Stars,” and “Between The Lines” could all have been perfect additions to the soundtrack for the little mini-drama I played out to perfection that night in Fairbanks—or a hundred others I’ve barely survived over the years.
Produced by Beatifics front man Chris Dorn and mixed by uber-studio whiz Jacques Wait, The Way We Never Were finds the band mining the same fertile pop ground they dug into on their 1997 debut, How I Learned To Stop Worrying, yet reaching for even deeper lyrical content and incorporating fresh musical ideas and concepts. Part of the reason for this is the addition of guitarist Eric Kassel (who’s done time in such local pop faves as The Magnolias) and contributions from Wait, drummer Keely Lane, and original Beatifics Andy Schultz and Randy Seals. Where HILTSW positively jumped with edgy, crackling pop sparks, evoking sticky images of a summer pregnant with possibility, this album takes those electrical surges down a notch, tempering them with Beatles-esque strings, shimmering guitar licks, and Dorn’s soothing, melancholy vocals—a vibe much more akin to the brisk, autumnal whirls of The Mamas And The Papas’ “California Dreaming” or Simon & Garfunkle’s “Hazy Shade Of Winter.”
Album opener “Sorry Yesterdays,” is probably the closest track, stylistically, to the band’s debut, blending the jangle of The Raspberries with the pop sensibilities of The Byrds and the lyrical smack of Alex Chilton or Emmit Rhodes: “It took so long/To get to where you belong/Coming down is so much easier...Like all tomorrow’s parties/Let the whole thing crash apart...” “After All” kicks off with an axe lick reminiscent of Johnny Rivers’ version of “Memphis,” then dives right into the deep end of Dorn’s darkest emotional waters: “So here we are/And it’s exactly how it’s goin’/Like you want me in that pretty picture/After all...” “February” comes in on lightly strummed strings, evoking images of frozen bus stop benches, lonely nights in dumpy, too-small apartments, and the stench of failure: “Remember how it went...all of those nights, they just faded away/Along with a memory of a past never made/And it was snowing/And it was going/To snow...”
“The Only One” bumps with a solid bottom end, sliced up with razor-edged guitar lines and soft strings as Dorn invokes the album’s title and sends a lyrical “Nyah-nyah” to some certain self-involved someone: “Out of the past into the now/The way that we never were/Like you’re the only one...” “When It’s Whenever” shuffles along, sharp snare cracks punctuating a solid, grooving bass line and lyrics like, “If we never knew that day/We would be there anyhow/Like this is when, it’s whenever...” “Different Stars” could’ve been an outtake from Big Star’s third album, yearning, straining pop with about six hundred pounds of heartache weighing it down-”What were you thinkin’ about that night?/You’re always so lonely...”
A nifty reworking of ’97s “In The Meantime” brings the vocals to the forefront and nails the attitude that’s been so prevalent in popular music since around that time: “My head’s all filled with passion/But what they call soul’s another thing...and boring is what boring wants to be...” “Between The Lines” ripples like a classic Top 40 single, tossing road trippin’, lonely girls, and raw nostalgia together like a crisp musical salad—“So you’re driving around at 3AM/You could be almost anywhere/You could take that exit at any point/Baby I don’t care...it was something else between the lines...”
I don’t know if Nanita survived Charlie’s abuse, the Cheechako-infested towns and hamlets of Southern Alaska, or even the next time she got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, but I do know one thing from that night spent whooping along to crisp AM radio classics under the Northern Lights: She’d have dug the %@!#$& outta this album. Brimming with acidic vocal and lyrical perfection, layered with pop-savvy guitars and rumbling, righteous rhythms, as memory-inducing as a late-night walk across the river of heartbreak, The Way We Never Were is the way it should always be in Pop-rock Land, and probably the way it never will be again.
Maybe Dorn should forego the usual struggles involved in getting a classic piece of pop musical art into regular rotation on the local airwaves and head straight for the Yukon to pull a string of dates with the Beatifics’ crack lineup; where the vast, cold Alaskan skies wait like a patient lover for all the great, unheard, romantic modern albums released here in the lower 48 every year to an increasingly vapid listening audience, and where at least one Native American might be tooling down a dark, lonesome highway, singin’ loudly along and recalling the night she drove three liquored-up white boys off the road and nearly into eternity and survived not only the accident but her tenure with the cruel, non-essential slab of flesh we called Charlie. Hopefully. Fortunately, you don’t have to tackle the Al-Can highway to get a slice of this album in yer ears—it’s now available in all decent local record shops, online at http://www.busstoplabel.com. Until next time-make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to vent about your own personal Charlie, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.