Generally, when I first listen to a song, I don’t pay much attention to lyrics. If I dig the melody and beat – as the boppers used to say on Bandstand – I’ll start paying closer attention to the words, and if the diction is clever or thought-provoking, all the better.
After all, it’s really rare to encounter lyrics that possess the compression and structural integrity of poetry, i.e., to find songs with words that can stand alone on a page and engage sans musical accompaniment.
My friend George Fox’s latest song – so new that it’s still untitled – comes close to accomplishing this rare feat. The song, which consists of three verses followed by a chorus, distills a lifetime in four-and-a-half minutes and does so employing diction, imagery, and structure that reinforce and embody the song’s central theme, what Andrew Marvell famously dubbed “time’s wingèd chariot.” George wrestles with the metaphysics of time, the illusive nature of past, present, and future, and how a lifetime passes [cliché alert] in the blink of an eye.
The song begins with a callous youth speeding through life in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina:
Just eighteen, driving an old pickup truck, Joint in the ashtray and a bed full of luck. Running nowhere as fast as I can Down an Orangeburg County washboard road Not enough sense to take it slow. Rolling Stones singing “Street Fighting Man.”
Here, the theme of speed is introduced, and we have our first bit of compression in the allusion to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which melds the attitude of the the speaker in the Stones’ song with George’s narrator, both young men fueled by the fire of youthful exuberance.
What’s a poor boy to do but “run nowhere as fast as [he] can?”
The chorus shifts to the present, and again, we have speed, the idea of chasing “the dying light,” or as Marvell puts it in “To His Coy Mistress,” although “we cannot make our sun /Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Yet, in the last line, the speaker comes to the realization it’s always now, that the past and future only exist in the present and meaning lies in perspective, depending on where “you’re standing.”
Right outside of your window, just outside your door, Everything is waiting for you To fall into the night and chase the dying light. There’s no need to be gentle. Sometimes it’s heaven, sometimes it’s hell. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. All depends on where you’re standing. I stand before you now, and I see it written in in the clouds, All that was and is and could be is now.
In the video below you can check out the first verse and chorus from a live performance at Chico Feo’s Monday Night Singer/Songwriter Soapbox, which George emcees. The song is a work-in-progress, and for me, it’s thrilling to see it evolve on stage, as George experiments with phrasing and gestures.
In the second verse, the middle verse, the narrator finds himself suddenly middle aged, “thirty-three/With two little boys sitting on my knee” and has come to know “how love is made,” but swoosh, suddenly, with the days having flown by “like a midnight train,” he looks down to see, not his sons, but his granddaughter Eliza Jade.
Turned around and I was thirty-three With two little boys sitting on my knee, And I realized how love is made. The days flew by like a midnight train. The years fell on me like the pouring rain. Now I look down and see Eliza Jade.
The last stanza arrives like a melancholy last act, with “second guesses, another last chance, and one more shot.” Once again, the radio is playing, not “Street Fighting Man,” but “a brand new song” saying “the same old thing” but “still get[ting] it wrong.”
Second guesses are all I’ve got, Another last chance and one more shot. And how I got here I don’t even know. The radio plays a brand new song. It says the same old thing they still get wrong Oh man, and so it goes.
And so it goes – a lifetime distilled into a handful of words.
I could go on about structure, how the number three is central to the architectonics – three six-line stanzas, three nine-line choruses, the narrator citing at one point his age is thirty-three, but you’d think I was overdoing it, and you’d be wrong. If it’s there, it’s there, whether the artist planned it or not. Making art is like dreaming, it comes from below, often surprising the artist him or herself.
By the way, George’s band Big Stoner Creek has a new album out. You can check it out HERE.
PS. Here’s an earlier rendition of stanza three and the concluding chorus:
One of the recompenses of old age – and believe me they are few – is that getting rip-roaring, intestine-unloading, word-slurring, sidewalk-reeling drunk has lost its allure.
Oh, Lawd, my geriatric muse, Erratatata has descended:
Dionysius, boon companion of my youth,
has grown so very long in the tooth
that he looks like Nosferatu,
like, like bad, bad juju.
Nevertheless, even though my days of dancing-on-tables, driving-MGs-down-parking-garage-steps have long passed, I still enjoy checking out Folly Beach’s party scene, to engage tiara sporting brides-to-be and their uniformed entourages in conversation. I also enjoy making small talk with the young men at Chico Feo or Low Life who share adjacent barstools. I relish shooting the shit, as my father might put it, with many of the bartenders whom I consider more than acquaintances.
But only for an hour or two. Too many Founders Day IPAs makes Wesley a dyspeptic codger.
Nevertheless, I tip my fedora to those old sybarites who never forsake the temporary comforts of strong drink, the Sir Toby Belches and T. Frothingill Bellows of the world, who belly up to the bar and have at it until the day they started to drink becomes the morrow or until their livers eventually give out.
Yet, ultimately, forgive the cliché, but home is where the heart is. There’s nothing I’d rather do than sit on the deck with Caroline on a gnat-less late afternoon and look out over the river at the light maturing, going golden, and ultimately dying, then sitting down to dinner with Brooks and rehashing the day’s trivial events, which all and all make up most of our lives.
Now, as some of us used to say in the 60s, that is where it’s at.
 Of course, the cliché “with age comes wisdom” is somewhat true. I say “somewhat” because the wisdom of perspective, of the long view, i.e., the road map that experience provides, is merely two-dimensional. For example, I’ve learned in my old age that acute intoxication comes at a cost not worth paying, but that revelation isn’t exactly profound – it’s not as if I’ve embraced the Four Noble Truths and eliminated desire from my mental makeup, not as if I have achieved the serenity that a life of virtue provides. I still occasionally slip up and get drunk, though that’s never my goal.
Anyway, if old age provides wisdom, how come so many of my senescent brethren wear scowls instead of sport beatific smiles? I’ll tell you why, because their joints ache, they’re lonely, the world is going to hell in a handbasket as it has been since time immemorial, i.e., since the discovery of agriculture, Eden’s end.
 In which I offer sage advice like “monogamy is the cornerstone of a non-violent marriage” and “if you get caught in undertow, swim parallel to the shore.”
 Sir Toby of Twelfth Night and T. Frothingill Bellows, the protagonist of WC Fields’s The Big Broadcast of 1938.
For example, I don’t love a dog merely because it’s a dog, don’t love a baby because it’s merely a baby. Loving something just because in falls into category strikes me as indiscriminate.
Oh, look at baby Putin, he’s so adorable. Coochie Coochie Coo, Vladimir.
On the other hand, I have loved and do love individual dogs like Jack, Sally, Bessie, Saisy, Milo, Cosmo, Daisy, and KitKat because they cool, not because they merely possess four legs, sport fur, and love you unconditionally if you feed them and offer them the scantest attention. I don’t love babies because they’re supposedly innocent or cute or whatever. I love babies with personality, party babies, babies with soul. Like this one:
If you don’t like dogs – and some people don’t – it’s probably not a great idea to announce it on your Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. For whatever reason, where I live dogs have risen in status approaching the parental love levels of demi-human. Sometimes. it seems to me that people who bring their dogs to bars consider their dogs alter egos, like the dog is an extension of themselves, a walking scarf, as it were. I suspect that some dog owners work all day and feel obligated to drag their shepherds and Boykins to Chico Feo or Lowlife for a modicum of stimulation and companionship for the dog while the owners seek human contact and alcohol.
Unfortunately, today I had unpleasant encounters with three bar dogs. The first one, one of these ubiquitous poodle mixes (perhaps a waddle waddle doodle doodle) was lying underneath my stool and looked up beseechingly and me, so I addressed him as if he were human, saying something along the lines of, “How you doing, Buddy Roe,” and he immediately growled at me, showing his teeth. His owner, a dour faced woman eating an exotic dish, didn’t chide the dog, so I said to it testily, raising my hands with palms pushing outward, “End of conversation, canine.”
A bit later as I was leaving, my passage was blocked by two straining spaniels on leashes, held by an attractive smiling blonde, and when I tried to slide past them, they barked aggressively.
I stopped and addressed the dogs. “Look,” I said, “I come to this bar practically every day. This is my territory.” Then glanced at the woman and said, “I’m serious.”
A Dear Abby suggestion: If you’re gonna bring belligerent dogs to restaurants, sit in a corner.
On the way home, the light was beautiful as I walked down Cooper to Hudson to take KitKat out to pee, which she did indeed, happy but not overjoyed to see me.
The cat, on the other hand, hangs with me in the study, now asleep he is, curled up like a black, hairy caterpillar. No way I’m ever taking him to a bar.
 I’m a slack ass grammarian and lazy to boot, so I omitted the verb here because most of the dogs are dead, though a couple are alive, and I didn’t want to clutter the sentence with the verbs “were” and “are” as in “because they are and were cool.” I could have used “be” as in “they be cool.” But you really don’t need it:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
 Donald Trump isn’t into dogs, not to mention not being into his son Barron, or whatever his name is. Some people consider not liking dogs a character flaw, but I don’t. Not liking your son is a different matter. Trump’s father doesn’t seem to have loved him, which reminds me of these lines from Larkin:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
 Parental here means ownership. Dogs have become like offspring, especially for single people, which is fine.
When it comes to dead-end hedonism, I’m not one to wag my trembling finger at those Boomers who have opted to spend the twilight of their lives playing pickle ball, riding from bar to bar on golfcarts, or listening to classic rock on what they wished might be a never-ending loop. In other words, I’d be a hypocrite to diss the 55-plus crowd who have decided to purchase expanded dorm suites in the Jimmy Buffet-themed retirement community of Margaritaville.
After all, nearly every afternoon, I shuffle down to Chico Feo to bask in its Caribbean vibe and consume two or three session IPAs (on Monday open mic night maybe six or even seven). I will say, however, that Chico provides much more diversity than Margaritaville (which you can read about in this New Yorker article).
For one thing, Chico offers a range of ages, from minors unsuccessfully trying to pass off fake IDs, to surfer dudes with their bronze tans, bleached hair, and intricate tattoos; to middle-aged Folly denizens; to tourists, who come in all ages, shapes, and sizes; and finally, to codgers like I-and-I with, if not one foot in the grave, a big toe testing the temperature of the down below.
Obviously, Margaritaville also lacks economic diversity, which Chico possesses in spades. Economic diversity, I might add, enriches those of us who hang with the day-to-day strugglers, which for many years I counted myself as one. Dishwashers and house painters don’t share their First World irritations but tend to embrace the swirling eddies of day-to-day existence where the future exists merely as tomorrow’s sunrise.
Blind Willie McTell’s dishwasher never went on the fritz, which brings to mind that American musical culture comes to us from the bottom up, from Mississippi Delta shacks and hillbilly hovels, not from the gated communities where Bennington Rhodes is unsuccessfully attempting to tune his brand-new Stratocaster.
Of course, Margaritaville has its share of house cleaners and maintenance workers, but they’re unlikely to be swapping tales with the parrot-shirted McSweenys, who have forsaken the high taxes of the Delaware for sunny, low-tax Daytona Beach.
Chico also possesses a modicum of racial diversity, and once again, I can’t imagine that many African Americans admire Jimmy Buffett’s meld of country and calypso.
A bright lightbulb just flashed on above my fedora: Some enterprising entrepreneurs should come up with a retirement community based on Willie Dixon’s music. I might seriously consider moving to Wang-Dang-Doodleville:
Tell fats and washboard sam That everybody’s gonna jam Just shake it boxcar joe We got sawdust on the floor Tell chicken head till I die We’re gonna have a time When the fish head fills the air Be snuff juice everywhere We’re gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
 I suspect that Eric Burdon and War’s cover of “Mother Earth”: isn’t on the playlist:
Mother Earth is waitin’ for you, yes she is. She is big and she’s round, And it’s cold way down in the ground.
 They say teaching high school keeps you young because you spend many of your days with adolescents. I think this is true to an extent. Also, you don’t know how close I came to mixing metaphors with that sentence.
 Nor am I fan, except for his early album A-I-A.
Here’s a brief video of me reading “Wintry Mix” at the George Fox’s Singer/Songwriter Soap Box at Chico Feo on 31 January 2022. The poem is printed below.
I’m not a fan of the wan light of winter, the weakening light of day, the marrow-penetrating
wind off the river, the fallen leaves’ decay.
I’m not a fan of hypocrisy, the politician’s flipflop, the post hoc ergo propter hoc array of fallacious thinking I hear every day.
I’m not a fan of fantasy, ogres, princesses, dragons, flying carpets defying gravity, flagons containing elixirs, mages with conical caps, sages holed up in caves.
I am a fan of poetry, though, even the darkest of wintery verse, Dylan Thomas’s father’s curse, John Keats’s death lament – that shiny black hearse in reverse.
An incident that occurred yesterday engendered a frustrating dream last night, or to be more accurate, this morning.
On most weekday afternoons around five o’clock, I walk to Chico Feo for two or three beers. Yesterday was particularly lovely with its offshore breeze and low humidity. I found a seat at the bar and chatted with someone named Thomas about Charles Bukowski. Later, I learned from my friend Jim that the operator of Folly toll booth of the 1920s could refuse entrance to undesirables. Right before leaving, I hung awhile with the swashbuckling twenty-something surf crew, Connor, Nathan, Ike, etc. Eventually, I forked over fifteen bucks to bartender Gavin for three low potency IPAs (tip included) and began my seven-block trek back to East Huron for a chat on the deck with Caroline before she prepared fried chicken, air-fried broccoli, and couscous for dinner.
When walking home, I take various routes, depending on the heat and shade or my mood. Yesterday afternoon, I took East Erie to 4th Street, and as I made the turn, I spotted a couple in their forties playing badminton. She was wearing a knee-length floral dress and giggling girlishly as she retrieved what we vulgarians call the “birdy.”
Lovely, I thought, wholesome.
As I turned right from 4th to Hudson, I encountered eight or so short-term renters who had placed the largest inflatable pool I’d ever seen in the side yard. Three of the young men, in their late twenties or early thirties, splashed around sitting in the pool while three or four women stood over them with their wine. Completing the tableau was a springer spaniel in profile defecating, his head facing the pool.
It was a wonderful sight to see, the cast of characters spaced harmoniously, the modest one-story cream colored clapboard house in the background, the dog triangular. I thought, “Man, Edward Hopper would love this,” and then, “I ought to take a picture,” but I had already passed and knew that if I turned around, the dog likely would have finished its business.
In this age of unlimited photo-shooting, many of us – and I’m including myself here – feel that if we don’t have a photo, it didn’t happen. I remember visiting the Louvre years back and marveling at Japanese tourists viewing masterpieces through the lens of cameras and my ruing their inability to nakedly gaze in appreciation of the art in and of itself. But now here I was approaching the fifth block of Hudson and chiding myself for both not taking the picture and for regretting not taking the picture, which led to more general musings about behavioral oddities in the age of social media.
Fastforward ten hours or so.
I’ve bumped into Bob Dylan on Folly, a younger version than I one I last saw in concert. He’s dressed modestly and is relatively friendly. Afraid of alienating him, I don’t share what a pivotal role he played in my life or ask any of the thousands of questions that have popped up in my now teeming brain.
I’m desperate, though, to take a picture, to prove to the world I was hanging with Bob. He is on Folly for an exhibit of his art, and I ask if I can take a picture of one of his paintings, but he doesn’t answer . I walk away to fiddle with my phone so I can take a photo, but when I come back, he has vanished, replaced by a core of festive people saying, “We heard that Dylan was just here.”
Yes, he had been, and I had been in his presence, sort of, but sort of not, because rather than living the moment, I abstracted the experience by wanting photographic proof, validation for my coolness, hoping that some of his immortality would rub off on me.
 I can’t bring myself to use “shuttlecock” even though “giggling girlishly as she retrieved the shuttlecock” sounds more musical, an improvement over “what we vulgarians call the ‘birdy.’”
 I don’t know if this is related, but Bill Murray was at Chico Feo three weeks ago, and I had no inclination whatsoever to engage him in any way or to take a photo. Also, a couple of Christmases ago, I met Stephen Colbert at a relatively small house party. We conversed about Porter-Gaud, his alma mater and where I used to teach. During the party, only one person asked to have his picture taken with him, which I considered très gauche.
Here’s a snippet of the great Danielle Howle from the May 31 iteration of the Singer Songwriter Soapbox at Chico Feo. She currently has a kickstarter campaign to secure funds to record her 16th studio album. You can contribute here.
The last time I donned the ol’ pith helmet and ventured inside the rich anthropological domain of Folly Beach, SC, was on 17 March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though it was St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday associated with the consumption of intoxicating spirits, a day when inebriates typically jampack the bars of the so-called Edge of America, only a few foolhardy hedonists stumbled the streets that Saturday, their left hands clutching red cups, their right hands thumbing their noses, as it were, at Dr. Fauci’s fervent pleas to stay indoors to stem the contagion.
Why would I – whom sociologists classify as geriatric, advertisers term a golden ager, and young people consider an old fart – expose myself to possible infection? After all, at 67, I fell into the likely-to-die demographic. Why, you ask?
Because I’m a scientist, damn it; that’s why.
Of course, I submitted a report of that field work, including video, which you can accesshere.
Well, 407 long days have elapsed since that death-defying foray onto the potentially contagious sidewalks of FBSC 17 March 2020. Now, with COVID cases waning nationwide (albeit spiking in India and elsewhere abroad) and having received two doses of the Moderna vaccine – the second one a month ago – I decided it was high time to investigate. With Caroline, my invaluable anthropological colleague, erstwhile grief counsellor, and crackerjack photographer at my side, we trekked to Center Street to determine to what degree behaviors have changed since the early days of the pandemic.
We set up base camp at Chico Feo and found that outdoor eatery a-swarm with Friday night foragers, mostly tourists, but a considerable number of local denizens lolled there as well. After one low-impact libation, Caroline and I decided to head straight to Ground Zero, the shitshow known as the Rooftop at Snapper Jack’s, a two-block walk. Before departing however, our sponsors, pictured below, suggested we be on the lookout for topers tippling drinks that Jenny (pictured far right) has dubbed “ho-a-canes” and “bro-nados.”
At the base of the stairs leading to Snapper Jack’s rooftop bar, we encountered our first bachelorette crew, pictured below. They seemed to me, despite the festive pink cowgirl hats, a bit subdued. Caroline and I peppered them with questions. The 23-year-old bride-to-be (second from the left) had found, according to her, the “man of her dreams,” but her companion, the most loquacious of the quartet (far right), said she was patiently waiting for a man who “worshipped the very ground she stood upon” and would settle for nothing less. Upon hearing this, my subconscious selected from its poetic jukebox these lines from Yeats’s “Never Give All the Heart”:
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss . . .
Anyway, we bade them good fortune, wished the bride-to-be a long happy and fruitful marriage, and climbed the stairs passing through a portal that ferried us to the Jersey shore.
No doubt these images can attest far better than my spendthrift prose.
Ladies and gentlemen, as far as these folks are concerned, the pandemic is kaput.