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.


Talking on the Train

I had lunch with a stranger once in the crowded food court of Union Station in D.C. There were no empty tables and only a few empty seats. When I saw a woman sitting by herself at a table, I asked if I could join her. She readily agreed.

I was in between trains, a Chicago-to-D.C. leg behind me and the rest of the journey home to Philadelphia ahead. Asking to join a stranger at their table is not within my standard mode of operation. Perhaps it was the 17 hours I had just spent on the train that inspired my unusual behavior.

On long-haul trains, if you go to the dining car you sit with people. And if, like me, you enjoy passing the hours of train travel in the observation car watching the country roll by, then you sit with people there too. On a long-haul train, you chat and really listen to the answers because you have all of the time and none of the cell signal. This slow-paced, low-pressure atmosphere makes my people-loving introvert-self bloom.

Between the trip out to Chicago and the ride back East, I spent almost 40 hours there-and-back talking to strangers. I met a man in the midst of his journey home from Thailand. He told me about an ex-wife and a child in Peru—how his world travels introduced him to people, but pulled them away too. He bought me a drink and we talked for hours as the view of the countryside gave way to midnight blackness. Eventually he asked me, “Are you happy?” I told him I was, mostly. He nodded, leaned back in his chair, and stared off into the darkness outside. His eyes had said more: that being happy was something he didn’t quite understand.

One morning after a few bumpy hours of sleep as the train chugged through Ohio and into Pennsylvania, I went to breakfast and was seated at a table with a woman. She asked me about my life. I asked her about hers. We lingered over our coffee as she told me about working with Catholic Social Justice groups in her teens, trying to end capital punishment. The fact that people still fight for the same thing today gave her mixed emotions. I told her about my Christian Social Ethics coursework—what I was learning about inequality and how the church participates. I told her it was encouraging to meet her. She said the same of meeting me.

Amtrak observationSeven-hundred miles of steel track is enough space for strangers to share many years of memories. You can settle in with wine or coffee. You can relax into the seat. The scenery of fields and small towns is buffer enough for the natural pauses. There is no hurry; your stop is likely states away.

After joining fellow travelers for those many miles, to join a woman sitting at a table alone in a crowded food court seemed natural. As she told me about how she spends her days, the realization that she was homeless began to dawn on me. I took a second look at the food she had in front of her—one small order of fries. I told her I was finished eating and asked if she would like any of my leftovers. I think if I had thought about that a bit more, I would not have asked for fear of insulting her. She took my offer though and gladly ate what I did not. I eventually wished her a good day and a safe walk back to her night shelter, thanked her for allowing me to join her table, and went to board my train to Philadelphia.

This second-to-last last part of my journey was on a regional Amtrak train, which means smaller seats and less room to move about. My seat-mate told me about his job in the banking industry, seeming proud of his achievements as a district manager. Before long he had his laptop out, taking advantage of the Wi-Fi.

In Philadelphia, I switched from Amtrak to regional rail for the journey out to the suburbs, choosing a seat next to a woman who had on head-phones. The train car was silent but for the noise of the tracks and the intermittent stop announcements.

The transition was stark. Our day-to-day lives are not built for long chats and shared meals with strangers. Yet, people’s complicated lives exist even when we are just commuting home to the suburbs. Homeless people, lonely people, overlooked people. People who are on a journey to somewhere—people who fight for equality and people who wonder if it’s really possible to be happy—these people are always next to me.

It is of course easier to say that I want to engage than to actually engage. The meeting and eating and talking together requires intentionality on the part of all the participants. When I can remember that the people around me have stories of lives lived full of heartbreak and hope, then I am more willing to keep my eyes open for ways I can give. Even if what I have to give in the moment is only a listening ear or my not-yet-finished lunch.

*    *    *    *    *

fall“Talking on the Train” was written by Nicole Morgan. Nicole’s first long-distance train trip involved Thanksgiving dinner with a dining-car table full of strangers. She booked a sleeper-car once and loved it for all its nostalgic charm, but much prefers coach class where there’s plenty of time and room to meet her traveling neighbors. Nicole writes about bodies, theology, and community at jnicolemorgan.com  and tweets away @jnicolemorgan



Where I Came From: Good Question

“In our times we continually tend to assume that identity is the same as biography – that you are what has happened to you.”

                                    – John O’Donohue, “Love is the Only Antidote to Fear”

This past spring, I stepped off a train in Philadelphia, my city of origin and where I spent the first twenty-two years of my life, and where I returned in May to play best man for my baby brother’s wedding. It was by no means my first visit back to the area since I left in the mid-1990’s. There have rather been extended, sometimes lengthy return trips to Philly over the years, even a handful of botched attempts to move back “home” in the two decades since I moved away. Since becoming a parent ten years ago, we’ve managed to make it back East for the holidays with some regularity, too.

This time, however, when I emerged from the underground cavern where the train dropped its passengers, my jaw went slack. I walked wide-eyed through the historic 30th Street station, where my father spent a lot of his career working for Amtrak, and I staggered stupefied in the direction of a street I years earlier could have found blind for how often I blew into and through the city. On this day, however, I felt mystified at best, thoughts racing as I moved through the bustling, aged station, wondering, “Since when did Philadelphia become so unfathomably beautiful?”


My thoughts stole to the scene at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which I had days earlier finished reading to my six year-old, Matt, in Alaska. Years following the White Witch’s defeat and aiding to free Narnia from her spell, and after assuming their rightful seats on the thrones at Cair Paravel, the four heroes go on a hunt for the enchanted White Stag. In its pursuit, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy come upon the lamppost that years earlier proved a marker in their first journeys beyond the wardrobe, a symbol bridging their lives between the war-ravaged “real” world they left behind and the magical land of Narnia they elected to explore and in which they courted adventure, and where they now presided as kings and queens.

The brothers and sisters spend a fair portion of the novel’s last pages comically puzzling over the lamppost, calling it a “pillar of iron,” “a lantern,” and “a strange device,” in such a way that reveals they have no recollection of it. Nevertheless, the appearance of it there works on Edmund “strangely,” and he says its presence runs in his mind “as it were a dream, or in the dream of a dream.”

As a child, this scene puzzled and mildly bugged me, and even after reading it to my two sons years apart it still annoyed me. Was Lewis trying to convince us that none of these four kids – not even Susan, the pragmatist – could remember their roots, where they came from, what other reality rested directly beyond the lamppost, through the cracked doors on the other side of the wardrobe? While I possess enough of a wild imagination to accept that there are magical worlds open for exploration, why did leaping into one grant you dementia or senility?

But as I wandered through and then out of the station, and soon made my way through the streets of a city I only ever dreamed of evacuating during the years that I grew up there, I swiftly understood the dim recollections of Lewis’s foursome in a new light.

30th St Outside

For all the years I’ve lived away from Philly, my line in the script of how you and I come to know each other required that I at some point in the dialogue gloomily share that I’m from a working class neighborhood located a stone’s throw outside Philadelphia.

I could name the town, but I don’t have to. It’s that Every-/Anytown, the Xeroxed one you see in every movie or show depicting life in a lower-middle class suburb or neighborhood in America.

We had the requisite K-Mart, the Blockbusters, 7-11s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and all the fast food chains. Some of these businesses have swapped signage over the years, have magically turned into Targets or Olive Gardens, but this doesn’t suggest anything’s changed by a long shot.

Never mind that while I grew up there, I looked a lot like Napoleon Dynamite – but only if Napoleon Dynamite also battled severe acne. I also wore a headgear during the stage of development at which we’re most vulnerable and going all hormonally wonky inside. Although I dated (primarily, youth group) girls, the cool kids, the jocks at the small Christian school I attended felt overly inclined to call my friends and I “faggots” with an alarming and grave degree of frequency and ridicule. That school housed itself in what today still looks like an oversized version of your dad’s backyard aluminum storage shed.

Perhaps it was the rhythm of that backdrop, coupled with my unfortunate position in the social hierarchies we’re either gracefully or brutally assigned that punctuated or clarified my attachment to select songs dominating the airwaves on rock radio in Philadelphia then; songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” (U2), “Born to Run” (the Boss), “Round Here” (Counting Crows), and one extended song I’ll only call “Anything by REM before Monster.” These songs and others became fuel for my future launch out of town, the soundtrack for the car in which I would speed towards the westward-setting sun when I rolled the credits on the pitiful melodrama of my first two decades.

The Philadelphia of  my youth seemed defined by a polarizing awareness of an inconsolable isolation in the midst of what others around me so blithely embraced as familiar and true, or charismatically accepted as their birthright and rightful inheritance.

So, in all the years since I hit the road, Kerouac and Springsteen style, I’ve boldly and assuredly assumed I knew where I was from. I had my script so fine-tuned only Brando could improve on it.

But in a way similar to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy’s amnesiac regard of the lamppost in the woods of Narnia, I emerged from a train this summer and discovered I’d landed in an absolutely unfamiliar, barely recognizable, and – though roughly hewn – a beautifully and enviably designed city that happens to go by the name of Philadelphia.

Downtown Philadelphia

That day, as I wandered the streets of a city I thought I knew – and for the duration of my three-week trip back “home” – never mind the claw marks with which I still frame the word – I discovered that I’d misplaced my script. Shortly after landing in the place I’m apparently from, I’d thoroughly and absolutely forgotten the lines I’d for so many years labored over and consigned to the expertly wrought grooves of habit and memory.

In other words, something I once assumed I knew inside out appeared in an unrecognizable moment as if “it were a dream, or in the dream of a dream.” And, for reasons I’m still puzzling over, the lay of the land instead appeared stunning and remarkably beautiful in every direction.

La Colombe Philly   UPenn Used Bookstore