A Song for the Live Wires & Burning Bushes

Somewhere deep where we have no program our next discovery lies.

                                                                                                  – William Stafford


I don’t remember what I expected or wanted that evening in 1992, the night I first bumbled into J.C. Dobbs. I imagine I was too embattled by nerves and anticipation as I entered the venue to hazard any expectations. Back then, I hadn’t ventured solo into Philadelphia, hadn’t pushed past the border of my neighborhood at the city’s edges with any frequency. The World was out there, and all the dreadful, dangerous, hot bloodlust associated with it, and we’d come to understand early on – falsely – that to keep close meant we could stay safe. And while I had seen the bar area at different restaurants before, until that night I had only ever been inside one actual, real bar. That first time, a couple years earlier, I was only let in to see the show if I wore a wrist band and my dad accompanied me. Somehow, I managed to convince him to serve as my chaperone.

img_2749_JCDobbsDobbs was smaller than that place. When you walked inside, it looked like you were staring down a dimly-lit, roofed alleyway. The stage rested at the center of the small room and while all the band’s gear appeared onstage, it was hard to imagine how more than one person could fit up there. From the entrance at the back of the bar, the stage resembled the narrow plank of a pirate ship. An absurdly thin hallway curled past the right of the stage, leading to the bathrooms and a stairwell reaching to the second floor.

My folks had caved that evening and allowed me to drive the Country Squire – that faux-wood-paneled beast – down to South Street, though not without reminding me that someone had recently been shot in that part of the city. My mom, discomfited that I intended to make the journey to South Street solo, asked more than one time if I really had to go down by myself. But who would I have asked? My hometown friends had all returned to their different colleges. I was still languishing at the community college, resigned to living at home and working – part-time at K-Mart, part-time as one of the church janitors – absolutely clueless about where to direct my energies, or how to put the next steps of my life in motion, much less know what to be when I grew up.

I can’t tell you today where I first heard of the Killing Floor album, or how I even came into possession of 81bfe86fd6d253b38f3b78ad17f8b944the record on a blank cassette. I only recall now that the magic words, “Athens, Georgia” and “…co-produced by Peter Buck” appeared in the press around the album – news that immediately yanked me into its orbit. At that time in my life, any and all association with R.E.M. compelled an urgent drive to seek out an artist’s material. Any artist that stood even a mild chance of doing to my heart and skin what R.E.M. albums did to me was worth a try. In fact, that’s what I must have sought out of this experience, from this evening’s nerve-addled journey: I wanted these ambassadors from R.E.M.-country to bring me to life in real time; I wanted in a live setting to feel the red clay of Georgia on my skin, to feel something similar to what Athens’s luminaries could do to my loneliness through my headphones.


(R.E.M. l to r: Buck, Stipe, Mills, & Berry)

Maybe you can remember a time when you were someone’s biggest fan, too. Maybe you can identify on some level with my admittedly-juvenile adoration, devotion, and logic here.


I don’t remember how long I stood in the back of the bar that evening before the band I had come to see took the stage. What would  they even look like? I had seen the album cover in a magazine, so I knew the lead-singer/songwriter wore glasses.


I can’t remember now how long I stood in the shadows in muted, wide-eyed anticipation.



Did I emerge hours later? Days? Moments?

Whatever the case, spilling out the door of JC Dobbs and back onto South Street, I may as well have stumbled out of the wardrobe from Narnia. For all I knew, years could have passed on the other side of the venue’s door.

What had I just witnessed? Lived through? No – not lived through. I had survived. And just barely.

The four members of Vigilantes of Love had not performed on the bar’s narrow stage that evening so much as “Gone Off.” Walked onstage, picked up their instruments, and then exploded like a malatov cocktail in a fireworks factory.

I’d never seen anything like it.

True, I had not seen much until that time in my life.

But how did they pack up and drive away after that anyway? How did they sleep?

And, dear Lord, who in the world let them get away with that?


(photo, Michael Wilson)

At the same time, Bill Mallonee and company were not even doing a job that night – or on many of the other nights I would watch them over the years that followed: It became apparent that whenever the Vigilantes of Love walked onstage and leaned into the evening and their songs, they set to the urgent task of saving their lives, and STAT. And in their excruciating, vulnerable, death-defying, Evil Knievel approach to rock and roll, they converted me to something. But to what exactly? It’s taken me at least this many years living with that question to arrive here: I still don’t have an answer for you.


I found my breath and rose above the evening’s surface. I knew only one thing as I fumbled around for my keys outside: Everything I’d heard until then – which was admittedly not much from within the bubble, the subculture of my origins – proved a gelatinous, soft-butter imitation of men daring to pretend they played rock and roll. Whatever other bands I had seen were doing, they’d left their turning signals on. They drove through songs too carefully, with a donut, hazard lights blinking. At best, other bands onstage resembled zombies craving their own souls; ghosts hungry for the warmth, the heat of their own flesh.


I have seen many concerts since that night. Some of which have perhaps rivaled or surpassed that lone 1990’s bar-burner. I couldn’t say.

But I was a walking matchbook right then. And lonely. Adrift at sea. No compass. If you’d held my hand under starlight, played me your favorite song, or asked me to tell you the deepest desires burdening my heart in those days, we likely would have exploded into a cosmic supernova together.

That night, four men came dangerously close to setting me ablaze. And I do know – I can tell you – there were sparks that evening.

And on some nights, I can still smell the smoke.


(xoxo Bill Mallonee, Newt Carter, David LaBruyere, & Travis McNabb…)

In memoriam, Robert Newton Carter, 1966-2015…RIP



Pic of a 1989 schedule of shows at J.C. Dobbs in 1989 found online…you’ll notice a couple acts here went on to become household names.


A brief personal history of an extrovert, alone

I am nine, and I’m standing at the kitchen sink washing the dinner dishes, utterly alone.

The dishes are my job every other evening, which means every other evening I feel a sense of abandonment and despair—the most acute embodiment of “woe is me” that a middle class American child can experience.

It is fall and getting dark earlier, so when I stare mournfully out the kitchen window toward the backyard, hoping for a bit of beauty or distraction, only the vague silhouettes of bare trees and my own sad reflection are there to keep me company.

I’ve finished washing the glasses and silverware, but the piles of tomato-sauce-glazed plates and—worst of all—pots and pans still loom large. In the next room I hear my dad complain about a referee call in the game he’s watching on TV. I hear my mom cheerfully greet Sasha, our dog, as she lets her in from the back yard. My brother passes through purposefully on his way to get a schoolbook from his bedroom. And I am alone with these dishes.

Of course, I’m not really alone. The rest of my family is within reach, but they seem emotionally out of touch. So from an early age this becomes my definition of alone. And I hate it.

*   *   *   *

I am 16 and in the backyard reading Pride and Prejudice for the fourth or fifth time.

It’s spring break. My boyfriend is off on a trip to North Carolina with his best friend, and all of my closest girl friends are somewhere warm with their families. But surprisingly I don’t feel sorry for myself for being stuck at home with nothing to do. Instead, I’m getting a start on my tan, enjoying the rare early-April warmth and indulging in a week of reading books, old and new.

Suddenly it’s easy to remember why reading had been my favorite pastime as a younger child, before it had gotten lost in the mix of boyfriends, tennis practice, school clubs, and a part-time job. On this April day, I’m happily reacquainting myself with my love for books, and also with the warmth of the sun after a long Michigan winter.

I am completely alone but it doesn’t occur to me that I’m alone, because I am completely content.

*   *   *   *

I am 20, a junior in college, and I am falling in love with someone who seems, in at least one important way, to be not like me: I am falling in love with someone who loves to be alone.

He shares an apartment with a group of guys across the hall from where I live with my friends, and an open door policy has been established. As his roommates watch TV before dinner, I watch him take a cup of tea and a book out to the hammock he strung up on the balcony. As my friends and I talk and goof around before bed, I see him walking home alone after several hours in his painting studio.

Suddenly I am certain that “alone” is something I’m not good at, and I see that as a flaw—the result of insecurity and a sign of shallowness. It has not occurred to me that my love for being surrounded by people—for being in the thick of conversation and debates, silliness and laughter—is a product of who I am, how I’m wired.

Likewise, as I’m falling in love with him I see his ability to be alone as something admirable, deep, and brave—not as a product of who he is, how he’s wired.

I’m hopeful I can learn from him.

 *   *   *   *

I am 30 and married to the painter—for eight years already. Our toddler and infant are both tucked in their beds for the night, and I am sitting alone on the loveseat in my cozy sunroom, an issue of The New Yorker open on my lap.

As an exhausted young mother, this moment should feel more delicious than it does. The house is quiet, and within the realm of these walls I have the freedom to do whatever I want. But what I want most is companionship, conversation. A look of recognition and understanding, a dose of empathy for whatever small trials the day brought. Someone to help me laugh.

I flip to the magazine’s table of contents, hoping to find something with the right mix of intellect and heart—the sort of piece that engages both my mind and emotions the way a good conversation might.

It is fall, and mostly dark outside the row of tall windows to my right. But in the back corner of our yard a bright square of light shines from the old one-car garage, now a wood shop and studio where my husband works each night on an art project he is preparing for an upcoming show. After this show is installed, there will be another show to prepare.

A lover of logic, I turn to it, hoping to find comfort: My husband teaches all day and needs every hour he can spare to create the art that drives his career. I get that.

My head is able to reason out my aloneness, but that doesn’t make it feel OK anywhere else.

*   *   *   *

I am 34, and I am alone.

My two busy daughters, now four and six, are in bed for the night, their questions and negotiations, stories and songs silenced by sleep.

photo (4)I brew a cup of tea then sink gratefully into the sofa to work on a sweater I’m knitting. Remnants of the busy day are scattered here and there throughout the house—a Playmobil scene carefully arranged on the coffee table, too many pairs of shoes and rain boots by the front door, a small stack of dinner dishes in the kitchen sink. But it’s OK, I’ll get to them later.

Since my divorce, I’ve been able to let go of the unhelpful sense that it’s someone’s job to keep me company. I’ve also been able to quiet the inner nag insisting that it’s my job to keep the house clean. When you’re alone, the consequences of waking up to a messy kitchen are also yours alone. Maybe it’s time to teach the girls how to wash the dishes, I think, as I pick up my knitting.

For now, I’m just sitting on my sofa, alone, and it is good. It’s good because I’ve finally learned that alone and lonely are two different things. I’ve learned that being someone who derives energy and ideas from interactions with others is a part of me to embrace and nurture, not to fight. And I’ve learned that savoring time alone allows me to process and express all that I’ve soaked in from being with others.

Now I can see that “alone” has always been important to me, and I’ve even been good at it, in my own way. Finally I’m able to call it what it is—just “alone,” apart from lonely—and embrace it for what it is: a gift of respite and reflection, and nothing to fear.

*   *   *   *


 (No one should ever do dishes alone.)