Friday, February 26, 2010

The Ballad of Thaddeus McMullin

Sandal wearing yuppies enjoy their microbrews in front of Max's Brew Pub as soccer mom's swing by Main Street to pick the kids up from karate class in their PT Cruisers. Closet drunks zip in and out of the local liquor store with brown paper bags and little old ladies in Hoverounds coast up and down the sidewalk at a snails pace.

It's business as usual in the dumpy little town of Tigard, a suburb on the outskirts of Portland.

Behind George's Bicycle Shop a dozen or so bearded transients try their best to drown their sorrows in high-gravity malt liquor.

Some of them are doing pretty well. Some of them are angry drunks and their shouting causes more shouting, which causes the police to come and see who's in violation of their parole this time.

We migrate to the bike trail across the street, to a long wooden bridge that looks out on Fanno Creek, clogged with empty beer bottles and plastic bags.

We've made a mess of this town.

This town's made a mess of us.

Cleans socks are very important. Dirty jokes are like precious stones. Drugs and alcohol make time travel possible. Anything that makes the day go by faster.

Amongst this surly scraggly few, Triangle lives up to his name, passing the bottle between the three of us.

He's got but two things in this world: his guitar and his dog. He's a mangy old tramp but he's got heart.

We roll our own cigarettes. It's cheaper. I've been doing this for two years, so I can roll one-handed.

Tad can't roll for some reason. He's been out here longer than any of us, so you'd think he'd be a wizard at this. I roll a cig and pass it down.

He's a tall son of a bitch. We call him "Daddy Long Legs" and when he's drunk he damn near trips over himself. He wears a backwards baseball cap with long blonde dreadlocks sprouting out the sides, a handle-bar mustache dipped in beer and bushy eyebrows like Burl Ives.

We love him like a brother and he knows it.

An old friend of ours is coming back to town. He's been living with his mother in Arizona. We call him "Midget" because he's so little. It really pisses him off.

The guy has a wicked temper, though. Crazy little bastard. We haven't seen him for quite some time.

I wasn't present the night that "it" happened, so I'll tell you what happened as I heard it:

Tad, Triangle and a few others were throwing a "welcome back" party for Midget. The beer cooler was a little on the empty side, so Tad, Triangle and The Vet decided to head on out for another beer run.

The Vet was a crusty old bird who was "in the shit". His lungs were infected with Agent Orange and he was on blood thinners to keep his ticker in check.

He was a good friend. A charming fellow.

The 76 station was the only place open that time of night, which was right across the street, so they picked up a couple of cases and some smokes.

It all happened so fast.

They were at the crosswalk on the corner of Pacific and Walnut. Tad took a bad step. He stumbled back and plowed into the hood of a speeding car and then flipped over the top of the car and landed face up on the pavement, broken bones and all. He was bleeding from both ears and both his legs were pointed away from his body. The driver was uninjured and she called 911. The paramedics arrived thereafter.

The Vet took it worse than anyone. They were close, and for a long time, he blamed himself for what had happened. We all tried telling him that it wasn't his fault, that shit just happens sometimes and there's nothing you can do about it. I think it still haunts him, though. He couldn't sleep after that.

Tad was rushed off to the emergency room, both legs broken, six broken ribs, a shattered wrist, a broken jaw, one collapsed lung and bleeding internally in the brain. He was in a coma for over two months, and by the time he snapped out of it, he was in a vegetative state. He finally began to respond to his surroundings a few weeks later, and before long, he was talking and developing his motor skills all over again. He was enrolled in physical rehabilitation.

He could not remember his name and had no memory of his previous life. No memory of his childhood, family, friends. No memory of being homeless. And even though we'll always miss the old Tad, the goofy, long-haired hippie that he was, we came to accept that perhaps it was best this way.

Somewhere out there he's living a new life with new memories.

I hope he is well.

I quit drinking a year ago, but for those of you who know him, here's a toast to Thaddeus McMullin: the tallest, hairiest, orneriest prince among men you'll ever have the great privilege of meeting...


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Songs of Protest

Having grown up with a heady knowledge of the Great Depression, listening to the songs of Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Robert Zimmerman had a generation's old vision of America: a country of poor, underprivileged, hardworking people at odds with the growing conflict amongst the Labor Unions.

His mind was filled with images of weary, coal-faced miners and iron workers, singing songs of protest at union picket rallies. And as I picture this America, I can't help but think about what's going on today...

Is it possible that our generation will face another Great Depression? Have we learned so little from history that we must repeat it again and again?

What's the point of keeping record of things past if the past doesn't matter?

Maybe that's why Bob Dylan lost interest in singing songs of protest in the late sixties. After all that has happened in the last 200 years. After all the wars we have fought, we still return to the same place. A place of ignorance and barbarism, where the truth doesn't matter because we're too busy trying to survive it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Where I Come From

Like other children, Robert Zimmerman listened to the radio religiously, his interests swinging from blues to country to rock & roll.

He especially enjoyed the sweet sad folk ballads of Woody Guthrie, the "Dust Bowl Troubadour" of the Great Depression era, who frequently displayed the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists" upon the smooth surface of his acoustic guitar.

Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California, learning countless American folk and blues songs along the way. His earliest recordings were made by folklorist Alan Lomax, who collected folk songs for a federal archive of the Library of Congress.

Pete Seeger, an associate of Alan Lomax and a member of the socialist party, performed on the weekly Columbia Broadcast "Where I Come From", where he first met Woodie Guthrie. They became friends and traveled on the road together.

On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee led by the Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Seeger refused to name names.

"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."

Seeger's refusal to testify led to a federal indictment for contempt of Congress, and for several years, he was to keep the federal government apprised of his whereabouts at all times.

In March 1961, he was convicted by a jury for contempt of court and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but in May 1962, his conviction was overturned after the fall of McCarthyism.

Like Guthrie, his banjo carries a message...

"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

The Meteor Shower

I was seven-years-old the first time I traveled aboard a commercial airliner. My parents had joint custody, so during the summer of 1986 I flew out to visit my father in the quiet little town of Medford, Oregon.

We went camping at a beautiful state park on the river and I had a lot of fun playing with the other children who camped in the trailer next to ours.

When it was time to go, my father drove me to the airport and put me on a plane headed for Los Angeles. I would not see him for another 23 years...

Eight months into sobriety, having moved out of the Oxford House, I was living with a friend of mine. We were homeless together and we got sober together.

I was sitting comfortably at my computer desk one night as I typed my mother's maiden name into the search engine. I pressed enter and there she was.

I can't remember how many times I had tried this before with no success. I hadn't talked to my mother in four years. It was a miracle. I got in touch with her in no time. She had been searching for me everywhere, chasing leads all over town.

Before long my relatives were emailing me, sending me heartfelt messages and helping me get in touch with other members of my family, including my older sister who left home when I was thirteen.

Turns out she lived just five minutes away.

Sometime later, I was reunited with my father, who lived on the very same street as my sister! Can you imagine? The whole time my family was right here in Portland waiting for me. That got me thinking.

His whole life, Einstein asked himself and others if the nature of the universe was random and chaotic or if there was a natural order?

Well, I'm no Einstein, but I'll say this...

Life is chaos. We bump into one another like small particles in a meteor shower, and the choices we make can do great damage. But when the dust settles, there we are, polished like a smooth stone that's been lying motionless for hundreds of years at the bottom of a river. Out of the chaos, a natural order unfolds and defines our lives, until the next meteor shower comes along and wipes it all away.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beatrice "Beatty" Stone

By now you're probably wondering where I got the name "Betty Stone" and just what the hell has she got to do with any of this?

Well, I had recently applied for a job at for a position writing a detailed archive about the life and times and tempestuous career of Bob Dylan. Thing is, in order to apply for the job, you had to complete a 500 word sample.

I thought to myself, "Holy shit, every tattooed freak and long-haired hippie living in their Uncle Tom's tool shed is gonna want a piece of this thing!"

So I rolled up my sleeves and performed 24 hours of balls-to-the-walls research, and by Thursday night I had 1,2oo words locked, cocked and ready to rock!

By the time my bulbous email had reached their office I realized I had made a huge mistake. Well, maybe not huge, but a mistake nonetheless. I had misspelled Bob Dylan's mother's maiden name: Beatrice "Betty" Stone.

Now, let's get this right...

Little is known of Beatrice "Beatty" Stone. She was a model in New York in the 1930s, an excellent chef and the wife of Abraham Zimmerman, who was a Washington physician.

During World War II, while Abraham was overseas, Beatty house-sat for her brother, William Nichols, who was a television producer in Central Manhattan. Their home looked out on the East River, and they were often visited by artists and actors.

"As an infant", Dylan recounts, "I crawled beneath the piano while Aaron Copland polished his symphonies, and when I was perhaps a year old and hadn't walked, Boris Karloff tickled my toes and said, "You shall walk." The next day I did. My uncle played boogie-woogie piano, and later I would stand on the radiator by his side singing "Rag Mop" and "There's No Business Like Show Business."

After the War, the Zimmerman family moved to Washington, where his father's family lived.

"It was a tremendous letdown," Dylan continues, "I was sent to a proper Episcopal school, where sons of the politically adept or socially elite studied. Senator John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore were schoolmates of mine. Gore and I were in the boarding department together. When he lost to Bush in 2000, I joked that it was the last opportunity I'd have to say I'd slept with the president."

Two years later, in 1947, Abraham Zimmerman was stricken with polio. They moved to Hibbing, the iron ore capital of Minnesota, wherein young Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) would spend the remainder of his childhood...

But that, folks, is another story.

Oh, by the way! For those of you who like to bake, I seem to have stumbled upon an old recipe for Beatty Zimmerman's Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf Bread on

Beatty Zimmerman, mother of singer Bob Dylan, says this recipe is no-fail: "It's one minute to make." and "All of the children like their grandma's Banana Chocolate Chip Bread because it's not too sweet."

1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
2 eggs
4 tablespoons sour cream
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 (6-ounce) package chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and beat well. Add the sour cream and ripe bananas; mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda.


Add the dry mixture to the sour cream mixture, then fold in the chocolate chips. Divide the batter between two greased (8x3-inch) loaf pans. Bake for about 50 minutes. Turn the loaves out on to cooling rack or aluminum foil as soon as they're done.

Source: Sandy Thompson,
The Detroit Free Press,
July 7, 1999

Thanks Sandy.

Like A Rolling Stone

I first started listening to Bob Dylan just out of curiosity. His name was all over the place and I considered myself a music aficionado by that time so I figured I better open my ears to some root music.

I was 29. Just sobering up in an Oxford House.

If you don't know what an Oxford House is, allow me to enlighten you. An Oxford House is sort of like a halfway house, but for addicts and alcoholics, and instead of answering to your parole officer each week you answer to your sponsor.

If you don't know what a sponsor is, go to any support group in your area. By the end of the meeting you'll be poked and prodded by every hard-nosed buzzard in the room. These are the veterans of the bunch, and they want to let you know just how God damned happy they all are.

So, anyway, I'm upstairs in my cozy little loft trying like hell to drown out the clamor of little children running up and down the stairs when I plug in "Highway 61 Revisited".

I put on my headphones and press play.

...The music begins...

I'm lying there in bed, staring up at the ceiling with the sun dancing through my skylight, washing over my face, and for the first time - for real - I hear the song "Like A Rolling Stone" playing out in my mind like a biblical prophecy.

The lyrics "How does it feel to be without a home, like a complete unknown?" resonated with me on a spiritual level. I was born again.

All those cold nights sleeping under bridges and panhandling for loose change. All those broken hearts and shattered dreams. All those smiling faces with missing teeth.

We were not alone.

Born To Boogie

My earliest memories are of my father practicing guitar and driving my mother insane. We lived in a small trailer in Gresham, Oregon, behind an old dance hall called "The Flower Drum", where my father played bass for a country western troupe who called themselves "Driftwood".

Here's an old tape recording of them performing "Sister Golden Hair" at the Lariat Room.

Later on they started calling themselves "Cimarron".

They never made the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, but I remember sitting in my mother's lap, banging on the tambourine while my father and the rest of the group played onstage. I was four years old. My sister was eleven...

My parents divorced just a few years later, and it was a long time before I saw my father again. But those early years at The Flower Drum had an indelible impression on me. I had the bug. It was in my veins. I was born to boogie!

When I was twenty, I joined the Navy, which turned out to be not such a good move. But I learned a valuable lesson from my short stint in the South Atlantic submarine fleet: Never Again Volunteer Yourself {N.A.V.Y.}

Long story short, I couldn't find a job and I was burning bridges with my friends and family faster than I could build them. Before long, I was homeless on the streets of Portland, where I met a lot of interesting people. I started drinking pretty heavily, smoking pot on a regular basis. I occasionally used meth and damn near went to jail a few times.

I had scraped the surface of the bottom. But I hadn't found that out yet. At least not until a group of evangelists swung around the corner of an old bicycle shop we used to hide behind and dink beers.

"Oh, brother", I thought, "Here it comes". These guys were a bunch of crazy Jesus pushers. I didn't want anything to do with them. But for the life of me, I couldn't scare 'em off!

Well, those crazy Jesus pushers saved my life, and if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have found my way into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and back into the arms of my family.

If you'd like to learn more about my experience, then please, sit yourself down and I'll tell you a tale about friends, family, God, homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, the guitar, and the modern day prophet, Bob Dylan. Blessed be thy name.