Musical Memories
posted: August 16, 2007
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.
Carl Wiens August 16, 2007
Helluva tale, Dale! You raised my adrenalin levels just reading through this. Somewhere there's a kid wondering 'who was that tall skinny stranger who saved my life?'. Great drawing too. I went through the whole Wilco appreciation thing as well. Too bad about the nose thing, but you don't have to worry about developing an expensive taste for wine.
Zina Saunders August 16, 2007
Wow. Beautifully written, Dale. I want to read more. Plus, I really like your drawing, it feels fresh and personal and very specific to your inner line of thought/ your story. I like the way some parts of it are more fleshed out and other parts are left more to the viewer's imagination.
Harry Campbell August 16, 2007
My god that is a good tale, and good man Dale, good man. My mother, who passed away last year, told me of pulling a man out from under his smashed MG out on 95, and then helping out before the paramedics got there. My mom was a registered nurse and was always very non chelant about things like that, seen it all. I think you're right Dale, you just do it, you don't think, just do it. Good tale. I think cars flip over a lot out there on 95-scary place between DC and Boston.
laura l. August 16, 2007
Great story Dale, and really well-written too. I was riveted. I bet she still wonders who that tall mysterious man was who rescued her baby and slipped away into the starless night. (OK, sunny day...but night sounds more poetic!).
Tim O\\\'Brien August 16, 2007
Yikes, I would be totally freaked to find myself in the same situation. I drive a lot and a big fear of mine is how I increase my chances of being in an accident with every mile. Life challenges us to be heroic from time to time. You met the challenge. *note to self; If invited to dinner at Dale's house and he's cooking, take a pass.
Mark Fisher August 16, 2007
Dale, Experience, art, story, amazing!
daveB August 16, 2007
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an amazing record that rewards re-listening and re-listening and re-listening. I came to that record only a couple of years ago but I met someone who said that the record was released on or about 9-11-01 and I never thought about it but many of the lyrics have strange echoes to 9-11. Oh yeah, dale - nice job saving a kids life and terrific tweedy portrait I really dig your pencil only stuff
Christoph Hitz August 16, 2007
Goldin and I, on our last trip to the city together (SI opening) drove up to a horrific accident just a few miles from the George Washington bridge. The police and medics where already at the scene, David and I where in the first car to be stopped and had no other choice, but to watch the body being cut from the wreck. Not being permitted to help was a numbing experience. I don't recall the music playing on the radio, but I sure recall the noise of the helicopters blades cutting trough the perfect blue spring sky. Exquisite pencil drawing and a very touching story.
Robert Saunders August 16, 2007
That's a great drawing, Dale. There's something Flemish about it. And your saved a life, pure and simple. Not a bad day's work.
Stephen Kroninger August 16, 2007
You're like The Lone Ranger. You don't even stick around for a "Thank You, Masked Man." More pencil! Less driving (bikes or cars).
daveB August 16, 2007
just hit me that this one has a bit of a David Levine feel which is lofty praise BTW
Stephen Kroninger August 16, 2007
Good point, DaveB, particularly in the handling of the body.
Robert Hunt August 16, 2007
Quite a story...they are lucky you were there! Nice drawing too, BTW!
Mike Santos August 16, 2007
That Wilco drawing looks exactly like the way this kid in my class draws. Although he's slightly retarded. MS
Dale Stephanos August 16, 2007
Thanks for the comments everyone. For me it was an experience of a lifetime, but for your run of the mill EMT, Police, or Firefighter, it would probably just be a ho hum day at work. Dave, Stephen, thanks for the encouraging words on the pencil stuff. Tim, you and your family are welcome for dinner anytime you find yourself in my neck of the woods. Maria preps and I grill.
Brian Stauffer August 16, 2007
You had me at "I don't have a sense of smell".
laura tallardy August 17, 2007
WOW!!!! go dale, hero of the day :> you just earned enough karma points to start running down old ladies with shopping carts with no fear of retribution!
david flaherty August 17, 2007
This piece is really growing on me Dale!
Rob Dunlavey August 18, 2007
Goodness! Great writing and portrait (reminds of David Levine or Kerry Waghorn caricatures). I wish you'd been able to stay around and hear the family's thanks though. You deserved it.
Dale Stephanos August 18, 2007
Rob, all those Jeff Tweedy tributes are all the thanks I need.