Today, My Best Friend…Tomorrow, Who Knows?

May 11, 2011

Sometime last week, during the spate of coverage on the demise of Osama bin Laden, I happened upon a program on the life of the iconic terrorist.

One of the people interviewed was described as bin Laden’s best friend as a teenager.

It must make a pretzel of the mind to have such a notorious character as a former best friend.

The first best friend that I can remember having was a kid named George. There’s little else I recall aside from his name and I have no recollection as to what earned him status as numero uno amigo.

I do recall that I stripped him of the title and I slotted another classmate into the position.

I wanted John as my best friend because he was tall, a head taller than everyone else.

(people have been placed in high office using such logic, but I was five)

I’ve had no contact with either of these kids in almost forty years, but it seems as though George is a DJ in the upper Midwest, so perhaps I was being prescient about the interest I’d someday have in music.

By the time I reached high school, I was in a transitional period with friendships. The concept of best friend had evolved into a group of eight or nine of us who would end up together in different permutations and numbers.

One of these buddies was a bit of a fire enthusiast and devotee of things that go kaboom.

During senior year, Kirk The Pyro went to California with another of our friends for spring break.

(most of us settled for wandering the malls in Cincinnati)

This dynamic duo returned to the grimness of March in the Midwest with tans and dynamite.

“Where did you get dynamite?”

“Tijuana”

“So, you brought dynamite from Tijuana on your flight home from California?”

It was a simpler world and a time when – relative to today – the airlines essentially had a don’t ask/don’t tell policy.

The interviewee on the television screen had described bin Laden as quiet and polite, their friendship rooted in a shared love for soccer.

I could only describe Kirk The Pyro as like Woody Woodpecker in human form and our bond forged by a common appreciation for antics, hijinks, and shenanigans.

And though I haven’t had contact with him since college, I also haven’t seen him become the target of a global manhunt.

Here are four friend songs…

Clarence Clemons And Jackson Browne – You’re A Friend Of Mine
from Hero

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were probably as big as any act in my lifetime. During the mid-’80s. Born In The USA sold ten million copies and pretty much every song on the record got extensive airplay on the radio. The group’s success was so massive and demand for more music so great that b-sides like Pink Cadillac and Stand On It got played heavily.

E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons even had a solo hit during the winter of ’85 when he duetted with Jackson Browne on the upbeat and catchy You’re A Friend Of Mine.

The Rolling Stones – Waiting On A Friend
from Tattoo You

Personally, I’ve always thought that Waiting On A Friend was one of the Stones’ finest post-’70s moments. The song is so casual and the vibe so laid-back that it’s always welcome when it pops up on shuffle.

Apparently it was the first video by the Stones played on MTV (with reggae great Peter Tosh hanging out on the steps).

Grateful Dead – Friend Of The Devil
from Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead got discovered my generation while I was in college when A Touch Of Gray put the venerable band all over MTV. I liked the song and I even liked a lot of its parent album, In The Dark, which was played often in the record store where I worked.

I’ve also enjoyed stuff from their catalog as I’ve been introduced to it here and there, but I’ve never felt the rabid passion for The Dead that they inspired in a lot of my peers.

Jellyfish – He’s My Best Friend
from Spilt Milk

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993′s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.

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Egypt

February 2, 2011

I’ve noticed that less than half of the things I begin to scribble end up posted here.

Most of these discarded efforts don’t get beyond a few lines and sometimes there is nothing more than a few cryptic words that meant something momentarily important to me.

(for Seinfeld fans, it’s a “flaming globes of Sigmond!” moment)

Then, there are times when something gets lodged in my head like some cranial hairball that just won’t dislodge. No matter how much I might attempt to zig or zag my thoughts to a different subject, they return to that word, phrase, or idea and there’s no moving on until it’s addressed.

The past few days, each time I’ve sat down to scrawl something, the events in Egypt bob to the surface. Most of the reading I’ve done this past week has been done following the Egyptian revolution and I’ve watched plenty of the televised coverage.

I feel comfortable enough to discuss the subject and I know Mohamed ElBaradei from Omar Suleiman and would have no trouble finding Alexandria on a map, but the simple fact is we won’t know how this plays out ’til we get there.

So, I keep thinking of a waterlogged afternoon while I was living in London in the late ’90s. Sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for the deluge to subside, I struck up a conversation with three kids, students, also waiting out the downpour.

The three could have been college kids on a campus in the States – they had the garb and pop culture savvy – but the trio was from Egypt.

I couldn’t have spoken with them for more than fifteen minutes and I couldn’t tell you what we discussed as it was nothing more than rainy day, coffee shop small talk.

But I do remember their thoughts on the US as if the conversation was yesterday. Though they had issues with the meddling of the American government in various countries including their own homeland, there was nothing but affection for the American people.

It seemed important to them that I understood this sentiment and it was reiterated several times.

The rain ended, one of them bummed a smoke, and we parted ways.

And as I watch the throngs of people in footage from Tahrir Square, I can’t help but wonder if any of those three kids might be there.

Patti Smith – People Have The Power
from Dream Of Life

“People have the power
The power to dream
To rule
To wrestle the world from fools.”


Tiananmen

June 3, 2009

Not long ago, I was considering what has been the most extraordinary thing that I had witnessed live on television as it happened.

Sadly, most of the events that bobbed to the surface – the shuttle Challenger explosion, the Gulf War, the second plane hitting on 9/11, the US invasion of Iraq – provided credence to the assessment of the medium by one of the characters in John Irving’s novel A Prayer For Owen Meany

“Television gives good disaster.”

And the one event that this viewer would put at the top of such a list began with the gathering of thousands of Chinese students to mourn the death of pro-market, pro-democracy and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang.

It was April, 1989 and the name Hu Yaobang meant nothing to me. I had a gauntlet of rapidly-approaching spring finals with which to contend.

I had moved into a house just off campus a year earlier and it was the first time I had ever had cable television. The television in our living room was never off. Even in the middle of the night, there was usually at least one of the six of us watching something or crashed out on the couch.

By the middle of May in ‘89, it was tuned mostly to CNN.

The mass of mourners gathered for Hu Yaobang had mushroomed into a series of national protests in China; thousands of Chinese students from universities across the country were making their way to Tiananmen Square, calling for a free media and government reform.

CNN was beaming us footage ‘round the clock.

For two weeks, it was the greatest show on Earth.

These kids didn’t look like us, but, like us, they were kids. Of course, this kid was working in a record store and the biggest decision I made each day was whether to sleep in and skip my summer classes or to get up, eat leftover pizza, and skip my summer classes.

On the other side of the globe, these kids were changing the world. These kids were defiantly erecting the Goddess of Democracy statue. These kids were giving the middle finger to The (Chair)Man.

And they were winning.

The Communist Party was bumfoozled as to how to handle the situation as the entire planet held a collective breath, watching the history playing out.

The kids were !@#$%&@ winning.

And, of course, it all came crashing down on the night of June 3rd. The Goddess was pulled down and perhaps thousands were massacred.

Two days later, CNN offered us the final image – the iconic footage of one lone student stopping a column of tanks as they rolled out of the Square.


I had a shift at the record store.

And I had a new understanding that the idealism of youth (or the youthful in spirit) would always be the underdog to frightened old men with tanks.

Patti Smith – People Have The Power
from Dream Of Life

“People have the power
The power to dream
To rule
To wrestle the world from fools.”