The Hero and the Blues
"Oh, the church bell tollin'
By Dave Marsh
"Blues do not promise that people will not be unhappy, but that unhappiness can be transcended, not by faith in God, but by faith in one's own ability to accept unhappiness without ever conceding oneself to it." —Gerald Early
I need a haircut but I probably won't get one very soon. It was never my favorite thing to do, and not just because of the castration complex, thank you, Sigmund. Not even just because after the Beatles and the Stones, long hair and rock 'n' roll were for a long time synonymous. Like most rock-drunk kids, I longed for my hair to grow "down to my feet so strange/That I look like a walking mountain range," as Bob Dylan sang in "I Shall Be Free #10," the earliest indication I had that he was actually a rocker in folksinger drag.
Of course, I tried to grow my hair as long as the authorities—high-school officials and my parents—would allow. The school had rules, but they weren't very clear: Your hair might not extend past your collar or your earlobes or some area as ill-defined as the major-league strike zone before you got a call to go see the principal. I took his threats to expel or suspend me pretty seriously, because it was worth my hide to have any such thing happen. Between travel and work, my father was out of the house about 14 hours a day, but he'd notice that.
It was a dangerous thing, to attract my father's attention. He was 6'3" and, depending on how strictly he was dieting, went anywhere from 190 to 250 in his prime. He was 40 in 1967, which is the year I'm thinking about, and still in good enough shape to handle a scrawny 17-year-old who'd gotten out of bounds. His fists were about the size of the hocks of a sizable hog, and when he swung them, they made a sound just about like what you'd get if you took a ham hock and swung it against a countertop—a series of wet thumps. I thought I was pretty much in the clear that fall, a high-school senior who knew he had enough credits to graduate and could basically go to classes mainly to read books, write, nap and dream. I already worked 40 hours a week, partly because I did not trust what relying upon my parents for a clothing allowance would have left me looking like, and what I looked like, to me, was already bad enough. But the other reason I worked so much was that work was a place out of reach of those fists and their wet thumps.
So I dressed somewhat as I chose and began to avoid the barber even more religiously. It seemed to go over at the house, no worse than taking up smoking had. In fact, my old man had not spoken to me since the spring—I mean, not "Good morning," "Good night" or "I've fucking had it with you, you little shit-ass." Stupidly, that made me feel secure, almost (almost) manly.
Then one bright winter morning, I stepped out the side door into the driveway and an avalanche of pain. I don't remember how many times he struck, but I do remember the conclusion, which was being picked up and thrown as hard as he could heave me against the garage door. In full view of every other teenager on the street, waiting at the end of the block for the school bus.
In the stillness, as I picked myself off the ground (a foolish move, but if I weren't a fool, I wouldn't be available right now), his voice echoed like a gunshot. "Get your fucking hair cut. Today." He got in his car and drove off. I went into the house and trembled with shame. It wasn't that he'd beaten me—he'd always done that, intermittently, not every day like you read about, but just when he needed to inflict some pain and I'd given him an excuse—but that everyone had seen it happen. My mother understood this and let me sit and stew a while before she drove me to the barbershop.
This is why there is no picture of me in my high-school yearbook. I refused to have my picture taken looking like that. There is no explaining exactly how I got away with that except that I was at least as stubborn as my father, and did not think that I had a great deal more to lose. It was around this time that my friend Jim came into our living room, one lonely Friday night, and found me with a shotgun lying across my lap. It wasn't there for the reason he thought it was, but he talked me into sticking it back in the closet.
I wasn't going to shoot myself, I'm pretty sure of that. I was contemplating shooting somebody else. There were a lot of rifles and shotguns in that house, and it seemed to me that sooner or later, someone was going to try that on somebody. As soon as college started, I arranged to move out. My father didn't talk to me that day, either. I wrote all this, which is as true as I can make myself remember it, while listening to Safe House: A Collection of the Blues (Relativity), which was compiled by Andrew Vachss, who takes a credit larger than any of the artists, and deserves it. He deserves it because, as a lawyer and writer, he lives a brave life, and because this "soundtrack" to his latest novel, also called Safe House, says all the things that nobody's writing can ever capture about lives like the one I lived in my teenage years.
As a lawyer, Vachss has a practice that consists entirely of children—human beings under age 21—who, for the most part, have been battered or molested, although that is not, I suppose, always what they are in trouble for. As a novelist, he has used his skills to blow the whistle on a society that thinks it ought to turn a blind eye to pulverizing children out of their hopes and ambitions and warping them into misshapen caricatures of what any person ought to have the chance to be. Some of this stuff is about people who rape babies; some of it is about abuse in a more elastic sense. All of it takes the revenge I was looking for that night in my living room and puts it to good use. No one in the English language—not Hemingway, not Hammett—has written prose as spare and vicious as Andrew Vachss. Not even Jim Thompson and Stephen King have been able to conjure greater scenes of everyday horror. I doubt if there is a movie producer in Hollywood who'd have the guts to put on the screen the highly pictorial and dramatic stories Vachss creates. I could not have begun to think about writing about Vachss and his work and what it has meant to me without telling you the scariest truth I know about myself: I was willing to kill my own father to get him to keep his fucking hands off me. And I was right. Right to want to do it and right to let someone stop me.
Vachss has written a dozen novels and books of shorter fiction, all as terrifying as they are gratifying. When people talk about there being too much violence in our culture, I lash out at them because the truth that these books contain is one of the things I fear losing. In the world according to Andrew Vachss, it's not just that the good guys win; it's the immense amount of pain the bad guys are put in while they lose. Yet, at the end of every one of these stories, the reader is given to understand that the meaning of the world is not an endless cycle of vengeance and remorse, but family, friendship, love. Burke, the blues-loving Nowhere Man who is at the center of most Vachss stories, fries child-molesters without a blink, but when a child himself shows signs of being abused, his first option is trying to redeem the kid, to allow or persuade him to understand that he can break the cycle, all by himself, by not becoming a monster like the people who taught him what evil consists of. The very fine short story that takes the place of liner notes in the soundtrack album is a perfect example of how he works this. I think the reason that Vachss loves blues so much—and this selection is so well-chosen that even singers I don't prefer go down smooth—is that they operate on exactly the same wavelength.
Safe House takes Burke into comparatively new territory. It's about men who brutalize women, by which he means beating, raping and stalking. It's also about the world of white supremacy. You might think the connection is far-fetched, but I don't. The same pastoral farming village that produced my father also produced Terry Nichols, who helped Timothy McVeigh kill all those people in Oklahoma City.
You might think that all this is also awfully far from the blues. I can't think that. When I was at my most stupified, in the most pain, it was blues records—the music, above all, of Muddy Waters and the great, early Paul Butterfield Band; of Little Walter and the Animals; of Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Rolling Stones—that dug me out from under. I listened to soul to dream, and hard rock when the frustration made my throat too tight. I listened to the blues to survive. Some of the records Vachss has chosen for Safe House—Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)," The Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "I Got A Mind To Give Up Living," Otis Spann's "Some Day"—are among the ones that gave me such succor back then. They didn't tell me what the liars always said, that it wasn't so bad, that my hurt was something I deserved, that patience would let me escape. They told me the truth: It was way more than bad enough, the kind of thing no one deserves, and that there might not be enough patience or no escape, so the only thing worth maintaining was my dignity. And they issue one promise: Dignity was possible, no matter what happened. Not guaranteed but possible. Or as Andrew Vachss expressed it in his one nonfiction book, Another Chance to Get It Right. For him, every child—every human life so far not surrendered to "the meanness in this world"—is that chance.
In this sense, every line Andrew Vachss has ever written is pure blues. Did I say he was brave? Hell, he's a hero.
Dave Marsh is the editor-in-chief of Rock & Rap Confidential.
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