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The Smokestack Climber with a Rose in Her Teeth
I pity people who can't find laughter or at least some bit of amusement in the little doings of the day. I believe I could find something ridiculous even in the saddest moment, if necessary. It has nothing to do with being superficial. It's a matter of joy in life. ― Sophie Scholl
Bethlehem, in the early line to get into SteelStacks, where the true hardcore fans gather in the hot mug of the end of July/ tornado warnings coming through their cellphones with the sinister squonk/ that strangely beautiful automated robot crying out of nowhere/ the whistley beep/ telling you to take cover (you know it/ you know it thrills you to the bone), but instead you stand firm outside in the concert line. The first warnings come down around 4pm and they say, very specifically, for people standing on ground where we are standing to take cover. To go down in a basement if you can. But that isn’t how we play it, fools or not.
I leave to check into the casino hotel down the block while Arle holds her place in a line of maybe 30 die-hard Bright Eyes fans from all over the country. When the warnings first begin, just prior to the hammering rains unleashing from the ominous sky/ people from the venue let the line people into a building on the property. So they are safe. Or safer, I guess.
As the weather alerts continue to blurt out of our phones over the next two hours, Arle talks to friendly strangers as I lay on the hotel bed, tired/ in and out of sleep. Not exactly earning my front row position that I’ll have later on, but whatever.
I’m a little hungover. I’m a little unsure of my place here. I’m a little scared she won’t get the front row like I want her to get even from this bed I’m laying on while she does all the work. And I’m a little out of my head/ casino strange/ broken work groove’d and far from home.
But eventually, I smash it all in the head. I roll off the sheets and brush my teeth and find my wallet and look out the window at the sun beginning to crack back through what was, minutes ago, not looking promising at all.
So I smash the dark upside the face and I head downstairs to the lobby, to the street, past the steel mill, to the steel stacks, to the parking lot where the people are arriving, and ultimately, to Arle, in the line, smiling even before she sees me. So I smile too. Before she sees me.
Just before they open the gates, me and Arle are out there in this line of people on this bright evening after the storm when I look up at one of the old steel mill towers looming stories high above us and I see it. A red-tailed hawk chasing a pigeon/ screaming at the pigeon. Then I fall away from here, I fall up into the sky, just like I always do, goddamn it.
I wish I was up there for a sec. Dizzying acrobatics spin my head. How can they even be real? Plus, I dig the natural bloodlust. I don’t know/ I find it oddly satisfying. How would I roll with it? Chased for my meat. Desired because I’m a pain in the ass. Whatever the reason, we all want it somehow… even when certain death is the end game.
Want me, you sexy sonofabitch.
Maybe you don’t want that, I don’t know. I don’t know you. But me, I want that. I always did. That’s my problem. I always want to be wanted or liked or adored, recognized, saluted… buy my tickets/ see my show/ read this thing I wrote/ follow me across my life. Give me meaning. Validate your homeboy even as he fades from view.
It happens. It’s happening. I should have been born a hawk but no one fucking asked me. So I got born a pigeon, I guess. A dirty street rat up under the bridge shitting purplish poems down onto some street by the river. No one hears it splat the cool evening walk. No one wanders along down here and stops to read it.
These days, I go mostly unnoticed, so even a hawk chasing me down to kill me gets me a little excited. Even standing in line risking it all to watch a band feels like Russian Roulette.
Standing in the front row, next to the girl of my dreams who is in love with this music/ this band/ these dudes/ this singer/ his songs/ his eyes/ his eyebrows/ fine, I fucking get it/ but funny enough/ this isn’t all about her anymore either. This is about me now, maybe more so.
I am here, sniffing this hydrant, I think, to be reminded of what I have lost. Or what I never really had. I’m not sure which. But I know I’m close to the truth when I say that. I’m older now. Riddled with fucked-upness. A dad. A husband. I mow lawns for a living. I write essays hardly anyone sees or talks about. My body is slacking. My brain needs quieting/ a baseball bat would work for that. And I cause more trouble than I’m worth and I know it. So maybe, just maybe, this is the band I need to save me. Or to kill me off once and for all. I’m fine either way.
Truth is, I have never seen Bright Eyes before.
I only started listening to them because Arle adores them and when they dropped a new album last year in the middle of a pandemic, their new music began to grow up out of our cardboard wafer floor like weed trees taking over the vacant lot where druggies shit in the night. One, two, three. Growing. Growing. Growing on me. Me watching her wash the dishes to the songs. Me watching her watch Conor Oberst on the TV, both of us buzzed in the twilight of the living room/ virtual PR shit the band was forced to do from their own recording studio in Omaha. Or from their living rooms in LA or wherever the hell they park ass.
The lyrics began to reveal themselves and at first I was hesitant. Not so much because of any particular reason other than the fact that I mostly don’t care about your lyrics anymore. Your band. My band. All the bands writing from the heart/ the grit/ the pigeon shit purple rain/ it’s a most lovely thing and it MUST go on! It simply MUST!
But for me particularly (quite possibly evaporating before your very eyes!), I have to say: I just don’t care as much anymore. I have heard the best. I sat backstage with Townes Van Zandt. I ate sandwiches with Bruce. I played fucking stickball with Steve Earle on the streets of South Philly and even the shit he would mutter when he foul-tipped the halfsie into a van was kind of lyrically brilliant.
So I have heard enough, more or less. Enough to scare me away from my own pen. Enough to rush me out the back door from the old house of songs into the fresh air. Gaping for breath, scared and relieved. Now what? written all over my fat face.
But maybe it was her. Arle. The way her eyes lit up when she listened to that new album in its first days on our record player.
The way her eyes light up. Her lovely bright eyes.
Well, there you go.
This shit writes itself sometimes.
It was the songs themselves, though, that beckoned me in the end. The wondrous depth of the music, the drunkard’s street orchestra approach to all of these different instruments colliding midair. I recognized it immediately as kind of the same thing my brother and I had always tried to capture on our records.
Here it was. I couldn’t believe it. Each day I’d hear more. Flashes of lyrics. Melody twists. Conor’s voice. I looked up their names: Mogis, Nate. I watched them with Arle across those secluded nights when the world was a forbidden place. I’d hear her playing the songs in the bathroom on the Bluetooth while she got a shower. While she dried her hair or whatever.
I heard the hair dryer on top of certain songs and I thought to myself, I’ll be damned. I wonder what mic those guys would’ve used to mix her hair dryer into this one?
And it all kept trying to whisper to me in that way that only music you are experiencing for the very first time can do. I tried my hardest to walk away. I didn’t need another band up in my world.
Fuck off, I screamed! Go back to Arle!
I like AC/DC! I hollered at their shadows at our window. I figured that would scare them off, but it didn’t. They stayed. She made them stay. She kept them around and I started feeding them little scraps here and there. Ripped shreds of my reluctant attention at first, I’d throw it at their little songs and walk out the room with a huff.
Later, when no one else was around/ when Arle was at work or out with the kids or something/ I’d put the record on myself. Toss them bigger hunks of myself. Admiration. Taps of my foot. Mouthing a lyric for the very first time. But then I’d catch myself and chase them out of the kitchen, high on caffeine, hollering at them hard.
I like George Jones, you motherfuckers! Leave me ALONE!
Everything I know or understand in this world is somehow connected to this flapping windsock of an idea that soul is more important than anything when it comes to art. And that art is more important than anything when it comes to life. And that life is more important than anything when it comes to living. And that you will never figure out exactly what that means. And neither will I.
But it seems to start with the soul thing and when I say that word I don’t mean soul music per se, although if you want to go there you will probably end up alright. And also, the soul I am conjuring here, it has no religious connotations either really.
I don’t really believe in the idea of God, but I do believe in the idea of soul. Soul, I think, is very real: in her eyes when she listens to the songs that speak to her; in my daughter’s swift smile when she has an idea for a drawing; in this kid’s sneakers: all ripped laces with dog-shit tips; in that kid’s finger tips: too-long nails with dried Popsicle warpaint.
And in the way the dogs try to con me into treats with their Oliver eyes.
In the way Jaws comes on and I want to watch.
In the way one dude in a cover band outside at the local fire company shin-dig smokes a cigarette and slams a tambourine a little behind the beat but that’s because he’s talking to a lady at the side of the stage and they are playing Stand By Me… holy shit.
In the way I have seen my brother break three guitar strings in a single swipe and still keep playing/ full volume/ in front of a lot of people/ because he was slightly lit/ slightly pissed off/ and slightly on fire with the flames of the history of everything burning up under his beat-up boots that were, more than likely, spreading Mad Cow Disease from England to Belgium, or Sweden to Denmark, somehow along the trail. Without even trying.
That is soul.
And I was wondering if Bright Eyes would have that.
I leaned on the barricade, chewed on a toothpick, no booze for me or for her. She had stood here for hours and I showed up at the end. I would ride her coattails into this general admission thing prepared for battle, but it was pointless. No one wanted to push or shove their way to the front at this show. The people were young and polite, looking out for each other, maybe hitting on my younger wife before I arrived.
But sweet kids talking shit about other bands I’d never heard of, they didn’t phase me in the end. They ran like gophers towards the barricade at the front of the stage. Me and Arle ran like poor people chasing tenners blowing down the street.
We are right in the front, stage right, not a few feet from Conor Oberst.
I can feel the electric coming off of Arle. I begin to feel as if maybe I shouldn’t be here to watch this…
But also: To hell with that. This might be my band now too. No matter what she thinks or wants. This is how it happens, even when you get to my age, seen all that I’ve seen, end up jaded in the yard/ looking for soul in the thundering rumble of Match Lit charcoal slamming down into the grill/ feeling lost and sad and missing what I had.
Feeling lost and sad and missing what I never had.
Feeling lost and sad and like I was never even here at all.
Hot dogs on the dish. Napkins under the heavy knife. The heat of fresh fire singeing my arms and I’m pretty sure that I am never coming back.
Later in the casino down the road, we stand in another line to order overpriced burgers and fries. We place our order, pay our money and then Arle sits at a table alone behind me as I wait over by the side counter for them to call our number. Amidst the gamblers taking a late-night snack break, I notice a few other people who seem like Bright Eyes fans. Black concert shirts/ blue hair/ smiles/ holding hands, some of them/ whispering and laughing, others.
I turn to look at Arle and she has the white rose that Conor Oberst handed to her on the table in front of her. It seems right somehow. His white rose for her just laying there on a grubby casino table in the middle of the night, the casino entrance just behind her/ the lights and the sounds and the promise and the strange mysterious soul of it all/ an entire city waving at Arle from some giant whale’s open mouth. And she doesn’t care at all.
She has the rose. And she touched his hand. And more importantly she has the night itself. The songs. The music. The band right in front of her in a way I don’t think I was ever able to give her. She will deny that but I have made my peace with it because you know why?
I will tell you.
It was what I had been so afraid of and yet so hopeful for. The show, I mean. The band. Bright Eyes. They were magic. Insanely good. Something bigger and better than most and I have seen a lot. Not all, of course, but many. Up close. Even from within. I know soul when I see it. When I look it in that slightly drunken eye it maintains/ when I mash eyes with it for a moment/ touch foreheads/ fist bump the night/ smell the whiskey breath and hear the sound it makes.
I stand, towards the end of the show, in awe and happy.
What else could I ever ask for. What else could I possibly imagine might have happened? In the throes of a band returning to Earth from a decade away in space, I witness a certain kind of sorcery born up in front of me in an amalgam of moments that add up to something bigger than the whole even.
Music is absurd to write about. But what isn’t so hard to try and at least capture the essence of the thing called love and the thing called soul. As consciously cliche as this whole thing is: I don’t ever know what comes next or how much time I have. When things go dark for me, I won’t bug anyone with any of this bullshit anymore, but until then, I can’t stop.
I can’t stop writing. I know it sounds lame in almost all the ways, but whatever. In the days when I feel my own skin melting/ my presence and worth flattening out/ as the times come when I have to understand that I am a Dad more than anything and a poet last of all/ it is that realization that guts me tonight/ throws my bloody insides right up on this stage.
But it’s also this same thing that makes me happy down deep. Down beneath my certain storms I keep getting closer to places I want to land. Beaches I need to storm. Before I run out of time.
What does it mean?
Here it comes, that heavy love
I'm never going to move it alone. -Bright Eyes
Watching her on the coast of joy as she stands inside the music/ Arle happy amongst strangers who love the same band as her/ Seeing a band smile at one another on the sly/ Smelling the weed rise from the summer crowd/ Talking to myself all the time, all the time/ You’re alright, boss. You’re mad as a fish, but you’re ok.
I would so much like to have something of you that I could always keep by me, that nobody else would notice.” ― Sophie Scholl
The white rose as he hands it to her/ as he says, “You want one?” into the mic for all this world to hear. Her beaming face in these stage lights right now. These lights we know/ soon they will be off, gone.
I watch it all in slow motion.
In single frames of passing life, I drag myself against the regular flow just so I can watch them exchange this flower as the band plays and the night goes clear and the stars begin again.
Then I come back because I have to. To real time and the stomping away of Conor Oberst and the cool collected smile of this woman who has saved me from myself, countless days and nights. I focus on the rose in her fist/ the way she holds it to her chest/ singing the words to the last song/ and I see soul/ smell it/ shake its hand in the back alley/ make the deal/ turn back to the shadows/ and go.
I bite my lip I’m so happy for her.
I feel soul shooting off this stage/ off these keys and synthesizers and off those drums and tubas and trumpets/ off the acoustic in the stand and off the pedal steel sitting there like a trash truck in the 6am street light/ soul through me and into Arle/ into Arle and back into me/ like cartoon lightning/ zapping us into X-ray naked bones/ then pushing out the backs of our skulls/ back off our spines like magic wand sparks/ back into the crowd/ into the faces of the people behind us/ the people singing along to the song Arle is singing along to/ she is still smiling cooly/ but I know her/ I stare at her and she doesn’t notice but I know her heart/ I know it is exploding into some kind of blistering birth/ born up she comes/ a reassembled, rebooted heart drenched in a single moment of unstoppable soul.
Tried and true. The music ends. The band splits. The magic remains but trickles upward, like sheet ghosts on stage ropes, like pot smoke clouds rising away. The people begin to turn the other direction, towards the merch table, to the exits and their Hondas and their Subarus and their KIAs all waiting out there under the stark street lamps in the thick summer gauze.
We stood here once. And we will likely never stand here again.
I crane my head, look up at the violet-lit smokestack, up where the hawk chased the pigeon back in the beginning of this whole thing/ back when the storm was still local/ back before I told you any of this.
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Learn about Sophie Scholl.
Listen to Bright Eyes.
Photos: # 1 & 2 by Arle Bielanko/ #3 & 4 by SB.
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
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