Monday, October 17, 2005

Miracle Cars and Miracle Cures

He is a friend, a hero, a husband and father, a musician with roots in the American Deep South who is never home. Ten years ago his songs were all over the radio, and his band played in front of thousands. Tonight he is playing alone in front of forty or fifty people in a busy coffeehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the people are here for the music. Many are here for the coffee and conversation. He is a fifty-year-old rock ‘n roller on the road, and it is all he knows. There never was a tour bus. There used to be a van. Now there is a 1986 Honda, a miracle car he calls it.

“A friend sold it to me for one dollar,” he tells the audience. “It has 160,000 miles on it, and it still gets 34 miles to the gallon. So far I’ve driven it 20,000 miles from town to town, night after night, and I haven’t had any major repairs.”

He plays mostly new songs, tales written from the road over the past year or two. But the biggest crowd response still comes from the old songs, the band songs, the Greatest Hits that never were, but which still resonate deeply. And even on the new songs, the post –9/11, post-band, post-record-deal songs, he still exudes a weary hope:

flowers growing out of the desert
flowers out of parched ground
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of the pavement in your old town
flowering's not a science
it's more like a fine art
flowers coming right up through the cracks
of our broke up little hearts

we all need new beginnings

the first steps make you better
maybe you're just a prayer away
from getting your shit together

You never know. That half century of muddled relationships and indifferent success might suddenly change for the better. America might one day wake up from its Britney/Madonna stupor and figure out that it should pay attention to people who actually have something to say. Maybe. It’s worth another tour, another two months away from home. It’s worth another trip in the beat-up Honda. The miracles might extend beyond the car.

He used to cushion the private references in flowery metaphors. Now he doesn’t even try to hide the autobiographical details.

“This is a new song about my son,” he says. “He’s eighteen years old, and he’s in a rehab facility because he’s addicted to cocaine. He’s been in there about six months. We’re hoping he can come home soon.” He strums his guitar, waits in vain for the conversations to die down, finally launches in to Tasteful Background Music for Coffee Drinkers:

from a simple plant that was long growing there
from the king of the world to your worst nightmare
got you an old recipe and some chemicals to stir
it might have felt just like God once but now it's Lucifer

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

it feels just like a hunger but you cannot feed the thing

it always wants a new song that you can't really sing
it never shows you the whole truth till the poison's leaking through
and what you thought you were doing, well now it's doing you

and it could take a few years to dig out of this mine

what with a shaft so deep and dark it might take a lifetime
the choices they're like diamonds you found down there one night
you gotta grab the one that's your true self and bring it to the light

oh to be clean

and you know the thing is sleeping, a scratch below your skin
and God knows if you wake it up you gotta calm it down again
and I wonder what it felt like when the waters flooded in
and it got too hard to swim

Like most of his best songs, this one is a wondrous, terrible thing, a great howling mess of brokenness and sorrow and bone-marrow truth. He is a thousand miles from home on a lonely Saturday night, and the espresso machines are whirring in the background as he sings his voice raw, and the regular customers are wondering who the hell this morose folksinger is if they think about him at all, and he gamely plugs away at the tiny, insignificant task of unveiling his heart for public display.

Afterwards, he sits at a back table, sells a few CDs, chats with anyone who wants to talk. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days, but there is also a weariness in his eyes that sleep won’t take away. I watch the young women come up to him, tell him how much they love his music, pass along their cell phone numbers. I want to kick him in the balls, hard. I want to shake him. I want to hug him.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I want to tell him. “You can go home, be with your family. You can lay down the guitar, forget the suffering artist persona, and deal with the real suffering you’re facing. There’s real pain there. You need to do more than write a song about it.” But I don’t say anything.

Outside in the parking lot we engage in the kind of careful small talk that is designed to guard our hearts. I tell him that it was a great show, because it was. He tells me that it’s always great to see me. We hug. We tell each other to stay in touch. He gets in the ’86 Honda and drives away, off to find another miracle.

21 comments:

amy paxton said...

Mark and I really enjoyed seeing you and Kate at the show. Good tunes, eh? I dig the smaller venues.

Joshua said...

andy,

is this bill?

Andy Whitman said...

Amy, right back atcha, and yes, and me too. I have resolved to never attend another concert where I am farther than ten feet from the stage. It's just not worth it.

For what it's worth, I love the tunes I heard, although they make me sad for various reasons.

Josh, of course.

Scott Sloan said...

Andy, I love how draw out the deeper issues of the heart that is comingled with pop-culture.

I wish I was at the show, but I spent quality time with my dad who was in town for the dedication of the new aquatic center at OSU.

I'll be praying for B. Maybe some day he can go home plant some roots, and deal with the hard things that is going on with B and J. Then again the Jews were closer to God as they lived a nomadic life in the wilderness.

Jeff Cannell said...

dammit.

Andy Whitman said...

Jeff, yeah, that about covers it.

mg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

I don't know, Mike. He has a career, of sorts. I'm sure it's not where he would like it to be, but he's trying to change that. He keeps putting out new music, and he has a dedicated group of fans who keep buying it. And when you're a musician, touring comes with the territory.

I'm not pissed at him. Well, I am, but not for touring. I feel very bad for him. And I feel very bad for his family. I keep praying that this story will have a happy ending, because these are people I care about. Right now I'm not very optimistic.

Mark Feldbush said...

Andy,

Thanks for coming to the show. It was great seeing you and Kate and thanks for bringing your family, too.

You've really captured the emotional feel around Bill and his music. Most everything you've written, I've been feeling. It's such an odd mix to feel the joy at hearing Bill play, and feeling the profound sadness at all that's going on in his personal world.

In my heart of hearts, I fear the worst. And yet, I'm optimistic by nature and really hope things work out for the best.

I am praying that he finds that miracle.

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, thanks so much for bringing Bill to town. My part was easy. I just showed up, put my money in the silver teapot (great idea!) and listened. You had the much tougher task of arranging the venue, setting up, etc. And I appreciate it.

Paula V (from Yeesh) said...

Andy,

your comments are always stirring, thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts.

Hated to read these tho, heartbreaking stuff about B and family. My heart goes out to all of them.

Scot said...

A beautiful heart breaking post. Thanks for putting into words what I could not. Bill was here on Monday and the backstory to Lucifer about broke my heart and I could only imagine what he was going through while singing that one. I am consistently blow away by his lyric.

Anonymous said...

dear good folks...
thank you for your sweetrness and concern
Andy, you are my favorite journalist writer...!
hands down...thank you for the good expose...

and for the record, i have tried for over a year to walk back into my marriage...it has failed ONLY because I have failed...failed everyone pretty much...and No,i'm not happy about it, any of it...
the failings, the fits and starts of attempted repentences...are not nice...

they are also not your business on some level...the "public" aspect of all of this is daunting enough...
celebrity status?
remember, i'm the guy who "barely has a career."

Andy posted something from the heart...he's the only writer i even think who remotely has done the home work and been so very consistent in seeing me that i deeply value his input...

Why all this gets played out on a huge stage hurts me and everyone...
and i could use some friends right now...so could Brenda
...i'm the bad guy here and i'm sorry for failing her, you all and of course, the body of Christ...

Can i just say that and have you accept it at face value?

try not to be angry...I have enough of that reserved for myself.
try not to throw the stones...i daily beat my heart to a bloody pulp.
keep me in your prayers...and "watch, lest ye fall."


bill

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not there are actually better things to do in life than make pitiful musings on people we don't even truly know, understand or relate to...
And believe it or not even people like Bill can be effective in their art despite heinous moral failure... And believe it or not even "tortured artists" can experience moments of sunshine, and redemption, and an incredibly beautiful God...but perhaps that wouldn't fit in with a "tormented, dried up, bleeding from the ears, morally bankrupt, failed artist" image...
But all are welcome to their tidy boxes and easy assumptions...

Andy Whitman said...

Bill, I'm saddened for you, for Brenda, for Josh and Joe. For everybody. That's all.

You're my favorite songwriter. Have been for a long time. I value your songs a great deal, and often feel like you're speaking from my heart as well as yours.

I also value you as a human being. I can't always separate the two. If I had no history with you, if you were just some guy who put out albums that I occasionally bought, then maybe I could. So I have incredibly mixed reactions when I watch you play music these days.

I'm not trying to point fingers. But I'm saddened for you and your family. On some level that you may find difficult to believe, I'm honestly distressed, because I had hoped for something better for you. Not for you as a Celebrity, or as a Representative of the Body of Christ, or any other label you want to put on it. Just for you, because I value who you are.

So I'm thankful for you, thankful for your music, thankful for Brenda and your sons, whom I've never met, but who I feel like I know because they have figured so prominently in your music and your conversation.

Mostly I'm sad. I pray for you. I pray for me. I pray for all of us in our weakness.

I'd like to be that friend that you could use right now, and I'd like to be that for Brenda, too.

danthress said...

Bill,

Thanks for posting.

Jeff Cannell said...

Bill Said- "watch lest ye fall"

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. How beyond vulnerable we all are to every sin. There are many sins that I am ashamed to admit being only a few steps away from. For the past year or so I've been doing a lot of thinking about my context of doing life-- not just what I want to do with it. Another thought that has been really resonating with me is our need for spiritual direction, and submitting to it. I recently started meeting with a friend of mine for intentional spiritual direction. I dobn't think we stand a chance in hell without that kind of friendship.

Bill- I have been praying for you for years- Adrienne and I are praying a ton for you and your loved ones. I look forward to speaking to you soon.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner"

Jeff

Anonymous said...

As a recovering cocaine addict as well as a decade-long fan of Bill and his music, my heart goes out to everyone involved.. Keep praying, unless you've got a better idea.

M

caleb said...

andy:

caleb maskell here. we had dinner together before a bill show in chicago in 1997. i was just a kid then...undergrad at the u of c. now we have a mutual friend in john mccollum who i met b/c of work in cambodia.
hope you're well and love to be in touch.

anyway, thanks for writing the bill post. this stuff is crushing...love and mercy is what we need tonight...

thanks for being true.

-c.

Andy Whitman said...

Caleb! Wow, Kate and I have such fond memories of meeting you and your undergrad U. of C. pals (Pierre, Ruth, who am I missing?). I've often wondered what happened to you. So send me some email at whitmana (at) hotmail (dot) com and fill me in. It's great to hear from you.

And how do you know John McCollum? John and I are in the same church, and in the same small group. He's in Cambodia now, in fact (actually Thailand, having just left Cambodia). He should be back in Columbus in a week or so. Small world.

g13 said...

bill,

you've always been a bit battered and bruised, but have always found the wherewithal to open a vein. thank you for being brutally honest, providing us with a portrait of perseverance and compelling us to do seek a little bloodletting ourselves.

i look forward to bleeding and bearing the load of perseverance beside you.

peace of Christ,

jeff gentry (one of the two starry eyed boys from beverly, massachusetts)