Dale Stephanos
August 2007
Musical Memories
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco
I don’t have a sense of smell. Never have. Sometimes this is good (I changed a lot of diapers when my children were small) and other times it leaves me feeling as though I’m missing a critical part of life. For me, that magical link between the olfactory and memory doesn’t exist. Remember the smell of cookies baking when you got home from grade school? I don’t. How about the smell of your newborn child’s skin? Not me. How about that first whiff of Spring in the air on a blustery March day? Nope. I’m told that smell and memory are lashed together like King Kong and the Empire State Building, or Ahab and Moby. You smell my drift.

For me, instead of smells being the exit ramp to Memory Lane, it’s music. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John brings me right back to a nasty bout of insomnia I had for a time when I was around ten years old. ”You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor puts me back on Nantucket with my mother during the summers when I was younger. I heard the song “DOA” by Bloodrock recently, and the hair on my arm stood up because that song was the soundtrack to a nightmare I had when I was very young. And yeah, there’s “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead that brings me right back to stage diving at the Channel in Boston and getting knocked out.

Every few years I reach the end of the musical cul de sac I’m strolling through and it’s difficult to make my way out. I usually try to just keep going straight and hack my way through the brush, forcing myself to listen to music I haven’t heard before. Or, more likely, I’ll try to appreciate a band that all the critics have proclaimed brilliant, but to me, seems anemic.

In 2002, Wilco was that band.

I bought Wilco’s album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” after reading all the glowing reviews and after a couple of listens I chalked it up to another case of record reviewers having themselves a little joke at our expense. Jeff Tweedy sounded like he had just woken up, the songs were disjointed, and it seemed like there had been a fistfight between the songwriter and the producer and the listening audience somehow got pulled into it and got it’s ass kicked.

In the summer of 2002 I decided to attend the Illustration Academy, which was run by Mark English (and featured, among others, Sterling Hundley) and his son John.  The drive from my house near Boston would take about 9 hours, so it’s natural that I only remembered to bring one CD. Of course, it was the CD I just described above, so I took it as a chance to make a music appreciation breakthrough on my way to a creative breakthrough. I listened to that damned disc for 9 hours straight, and by the time I got to Richmond, VA, it was starting to grow on me. Of course, when I got there, all ready for 3 uninterrupted weeks of self-improvement, the calls for jobs started flooding in. Good jobs, too. Not just the usual spots that you can toss off over night. So, after a week and a half, I finally gave up and headed for home.

By now, the Wilco disc had settled in nicely, I knew the words, was used to the idiosyncratic structure of the songs, and I thought the album was brilliant. Happily driving north on 95 on a bright sunny June day, I looked up the road and saw a car silently rolling over. “Huh, that’s funny, that car’s just turning over and over” I thought. As I approached, it seemed a little unreal. There were no crashing sounds, no dramatic camera angles, just a one shot 200 yard away view of a non descript car rolling over the median and then coming to a rest on the other side of the road.

By the time I pulled up, several trucks had stopped as well. The car’s roof was almost flattened, all the windows smashed and the woman who had been driving was staggering around mumbling something about needed to get her CD’s. The highway was strewn with debris from the car - cups, candy wrappers clothing,  CD’s, a sippie cup.

Hold on there, I thought. That’s what my kids drink from.

I asked the woman, who was now sitting on the road holding her bleeding forehead, “Are you alone”? She didn’t seem to speak English, but she pointed a shaking finger at the back of the car “CD!” the yelled, very anxiously. “CD”.

Shit. Seat? As in “child seat”?

I looked at the rear end of the car and it’s smashed in roof, and perused my fellow bystanders. They were all southern trucker types. Not one of them under 6’4”, 250 lbs. I felt like a sapling in a redwood forest. No way were they going to fit through that narrow assed slit that used to be a rear window. We were all on the same page though, and without discussion, decided that I was going in. One of the big guys had some sort of metal tool and cleared the remaining safety glass shards from the edges of the opening I’d go through with one sweep of his arm. I squeezed through and breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that all that was back there was the usual detritus that’s left of your possessions after you roll your car.

 I heard someone say “Fire” quietly ( I couldn’t smell smoke) beyond the cramped, wrinkled confines of the car, and started to maneuver my way around to get the hell out of there when I sensed movement. The passenger’s side front seat had been pushed back into the back seat. But there was a strange plastic thing between the two. It was vaguely familiar. “Hey”, I thought, “That looks like the bottom of our booster seat at home”.  I lifted up the front seat and there were these big brown eyes looking blankly up at me. I thought it was a doll at first. Then the eyes blinked. “Uh, there’s a kid back here” I said calmly. I tried to lift him up and out of the space, but he was buckled in pretty tight. “He’s strapped too tightly, I can’t get him loose” I called, and almost immediately a huge, tattooed, fleshy arm holding what looked like an even bigger knife came swinging in through the space, flailing blindly. “Hey, you’re gonna kill me!” I yelled. I took the knife and carefully cut the straps holding the little guy into his seat, then gently eased him out, praying he’d emerge from his little space all in one piece. After handing the boy out to the many waiting big strong arms, I squeezed my way back through the opening, vaguely aware that there was a smoke taste in my mouth and my eyes were stinging.

I stood on the road watching the men bring the boy over to his dazed, bleeding mother and looked at the thick black smoke billowing from under the crinkled hood of what used to be a car. I felt as though I had been watching these events unfold, as opposed to participating in them. As the first responders arrived, I kicked my way through the shattered glass and debris, back to my still running car with it’s driver side door ajar and the song “I am trying to break your heart” playing through the speakers on the other side of the highway, got in, and drove away into the bright June morning.

A quarter hour or so later, I noticed the steering wheel shaking, and thought, “Oh great, the damned car’s coming apart”. But then I realized the car was fine. It was me that was a little shaky. I called my wife and said to her, “I know it’s a cliché and all, but I just pulled a kid from a burning car”. She had kind of a “Oh, that’s nice” sort of reaction, which is just about right. It wasn’t a big dramatic thing, it was more a case of following events to their logical conclusion without a whole lot of debate.

So, when I hear Jeff Tweedy’s voice now, I think of burning cars, frightened children, and perfect June days.
Hammerin' Hank
A very wise man once said “ Bonds is a jerk, a liar, and an ass”.

I’m a little late, but I thought I’d honor Barry Bonds surpassing Henry Aaron’s all time home run record with a tip the pencil to Hammerin’ Hank himself.

Maybe it’s that Hank was of the Ali/ Kennedy/Beatles era of relative innocence that we see him as one of our morally uncontaminated American heroes.  It seems easier to put the celebrities of back in the day up on a pedestal. Maybe it’s because the media wasn’t as voracious in its appetite for fresh blood every day. Maybe the country still believed in itself with the afterglow of World War II still in sight.  The truth is, there aren't many people who can hold up under the intense scrutiny we bring to bear, and the image of our old time heroes are akin to the nostalgic way we look back at our childhood, when everything was "better".  It's all bullshit, of course.

Where was I?

I confess to not knowing much about Aaron past the home runs, the gracious demeanor, and that he was in that first wave a black ballplayers who were finally allowed to play outside the Negro League. While today's pro atheletes are suspected of enhancement through pharmacological alleyways, Aaron was said to have gained his enormous forearm strength by carrying ice blocks with tongs while growing up. However he got to where he was, he sure could hit 'em out of the park.
I can stop any time I want.
I swore to myself this summer that I wouldn’t get dragged back into bike racing. It’s excruciatingly difficult, and an even bigger time hog than blogging.  But that’s no reason to stop. I think I had just done it well enough to satisfy my irrational competitive urges and it was time to turn my full attention back to work.

Then around the middle of July I was riding my bike down to the Cape, which is about 95 miles from my house. It usually takes me about 4.5 hours. On this day, I had a strong tailwind and beat my previous best time by almost 30 minutes. With the endorphins flying around my head like mosquitoes at a cookout, I started thinking about my favorite race, the Green Mountain Stage Race, which is held on Labor Day weekend in the mountains of Vermont.

Like an alcoholic stopping into the bar for “just one drink”, I’ve found myself face down in a lactic haze of tracking intervals, watts, heartbeats, kilojoules, and time ridden. I can tell I’m getting into race shape because riding a bike is just about all I can do. A 4 hour hard ride with 6000 feet of climbing? Sure. Climbing out of the car and up the stairs to my front door? I don’t think so. I need to rest and catch my breath in the middle. It’s a very specific strength one develops while training to race a bike, to the exclusion of almost all other normal activities.

I’m not sure what it is about all the pain and suffering, the sweat, snot and bloodshed involved, that keeps me coming back. I often say that if our government put the detainees at Guantanamo through the kind of torture that my friends and I subject ourselves to willingly,  Amnesty International would be all over them with valid charges of human rights abuse.

I have met some of my favorite people in the world through this sport, so there’s that.

I’ve fallen off the wagon completely. Hopelessly. I swear I’ll stop after Labor Day and get back to the serious work of working seriously.  Just one more race. Really.
Here's a Kanye West portrait I did for the Wall Street Journal's Pursuits section a few weeks ago. The Pursuits section uses a lot of illustration, and from what I read it's Rupert Murdoch's favorite part of the paper, so I'm hoping the good times will continue to roll for us over there.

Our own David Bamundo usually assigns art for this particular space, but I think he was off catching up on some much need sleep that week.
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Stephanos is teaching at TutorMill, an online mentoring site for students of illustration!