Monday, July 27, 2009

John Mellencamp at Walter Reed Hospital

Johnny Cougar. John Cougar Mellencamp. John Mellencamp. Here's a guy who flies just under the radar grid. Not the greatest songwriter. Not a great vocalist. But, here he is in 2009 still rocking. At Walter Reed Hospital, no less. It was an amazing show.
I think we all know John's hits, even if we dont know the titles. That one about Jack and Diane. The one with the refrain, "Ain't That America". We secretly know he was a heavy smoker who had several heart attacks. There's even an album with some pure poetry in the lyrics. Something about 'bone-colored sky'. A good album. 
But I was not aware that John Mellencamp was a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. I thought he was the Farm-Aid guy. A midwestern good old boy who didn't do much traveling and kept his horizons close. Wrong. Dead wrong.
The cable special started with John and his crew walking through the wards of Walter Reed. Remember now, he's a Vocal Critic of the War in Iraq. And here he is walking through the wards talking to young men and women who have lost a great deal--arms, legs, eyes--fighting that very same war. Wait a minute, Mellencamp, you are way out of your depth here, pal. Then the camera swings to a young man with a titanium leg prosthesis and a guitar painted red white and blue. The boy starts playing Jack and Diane. John joins in singing with him. The boy is transfixed, illuminated. The moment is pure beauty. Later on John Mellencamp worries out loud that there won't be many people in the audience...not everybody loves his politics at Walter Reed.
On to the show...and, yes, there aren't many folks in the audience. The upper galleries are completely empty and the main floor is kept in darkness and the cameras avoid panning over the 'crowds'. But Mellencamp and his band put on a beauty of a show. All the old hits, some new songs. The band was tight and having a good time--as were the folks in front of the stage. 
John jumps into the crowd and begins dancing with a young woman who looked to have lost both legs. She was standing with 2 canes and was uncomfortable having to move in a dance-like motion with the rock star. I was uncomfortable. This was tasteless tv. John jumps back on stage. He looks back at the woman and jumps back down and gives her the microphone and asks her to sing the chorus "Ain't that America/For you and me/Ain't that America/The land of the Free". She drops her canes takes the mike and begins belting out those simple words. Tears are pouring down my face. Mellencamp is watching her face, rapt in a heavenly glow.
So, there it is, folks. A mid-level rocker takes his music and politics to Walter Reed to entertain the troops and shed light on their plight. As Johnny Cougar said, "You can disagree with the war and still support the troops". 
I will remember for a long time those 2 scenes--the boy with one leg missing and an American flag guitar, playing Jack and Diane "Let it rock/Let it roll/Let the music come soothe your soul" and the young woman standing with 2 canes and probably no legs at all singing "Aint that America". Ain't that America?

Friday, July 3, 2009

To Thine Own Self Be True

    There's no escaping Hamlet. I wish someone else wrote Hamlet so I could feel secure in my distaste for Shakespeare.
    'To thine own self be true'...Polonius' words to his son. Polonius, the awful wind-bag and royal toady. Maybe Shakespeare wrote himself into Hamlet in the character of Polonius. To Thine Own Self Be True. 6 words. As profound as you can get. Nothing heavier in the English language. 
   Be yourself. This requires that you know who you are. How many of us can say we know ourselves? How many of us have the courage to out-stare that face in the Mirror? I can't. I find myself circling myself, looking for a way in, but afraid to get too close.
I tried analysis years ago. Lasted about 6 months and quit. We were getting too close to something I couldn't/didn't want to know. Myself. 
   I am the product of my DNA and my environment. My parents, relatives, friends, strangers. If any of these people were disturbed or did something detrimental to my growth it becomes my problem. So, the Self is a complex product...most of which is way beyond our control. Nobody gets to pick his/her Self. The idea, however, is to understand your Self and be True to it. Damn.
   To Thine Own Self Be True. Know yourself and be yourself. All around us powerful forces are constantly telling us what to look like, how to speak, what to drink/eat/smoke/wear. God protect the adventurous soul who decides to try to be himself. You end up tied to a wire fence and stoned to death by your friends or you become a very bright Nelson Mandela or MK Ghandi or Keith Richard. 
   To Thine Own Self Be True. Still, I know at a deep level that those 6 words are true. True like 'Do Unto Others' or 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'.
So, we're back to Hamlet and Shakespeare. Back to Courage and Self. Back to circling the woodfire, partly in shadow, partly in the glow...waiting for a signal. A small gesture. Come on in. Have a seat. We have some things to talk about.