The Picco Incident

“Art is never finished – merely abandoned.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

So way back in 2012 I did some script work on a little sci-fi indie called The Picco Incident for Little Engine Entertainment. This was to be a “found footage” sci-fi thriller about a family menaced by extraterrestrials. Coming at the tail end of the FF era of low-budget horror, it was filmed in 2012.

Then … nothing. Stuff happened. Life happened.

Little Engine did what they could to push Picco, to get people interested. but I think the timing was just off for yet another found footage film. That despite the fact that as scripted this FF thriller had a twist to it that – to my knowledge – no other FF film had done to that point (or since, for that matter).

Regardless, it sat on the shelf for a long time. Almost ten years in fact. Long enough to become a period piece about life in 2012.

So needless to say I was quite surprised when, late last year, the folks at Little Engine notified me that Picco was finally coming out, as a re-cut, re-conceived web series to debut on the Sci-Fi Central YouTube Channel:

I haven’t seen it yet but I’m told it’s quite different from the movie we shot ten years ago. I’m quite looking forward to it. The seven-episode series (episodes about ten minutes a piece) begins airing … right now, actually:

So I encourage each and every one of you to check out the first episodes and bookmark the channel. A new installment will drop every two weeks.

UPDATE:

So far The Picco Incident is getting great numbers; almost 20,000 views of the first two episodes in less than a week, which is fantastic for a web-series with largely unknown cast and crew. I’ll continue to update this post with links to each new episode as it drops.

To that end, here’s Episode 2:

Episode 3:

Episode 4:

Episode 5:

Episode 6:

Episode 7:

UPDATE update:

The Picco Incident’s seven chapters have been viewed collectively over 100,000 times in the first month. Thanks to everybody who watched!

This Time Tomorrow

As long-time readers of this blog will testify, I’m a guy who likes music. I write about it, I wrote a comic book about it, and I’m currently writing a TV series based on that comic book that will naturally feature much of the music of my youth.

Coming to TV screens everywhere in 2023. Hopefully

The challenge with all of this is listening to that music. The music I grew up with. There are so many memories tied to those songs and bands and albums that forging new memories to accompany those soundtracks proves to be more difficult the older I get. I’ll always think of a lengthy bus ride to Stratford, Ontario anytime I spin The Pixies’ Bossanova album. I’ll always think of a particularly messy breakup anytime I hear U2’s “So Cruel” off their Achtung Baby album (actually, my entire senior year of high school could be soundtracked by AB). Even later albums and experiences have a soundtrack. I can’t listen to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album without flashing back to my first years residing in New York City. Point is, there’s only so much room in the memory bank before you have to start deleting and dumping old files. That’s why it’s important to allow new music into your life, or at least music that’s new to you.

Currently I’m a fan of contemporary artists like Jack White, The Kills, The Weeknd, Metric and – possibly my favorite new artist – the three-piece sister act Haim out of Los Angeles.

My favorite album of 2020. And 2021 for that matter.

But if there’s one “new” band that towers over all the above, it would be this one, formed in 1963, and splitting in 1996. Four scruffy lads from the Muswell Hill area of North London.

The klassic line-up (L-R) Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

I of course am talking about The Kinks.

Buckle up.

PART I: Picture Book

The first Kinks song I ever heard, or became aware of, would have been “Come Dancing”, which was a staple of rock radio and MTV back in the 80s. I think I heard it on the car radio and when the DJ mentioned them my dad, who was driving said “The Kinks. They were big when I was a teenager. They’re still around?” A lot of “Boomer Rock” was making a comeback in the 1980s but The Kinks never really went away. Theirs was a prolific output of practically an album a year from 1964 well into the 80s. With popular and current bands routinely taking 3-4 years between releases, that’s an impressive feat.

The Kinks were never big. They were considered “second tier” British Invasion artists. Through the years the occasional Kinks song made it through the radio barrier. You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Lola. But again, they were never BIG in the way The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who were and remain. And I think that fact was key to my (re)discovery of them in 2019.

It was on a visit to my local library. My son was at a “toddler time” story and sing-along event, and I took a stroll through the building, finding myself on the media floor, browsing their enormous CD collection. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but when I got to the “K” section and found The Essential Kinks just staring at me I went “why not” and grabbed it to take home for a listen.

I popped it into my computer’s CD tray, opened iTunes and listened while I worked. And the amazing thing was that I found I knew a lot more Kinks songs than I realized. Songs I never even knew were Kinks songs but had heard on the radio, in movies, on TV. Dedicated Follower of Fashion, A Well-Respected Man, Sunny Afternoon, Death of a Clown, and, of course their epic Waterloo Sunset. But I also found myself falling immediately in love with “new to me” songs like Shangri-La, Victoria, Celluloid Heroes, Life Goes On, Sleepwalker, Better Things, Living on a Thin Line, and Do It Again.

By the end of my listen, I was a Kinks fan. I wanted more. And more is what I got.

PART II: 20th CENTURY MAN

As stated, what was most surprising about my listen was how many Kinks songs I actually knew; I just never knew they were Kinks songs. Of course there were many movie-centered tracks like This Time Tomorrow, Strangers, and Powerman (from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited), and The Village Green Preservation Society and Village Green (featured in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and continuing into Starstruck‘s appearance in his 2021 thriller Last Night in Soho). Even a tune like Lola – the drunken sing-along song in any bar, party, concert – took on new meaning on repeated lessons when I finally realized the titular “Lola” isn’t a, well, give it a listen and really pay attention to the lyrics;

Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola

Lyrically The Kinks run circles around their better known contemporaries like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (I would rank The Kinks’ 1967 album Something Else well above The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons). Credit Ray Davies’ brilliance for that – this is the man who managed to make “vernacular” and “Dracula” rhyme after all – but also his younger brother Dave Davies (The Kinks’ secret weapon and inventor of the power chord that inspired every punk, grunge, and heavy metal band that followed). The legendary animosity between the Davies siblings aside, that personal and creative friction spawned so many of The Kinks’ greatest songs, albums, and performances.

So after returning The Essential Kinks to the library, I did some digging and found their copy of The Kink Kronikles, another “Best of” which filled in some gaps not covered by The Essential Kinks. For my money (and I say this because I now own it on Vinyl) it’s the better collection of songs and a better snapshot of The Kinks in that late 60s/early 70s era than any other collection before or since.

So that was going to be it. I had all the major Kinks hits covered, I was content to just leave it there. Then I visited my local comic book shop and I got hooked again.

Let me tell you about The Outer Limits in Waltham MA. It’s one of those great old-school comic book stores that has pretty much anything anyone could want. Old paperbacks and pulp novels, old toys and games, model kits, magazines, comic books – you name it. Seriously, walking there with twenty bucks you’re guaranteed to walk out with something.

But what really grabbed me on this particular day was the store’s collection of affordable and varied vintage vinyl records. If none of the written material appealed to me I’d flip through the selection and grab a couple for the home turntable. So naturally, when I again got to the “K” section I was rewarded with a selection of Kinks albums I didn’t own. Sleepwalker, One for the Road, Low Budget, Give The People What They Want, Muswell Hillbillies.

I pretty much cleaned them out.

Preservation Act 1 & 2 soon followed, along with Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace; all from the band’s much reviled theatrical period (though I love Soap Opera and, while Preservation Act 1 & 2 I’m so-so-on, the live versions are amazing – check out the Live at the Hippodrome 1974 recording at Archive.org if you don’t believe me).

But they returned to straightforward rock and roll with Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget; a renaissance that carried them well through the 1980s, and landed them the popular MTV staple Come Dancing in the midst.  

It’s only natural …

So they were hot, then not, then hot again. Today they’re regarded as the unsung heroes of the British Invasion, the godfathers of punk, Britpop, and Alternative Rock. And that I think that career arc gets to the core of what the Kinks mean to me.

Because, like them, my career began with a lot of interest, a lot of promise. Then some bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances sidelined me. I went through lengthy stretches of nobody caring about my work. Hell, I went through some periods of not caring about my work either. How could something I knew I was actually good at fill me with nothing but irritation? For a time I came to hate writing and everything about it. 

Because The Kinks couldn’t tour the US at the height of their popularity (thanks to a touring ban instigated by their on-stage antics and the oft-claimed rumor that Dave Davies slugged a stage-hand who insulted him and the band), they had to look inward, which prompted Ray and Dave to pen some of their most British albums. Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola, Muswell Hillbillies. They also avoided, in my humble opinion, the burnout that would have likely fallen in the wake of US touring success, consigning them to the dustbin of also-ran 60s one-hit-wonders. Had the ban not happened we might not even have been gifted the “veddy British” songs that put them in the rock pantheon.

For my part, frequent rejections, general indifference from agents, from development executives, from producers younger and less experienced than I was led me to turn inward, and start writing for myself, not for the marketplace, not for them. The result? Mixtape, for one. Magicians Impossible for another. Those two projects probably brought me more renown, more of a genuine audience than any of the stuff I did for SyFy Channel. It wasn’t until I started creating and writing projects I cared about that I actually became a good writer.

My favorite Kinks era is that “middle” period (1966’s Face to Face through 1970’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1) where they produced some of their lowest-selling yet most beloved works – albums, I might add, regarded as stone-cold classics by an establishment press that once dismissed them outright. That run contains my two favorite Kinks albums; The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire. My copy of Arthur on Vinyl is an original pressing and still sounds great. I bought those five album on CD solely so I could listen to them in my car (and yes, my six year-old is being raised on a steady audio diet of The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones).    

Arthur is his fave …

PART III: Days

“Discovering” The Kinks at this later stage in my life has been revelatory. With so many of my favorite bands, songs, and music being heavily guitar influenced discovering The Kinks has been like discovering the source of the Nile River; the source from which those waters flow to the sea. The Ramones. U2. the Pixies. Nirvana. The Clash. The Jam. Blur. Oasis. The White Stripes. Van Halen. Metallica. Motley Crue. Guns ‘N Roses. How different might the last fifty years of popular music have been without the brothers Davies, Pete Quaife, Mick Avory, John Gosling, John Dalton, Andy Pyle and so many more who contributed to that Kinks? there’s a joke question that goes around; “Are you a Beatles fan or a Stones fan? Wrong; The Kinks.” Or, “Who was the greatest British Invasion act and why was it The Kinks?” I think in the end Ray Davies is probably delighted that his band, the fourth or fifth tier of British acts back in the day are now regarded as one of the best acts of all time.

Moreover I increasingly find The Kinks providing the soundtrack to my life. I feel like that isolation (it’s lonely here in New England and that was even before the pandemic), that inward looking and looking back at a career that’s seen some ups and downs speaks to me in a way modern music does not. Music definitely changes as you get older, and changes you in ways it didn’t before. I do miss how it used to be; music is never as good, as exciting, as it is when you’re seventeen or eighteen. A time when you’re looking forward not backward. I’m doing much more of the latter than the former. I see fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me. 

I recently connected with an old friend from high school; someone I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years and seen in nearly thirty. We talked about the old days, we talked about where we are now. We both have our own lives, our own histories. Neither of us, I think, ended up where we thought or hoped we would back when we were teenagers. But in my case I feel like I ended up winning the jackpot anyway. My life isn’t what I thought it would be but when I look at all I do have I wouldn’t give any of it up. Turning back the clock, making different decisions might have propelled me to the heights of success, but I’d have to lose all I have now – my wife, my son, my life – and I could never do that. 

So years from now when I’m as old as Ray and Dave Davies are now, I’ll probably look back on these years and find the memories – the good, the bad – accompanied by The Kinks. 

What can I say? They really got me. 

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Albums:

10. The Kinks BBC Sessions 1964-1977 (you haven’t heard them ’til you’ve heard them live)
9. Low Budget (The Kinks do hard rock and spark their comeback)
8. Muswell Hillbillies (a country-inspired album that’s much better than you’d think)
7. Face To Face (the first “true” Kinks album)
6. Sleepwalker (severely underrated pre-comeback album)
5. The Kink Kronikles (the best compilation album)
4. Something Else by The Kinks (Waterloo Sunset. That is all.)
3. Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part I (Lola. Lo-lo-lo-lo-Lola)
2. The Kinks Are The Village Green Society (tied for #1 with …)
1. Arthur Or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire (their masterpiece)

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Songs:

I don’t think I could narrow it down to ten, so here’s seventy Kinks Klassics for your listening pleasure.

ADDENDUM:

So this update/post/whatever kind of blew up when I shared it to my various social media platforms. And I had one person message me directly to ask why I was still using Spotify as a music streaming platform. Apparently – and this is all news to me because while I’m forced to use social media I refuse to involve myself in online discourse – people have been boycotting Spotify because of their association with podcaster Joe Rogan. Apparently Neil Young and Joni Mitchell led the charge over Rogan’s platforming of anti-vax, right-wing luminaries and had their music removed, sparking others to cancel their subscriptions. Rather than respond to this reader directly I’m posting my response here;

I believe everyone must make their own principled stand whenever they feel they must. If that includes boycotting or dropping Spotify as a service, Godspeed to you. BUT if the reason is for them giving Joe Rogan a platform then I believe you have to delete Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Discord and TikTok and every social media platform as well because they to give a platform and a voice to Rogan and his ilk. Deleting Spotify and none of these other “bad apples” is just performative.

I’ve never listened to Joe Rogan. I never will listen to him. In a world where the collected works of Sam Cooke, The Guess Who, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Jam, Johnny Cash (god, there’s an upcoming music/blog entry for you), and, yes, The Kinks are available to listen to at the click of a button, why people would waste their valuable ear-time listening to some opinionated meatball is one of those mysteries of human existence I will never ever understand.

Just Can’t Get Enough

2022 is looking like 2012 again, though you still need to wear a mask and get vaccinated if you haven’t already. I have, and I have to say this 5G reception is great!

So what’s up with the above image? What’s up with Mixtape?

Well thereby hangs a tale. But, I’ll let Maria Kennedy of Little Engine TV spill the beans, as she did on Little Engine’s Instagram page;

“Two weeks into 2022, and Little Engine is dreaming big, aging up and going back in time to the 1990s with MIXTAPE, our first teen drama TV series in pre-development with the Canadian Media Fund and CBC Gem! Mixtape is based on writer Brad Abraham and artist Jok’s acclaimed indie rock comic book series.

The year is 1990. Every life has a soundtrack. This is yours.”

So there you have it. Mixtape is being developed for TV, with yours truly co-creating (with Ben Mazzotta of Little Engine) and writing, with an eye to shooting a trailer/sizzle reel later this spring/early summer. That means it won’t be long before we get to put flesh-and-blood actors into the roles of Jim, Lorelei, Terry, Siobhan, Noel, Adrienne … and Jenny, Beth, Steve, Marco, Benny, Professor Bowie, Trash-Can Matt, Dan “Stillborn” Silborne and …

Oh, right. This isn’t the same story as the comic. It’s not going to be the comic.

It’s going to be a different beast and, I hope, a much better suited to TV one.

But don’t worry about the comic, or a Mixtape TV series invalidating that story. For you see, those stories and that comic are going to be part of the show in some surprising ways you probably won’t expect.

Stay tuned for more. Mixtape is going to be my main 2022 project so expect more frequent updates on it, including a hopeful ETA on when you can expect to see more issues of the series.

Marley’s Ghost

A Christmas Story by Brad Abraham

Bottle or draft?

Heading home for the holidays huh? Must be one of those last-minute types, you know? Well, after the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve is the busiest travel time of the year, didja know that? Yeah I figured. You work retail, you work counter or minimum wage you’re lucky to get any part of Christmas Eve off. Hard work, retail. What? Nah, never worked retail. Been bartending about as long as I’ve been able to drink.

Legally, I mean.

Me? Nah, I don’t mind working Christmas Eve. I’m a straight shot up the A after work. Bennett Avenue at 187th. You? Ah, the 33 to West Caldwell. Close but not close enough, huh? Heading home or a visit?

Home. Yeah, home’s nice. Mine’s nothing much; a 1-bedroom in a pre-war. But my ma lives in the same building, I lived there myself most of my life. Nothing quite like home. What’s the saying? ‘Home is where they have to take you in’?

You looking forward to Christmas?

Nah, I don’t think it’s that weird a question. Some do, a surpising number don’t. Some just like the time off. Some don’t. For some Christmas is just bad memory after bad memory. That’s what happens when you get older I guess. Old regrets, old hurts; they pile up. Old memories too; there isn’t a Christmas day where I don’t think of my father, how things might have been were he still around you know? I doubt you’ll find a child who doesn’t look forward to Christmas morning, coming downstairs or out of their bedroom to see the tree lit up, see those presents underneath it. But those children, something happens to them along the way to adulthood. Something changes …

What? Oh, it’s nothing. Just gathering wool.

Penny for my thoughts? Aaah, it’s quiet now. Why not? Just remembering a time about ten years or so back. There was a couple a guys occupying that stool and the one next to you. The younger feller looked pretty slick, you know, the business suit, the satchel, the small roller suitcase packed with clothes for a few days away. The older fella, he was a little rough around the edges. Fifty years maybe but he looked older. Know how that is? Some people don’t seem to age, others seem to do nothing but age? He was blue around the collar. You could tell by lookin’ at him. You can tell a lot about people when you’re a bartender.

Oh, it’s five even.

You want to run a tab? No worries.

Right, those two guys. The two of them warming their seats waiting for their respective bus and train to wherever. Both quiet; the old fella was nursing a soda pop. The young fella had a Heineken. That’s another thing about bartenders; we remember the drinks, not the names. So I’ll just call them that; old fella and young fella. It was a lull in traffic, you see, and the place was a little quiet. Too quiet. Like a funeral, not Christmas Eve. So I asked them both the same thing; “you fellas looking forward to Christmas?”

And the young fella, he snorted and said to me …

“Fuck Christmas. No offence but, you know, fuck it.”

I pinched out a smile. You got all types at the Locksmith, just across the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 44th. Bridge and Tunnel, Hell’s Kitchen locals. People coming, people going. People with a few minutes and a few brain cells in surplus they want to kill.

Anyway, “Fuck Christmas” right?

“Kinda harsh,” the old fella said.

“Not if you’ve had the Christmases I’ve had,” young fella replied. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas in … well, it’s been a while, you know? I mean, I’m going to spend the day at my girlfriend’s parents’ place with her, but that’s just couple stuff. I don’t wanna sound like Scrooge, but Christmas is a – what did he call it? – humbug? Yeah. Humbug.”

“How come? If you don’t mind me asking,” the old fella said.

I expected the young fella to say “actually I do mind, gramps” and that woulda been the end of it. The young guy looked to be a Wall Street type even though he probably worked Midtown. Maybe he was working his way down to Wall Street, I dunno. You know the type; the office drone who eats his takeout lunch at his desk and drinks after work.

I expected the brush-off, but the young fella had a couple Heinekens in him by this point, so his tongue was sufficiently lubricated and he must have figured what the hell why not because he looked to the old fella and told him and by extension me …

“Christmas was always a chore. A burden. Every year, the source of some drama. First was my mom and dad bitching about presents; dad worked his ass off back then and mom made sure to spend as much of that money as she could as soon as it came in. Birthdays, Easter, visits, you name it. Gift, gift gift. So every year it was “too many presents, too much money.” He didn’t grow up with a lot, I gathered even back then. He was a workoholic, did well for himself, but we grew up like we were still poor. To him Christmas was an extravagence. Too muchof one. Maybe because his Christmases were so miserable, I don’t know, we never talked about it. Then there was the whole back and forth over where Christmas Day was spent. Dad was from Pennsylvania. Philly area. So for him, Christmas Day meant up early, gifts unwrapped, then piling into the car for the ninety-minute drive to his folks’ place out in Buck’s County. A ninety-minute drive that always took twice that.

“My ma, she was from Mystic. Nice place. Christmasy that time of year. So every year it was another fight, this time over where we spent Christmas Day; with her family or his. Just alternate, right? Dad’s family one year, Mom’s the next; alternate them so the next year it’s the reverse order. Easy? Wrong. My grandma – Dad’s ma – was never well. Always some ailment – she was in a car accident in her teens, she broke her back and was bedridden for like a year. Never really recovered from it. Then she got older and got sicker, and we’d be told every Christmas that this one may be her last. I heard that as far back as when I was eight. She passed when I was 21. Thirteen years of fighting, of arguing. And she just kept hanging on. Part of me wonders if it wasn’t some power move my dad used against my mom. Maybe he just, like, made it up, you know?”

“So that’s why?” the old fella asked.

The young fella just laughed. Not the mirthful “you made a funny” laugh; no, this was the “I laugh because I don’t want to cry” type.

“My man, that’s just the prelude,” he said. “Me and Christmas were on shaky ground well before the Christmas day that It happened. Another Heinie for me, and for my friend here …”

“Just a Pepsi,” the old fella said.

I got them their drinks while young fella continued his journey into the past.

“By the time I hit my late twenties, mom had divorced dad, who moved back to the Philly area. King of Prussia. You know, the big mall? Anyway she left Bay Ridge and moved back to Connecticut. So from that point on, the fight became about who spent Christmas Day where and when. “You were at your father’s on Christmas Day last year, it’s my turn,” and all that bullshit. I was and remain car-less so I have a two hour train ride in either direction to look forward to.

The young fella took his fresh Heineken and raised it to the old fella.

“Friend, nothing sours you on Christmas like holiday travel. Seeing that line for the train or bus or wherever. The tired faces, the arm-loads of presents and foil-covered casserole dishes. Getting to the train and finding it standing room only as far as Newark, maybe further. Makes you want to just say eff it, crack open a Swanson’s Turkey TV dinner and watch A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life at home.

“Which one?” The old fella asked.

“What?”

“Which Christmas Carol? Assuming that’s your choice.”

“Wha? Oh, the British one with that guy Alastair Simms.

“Sim.”

“Wha?”

“Alastair Sim. That’s my favorite.”

“Yeah, mine too. The George C. Scott one they did for TV is pretty good too. Actually, one year I watched like five or six versions of that story. Each of them is a little different. Never read the book though. Maybe I should.”

“You know, sorry for interrupting,” the old fella said, “but old movies like A Christmas Cartol, well, they’re ghost stories aren’t they? Meaning all the people on-camera, on-screen, abd behind the scenes, they’re all dead now right? Heck, even something like King Kong or Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Time marches on, Fay Wray, Bogey and Bergman, Orson Welles, all gone in the physical world. But you wanna see their ghosts, watch their movies.”

That’s alright, I was finished my story, the young fella looked like he wanted to say, but he didn’t. Instead he took another sip of beer, cleared his throat, and continued on his journey.

“Every year Christmas was a choice, and a hard one because it just felt like what it always was. That tug-o-war. Not even the decision to alternate helped. Like they were still fighting in divorce court five years on. That’s the one thing  they don’t tell you about your parents divorce; doesn’t matter how old you are when they split – it’s always like when you’re a little kid watching them yell at each other.”

The young fella slammed down nearly half of his beer before continuing. Not just whetting his whistle but drowning it in the tub, if you get me.

“This year in particular it was Dad’s turn to have me on Christmas Day. He’d remarried by this point; some divorcee and her two teenagers. Unbelievable! The guy was on the road half the year when me and my brother were still at home, never around, and suddenly he’s all ‘got a new family, new stepmother, new step-siblingss, oh and I’m leaving your ma for her.’ Like we – my brother and me – we were just a dress rehearsal. My brother bounced to California around that time, He hasn’t been back. Not to ma’s, not to dad’s. Like he divorced them. But I digress.

“I’d been working a few years out of college. Making good money, though for New York you have to stretch things, obviously. Anyway this year in particular we’d  had a good year, got a nice bonus and figured, “eff it” I’ll be generous. I’ll be Alastair Sim as Scrooge after being visited by the three ghosts. Step-sibling number one got an iPad. Number two got a laptop for school. Step-mom got this expensive perfume she liked – champagne taste on a beer budget, that one – and dad got a nice Rolling Stones box set of CDs. He was something of an audio – audiofill –

“Audiophile,” the older fella offered.

“Anyway I dropped well over a couple grand on gifts but I figured, hey, why not be Santa Claus for once. I didn’t dress up or anything like that but the sentiment remains.”

The young fella sipped his beer. That was when I knew he was building to the point.

“I trek out there to King of Prussia. Had to take a cab from the train station in Philly. I get out there, into the boonies, the tree’s decorated to the nines, and the underside was loaded with presents. At least they waited for me, right? I settled in, figured it was good to be, well, not home, but somewhere close enough, you know?

“It’s Christmas Day so they waited for me before opening gifts. The ones I brought were unwrapped, like wolves ripping into a kill. Then they work their way through the rest of the pile. One for dad, one for step-mom, one for step-brother, one for step-sister, lather rinse repeat. I’m sitting there drinking Eggnog and waiting for something to be handed to me … but it never happens. So I figure, they musta got me something big and will bring it out after the smaller stuff’s done. But the smaller stuff gets done, all the gifts are unwrapped, and step-mother says “I should get dinner started”.

“I’m sitting there, wondering if this is some joke. Like they’re having me on. So after a few moments I say “aren’t we forgetting something?” And they’re all “what?” And I’m all “do I get a Christmas present?”

“And they all look at each other, like they’re waiting for someone else to tell me.

“Finally my dad does. He says well, it’s been a lean year, not a lot of money to spread around, and we figured you have this big well-paying job in NYC and you really don’t need anything you couldn’t buy yourself so …”

“Step-mom pipes up that they didn’t think I’d be there on Christmas Day, that they thought it was my mom’s turn to have me. Even though this had all been arranged weeks before.

“I just sat there, stunned. Like, I get lean years but nothing? Not even a card and a box of Russel Stover? And before you say “Christmas is all about the spirit of giving not receiving” can you really look me in the eye and say getting nothing from your own family after dropping two large on them is the fucking Christmas Spirit?

The young fella slammed down the rest of his drink. You could see he’d upset himself all over again by this story. And still, he kept going.

“Dinner was dinner, but even before dessert I knew I wasn’t going to stay. I make ready to call a cab to take me back to Philly. I’ll ride the goddamn Chinatown bus if I have to I just want to get outta there. But my dad says “no I can drive you.” Not “please, stay, we’ll make it up to you” just “I’ll get my coat.”

Neither of us says a word the drive into Philly. Just the Rolling Stones on the car CD player. At least he was enjoying his gift, right? It wasn’t until a few blocks from the train station he pulls into a supermarket, tells me he needs to grab something. He goes in, and comes out like five minutes later seemingly empty-handed. But when he gets back into the car he hands me this card sealed in an envelope. He mutters something like “It was just a joke. Didn’t mean any harm. Open it on the bus ride back.”

I open it on the bus ride back and I know full and well what he did. Went straight to the gift card section; every grocery store had one around Christmas. He grabbed a card, then hit up one of those independent ATMs, ate the processing fees … and withdrew two hundred dollars that he stuffed into the card. He didn’t even sign it. Just handed it to me and told me to open it on the bus.

I still had it with me when I got back to the Port Authority. I had it with me when I trudged down to the subway for the ride back out to Bay Ridge. I never left the neighborhood. But at the entrance to the subway I see this homeless guy sitting there by the doors, I can’t tell if he’s white, black, whatever. His head’s down, he’s bundled up because that entranceway is cold. And without thinking anything of it I drop the card and the money into his little begging bowl, hat, cup, cardboard box, whatever it was and wish him Merry Christmas.”     

The young fella considered ordering another drink, but checked the time and opted out.

“That was the last time I visited my dad at Christmastime. He died the following spring. Heart attack while shoveling snow. One of those late snowfalls that’s all wet and heavy? He laid out there in the driveway for a couple of hours before they found him. Step-mom and kids – you know, the hale, hearty teenagers who should have been shoveling the snow and not him – got the house. He left it to me, you know, but she lawyered up, saying they would be out on the street without it, even though that was a lie. Dad was insured, well over a million dollars. She didn’t have to worry about money – not if she pried her ass off the couch and got a damn job. Heck, back then you could buy a house in King of Prussia or Phoenixville for under half that. No, she just wanted it, and was willing to pay a lawyer big bucks to fight me on it. I didn’t give her the satisfaction. She wanted it, she got it. I don’t know what she’s doing now. Don’t know if she’s alive or dead. Don’t much care to be honest.”

The young fella looked to the older one and shrugged

“You wanted to know why? Now you do.”

The old fella had sat silent through the tail end of the story. Just sipping his Pepsi and listening. Like he knew what this young fella really wanted wasn’t a beer, but an ear. Like all that bitterness was a snake-bite you had to lance to drain the poison out of. The older fella was a good listener. He probably caught parts of the story I didn’t as I tended bar. But finally, he set his drink down, pivoted in his seat, and then told us his story;

“I’m not a drinker. Not anymore.” The older fella raised his Pepsi, as if pinning a period to the end of that statement. “I used to be but that was a long time ago. It started with drinks after work, then drinks at home. I’d have a scotch and soda, you know to ‘take the edge off the day’? Then it was just scotch and it wasn’t just after five in the afternoon. I was a handyman. Pickup truck with my company name on the side, nice split-level in Mamaroneck. My wife, my daughter, and me. Just the three of us. Life was good. Everybody needed a handyman back then. Everybody still does. People these days. They don’t know how to build things or fix things. They know how to order things online that arrive already built, or maybe, maybe they’ll hire someone to assemble it. I was good with my hands. Still am. I built additions to homes, I built tree houses for the kids – all up to code too; I didn’t scrimp or cut corners when it came to kids.”

The older fella gazed distant, into the mirror behind the counter.

“I was good with my hands. I know I said that before but it’s important.”

He held out his left hand. Held it flat. It’s steady as a rock.

“See? Thing is, over time, the more and more I drank which was by then an all-day thing, the more unsteady these hands got. I’d show up to work late, I’d take longer to do basic work, I’d make mistakes. I charged by the job, not the hour, so they couldn’t claim I was stretching a task out, but every mistake I’d have to go back on my own time and make the fix for free. Heck, I once put a door to a shower stall in upside-down and backwards. I started getting a reputation, which in a town the size of Mamaroneck is like a Mark of Cain. You don’t want a rep for being a drunk. You’d think I mighta realized this when I’d show up to do an estimate on a job and see these housewives and wrinkling their noses because it was ten in the a.m. and I already stank of beer.”

“Anyway, things went downhill. I had put in a downstairs bathroom, I didn’t connect a pipe correctly, and toilet water drained under the basement floor. Smelled awful by all accounts, not that I did the fix. They hired a different crew, had them come in, rip the floor up, clear out the piss and shit, and reconnect everything proper before redoing the whole job. They handed me the bill. I didn’t have that kinda money, so they took me to court and I was ordered to repay them for my shoddy work. So pretty much I’m working for them now. Meanwhile all my bills are piling up. Second notice. Third notice. Then the bill collectors start calling, threatening. Then I fell behind on my truck payments …”

The old fella sat there, fuming silently for a moment. He gazed at the back of the counter, where we kept all the expensive hooch. Hooch still a word people use? Anyway, those Johnny Walkers and Jim Beams and Jack Daniels all must have looked like old friends. Like he wanted to get reacquainted with them that Christmas Eve near the Port Authority. But he didn’t, bless him. I may sling drinks for a living, but what I don’t want to do is help someone fall off the wagon. But, as the old fella himself would say, I digress.

“You know, I know when people are driving around the burbs or wherever and see those trucks parked at the curb, guys with lawnmowers and leaf-blowers going to work on the yard of some mansion and think they’re just blue-collar grunts. They don’t realize how much money it takes to be a grunt. Finance a truck, finance your equipment, pay your crew, manage your expenses, pay business taxes. You do all of that … until you don’t. I lost the truck, I lost my business, I pissed it all away down the toilet because amidst all of this I kept on drinking. And drinking. And drinking. When my wife, rest her, asked for a divorce, I drank. When our daughter had to abandon hopes and dreams of the Ivy League to go to a community college, I drank. And when my wife put our house up for sale – I’d transferred ownership to her so the banks couldn’t take it – I kept on drinking. She sold the place and moved away, so did my daughter. I was alone, just me and my habit. Oh sure, I got some money from the sale of the house – my wife took pity on me and slipped me a nice under-the-table sum, but that went fast. I rented a room in New Rochelle, near the train station, so I could at least get into the city for the work I knew would be there. A buddy of mine was working construction. He set me up on a non-union crew, and I figured well, it’s money, it’s under-the-table, I can get myself back on track, back in the money-making game.”

The old fella sighed. We all knew what was coming before he said it.

“Well, travelling back and forth was tiring. Up at five, on the train at six, on-site at seven. Ten, twelve hours of hard labor, then the seven o’clock train, home by eight, drinking until ten. Sometimes I’d grab a drink before the train, and I’d fall asleep on the ride home and end up in New Haven and have to backtrack. When I’d punch out at the construction site – I never missed a shift by the way – I’d find some bar near the train station and put a few away more and more. Sometimes more than a few. Sometimes so many I’d miss my train and figure I might as well stay, find some all-night place like a diner to keep warm until I could start work the next day. That’s what I did, day in, day out until I stopped going to work altogether. Stopped paying rent on my tiny room and got evicted. Pretty much just wandered these streets, begging for change, begging for food.

“You ever want to know what it’s like being a ghost minus the inconvenience of dying? Become one of the walking dead. The homeless. The people you see there whop are there and aren’t. The ones that become invisible the more you see ‘em. Like Jacob Marley, you know? A Christmas Carol? Lugging those chains around, desperate to escape purgatory. That’s what homelessness is; purgatory. A place between this world and the next. But I digress …

“Anyway I ended up sheltering myself at the Port Authority. During the winter months especially. The holidays. All the Christmas Decorations up, families trekking  through to see Times Square and the Macy’s Parade. Some would see me, take pity on me, flip me a buck and change now and then. Most would just avoid me. That was my life. I had memories of my old one. Christmases past, when I was a little boy. The love of my parents, the warmth of knowing you had a home, and were safe. All so goddamn far away. You see a homeless person, you don’t see the person they were. Just the one they are. You don’t see the rejection, the loss, the one bad day that became a year of them. You don’t see the hurt.

“So one Christmas I’m there at the Port Authority. I’m wiped out. Really feeling rough. I hadn’t made much money that day. I was so hungry, not to mention thirsty. I woulda killed for a drink. Even a soda pop. And I’m so out of it I don’t even notice someone’s dropped something into my little begging box.

“‘Merry Christmas’ they say. I don’t see their face. All I see is a Christmas Card, and something inside it.

The old fella turned to the young fella, who looked all different shades of pale.

“There was two hundred dollars in that card. It’s a Christmas Miracle to a guy like me. I take the money and hold it tight and think it’s a figment of my imagination. That it’s just going to evaporate. But it doesn’t. I get to my feet; I got big plans for this money. Get some food, get a drink, maybe find someplace warm to sleep. Have a bath, Heck, a hot shower would do wonders just to claw back a little bit of the person I was in the before times.

“It’s when I’m walking past the ticket windows for the Greyhound that I see the departure board. Hyde Park. That’s where my daughter lived. Still does. After college she decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America. Now she’s head chef at one of the fancier inns up there. The type of place George Washington once stopped at. That kind of fancy. I see the board, I think of her, how I haven’t seen her since her graduation. I was so proud then even though she looked like she wished I was anywhere but there. She was right too; I was an embarrassment, and I knew it.

“But Christmas, it’s a time for miracles, isn’t it?

“I went to the Duane Reade. I got some of that dry shampoo stuff and a cheap electric razor, some deodorant. I couldn’t do anything about my clothes but some cologne masked the worst of it. I went to one of the bathrooms, shaved, and cleaned myself up as best I could, then I went to the Greyhound desk and bought a ticket. One-way to Hyde Park.

“I waited at the bus depot there until Christmas Morning, rehearsing what I was going to say. She was the only one in Hyde Park with my last name; this was back when phone books were a thing. I found her house, all lit up for Christmas. Car’s in the driveway, I’m on the steps. I ring the bell. There’s a thudding of footsteps and the door opens … and a little boy peers out.

“Jesus, he looks so much like his mother, that kid.

“He says hello. I say hello back, and ask if his mother’s home.

“Then I look up and see her. She’s staring at me, like, well, like I’m a ghost. And I guess in a way I was. People don’t have to die to become ghosts, you know. They can just be bad memories, past hurts in the flesh. You don’t have to die to be lost. But I digress …

“We stare at each other. I don’t expect her to invite me in. All I do is tell her I came to wish her a Merry Christmas. I tell her that I’m sorry for everything that happened. Everything I did. Everything we’d lost. The home in Mamaroneck, the business, her mother. All of it.

“She doesn’t say anything, she just stares.”

“I turn to leave. I know it’s gonna be a long wait to get back to the city, it being Christmas Day and all, but I have some money left. Maybe there’s a diner I can grab some hot chow. There’s always some place open Christmas Day, right? So I’m about to start walking but she tells me to stop. I feel her hand on my shoulder. And she tells me –

The old fella pinches his lips together. Something catches in his throat.

“She tells me she forgives me. She tells me not to despair. She tells me to look at his house, to look at my – my grandson. She tells me she has a good life. Not an easy one, but a good one. She says ‘dad, you can mourn the life you lost, or the one you didn’t quite get, but you can still rejoice in the one you have. All those little joys that make it worth living.’  

“Okay maybe she didn’t say it exactly like that. It was a few years back, but age and memory are elastic. They stretch as far as they need to.

“So someone else comes to the door- her husband. A good guy. A financial planner, as it happened, but I found that out later. He pieced it all together just with a look, and said “is your father going to join us for Christmas dinner?” She asks me, and like Scrooge visiting his nephew and apologizing for being so cold, so distant, so many years blaming his nephew for causing the death of his beloved sister Fan …” The old fella smiles.“The Alastair Simm Scrooge, obviously.”

“I stay for dinner. They fix up the guest bedroom and I stay the night. Her husband gives me some old clothes of his and they rightfully toss my grubby stuff in the trash. I get a hot bath, I clean up, I stay the week. Talking to her husband about my troubles he says he can help, and he does. I work out a way to pay back what I owe, I get the rest forgiven. It takes some time but I break out of purgatory into what waits afterward; salvation.

“I think that’s what Christmas is about, actually; forgiveness. Forgiving your mistakes, forgiving those moments where you were weak.

“Anyway, I got clean, I sobered up. I haven’t touched a drop since then. I live in Poughkeepsie now, just south of Hyde Park. I’m a handyman again. Making decent money. Decent enough that every Christmas Eve I take the train down here, do some shopping for my daughter and son-in-law and grandson, and to pay a little visit to the Port Authority to see where my Christmas Miracle happened. I pop in here, I have a soda. Maybe a couple. Then I walk down to Penn to catch my train home.

“Life is … it’s good. Not great, not perfect, but enough. I used to think there were no fresh starts, no do-overs. But what do I know? I’m just a handyman from Poughkeepsie.”

The old fella pushed back his stool, and dropped a twenty on the counter-top for the eight dollars in soft drinks he’d consumed. He didn’t say anything else to me, to the young fella. He just wished us both a Merry Christmas, gathered up the bag of Christmas gifts he’d been toting, and exited out onto eighth avenue to begin the walk down to 34th street.

The young fella, he didn’t say anything and I didn’t prompt him to. The old fella didn’t come out and say “you were that Christmas Angel”. He didn’t need to. Heck, for all I knew he could have made the whole thing up on the fly just so this young fella might not feel so bad about Christmas and the holidays. So he wouldn’t feel like Christmas was the cause of his every bad memory. So he wouldn’t go through the years being bitter and angry and lonely this time of year.

But I don’t think he made it up. You tend bar long enough, you get a finely tuned sense of who’s a bullshitter and who’s telling god’s own truth.

The young fella settled his tab, left a nice tip. He didn’t say anything. Just nodded his thanks.

“Merry Christmas,” I called after him as he left.

“You too,” he replied.

Then he was gone.

I never saw the young fella again. He was a one-off. Maybe he got that promotion and made his way down to Wall Street proper. Maybe he and his girlfriend tied the knot and he moved outta the city, outta Bay Ridge or wherever he hung his hat and never found much occasion to hit the Midtown West portion of Manhattan.

The old fella? You know, I did see him a couple times after that, always on Christmas Eve. He’d pop in with his bag of presents, he’d order his soda, we’d small-talk but nothing like that night. Then one Christmas Eve about six years back he stopped coming. I don’t know what happened. Maybe he found a new place, maybe he decided the trips to New York on Christmas Eve were too much, given you can pretty much order everything online these days anyway. Maybe he died. I dunno.

I know, I know, you’re looking for a lesson, a punch line, a moral to the story. I don’t have one to be honest. I could suggest some. That one person’s misfortune can be another’s saving grace. That even a small act of kindness can change the fate of the world.

But I like to think about what that old fella had said about forgiveness. That sometimes the person you need to most forgive is yourself.

You know, it kinda makes me think about A Christmas Carol.

Not the Alastair Simm version or the George C. Scott one. I mean the book. The Dickens novel. I read it every year, you know? It’s my little Christmas tradition. When I clock outta here tonight and head home, while the rest of my building is blasting Bachata and Reggaeton, I’ll sit in my chair in my room by my window with a hot chocolate and I’ll read about Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Old Fezziwig and poor tragic Fan. But I think about Jacob Marley the most. The ghost who comes to Scrooge wrapped in chains, doomed to wander the earth in limbo as penance? His crimes? Just being greedy and selfish and not caring for his fellow man; like a lot of people out there. He comes to Scrooge and pleads to him to find the good in himself, to spare him the same fate.

We all carry chains, friend. You, me. We can’t see them but they’re there. Maybe that’s what Christmas is about. Breaking those chains. Forgiving yourself. See, that’s why I think Marley, he’s the true hero of A Christmas Carol. He’s the one who saves Ebenezer Scrooge and, maybe, frees his own soul from purgatory. One act of selflessness. Of kindness. Kindess can change the world, my friend. It may be the only thing that does.

Yeah, that time. Heading out? Oh, that’s too generous, all you had was a –

You’re the boss, boss. Thanks!

And hey …

Merry Christmas, huh?

©2021 Brad Abraham – All rights reserved.

Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.