Is It Still About Music?
I remember the autumn of 1974. I was 12 years old, fighting my troubled way into my teen years with my parents' divorce still echoing in my heart. I'd like to say I needed something to focus on to get my life back on an even keel, but I already had a passion, and that was reading. No, if anything I needed something to touch my soul on a different level, in a different place. Not necessarily a better place, just a different place.
I was visiting my mother one weekend, and my oldest brother had this record on the turntable in the living room. It was my first exposure to Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Up until then, my parents had filled my life with Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Freddy Fender. The Kingston Trio, The Smothers Brothers, and Peter, Paul and Mary topped off my musical exposure.
But that day when the opening strains of "Roll On Down The Highway" leaped out from the stereo, a light turned on inside my head. CF Turner became an instant hero. I saw Blair Thornton strutting across the stage in a blue satin blouse, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes, ripping chords on a Gibson SG, and I wanted nothing more than to be there, too.
A friend of mine in school had this acoustic guitar, and a dream of his own. I wanted to play keyboards. He said he needed a bass player. To seal the deal, he played a concert album by Rush: "All The World's A Stage." I thought BTO was a mind-blower. I couldn't believe that these three men were making that much noise!
Thirty-six years later, I'm still a bass player. I've expanded into guitar, but my primary instrument is that same Hagstrom Swede bass I've had since 1981. I did a brief stint as bassist for a small-time band called Tokenn.
We never went any farther than the local pool hall. But we had fun. Sometimes there were four of us, and for a while there were five. But we were all bigger than the sum when we powered up the PA and the amps, and the drums started in. We played punk metal, and we did our best to keep it clean. It was "Light Metal." Actually, we coined a term for it: "Aluminum Alloy."
To me, words mean things. I guess that's overflow from being a writer. But when I listen to a song, I listen to the whole thing. I want that song to become a part of me. When I play a song, I play out a part of me. I want to play what I feel. Maybe I'm a snob. Maybe I'm just a snoot-bag. But what I want out of music is not a lecture about my lifestyle or my political choices. I don't need to hear about someone else's hormones or listen to them show off about how they can cuss fifty-three times in as many seconds, and I really don't care to hear about how many people they want to bust a cap in. I want a lyric that's more than vague, free-form verse. Is that too much to ask? I guess that limits what I can listen to, then doesn't it?
Now, I'm not going to sit here and judge anyone else for being happy with their favorite music. If you're happy, you're happy. And I can't blame musicians for writing what sells. But if music is art, it should have a purpose. Isn't art supposed to tell us, "There's something better?"
A song is supposed to say, "Come with me, I want to show you something." It takes you on a journey, it tells a story. Okay, it doesn't have to be all sunshine and rainbows. But if it doesn't end happy, at least it should end hopeful. Can we at least expect that? I mean, Rock and Roll has had sixty-five years to get it right. And for the most part, it's still wasting its time, like a teenager who hasn't outgrown its piss and vinegar.
I understand a need to appeal to, well, teenagers who haven't yet outgrown their piss and vinegar. But can we do better than what we're doing? Teens look to their musical heroes as role models. So let's take a look at some of these "role models," shall we?
1. Madonna: Made a name for herself by stripping down to a metal bustier on stage and humping her mike stand like a sex-crazed Jack Russell terrier. Inspired a clothing craze. For years, teen girls dressed like sluts. Teen pregnancy skyrocketed. Gee, awesome job, there, Miss Ciccione.
2. Britney Spears: Emotional train wreck. Barely dressed, humps and grinds along with the best(?) of them. Millions of teen and preteen girls now want to dress like sluts, and behave like them.
3. Kurt Cobaine: Bipolar depressive. Spaced himself out on dope, blew his brains out with a shotgun. Inspired countless papers on "Why Kurt Cobaine is my role model" high school papers. Okay, so you all want to get bipolar, dope yourselves up and blow your brains out with a shotgun?
4. Lady Gaga: Performance artist or singer? Hard to say. Harder yet to see if she can keep her clothes on for a whole performance. What else ya got, girlie? How about a smackerel of talent?
5. Miley Cyrus: All on the skin-tight, pre-age-of-consent-slut-mongering bandwagon.
Now, to give these people at least a breath of credit, they have all stated they don't see themselves as role models. Too bad. They are whether they want to be or not. Entertainers, they say. Okay, entertain. But whether you like or not, impressionable minds are looking up to you. Show a little bit of that leadership your fans are attributing to you. If you're going to be a musician, demonstrate musicianship. Do us all a favor and give your fans something positive to look forward to. Is that too much to ask? Or do you need lessons from bands such as Rush, Skillet, and Flyleaf? I'll even throw Evanescence in for good measure.
Can you at least give your fans an opportunity to use their brains?
Becoming NADIA Excerpt: (unedited)
Jon swung the maul down hard, splitting another hunk of oak straight through. The pieces fell away to either side of the stump, and he grabbed another hunk off the pile. He'd been gathering and splitting wood all day, just to keep his hands busy and his mind occupied. That, and to stay as far as possible from ...it.
This was more than his mind could wrap around. Here she was, his best friend, and yet not even close. Alli was dead; there was no way around it, and then she walked back into his life without so much as a how-do-you-do and turned his world upside down all over again. It was bad enough when she was alive. On top of it all, there was so much that she didn't remember. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe she wouldn't remember how he'd screwed everything up. But then again, she wasn't even a she; she was an it, something not even human, not a person, and it angered him to think about Alicia as less than who she was.
Donna came back with a package for Bunny, had lunch, and left, taking her paperwork and some fresh samples of Nadia's blood with her.
As the afternoon wore on, Jon's muscles announced that, whether he liked it or not, they were through splitting wood for the day. He thought about Uncle Mike's lounger, a cold cola, and a sandwich. And then he thought, It's in there. Do I really want to be in there? He wandered in circles in the yard for a full minute. This is ridiculous; it's my uncle's cabin. I belong here, she...it...doesn't. Just walk in there and own the place, already. He was getting one hellacious headache; he put a hand to his head and crossed the yard, leaning the maul against the woodpile as he passed.
Jon came through the door and flumped down in the lounger. He reclined it, sat silently, and closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, Nadia came in with a cola and sandwich, and set them on the end table next to the chair. Then she disappeared back into the kitchen without saying a word, leaving only the lingering bouquet of her perfume. She still smelled like Alli. Jon listened to her and Bunny whispering in the kitchen, unable to hear what was being said. He picked up the sandwich and lifted the top slice: Roast beef on rye, sliced thin and heated, stacked with pickle slices and Muenster cheese, the top slice spread with salad dressing. Jon's favorite. He cursed himself inwardly, and then set to on the sandwich.
As soon as he finished, Nadia came back with a chair from the kitchen. She set it on the floor in front of the lounger and sat facing Jon, looking into his face. He tried to look away, but felt stupid for even trying. So he just met her gaze.
Finally, she spoke: "We're both in this, Jon, whether we like it or not. I need to know what's going through your mind right now, because I don't think I can handle what I think you're thinking." Jon stayed silent, letting the ice melt in the half-empty glass of cola.
Nadia continued, "I'm trying to get a handle on this whole thing, too. The difference between you and me, though, is that you can walk away from it. I can't. I have to just suck it up and deal with not being human. I know what I am to me, and I can't help it. But what am I to you?"
Jon sighed and brought his glass to his lips. He looked into the glass as he spoke. "I don't know. You're certainly not what I thought you were."
"I'm not what you were hoping for, in other words? And what was that?"
"I don't know that, either."
"I don't buy that, Jon. Look at me." Jon looked up, his mind and face blank. "Who do you see?"
"I don't see anyone."
Nadia's face flushed, and she looked away. When she looked back into Jon's eyes, her lip was quivering. "Then why are we still here? Why are you here? Why am I here?"
"You're evidence," said Jon. "Donna said in order to capture Alicia's mind, it had to be destroyed while they recorded her personality. That means she must have been still alive when they got to her. Someone committed murder, and right now you're the only evidence I've got. You're the only marker on the trail."
"So I'm no one, just 'evidence'?" Nadia's voice hardened. Her hands clenched in her lap. "Exactly how are you going to fit me in your little Ziploc 'Exhibit A' bag, Agent Daniels? When this is over, are you going to lock me away in your little evidence closet back in DC? Am I that dead to you?"
"Well, you're not human, are you?" Jon said.
She said nothing in return. She just looked down at the floor, her lips pursed tightly.
Jon pressed on. "Well, are you? What exactly are you, Nadia? Someone's twisted science fair project? Some show-and-tell from Hell? Is Dr. Frankenstein even now throwing together a Nadia Mark II, using a dead woman's DNA and another dead woman's brain patterns? What do you want to bet there's a serial number tattooed on your left--"
Jon should have expected the slap, but even had he seen it coming, it was lightning-quick, and hard enough to sprout stars in his vision. When he recovered enough to see, Nadia's eyes still burned and the low growl was just fading from her throat. He sat back, shocked.
"Was that dead, Jon? For your information, sir, I am alive. I'm sitting here right now, in front of you, alive. Okay, I was made by someone else. Am I worth less because of it? As I recall, you didn't see the difference when you kissed me out there on the porch. You promised me then that this would be over, and I could be my own person, do you remember that?"
"That's before I knew--"
She cut him off, her voice rising in anger. "I'm not letting you off that easy, Jon Daniels! You think that a promise made to a non-human isn't binding? What if I was a dog? Do people make promises to their dogs? Or do I not even deserve that?"
"Quit! That's not--"
"Not what, Jon? Not the same? Let me ask you something else. Did it mean anything to you when you kissed me?"
"What?" he sputtered, "That's not fair!"
"You know what's not fair, Jon? Waking up in a hospital with no history, no memory. Getting lied to for over a year just to find you'd have been better off being someone's stupid little pet! Finding out what you are, but not why! Trying to be you, when everyone else around you is trying to make you be their someone else! Well, Jon, say good-bye to Alicia, because I'm going to be me, and to hell with her!"
"Don't you say that!" Jon shot to his feet, his hands balled into fists. "You have no right--"
"I have every right!" Nadia stood toe to toe with Jon, her hands balled into fists as she glared back up at him. "You've been comparing me to her ever since we met. What really makes me mad is, there's a part of me that is her. So right now am I me, or am I her? I could go nuts trying to sort it out. I don't care anymore."
Nadia's voice dropped, but she stood her ground, looking up into Jon's eyes. "And I can be okay with that, because now I understand why I don't remember before. I'm getting answers. They're not the answers I wanted, but they're answers."
Jon's hands relaxed. He looked away from Nadia for a few seconds before speaking. "You asked me something the other night. You asked me if--"
Nadia held her hand up, shushing him. "No. Don't tell me. I know." She took a deep breath before going on. "Did you know she cried, Jon? That night in Chicago, she cried in your arms, and you never asked why. It was because she was wishing she was someone else. You never knew how she felt, because she couldn't afford the consequences, and neither could you."
"Why--" began Jon, his voice breaking.
"Because she has to be gone, and you have to go on. Because if you can't treat me like a woman, maybe you could treat me like a person. Maybe even a friend." A tentative smile appeared on her lips. "God knows I could sure use a friend right now, because I'm scared absolutely witless of myself."
Bunny called from the kitchen. "Hey, guys, you might wanna get in here, like right now!"
Jon and Nadia looked at each other, up close for another moment before Jon said, "All right, Bunny. We're coming."
As they entered the kitchen, Bunny was all set up on his new desktop system and printer. His hands shook as he prepared the program. "Watch this." He explained as he cued up the file at the beginning of the clip. "Here's the file I copied from the computer at KBGX. It's the whole interview from Nigeria, four years ago."
Jon and Nadia pulled up chairs as the file began to play. Jon kept one eye on the video, and one on Nadia, watching her reactions. She muttered nervously as the video played: "Strange, I don't feel anything... I don't remember this at all. It doesn't trigger a rush or any memory at all... Is that really me?"
They watched the Nadia on the file conduct her interview with President Bello, exchanging laughs here and there, getting more serious in other spots. The video segment was unedited and so it contained parts where she looked into the camera and asked Steven to change angles, and parts when the President's aide served drinks. The entire file was about an hour long.
"This is where the YouTube file ends," announced Bunny, "any second now," but it continued for several more minutes. Now they were all in unmarked territory.
Jon saw the lighting shift as one of the set lights burned out in a flicker of flashes. Steven's voice behind the camera told her he needed to get another light from the truck. President Bello and Nadia continued to make small talk for a couple more minutes, and then something happened. Nadia froze in place. She seemed to grow pale, or was it some variant in the video file? President Bello touched her shoulder tentatively. Then the screen exploded in an white flash, and the video file ended.
Jon, Nadia and Bunny sat silently for some time. Jon finally spoke, in a weak voice, "What the hell did we just see?"
Bunny backed up the video about thirty seconds and let the video play until just before the end. Then he paused it and advanced one frame at a time. They watched Nadia slow down and grow still. All three were watching the screen for every detail. Jon picked out the first change. "There! See what's happening? That's not an aberration of the video file; her face is getting pale, like she's fainting." They watched closer as the transformation washed over her skin, leaving her clothes the same shades of pastel blue and black as before. But she was frozen in place.
Nadia saw the next event. "Wait, Bunny! Back it up again and go more slowly…there! Stop. What's that light reflecting off my eye? It's only in the right, that little flash. One more frame. No. That light's coming out of my eye; it's not reflected in it!" Five seconds later, they found out what killed the President of Nigeria, his aides and his senior minister, and destroyed half of the presidential palace in Lagos. Jon, Nadia and Bunny sat in stunned silence for the second time that evening.
This time it was Bunny who broke the shocked stillness. "Jonny-boy, you better quit gettin' her mad."