Peripatetic Postcards

My Old School

… And I’m never going back to my old school

-- Steely Dan, circa 1974

It’s not, as Thomas Wolfe would have it, that you can’t go home again, it is more like: why would you want to? Me? I was of the Fleetwood Mac generation, so on the subject of return my view was always more resolute, more defiant, possibly even more – dare I say it? – philosophical. More like Lindsay Buckingham, vowing:

been down one time

been down two times

and I’m never going back again

Of course, words are cheap. It is deeds that are determinative. And, caught now in the midst of a deedly act: here was I in the flesh, with a carload of baggage. History incarnate -- in the form of a couple of blooming kids -- and the woman who had helped me make them (!) -- their mom by my side. The woman I had met, two decades or more, right here – right outside this very front windshield. Inside that building . . .

Inside of which, she and I had listened in awe, assisted, served, and even belittled various professors, wrote term papers, led lectures, kissed in front of that funky statue of George, and recited the Athenian Oath. The oath whose various parts we lip-synched daily as we passed beneath it. I recall reading it aloud with fervor, explaining to her why these words would all make us better citizens of the world.

Ah, the naive passion of youth. Don’t we all wish it would remain intact forever!

So, “never going back again?” Only if the school ceased to stand; only if the words were suddenly expunged; only if we physically couldn’t. Otherwise . . . why not?!

But, man-oh-my, don’t things change, once you do go back. On the other hand, as long as you are prepared for that, as long as you don’t harbor any gestalts to guide your input, as long as you don’t allow moribund ways of seeing to impose their will and besot pattern recognition; as long as you are open to processing the new, as long as you are not wed to the past, then going back home again is not a dungeon. Or the torture chamber we often make it out to be.

Case in point: back here at my old school – The Maxwell School of Public Affairs and Citizenship at Syracuse University -- this statue of Abraham Lincoln has always graced the thin swatch of lawn just in front. Only now -- that they have erected a new multi-million dollar building to unify (or consolidate?) all the social sciences under one roof, the statue of honest Abe has been rotated 90 degrees. Now they have him facing North, rather than East, as he did during the years I was scurrying up the marble steps behind him.

Honest Abe. As only Abe could be: deep in thought, troubled, standing alone. Likely fretting about the schism in the Union, the nation he would try to bind – by force if necessary – to preserve.

Reminding us, I suppose (if we really require reminding, if we really choose to use our noggins) how tricky (and relative) policy matters can be. There is Abe pressing violence as a political solution and, for his wisdom, his deep reflection, and his steely determination, Abe managed to become a glorified national hero. Now, you take another one who sat in Abe’s seat a century and more later, still sitting there today, in fact . . . and that pretender goes and tries to act in kind (although he skims over the deliberative part) and . . . well, let’s just say there won’t be as many statues to Ol’ W scattered around the country at various institutions of higher learning in 150 years.

We drive the kids around the grid. Point out streets and businesses and recount routines from a life once lived. Syracuse still as run-down as ever: the town being far more tattered than the gown. Who would ever have wanted to live here? But we did, and we were happy. And, today, decades later, tooling around the city makes us recall, then appreciate, that fortunate past through the eyes of an indeterminate present.

Actually, the images that come are a mix of then and now. Viewing today but seeing yesterday. Separating the two and trying to describe each. The act that the kids co-experience is, of course, influential over the production that results. The fact that they are witnessing it for the first time means that their Mom and I have a lot more explaining to do. Filler, history, atmosphere, background. Saying it all aloud, though, changes it all somehow. Converts it into something that is different than it was, as we remember it, as it now is.

It takes a while but we locate their Mom’s first abode, the oft-repainted three-storey she rented when we first started dating. I tell a rather personal story about that time and she blushes; the kids feign shock, but agree that it is actually quite cute. I can’t repeat the tale here -- you all being strangers -- but it basically revolves around modern love rituals, old-fashioned modesty, and the precise moment I determined this was the woman for me.

We move on to a couple of places the Mom and I occupied together. A man and woman emerge from one, holding hands. The guy wearing expensive-looking shorts and loafers; the gal sporting a blonde bun, a sun dress, and a Long Island demeanor. They briefly regard me taking pictures of their home. I feel like I should explain but when I do ("I used to live here, do you mind?") they simply turn and stroll silently down the lane. Like, "who cares? Snap away."

New Yorkers.

The apartments are just as shabby as ever. What I realize, looking at those dwellings through today’s eyes, is just how poor we were; at the same time, we didn’t have the sense enough to realize it, or I suppose to care. We were at our happiest. Living on nothing. 130 bucks for a couple of rooms, a kitchen, a shower, a toilet. Seemed like a lot at the time. All I recall is that we felt privileged because we could afford a steak once a week and occasionally a 4 dollar bottle of wine. We survived on fish and pasta and plenty of salad most other days. Enjoyed our Sunday ritual of omelets and bagels and the New York Times. Did our laundry on Fridays at a place down the road, while we drank coffee, ate pancakes and read and discussed the classics of sociology. In moments of reverie we talked about opening an egg shop when we retired – maybe somewhere along the Northern Californian coast.

Remembering these bits aloud –- finishing off each others’ recollections with the intensity of grease sizzling on an iron skillet -- the kids seem stupefied.

“Who were those people, Dad?” our daughter asks.

“And where did they go?” wonders our son.

When will they come back? Which is what going back again enables us to see.

Nowadays, when I really screw up there‘s a speech I give my wife about how that person wasn’t me. Well, of course, it was me, but not the me I am now. At least that’s what I tell her. “I have changed,” I say; “grown,” “developed new shading,” “I’ve become someone else, honey, I really have!” Someone somehow different.

My wife calls it "bailing out," "making excuses," "passing the buck," "disavowing responsibility." Which seems like the substitution of complicated internal contortions for what is probably just a simple altered existential state. On the other hand, that sounds kind of like a disavowal, too.

Hm. Maybe . . . could my wife be right?

But, then again -- and after spying what my old school did to old Uncle Abe – I think that maybe it would be better to think about any of this alleged change in terms of "ontology shifting", or "essence slipping" . . . or some other hi-concept coinage that I will have to perfect later. The key idea here is about vectors. About viewing a thing from a different slant. This is akin to what happened to contemplative Abe: the statue remains the same -- hunkered down, bearing the weight of the nation's tumultuous, tormenting moment square on his shoulders; yet, the viewing changes: getting turned, over time, ninety degrees. The fact is that today, the way we now view the Abe in the Maxwell foreground -- is just how we have come over the centuries to regard Abe, himself: from an austere, simpler world to one built up around him. The nasty struggle remains the same, but its stakes, and value, and meaning has changed. Abe's solitary battle -- testing, wrenching, searing, defining -- affected an entire nation. Viewing Abe's icon today, in the space that he presides over and fills, we see that our understandings of him, his nation, and ourselves, has changed. It may only be us, approaching from a different angle, true; but that is precisely why we should return, go back once more, revisit life - the past, our lives, our spaces of becoming. In that way we can see more the old things anew.

Mike Campbell once wrote a tune that Don Henley supplied the words for. Henley then sang: “you can never look back, never look back.” But I don’t think that is right. I think we may often prefer not to look back because we fear what we might find: that things will have changed, or possibly that they haven’t; that we have changed . . . or perhaps that we haven’t.

Or perhaps it is more about learning than finding.

Schools are where we learn. But schools can be anything, anywhere. Schools can be on the streets, in an apartment, a laundromat, a bed; schools can be on TV, in a jobplace. So if you ask me, I don’t think going back to one’s old school is a bad thing – even if it is actually (of all things) a school that one goes back to.

And precisely because this is so, I prescribe traveling to the schools in our past. I recommend returning; going back or looking back once more. It seems like we often favor travel to new places over old. And to the degree that this is true, I suspect it is because we fear what we might learn about ourselves, from the places of our past. Now updated, through different eyes, with newer understandings.

What it all means?

Don't be afraid of approaching the statues in the garden (and the apartments, the words on the wall, the memories in the bin) from another angle. If we can see the scene today from the distance of the years, it may not be a wasted exercise. Not at all.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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