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Thursday, October 07, 2004

Mailbag Mambo, or, a collection of digressions disguised as a theme

"You are truly hell bent on inspiring me to do something stupid."
--Friend of Otis (FOO)


The intersection of East North Street and Pleasantburg Drive is an ugly one. On one corner, the ubiquitous CVS Pharmacy sits, shooting orange light over a wide expanse of parking lots. The other corners are home to a mattress store, a Walgreens, and a gas station that makes a habit of mis-advertising the price of regular unleaded. It's a hub of mid-level commerce and an intersection I see more than most in my adopted hometown. About a year ago, a guy took his ex-girlfriend hostage in a nearby grocery store, then shot her in the back as she tried to run away. I hate that story.

Saturday, I again found myself at the intersection, waiting for a light to change. I'd just come from a CD store that uses a unique form of marketing (and by unique, I mean, completely ineffective). It changed its name from Manifest to Earshot, but left the Manifest signage in place. So, now, if you knew it as Manifest, you have no way of knowing how to look it up in the phone book or online. If you can find an old phone book, you can find Manifest. When you call, they answer, "Earhsot Records, formerly Manifest." I figure it won't be long before the store changes its name to a symbol.

Buying cds used to be a weekly occurence for me. In the old days, the above-mentioned FOO and I would take an afternoon, head up to Streetside Records and often come home with something worth a listen.

Damn, those were good days.

Since those days, though, I just don't buy cds as often. I don't know exactly why. Less free time, a mortgage, and the availability of free music on the net are probably all to blame.

But Saturday, I knew I was going to be driving to a city about an hour away and I needed some fresh tracks. So, I bought two double discs: Acoustic Syndicate's "Live from the Neighborhood" and a double live from Yonder Mountain String Band.

After Phish decided to break up for good, even mainstream media were speculating on who would take the place of the jam band that had taken the place of the Grateful Dead after Jerry died. CNN predicted one of five bands would take over: String Cheese Incident, moe, Widespread Panic, The Dead (sans Jerry, of course), or Ween. I suppose any of the choices are valid. I like me some Cheese and Widespread, and you can't deny the validity of The Dead. However, for my taste, you can't beat the jamgrass sensibilties of Acoustic Syndicate and YMSB. Though most people who live outside the land of Yonder (Pacific Northwest/Mountains), or Acoustic Syndicate (Appalachia) likely aren't all the familiar with the style, I gaurantee that hardcore fans of any of the established jam bands would have a damned ball at the kind of shows I like to see.

And so there I sat at the intersection, Acoustic Syndicate's cover of Niel Young's "Powderfinger" pumping out of my stock stereo. I hid behind a pair of cheap sunglasses, one of many pairs left behind at my house after a poker game. My fingers strummed across the steering wheel as I imagined myself sitting around a campfire at LEAF with the phantom banjo player, picking out the rhythm as the man with no name hit the melody. The harmonies massaged my noodle the way my noodle like to be massaged.

That's when I felt it.

My eyes started to burn, then moisten. I looked around to make sure no other drivers were watching, lifted up the cheap sunglasses, and took a peak at my eyes in the rearview mirror. Sure enough, tears were welling up in the ducts.

I popped the glasses back up on my crooked nose and smiled.

In recent years I've discovered that my body has a visceral reaction to harmonies. I'm sure it has something to do with my mood at the time, but there are certain singers who can put a tear on my face just by singing. When Acoustic Syndicate's Big Daddy, Eddie from Ohio's Julie Murphy Wells, or Crosby Stills and Nash hit the harmonies just right, it makes me want to stand in the dark, smiling and crying.

I've heard of people crying at a good painting or a well-turned phrase. For my money, though, nothing touches deeper than a well-hit harmony.

In the days before life around here got really odd, my friend Todd and I formed a bond over harmonies. Neither of us will ever make it big with music, but we can both carry a tune. He has more musical talent than I do, and as such, can harmonize with just about anything I sing. We hadn't sung together in quite a while. A couple of weeks ago, as we ambled half-drunk through the streets of Greenville, we found ourselves singing, harmonizing over the din of downtown drinkers. We shared an unspoken understanding: Few things feel as good as hitting the harmony just right, even if it is under the influence of booze, etc.

And so it was that the above-mentioned FOO sent the one line e-mail in response to something I'd written earlier.

"You are truly hell bent on inspiring me to do something stupid."

I wrote him back, saying he might have coined the coolest phrase I'd heard in months. Inside, I was thinking, it was more than cool. It was beautiful.

He wrote back to explain what he meant, though it was unnecessary, because I knew exactly what he was saying.

I've labored for too long under the egomanical assumption that I was the only person I knew who felt there was something greater inside me, aching to get out, but constrained by convention, tradition, or general good sense. I've come to find, however, that most people feel that way. They either--like me--refuse to admit it to others or refuse to admit it to themselves. My closest friends, from Colorado, to Missouri, to South Carolina all share this feeling in one way or another. It manifests itself in different ways, but I'm sure we share the same urge.

But inspiration to do something stupid?

The phrase screams oxymoron, but I think most of us know that stupid is only a synonym for breaking from convention, security, tradition.

It doesn't have to be something life-altering. But if we can all seek out, or at the very least recognize inspiration, we can find ourselves in the middle of something so stupid that it is absolutely meant to be.

Be inspired by harmony. Let yourself cry. Be inspired by your friends. Be inspired by a life less conventional. I think if I can allow myself to do that, I'll be able to find life.

Perhaps, we can all agree to let ourselves be inspired to stupidity.

And to the friend who wrote me with that line...thanks.

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Rapid Eye Reality is the personal blog of writer Brad Willis, aka Otis.
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