Saturday, February 15, 2014

T.J. Oshie, Appetite for Destruction, and Tobacco

           I’ve been looking forward to today since yesterday. I’ve had it circled on my mental calendar for about two weeks. And for about four years. And also, for about 12 years. Eight years, too. And a number of other measurements of time as well. A couple of weeks ago, I was informed by a friend about a writing contest, and a regimented thing like that -- with a deadline -- is the sort of pants-seat kick I’m wired to need in order to get something done. So with the support of my wonderful wife, I worked pretty hard to put a few submissions together, and I sent them off yesterday. In mathematical terms, that means I was early, which never happens.

            But I was really only early with that deadline because of the four-, eight-, and 12-year marks. See, the United States of America men’s Olympic hockey team had a game today. It was super earls for us stateside, but in the evening over in Sochi (Editor’s Note: For the record, the “DawnsEarlyLight” hash tag will forever remain an all-time favorite for me.). And it wasn’t their first game; they beat Slovakia 7-1 Friday morning. Nor was it a medal game, a qualification game, a quarterfinal, or a semifinal. It was game two of three in the preliminary round. But Team U.S.A. faces Slovenia tomorrow, and then it’s on to round two. This -- a Saturday-morning tilt against a home-team Russia several have picked to win gold -- would be their true test of the round.


            It’s kind of like playing “The Price is Right” in reverse order. U.S.A. versus Russia was the Showcase Showdown, and now an assortment of challenges -- familiar, foreign, and otherwise -- will confront this squad, and if they’re lucky, they’ll get to “Come on down!” to the podium for a possible gold medal a week from tomorrow. The hugeness of this game was not to be overlooked. It served the purpose of a barometer for how this collection of players will fare in the remaining games, and if you’re passionate about Olympic hockey like I am, then you’ve been carrying the pain of the 2002 Salt Lake games, the embarrassment of Turin in 2006, and the massive high/subterranean low from the gold-medal game in Vancouver four years ago. Team U.S.A. has won Olympic gold in men’s hockey twice in the near-100-year history of the competition.

            Twice.

            I’ve made the argument before, but it bears a simplified repeating: There is no better nation-bonding activity like Olympic hockey. There just isn’t. So if your chance to win it all comes once every 50 years, I suggest you pay attention. Or get on board. Or both.


            This is why when, about six weeks ago, I approached the general manager at my last restaurant and suggested he open for breakfast and booze for the game, I was nervous. I was nervous because I didn’t think he’d go for it, and I would’ve been bummed for a missed opportunity to pump the hockey spirit in Kansas City. I was nervous because I thought he would go for it, and then nobody would show. And mostly, I was nervous because I thought he would go for it, the place would be packed, and we would lose.

Never did I imagine that this morning’s contest would go like that. When George Clarke told me Lew’s Grill & Bar was going to be open at six a.m. for the game on February 15, I was excited. When I later offered to put together and execute the breakfast idea, I was calm. Then, a bit of buzz started to circulate, and I was nervous all over again. It wasn’t easy, then, to fall asleep last night, with a number of things on the brain, so when my alarm went off at 4:30 this morning, I wasn’t near as rested as I would’ve like to’ve been. When we opened at six and were at standing-room only an hour later, I was stoked.

            A little bit of panic set in when Russia scored first, and it was replaced by relief when the U.S. tied the game. Once more, I was nervous when we took the lead for the very reason anxiety returned when Russia equalized. I freaked out a little bit when it looked like the home team would go up by a goal, then confident an ugly karma would visit the Americans when the goal was disallowed. Overtime had me biting my nails, and the shootout could not have been more stressful. To have a cherished St. Louis Blue like T.J. Oshie single-handedly overtake the extra rounds was nothing shy of insane. What was super cool about it was that my wife and kids showed up a little ways into the third period, which was when the breakfast rush was over, so we got to watch the firework finish together.

            Sitting here now, that feels like it was an entire day ago. The point, though, is that hope has been implanted, and hope -- depending on your perspective -- can be a wild ride.



            But there’s still a lot of hockey to be played, and hockey wasn’t the only thing on my mind as I tossed and turned last night.


            For one thing, there’s this clip that I shared on Facebook the other day:


            It goes without saying that the passage of time is probably the largest shared human experience in the history of our species. It’s a concept you live without knowing until you’re educated about it. Then you live it a number of other ways, and are perpetually fascinated by it. So, the notion should be familiar to me, but -- in varying ways -- it catches me off guard every single day. Like last night, I’m laying there and I’m thinking about Appetite for Destruction and it blows my freaking mind that that album will turn 27 years old this summer.

            I have a ton of memories associated with this album, and the one that was really resonating with me was its smell. It got me thinking about the mysterious power of olfaction. Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall wrote the lyric that Page McConnell has sung live some 185 times (Note: Thanks, phish.net!): “I get so overwhelmed, by olfactory hues.” So, yes: the album’s smell.

courtesy of Sam Milton


            I have no idea how many hours I sat at this desk and listened to music. Playing, rewinding, pausing, occasionally fast-forwarding. Transcribing lyrics, trying to hear bass lines, feeling awed by drummers, envisioning myself a six-string expert, making connections between bands, solo careers, and side projects. And yes, even smelling the album liner notes. The combination of that glossy, folded stock paper with ink and dye and machine press was intoxicating, and it was like each album had its own unique fragrance. I can’t be certain, but I’m fairly confident that Guns N’ Roses’ debut had a distinctly different aroma than that of its successor, G N’ R Lies.

            The contents of the Appetite remain split into two factions: the smash hits and the dark world of being rock stars. Let’s not pretend that I can write something about the trio of “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine, and “Paradise City” that hasn’t been already written. It’s the other nine cuts that while popular, bewildered me as a 13-year-old boy trying to find his way in the world.

            These tunes, starting with “It’s So Easy,” left me wondering about a portion of American culture I’d only exposed to on a surface level. I knew that rock stars partied and fornicated, but it seemed like Guns N’ Roses, via their music, delivered this truth firsthand. It opens with an interesting riff, then moves seamlessly into a lethargic rhythm, with someone who clearly didn’t care how his vocal performance -- I’m looking at you, Duff McKagan -- came across. The lifestyle referred to in this song was totally foreign. Everybody’s trying to please you? Like, get you off? Pay for your stuff? Drive you places? All of the above? Cool refrain, but little else to be desired about the song that follows “Jungle,” the album’s explosive leadoff hitter. Also, what a nice, fuzzy welcome to a universe in which you have zero qualms with putting varying forms of the word fuck right in your fucking ear.

            I didn’t know what “Nightrain” was about, and technically I guess I still don’t, but taken lyrically literally, I could never wrap my head around why the band -- or at least Axl Rose -- had taken a train at night enough times that it made him feel ready to crash and burn, aware that he would never learn. I mean, I figured there was some kind of metaphor at work, but this was the shadowy welcome to the rock underworld for my middle-school ass.


            “Out Ta Get Me” is really not a very good song. It’s sort of a continuation of “Nightrain,” in the sense that maybe he’s taking this train at night because this is how he flees from the pursuit of law enforcement. “Mr. Brownstone,” however, melted my brain. Kind of a Van Haleny intro that moves right into an audio sea of ass-kicking awesomeness. Everything about this cut embodied a mental tilt to the pinball game called my life. I mean, at that age, I think there’s a developmental tendency to take everything literally, so I couldn’t get past the first line. Why in the world is he laying in bed for two hours after he’s gotten up? Then, two hours after that he gets on the bus and starts drinking? Jesus. Talk about a problem.

            There you head to the refrain where, malleable as I might have been at 14, I was pretty certain that each member of the band had not, in fact, been dancing with a guy named Mr. Brownstone. So you peel away the metaphorical layers, and everything tells you that this song is about addiction. As in drugs. Like, these are real people that not only do real drugs, but they have a problem with them. They can’t Nancy Reagan up and just say no. At that point in my life, I’d seen a former uncle of mine roll a joint. That was it. It was the only thing I’d ever seen and I literally ran scared from his tool room in the basement where I caught him doing it.

            I still wouldn’t have been able to identify marijuana if you’d have put it in front of me, but I had a hunch they were talking about powder-up-your-nose and needle-in-your-arm kinds of drugs on this track. And it made me a little bit afraid of these guys. Like so: People that do drugs are mean and bullies, so if you ran into Guns N’ Roses in the street, they would probably kick your ass, steal your lunch money, and then kick your ass again. Dug the song, but not just for the craft of it; probably because the slight sense of dread that it gave me was new and fresh. Borderline intriguing.

            “My Michelle” did not skip a “Brownstone” beat and soared right into another element of intimidation and admirable, stripped-down rock. I didn’t care for the chorus, but whatever. I was, however, a little concerned for this Michelle gal. Was Axl serenading her? Fearing for her well-being? Hurt because she left him? Either way, it had the potential to be a killer cut, but they almost let it trail into a boring second half. The saving grace is that they brought back that intro riff and drove that thing down a different street, resuscitating it. The final 15 seconds are stupid, but I’m not sure how I’d have done it.

            Track eight is the album’s worst, and you don’t even have to listen to it to know that. One look at the choice to name a song “Think About You” and you think about how little effort went into its title, which means they probably didn’t care that much about the song, either. “You’re Crazy,” however, almost compensates for the album’s lone stinker. It’s uninventive, repetitive, and lacking much in the way of redeeming qualities, but its bluntness gives it value. You, there. Yes, you. You’re mentally unstable. You’re nuts. You’re off your rocker. And we wrote a fucking song about it. It doesn’t say anything else except for the fact that you’re insane. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. So, get yourself fixed.

            I think about “Anything Goes” and I think about the one realm of unlimited, chaotic, free-for-all activity that any middle-school boy thinks of: sex. Now, at the time I knew absolutely nothing about sex except for the fact that I (sort of) knew how it worked and I desired lots of it, ‘round the clock. In fact, I frequently had to linger a little longer in Cathy Everest’s seventh-grade social-studies class because two items -- the worst fashion trend in the history of pubescent boys (Umbros and boxer shorts) and Courtney Meara -- would give me incurable boners every day of the week and twice on Tuesday. It’s another don’t-have-to-dig-deep-beyond-the-title cut that suggests that the life of a rock star is in fact a wild one. What’s interesting to think about is how remarkably different my interpretation of the title is now with what it probably was 27 years ago.

            The band did us a huge favor by closing the album with “Rocket Queen.” The cryptic intro and overall different feel to the song from any other track on the album made the release, in my opinion, its unsung hero. It rocks from beginning to end and basically conveys the message that the ability to deliver the ultimate climax to a woman is something that can be had and, well, packaged. It’s also one of those nifty numbers that’s kind of two songs wrapped into one. At the midway point it shifts into a story within the story, then wraps up with a touch of feel good.

            So, yeah. Guns N’ Roses and Appetite for Destruction. Nineteen eighty-seven never saw that one coming. Well, I mean maybe it knew that something decent would come out of the glam-band era, but it didn’t expect this teeth kick, I guarantee. I’ll always remember how this album changed the face of rock and challenged me to be open to more than just classic rock and oldies. Once I did that, I had music figured out again. Until the next year. When Straight Outta Compton dropped. Talk about a mind fuck.

            There I was then, in bed, with U.S.A. hockey and Appetite for Destruction -- which, by the way, landed at number three on our infamous “Best 25 Albums of Past 25 Years” post  on my mind. There was a third thing, too, and it was a Valentine’s Day e-mail message from my wife. I’ve already gotten plenty personal in this post, so a little bit more won’t hurt, right? The whole thing was amazing, and really, I’m still processing it, but there’s an excerpt that was weaving in and out of the hope for American gold and the late-‘80s look Slash used to rock (and Mike Marchant used to draw on his notebook in Kathy Taylor’s eighth-grade social-studies class), and that excerpt was this:

"This maybe the part you get mad, check out, or quit reading altogether. I want you to make a real and serious effort to quit smoking, starting perhaps by stopping smoking at home. Maybe I made a mistake suggesting it, but I don't think I can handle it anymore. I know it's cigars, but the smell, you stepping out and lying to Adeline, and the reminder is too much for me. This is your 40th year. I want and am praying for a big year for you; with writing and your job, us getting settled and growing together. I am desperately fearful you will get cancer. I can't probably convey that adequately, but it terrifies me. I think I understand as best I can the reasons you haven't yet quit. I'm not discounting them or suggesting they aren't real and significant. I'm suggesting that you're bigger and stronger. Your heart has grown exponentially since you were the 15 year old boy who started smoking to fit in. You are part of me, of us, and of our family. We need you. We love you. You fit here."

            There is both so much and nothing at all to say to that painful truth. It doesn’t matter what I do in the rest of my life if I continue to keep poisoning myself. And I don’t share that excerpt or write these words because I seek empathy or need words of encouragement or a new agency of excuse fabrication. Sometimes it helps me to better see things for what they are when I put them in writing, and I’m hoping that this is one of those times. I do want to quit. For me. For my family. For our lives. It’s been a journey getting to a point in my life where I’ve been able to begin to recognize why I do many of the things I’ve always done. I’m working on it. I’m wishing that certain elements had different speeds than the ones that they do, but in a delicate way. Not in a way that alters the course my life is on. Because it’s on a good one. Sometimes it’s tricky to remember that, and right now a focus of mine should center on health and well-being.

            But it isn't. Not yet, anyway.

            So that’s been my Saturday. In some ways it seems like it’s been 85 percent T.J. Oshie, 10 percent Guns N’ Roses, five percent tobacco. In other ways, though, those percentages could -- and perhaps should -- be just the opposite.