Chapter One: They Call The Wind Mariah.
Memoir of a Thwarted Rock Star
If you’re reading this you might be a member of my family trolling to see if I throw you or any of the other family members under the bus in the telling of this story. I will. Be sure of it. You can’t bake a cake without breaking a few eggs and you can’t tell a story like this without it getting ugly from time to time. I offer you my pre-apologies. Cold comfort, I know. Regardless, I love you all, so….
If you’re reading this you might be a former band mate and fearing the same thing. I’ve been in bands since I was 14 years old. I’m 48 at this moment, so thirty four years? I’m not good at math. Remember that. It will play a significant role in the tales to come. But yeah, I just checked and 48 minus 34 is 14, so I was right.
Some of what I say about people I’ve played music with over the years might seem unkind, but I can honestly say as far as I can remember right now, I love all of you. You were my family when I needed a family that understood me. I love my real family as well, but from an early age I was not like them. I was this weird little alien placed among them doing things none of any of them could do. Many of my family members supported me even though they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. I know they all loved me. Some of them weren’t very good at it though.
Things you need to know that inform this story: I was adopted when I was a newborn baby. I was born on October 25, 1971. Being adopted plays a big role here. It plays a huge role. Everything I am and everything that’s made me crazy over the years stems from that fact. I wish it was different. I wish being adopted could actually mean that I went to a better home with a brighter future than I would have had otherwise, and for the most part that’s true. But for an adopted kid, no matter how much you’re loved you always feel like garbage. I can tell you with my intellectual mind that I know that’s not true, but there’s still a little kid inside me somewhere who wonders why his mother gave him away.
But what does this have to do with music, right? Where are the stories of failure and woe? We want schadenfreude!!! I’m getting there. This stuff helps set the scene, so just bear with me while I paint this backdrop.
That actually reminds me of a picture that used to hang on the wall in our living room at home. It was a picture of a painting. There was an Indian standing at the edge of a huge forest looking in. I haven’t even remembered that painting until just this moment. I remember the dream I used to have set inside that painting when I would go out to the living room at night and sleep like a puppy in the space between my dad’s legs as he slept on his side and the back of the couch. I didn’t know why he was sleeping on the couch then. But that picture loomed over us and in the dream it was the setting for a family trip to a real place called Storybook Village, which was one of those really creepy half-assed theme parks that existed all over the place in the 70s. We went there sometimes and we’d eat a picnic lunch and ride the low rent rides based on storybook characters that weren’t under copyright so they were public domain. A lot of Hansel and Gretel and 3 little pigs kind of stuff.
Anyway, the dream. It always started like one of those trips. We’d ride the rides and eat the picnic lunch but on the way home while we drove through the thick trees the loomed over every county road in West Virginia, the trees came alive, tore the car apart, killed my mom, ripped my dad to shreds, peeling him apart like good, moist pulled pork. I woke up when they came for me. My brother, who existed by that time, was never in the dream. My brother not being part of my life is a thing. If I don’t mention him again, don’t be surprised.
But the music, yeah. OK. We spent a lot of time in the car when I was really young. I only have a few memories I can see clearly from the time up to when I was around 5 or so and most of them are of riding in the car. This would have been 1974, maybe 1975. My dad bought what I remember as a late model Chevy Nova. Maybe it was a Vega, I remember my dad almost killing himself in a Vega a few years later.
So this car had an 8 track player in it. 8 track players were super cool back then. I don’t know when they started putting them in cars, but it was the first time we had one. We didn’t have any 8-tracks at the time (although we would and they would play a major role in my musician development). All we had was this cassette that came with the car, so that’s all we listened to.
I was born in West Virginia, another fact that looms large over my legend, and we spent so much time in the car because we spent a lot of weekends visiting my grandparents who lived about an hour away from where we lived. We lived in Morgantown and my dad’s mother lived in Terra Alta, WV. My mom’s parents lived 30 minutes away in a small western Maryland town called Oakland.
That factory cassette had a lot of weird stuff on it — Lawrence Welk-style light classical music and a bunch of filler. But it also had a song called “They Called the Wind Mariah”.
I was 3 years old, going on 4. And somehow I could sing. I’ve been around a lot of babies that age since that time and I’ve never known any that could talk all that well, let alone sing. But I could. And during those rides I learned every word to They Call The Wind Mariah. I didn’t know until years later that Clint Eastwood sang that song in “Paint Your Wagon”. Soon enough my parents trotted into the grandparents’ houses and had me sing it for whoever was around. And I did every time.
There’s this adrenaline charge you get whenever you’re in front of people performing and you can feel you’ve connected with them, they’re with you. You’ve taken them out of whatever world they were in moments before you started singing and pulled them into the unreality of the song. It connects people. It becomes a shared experience. I think that’s why music plays such a big role in religion. God is in music. Not the Christian god, or any other deity, but whatever it is that connects us all together, the shared memories lodged in our DNA, the gossamer threads that bind us.
Who knows why humans can think like we do? Who knows why we have this level of consciousness that goes beyond the present moment and strings itself out through time. I’m sure there’s an explanation in science, but whatever it is, it’s incomplete. Music, art holds it all together. Music is the lighthouse that pulls us all back to shore if even for a brief moment before the darkness sucks us in again.
Standing there at the head of the folding tables filled with covered dishes — ambrosia salad, green beans cooked with pork and butter, fried chicken, a haze of cigarette smoke floating above our heads, hemmed in by the aluminum awning that covered the driveway, I sang “They called the Wind Mariah” I don’t know how many times. Later it was “(Take Me Home) Country Roads”. I’d sing my 3-year-old heart out and everyone went quiet. For a few seconds after I stopped there was no sound. And then everyone snapped out of the spell and clapped. I was a star for that moment. I was the center of everyone’s attention. There’s no better feeling than that and none more addictive or elusive the longer you chase it.
I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to recreate that moment and never quite getting there. 45 years on I’m still chasing it, but I’m old enough now to know I’ll never catch it. Nothing’s ever as good as the first time, when you’re unmarked by the world, innocent and unaware of the haunted house you’re about to walk into. Once the first notes escape your throat, if you have that thing that pulls people together and touches them in some prehistoric place, you never forget that feeling. If you’re lucky you’ll get close to it again, maybe even learn to channel it. If you’re not, you’ll spend the rest of your life chasing a high that seems simple, easy, but will always be just out of reach
That’s what this story is: the chronicle of the 45 years I’ve spent trying to relive that first moment over and over again and generally failing. There’s purpose in failing. It’s better than not trying. It’s better than being afraid. Or at least being afraid and not facing your fear. Like a lot of life, it’s a beautiful, confusing shit show. But it’s my show nonetheless.
Next Episode: My First Beer.