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"TOO MUCH OF NOTHING"
by Greg Mitchell
"Amusing and appealing--a lot of funny lines." -- Jane Smiley on the first two chapters.
As the sun rose behind the haunted house on Parnassus Lane, Katie plugged in her guitar and played. It was the day of the annual talent show, but talent at her school was spread pretty thin, so a performance of “Highway 61 Revisited” with Katie’s band, Clean Underpants, backing up their lunatic English teacher, would likely be the highlight. Who’d have thought that Katie, not her father, would be first to play lead guitar on a Dylan song before a paying audience? It was a dream come true, but for the wrong person.
The song, recorded nearly thirty years before Katie was born, meant nothing to her. She cared deeply about the show, however. That’s why she was stirring at seven this morning, practicing before school, even though she hated Dylan and mocked him around the house—pure blasphemy, given where she lived. Her father put up with it, knowing she would graduate soon and skip off to college.
While Katie punished her guitar, Mooney got ready to drive her to school. He had no choice. His wife, Sara, had spent the night in New York, where she had met a famous scientist for dinner. If she was having an affair it would be hard to blame her, though, of course, he would. Blonde, willowy and relatively unwrinkled at fifty-four, Sara was one of the best-preserved women (of a certain age) in town. Mooney called her a “babe emeritus.” She looked a bit like Tea Leoni and was still quite limber, since she was, in her spare time, an even bigger Woodstock cliché than her husband: She was a yoga instructor.
To show his love, Mooney cooked her exotic meals, took her to foreign films (even though he now had trouble reading the subtitles) and tended to her many needs in bed, clinging to the hope that after nearly twenty-five years together this might be sufficient. Mooney had not made the mistake of marrying someone crazier than him. He had done something far more dangerous. He had married someone smarter, younger, thinner, better looking—and even more flirtatious.
Making matters worse, he hadn’t recorded a hit record in twenty-five years. Hell, he hadn’t released a record of any kind for five years, hadn’t finished a song in longer than that, and his most recent CD was a Best Of collection with just ten tracks. (You get a Best Of album instead of a Greatest Hits album if you only have one hit.) Mooney was his own musical category: the one-hit wonder who did not disappear. He once told a reporter that he ought to change the title of that hit from “Take the Highway” to “Sui Generis.”
Past his peak he wrote love songs no one made love to, protest anthems that sent no one to the streets. Fortunately, that one hit had just been recycled in a popular car commercial. Is America great or what? Mooney had the foresight and good fortune to anticipate the popularity of SUVs. No, he could not even take credit for that, it was just bum luck (an apt phrase in this case). The SUV craze had peaked years ago, but Chevrolet, for some reason, had picked “Take the Highway,” a catchy mid-‘80s drug song, for a TV spot promoting the Gargantua, its mammoth all-terrain vehicle. From that he had earned (if that is the word) a $100,000 reward he didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with.
Mooney grew up idolizing Bob Dylan, and now they were both shilling for Madison Avenue. Dylan had just sold “Lay Lady Lay” to Dial-a-Mattress, grabbing five times what Mooney got for “Take the Highway.” One might call this poetic justice.
Otherwise, Mooney was in a rut, and he seemed to lack the four-wheel emotional drive to climb out. And if he was going nowhere fast, why did it take so long to get there? But, at last, he’d decided to do something about it. He was about to test the adage that there are no second acts in American life. In a few days he would embark on his first tour in fifteen years and his life, he prayed, would never be the same.
Mooney loved driving his daughter to school in his new SUV, part of his payoff from Chevy, even when the junkies and alkies standing outside the neighborhood rehab clinic shouted slurs (for some reason) as he glided past. Katie, on the other hand, barely had the energy to get dressed and refuse breakfast in the morning let alone form a coherent sentence. “Text me at school” was her favorite a.m. expression. Like her father she didn’t believe in making small talk just to be polite. He regarded this as a sign of mutual respect, but wondered if they were drifting apart.
Silence was seeping into all of his other relationships, too. He’d never suffered fools gladly, and now he didn’t suffer them at all—and they were everywhere in Woodstock.
Mooney enjoyed the ride to school because he got to play deejay, trading off with Katie along the way. They’d spin one song apiece on the CD player, so each had to shut up and pretend to listen half the time. His daughter would select something from, say, Arcade Fire or the Avett Brothers, while he tried to educate her with a relic from the distant (Dire Straits) or Jurassic (Buddy Holly) past. Katie referred to this as “paleo-rock.” She even considered Jakob Dylan a dinosaur. They found common ground on mid-period U2, and that was about it.
“I hear Dylan and his grandkids argue about music all the time, too,” he said this morning as they neared the school.
“Probably because he makes them listen to his stuff,” she shot back, sweetly. That was one mistake Mooney never made.
Mooney liked to keep hip to current music in case he started hitting on younger women again after his shows (it had been a long time). Besides, he never knew where he might steal his next riff. He’d ripped off a melody from Cat Stevens a couple of decades ago and no one cared, or complained if they did care (they saved their complaints for Cat Stevens when he turned Muslim and denounced Salman Rushdie). God knows, he had to steal nearly everything nowadays, including affection, even from his own daughter.
Poor Katie was still flummoxed by the little ditty she had to play that night. Now she asked her dad, “What does that Dylan song mean anyway?” Sadly, he could not help her. This was a man who, when he was a boy, thought Dylan was “stuck inside a mobile,” not “stuck inside of Mobile.”
Katie’s group, Clean Underpants, was previously known as We Don’t Suck and, before that, The Oxymorons. Mooney still preferred their original name: The Truth, the Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth, and the Drummer. Drawing on his English major background, he had suggested a few names from the bottomless well that is Dickens: The Podsnaps, Talking Horns, Little Nell and The Pips. (Tiny Tim had already been taken.)
Katie, to her dismay, looked like a young Mooney—dark curls, a little fleshy, with striking green eyes and handsome features. “If they ever make a movie about my early life,” he told her, “you could cut your hair and play me.”
“Why would anyone make a movie about you?” she answered.
After depositing his daughter at school, Mooney headed home. As usual he felt chilled inside his parka. He preferred leather jackets but dead animal hides had been banned from his house for years. Snow barely fluttered but the wind howled, and the SUV, with acres of unused cargo space, shimmied and swayed. His wife claimed it was so huge it had its own zip code, that it burned so much gas it needed an onboard oil refinery. Coming from her these were not jokes but accusations. She drove a Prius, purchased with what she called the “blood money” from the Gargantua commercial. Naturally, both vehicles were painted red.
Despite the gusts, Mooney gunned it all the way until, on a curve, the SUV skidded and its two left wheels lifted right off the road. Mooney feared he was as dead as his career, but the wind died, the wheels dropped and the nearest ditch sighed with disappointment as the Gargantua screeched to a stop on the shoulder. (God was trying to tell him something, but what?) After that, he drove slower, which gave him more time to worry that his song might be leading countless other drivers to the slaughter.
As it turned out, the right song for the Chevy jingle was not “Take the Highway” but “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
When Mooney got home he checked to see if any of the SUV’s tires were flat, in case that caused his near-crash. This was no idle fear. A merry band of eco-guerillas were on the loose in the area. Their modus operandi: letting the air out of the tires of giant vans and SUVs. They had terrorized local car dealers and now, according to the Woodstock Times, they had invaded private driveways, leaving notes claiming they were “acting in self-defense”against global warming or climate change or whatever it was called that week. Mooney feared that, in their universe, he might be public enemy number one, especially if his wife was involved with these not-so-merry pranksters. They might end up calling their movement Occupy Mooney.
Finding his tires still stuffed with air, Mooney looked forward to breakfast, coffee and The New York Times. No longer did he stop for triple lattes at Bread Alone (he’d taken to calling them “triple bypass lattes”). These were his mild and crazy days, and it seemed like they might last forever. Mooney was not suffering from a mid-life crisis. If anything he was suffering from the absence of a mid-life crisis. He feared he had slept right through it—like dozing off watching a second-rate movie and missing the one exciting scene in the middle. Hell, he didn’t even have the nerve to tweet or work up a Facebook page.
“Don’t you have an inner child screaming to escape?” his friend Nick, the town drunk, once asked.
“My inner child,” Mooney replied, “has grown up and moved out.” So when Katie left for college he would be an empty nester twice over.
At least the college was close by, in case Katie had to rush home—if her father needed her. For it was Mooney, not his daughter, who was on the spot now. He had long justified his career slump by telling himself (and others) that, like John Lennon, he had simply dropped out to help raise a terrific kid. But there were always questions about how terrific she was, and how busy he was, and now Katie was leaving home. So much for the child-rearing excuse.
Finishing his coffee, Mooney fried up the hunk of bacon he’d hidden in the refrigerator the day before. He was a strict vegetarian, but every chance he got (i.e. whenever his wife wasn’t around) he’d sneak a slab of meat. He was like the faithful husband who visits prostitutes but doesn’t consider that cheating on his wife.
Bursting with protein, he happily assumed his usual position in the country kitchen, occupying the wood rocker with coffee and newspaper close at hand. He was wearing his home uniform of faded jeans and faded corduroy shirt—a fashion statement that, perhaps, stated a bit too much.
Sunlight filtered through a bay window frosted with ice. Even when his wife was around, working on multimedia projects for environmental groups, they never had sex in the morning. They made love only at night and rarely more than once a week. This bothered Mooney, not because it was only once a week, but because once a week had become enough. Actually, he recognized that once a week was pretty damn good. He knew hardly anyone, married or not, who was getting it that often. In fact, the married ones were lucky to get it at all. His wife testified that half her married friends weren’t even having sex monthly (at least with their husbands), and rarely enjoyed it when they did. He was not going to survey their husbands, but it couldn’t be all their fault; even Sara’s many lesbian friends rarely slept together, she said.
Woodstock still had the drugs and the rock ‘n roll. What happened to the sex?
Mooney and his wife, in contrast, still hooked up a few dozen times a year. Sex with his very nimble wife made his life in limbo tolerable. Still, it was never new. For that he would have to start fooling around on the road again. But after twenty years out of practice with strangers could he really manage that? Did he even want to?
In other words, he had no reason to complain, but being a man, he could, would, and did.
Even skimming, he took great interest in The New York Times. Mooney still followed politics and social uproar, at a safe distance. The Times had become a useful fever chart to measure his own first-world suffering, making writer’s block and sexual ennui seem trivial in comparison. Every day it published dozens of items about people or entire nations in far worse straits than him: a mayor arrested for drugs; a family slain by an intruder; a country in Africa he’d never heard of devastated by famine; the aftermath of this year’s “storm of the century” (probably caused in part by his SUV). These types of stories had once been fodder for his songs, when he still wrote songs—back when he rhymed “ricochet” with “Pinochet” and even spelled both words correctly.
Then there were the tragedies that hit really close to home, such as the jazz singer who threw herself out the window of her Central Park West apartment, and other cautionary tales (“Professor Shot by Spouse After Affair With Grad Student”). At least Mooney didn’t have to worry, at the moment, about an STD. Did he? How much did he trust his wife?
Sara, as it happened, was just awaking, but she was not with another man, as Mooney feared. On the other hand, she was not in New York City, as she had claimed, and she had no plans to meet with any scientists, unless a particularly handsome one was staying in the room next door, which wasn’t likely. In fact, she was less than thirty miles from Woodstock, as the crow flies, if the crow didn’t mind soaring above the snow-capped Catskills on the way south.
She was hiding from her husband under a blue quilt in a depressingly quaint B & B in Stone Ridge after a night of little sleep, mainly spent re-evaluating the rest of her life. Everyone else in her family seemed to be doing it, so why not her? Unlike the others, however, she did not anticipate leaving home for a spell but, rather, for good—though not, of course, until after the talent show and Katie’s graduation, later this week.
Soft light flooded the tiny room, but Sara barely stirred under the covers, confident Mooney could not find her. He rarely tried to reach her when she was away, fearing that if he did call she would accuse him of invading her “space.” She normally had precious little of that, with her husband housebound (except when he took Katie to school in his new SUV, or “WTF,” as she labeled it). A true Woodstocker, she did not even own a mobile phone. She believed that cell towers scarred the landscape—and, maybe, fried everyone’s brain, though it would be hard to tell in Woodstock if they did.
Sara had always dreamed about having a pied-a-terre like this, where she could read and relax and even sleep, especially when her husband got on her nerves, which was often. She often felt like the wife in The Shining, forced by an idle writer to live in a famous house populated by ghosts.
Surprising herself, she had planned and executed her one-night getaway perfectly. She’d even found a vegan restaurant in High Falls, called Wholly Tempeh, where she got loaded on a fine (organic) chardonnay while reading the new Ansel Adams biography between bites of broccoli. Then, back in her room, she pondered her favorite passage from Beckett, “I open/I’m afraid to open/ but I must open/ so I open,” deep into the night. But now she was lonely, tired and hung over—with just a few hours left to plot her next, perhaps permanent, escape, to a place where space, among other things, would no longer be an issue.
Putting aside his newspaper, Mooney had only a second cup of coffee to look forward to, so he retreated to his fallback position on his four-poster bed down the hall. Head against a pillow, he liked to daydream about changing his life. Since he had no idea what to do with his life, this only took a few minutes, so thank god for TV. Mooney’s loss of ambition pretty much coincided with his cable hookup, and accelerated with broadband access to the internet. It didn’t help that he lived in a small town, even if that town was wild and wooly Woodstock, New York.
Woodstock was one of the few places left where your sign was more important than your URL. The candy store sold chocolate Buddhas and a bakery called itself Grateful Bread. The gardening center claimed it was “hoelistic.” A realty company went by the name Surreal Estate. The Apple repair shop? Fleetwood’s Mac. When federal law mandated that radio stations must have four call letters, Woodstock’s FM station changed its name from WOW to WACK. The housewares shop featured Now & Zen alarm clocks.
A few years back, when the indigenous New Agers earned national attention celebrating the “harmonic convergence” of the planets, Mooney wrote a letter to the weekly Woodstock Times referring to it as the “harmonic disturbance” that was causing a “moronic divergence.” This was just one reason he had few friends left in Woodstock.
The locals were always protesting something, whether they hailed from the Woodstock Generation or not. His wife was often among the militants. Mooney, the former agitator who wasn’t marching anymore, just sat back and chuckled. When the Grand Union on Main Street tried to expand its parking lot, the activists picketed the store, condemning the “paving of paradise.” When the supermarket went out of business—because it didn’t have enough parking—the same people took to the streets denouncing corporate greed. Now everyone had to drive to Saugerties to shop at the Grand Union there. You couldn’t get everything you needed at the local health food store, especially if you were hungry.
Woodstock’s idea of humor was, “What did the Buddhist say to the pizza man? Make me one with everything.” Or: “How many meat eaters do you need to change a light bulb? None—they’d rather not see how their food is made.” Still, Mooney loved the place, even though he was shaped more by the ‘70s than the ‘60s. (By rights, he should be living in the Watergate, not in Woodstock.) His favorite spot was a private yard just off Tinker Street where the former guitarist for the Blues Magoos kept beat-up bicycles that anyone could take for a spin, no questions asked. A sign on a tree called it the Old Spokes Home. A bucket nearby carried the message, “If you fear change, leave it here.”
When it came to dining, Woodstock was more about kookery than cookery. A new fad, the raw food diet, had just hit town. Woodstock was becoming the People’s Republic of Parsnips. Where far-out once reigned the word of the day was now farro.
Everyone was reading, or writing, an uncookbook. Equal parts fashion and phobia, the diet was based on the belief that heating food beyond 118 degrees caused it not only to lose nutrients but turn partly to poison. This led to one of Mooney’s all-time favorite ads in The Woodstock Times, for a Raw Potluck Supper, which advised, “You can pick something to eat on the way.” He imagined people stopping to grab armfuls of grass or fighting off squirrels as they battled for a few stray nuts on the ground. It gave a whole new meaning to “roadside food.”
No wonder Mooney was desperate to quit the local figerati and join the pigerati. One nice thing about the new diet, though, was that you could wash down your turnip “raw-violi,” as it was called, with all the wine you wanted, since wine is merely fermented. Mooney told his wife he would go on the diet if she did. “Just give me some beef once a week,” he begged, “and I promise I will eat it ultra-rare.”
In his bedroom on the edge of town Mooney spent a good chunk of his day on a surfing safari, Oblomov with a laptop. At least he always knew when the next storm would arrive, and if a rightwing congressman or Fox News host got arrested in a sex scandal he wouldn’t have to wait for a friend to phone him with the good news.
When Mooney went online he constantly checked his email in case an old girlfriend contacted him (they never did). He played a Rolling Stone music trivia game until his name came up as an answer—and only 12% of his fellow experts guessed correctly. One time, for fun, he created his own chat room and called it JackMooneyFans.It attracted just one visitor, who mistook him for a gay porn star. He tried to sell albums and other useless Mooney memorabilia on eBay but no one ever bid more than a few dollars; and some of them later failed to pay. When he thought he could handle even more rejection he consulted the Amazon.com sales ranking for his Best Of CD. It rarely moved, and when it did, the direction was down.
His friend Nick, a marginal pop-star in his own right, liked to tease him by asking if he had any new ideas for songs. “I do,” Mooney would say, “but I choose not to pursue them.”
One night he Googled his name hoping to discover that he still had a cult following, or at least remained worthy of music industry gossip. It turned ugly in a hurry. The Web search returned references to a dozen other Jack Mooneys before it found anything about him. And gay porn stars were the least of his worries. Who knew there were so many crooked politicians and convicted killers named Jack Mooney. There was even a Jack Wayne Mooney on death row in Texas. The links to his own life that did appear were mainly “Where Are They Now?” jokes, stories about his role in Chevy’s new ad campaign—“New Jingle Unsafe At Any Speed”—and embarrassing message board postings by or about him.
After confirming that the U.S. still hated Iran, and vice versa, via CNN and MSNBC, Mooney was almost ready for lunch, but as usual these days it wasn’t easy getting out of bed. The furnace was blasting, which made him drowsy. The setting of the house was dreamy, too, with acres of trees, a fine view of Overlook Mountain, and only one neighbor across the road. It was extravagantly quiet, except for the whispering pines.
A home with heft, it had three bedrooms, a full garage and a half-finished, if spooky, basement. It was the kind of house he normally wouldn't be caught dead in—a postwar split-level with cheap vinyl siding—and it was too far from town, according to his wife and daughter. (Katie had accused him of “reaching for the remote.”) But it had a couple of things going for it: It was big, and it was pink. In point of fact, it was Big Pink.
Next to Graceland, it was arguably the most famous house in rock 'n roll history, if you don't count “The House of the Rising Sun" and “The House That Jack Built." Back in 1967 its cinderblock cellar spawned not only Dylan’s Great White Wonder (the world’s first bootleg album) but also The Band’s magical debut, Music from Big Pink. Dozens of songs conceived or recorded here, such as Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and The Band’s “The Weight,” would change the course of popular music--essentially pulling the plug on endless “jamming” and mindless psychedelia. It was, among other things, the first true underground rock. In a famous review of Music from Big Pink for Rolling Stone, Al Kooper would conclude: “This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.”
Mooney called it “the haunted house.” Its current owner had rented it to Dylan freaks on weekends for a spell. Then he decided to go all the way and rent to a Dylanite (i.e., Mooney) full-time.
Dylan fans often visited Big Pink on a holy pilgrimage. Ignoring the No Trespassing signs along the private dirt road, they would drive by, stop, and maybe get out and snap a picture, grinning like fools. The house appeared unchanged since it graced the cover of Music from Big Pink. It was charming—a miracle—that it was still pink, as if each of its many owners agreed that changing its color would be like painting the White House blue. One afternoon Mooney watched as a middle-aged man with a shaved head, dressed in Buddhist robes, stood a few yards from the hallowed basement, took out a vial of clear liquid and sprinkled it on the ground. Then he lit some incense, chanted for ten minutes, patted the exterior wall in benediction, and left (after, admittedly, taking a leak across the road).
His daughter, unfortunately, had no special reverence, even reference, for Big Pink beyond feeling it was “sort of cool” that something famous happened in her home, although it would have been much cooler if it had been the setting for a scandalous ‘80s music video, not “a fucking Bob Dylan snoozefest.” For her the basement was little more than a drafty place to sneak a joint while her parents were sleeping upstairs.
The reason Mooney came to Big Pink (besides its modest rent) was simple: He hoped it would unlock his writer’s block. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him. Springsteen, popular as ever, was a year or two older than Mooney—and ancient Leonard Cohen was still playing to packed arenas. This gave him hope. He didn’t believe any of the Woodstock nonsense about “vibes” and “karma,” but he hoped that residing in this particular house would shame him into realizing his so-called potential. It was both long shot and short cut. But so far, nothing was delivered—no music from Big Pink. Greil Marcus in his book on the Basement Tapes had referred to them as reflecting the "old, weird America." But now it was Mooney himself who feared he was getting older and weirder by the minute.
Continuing to channel surf, Mooney finally came across the Chevy commercial. As always, he couldn’t hide a smile, even though it quoted just fifteen seconds of the song, the music was infected by violins, and a muscular voice (sounding disturbingly like William Shatner) sang the snappy if insipid chorus: “Take the highway…it’s my way.”
He still had not heard from his wife, which made him wonder what Sara was really doing in New York. So when the phone rang his heart leaped, but it was only his daughter, reminding him to retrieve her at school later. This was usually his wife’s job.
“Thanks for calling,” Mooney said. “I’m getting so old I forget things. Wait…who am I talking to? Hello?”
“God, daddy, how does it feel to be a such a fossil?”
“It’s funny how age makes even junk seem precious,” he explained, although he secretly felt it was tragic, not comic. “For example, I’ve stopped complaining about the Academy Awards show because I know I’ll only be around for about twenty more of them, so now I quietly savor the awfulness. Same with the Super Bowl, the Grammys, New Year’s Eve and, increasingly, Election Day. You, on the other hand, have to endure dozens more of each.”
“At least when I’m your age,” she observed, triumphantly, “Rod Stewart and Billy Joel will be gone.”
“Gosh,” Moone moaned, “does Mumford put up with this from his sons?”
As it turned out, Mooney hadn’t timed lunch quite right, because it was still only 11:30 and he was afflicted with the neurotic inability to eat the midday meal before noon, no matter how hungry he was. So he did what he usually did when he had bonus “time to kill, what a thrill,” as The Band once sang. He ambled over to Katie’s room across the hall, pulled her Les Paul out of its case, plugged it into an amp—and gave the strings a thrashing.
Born too late for the psychedelic ‘60s, he missed punk in the ‘70s—he was already in college—and was much too old and uptight to consider grunge later. So he avenged the days he never got to play “Gloria,” “Wild Thing” and “London Calling” by mangling them over in his daughter’s room. No one ever played “Born to Be Wild” with more enthusiasm, or less sincerity. It was harmless, except to his eardrums (which were already failing) and to his two fat cats, Steve and Earl. Who needed masturbation when you could wank off like this? It was viagra for the soul. As a side effect, it gave Katie a chance to deny that she was following in her father’s footsteps but rather that he was following in hers.
Finishing a primitive “Purple Haze,” it was all he could do to keep from smashing the instrument over the amp, and then ODing--but there was plenty of time for that over the next two weeks, on tour. Mooney wiped a rare drop of sweat from his brow, returned the guitar to its case and, nearly exhausted, headed to the kitchen, where he’d hidden a small steak, for lunch.
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is author of a dozen books (click on covers at right), ;He was the longtime editor of Editor & Publisher. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @GregMitch