‘McCartney 3,2,1’ Streaming Now On Hulu – Paul Talks Music With Producer Rick Rubin

McCartney 3,2,1

“Paul was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played the bass.” – John Lennon

I mentioned on a recent post on the great documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) directed by Questlove, how disappointed the Rock Chick and I are about the dearth of new rock n roll coming out these days.  Well, at least a dearth in the rock n roll we’re interested in here at B&V. People kept saying that musicians, unable to tour in 2020 due to Covid, were holing up in studios and taking the time to write new stuff… I haven’t really seen that come to fruition yet in 2021. I will say, I do believe we’re on the cusp of a bunch of new music coming out – both new stuff and archival. Typically when we find ourselves in a bit of a lull on the new release front as we’ve been lately, I find myself turning to the television. After we wrapped up watching the aforementioned Summer Of Soul last weekend we turned to the new, limited series McCartney 3,2,1. Over the course of six, thirty-minute episodes Paul sits down for a candid, lengthy conversation with uber-producer Rick Rubin. As binge watches go, we burned through this one pretty quickly.

First, I’ve always been a big Rick Rubin fan. He’s produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Cult, the Black Crowes, the Beastie Boys, Metallica and AC/DC. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. He literally resurrected Johnny Cash who had been left for dead by the Country Music “establishment.” When producing Black Sabbath’s 13, he told them, “Pretend you’ve just recorded your first album. What comes next?” He’s clearly a vibe guy, not a technician. I saw a documentary about the Avett Brothers and Rick Rubin was producing them. I think he owns and maybe lives in the Malibu studio (named Shangri La) where the Avett Brothers doc was filmed. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded Planet Waves there. The man is a rock n roll Guru…and frankly looks the part.

I am also a huge McCartney fan. When you came of age in the mid to late 70s, McCartney was at a zenith and was most people’s favorite ex-Beatle. Lennon went into semi-seclusion in 1975 when he went into his “house-husband” phase after the birth of his son Sean. The late 70s saw the once promising careers of George Harrison and Ringo Starr sort of… fade. McCartney kind of became the de-facto “favorite” as he was the only one in the public eye in a big way at the time. I will say, even then my brother’s favorite Beatle was George… the Quiet Beatle. Which makes sense as I got the loud/obnoxious gene that he was able to avoid. Were I quizzed now, with the benefit of time and reflection I’d probably say John was my “favorite” Beatle. Although I absolutely love much of George Harrison’s solo output. And, I still love Paul McCartney. His late career stuff from Flaming Pie onward is the type of stuff that B&V was founded on – older artists making phenomenal, oft-overlooked new music. I loved his latest, last year’s McCartney III. Having just written all of that, I can’t help but think that maybe I don’t have a “favorite”… maybe I just like the Beatles.

A few years back I saw Black Sabbath on the tour for the aforementioned 13. I met a dude who plays the drums in a local band, the Sunset Sinners. The guy has been around music and musicians his whole life. We’ve had kind of an on-going dialogue about music and the creative process ever since. He has a term for certain bands, albums or songs. He says some stuff is too “musician-y.” Meaning, that the song or the band is so geared toward other musicians that it may not be popular on a broad scale. He once told me he thought the Queens of the Stone Age were too much of a “musician-y” band that they’d never reach a mass audience. (That was me using the term in a sentence for all you Spelling Bee fans.) It’s like when political commentators talk about conversations that are too “Inside the Beltway,” which I assume means its too “wonky” for most of us folks on the street. Or perhaps when a comedian tells an “inside joke.” Same concept, loosely speaking.

McCartney 3,2,1 finds Paul – and isn’t it cool after all these years we still know him by his first name – and Rick Rubin sitting in a studio (maybe it’s Rick Rubin’s Shangri La, I’m not sure). The show is filmed in black and white which classes everything up. McCartney has on what appears to be jeans, a white t-shirt and a cool jacket. After all this time McCartney, especially without hair-dye, is still the person with the coolest hair in the room. Rick Rubin looks like a beach bum who has wandered in off the strand. Rubin looks indistinct and rumpled. He’s got baggy shorts on with a t-shirt that I’d be willing to bet has food stains on it. He’s barefoot during most of the shoot. At times he sits down with his legs crossed and he really looks like a Rock N Roll Buddha. Buddha is always laughing but Rick Rubin is almost always smiling through his thick and unruly beard. He looks like a rock version of Yosemite Sam. I will say Rick is tan – that comes across even in black and white – and looks trimmer than he used to. The clothes, wild hair (whats left of it) and beard make Rubin look like some crazy, rock n roll aesthete or monk.

The Rock Star and the Producer spend the entire time talking music. It’s clear that Rubin is the fan here, smiling and geeking out at some of the things McCartney is describing. They sit, like in an interview show, but not for long. They’re often standing up as though so excited about the conversation and music that they can’t sit down which is understandable. They stand for the most part at a mixing console where Rubin summons up different songs from McCartney’s past. It’s mostly Beatles stuff but there are a few solo or Wings’ tracks that get played. They keep the conversation very lively although at one point I thanked the Rock Chick for hanging in there for six episodes because it’s basically watching two experts stand around and talk about their craft. It’s like being in a bar and overhearing people talk about their favorite sports team. When Rubin starts a track he usually turns elements of the song up loud and other elements down. He’ll break down the bass part or the drums. He likes to focus on guitar solo’s because, well, who doesn’t? He’s very interested in how the Beatles were able to do things in the studio that nobody had done before. Rubin is like a pupil with a master. I enjoyed that but I thoroughly understand that doing all of that, breaking down/analyzing songs is really well, musician-y. This is inside stuff. Most of us listen to the song on the radio and let the whole thing wash over us. Some of us put the headphones on and try to concentrate on the bass or the drums. These guys take that and blow it up to infinity. You won’t hear a complete song, with all parts played. It’s fascinating to hear how they put together a song but again… you gotta really love music which luckily I do. It really sheds light on a song when you strip it down to the studs.

By deconstructing all of these songs it does make you realize what an amazing bassist McCartney is. He talks about how the bass line in some of the tracks helped change the shape and sound of certain tracks. Nowhere is that more evident than on John’s “Come Together” which started as more of a Chuck Berry riff. McCartney talks a lot about the recording process and how the Beatles came up with certain sounds. He has nothing but praise for producer George Martin. They played a guitar solo and Rubin, who is obviously having the time of his life asks who played the solo. McCartney says, “I want to say I did because it was so bad.” That got a chuckle.

During the course of the six programs, while discussing certain songs and the piece parts of tracks McCartney does share some great Beatles stories. Although be prepared, the conversation is non-linear and they bounce all over the place. One could call it a rambling conversation. On one episode they’re talking Beatles and out of nowhere jump to “Band On the Run” which caused the Rock Chick to say, “Wait, I thought this was a McCartney solo song.” Some of the changes of subject matter may cause a little whiplash. Paul tells about the genesis of the song “Michelle” coming from his going to parties at Lennon’s place when John was in art school and pretending sing in French to get “the girls.” He mentions that Lennon was never complimentary of much but that he once told him he really liked one of Paul’s songs when they heard it during an album playback. You can just tell how much that meant to Paul. Rubin at one point reads a quote where the speaker talks about what a great bass player Paul is. Rubin asks him, “Do you know who said that?” Paul didn’t know but it was John who said all of it (excerpted above). It was a nice moment as you could tell that meant a ton to McCartney. He seemed a little flustered.

He also tells the story of the first time they played with Ringo on drums, “He elevated the whole band.” He also said that George was incredibly generous to “let” Eric Clapton play the guitar solos on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I’m guessing not a lot of people realized how in the Beatles they all played parts interchangeably on songs – McCartney exclusively played bass but Lennon, he and Harrison all played guitars including lead. Whoever had the hot hand in the band got to play the part. George Martin often jumped in on piano. They were so open to the creative process and that freedom and their confidence let them really do extraordinary things that other bands couldn’t do.

I thought all of this stuff was incredibly fascinating. If you’re a Beatles fan this is a “must see.” Although I will admit and warn everyone again, there are parts of this that are very, very “musician-y.” I watched it all in two sittings and maybe breaking it up a bit would be better if you’re not into the craft and details. Its certainly fun to watch Rick Rubin geek out in such a big way. Paul is still an amazingly charismatic and charming man. You might need to turn it up a little because, a) its the Beatles’ music which needs to be played loud and b) McCartney is prone to mumbling… especially in the scenes where he’s chewing gum. I really enjoyed this rare, up-close-and-personal candid conversation with one of Rock n Roll’s legends. I think you will too.

Cheers!

Review: ‘Summer of Soul…(Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Brilliant!

unnamed-2021-06-24T152122.522-1624562617-1000x1482

It was last Friday, after a long work week when I wandered out of the cubby hole in the attic I call my office and staggered downstairs to the living room. I flopped down in my chair with an exhausted sigh. The Rock Chick asked me if I’d checked to see if there was any good new music released that day? I don’t know why she even asked, she knows I obsessively check for new music every Friday as that’s the day new music comes out. Sadly I could only say, “Nah, nothing new.” As often happens in my marriage she voiced the very thoughts in my head out loud. “What happened to all this new music that was supposed to come out in 2021, that all the bands we dig were supposed to be working on in lockdown?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly. Usually when new stuff comes out, we’ll pour a drink or two and listen to tunes on Friday night. There have been literally only 4 new LPs that have piqued my interest this year: Cheap Trick, Black Keys, Billy Gibbons and Dirty Honey. I did dig the surprise Bowie birthday single this year, two great covers. I hope those Bowie vaults have more gems…

This Friday, after an even longer work week, I repeated the same ritual of staggering down the stairs. It had been a tough week so I poured myself a tumbler of dark, murky fluid… Four Roses bourbon to be exact. I sat in my easy chair with a hard drink and muttered, “Another week, no new music we’d be interested in.” Not even a single. I guess all the bands I heard were recording: The Cult, The Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with John Frusciante back in the fold, no less!) are either still laboring over their respective new music or they’re waiting to see if this Delta Variant causes touring to be impossible again this year. I hope we don’t see another year of darkened concert halls and empty stages. I think the world really needs music, especially now. I am looking forward to new David Crosby and Jackson Browne LPs next Friday.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my usual spot, sipping bourbon, wondering what Friday night held for the Rock Chick and I. After we dined, she grabbed the remotes and started pulling up Hulu. I don’t know how it works with the remote control in your house. I used to treat the remote to the TV like it was a scepter. He who controls the “power stick” controls the universe. But as the number of remotes needed has multiplied with streaming and such, I’ve ceded control to the Rock Chick. She plans what we binge watch anyway and let’s face it, you have to pick your battles in relationships. As soon as Hulu flickered onto the screen I realized what she was pulling up. I had mentioned the new documentary directed by Questlove – one of the coolest dudes on the planet whose encyclopedic knowledge of music humbles even me – Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). I had been wanting to see this documentary but had forgotten about it during the turbulent week…I mention something to the Rock Chick once and it’s like a steel trap, it’s gonna happen. I need to start mentioning things like Blanton’s bourbon…but I’m off topic.

The summer of 1968 was a turbulent one in America, especially for Blacks in the inner cities. Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated in April and there was broad rioting across America and New York’s Harlem was no exception. Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of ’68 making matters worse. Then reactionary thug Richard Nixon was elected in November. That ain’t no summer of love… what a difference a year makes. In 1969, perhaps in an effort to distract people they put on a series of concerts over six weeks in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now I believe it’s called Marcus Garvey Park). The concerts were billed as the Harlem Cultural Festival. Apparently they had cameras and filmed this event. When you consider Woodstock was just up the road around 100 miles and they filmed it and released a movie, one has to wonder, where has this film been? Apparently all the film of what was known as “Black Woodstock” sat in someone’s basement for 50 years, untouched. It’s been years since I saw Woodstock at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall, but that was an influential movie for me, quite formative. I can’t help but wonder what impact this footage of Black Woodstock would have had on everybody had it been released similarly.

Questlove did an amazing job as director of this film. I literally had tears in my eyes during certain moments of the film. He took the original concert footage – which is so vibrant and beautifully shot – and mixed in news reel footage to give it all some historical perspective. He interviews a number of the performers who played the Festival. He also – and I loved this – interviewed some of the people who were kids in the crowd that historic summer. The overflowing vibes of Black Power and Black Pride put the aforementioned tears in my eyes. I just loved this film. It was a really difficult time in America and especially for Black Americans… Sadly, it was eerily similar to what we see today… certainly like the summer of 2020. I’d have hoped we’d have made more progress in 50 some years.

The performers and performances also just knocked me out. It started with a young Stevie Wonder singing and playing a righteous drum solo. There was a big Gospel section in the middle of the movie – one might consider it the heartbeat of the film, as it is for so many performers – that featured the Staples (I love Pop on guitar and Mavis!) and Mahalia Jackson. The Fifth Dimension does a couple of songs and they interview Marilyn Mccoo and Billy Davis, Jr. I must say, Florence LaRue is my new rock n roll crush right now. Sly and the Family Stone – one of the first bands to feature men and women, black and white – put on their usual incendiary performance. B.B. King is such a beloved performer, I love his song in the film. Seeing Gladys Knight I realize I will never be, nor have I ever been cool enough to be a Pip…the way those cats move! David Ruffin from the Temptations does a solo set (he’d just left the group) that proves he may be the greatest rock/soul singer ever. Of the performances, I have to admit Nina Simone steals the show. It was a thing of brilliance to end the movie on her performance. It really puts an exclamation point on the film. “Blacklash Blues” is a song for the ages. She was fierce. 

I urge everyone out there to see this film. This is a hugely important historical document. It shows the Black community coming together peacefully to vibe on great music and culture. This was an event that didn’t deserve to be a whispered rumor or fading memory but should be celebrated as the cultural touchstone that it was. Its a great thing for music fans to see this footage but it’s also a great look back to 1969 and what was happening in Harlem. Its a wonderful addition to the Woodstock movie in terms of viewing 1969 musically. I was profoundly moved watching this film. I laughed, I cried… it really got to me. I think it will do that for everyone who watches it. Whoever controls the remote in your house needs to dial this movie up immediately…

Cheers!

 

Review: Tom Petty, ‘Angel Dream’ – Revisiting The ‘She’s The One’ Soundtrack

image

“I dreamed you, I saw your face, caught my lifeline when drifting through space, I saw an angel, I saw my fate, I can only thank God it was not too late…” – Tom Petty, “Angel Dream (No. 2)”

I don’t think I ever explicitly tied Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s soundtrack of songs for the movie She’s The One to his prior record, the solo credited (i.e., Tom Petty vs Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) Wildflowers. 1994’s Wildflowers was such a momentously big record and tour by 1996 when it was announced Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell, guitar; Ben Tench, keyboards; Howie Epstein, bass; they didn’t have an “official” replacement for departed drummer Stan Lynch) were releasing a soundtrack for a movie, I felt it was probably a stop-gap until the next “actual” album. However, recently the Petty estate decided to revisit the She’s The One soundtrack and remake it as more of an actual Petty LP vs the soundtrack we are all familiar with. They’ve been pitching this album named Angel Dream as the “last chapter” in the Wildflowers story. I questioned that at first but considering that a handful of tracks from the Wildflowers sessions ended up on the soundtrack, it sort of makes sense to me. I feared this might be something akin to the Finding Wildflowers fiasco but it appears not.

It’s always difficult for an artist to follow up a game changing album, especially one as huge as Wildflowers. Fleetwood Mac struggled after Rumours and switched creative directions and recorded the experimental Tusk. The Eagles struggled to follow up Hotel California so they labored and labored over The Long Run. Petty was probably facing a similar daunting task following up Wildflowers so doing a soundtrack ala Queen’s Highlander-centric A Kind of Magic was probably an escape route. Why they didn’t kick out a live album at that time is anyone’s guess? The story I remember about the She’s The One soundtrack was that director/star of the film Ed Burns approached Petty about writing a song for the soundtrack and Petty & his Heartbreakers (with Curt Bisquera playing drums on most the tracks, future Heartbreaker drummer Steve Ferrone only appears on 3 of them) got together with producer Rick Rubin and started jamming. The story went they were having so much fun they ended up with an album’s worth of material. I had no idea at the time that the soundtrack had tunes that originated in the Wildflowers sessions: “Climb That Hill,” “California,” “Hope You Never,” and “Hung Up And Overdue.” If Petty had this much strong material coming into the project, it hardly sounds like the jam I’d been led to believe it was. Petty had always wanted to make Wildflowers a double LP, but the record company talked him out of it. I guess he wanted some of those leftovers to see the light of day so they ended up on She’s The One.

I bought She’s The One almost as soon as it came out. The career momentum of Wildflowers was such that I would have purchased an album of Petty singing Appalachian folk songs accompanied by a banjo at the time… oh and I hate the banjo. I will admit the first single “Walls (Circus)” didn’t exactly grab me. I remember asking a friend of mine if he’d heard it and he said, “That song wouldn’t have even been considered for Wildflowers it’s so awful.” Harsh, indeed. The song is not my favorite, but I still ran to the record store. The song actually didn’t do very well on the charts either despite the fabulous Beach Boys-style backup vocal by Lindsey Buckingham (seriously, listen to that song on headphones and focus on Buckingham’s voice). That was probably a disappointment to the Petty camp at the time, but I figured the soundtrack was just a method to take some of the pressure off Petty having to come up with “Wildflowers 2.0.” I considered it then and still do, more of a minor addition to the Petty catalog.

She’s The One seemed slightly slap-dash, like most soundtracks. There were a couple of instrumentals, “Hope On Board” and “Airport,” likely used as background in the flick. I saw the movie but only remember a little of it. There were two versions each of “Walls” and “Angel Dream” which was unusual. What was also different about this album was it had not one but two covers songs, a rarity for a Petty album. The band did Lucinda Williams’ “Change The Locks,” and I must ask, is there a more perfect paring than Southern boy Tom Petty doing Southern woman Lucinda’s track? Petty also did a cover of Beck’s acoustic track “Asshole.” I loved that Petty was covering an artist who at the time was a relative new comer. And lets face it, “Asshole” is a great song. Petty treats it lovingly.

There are a lot of things to like on the She’s The One soundtrack. I do like both versions of “Angel Dream,” but especially “Angel Dream (No. 2),” quoted above… which could have been written by me about the Rock Chick a few years later. I love the song “California,” which is so catchy it should be on that state’s tourism commercials. I almost picked it for my “Virtual Vacation, 50 Songs/50 States” playlist last summer and I regret not doing so… “Supernatural Radio” is one of those lost, epic gems of a song that everyone should hear. “Zero From Outer Space” is the sound of the Heartbreakers having a really good time playing a surf-style rocker. Interestingly enough, Campbell and Tench would later record an entire LP of surf songs in disguise as the Blue Stingrays, (Friday Night Music Exploration With the Rock Chick: Blue Stones, Blue Stingrays).  “Hope You Never” is another “baby you done me wrong” track which always reminds me of the awful woman I was dating in ’96. While it wasn’t the momentous follow up people were looking for, it was to me an interesting record. Not great but good and Petty’s good stuff is better than most other artist’s great stuff.

The Petty estate decided as part of the Wildflowers story to repackage and re-release this music. Renamed Angel Dream after the strongest track on the original album, they also put some new artwork on the cover. I don’t usually talk about cover art but the choice on this one was… poor. It looks like a greeting card. What has changed on Angel Dream vs She’s The One? They omitted the two original instrumentals, “Hope On Board,” and “Airport.” They paired the two songs that had two versions each down to one version. “Walls (No. 3)” and “Angel Dream (No. 2)” were included and the other versions left off. I will say, in each case, they chose the right version of the song to include and which one to omit. They left off three of the Wildflowers outtakes, “Hope You Never,” “California” and “Hung Up And Overdue” which were included in the Wildflowers All The Rest box. They completely changed the running order of the original tracks. They lead off with “Angel Dream (No 2)” which as a ballad is different. They have included four unreleased songs that supposedly came out of those She’s The One sessions but weren’t included, which I assume is the hook to get us to buy this version: “One of Life’s Little Mysteries,” “105 Degrees,” the J.J. Cale cover “Thirteen Days,” and an instrumental “French Connection.” “French Connection” is just an instrumental version of “Angel Dream (No. 2),” which plays back into the multiple versions theme of the original.

If you don’t own the She’s The One soundtrack, the new running order probably won’t bother you. If I’m being honest, it’s probably a more satisfying listening experience in this new incarnation. It certainly didn’t change my opinion of this album as a minor entry in Petty’s catalog. The new tracks, as a whole, are weaker than the Wildflowers outtakes that were taken off the original for Angel Dream. “One of Life’s Little Mysteries” is an almost old-timey sounding track. It reminded me a little of “The Man Who Loved Women” from The Last DJ. It has that McCartney “Martha My Dear” feel to it. I’m a huge fan of stuff in the vaults but I’d just call “Life’s Little Mysteries” an OK track. It’s a curiosity. The J.J. Cale cover, “Thirteen Days” is the pick of the litter of the new songs. It tells the story of a band barely maintaining their sanity on the road. It’s got a fabulous slide guitar from Mike Campbell. “We’re smoking cigarettes and reefer, drinking coffee and booze.” Sounds kinda fun. “105 Degrees” is a barrel house rocker in the vein of the Animals with a big organ and sawing guitars. “What do you want, perfection?”

If you already have the She’s The One soundtrack, I’d merely suggest checking out the new, unreleased stuff, especially “105 Degrees” and “Thirteen Days.” If you don’t, this is a wholly satisfying listen in it’s own right. In my estimation it’s still a minor episode in the continuing story of Tom Petty but it’s definitely worth a listen… until the next box set of suddenly found material pops up from the Petty camp.

Cheers!

Something Different, 4th of July Memories: My Father-In-Law And Dirt Road Surprises

IMG_1192

In loving memory of R.A.S.

I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, across the state line in Kansas in Johnson County. Growing up in the suburbs is like growing up in the slow lane. You lack that hipster vibe that you get when you grow up in a more urban, big city environment. I used to think, “At least I’m cooler than those farm kids…” And then I met the coolest farm kid ever, the Rock Chick. I was surprised to learn such a dazzling, stylish woman had grown up in more rustic surroundings on a farm. It was then that I realized that my upbringing in the suburbs not only lacked that big city hipness but a certain “country” self reliant vibe. People who grow up on a farm just know how to do stuff… change the spark plugs, check. Of course, when I went to college, at Kansas State University, I met a lot of people who grew up out in the country and those guys were insane. I’d never met people who partied with such gusto. Work hard, play hard, indeed. Growing up in the suburbs, you hung out at the mall. It was like Fast Times At Ridgemont High… Growing up in a rural environment was more like Beyond Thunderdome with beer and tractors. As far as I was concerned I didn’t know the difference between a John Deere riding mower and a combine. What does it mean to slice the milo?

As I see the calendar rolling towards the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, and I lay in bed at night listening to various neighborhood miscreants lighting off midnight fireworks, I can’t help but think of my father-in-law. I was quite fond of my father-in-law, who I’ll call Billy. Billy sadly passed away about 11 years ago. I still miss the guy. He was a paraplegic. He was hurt in a farm accident when the Rock Chick’s mother was pregnant with her. She only saw her father standing in photos. Billy was an imposing figure, one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. He had a way with the ladies, despite the wheelchair. When I went to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he made me sweat a little and then gave me his blessing. Then we drank a ton of beer and shot rifles at targets all afternoon. Like I said, he was cool. If you want cement a good relationship with your future father-in-law, take the time to honor the man and ask his blessing when you go to marry his daughter, but I’m off topic… Every 4th of July, the Rock Chick, her daughter and I would drive down to the Rock Chick’s sister’s farm. We’d meet Billy there and well, do what everyone in the Midwest does: drink beer, grille BBQ chicken, play a lot of loud country music and prime Bob Seger and blow shit up. By nightfall Billy would slip off back home and the rest of us would climbup on the roof to watch the panoramic sky full of small town fireworks displays.

Billy was a gun enthusiast, to say the least. He was also a collector of older, vintage trucks. When he retired from ranching, he was always on the internet seeking out parts for these dinosaur trucks he was building. The man almost always had a hidden agenda. We had a hot dog roast on his farm one time and when he lit the bonfire, I discovered he’d hidden a tire in the burning pile. He needed to get rid of it and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was most decidedly not a good idea…the entire family was engulfed in poisonous, black smoke…at least Billy was amused. Even though I knew all of that about Billy, I was still surprised one 4th of July, when he pulled up to my sister-in-law’s farm and rather than get out of his van, he said to me in his cryptic, terse way, “Get in the truck.” It was more of a command really, he was used to telling people what to do. As I recall I was slightly hungover and was ready for cold beer and firecrackers and knew this “errand” likely involved trouble, at least for me…I could tell by his tone of voice. But then, I was generally wary when Billy asked me to do something. Billy had a way of getting people to do things for him even when they didn’t want to. I once strung Christmas lights on his roof during a downpour. He was bitching at me from the ground and I remember saying, “Do you wanna come up here and do it?” He just looked up from his wheelchair and laughed. I didn’t know quite how to respond to him that 4th, so I just said, only half-joking, “I knew this day would come… do we have to hide a body?” He finally smiled at me, but only with his eyes and said, “I need you to do something for me,” which was his usual way to ask for a favor. It’s like that scene in The Godfather when the Brando as Vito Corleone says, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”

Reluctantly, I climbed into the passenger’s seat. I won’t lie, as I climbed into the vehicle, I did cast a sideways glance to the back of the van, just to make sure there wasn’t a human shaped tarp back there. I’m an outlaw, not a criminal… I mean, I couldn’t survive hard time, I’m from the suburbs. We drove down my sister-in-law’s gravel driveway and headed off down the two-lane black top highway. Billy wasn’t a big talker so we just rolled along in silence, the only sound was the wind blowing in the open windows of the van. I stared out the window, wishing I was blowing stuff up with my daughter and drinking the cold beer I’d expertly iced in the cooler… I trailed my hand along through the wind and became absorbed in the rural landscape slipping past me. We drove through a small town, twisting and turning through the narrow streets like we were trying to lose somebody. We drove past fields of wheat and corn turning brown in the hot summer sun. We drove past decrepit barns and stately farm houses just off the road shaded by copses of trees. We passed a couple of giant oil storage facilities. There was barely a word exchanged between Billy and I. It was no use asking questions now, I was in the van… I’d bought the ticket, so I had to just enjoy the ride.

Pretty soon we’d turned off the main, county roads. We were on roads that were much more narrow. Pretty soon even the asphalt fell away and we found ourselves driving down gravel roads. People often reference the middle of nowhere… I’ve been there. If someone wanted to live off the grid, I suspect this is where they’d go. The gravel roads continued to narrow until it was really just one lane… Luckily there was nobody else on this deserted “road.”
Billy muttered, a couple of times, “I think we’re headed in the right direction,” which wasn’t comforting. Being from the suburbs I’ve never been terribly comfortable out in the country. I mean, I’ve seen Deliverance. I suspected Billy was packing but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. Finally we found ourselves creeping along the narrow gravel road up to a rather large farm house. Without warning, Billy swung the van into the driveway of potholes and stones. We had apparently reached our destination… although his comment, “I think this is it,” was not a confidence builder. If people live out in an isolated place like this, I’m guessing they’re not big on visitors, especially tall, goofy looking guys from the suburbs. I had mistakenly worn a Stones t-shirt and was worried I’d be considered a subversive out in this rustic setting. This was Billy’s world… I was an interloper, at best.

Billy turned in his driver’s seat toward me and squinted… “I think this man has a truck I wanna buy. I need you to go up and knock on the front door.” The big farm house was all in darkness. I wasn’t exactly dressed like an encyclopedia salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness so I hesitated. “Does he know we were coming? This doesn’t look like a very friendly house?” That was true enough. The house was large and somewhat forbidding. It didn’t look like a place with a doormat that read, “C’mon In Y’all.” To my query about the guy knowing we were coming Billy chuckled and said, “Not exactly.” Not exactly comforting. I slid out of the passenger side of the van slowly, like I was leaving the scene of an accident. I went crunching up the driveway like it was the Bataan Death March. It was like when I was a kid, my feet got heavy and I was walking very slowly, eyes furtively looking around, but always coming back to the front door. I was not happy.

It was then, from behind the house, I spotted the biggest German Shepherd I’d ever seen… and it was loping around the house, straight at me. I froze. So this was how I was going to die, killed by a German Shepherd miles away from any hospital or emergency care. I’d bleed out before the ambulance got here, I’m from the suburbs…if Billy even knew to call an ambulance. Thinking of Billy I turned slowly toward the van and realized I was half way up the driveway, too far to run from the giant beast who was looking at me like I was lunch and he missed breakfast. I glanced at Billy and my eyes were as big as Frisbees. He threw his hands up, gave an exaggerated shrug and I noticed… he was laughing uproariously. I wondered if he’d have to shoot the dog. I turned toward the dog and it was bearing down on me. I flinched, put my hands up… because… I have no idea why, I wasn’t going to fend him off. The German Shepherd launched himself up toward my throat and I knew it was over… His two big, dusty paws landed on my chest and I thought… that’ll look crazy in the autopsy photo, two paw prints on my shirt. I was looking the feral beast in the eyes as his face came even with mine… His giant jaw dropped, his mouth opened and… he licked my face. Yes, the dog was harmless.

Billy was now laughing so hard, I thought he’d fall out of the van. “That looked tense there, man.” No shit. After a quick spot-check to make sure I didn’t piss myself, I petted the dog and in a seriously high sounding voice muttered, “Good doggy.” I rang on the doorbell, wondering if this could go any worse. What was next, a shotgun blast? No one was home. We’d gone through all of this for naught. I was pissed at Billy at the time… but now I just look back on it as a funny story we could share. We drove slowly back to my sister-in-law’s farm where I grabbed two beers to calm my still shaky nerves.

To all of you out there this 4th of July, I hope you have a happy, safe time. We want all 10 fingers on Monday. I hope you all make some happy, danger-less weekends. Please remember its a celebration for most people but to your dogs and cats it’s Armageddon, take of your pets. Maybe get ’em some CBD. And to Billy, where ever you are… I miss ya buddy.

Cheers!