from the Critical List November 17, 1989
On the Road 2: Western Pennsylvania, about 20 miles from the Ohio border, westbound, Beaver Falls, rust and ocher, rolling toward the falling mercury. I am on wheels, but not at one -- even in my most reckless abandon, I do not write while driving. Kids, an automobile is a weapon, a chrome-and-leatherette death machine; an Econoline van is a bigger, badder one. Handle it with knowledge and respect and hands at 10 and 2. Keep your eyes moving, get the big picture.
    Beating time with a Berol Rollerliner on a Stuart Hall Steno Notebook that includes as standard features a misspelled-word list and a metric table. The bleat to which I beat: "No You," by Aussieman Paul Kelly and his musical Messengers, from So Much Water So Close to Home (A&M), one of the seemingly increasing number of record albums I hold dear to heart that appear destined to make a commercial impression little deeper than that of a cat's paw on AstroTurf. I couldn't exactly tell you why not -- Kelly writes (and in the case of the Raymond Carver-inspired title song, adapts) swell little stories about people-sized people trying to make sense of the ciphers of the heart, and executes them without undue melodrama and in such a way that certain people are compelled to beat time with, say, a Berol Rollerliner while said stories unfold. This would seem, on the face of it, sure-fire, but we are all caught, player and listener alike, in the ephemera of fashion and fad, held in the thrall of going things, and Kelly comes from a kind of balladeering tradition outside the junior hoi polloi's current circle of concerns. Jimmie Rogers is more his man than Jimmy Page.
    As for your presently motorvating correspondent, more and more I feel my thumb has slipped from Rockamerica's pulse, purse, pensées; but then I have been living from motel to motel these two-plus weeks and feel more cut loose than usual, a bubble-boy sliding through a succession of climates (thermal, social, political). All I know is what I see shooting by the window of the van, or on the television: dogs at doghouses, men with crossbows, water towers, swamps, runs, crows over cornfields (window); Alex Karras learning to play the piano in one hour (TV).
    This last amazing vision came to me out of the ether and into a rented room in Baltimore. Like all revelations, it came consciously unbidden -- and yet I suppose I must have been preparing for it for a long time, the key slowly turning in the lock.
    Karras, a sensitive ex-football player and current AFTRA dues payer (in the Rosie Grier mold) appears as the herald of piano pedagogue Patty Carlson, whose moment on the road to her personal Damascus came when she realized that most of what she'd been taught about the art of making music -- for instance, that it requires some sort of special talent -- was a lie. Music, for the Carlsonites, is not so much a matter of rules learned, of technique mastered, as it is of listening to that little Beethoven that lives inside each of us, banging his head on the inside of ours, clamoring to get out. It's hard to figure her program exactly -- for Patti, who favors to my eye the youngest daughter on Petticoat Junction, is keeping a lid on the particulars in order that you buy her instructional video, the name of which, I find, red-faced, I managed to forget. But it seems to lean heavily on mind-meld and sticking to the white keys. I imagine something like the "think method" of Prof. Harold Hill. (Though she does cop to "practice" -- of such exercises as "The New Age Stretch" -- as the only sure route to Carnegie Hall.) Wiser heads than mine get in line behind her: Sonny Bono, Mac Davis, Monkee Davy Jones. And then there's prize pupil Barbi Benton, who parlayed Patti's teachings into an album of meditative pianism called perhaps Celestial Navigations, and who pops by to play the first piece she ever wrote (and after just one lesson), which sounds uncannily not unlike the piece Alex lays down, rather less adroitly, at program's end.
    Intellectually, I endorse this egalitarianism -- isn't it just what drove punk rock, this liberation of art from the academy? -- even as I instinctively shrink from its flabbily modal product. But that's my contradiction to bear -- it's up to you if you want to do the ha-cha-cha. Alex and Barbi are happy enough.
    Ann Arbor, MI, home of the MC5, in the wee, small hours of the morning. Real snow falling, enough to scrape off a car roof and into a heavable ball. Here is a club called the Blind Pig, and here I am inside of it, sipping OJ to ward off demons. Two days ago, I was walking in Philadelphia, sweating. How remarkable is our variegated, variable American weather!
    Onstage: The Neats of Boston, letting fly their heavy-bluesy neo-proto-punk Roky-roll, which falls like groovy cannonballs about my ears. Alternative, sure, but not unsuited to the current marketplace. We are temporarily on a parallel course, our merry band and theirs, from the East to the Midwest, loading heavy equipment in and out of the same rooms. It is a curious fact that all empty nightclubs look alike (especially with the house lights on); but all almost-empty ones do not. A club where there are five girls dancing in front of the stage looks very much better than one where five bored boys are huddled in the back trying not to let the band onstage impede the smooth progress of their drunk.
    I have looked into this matter. It is with authority I state these things to be true.
    Tomorrow: Chicago, where I'll learn something about The Verlaines, of New Zealand. Last night, in Cleveland (which does not necessarily rock, not at all), I learned that Scotland's Close Lobsters all look about 12 years old. I didn't learn whether or not they are in fact 12 years old, but my brain can only take so much learning at a shot.

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Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1989 and 2000