Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
DELIVER ME FROM NOWHERE
Nebraska and the first half of Born in the USA were recorded at the same time. I thought I was working on one record but Nebraska’s intransigence to integration soon awakened me to the situation at hand. We toyed with the idea of a double record, the acoustic Nebraska and the electric Born in the USA in one package, but the tonality of the music was just too different, too oppositional. Nebraska had been so funkily recorded, it would not go onto an LP. It would distort, feed back and declare revolution on the common materials of recording. We discussed releasing it on cassette only, then Chuck Plotkin managed to find an old mastering lathe at Atlantic Studios and my lo-fi latest surrendered itself to vinyl. Nebraska entered respectably on the charts, got some pretty nice reviews and received little to no airplay. For the first time, I didn’t tour on a release. It felt too soon after The River, and Nebraska’s quiet stillness would take me a while longer to bring to the stage. Life went on.
I drifted away from my very lovely twenty-year-old girlfriend and packed for a cross-country road trip. I’d recently purchased a small cottage in the Hollywood Hills and figured I’d winter out west in the California sunshine. This was the trip where the ambivalence, trouble and toxic confusion I’d had volcanically bubbling for thirty-two years would finally reach critical mass.
It was a ’69 Ford XL with a white ragtop, sea green and Cadillac long. I’d bought it for a few grand and my friend and road buddy Matt Delia, along with his brothers Tony and Ed, fitted it out for the ride. In the midseventies, up in Bergen County, Matt, Tony and Ed owned the last Triumph motorcycle dealership in New Jersey. Introduced to me through Max Weinberg, Matt had set me up with a late-sixties Triumph Trophy, something clicked, and Matt, Tony and Ed became the brothers I never had.
Matt was now a Goodyear dealer, and the morning of our departure, we hung at the shop, putting the finishing touches on the XL, taking farewell photos and doctoring the all-important sound system. It’d be just Matt and me making the crossing. It was fall; our plan was to run south, pick up some warm weather, drop the top and head west.
I’m driving. Matt’s suffered a recent breakup with his girl and has fallen on some blue times. He spends most of our first day riding shotgun, arms locked around a huge teddy bear. Matt’s built like a block, with thick arms and forearms, and the sight of those ropes wrapped around a five-year-old’s toy bear emanates bad voodoo for our trip. I try to explain to him the teddy is throwing a kink into our Kerouac On the Road cool, but Matt’s committed to his blues and his bear, so we drive on.
My lifelong friend Matt Delia hails from smack-dab in the middle of a family of fourteen children. A mother prone to the arts and a father in the salvage business have left Matt with the talents and physique of a mechanic and the soul of a poet. For a living, he wrenches day and night on motorcycles and cars and is completely at home both dealing with the gearheads, dirt trackers and random motorcycle gang members who routinely show up at the shop’s front counter in search of his services and discussing music, politics and culture with the likes of me. Car-hoppin’ image aside, I, like many others confronting vehicular trouble, will reach not for the toolbox but for God’s gift to man, the cell phone. But I like to be on wheels, and in the ancient days about which I will soon regale you children, THERE WERE NO CELL PHONES! So, Matt is my partner and hands-on pipeline to the world of automotive freedom. It’s all Route 66, two guys in a convertible, magic as long as one of us can fix this fucker when it unromantically breaks down on the outskirts of nowheresville. Back in the day, when wheels got flat, radiators blew steam, fan belts shredded, carburetors clogged, engine blocks spewed oil and the automobile was a less trustworthy traveling companion, the Delia brothers, sturdy as tree trunks and many times more reliable, provided company and solace on several of the biggest road trips of my life. Matt, the eldest of the three, in his youth, bore a fleeting resemblance to In Cold Blood-era Robert Blake, and in our thirty-five years of friendship, we’ve driven the country together more than a few times. He is my Dean Moriarty.
We travel through South Jersey, across the Delaware Memorial Bridge, through Washington, heading all points south toward the first stop in our pilgrimage: “long-distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee.” It’s the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, it’s Elvis, the blues and Beale Street. We make a quick stop at the shuttered Sun Studio, take a few photos out front and travel on. We get nailed in Southern backcountry by a vicious late-summer thunderstorm and head to New Orleans. I’ve made cassette mixes featuring music from every part of the country we’ve planned to pass through. I drive as Matt drifts, and the sound of Memphis rockabilly gives way to Mississippi country blues. Then, before we know it, Professor Longhair’s piano is rolling us into Louisiana and the Big Easy. We spend a day and night in New Orleans, listening to sidewalk musicians and wandering in and out of the bars on Bourbon Street.
We wake early the next morning and head west.
This is where the country opens up and things get a little weird. I let off some steam at Matt for being momentarily worthless, wrestling away the teddy bear and depositing it in the trunk. Now Matt’s behind the wheel and driving, where he belongs. I’m feeling noticeably unsettled and that’s disconcerting. For years, music and travel have been my faithful companions and surefire medication. As Sisyphus can count on the rock, I can always count on the road, the music and the miles for whatever ails me.
As we cross the Mississippi River and venture into the wide-open of Texas, it’s beginning to feel a little … wide open … out here. Our map’s a patchwork of the many towns we visit along the way. Matt, my usually silent partner (the exemplar of a friend you “don’t always have to talk to”), is on an endless, meandering ramble fed by his lovesick blues. He’s diseased, and it could be viral, so I threaten divorce and a return to Jersey. He stops. Together, we move on in silence. Then one evening … there is a town.
The Last Town
In the blue light of dusk, there is a river. By the river, there is a fair. At the fair, there is music, a small stage, filled by a local band playing for their neighbors on a balmy night. I watch men and women lazily dancing in each other’s arms, and I scan the crowd for the pretty local girls. I’m anonymous and then … I’m gone. From nowhere, a despair overcomes me; I feel an envy of these men and women and their late-summer ritual, the small pleasures that bind them and this town together. Now, for all I know, these folks may hate this one-dog dump and each other’s guts and be screwing one another’s husbands and wives like rabbits. Why wouldn’t they? But right now, all I can think of is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch … and I record. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood and possibility out of any good thing, any real thing, I might have. It’s here, in this little river town, that my life as an observer, an actor staying cautiously and safely out of the emotional fray, away from the consequences, the normal messiness of living and loving, reveals its cost to me. At thirty-two, in the middle of the USA, on this night, I’ve just exceeded the once-surefire soul-and-mind-numbing power of my rock ’n’ roll meds.
✵ ✵ ✵
We leave town. The flat night highway rises up and it’s all headlights and white lines … white lines … white lines. I’ve just pulled a perfect swan dive into my abyss; my stomach is on rinse cycle and I’m going down, down, down. Finally, an hour out, still internally reeling, I ask Matt to go back, back to that last town. “Now, please.” Matt, God bless him, does not ask me to explain. Car wheels slide on roadside gravel, a perfect K turn is executed and we’re on our way back. We travel with the western sky black and pressing in around us, then I see lights. I need this town. Right now, it’s the most important town in America, in my life, in God’s firmament. Why, I don’t know, I just feel a need to get rooted somewhere, before I drift into ether. We reach the outskirts, but it’s now early morning, pitch-black, and no one’s in sight. We slow and park on a side street. I want to cry, but the tears won’t come. Worse, I want to go in the trunk and get the fucking teddy bear. Matt is silent, quietly staring out of the windshield onto a dusty little block that appears bused in from another dimension. I feel a deeper anxiety than I’ve ever known. Why here? Why tonight? Thirty-four years later, I still don’t know.
All I do know is as we age the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier … much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher. Maybe I’d cut myself loose one too many times, depended on my unfailing magic act once too often, drifted that little bit too far from the smoke and mirrors holding me together. Or … I just got old … old enough to know better. Whatever the reason, I’d found myself, once again, stranded in the middle of … “nowhere,” but this time the euphoria and delusions that kept me oiled and running had ground to a halt.
Beyond the hood of the Ford lie what looks like a million miles of uncharted space. There are several street lamps creating pools of light on a desert that passes for curb and front lawn on the street of my epiphany. I study them. A sandy-colored, hungry-looking dog wanders slowly through these small circles of eternity and then, its beige coat turning gray, slips into inky blackness. Matt and I sit … my cold sweat slowly drying, my despair subsiding, and looking down into the chasm beneath the dashboard, at the black rubber mat swallowing my boots like quicksand, I mumble, “Let’s go.”
Two lonely cosmonauts circling the sun-scorched and abandoned Earth, we fire our engines and leave orbit. Our home destroyed, we now have to take our chances in the void. The rest of the trip is uneventful. The road, the free sky, the infinite chain of towns, Matt running the XL, top down, ninety miles per hour, through a cleansing rainstorm, its waters skimming over the windshield and misting down upon my face in the slipstream … none of it cures my blues or removes the specter of my evening at the fair. Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them to wrongly isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.
The night and highway suck us up, the rain clears; I roll down my window and look at ash-gray stars, pop in my “Texas” cassette, and Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” murmurs at low volume through the XL’s interior.