Saturday, November 06, 2010

Bruce, Joe, and Mr. Mustache (Soldiers and Sailors Hall, Pittsburgh, November 5, 2010)

Having not seen a Springsteen show since the end of the last E Street Band tour nearly a year ago, I figured I'd make it through a year without a show for the first time in this century. But then Joe Grushecky announced a pair of shows in Pittsburgh with his "special guest" to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the American Babylon album, and... I decided I needed a fix.

Springsteen and Grushecky have played several shows together before. In October, 1995, they played a mini-tour of 6 shows; we saw the last one in Chicago. At that show, Bruce made his appearance 3 songs in to the set, and as I wrote at the time, "After the first verse [of Bruce's first song], it's clear that this is now Bruce's band. " In 2004, Bruce joined Joe for a charity concert labeled "Flood Aid" at Heinz in Pittsburgh. That time, it was more of a Grushecky show, but I noted two things: 1) "No security whatsoever"; 2) "As Bruce took the stage... the orchestra section lit up as a sea of viewfienders illuminated." This gave me a pretty good set of expectations for last night's show.

First thing about the show: It was at Soldiers and Sailors Hall, a really beautiful auditorium in the University area of Pittsburgh. There are many military mementos around the hall, and above the stage is the opening of Lincoln's Gettysburg address. The hall is immaculate, and was well worth roaming. I found a wine bar area in a room at the front of the building, and drank in sight of models of the USS Pittsburgh, while managing to avoid Joe Grushecky's son lead the opening act, The I-Drive. Judging by the traffic in the bar room, I was hardly alone in that respect.

Bruce went on, solo acoustic, at about 8:45. Cellphones, video camera and point-and-shoots lit up across the building. He started off with a tasteful rendition of "Your Own Worst Enemy." The rest of the acoustic mini-set featured 3 Born in the USA era songs -- Bobby Jean, I'm On Fire, and This Hard Land, and I confess that, while I needed a fix, that didn't necessarily mean a need to hear Bobby Jean.

Then it was time for the Rock and Roll show. Joe and the Houserockers opened with American Babylon and then a number I didn't recognize: "East Carson Street," apparently much of the audience didn't recognize it either, as it was the only time all night the crowd sat down. Then Bruce was back. "Another Thin Line" sounded better than when Bruce and the E Street Band debuted it back at the end of the reunion tour. Then on to Atlantic City. Lori and I had aisle seats, toward the read portion of the floor. Security appeared to be non-existent, no one was even checking tickets of people entering the floor area. So I turned to Lori and said, "let's take a stroll and see what happens." What happened was, we were 4 feet away from the stage by the time we finished our stroll, with a few other attendees who had similarly decided to take strolls.

And here I have to say, when you're in a theater atmosphere, and the hall is warm, and it's sweaty down front, and Bruce Springsteen is right there wailing on the full rock version of "Johnny 99," and you're close enough to notice the beads of sweat forming on his chest... well, when that happens, life is good. Unfortunately for me, sometime during "Adam Raised a Cain," one of the security guards finally figured out that neither I nor several dozen other people down there had seats corresponding to where we were standing, and, well, while life is good from further back on the floor, it's just not the same. Lori managed to fake him out for another half hour. Much of the rest of the night became a game of cat-and-mouse with the security guard, whom I dub Mr. Mustache, aka the aisle Nazi ("you're in my aisle, no show for you!!")

The show itself was a blur. The Bruce selections, after the acoustic opener, were entirely Darkness through Born in the USA era songs. The performance of "Save My Love" was sweet, though Bruce's voice was noticeably ragged, and he badly missed the final high note. They also went through several of the Springsteen/Grushecky collaborations over the year, as well as a smattering of Grushecky's most popular songs. Bruce clearly gets a kick out of harmonizing on "Pumping Iron," and it showed. The two surprises of the night were "Pink Cadillac" and "Burning Love," both of which featured lots of mugging for the audience. "Burning Love" was a rather gentle rendition, more smoldering than on fire.

As the show went on, Mr. Mustache started becoming more aggressive, to the point where he was finally a distraction. The low point for this came during the evening's final song, with Bruce doing a quiet solo rendition of "Thunder Road," and a third of the house within 30 feet of the stage (or so it seemed, let's just say the Mustache was badly outnumbered), and there's Mr. Mustache, loudly trying to lecture people to put their cameras away and to get out of his aisle and back to their seats.

In general, Bruce was in fine form, especially with the guitar. Many, many solos, many extended solos. The voice was ragged, but then, this was Bruce's 3rd show in as many days, so that wasn't too surprising. For "Twist and Shout," the entire Grushecky family came up on stage. That one started as a "La Bamba" riff, nice and slow, bit of burn. After several minutes of that, with the song seemingly about to end, Bruce just took over and made it right.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Promise

Sometime after 1pm today, the audio for the upcoming release of The Promise leaked out to the internet, ostensibly via a Sony Europe website. Within a couple hours, thousands of us had the mp3s on our computers, and it was seemingly the spring of 1978 all over again... with better technology.

Back then, I'd be in Sunday school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York with a couple friends of mine, and we'd be passing notes back and forth, with whatever tiny little rumor we had -- or could invent -- about when Bruce Springsteen's 4th album might finally see the light of day. It came, finally, via a midnight airing on WNEW-FM, and even then we knew that for every song on the album, there were more that did not get released. Some, like "Independence Day," we heard when Bruce played shows that were broadcast on the radio that fall. Others, such as "Because the Night" and "Fire," became hits for other artists. Some were released on The River, or, many years later, on Tracks. Other bootleg items eventually leaked out to fans, in various conditions of completeness and sound quality.

Now we have The Promise. Or rather, we will have The Promise when it becomes official on November 16. This release gives a glimpse in to what might have been. What might have been, say, had Bruce's lawsuit with Mike Appel been resolved sooner than May 1977, or, perhaps, had Bruce not settled on a different final vision for what became the Darkness On the Edge of Town album.

The Promise has the love songs that ended up being discarded for Darkness. It has the horns Southside Johnny used so effectively on his Asbury Jukes records from the same period. It has the pop songs that helped out artists such as Patti Smith, The Pointer Sisters and Greg Kihn. It has been said, many times -- including on the video documentary to be released as part of The Promise Box Set -- that Springsteen's official releases, especially at that time, were presented as cohesive statements rather than as simply collections of his latest songs. The Promise has more of those latest songs, but... it is still cohesive in its way. We have, in it, a young man finding his adult voice. A man having moved on from the hemi-powered fantasies of Born to Run, but not yet having escaped The Circuit. A man, having asked the question, "Is Love Real," now searching and aching for anyone who might give a hint of an answer. And a rock and roll writer willing to infuse his music with whatever archival elements would fit.

The Promise is presented as an album on 2 discs, and each disc is roughly the length a vinyl record would have been in the late '70's. From the very start, the stately piano introduction to an alternate version of "Racing In the Street," the album is a compelling listen. While the alternate version presented here has most of the same lyrics as the previous official release, it is presented as a much harder rocking song, and also features a violin part by David Lindley. Does it supplant the song that is on the Darkness album? No, not for me. Not even close. But that doesn't make this new entry any less compelling. Other highlights on the first disc include "Outside Looking In," featuring a drum part straight from Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue"; also, "The Broken Hearted," which evokes Roy Orbison; and "Candy's Boy," an instant transport to the boardwalk via Danny Federici's organ. There is also one notable dud for me on the first disc: "Someday (We'll Be Together Again)" somehow started reminding me of Abba harmonies, and whether it was the female backing parts or something else, that song just failed for me.

The 2nd disc starts out with a totally new recording, "Save My Love," and then rips in to two hits: "Ain't Good Enough," a funny rocker that could have been a hit for anyone else (and which bears more than a little resemblance to "This Little Girl," which eventually was a hit for Gary U.S. Bonds) and "Fire." This version of "Fire" matches up with a well-known bootleg that has circulated for many years, but with incomplete vocals. The working assumption for this song -- and several others on the set -- has been that much of the work done in 2010 was to finish those parts, such as vocals, that were never completed back in 1977. Yet the transition from parts recorded in 1977 to parts recorded in 2010 is largely seamless, to the extent that the transitions don't interfere with hearing the songs. Are the vocals to "Fire" new? I don't know, and, frankly... I don't care. Maybe I would if it came off sounding like a 61-year old stalker, but that trap was avoided here.

Most of the horn-based songs most suitable for Southside Johnny are on disc 2. These include "It's a Shame," a song previously unknown to me, but with a great little chorus line: "I (we) worked so hard, it's all in vain. Oh, it's a shame," and then taking the broken relationship off to the horn parts. "Talk to Me" basically is the track that was given to Southside to complete. I'm not going to do the A/B comparison, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that it's the same take. I'll also note, here, that Steve Van Zandt's contributions to "The Promise" shine through repeatedly, never more so than on this track.

"Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" uses the melody that eventually became the Darkness song "Factory," but mostly with lyrics that went in to the 1984 b-side "Johnny Bye-Bye." Elvis Presley died in August 1977, while the Darkness album sessions were in progress, and this song marks, I believe, the first song of Bruce's career to be based directly on current events. The title track is, for me, the weakest track on the disc; to me it feels cumbersome, and the orchestration only seems to drag it down further. Finally, the disc concludes with a "bonus" track; "The Way," one of Bruce's best love songs, that was somehow left off both "Tracks" and The Essential Bruce Springsteen.

For those of us who became fans in the late '70's, for whom that period between the two records was one of seeming non-stop anticipation, The Promise is Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas rolled in to one. Nothing here displaces Darkness On the Edge of Town. There's not a single track here that I'd want to trade with one that's on that release, not one where I'd say, "Bruce selected wrong back then." And yet these are indispensable all the same. On "Outside Looking In," Bruce sings, "I'll do what I want to, I'll be what I am, I'm On the Outside Looking In." Tonight, I feel like the door's been opened, and I've just been let in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Through the magic of bootlegging, I finally got a chance to watch the documentary "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town" a couple nights ago. Then I watched it again Tuesday night, a little more carefully. It will be included, of course, as part of the Darkness On The Edge of Town box set next month.

In some respects, this film is brilliant and indispensable. It presents a clear narrative -- albeit more than a bit repetitively -- that ultimately tells us, clearly, why Bruce went in the direction he did with Darkness, why it was important for him to make the album in that way, and what it ultimately meant both for that record and for his career since that record. Darkness is presented as the pivot for the past 30 years, and though that would hardly be news to long time fans, the clarity of its place here is still striking.

For the most part, the film is presented as a reasonably straight-forward timeline. The first 20 minutes deal with Bruce's lawsuit against former manager Mike Appel and its fallout, which included having to stay out of the studio due to an injunction. So Bruce and the band played live to make enough money to live, and rehearsed at Bruce's rented farm house in Holmdel, NJ. Miraculously, Barry Rebo captured many of the sessions on video, and they are presented here. Most of the rest of "The Promise" focuses on the recording sessions for the album once the lawsuit was settled. I'm writing that out explicitly, because the first time I watched, I missed some of the detail there; even after the 2nd viewing I'm not certain if it's ever mentioned that the bulk of Barry Rebo's footage is presumably from studio work in New York City.

There were some things in The Promise that I absolutely loved. In fact, there's a sequence featuring Miami Steve, about 15 minutes in to the film, that all by itself makes this documentary worthwhile to have. It has to do with his... appearance. For those who haven't seen it yet, I won't spoil it, but it literally took me repeating viewings last night before I stopped asking myself, "who the hell is that man?," and realized that that was Steve!!!

Some other highlights:
* Bruce's statement of purpose: He didn't just want to be rich, famous or happy, he wanted to be great. Sure, it's a conceit, but bless him for saying it straight out.
* Letting Mike Appel speak.
* Patti Smith's discussion of Because the Night. I had never heard anything beyond Jimmy Iovine's part, certainly not how literal the "ring on the telephone" line was. Another segment worth its weight in gold.
* Bruce's discussion of the two choices wrt lyrics for "Racing in the Street." I had never heard Stevie's rationale for wanting the version with the girl, but it's totally brilliant. Look closely and you'll see a lyric sheet with the notation, "Sonny's a She." Wonderful!
* Any segment with just Bruce and Steve vamping for the camera. Is "Talk to Me" better, or "Sherry Darling"? Amazing stuff.
* Some of the outtakes casually thrown in. Oh, hard core fans will get many of them. But probably not all.
* Topless Bruce rehearsing "Candy's Boy" and the early version "Something in the Night" with Rick Gazda. My jaw dropped. oooo-la-la.
* Live footage from 1976. HFS. HFS. I'm told it's from Red Bank in August, 1976, and yes, there will be at least one song from there on the official release. I want more!!
* Bruce pretty much admitting, finally, that leaving "The Promise" off the album was related to the lawsuit... or, as Bruce put it, he was too close to a song that was about fighting and not winning
* Danny rehearsing in a "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band" t-shirt
* Chuck Plotkin explaining Bruce's vision for what he wanted the songs to feel like ("this song is that corpse").
* Jon putting the whole thing in context, not just for Darkness but for every album that's been worth owning: That Bruce is a man with a vision and in search of a vision, and the album's not done until he's advanced that vision.

I'm sure I could look at this a dozen more times, picking out fantastic details I have missed so far. Things like previously unknown song titles such as "I Wanna Be Wild" appearing on an album list, or another track starting with the word "Mansion." Details in the footage, over and over and over again. Any live shots.

For all of these reasons, for seeing so much of it as it evolved, for seeing the drive, the determination, and the sheer relentlessness with which Bruce pursued -- and largely achieved -- his artistic vision, and for having the story told so clearly, there's plenty here to like. And I do like it, and will probably watch it much more than "Wings for Wheels."

But, as I put at the start, I only saw "The Promise" as brilliant in some respects. Maybe I'm too much of a "hard core" fan, and maybe some of this is just too much quibbling, but I thought the film missed the mark in some respects, as well.

To me, what really resonated with Darkness in 1978 was how frank it was about his life with his father. Maybe it hit me because I was 16 and had my own difficult relationship with my father, but to me there was simply no way to hear "Adam Raised a Cain," or "Factory," or, when I heard the Capitol Theater show that September, "Independence Day," and not just be smacked upside the head with it. Yes, I know: Bruce made peace with his dad before his dad died. But still, why gloss it over so completely?

Also, the film does not seem to acknowledge that there was a world outside Holmdel, or later the NYC studio. Watching that film, one might be tempted to believe that the band never broke for food or took bathroom breaks. It's not just isolated from the world at large, but also from what was going on musically. Bruce references the influence of punk and of country, but there's no context as to what, in particular, he got out of either one or how that's reflected on the album. Disco ruled most of the non-WNEW airwaves in 1977, and yet it's not even mentioned in passing. And then there's the ghost of Elvis: "Fire" is mentioned by Jon, but there is no reference at all that it was supposedly written for Elvis, nor that Bruce and Steve celebrated the lawsuit settlement by driving to Philadelphia the same day to see Elvis play, that they were supposedly horrified by what they saw, or even that Elvis died right in the middle of the recording period for Darkness. Not that I want to dictate what specific events should be mentioned in the film, but I'd have liked at least some context.

I had some other minor quibbles: the use of video montages or unrelated stock shots, Bruce's strummed renditions of his Darkness songs, Patti's comments (love her, but she wasn't there), and that the film seemed to me to go in to repeat mode just after the 50 minute mark.

The story starts with Bruce trying a take of "The Promised Land," and ends with Bruce performing the finished song at the end of the Darkness tour... and then flashing back to that very same rehearsal take. Full circle. I think it's a nice summary... if not quite all I hoped it would be.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A letter to Toadstool Cottage

She may just be in it for the golden dollars under the pillow, but creativity is what it is. Looking for responses from Toadstool Cottage! (and a spelling coach)

2 Toadstool Cottage
June 26, 2010

Dear Fairy,

I'm Elianna Orel. I have not ever talked to a fairy before and I don't know any fairy names, I just hope my letter gets to a fairy!

A long time ago my brother said there was no such thing as fairies and I almost stopped believing but before I stop believing completely I want to know the truth. So I wrote this letter. If I get a letter back I will believe in fairies, if I don't get a letter back I won't believe in fairies. But if it is in my mom or dad's handwriting I might stop believing in fairies. If a fairy gets this letter then I have a few questions to ask you: 1) What is it like being a fairy? 2) Is it hard to be a fairy? 3) does every fairy have a job at one point? 3) What is your name? 4) How old are you? 5) Do you get letters from people who are not fairies often? 6) How big is a full grown fairy? 7) How big is a baby fairy? 8) How big are you? 9) How are you doing? 10) Do you have a job? 11) If you do have a job what is it? I hope you're doing good.

Elianna Orel

P.S. I mailed this to you by putting it under my pillow and what do you do when you lose a tooth and then you actually lose it and you don't know where it is?

Please write back to me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Friend Monty

I have a friend named Monty. He's a few months older than me, and he's dead.

Not to be morbid, or anything like that, I just think Monty would appreciate putting that right out there first, a statement of basic fact. Today is June 13th. Today is Monty's 49th birthday and I'm going to write about Monty's life. Or, at least, a few small part of it. Monty had a lot of life.

I first "met" Monty Smith sometime in the late '80s or early '90s. I'm not really sure. We had both found something on what was then known as the "arpanet list of lists" called "Backstreets." In the late '80s, email mailing lists were still a bit exotic, so much so that there was actually a publication listing them all. "Backstreets" was a small list for fans of Bruce Springsteen, and we, plus a few other geeky die-hards, also found it.

Over time, it became apparent that, whatever energy anybody else on the list had, Monty matched it and then some. He put together a 7-tape collection called "Thundertracks," which seemingly had a live performance of every song ever performed. Then there was the "Sadder Eyes" collection, a multi-tape collection of just the middle section of "Backstreets," wherein Bruce at one time inserted an extended passage commonly referred to as "Sad Eyes." These were awesome collections, if only for the sheer magnitude of them, the imagination, and the execution. Trifles such as sound quality or best version, Monty might ignore, but when those tapes were done they were complete.

Not that Monty necessarily took himself too seriously. In 1993, when the list had seemingly become too large and reverential, Monty decided to challenge the religious fervor by referring to several of Bruce's most holy outtakes as "banal ditties." When challenged, he raised the stakes with one of my all-time favorite passages from that list, referring to This Hard Land:
... every time I hear it, the image I get in my mind is Bruce Springsteen in a Gene Autry outfit, atop his trusty steed, six-gun and guitar at his side, singing about Frankie and the lost cattle.
Many chains were yanked; appropriately, the folks that Monty ended up liking best were often exactly those who pushed back hardest. To this day, more than 17 years later, I can't hear that song without laughing at the image of the Gene Autry outfit and the six shooter.

Monty was gregarious. He wanted to know people and enjoyed being with people, and he always wanted people to know and enjoy being with each other. I met him in person for the first time in early 1995, when a business trip took him to Michigan. Once here, of course he introduced me to another huge fan who lived just a few miles away, and who remains a good friend to this day.

Monty's professional career was brief and brilliant. At Intel, he was a platform manager for the Pentium II and Pentium III chips. He once told me his job was essentially herding cats, but, as many of us can recall, those products were pretty successful. By the top of the boom, Monty was able to walk away from tech, having pocketed his salary and bonuses plus enough stock options so that he wouldn't have to work again in an office for a long, long time. To make money, he turned to more mundane things such as options trading, which he predictably worked in to a science over the next decade.

Monty Smith at the summit of Ama Dablam, with Everest in the background

Through all of this, Monty climbed mountains. He had started climbing as a teenager, and once freed from a desk job, had much more time to pursue it globally. He climbed Denali in 2002. In 2004 he scaled Ama Dablam, and the next year he climbed Shishapangma. As improving technology started to permit, he began sending back reports and images from his treks, including several harrowing near death experiences. For example, after summitting Shishapangma, he and his climbing partner returned to high camp to discover that a storm had wiped out their tent and supplies. leading to two nights at 25,000 feet and no protection. Here's how he described it; note his use of the word "fine":
Just a short note to announce Val and I reached the summit on Oct 11, but not without difficulties. Our tent was blown away from C3 when we returned, along with most our gear (as well as our hi-alt drugs).
The net effect was an unplanned snow cave bivy at 24,500ft, both cerebral and pulmonary edema without drugs, and frostbite on about 25 fingers and toes. But we're both back at ABC now and are fine.
It's bone-chilling cold at ABC right now, not to mention unpleasant typing with ungloved and frostbitten fingers.
Since most our gear was blown off the mountain, Cho Oyo is off. We'll be heading towards Lhasa tomorrow; pics and full details to follow shortly.
They survived in part by using gear abandoned by another climber who had perished. Monty ended up losing parts of two fingers. Always, he would send back spectacular pictures.

In 2008, he decided, with his climbing partner Val, to make an attempt on Mt. Everest. In his first blog post, he wrote, about the attempt, and his thoughts to himself and his family (wife Margaret and children from a prior marriage):
I fear being put in the position to make a life or death decision on a fallen climber. Will the hypoxia or summit fever cloud my judgment? To what extent will I risk my life to save someone who I believe is almost, or guaranteed to soon be dead? What if that person is me? What if it’s Val? Those thoughts haunt me.

Lastly, I'm worried for Margaret, Allie and Amy. What IF I don’t come back? Is taking greater risk in my life worth possibly taking their husband and father away?
Everest turned in to disaster for Monty when, on the day he was to summit, a severe uncontrolled nosebleed nearly took his life; instead, he needed a military helicopter to get him out alive. Was Monty disappointed? Sure. How did he show it? Well, this is part of what he wrote:
Wow. WOW! A helicopter ride from the upper Khumbu to Kathmandu is NOT TO BE MISSED. It didn’t quite make the whole ordeal worth it, but it sure was cool!
Monty might not always have "succeeded," but he never did anything less than 100%. This extended to how he treated others. If I ran a piddly little survey, I could count on Monty's full response, full of quotables. When Aaron and I started bike riding annually for the American Diabetes Association, Monty not only made the largest contribution, he made sure to send extra words of encouragment to my 8-year old son, whom he had never met. When my old Pentium II computer started reaching its limit, he sent my tech tricks to improve FSB speed, and then, for good measure, sent me a prototype P3 motherboard that he still had. And when I asked some friends if they had any Led Zeppelin snippets I could use to help a nephew who was learning guitar, he sent me the first 4 Led Zep albums. These acts were altogether typical.

In 2008, through a series of fortunate circumstances, I was able to work out a plan to make a 3-day visit to the Smith residence outside Portland. Before even getting to Monty's house, we had visited the Vista House at Crown Point, had hiked Multnomah Falls, and had nearly gone to a rock climb along I-84 (I politely declined the offer). The next morning, off to Mt. Hood. The whole drive up, Monty explaining to me what stock options were, how to work them, and being enthusiastically impressed that I seemed to be grasping it.

A few days after visiting with Monty, my then 7-year old daughter got me to do something that I had declined when with Monty: climb a rock wall (albeit not a natural one). When I told Monty about it, he responded:
Matt, Matt, Matt...
Oh, that's a slippery slope. Sure, you start with the small ones, but soon you're attracted to bigger and harder rocks. Then you take it outside, but even the thrills you get there aren't enough any more - you want to get higher!
You find there are people everywhere willing to supply your thrills. The rocks just keep getting bigger, and you're dragged down into a seamy subculture of rock users and are talking about cleaning the second pitch, and whether you should re-tie your nuts.
And soon enough, the local thrills don't cut it anymore - you're looking to travel and find yourself in rock hangouts like Red Rocks, Joshua, or coming back to Oregon to redpoint that overhanging 5.10 at Smith Rock.
Sure, it all feels fine now and you think you can control it - but the rocks keep calling you back.
Then he added:
I had a similar weekend, but on the real thing. I led climbs of Mt Washington and Three Finger Jack here in Oregon. Washington had about 300' of climbing to reach the summit pinnacle, but none of it more technical than what you're doing in that picture.
If I ever made it back to Portland, we were going to be climbing rocks.

In the months after I returned from Portland, I traded literally hundreds of messages with Monty. Mostly him trying to teach me the ins and outs of options strategy, and me hesitating to put it to use as my financial world collapsed in the crash. Also, here and there, he'd talk me off the proverbial ledge after my own anxieties seeped through, one time even sending me a picture of a woman he used to climb with (it was a nice picture). Of course, occasionally there'd be another spectacular rescue up on Mount Hood, something to remind me that literally hundreds of others were getting his full attention as well. I'm not really quite sure how he did it all, as he seemed to have time for everyone, and everything.

In January of this year, after one particularly detailed "tip" from Monty (which I'm guessing turned out well, though I haven't had the nerve to check yet), my focus shifted to Aaron's bar mitzvah, and I stopped responding for a while. By May I was ready to pick up again, and sent him a note asking if he was there (for me). Somewhat surprisingly, there was no immediate response. Finally, on June 4, Monty responded:
Sorry for the long silence – just got out of the hospital. Had a little choking incident that turned out pretty bad.

What recommendations are you looking at?
A few hours later, his customary large donation to our diabetes ride came in. All seemed well... yet... "a little choking incident"?? and, "turned out pretty bad"?? This, from the person who declared himself "fine" after nearly dying on Shishapangma? It took me two reads even to figure out he was talking about himself, but even with a hundred reads I'm afraid I wouldn't have figured out his reference. For all his devotion to what life had to offer, both for himself and particularly for others, he no longer wished to live his own life. The "little choking incident" was by his own hand, and "turned out pretty bad" was that he had almost succeeded in killing himself -- and would have, had Margaret and paramedics not saved him. Yet, once he got through telling me about his little incident, what he wanted to know was, how he could help.

The next day, as I was riding to earn the donation Monty had sent, Monty himself was going to a beautiful spot on the Washington side of Columbia Gorge. At least, I am told it's a beautiful spot. From there, he jumped off a cliff, and died.

I won't attempt to understand, really, what was in his head at that moment. How a person whose will to live was so powerful, whose devotion to everyone so strong, ultimately had just as strong a will to end it. I can't even speculate what might have been had my inquiry, "Can you advise me?," been sent just 24 hours earlier, as that would have been before that first attempt. What I do know is that, when a memorial service was held for Monty at a church in Portland, many hundreds of people showed up, all of whom had been touched by Monty's life. And I know that I will terribly miss his messages, friendship, advice, encouragement, and, despite what happened at his last moment, his joie de vivre.

Monty was active in Portland Mountain Rescue. A donation may be made at

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

They Took the Tefillin

Monday night marked the beginning of Passover, the celebration of the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery. As has been the custom in Judaism for many centuries, we marked the first night of the holiday with a family seder. Over to the in-laws house we went, and also our cousins, to mark the occasion, drink our wine, eat brisket and matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish, search for lost matzoh, and occasionally be very silly. We concluded that ancient Egypt must have been a very smelly place during the plagues; after all, the people couldn't bath in a river of blood and after the boils it was too painful for them even to change clothes. The haggadah said so.

But why Monday night was different than all other nights couldn't be found in the maggid; it wasn't even a Passover story, particularly. That part started when we came home. I came home first, with the kids. At the top of the road, I saw a small car just sitting in the street; I expected it to turn on to the main road but it just sat there. Strange, I thought, but then as I passed I saw a woman inside, looking down at something. Maybe she was checking a map. I sometimes notices such things, never quite know what to make of them. Farther down the road toward our house, I can get a bit of a panoramic view of the house as I approach the driveway. I noticed that our bedroom light was on and said something to the effect of, "Lori left the light on... and the shades open!" Even when we're home, the bedroom lights are usually off. I might say something to Lori later, I thought.

After parking, the kids got out of the car first. A few moments later I heard Aaron call out, "hey, Mommy didn't close the door!" Well, I thought, it's a good thing we live in a safe neighborhood, but this is becoming strange. Forgetting to turn off the lights and forgetting to close the door??

Then I approached. A piece of molding... from the door?... was lying across the foyer, some insulation was on the floor, and also bits of drywall. Pieces of the door jamb, bent screws... the door was kicked in!! I looked in the window, at this computer. But I saw only the wall; the computer wasn't here. "Aaron! We've had a break-in! Don't touch anything"

It's hard to know, in that situation, whether to feel more hurt, violated, or... lucky. Maybe confused or surprised might be more accurate; after 16 years without the slightest evidence of any attempts at a break-in, here we were confronted with evidence of a real one, with real damage.

When I was 14, my childhood home was robbed, and the primary items taken were my things; I had never been more upset in my life. I discovered that one as well, and I remember the rage. Rage so severe I literally couldn't feel or sense anything other than the rage for some time after I discovered the theft. Not that my small coin collection was all that valuable; it really wasn't: a few Morgan silver dollars, a really pretty Mercury dime from 1942 that I had bought for a dollar and ten cents at the local coin shop, a few proof sets, things like that. It was the rage that someone had entered my house, gone in to my bedroom, knew to find the shoe-box in the closet where I kept my coins, and just removed the whole thing. The police eventually recovered most of it, and for more than 30 years the recovered coins continued to sit in the police evidence bag. I don't think they ever caught the person who did it, though I suspect that if I go to enough high school reunions I'll eventually get a confession from an ex-friend.

We started to look around. My initial fear of surprising a thief still in the house was brief; it was clear that we were alone. "Mommy's laptop is gone," Aaron reported. Mommy's laptop is vintage 2003. It was a very good laptop... in 2003. 768mb RAM. That's still almost as much as some new netbooks. Which is to say, it is not a thing that a thief looking for valuable items is likely to take. Back to my desk. The iMac: gone. The backup drive: gone. The video camera case: empty. Oh, right, I had left the video camera on top of the desk. ok, gone. The iPhone: gone. Damn, that was already a replacement for a stolen iPhone, though at least the first one was stolen from someone else. My digital SLR camera case: hmmm.... still there!

But the iMac is gone. The pictures. Almost 15,000 of them. Well, at least I uploaded all the bar mitzvah pictures to shutterfly, and I see the CostCo DVDs with all the old 35 millimeter conversions, so I probably still have half of them, at least. But Lori might be happy: our insurance was for replacement value, and that would mean a new laptop.

Aaron came up from the basement: "My computer is gone." Just the prior day, I had reluctantly let him use his Target gift card to purchase Grand Theft Auto IV. Very reluctantly. Lori was not happy and let him know it. He had just finished loading it before seder, and... the disc was still in the machine.. Fighting back tears, Aaron told me that at least mommy might be happy now, as he had not gotten to play the game yet and now he never would. Still, despite getting a new laptop and no "Grand Theft Auto 4," I figured Lori wouldn't actually be happy.

The thieves targeted electronics and jewelry. My old laser disc player from 1992: gone. The one flat screen TV in the house: gone. The Wii: gone.

I called the in-laws, and the police. I suppose we should have the police number handy: without a computer to find the number on the web, I was left with the phone book, and it just wasn't easy to find. Lori walked in and asked what was going on; she had already left when I spoke to the in-laws and had no idea anything was up until she walked in. The police showed up a few minutes later. Officer Tash asked questions about when we were out, had we had any new people or workers at the house recently, what was taken, exactly, etc. Though the damage was substantial in terms of quantity, at least the house damage -- except for around the door -- was minimal. The Officer Lamb turned the dining room table in to the local CSI. He eventually found a good print on the front door.

Lori and I discovered that the thieves, in addition to targeting electronics, had also gone through the bedroom. Rifled through the draws, pulled shoe-box after shoe-box off the top shelf of the closet, searched under the mattress. The shoe-boxes had no coins in them, just new shoes; I had bought a bunch when a local chain store went out of business a few years ago. They had grabbed a bunch of expired credit cards that I had no shredded; the credit card companies assure me that there is no value, even toward identity theft, in those old cards.

Our neighbor came over, and then sent out an email to the subdivision announcing the burglary and asking if anyone had seen or heard anything. One neighbor reported having seen an odd Ford minivan in the street, that had just been sitting there, appeared to have many boxes in it. Seemed like a lead.

As the CSI was going on, we got a call from Officer Tash: A van had been found (a van? a Ford van? could it be?). Were we missing any cutlery? No. The thieves either missed the cutlery, or had no interest; it looks like they skipped the dining room and kitchen altogether. Were we missing any large containers of toilet paper? Excuse me??? Well, yes, we are CostCo shoppers and we recently bought toilet paper. I checked: toilet paper was still there. False alarm.

Finally, officer Lamb left with his prints, leaving behind black dust everywhere he had found potential prints. Elianna was besides herself with grief over the loss of a necklace locket that grandma had recently given her, a 70-year old heirloom from grandma's youth. We propped up a bag with ski boots against the door to keep it closed.

5am, the phone rings. This time the description is a match. Turns out there was more in the van than just cutlery and toilet paper. Could I come over to the Franklin Police station -- next town over -- to identify? When I got to the station, Officer Hirschfeld was waiting for me, and took me to the evidence room. And here, miraculously, just 9 hours after we called the police, were our things, including some things I didn't expect: Lori's power drill. My 20-year old film camera, in its bag. And then, my tefillin bag. They stole my tefilllin!! I looked at Officer Hirschfeld and said, nearly laughing "I can't believe they took that." Who steals tefillin? Is there a market for stolen tefillin? ok, ok, I understand, the thieves had no idea what it was, and probably figured there were jewels or valuables in there (I don't think they opened the bag). Officer Hirschfeld, without missing a beat, asked, "is that your tefillin?" Not... "is that yours" or "what is that," but very specifically, with the bag still closed, "is that your tefillin?" "Yes, officer, they took the tefillin... Are you Jewish?" ok, the last question was totally unnecessary, but if I ever wanted to know why this morning was different than all other mornings, I guess getting tefillin recovery from the Jewish policeman in Franklin would rank reasonably high on the list.

By 5pm the front door was repaired and the stolen goods released to us; they had been at two separate police stations, but they all managed to talk and get everything together. The thieves? At large. The van was stolen several weeks ago in a car-jacking at gun point. Several other robberies had been reported involving the van: one in Franklin, one in Chesterfield. One robbery had been of a gun cache. We could consider ourselves lucky we did not intercept them ourselves. Somehow, they had driven the van in to a ditch on a residential street, and were trying to push it out of the ditch when they were approached. They fled on foot, apparently taking the iPhone with them. We tried to use GPS to track the iPhone, but it was not precise enough to catch them before the signal went dead. Maybe the fingerprints will eventually help make a case.

For now, we are whole. Sort of. At least, everything has been put back together for now. We went to 2nd seder last night. At one point, a question went around as to what one item we'd want with us if we had to wander the desert for 40 years. Elianna's reply: "a locket that my grandma gave me that's 70 years old and shaped like a heart."

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