Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who Was In My Weird Dream the Other Night

Over on the Legion World message board, one of the recurring threads is "Who the heck was in your weird dream last night?" People often post funny or bizarre dreams. The thread prompted me to post the following dream, which I had the morning after Robin Williams' apparent suicide.

I dreamed I ran into two guys I knew during my freshman year in high school.

I hung out with Randy and Jim between classes. I had known Randy since kindergarten and met Jim through Randy. They were both in ROTC; neither Rodney (the fourth guy who occasionally hung out with us) nor I were.

In high school, I had a lot of problems. I was the kid everyone picked on, or so it seemed. It got so bad that I stopped going to school. My mother (bless her) persuaded the school to send a teacher to our house (we lived only a block away) to drop off and collect my assignments. That's how I passed. The next year, I went to a different school.

Because I was taught (as was my mother) to be ashamed of any personal problems I was having, I never told Randy, Jim, or Rodney what was happening. I just disappeared from their lives. I was actually afraid of running into them in the town where we lived in case I'd have to explain what happened.

I saw Randy and Jim separately a couple of times afterwards. Randy worked in a local restaurant. Jim dated the sister of one of my brother's friends. Neither ever asked me what had happened. I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

In the dream, I was walking through a cobblestone path when someone called to me. It was Randy. He looked the same as he did then, with the same bowl-shaped haircut. Jim came and joined us; he looked older, with grey hair. I got a chance to explain to them what I wrote above, about what I was going through and why I disappeared from school. Both told me they didn't know I was being picked on and were hurt by my disappearance; I had no idea.

In the wake of Robin Williams' apparent suicide, it's easy to forget, when we are in pain, that we are not alone. One of the worst lies the world tells us is that no one will understand and that our friends will judge us if we admit our weaknesses. Such lies keep us from intimacy, keep us from the truth, and ultimately keep us from ourselves.

I last saw these guys around 1978, just about the time Williams was ascending to stardom in Mork & Mindy. It's amazing to think that Williams' life and mine are intertwined and that there may be some sort of spiritual cause and effect: his death may have inspired my dream in some way. In doing so, it unearthed a lot of buried feelings and thoughts.

There is nothing good about suicide. But one thing we human beings do is take the worst and grow something positive from it. Williams' death prompted at least one Facebook friend to admit that she had once tried to commit suicide. There has been an outpouring of grief and understanding from others (and, admittedly, the odd wacko theorist). This sort of openness is helpful and healing. It helps us make sense of who we are.

Thanks, Robin, for sharing your life and your amazing talent with us. And thank you, Randy, Jim, and Rodney, for being my friends, wherever you are.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Some Thoughts on Fame: Fleeting and Otherwise



Rushton Moreve and John Russell Morgan were the same person.

Who is Moreve/Morgan, you ask, and why should you care?

Unless you’re a fan of classic rock, the names mean nothing to you and there’s no particular reason why they should. Moreve had his brief moment of fame 46 years ago and then faded into obscurity. Today his legacy, such as it is, remains two-fold: creating the bass line which led to the writing of a psychedelic rock classic and the strange notion, perpetuated by rock encyclopedias, that he was two people.

For the record, Moreve was the original bassist of Steppenwolf—the leather-and-rock band best known for “Born to Be Wild.” He is also listed as co-writer of their other enduring hit, “Magic Carpet Ride,” for which he created that seminal bass line. He appears on the first two albums, Steppenwolf and The Second, both released in 1968, and then was fired from the band. 

According to VH1’s Behind the Music TV special, Moreve became convinced that the state of California, where the group was based, would suffer a massive earthquake and fall into the Pacific Ocean. He refused to return to California for a television appearance with the group and was sacked.

History, of course, has proved his dire prediction wrong: California survived, but Moreve’s promising career did not. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1981, at age 32.

As far as the name confusion goes, Wikipedia (which, we all know, can’t always be trusted except that sometimes it can) says John Russell Morgan was his real name. Why he changed it, I’m not sure. It could be that Steppenwolf’s other famous John—lead singer John Kay—did not want to confuse fans by having more than one John in the band. (Kay had earlier persuaded keyboard player John Goadsby to change his name to the more memorable Goldy McJohn).  

The real question is why do rock encyclopedias such as The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (first edition, 1977) and VH1’s Music First Rock Stars Encyclopedia (1999) perpetuate the myth that Moreve and Morgan were two different people? Both claim that Morgan replaced Moreve.

(His actual replacement was Nick St. Nicholas, but that’s another strange story.)

So, why does any of this matter?

I think of Moreve and other obscure rock 'n' rollers from time to time when I think of what it means to be a writer and how becoming famous is all tied up into this idea that you can create something (a book, a screenplay, a poem, or a hit song) and part of you becomes immortal. Every time “Magic Carpet Ride” is played in a movie such as Apollo 13 or on commercials such as Miller Genuine Draft, a bit of Moreve lives on.

And one imagines that some compensation makes its way to Moreve’s survivors every time the song appears. Commercial creativity: the gift that keeps on giving.

But Moreve’s story also reminds me that fame is double-edged. It tosses its celebrities of the moment into the air and then slices them in two like a colorful scarf discarded by a carnival swordsman. To be sure, famous people sometimes make stupid mistakes—such as missing a gig because of an unfounded belief in earthquakes. But, more often than not, fame runs its course. The heroes of today must struggle harder and harder to compete for relevancy with the heroes of tomorrow.

(And, in some ways, Steppenwolf’s post-Moreve career typifies this struggle. Although the group recorded several albums in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, its popularity waned following the heady success of “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” Today, Kay leads his own version of Steppenwolf without any other original members.)

Another point of view is that it’s better to have some fame—if fame is what you want—than none at all. To accomplish what you set out to do—publish a book or place a song on the charts—is a phenomenal achievement that comparatively few can match. It may not be true immortality, but it is something you can look back on with pride and say, “I did that.” 

And, decades later, you may find yourself mentioned in someone else's book, TV special, or blog.

Just make sure they know you're the same person.