Good-Bye Little Rock’n'Roller

There were always golf pros. Bored. Jaded. Thrill-seeking to kill summers spent in the service of the overstuffed, self-important and often boorish. They were charmed by the scrawny kid in the pink and green or yellow or turquoise with the swinging ponytail secured with a great big Pappagallo ribbon bow. The kid who didn't understand the meaning of "no," who knew deep truths about life, who chased the night and emotions and most of all rock & roll with a parched thirstiness that was almost unquenchable.

All the bands. All the records. Reading Rolling Stone under one of those hand-carved, heavy dark wood Eastern European beds in the attic. Staring down Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, not sure if she was a he or whatever; waiting for the lightning bolt to strike after repeatedly needle-dropping on the disengaged confessional opening salvo of Horses: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine…"

Strangely limp when nothing happened. Disoriented. Vertiginous, even. Not sure about anything in the world anymore -- except that the truth could be found somewhere in the grooves. If not on Horses, then when Bonnie Raitt melted down John Prine's song of emptiness and alienation in a home where love once lived and only memories seem to exhale "Angel From Montgomery."

There was Jackson Browne. Led Zeppelin. Heart. The Sanford Townsend Band. Aerosmith. Merle Haggard. Little Feat. Gary Wright. Fleetwood Mac. The Allman Brothers. Carole King. Earth, Wind & Fire. Carly Simon. Waylon Jennings. Warren Zevon. Linda Ronstadt. Jefferson Airplane/Starship. Thin Lizzy. Emmylou Harris.

Ear glued to the radio -- listening for the seismic shifts. To know the music. What was next. What was lame. What mattered, what sucked. What could -- properly applied -- lift me up.

One day, there was the most haunted sound of a lost wind blowing --
pouring out of the speakers of some golf pro's car, parked outside the Shaker Deli where no doubt the driver was inside buying a couple of ice cold six packs. The announcer's voice, male, a little distant, flat but with an echo, appeared from out of nowhere. There was a serpentine guitar part, buzzing with the promise of kerosene and a match -- that taut tension doing nothing, but its presence letting you know…

"It's the sound of faded calico dresses… and leaving town on the midnight train."

I was riveted, right there, fanny planted in the naugahyde.

That's when it hit. A voice that was cracked prairie, broken open, a witness to all the earth had seen -- exhaling about a long and lonely highway just east of Omaha. It was as if my blood had turned to electricity and every cell was set on stun.

"Marshall Chapman… Jaded Virgin… on Epic Records & Tapes."

That was all the more there was. Utterly abortive. Entirely, frustratingly not enough. Yet, it was crumbs in the forest, a trail to somewhere -- perhaps scary, probably dark -- that I must journey. That I would know.

Jaded Virgin was of course purchased. Spoils from another bout of parental marital croquet. During this particular separation, it was an attempt on my father's part to curry favor that incited angina over a title that to him signified moral turpitude at best, my moral erosion at worst.

But to hear a thick Southern accent flailing, wailing, raving "Why can't I be like other girls…" was a liberation over utterly collected-and-rising guitars… a lazy female diction with the tension tightening up like a horse coming up on a jump, gathering, shortening its stride, extending, reaching and clearing. That was Marshall Chapman's ability to free-for-all into the abyss with a focus that was as intense as the explosive reality she conjured.

For control and abandon marked her, and the records, tautening the loose-jointed rolling grooves. And the way her throat opened when she tossed her head back, spewed out the line. If admitting, "I could read, I could write/ But learning to be white was something I didn't need to know…" about grade school education drew the reality-checking line for the South Carolina textile heiress in this lament about role and convention and one's inability to access the hand as dealt. Jaded Virgin offered a rough sweetness that was low-slung leather pants soaked with the salt of a good night's sweat.

There was this woman's woman's sense on the record, too. The frustration-tempered-with-reggae that was "The Island Song" and the corner-lipped "Thank You Hank" that settled a debt with the Senior Williams that nodded to the spiritual father of this daughter of the South's musical journey. Miss Chapman understood that Hank Sr. seared the blueprint for the rock & roll lifestyle that stands today: live hard, leave nothing in your wake and when it comes to the music, use the songs like kerosene and passion like a Molotov cocktail.

But it was on Bob Seger's "Turn The Page" -- mostly recently yanked out of moth balls by Metallica -- that Chapman's clear-eyed vision of the price paid for the rock & roll dream came to a slow boil that was as cautionary as it was confessional. In that deep, drawn-out voice of her's, she confessed, "You feel the eyes open you as you're shaking off the cold/ Sometimes you can't hear'em talk, other times you can/ And it's the same old clichés… Is that a woman or a man?"

Dignity is not always for those who live without surrender when confronted with convention. The normal fears those who live beyond the rules jettison define the status quo. Those people are terrified by a freedom they won't seize, confused by a thwarted willingness to be who they're wanting to, not who they're expected to. And it all plays out in the truck stop dining rooms and backwater cafes, where the dream is quartered if not drawn.

If it plays out in the places where basic human needs must be met, it pays out onstage in a million sinkhole bars. Because on that stage every night, the ones who've not yet ascended swing for their soul in increments of 45, 60, 75, 90 or six sets. And it's not just the souls of those plugging in and turning on, but the souls of the faithful who show up looking for witness, looking for comfort, looking to be enlivened by gypsies who will pay the price for the moment of communion with a backbeat, a guitar chord, a shriek that is meant to be release from what is -- commitment to something beyond the pale.

And so it was that a young girl in a pink buttondown Oxford cloth shirt, side-parted hair secured on either side by a tortoise shell barrette made small talk with some golf pro -- head tilted to signal interest, heart pounding wanting to see the 6' tall Glamazon who kicked in the stall, incinerated the yoke of "supposed to be," chose to toss herself off the wall of security with a
ferocity that screamed "There Is More."

The record had become like blood to me. There in the attic, the air too warm and thick to breathe. Over and over and over and over and over again. It wasn't as relentless as the Rolling Stones, who truly did tear this place apart. But there was something to it. Something that rearranged my DNA and made me know I didn't have to accept what was handed… It was liberation as the electrics screamed, the bass churned and this woman who'd -- unknown to me -- railed about being "rode hard and put up wet" turned herself inside out in the name of burning down the house, the mind, the moment.

Inside this bar, entered by virtue of a much older companion and a bored security guard who just didn't care and probably figured that it didn't really matter as the door was kinda light, my heart pounded between my ears, between my legs, beneath my solar plexus. There was barely air getting into my lungs. My palms were wet with the warm sweat of anticipation.

Somewhere "back there," where they kept the disciples of dreams, the cattledrivers of song, I knew she was waiting. Gathering her energy. Striking her matches. Not sure what Marshall Chapman would do, but knowing it would come down fast and hard, furious and over.

It went down just like that. An opera scarf draped around her neck in the most jaunty, thrown-on style, so careless it seemed to negate everything the
item signified. And also so much tossed off that it said, everything about what you know can be re-thought in a way that serves you.

Charging hard with that band of sinewy, raw-boned thieves, it was all about how hard could you push it. Genuflect before the altar of backbeat, bob hard and swerve around a guitar solo that performed surgery on melody designed to throw her at the moon, jerk back and pull her to the center of the vocal. It was like something theretofore unseen -- a woman who wasn't afraid to sweat, to grind, to push her band, to drag them around if necessary, to be pulled by a gravitational field of undulation that was sex implied, refusal stated, yearning understood.

Marshall Chapman -- billed by many as "the female Mick Jagger," referred to by others as "the no shame dame" -- cashed those checks without looking back or considering. She ate moments with abandon. She surged with electricity and rage and lust for whatever was laid before her. If she could respond with a woman's tenderness against the roughness that was a Southern-steeped rock music, she was never soft. Nor was she traditional.

Marshall Chapman was a confoundment. Hell bent on getting what she wanted. Intent on being her own girl, "should" and convention be damned. As her shoulder dropped, that blond Telecaster slung low on the tallest woman I'd ever seen, it was an exorcism of sorts taking place on that stage… a woman intent on shirking off the constraints of what was supposed to, all in the name of strangling the will out of something that had plugged into her essence, had taken her prisoner and driven her to places most mortals would never believe existed.

As sweat flung off her in every direction, spraying the band, the crowd, the stage like a pressure hose on particularly heated moments, Marshall Chapman was a feral animal intent on release. She knew no fear, no thoughts, no will to accept anything beyond the moment -- indeed, the moment wasn't even considered, it was swallowed whole and digested like the snake that devours a mouse intact.

That was the beauty of Mah-shull, telling stories in a speaking voice
that moved at about the same molasses-pace as life was lived outside Spartanburg, South Carolina. She took her time when she shared those insights, intent on making people wait for her truth; believing -- no doubt -- the anticipation would heighten the pay-off. Or at least torture us through the contrast with the frenzied free-for-all of surrender that was the most incendiary moments. And there were slower moments. Moments that rolled and rocked gently, measured and straining against desire or lust or recognition of want and denial. Somehow when she slowed it down to low boil, the intensity came up in other ways -- letting you know that a woman's heart, even a heart railing against roles, has the depth of emotions that will always make it true, immeasurable, utterly awe-inducing.

In my topsiders, breath held, then released in paroxysms of euphoria, something inside me changed that night. With a heart that's racing, with a pulse faster and harder than the Ramones on diet pills, a veil dropped and a recognition emerged: you could be what you wanted to be.

For a young girl plagued by the notion that adulthood was a prison, that the notion of a life of marriage and children and a home and solidity was the way, that your joy and your freedom were traded for what you were supposed to be, this evening was a revelation. Yes, Marshall Chapman was a child of rebellion, of refusal to buy into the roles, of an almost pathological charging straight at the side of the barn.

But Marshall Chapman was free. Free to wail, to beat that guitar like a rug on a line, to charge the footlights and take no prisoners. If life was hard -- and it was far harder than the blinding, harsh glow of the moment and the spots burning -- it would not be known until years later when Chapman published her memoirs, Good-Bye Little Rock & Roller on St. Martins' Press. No, in that moment it was all void, for she was the brightest lightest candle on the altar.

With a light patina of sweat covering my too young body and an aching in my too old soul, it occurred to me that the rules are what you make (or break) them. If there was something I wanted, I could seize it in the name of some higher glory, or wait out back til it emerged, tired and willing to give in to desire. Either way was good, no, more: either way afforded me an example that said you didn't just have to be what they thought --especially when they arrived at their decisions without ever really looking at you.

For in a world where children weren't really seen… where sparkling precociousness and a fire for the songs produced a strange upside down loyalty from the people those wide chocolate brown eyes consumed with awe, wonder and release… where it was all proscribed… this was a revolution beyond recognition. For in a skanky bar that smelled of old beer and vomit, a woman who walked with a sway to her step, who didn't think about anything but the gut of the song and who eviscerated roles, gender definitions and any polite reason with her performance let out a laugh that was tattered, worldweary thunder spreading across the valley of a very worried, equally thirsty soul.

Marshall Chapman kicked out the jams that night at the Akron (she swears Youngstown) Agora. She took no prisoners. She never looked down. She never saw the beaming face lifted in emancipation. Not sure quite how it translated for a girl who would never debut, never Junior League, never even begin to be like other girls, a pilot light of a different stripe got struck that night.

For the first time in my life, a woman who lived beyond the law combusted before me. That she was more vital than anything I'd ever seen, more consumed by the electrical current of the hottest moments than anyone I'd ever regarded, it occurred to me: you can grow up, you can walk the line between what you're supposed to be and what you want. Perhaps the architect has to make it up as you go along, there's bruising in the name of a fate beyond plodding acceptance and a fair amount of threatened from others as you journey… But you go in the name of a spirit that is something only you can hear, and it is a spirit that can deliver you in ways most people will never know.

In the parking lot, where the temperature had dropped, and the snap of the Midwestern night should've sobered up the exhilaration of rock music white hot and burning, the glow just got greater. Laughing to myself, everything had changed. Too young to know how, it was a moment of seeing oneself for the first time and wondering what the path would hold.

That it would be four years of being the West Coast call for Rolling Stone wasn't even within the realm. Nor was the notion of knowing the artists I loved. On that night, the idea that I could chase the flame and if my wings got singed, at least my heart would stay warm was enough. For the ferocity of the will is bigger than the weight of the supposed to -- and that alone was enough to make a drive home feel like the ramp up to the rest of whatever.

A free-for-all frenzied band scrappy in ways that seemed just like any other hardcore stampede to the casual observer, but ultimately, the moment when it all changes, the shackles and expectations drop and the girl's soul began to emerge towards freedom most people would never touch, breathe or fathom. In that moment, it all shifted -- and I could never be the same again. That ride home was a limp benediction for something that would evermore kick inside, set me ablaze and light the way when all else was dark and too silent to suggest.