The Shame Organ
It was the summer of 1990, when I was stuck in Albany because I needed two more courses to graduate. I found a sublet and I signed up for a history course on the Gilded Age, of which I remember nothing, and an English course, The Bible as Literature. The professor was rangy man with a gray beard. On the first day he explained that we would be examining Bible stories as texts like any other, which made my heart rate accelerate with intellectual excitement. The pear-shaped Christian woman who sat next to me had a different view. Whenever she made one of her frequent declarations of faith the instructor looked ready to chew his own arm off. Frankly I liked how she proclaimed her beliefs without embarrassment, and for being the only student in the class who had bothered to ask my name. That is, until she learned that I was Jewish, and she started handing me pamphlets about the upcoming Billy Graham revival meeting.
That summer I went to class, and I must have done the reading, because my transcript indicates that I earned a B in the Bible course and a C in history. (It is typical of my academic career that I earned a B in a course that I found deeply interesting.) I also had a part-time job on campus. I referred to myself as the chairman of the library, because my job was fixing the chairs.
In the evening I’d get high and play guitar. I’d taken a music theory course that had opened up some things for me and I was writing songs. They weren’t necessarily good songs, but there were a lot of them, maybe three or four a week. I was into Paul Simon that summer, especially Hearts and Bones and Graceland. My own songs sounded nothing like his, first because he was Paul Simon and I was some schmuck with a guitar in Albany, and second because I was simultaneously getting into rootsier stuff like the Band and Ry Cooder. I was chasing some combination of lyrical cleverness and rhythm. I wanted Paul Simon’s wit and Levon Helm’s feel. Let’s face it: I never got there. But I like myself for thinking about that stuff at twenty-one. I like myself for trying.
My roommate was my friend Jen. She was a bright, perky brunette who smoked menthol cigarettes and drove a stick shift, which I thought was hot. We had an uncomplicated friendship that was a relief from the tense, neurotic undercurrents flowing between me and my girlfriend, who, in all fairness, was a tall, green-eyed blonde who drove a pickup, which was also hot. But I felt pulled along against my will. Perhaps because I was pulled along against my will. My girlfriend and I had been on and off since high school, and I longed to get away—from her, from Albany, from my overbearing parents, who were, if not physically nearby, never far from my thoughts, judging me, finding me wanting.
When I was a young man, my self-hatred was like an undiagnosed illness: chronic inflammation of the shame organ. I could never understand what my girlfriend saw in me, but she was smart and pretty, so I kept limping back to her. I didn’t know that I was allowed to look for someone more suitable, that her ambition and looks did not, for me, outweigh her overdeveloped sense of injustice and her own crippling insecurities. That I would have been better off with someone like Jen, who by the way liked my songs, or at least pretended to like them, as opposed to my girlfriend, who was threatened by my playing, because it was a space I had created wherein she didn’t exist.
Not that I was any prize. I was always short of cash and I stank of cigarettes, and, as you will soon learn, I could be a dick.
One night Jen brought home a six-pack and we sat on the crappy carpet and I played her some songs. After a few beers the good kind of tension was so obvious that even a timid kid like me couldn’t deny it, and I kissed her. We went to bed and had drunken college sex. It was delicious. After she fell asleep, I lay awake considering that apparently I was the cheating type.
Unless I was supposed to, you know, be with Jen.
But in the morning Jen said that she valued our friendship and she felt really bad, and I said that I valued our friendship and I felt really bad (even though I felt fine), and although it seemed possible that Jen was waiting for me to say I’d rather be with her, and I liked that idea, I wasn’t equipped to ask for what I wanted.
Aside from my self-doubt, another irritant in the summer of 1990 was the Grateful Dead, which was unavoidable. Their fan base had exploded. Maybe the Deadhead subculture, with its meandering nostalgic drugginess, appealed to early Gen-Xers as an antidote to the constrictions of the 80s. Maybe it was more fun to wear a tie-dye than giant shoulder pads. Who knows. I was mostly neutral to their music. My upstairs neighbors, however, absolutely fucking loved the Dead—Ronnie, and Dan, both nice Jewish boys grooving out to “Sugar Magnolia” as they played Nintendo and passed the bong.
Actually Dan wasn’t such a nice boy. A short, swarthy kid, he was already a kind of low-level grifter. For example, one evening Ronnie came home to find that Dan had treated him to takeout Chinese. Ronnie was touched until a few weeks later he saw that the food had been paid for with his own credit card. Finally we got wise to him and started locking our doors. There wasn’t much else to do, as we’d seen the last of him: Dan had disappeared, of course without paying the rent.
One day when I came home from class there was a Fed Ex package waiting for me.
“Dan called,” Jen said. “He asked if we got a Fed Ex package for him in your name. I told him I hadn’t seen it.”
I looked at the Fed Ex. It was the first one I had ever received and it carried with it an air of great mystery and import, as if inside were the manual to adulthood. Instead there were four tickets to a Dead show in Buffalo. I called my bank and sure enough the tickets had been charged to my credit card. Since I hadn’t ordered them, the bank erased the charges.
“What should I do with the tickets?” I asked the operator.
“You, could, you know, use them,” he said.
I invited Ronnie to go with me. We made the four-hour drive in his mother’s Oldsmobile. A big, voluble blond kid, Ronnie was good company. We shot the shit and smoked Camel Lights and listened to his Dead bootlegs until I begged him to put on something else. As usual, when you are young and on a driving trip, there was sense of expectation and freedom. Traffic was light and the sky was big over the New York State heartland.
But inwardly I was anxious. We’d planned to sell the extra tickets for food and gas, and I kept thinking about when my enterprising brother had almost been arrested for scalping Rangers tickets in front of Madison Square Garden. I imagined spending the night in some Western New York jail cell and, God help me, having to call my father for bail. There was no guarantee that he’d help. Freshman year I had taken the bus to Boston to visit a friend; I’d gotten lost, and in those days before cell phones I couldn’t get in touch with my buddy and I didn’t have a credit card. I called home collect and asked my dad for help.
“You’re not getting a fucking dime,” he yelled and hung up.
But the tickets sold easily. Just after we got off the highway, there was a scraggly young dude on the verge, an expression of grit on his bearded face as he held up two fingers, the universal gesture of a Deadhead in need of tickets. Ronnie pulled over, and the Deadhead slapped fifty bucks in my hand. As we hunted for parking at Rich Stadium, I was feeling better. I had cash and a full pack of smokes. I had my own credit card now for emergencies. Most importantly, I had weed.
Ronnie and I set a time to meet back at his car in case we got separated, which, because we immediately got very high, happened within minutes. I wandered the parking lot alone, looking at the Deadheads, wondering if their evident joy grew out of their shared values or if it were merely the drugs. Either way I remember wishing that I could be a part of it. I didn’t want to be a Deadhead. I did however want to submerge myself for a while, to find some relief from the relentless pulsing of the shame organ.
I ran into Jill, a slim, tall, sloe-eyed girl with straight shining brown hair. We had made out twice freshman year. The first time we had been interrupted by my dumbass roommate. The second time ended when she puked. Now she and her boyfriend were following the Dead around the Northeast, supporting themselves by selling homemade granola bars. I was so impressed by their initiative. They had a VW bus and everything. More importantly they had found a way to be in the world. I tucked that knowledge away for later usage—that it was indeed possible to create your own independence while doing something fun.
At some collectively acknowledged moment the deadheads moved together toward the stadium. I had a general admission ticket so I made my way to the open area before the stage. Crosby, Stills and Nash was the opening band and I was looking forward to seeing Steven Stills play guitar. It was a lovely day, and it wasn’t too crowded, and I found a spot maybe 100 feet from Stills, and CSN was singing “Southern Cross,” a song that I loved for its drippy earnestness and killer harmonies.
And yet a pilot light of anger had flicked on in my gut. I had forgotten how Graham Nash gets on my nerves. His leftover sixties things seemed like a pose. I should add that Ronnie and I had dropped acid in the parking lot. I have the impression that Dan the Grifter had given it to us, but that seems impossible. Nevertheless, I had put a tab on my tongue, and it was coming on pretty strong. I watched CSN, and after Graham Nash said something incredibly annoying as the band played the intro to Woodstock, something like, “show us you deserve to wear those tie-dyes and get into it,” the pilot light flared, and I did something that I would forever regret.
“You suck, Graham Nash,” I shouted. “Go back to England.”
“Dude,” said some guy.
I swear to God that I saw Graham Nash look at me, baffled, before returning his focus to the song.
“Graham Nash. You’re a stupid limey.”
A circle had formed around me, dozens of heads backing away from this white-hot center of hostility. I think that was what snapped me out of it, that I was surrounded by people gaping at a crazy person, and the crazy person was me. in the shame organ pulsated with mortification.
So I left. I shouldered my way through the crowds and returned to the parking lot, where a wizened hippy sat on a cooler, chanting, mantra-like, “Groovy, groovy soda. Get your orange soda.” He repeated this line with unflagging enthusiasm, even though it was only me and him and the cars.
I was thirsty.
I bought a soda.
“You look like Bob,” he said.
“That’s what I said man, Bob. You look just like him.”
“No I don’t.”
“Dude, it’s good. Girls love Bob. Hey,” he shouted, open-mouthed, revealing blackened stumps of teeth. “It’s Bob.”
“I’m not Bob,” I said, feeling close to tears. “I’m Gordon.”
“It’s Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaab,” he shouted.
I ran away from the dentally challenged hippie and kept going until I found a shaded picnic bench on a grassy strip between the parking lot and a chain-link fence. I took out a cigarette. To my surprise, I was also holding a Zippo. I had no idea how I had acquired it.
It was nearing dusk and the air was cooling. I hadn’t been aware of the heat but now I felt the sweat drying on my back. I remembered my orange soda; it was a little warm but the sugar made me more alert. I could hear the roar of the crowd as The Dead took the stage. (The Internet tells me that the first song of the show was an eight-minute “Hell in a Bucket,” which indeed sounds like hell.) I smoked and I played with my Zippo until I felt ready to be around other people.
But when I tried to get back into the stadium, the security guards wouldn’t let me. I tried another gate with the same result. I shuffled back to my picnic bench in defeat. Mostly I was disturbed by my outburst against Graham Nash, who probably never hurt anybody, except maybe Joni Mitchell. I mean, what the fuck? I had just heckled Graham Nash! Was it the acid? Did it have some speed or mescaline or (God forbid) PCP in it?
Anyway, I was calmer now. I could hear Jerry’s guitar chiming away in the mixolydian mode, as it had done for decades to an audience of Caucasians that never seemed to tire of it. And I had to admit that I wasn’t disappointed about missing the show. In fact, I was relieved. There was a kind of clarity in the aftermath of my acid trip that allowed me to assimilate that I wasn’t merely indifferent to the Dead. I actively disliked their music. They were excellent musicians, but it didn’t cohere into anything. It was a sonic mess. They didn’t leave room for one another. At any given moment, an instrumentalist chooses between playing and not playing. Jerry, Bob, Brent, Phil, the drummers whose names I forgot, they were always playing. Every beat of every song, they were playing. Whereas the musicians that I admired—Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Levon Helm—they all knew when not to play.
And by the way did anybody really think that Jerry was a good vocalist? Did anyone really believe that Bob was as soulful as he believed himself to be? Could anyone honestly state under oath that they actually enjoyed the tedious, apercussive wankfest of “Drums” and “Space?”
Okay, the Dead had some good songs.
But the Grateful Dead was not a good band.
There is always the temptation when writing about this kind of experience to force a neat little lesson out of the narrative. But that too would be dishonest. It would be years until I put it all together, until I finally understood that I was free to like Stephen Stills, just as I was free to dislike the Grateful Dead and Graham Nash. I was not, however, free to heckle Graham Nash. In other words, it didn’t matter what I liked or disliked, so long as I wasn’t a dick about it.
It took me even longer to grasp that I was allowed to go after what I wanted.
It was fully night now and the lights above the parking lot were painfully bright. The Deadheads flowed through the gates, mobile clumps of hair and swirling tie-dye bearing the scent of sweat and patchouli. The acid had just about run its course; all that was left were wisps or tendrils of color in my peripheral vision. It was time to go home. Or at least back to Albany. Now if I could just remember where Ronnie had parked his mother’s car.