Road Trip

I write in bursts, and now seems like a good time to pick it up again.

My friend John McLaughlin died yesterday, and it is weighing heavily on me today.  John was a friend of mine for 15 years.  We started going to same little church right around the same time, and we hit it off right away.  He was 17 years older than me, but that didn’t matter.  It just worked.  I feel sadness and loss, but a busy day at work mostly kept me from thinking about it.  Now that I’m home, I need to get this out.

John died because of a disease called PSP, which gradually robbed him of his charm and dignity, year after year, bit by bit.  It was a terrible thing to watch an intelligent, vibrant man slowly deteriorate in such a way.  At first, many years ago, we didn’t know what was going on.  In hindsight, it all makes sense. I don’t want to talk too much about this though, so I’m going to tell a story instead.

About a year ago, John asked me if I would drive him to Madison. His lifelong friend Renie was hosting a house concert. I’d never been to a house concert before so I thought what the heck, why not? I was worried about doing it. John’s disease had progressed to where he really should have been in a wheelchair, but he stubbornly refused, insisting instead on using his walker.  My job was going to be to get him there, and keep him from incurring severe injury.  No blunt head trauma on my watch, please.

The house concert featured a performer called Buddy Mondlock, who I’d never heard of, but Renie insisted was very good.  He is a modern-day folkie, singing in a genre that Renie knew John would appreciate.  See, John is an old folkie. Not old in sense of chronological age (well, maybe) as John was only 66 yesterday when he passed, but rather, he was an old coot in the way that he loved traditional folk music.  John was an old folky hippie at heart. He loved that music so passionately.  I am a modern folkie, so that was a big part of the connection John and I had with one another – our musical worlds had a large intersection.

John’s dad was a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, and Dinkytown was a hotbed of traditional folk and political protest in the 1960s.  Even Bob Dylan lived there, playing coffee shops for a couple of years before taking off for New York. John went to University School, and lived in the belly of the beast, at the epicenter of 1960s upper-Midwestern hippie culture and progressive politics.

Folk and politics are two things John loved very much.  These sensibilities were not something you could separate from him. They formed the intimate core of who he was. John knew that I liked folk and political discussion too, and would save all of his recently-read periodicals for me – The Economist, Forbes, Time, sometimes Mother Jones and Esquire too – and I would give them a second reading before they went to the recycle bin.  John was very much left-leaning because of his upbringing, but working in public service for 35 years at Hennepin County also taught him to be a pragmatist.  Or maybe he was just a cynicist. I’m not completely sure.

It’s a five-hour drive to Madison from Minneapolis, even though Wisconsin is our next-door-neighbor.  As far as the-passage-of time though, it’s a really long five hours, and I knew we’d need something to occupy the time.  John’s communication was still ok then, although the beginnings of its deterioration were evident. Talking was not going to be an option for the whole trip, so I encouraged John to bring music. He brought several CDs I dropped into the CD changer in the trunk, and away we went.

The music was an eclectic mix – Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Kris Kristofferson, and Leonard Cohen… uugh … Leonard Cohen.  I’m a modern folkie and realize he means something to folks like John, but I have never quite developed a taste for Mr. Cohen.  I appreciate the bazillion covers of Hallelujah that are out there.  Heck I’ve even performed that song in front of an audience once or twice, but the original LC version is almost unlistenable, making me want to rip the car stereo out of the dashboard and toss it out of the window onto Interstate 94. But I of course remember it’s for John, not me, so I can tough it out.

I also fired up Spotify and we listen to lots of other music too, so we had some balance.  Of the music that John brought though, I found that I was really taken by Kris Kristofferson.  There were a few famous songs on the anthology CD that I recognized but did not know until then were his songs.  The album stuck to me. The dark, intimate, deeply personal nature of the songwriting was very compelling.  After the trip, I went back to explore his music some more, and found a connection.

The house concert was wonderful.  Buddy Mondlock was very good, just as advertised. Renie was the perfect host, and I was able to both enjoy the music and help keep her guests fed and watered.  After years of hosting big parties in my own house, I find it very difficult to sit idly by without offering whatever assistance I can.  So I did what I could do.  We stayed the night.  Renie and her husband have a beautiful home, and we got up early the next day.  Despite my good intentions, John fell hard 2 or 3 times while we were there, but we were able to get home with no head trauma or other broken bones.  All in all, it was a successful trip.

A few months later, I was with John in one of the hospice facilities he stayed at, and was making small talk.  He had a big pile of CDs in his room – all of the folkies and other beloved artists from the 60s and 70s. The conversation had run dry, and after moment or two of uncomfortable silence, I asked a question you only ask someone when you have run out of things to talk about and are trying to strike up a new topic:  If you were trapped on a deserted island (with electricity, of course) and could only bring one artist with you to listen to forever, who would it be?

Without missing a beat, he answered:  Kris Kristofferson.  I can’t say I was surprised. There was something in the pain, darkness, self-reflection, and yes, obstinance, of those songs that John connected to.  The self-aware, socially-conscious, occasionally angry folk songs he loved represented a different, more idealistic part of his life. Kris Kristofferson mirrored the person he’d become – a deeply self-aware, defiant, mature, and remorseful man, one who knew his time was drawing to a close but was unwilling to give up.

Kris Kristofferson’s most well-known song is one that was made famous by another singer – Janis Joplin.  Her cover is amazing, and one of the 50 most-famous rock songs ever recorded.  Whenever I hear KK’s version however, I hear a different song, with a completely different set of ears.  I hear my friend.  I think about the last few years of his life, while this brutal disease broke him down, defiantly hanging onto whatever shred of independence he had left, I hear the most famous lyric from song in a completely different context:

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free

Amen to that.  Rest in peace, my brother.

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