Cliffton Price

THE LAST JUBILEE

 
On John Cougar’s 1980 album Nothing Matters and What If It Did? lies a song most of us have forgotten called “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be).” It belongs to a particular sub-genre of popular music: songs like Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean,” Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and “W.O.L.D.,” Robert Plant’s “29 Palms,” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” about singer/songwriters who run into their old lovers in a grocery store, or stop by their houses to find them gone, or think of them years later and wonder how they are. I’m not even sure if I’d ever heard this song myself before 1997. I was at a party on Lilly Mountain in western Pennsylvania. The summer sun, though still in the sky, had dipped behind the mountains to the west, causing the first layer of dusk to settle across the open field. In between the band’s sets, my friend Dave Hershel rolled down the windows of his parked car and let blast a compilation of what he believed were Mellencamp’s greatest songs. Dave, who plays air guitar like a pro, lets you know the importance of a lyric by looking you dead in the eyes as he sings along with it. During “To M.G.,” Dave gazed me down, and with a beautiful half-smile on his face, sang “Oooooooooh, your kisses sure tasted sweet/But I guess any kiss will taste sweet at fifteen.”

I smiled back and nodded my head, acknowledging the truth of the lyrics, and the fact that I knew the song and found it good. Whether I did know it then is lost to me now, obscured by a decade and more of really knowing the song and wanting to get my hands on it.

What is also lost to me is why we were on Lilly Mountain at a hunting camp to which we didn’t have the keys but were allowed to frolic on its surrounding field in the first place. The obvious answer is that there was beer. The lot of us—a bunch of early twenty-something boozehounds—partied on Fridays and Saturdays and, if we could swing it, the other five days, as regularly as devout Muslims bow to Mecca.

My cousin Herm and I, already deep in drink before the party started, opted not to take the more traditional route by surface roads and instead set a direct course, by Jeep, through wood and field and wildlife, to Lilly Mountain. Herm’s Army Surplus backpack loaded with cans of beer, open ones between our thighs, we careened from one muddy trail to another, laughing, listening to the radio, looking for deer. Confident in the machine at his command, Herm tore through the mud holes, spraying mud and water in wide geysers to either side of the vehicle, as if we were in a ship on dark seas. We smiled and howled and spit into the wind, like Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” sans suits, ties, and huge financial portfolios.

Then we encountered an expanse of mud that stretched out before us for ten yards or more in every direction, the Queen Mother of All Mud Holes. Herm put the Jeep in park, peered out and pondered.

“What d’ya think, Claybob? Can we make it?” he asked.

We were young and healthy and strong, I reasoned: what did we care if we couldn’t make it?

“Give ‘er Hell, Herm,” I told him. “Give ‘er Hell.”

He backed up the jeep and gave that mud hole Hell. The Queen Mother gave it right back. We got good and fucking stuck about halfway through. With the water a mere inch below the floorboard, our off-road trip was now a sea voyage. So much for the Masters of the Universe: we couldn’t even master mud.

*

A song comes into your life—or back into it—and you don’t own it but you want to and you think about it from time to time and you think about asking someone if they own it, and maybe you do and they don’t, and you think about buying the album but you don’t want to waste the cash, and so you think some more about it from time to time. Then when the days of downloading songs dawns, you do what you can to locate it. But it’s such an obscure song from a huge artist, which means the services and the subscribers have plenty of his music but always just the hits, and you don’t have any success, so you forget about it for a while. Then one day technology like iTunes makes almost any song available, and, out of the blue, you’re driving in your car with your lady friend, and you think of it after about a year or more, and you take the time to write it down in a notebook you now keep for just such an occasion. Then a few days later you go in search of it once again and find it and download it and now you don’t have to think about it anymore because you own it and can listen to it anytime you want.

This process can, in time, ruin a song. Part of the beauty of the song for you is that you can’t hear it when you want to. So you live your life hoping one day to catch it on the radio or on a friend’s sound system, and when you do, it’s magical. Don Henley and Stevie Nicks’ “Leather and Lace,” for example, is an incredible song, but it’s not as incredible as it was when I only heard it like once every five years. A large part of my former anticipation for and enjoyment of the Christmas season involved waiting all year to hear Bryan Adams’ “Christmas Time” or Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” on the radio. Christmas was killed when a buddy and I downloaded our favorite Christmas songs. We made a CD that I never bother to listen to anymore because the songs on it don’t seem so profound or important as they did when I had to wait an entire year to hear them.

The intro of “To M.G.” borders on the ridiculous: the tinkering of high piano notes and a few rhythmic strums of an acoustic guitar, seven seconds of a woman singing, “La la la la la la la la la la.” Her voice—or their voices (there might be more than one)—sounds like something from a high school chorus: sweet, innocent, and without any real feeling. But maybe that’s the point: Cougar is trying to capture the fifteen-year-old he used to know. It’s pretty damn sappy and way too poppy, especially from someone who will be known for his grit and his rough chops, his opposition to authority, his attention to the well-worn, unglamorous working class, his bootkicking attitude and his penchant for cigarettes and getting divorced, and who will assert in his 1989 hit “Pop Singer” how he “Never wanted to be no pop singer/Never wanted to write no pop songs”—so much so that I can’t imagine too many rock fans hearing it and not changing the station or fast-forwarding to the next track. Then again, it is John Cougar who is singing this song, not John Mellencamp (or even John Cougar Mellencamp for that matter), the man the record executives slicked up with hair gel, gave a cool-sounding name, and made a rock star. Perhaps it is this same slickness that shines through in the first seven seconds of this song, a slickness that Mellencamp himself didn’t necessarily want but found necessary all the same, or was more or less forced to find necessary. And so there it is for all time, just as John Cougar is. Seven seconds isn’t a lot of time, and maybe Cougar banks on this shortness, knowing it takes most of us more than that duration to hear and disapprove and reach down and turn the knob and find something that really rocks. When I finally got hold of this song and heard those first seven seconds, my first thought was “This can’t be it.”

But after the intro it’s classic Mellencamp, or at least slower-song-writing Mellencamp, which is still good, sometimes even better than shitkicking Mellencamp. As I sat in my university office, my long curly brown hair covering one eye a la Cougar Mellencamp circa 1983, I really wasn’t listening to the song as a whole. In my first listen in a decade, I was biding my time waiting to hear again those sweet lines Dave Hershel had made me take note of. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mellencamp do anything like the “Oooooooooh” that introduces that couplet—an “oooooooooh” of molasses, drawn out and sticky, eerily like the electric guitar that comes and goes through the song. Bordering on feminine, but not the feminine of the “la la la”s of the intro, it’s like a knife that cuts into the song to reveal the heart—or at least that’s what it has been about for me. Cougar sings of watching a movie one night on TV and being reminded by the actress of the girl he used to know. He thinks about calling her, but in the end determines that doing so would be “all wrong.” Instead, after disclosing what he has heard through the grapevine about the adult M.G.—that she got married to “a stranger/In a horse and carriage that was covered with gold”—he sings, “[I] hope you didn’t lose that innocent laughter/Oh, God, I hope time didn’t take that away/All those junior high nights underneath the front porch lights/A good Catholic girl during the day.” Cougar wonders if she “feel[s] different at all now that [she’s] older,” leaving the listener to wonder the same about the singer—and about themselves.

*

Herm and I sat in the jeep, beers at our lips, debating what steps to take next. At some point, we were gonna have to get out and go in search of assistance, but with many hours left until sunset and a pretty good buzz there was no sense of urgency.
Herm pulled out a pack of matches and announced he had only one match left. “What d’ya think, Claybob? Should we make a fire or have a smoke?”

“Light ‘em up, Herm,” I replied.

So we smoked and we drank and we laughed at our brashness and gazed down at the deep muddy all around us. Eventually, Herm strapped on his backpack of provisions, and we descended into the mudhole.

I followed Herm through the mud and water then down the trail. Herm knew the way—he always knew the way in those parts. Whether we walked far or only a little way I don’t recall. We had beer and each other and that was enough to make the trip what it was, a beautiful, fucked-up adventure up Lilly Mountain.

Arriving at the party looking a bit like that American dude the military dug out of the dust in Afghanistan after 9/11, we asked for a volunteer to drive us the long way around back to Portage so we could pick up Herm’s four-wheel drive truck and use it to tow out the jeep. Most folks wanted to party, not get wet and muddy, and we didn’t begrudge them that. Our friend Rugged agreed to go, and Herm’s jeep was eventually pulled and pushed out of the muck then jump-started, and Herm and Rugged and I returned to the party, dirty and soaked, but in general no worse for wear.

The JoDeweys—two brothers with two acoustic guitars, two mikes, a harmonica, a soundboard, and a vast catalogue of well-liked contemporary numbers as well as a couple dozen of their own songs—had been invited to perform, and we spent what was left of the afternoon and the evening enjoying the music and the beer. I joined Rob and Chad on a couple numbers, then, at the request of Dave Hershel and Rugged and other members of their circle, strapped on Chad’s guitar and ran through a half dozen or so of their favorite songs, which included Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane.”

I had been playing those same songs and others to the same bunch of guys for five years. Dave Hershel and Rugged and their compatriots, Tommyboy, Booger, Red, Ads, and Hag, held parties on Fridays and Saturdays in Tommyboy’s basement. They referred to these parties, which consisted of a bottle or two of Jim Beam always, a couple cases of beer or an eight-gallon keg sometimes, and me and my acoustic guitar, as “jubilees”—why, I have no idea. I think they just liked the word. I’d sit crouched over my guitar, my hair hanging in my eyes, and play song after song after song while the boys passed the Jim Beam back and forth and drank beer and sang along. During the parts of the song where there weren’t any lyrics, I’d toss back my head and one of the boys would pour whiskey or beer down my throat. In between sets, they’d play a mix tape, which included Kenny Roger’s “Coward of the County,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and “The Limbo Rock.” During the last, two guys held a pool stick in the air and we took turns limboing under it. After the bottles of Jim were kicked and I had exhausted my repertoire, we’d head to May’s Restaurant, an all-night diner where dancing on the counter was not only allowed but encouraged. In exchange for my musical performances, all my meals at May’s were covered. It was a good deal.

At a jubilee earlier that summer, after the mix tape was turned on, I put down my guitar and made an announcement: I had been accepted to the graduate program in English at the University of Memphis and would leave in the middle of August. I had graduated with a bachelors in English the previous May with absolutely no idea what to do next. I ended up back at my parents’ house in Portage, working twenty-five hours a week at the local beer distributor for five bucks an hour and clocking in close to forty hours a week drinking at the Olde Keg. Always a heavy drinker, I was now officially a drunk. I weighed wild-eyed plans to hike skirt and make tracks to first Europe then California, but discarded both for logistical, financial, and practical reasons. I made one final attempt to save myself from the fate of so many of my fellow villagers: I applied to graduate school. I chose an area of the country in which I had never lived—any area besides Pennsylvania—and applied to the school with the lowest application fee. The University of Memphis took the cake by asking a mere five dollars.

Tommyboy called for a toast, and the bottle of Jim Beam passed from lip to lip. Dave Hershel pulled me aside and told me how much he was gonna miss me. Then two guys grabbed a pool stick and we all did the limbo rock.

The jubilee in progress was to be our last official jubilee. Tommyboy and his gang had all either graduated from college or failed out. They now had full-time jobs in the area; Hag and Ads had gotten married; Rugged was engaged; Tommyboy had a kid. They still loved to party, but their lives didn’t allow them to do so in the same fashion, or with the same rigor and frequency, as they once did. You could say we were growing up, but the truth was we were merely growing old.

*

“Oh, oh, oh, just watching the time grow,” Cougar sings in the chorus. “Old enough to know that these memories can’t hurt a thing/Oh, oh, oh, just watching the time grow/If I saw you today, girl, I wouldn’t even know ya.” His voice, though obviously nostalgic, is not mournful. Instead, it seems to be tempered by the very years he speaks of in the chorus and by the realization that what he thought was such a big love affair wasn’t really much of anything at all. As he says, “When I parlay the memories into their proper places/I can see now we were no more than friends.” I can picture a much younger Mellencamp sitting in a recliner, maybe, with a can of beer at his side, watching the late night movie on his TV, his guitar probably nearby. He watches the actress “doin’ a part…like [M.G.] used to do.” For a moment there is pain, clear and sharp; it starts at the heart and works its way through the body to the brain where it is duly noted but where it also quickly turns into something else. Mellencamp reaches for his guitar, strums it, then begins to create. Brief heartache gives way to lasting heartspeak. The result is an epistle sweet in sentiment and smart in hindsight: “I just hope your touch is as sweet to your old man/As it seemed like it was to me,” Cougar sings at the end of the last verse before the last chorus.

And there is no indication throughout the song that he feels otherwise.

Except right before the end, that is. After the music all but draws to a halt, and Mellencamp says for the last time, “I wouldn’t even know ya,” the song appears to try to start over again. The piano lands on the now familiar rhythm, and you think it’s going to continue for a while longer, until a fade out or some other more dramatic finish. But then, after those couple bars, the piano gives up—Cougar gives up on remembering, on thinking on what was and what could have been, what could be if he called her as he thought about doing—and it’s over. It’s all over—and has been for a very long time.

*

The party on Lilly Mountain died out after midnight, with most of its participants making their drunken way home and with a few others crashing out in their cars. A handful of those still standing, including Herm and Rob and myself and a guy named Petey, gathered around the campfire and continued to talk and drink.

As the fire burned low, Rob and I began waxing philosophical, about music mostly, though for a time he and Petey and I talked about chicks in general and about one girl in particular, one with whom both those guys had had their shots. They agreed she was nothing but a tease. I spoke up on her behalf, but Rob and Petey paid me no mind, and the discussion returned to music. Rob and I talked U2 and R.E.M. and Counting Crows. I asked Rob what he thought the title of Counting Crow’s latest album, Recovering the Satellites, meant. He had a good answer, and now I know that mine was way off base.

In the morning, I woke up next to the fire that had gone out sometime in the night, the bodies of friends and acquaintances piled around me, the summer sun already strong in the sky. My head hurt and I felt sick to my stomach. If that had been all, I would have been fine, but the hangover I had wasn’t the hangover that could be cured by a few aspirin and maybe an upchuck or two. Nothing could cure my hangover but more alcohol, and there would be times ahead when I’d be sure those hangovers would kill me. I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t want to stay there and watch everyone wake up and shake off the night and then leave and go on with their lives. I would be leaving for Memphis in a month or so, and perhaps the change could save my life. I got up, woke Herm, and looked around. Dave Hershel was gone.

*

I don’t know where M.G. is now, or if she ever heard Mellencamp’s song on the radio and remembered the kisses they once shared. Rugged and Red and Booger and Tommyboy are all married, as are Herm and Rob and Chad and Petey. May’s has been closed for years. And I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in over a decade.

I ran into Dave Hershel at the Olde Keg a couple months ago, for the first time in a long while. He was seated at the bar, his back to me, but I recognized him immediately and walked over and put a hand on his shoulder and he turned around to face me.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, his eyes wide with surprise and his mouth breaking into a broad smile. “How the Hell are you?”
I laughed in response. He shook my hand and embraced me, then automatically turned back toward the bar to order me a beer but stopped halfway.

“That’s right,” he said. “You don’t drink anymore, do you?”

I asked him to order me a water instead and took the stool beside him. We talked at length, filling each other in on the events of our lives. Pushing forty, Dave had, like Mellencamp himself, gone respectable—he was married, with kids, and ran his own company. But when he returned to the bar after pumping money into the jukebox, he was the same old Dave, playing air guitar like it was his job and catching my eyes during all the lyrical sweet spots where he couldn’t help but sing along.

I’ve been listening to “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)” over and over these days, courtesy of iTunes and my iPod shuffle, and I am sad to report that, like “Leather and Lace” and all my favorite Christmas songs before it, it’s starting to lose something I know I’ll never be able to regain. But I can’t seem to help myself. Right before the drums first kick up and the electric guitar makes its intro, Cougar calls out a command—to the guitar, to the drums, to himself. “Get in there,” he says, and I can do nothing but follow. He carves from the great heap of personal history both a memory of M.G. and a memory of remembering her that will last as long as guys like me keep reaching for the music.

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