By Larry Pattison
Word Count: (last count 2,280)
I knew it would touch me. I didn’t know that there would be a constant tear on my cheek throughout and that explaining the crowd of emotions would send me searching my seemingly suppressed past like the reaction to the trigger being pulled at the starting line.
It’s quiet but a couple pockets of conversational mumble and the occasional chalkboard-like echo of desks shuffling across the classroom floor tiles. I already appreciated his music, but I didn’t know what to expect from this class.
Every other day of the school year, this was grade 7 history with Mr. Walker but for the next five days, it was the lyrics and music of Bruce Springsteen – a middle school elective.
A few days earlier, these four walls were but a pale backdrop for the deep, commanding voice of our teacher, and a curriculum void of the darkest stories of our country’s past. Today, as the mid afternoon sun makes its way overhead, grasping at our west facing windows, a curious ray pushes past the small cracks of the dark drawn curtains and rests for awhile on the checkered floor tiles. I imagine this space is a New Jersey sound studio and life beyond that door suddenly wasn’t the gathering of pre-pubescent young boys and girls dressed in neon, donning jean jackets, doused in hair spray, with ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ as an attire fitting backdrop. The yellowish glow of the fluorescent lights seemed dimmer – that one bulb flickering for it’s life out of the corner of my eye. The world outside but a distant pastel memory.
The door closes with a gentle thud. The period 4 bell rings.
Mr. Walker makes his way over to his vintage 70’s high fidelity stereo system at the front of the class that I imagine the evening before, was otherwise surrounded by hundreds of records and books with their well-read edges worn, complemented within a mahogany bookcase and a comforting smattering of residue from his pipe. He flips a switch, and the brief silence is broken by a quiet thump and then a continuous hum as the amp kicks in. All eyes are on the tiny red glow signifying that power had been initiated. There is a soft click from the needle as it’s raised from its resting place, followed by that soothing crackle of precisioned diamond searching for those first sounds that will awaken our anticipation.
The Professor sends our hearts drifting as he mesmerizes us with the soft, romantic touch of his piano. The melody of the ebony and ivory slows as Bruce begins to haunt us with the blows and draws of the Aeolian harp. I was infatuated by the sound it made and the way it reached into my young soul. Somehow it’s impact was greater in these confines than the wood panelling of my basement bedroom. I don’t want the harmonica to end but then this gruffly voice of an elder enters and the lyrics are more imaginative than any I had yet known and not unlike our hero Javed, they inspire me and move me and leave me screaming ‘Yes!’ inside. At least I hope that wasn’t out loud? His music affirmed my innermost thoughts and described in it’s own experiences, my intimate details.
As the music continues on, as the tracks spin through one by one, introducing a multitude of instruments not common to the electric sounds our 80’s ears were accustomed to, I appreciated even more that this wasn’t just drums and a guitar or an overabundance of synthesizer and drum tracks. It was a real glockenspiel, piano, saxophone, and an assortment of other instruments intrinsic to the complexity yet simplicity of the stories his words told. The Boss’ grass wasn’t just green. It was lined with crowds of emerald poaceae (po-ac). His sky wasn’t simply blue, but a pale reflection of the cold ocean’s calm.
The orchestra of musical mechanisms and the poetic wisdom of his words reflected back into me and fulfilled me like few elders and teachers with the best of intentions were ever able to. Maybe Bruce was the music our father’s listened to, but his words were the understanding we had longed for at home, in the classroom, and now this suddenly larger and growingly intimidating world outside the once comforting confines of home.
Bruce’s words hit me like that of young Javed. Sometimes one by one like cards being played out in confident succession around the table. Other’s swirled around me not unlike the moment in the film where Javed hears these E-Street declarations for the first time; eyes wide open and mouth agape.
It wasn’t always about the words. No band I had heard up until that point used the array of tools this band did to tell their story. The melodic piano overtones, the haunting bends and vibrations of the harmonica that introduced me to Hohner, Suzuki, and Lee Oskar. The billowing echoes of the Big Man’s sax, and the child-like tappings of Roy Bittan on the glock.
Down the hall, perhaps the same year or maybe the next with 30 years often now blending into one, Mrs. Demming would be leading us in inspiration all of her own, with an elective in creating writing where by years end, 100 double-sided foolscap pages showed the first signs of an aspiring writer. The story may have on the surface carried the theme of a young life so far mostly aroused by a frozen rubber puck, however it was the influence of these two teachers and the songs of Bruce Springsteen that truly lived within the romantic and artistic undertones of the words that lined those now worn and somewhat washed out pages.
We’re finally here. My girls, my wife and I, suddenly finding ourselves stuck in this four letter word town, finishing the last of our cheese and pickle sandwiches. The simple act of the lights descending from dim to dark, already had me emotional and well from there, it was a roller coaster of inexpiable feelings.
Maybe as someone who has fallen in love with the stories, songs, language, and traditions of our local indigenous people, I found comfort in the similarities in the music, dress, and dialect of our expat Pakistanis – minus the the British accents, trying to make a living in Luton?
For certain there were tears reserved for the underlying theme of racial profiling; being spat at, the source of inspiration for grafiti on the walls of town, the beneficiary of being told to ‘go home’, or the receiver of a wet race-o-gram through a mail slot, and anger over the reality that we are still faced with gross issues like race 32 years after our film class of 1987 graduates?
Maybe Javed’s father represented the riffs with my own dad? Young Eliza, the stereotypical rebellious 80’s girl with those otherwise innocent, tantalizing stares who inspired the previously unknown poet in us, turned us into lovers, and who dropped us to our knees with their carefully directed smiles, reminded me of that one girl.
At home, I had it good though through how difficult I made it. I had both my parents together under one roof. My mom worked in clerical, my father the third of what would become four generations of steel workers. I played travelling hockey. By high school, I had my own apartment of sorts in the basement, but infatuation, the wrong crowd, and drugs turned my world upside down. From failing my classes (even art), to fights with my parents, I pushed every proverbial button myself on a path to self-destruction; all the while doing anything and everything to make my parents hate me though they never did. I wanted the world and those around me to know me and understand me and I was angry because they didn’t, even though the truth was that I had no clue who I was myself or what I wanted them to know.
I graduated after evening and summer studies and basic senior year courses, helped me clear a path to secondary freedom. Not before a high school teacher said I was worth something at which point the ride suddenly stopped spinning, the clouds subsided, and the sun once again illuminated my recently dark and haunted basement dwelling.
Perhaps I first found my awkward, shy self in Javed’s cardigan, and then in his red rebellious bandana, although without a purpose or a cause to justify the way I treated my parents. By education’s end, I also wasn’t going to be a writer or a musician. I didn’t know what I wanted to be anymore, so I went to work.
At 25, I returned to college, ended a long time love, and started all over with passion and optimism alive again in me. I dropped out after a year, reacquainted with my first love, broke her heart again, and found myself in my late 20’s without a plan, a family of my own, or a clear dream.
Home would once again feel safe and comforting after the distractions and self-destruction of high school, a whirlwind of 20’s exploration, and as age turned confusion to calm. This feeling would truly come full circle in my early 30’s when the innocence of grandchildren turned my parents into goofy, doting, and smitten versions of the folks we missed out on being babies ourselves.
I did pick up the written word again at the cusp of 30, and writing has mostly always been there since. Other than a few courses, writers groups, an occasional opinion piece, community newspaper submissions, blog posts, and a handful of contest entries though, hundreds of thousands of words are still mostly unseen.
I’ve talked over the years about regret, but without the things I thought I would change, is regret intertwined with the best parts of the you its misgivings and heartbreak have gifted us?
I’ve recently decided that I don’t have regrets, aside from forgiveness sought for the pains life’s navigation leaves in its wake. I’ve got everything I’ve truly ever dreamed and more, but yet there is this one forgotten aspiration lost in the void between my phono needle in an 80’s basement bedroom, on fire from the constant echoes of my Born in the USA album, squeezed into my old size medium white undershirts and tapered jeans, acid dreams, and a 100 double-sided fading foolscap pages that speak to a dream constantly censored.
I’m very happy at closing in on what my youngest just reminded me is almost a half century of existence, but there are a few things that still remain from 1985. Bruce’s lyrics, a harmonica that I try and emulate with some success, and a voice inside wanting to break free perhaps louder and more desperate than ever before; longing to dance in the dark on the backstreets of this 10th avenue heartbreak while the mind and the body creek into borrowed time.
Everybody has a hungry heart, but I’m tired of these thoughts being alone in the dark. Tired of being only inspired. Of dreaming about doing. Maybe I’ll fail but what is failure but trying. What is the harm in that?
So I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know that I would be so emotionally vulnerable but for weeks beforehand, I had brought the soundtrack to work, listened to it in the backyard late into the summer night, in the car on the way to and from the office, and I even took it and my case of harmonica’s camping. I knew Bruce’s music and the new sounds we were being introduced to being the focus of any film would engage me, but why was there a constant taste of buttered popcorn and a steady flow of salty tears in the back of my throat?
Springsteen has been a constant these past 35 years. These records bearing stickers with my childhood postal address and phone number hand written on them, have always been in rotation and were there to comfort me, remind me, or help me find my love for music again when life took away the joy of everything this artform once represented.
Springsteen and his E-Street band had awoken me then in every way they had young Javed. Then that sensation was gone. What had happened to that dream? The confidence and the desire to write through the light of awake, and through the darkness of day and life? What had become of getting out and making something of myself? Not because I had it bad, but because I had suddenly felt there was more. That I had a gift.
It was like hearing those lyrics again for the first time. Yes, those were the tears. The backspin of a record spinning uncontrollably three decades into the past, stopping at a mirror reflection of a vibrant 13 year old me, and still somewhat lost and broken 46 year old piece of office furniture.
Less than a week later, I found myself at the historic Westdale theatre here in Hamilton for a second taste of the music, the tale, and the characters I had recently fallen in love with.
This time around, I didn’t take any magical phone booths or DeLorean’s into my awkward and confused past, and perhaps nostalgia didn’t have me teary-eyed by the simple draw of the curtains, but I know now the parts that struck me most outside of my own self-centered nostalgic visions.
The hopeless romantic that was mostly lost for so many years, was still awoken by Javed and Eliza singing, running through the streets of Luton holding hands, and gazing adoringly at one another. I was touched by the thoughtful gestures of Javed’s teacher as I reflected upon how my own teachers and coaches inspired me. The flashes of racism from the graffiti, the spitting, urination, mockery of the language, and the riot, as well as the struggles between Javed and his father and later acceptance from him, remained deeply emotional sobbing points most of all.
Blinded by the Light is a remarkable film that for me will retain a timeless affection for the way I found some commonality with a British Pakistani boy, for how it reminded me of my own youth affections, how a teacher can engage and inspire their students, how it covers relationships between parents and youth including shining a light on what this looks like across different worldly origins. How it reminds us of how far we haven’t come where cultural racism is concerned and the work that we still need to do and most likely always will, in a quest for a world where we can all simply be universally accepted as human rather than left or right, Italian or Asian, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, black or white. Lastly, this film will always remind me of that moment we fell in love with music for the first time whether it was Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, or Freddy Mercury, and how that helped shape the adults we have become.
So here goes. One last shot. The dream’s alive. Quick, before depression strikes and self-worth is lost forever. Before this glucosamine pill wears off.
Whatever the result, there will always be this story. That moment where my middle school wasn’t an empty field and I could still hear the laughter of these same teachers chaperoning our winter camping trips. Where childhood dreams were once again raging like teenage hormones standing tall against doubt; if only for the time it took to not just simply write, but remember the poet that used to live within words that once flowed with abundance.
Messages keeps gettin’ clearer.
My curser blinks …. | … … |
See also Today, the world is my editor.