Back in 6th grade, John Carmen taught me a hard lesson. Out on the playground of the Katherine Lee Bates School, John learned me some pain. No, he didn’t beat me up. I had 30 pounds on him, and stood a head taller. It wasn’t noses that got bloodied that bright cold September morning. The intended target of his punch was guts, hearts, maybe something deeper. The weapons weren’t fists or sticks.
Plain and simple, John taught me the power of words – mine, his - meant, mindless - stupid, hate filled, and heart-felt.
Schoolyards spawn hateful taunts the way school lavatories spawn flu viruses. Despite the antiseptic efforts of administrators, the germs of prejudice are well fertilized in the petri-dish of adolescent insecurity.
There’s always one or two schoolyard catchphrases in every generation – the put down of 1950’s elementary schools was ‘Kraut’. Anyone and anything could be disparaged with Kraut. “Bob is such a Kraut!” Politically incorrect? You bet. Wrong? Sure, but an expression you might hear at the movies or on popular war-story television shows at the time.
In the 2010s, the word “Gay” seems to have been adopted in a similar manner. Everything from clothes to cars to classes to curfews can be dismissed with, “That’s so gay!” Wrong? Wincingly, for sure. And thankfully not echoed in the media, but if you have teenagers, I bet dollars to donuts you’ve heard it.
In the sixties, the disparagement of choice, at least in our lily-white bread, Betty Crocker protestant suburb was “Jew”, and I am ashamed to say I used it. More than once. To put down John Carmen.
It’s pretty clear that kids today know what ‘Gay’ means, and they know it’s wrong to use it freely and disparagingly, though they seem to anyway. It would be disingenuous to say that I didn’t know calling someone a Jew in 1968 was wrong. We were isolated suburbanites, not idiots. But I honestly didn’t know that I had ever met a Jew, didn’t know a thing about the religion, or its history of oppression. When I called John Carmen a Jew, to me it was a mindless, empty-vessel of a word. To me. For all I knew or cared, it was just another putdown, like a million others that young boys throw at each other every day. I didn’t mean to hurt him. Hell, he was my friend. I could have been calling him a jerk. Except, of course, I wasn’t calling him a jerk. I was calling him a Jew and, of course, John Carmen was Jewish. And I did hurt him.
And, of course, he told his dad. Who told Richard Barrone, the principal of Bates School. Who told my parents.
And the next morning, as soon as I walked into class, our 6th grade teacher silently and scornfully walked me to the principal’s office. I can still see the brass name plate, Richard A Barrone, Principal, bolted to his door mocking me. Inside the dark office, they all lay in wait. The thought of that intermediation still makes my knees ache. I had never seen a look in my father’s eyes quite like the distain he flashed me that morning. It took a minute or two for the reality to sink in. My arguments - that the words meant nothing to me, that I didn’t even know what I was saying, that I didn’t even know John was Jewish - all of my thick-headed defenses just made everyone even more angry.
I was frightened, cornered, and for the first time in my life, my parents were not coming to my rescue. I don’t remember the words she spoke, but I do remember the anger and sadness in my mother’s voice as she scolded me. A wave of shame, embarrassment, and true honest repentance swept over me, leaving me drooped on Mr. Barrone’s hard oak visitor chair, blubbering, and wet-faced.
My penance included taking classes at a local synagogue, meeting with John's family, and eventually attending his Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully, the lesson took. I can’t remember anything else I learned at Bates School, but no one has ever had cause to question my sensitivity to differences in beliefs, cultures, or actions since. I’m not, as friends will tell you, politically correct, but I am very, very sensitive to the power of words, intended or not.
For a while afterward, John and I tried to be friends. We tried to play guitar together. He didn’t play with a pick; he used all the fingers of his right hand to play complex jangly Aeolian solos ala Jeff Beck or Mark Knopler. I struggled to strum three chords in a row. John sold me his crappy Westwood imitation SG electric guitar for $75, probably more than it was worth at the time, and bought a real Gibson Les Paul. I kept the Westwood for years. It made my fingers bleed. In college, a roommate’s bird – some god-awful white parrot-like creature – took a huge bite out of my beautiful Westwood’s red flame-burst body. I was mortified. Eventually, I sold the old girl to a grinning little kid at a flea market for five bucks. I was wistful. He was thrilled.
Eventually, John ditched Wall Street, moved to LA, and got lost. We reconnected once in the nineties- before Facebook – and exchanged an email or two. In 1994, he sent me a copy of his album, Creeps in Exile, which I tried to listen to, couldn’t stand, still have, but have not listened to since. Talk about god-awful. Oy.
He went dark again on me until one day in the mid-2000s, when he friended me on Facebook. Whoa. He’d changed his name again – to Johnny Wendell – and was spewing his own version of nasty as an uber (and I mean UBER) left wing radio yakker on the left coast.
Most of you know, I am just a little bit to the right of Oliver North politically, so this was fun – I wish I had saved all the screaming you-are-such-an-idiot stream of consciousness emails we’ve exchanged over the years. Finally, before FB let you control which friends are allowed to post on your wall, I had to defriend my old friend so people wouldn’t think I believed his insane-clown-posse-on-Pelosi-steroid non-sense.
I think he was offended… Oy.
I was surprised to hear from him again last year. He wanted me to send him money. What? Yes, he had written twelve new songs he needed to record. If I gave him money now, through a website called Kickstarter.Com, he’d pay me back with a copy of the album later. The Kickstarter idea was sort of intriguing – so despite our checkered history, and the threat of another Creeps in Exile album on my CD shelf, I punched into PayPal and paid my old pal $15. And waited. And waited. An eventually forgot all about it, until a couple of weeks ago, when he pinged me for my home address.
IT!! showed up in my mailbox.
IT!! is not Creeps in Exile. IT!! is actually excellent, and thankfully, there isn’t a drop of Johnny Wendell hate-spew anywhere near it.
John’s lyrics are insanely original, funny, and sweet. His tune-smithery is just as engaging. You’ve heard these melodies before – somewhere. The songs are an intricate array of smoothies, blended from a fruit orchard representing every influence, and every great hit song, between Peter Noone and Ozzie. If you can figure out which hook came from which, you’re better than me, but either way, you are bound to love this music.
The record starts off with the guitar hook laden, Crazy Eyes – a mashup of Richie Furay, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Conway Twitty, and Frank Zappa - that I simply cannot get out of my head. I mean “sing it out loud all day” cannot get out of my head.
This up-tempo country tune will not win a CMA award, but it deserves one. It’s a shame, but your local pickup truck and six pack country station doesn’t play songs with lyrics like:
She’s got a strange little giggle,
A wobble and a wiggle,
Like an itty-bitty baby palm tree.
They won't, but they should.
And I don’t think Kenny Chesney is going to cover the slow country swing of Your Sweet Baby Blues:
It’s not too late to make this work,
Don’t you wash me away,
Like a stain off a shirt.
He won't, but I think he should.
John seems to think Gypsy Boots – a signature twang-filled guitar hook-driven pop rocker – would be the single of the album, if there was to be one.
Gypsy boots and big round glasses,
You’ll still be hip when this trend passes.
It wasn’t kismet that we had to meet.
Gypsy boots and I was meant to be.
I love the song, but I’d make it the flip side of Crazy Eyes – if they still make flipsides, that is…
Perhaps the best all-around creation on the thing is She’s Someone Else’s Someone Now, where John channels a tongue in cheek Warren Zevon covering George Jones.
I make myself promises.
I stand resolute.
And then in one glimpse,
It all goes down the chute.
When I see her. Yes, I see her.
If John had a sweet side growing up, I never saw it, but he’s grown one and exposed it here with the sweeping and gorgeous Lullaby Arms, sung to his kids – guaranteed to pucker your chin. In the cigarette lighter ballad, September in New England, he simultaneously paints a visual omage to our old hometown, and memorializes his father, Dan Carmen.
Singing to a wandering lover, in the airy cha-cha (yes, as in Cha-Cha-Cha), As Long As You Always Love Me, he writes:
You could move to Topanga in a VW van,
Or take up Kabuki, relo to Japan,
I don’t care.
Baby, I don’t care.
My favorite refrains, and perhaps one of the more memorable set of lyrics in modern songwriting, comes in the Asbury Park Street Corner Rhumba (yes, as in Rhumba), Up in Her Room:
Get back in this bed right now.
Stop making me laugh.
Naked cartwheels cross my ragged floor,
Don’t want to hear it from the neighbors below.
See? You can’t help but smile. Right?
IT!! is filled with touching moments, gritty growls, soaring vocals (who knew?), tight harmonies, clean musicianship, great production quality, goofiness, catchy hooks, great riffs, a Celtic stomp?, and other oddities from this gifted guy with a huge heart, and even huger chip on his shoulder, who had the courage to stand up for himself at twelve, and who continues to stand up to the world 40 years later. In his odd way, I think John is still teaching us all an itty-bitty little lesson. Despite his political mental illness, the guy makes great music. It sort of makes me want argue with him again. Gee- I hope he accepts my friend request this time.
You won’t want to eat just one chip in this bag – but start by downloading Crazy Eyes.
Good luck getting IT!! out of your head.