I’ve committed a few instances of physical assault in my life, but just a precious few. Here’s one of those instances.
I’ve written before about my years in Montana, specifically those spent living on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. I have to (again) point out that this is no longer the name of a ranger station, and for this, we can all be grateful. But that’s what it was called in 1973 when I lived there. As recently as when this article was published, people still remembered “Squaw Creek Station,” but when I visited in the spring of 2011, I found a deserted accumulation of log buildings and some other name on the sign.
The station was 20 miles from Bozeman. It was only eight miles to the closest town of Gallatin Gateway, where I went to school. I had to ride a bus to get there, and I was the first picked up and the last dropped off on a route that took us from one farm or ranch to another. I rode that bus for an hour each way, each day, and met the bus at 6:50 AM in all kinds of weather. They don’t close for storms in rural Montana. Storms just come with the territory. But I had a down jacket and a wool hat, so I never got frostbite.
We were isolated on the ranger station. In particular, I was isolated. I didn’t exactly fit in at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, a place where I became very, very mean in retaliation for the bullying I endured on the daily. There was no place for me in the social order of that tiny town. My parents were educated liberals, and I freely (loudly, repeatedly) espoused the beliefs they’d instilled in me, so even my teacher loathed me. In that school of 80 kids (K through 8), I was the foreign body that did not belong. I felt it keenly.
My sister was less isolated by virtue of being older. She went to high school in Bozeman, which is only 12 miles away from Gateway, but maybe 20 years ahead in attitudes and thinking. That meant my sister had town friends who lived in ranch homes with multiple bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. My sister’s friends’ parents taught at the university, or owned car dealerships, or drove long distance truck routes. Her friends often skied on the weekends, so they might have gone past the ranger station on their way to the Big Sky ski resort. When they rode home with her on the bus to spend the night, they brought little patterned suitcases full of cute pajamas, Bonnie Bell 10.0.6 facial scrub, sometimes a favored bed pillow.
I found my sister’s friends to be irresistibly glamorous.
My sister’s friend Jenna was coming over for the weekend. Jenna had a few remarkable attributes. She was even meaner than I was. Her house was huge (I think her dad was a trucker). Her hair, which appeared to be naturally white blonde, was close cropped, even shorter than a pixie. It was almost a crew cut.
This was a remarkably badass hairstyle to be rocking in 1973. Most of us were growing our hair as long as we possibly could and parting it down the middle, which was a difficult style for me to wear because I have an asymmetrical face and a long, very prominent nose, so I hacked away with cuticle scissors to create some bangs to lessen the starkness and called it good.
Jenna’s hair was professionally cut at a salon (I think we still called them beauty parlors back then). Along with her remarkabe hairstyle, she had a sense of humor that was almost as mean as mine. I’m sure when we got together, it was a battle of teenaged wits, like the Sharks vs the Jets but with verbal knives. As a ferociously unhappy adolescent, I always looked forward to Jenna’s visits. On this particular weekend, we had something else to anticipate.
Todd Rundgren was going to be on Midnight Special that week.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Midnight Special was a big deal in the early seventies. Appearing on it was a badge of honor that meant you’d arrived, so I’m sure it was something special for the performers. But for the television audience, it was a chance to see performances by bands that might never come through your area (though a surprising amount of bands did come through, because Bozeman is a college town).
The week’s lineup would be announced in my brother’s Rolling Stone, which was another highlight for us rural kids living out in the middle of nowhere. And if the band or the performer was exciting enough, I would make the effort to stay up until midnight, which was HUGE for me because I loved to sleep. Sleep has always been one of my favorite pastimes, seriously, because I could escape whatever social hellhole I was living in and dream of something better.
So I’m saying, it had to be a big deal for me to make it until 1 AM, even on a weekend.
Todd Rundgren was a big deal.
I’ve written about this before. My older brother, sister and I were odd kids in our own special ways. I was just too tall and weird and had far too large a nose for Montana. I mean, I understand that now, due to visiting Pendleton, Oregon. There is a way women are supposed to be in cowboy country, which is trim and perky and small in body, facial features, and attitude. Think of barrel racers. There is just nothing trim or perky or small about me, and I doubt there ever has been. I’m built more along the lushly overgrown model. There’s not a lot of demand for pre-Raphaelite women in the world of rodeos and stock auctions.
I didn’t understand this at 12 and 13. In Arkansas I’d been considered smart, pretty, and talented, but when we moved to Montana I was moved over into the category of aberrant freak. Same me, same nose, same build, different surroundings. I leaned into it hard. They wanted a freak, they got one.
But I was just part of the problem. My brother was extremely obese by the standards of the day, though he was not at all near the weights I see on TV these days. People just weren’t fat back then, they simply were not fat. So Montana was hell for him, too. My sister appeared the most normal, but she was fighting an internal war on a hellscape that’s not my place to write about. She might have looked fine, but she really wasn’t. So we escaped our lives as best we could. One of those ways was music.
We were an extremely musical family. Steve could play the guitar, and we could all sing, and boy did we. We listened to albums until they wore out, singing along with all the lyrics, guitar solos, horn parts, even the violins. If there was a note to hit, we hit it. We learned record after record verbatim, and some of them still sit in my hind brain, a full library of songs ready to be triggered by two opening notes.
I knew every note, skip, intake of breath on Something/Anything. Even when I didn’t like a song (Black Mariah) I learned it. I studied the lyrics sheets, read and reread the liner notes, and looked carefully at the two photos of Todd on the covers. I felt I knew Todd Rundgren, and I was thrilled to finally see him perform.
The anticipation was high. I’m sure I preplayed my favorite tracks for Jenna, monopolizing her in the way of a socially starved younger sister. She probably got the whole tour of my favorite Todd songs.
We also had pops that night. Not sodas or Cokes or soft drinks (did anyone anywhere ever actually call them soft drinks?) We had pops.
That was a special treat laid in for the overnight visitor to the ranger station.
It was a big deal to have pop in my household, growing up, because it was considered a treat. My mother carefully rationed all treats including our pop consumption, and really made an occasion of getting a pop.
I have sense memories of hot weather, my brother and sister and I in the back seat of a large car, the glare of a prairie summer. We went somewhere in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, and there was an old cooler-type machine where I put in my nickel, and lifted the lid, and wrested out one bottle of pop. The bottles were reused, so sometimes my bottle showed a lot of wear, but occasionally it was pristine. I got a strawberry Crush, and those bottles were quite textured. As I popped off the cap on a built-in bottle opener on the side of the cooler, I loved that satisfying plink. My brother and sister did the same, and I have no idea what they drank, only that it wasn’t Crush.
This was pop (not soda, never soda) in my childhood. A big treat. A special trip. Destination, selection, and anticipation.
So we’d all have our pops, yes? And then I would take a sip, and the double blast of carbonation and chemical flavors would swarm up into my palate and drill right up into my brain. I’d think I was going to die. My brother and sister watched patiently while I tried to drink it, knowing I’d hand it off after a few sips because I literally could not make myself finish this weird explosion of sugar, metal, and fizz.
The truth is, I hate pop. I hated it then, and I hate it now. But there were years when I tried to enjoy what everyone else was enjoying, and that evening in Montana was one of those occasions.
For the watching of Midnight Special, I had a can of cheap orange pop.
So there we were in front of the television, in a state of high anticipation. Me, my sister, and Jenna, and whatever pop Mom had let us purchase. I was practically levitating with anticipation.
And here came Todd at the piano, with his sweet long face, crooked teeth, and feathers artistically arranged around his eyes and shoulders and, well, everywhere.
Jenna’s reaction was immediate. “Oh my God,” she said while laughing at me. “Look at him. He’s a faggot. He’s such a faggot. I can’t believe what a faggot he is. Look at that faggot.”
She might have said more, but she was cut short because as soon as she started in on my feather-festooned idol, I put my thumb over the opening of my pop can and started shaking. A stark wall of fury slammed down inside me. Yes, I was furious at her insults, because one, he looked beautiful, and two, I loved David Bowie and Marc Bolan and a whole crew of gender benders, but anger was beside the point.
This was Todd Rundgren.
I removed my thumb and sprayed her top to bottom with sticky orange pop. The look on her face.
It was wonderful.
What came after was perhaps less wonderful. There was pop all over everywhere, not just on Jenna, and my sister was upset, and Jenna was absolutely stunned. I of course had to apologize and clean up all that pop. She took a shower and put on her pajamas. We probably washed her clothes. I’m sure it was a long night.
But I have never enjoyed another pop quite as much as I enjoyed that one.
Here’s another performance by Todd. It’s supposed to be the first one of the evening, but I don’t think it was. I sure didn’t see it that night. Maybe my mother made us turn off the TV after my pop assault of Jenna, or maybe this was a different episode of Midnight Special. I just saw it last week, 48 years later at this link in (of course) Rolling Stone.
Enjoy. Todd on Midnight Special
It’s a lonely place where I stand with Springsteen. It’s difficult, not enjoying an American musical icon.
I was reminded of this when I left an offhand Facebook comment about a Bruce Springsteen concert that broke some kind length record. Hours and hours of the Boss, and my comment was, “I’m sorry, but this is my worst nightmare.” Another person left another, “I know, right?” kind of comment below me with one of those out-sized Facebook emojis or stickers or whatever they are. Another commenter rushed in to scold us both for even commenting ,as clearly we are part of what’s broken in America, pointing out that the “If you can’t say something nice” mentality that used to govern all areas of discourse is gone, and even though it never existed, it’s our fault. She and the other commenter commenced rolling around in one of those comment fights where neither person is right. I just rolled my eyes and remembered why offhand Facebook comments are usually a bad idea.
I remember when my brother brought home “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.”
I didn’t know exactly where Asbury Park, NJ, was, to be honest (I was thirteen and living on a ranger station). New Jersey was not a real place to me, but I assumed it had something to do with New York. New York in the 1970s was notoriously dangerous, gritty, and fascinating to a girl living in the clear mountain air of Montana. And I knew the record (yes, an LP) was something strange and different. The raw tumble of his sorrowful voice, the sheer velocity (stuff came out of him in a torrent), the complexity of the lyrics set against such unadorned production. I listened to it on the headphones a few times, trying to puzzle it out. Then I put it back on the shelf and went back to Todd Rundgren and Cat Stevens.
The Pointer Sisters, and their beautiful single “Fire.” Though it was the Pointer Sisters I was noticing, Bruce was an aside. “Did you know,” my fellow highschoolers would say, “That’s a Bruce Springsteen song?” No, I hadn’t known that. Somehow, my older brother arranged to play me his version–maybe it was a B-side and he sent me a single, because we lived in different states, but I heard it. It was okay. I love to mimic people, and Bruce sang “Fiiiiire” like he was from Alabama, not New Jersey. The best part of his version, for me, was singing along in that twangy, hokey way. But I liked this version so much more.
I’m on Fire – 1984. This was a Bruce I understood, a taciturn, blue collar Bruce with axle grease under his fingernail. I loved the song the first time I heard it, though how it made it to popular radio in 1984, I’ll never understand. This is a cowboy song, with the low-range, giddyup phrasing, the sorrowful class-difference theme, the lonesome whoo-hoos taking you down a highway and far away from that beautiful, tempting, lonely wife. It’s a Johnny Cash song. And the video? When Bruce rolls out from under that car?
This remains my favorite Bruce Springsteen song of all time.
The other song he released in 1984–the song that made his career–was also a favorite, because you could kind of dance to it. And in the video, you can see Bruce kind of dancing to it.
Like, is that really dancing? Does it matter when he looks so cute? And Clarence Clemens? And Courtney Cox in her sneakers? A moment in music history, and I loved it.
Lake Oswego is beautiful little Oregon town that remains oh-so-exclusive and clannish. The big draw in LO is not the lake, which is crowded and somewhat polluted. It’s the schools, which crank out well-educated children. If they could build walls around it, they would, but instead they erect a barrier of class, inflated property values and income. And that’s fine, really, the rich people have to live somewhere and I understand that rubbing elbows with people like me, who shop at the Grocery Outlet, is something they’d rather not do. But this was where Julianne Phillips came from. And Bruce seems like the kind of guy who forgets his deodorant, who wears his socks several days in a row, who says “ain’t.”
Now, I don’t know Bruce. But Bruce Springsteen was a kind of man I recognized. He would have been part of my social group in 1974; tough boys and tougher girls shouldering their way through adolescence in Bozeman, Montana. When my parents moved us there, I’m sure they had no idea that Montana would take my sister and I, who had been high-achieving, activities-involved honor students in Arkansas, and turn us into tough, scruffy hoods. It was a socially polarized place. We were outsiders who had no chance of breaking in. We frizzed our hair, patched our jeans and fell in with a crowd of tough boys who would grow up to become garbage men and auto mechanics.
He would have been there with us, part a group of brothers who all wore sheepskin-lined jackets, who stole their cigarettes, got drunk on cheap beer, wired together some heap that was never insured or street legal, and spent their weekend days working in gas stations and their weekend nights at keggers. It was a time of drinking, drugs, basement apartments, rusty trailers and junkyards. Bruce would have fit right in, right up until his musical genius lifted him up and away.
That’s why I knew his marriage to Julianne would never last. I knew they would fail in some painful, class-based way. But she inspired the most beautiful song he ever wrote, in my opinion, a song that gives me shivers because it’s an ode to the part of a woman she keeps to herself.
Bruce Springsteen is a musical icon. I recognize his genius, his longevity, his importance. He has good politics and bedroom eyes. Bruce Springsteen has released almost 300 songs in his long career.
And I only love four of them.