Springsteen In The Time of Quarantine

“One of the most heartrending aspects of these deaths is that the virus has stolen from us our rituals, our funerals, our wakes, our house meetings with family after the burial. Our ability to stand by our loved ones, to touch them, to kiss them as they pass, to look into their eyes and let them physically know we love them. This is the cruelty of this disease. To say our last goodbyes to our loved ones by phone and then return home alone to an empty house. It is a heart breaking and lonely death for those afflicted and for those left behind to pick up the pieces.” Bruce Springsteen June 17, From My Home To Yours, E Street Radio, Sirius XM.

By Ryan Hilligoss December 20. 2020

In the fifty-year-plus career of American musician and artist Bruce Springsteen, he has had an uncanny knack for writing, singing and producing timely, meaningful music and albums that speak directly to our times, the unvarnished truths of our lives and the country. Springsteen’s ever watchful eyes, ears and mind see the realities of American life, find what’s meaningful to our nation and it’s citizens, identifies what’s most important and boils off the white noise and chatter of media, talking heads and loud hailers. His lyrics, music and albums speak in a voice that emanates from a raw, honest and visceral place of the American spirit.

In 1975, he released his seminal work Born To Run, which captured one long, hot night of summer and, in essence, reflected America’s lost innocence resulting from the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency. The River captured the end of youth, and marked the beginning of the dark, tired days of adulthood, shining a light on blue collar lives worn out from the oil embargo, stagflation and lost jobs during the Carter administration. In 2002, Springsteen released The Rising which spoke to our nations fears, heartaches, devastation, and emotional, psychological fallout from the attacks of 9/11. It paid tribute to the lives of those lost and those that remain behind, but ultimately reflected the best of our nation: the hopes for what we could do as a nation, a people that came together during dark times to help each other recover and try to begin again.

Springsteen’s Letter To You was inspired by events of 2018 and recorded in November of 2019, well before the world learned the importance of the words Corona Virus 19, nasal swabs and quarantine. However, the album turns out to be the defining work of art reflecting our lives and reality in 2020. The lyrics and songs reflect the loss of loved ones, the loss of connection with those around us, the loss of innocence, the loss of time, separation, isolation, loneliness, age, death and the ghosts that we carry in our daily lives. Before we slipped into a perpetual Ground Hog’s Day, living every day mostly the same over and over, Springsteen had his finger on some of the defining characteristics of our time: the fracturing of our communities due to technology, social media platforms, multitudes of streaming devices for music, movies and other art forms, and the raging tribalism of national politics. But through it all, despite the darkness on the edge of town, Springsteen’s work leaves us with a sense of hope, a dream of better days. The promise of sunlight up around the river bend. A land of hope and dreams beyond the road’s horizon.

The album was released in October of 2020 along with a documentary film of the same title directed by long-time collaborator Thom Zimny. The pair of projects are intertwined, helping Springsteen broaden the visual and emotional impact of his vision and message. The album and movie have been out for two months now, so I am delayed in writing this, but the music and images are so dense, layered and meaningful on so many levels, I am still trying to unpack it all and may never reach the end, isn’t that one of the truths of all great art? Also, as a long time serious fan of his work, professionalism and high quality of his craft, anytime I write about a project, I feel I owe it to him as part of our agreement to give the best I have within my abilities, just as he does for us.

Danny Clinch photo

As Springsteen has said in interviews many times over, he hadn’t written any songs for the E Street Band since 2012’s Wrecking Ball which shone a spotlight on the wreckage, carnage and destruction the 2008 financial meltdown left on the American people and country. But two events merged into a channel helping Springsteen write the songs that form one of the best albums of his career. First, during his historic run of Springsteen on Broadway which played at the Walter Kerr Theater in NYC for 236 shows spread over 15 months between October 2017 through December 2018, an unnamed fan from Italy handed Springsteen a handmade acoustic guitar as he exited the theater and got into his car. Springsteen thanked the fan, took the guitar home with him where it sat in a corner of his house untouched for months. Secondly, in 2018, Springsteen’s friend and former bandmate George Theiss from their 1960’s band The Castiles passed away from cancer. Springsteen realized on his drive home from the hospital that he was the last man still alive from that band: he was the last man standing. In the weeks that followed, Springsteen picked up that fan’s gift to him, the guitar sitting in a corner which called to him like a musical divining rod, and the songs came to him quickly like messages from the great beyond.

George Theiss far left and Bruce Springsteen behind the mic and The Castiles 1966

In the last five years, Springsteen has spent a lot of time and artistic reflection on his life and career. He wrote his autobiography Born To Run, unbelievably while touring almost non-stop from 2009-2015, somehow finding the energy and time after exhausting himself for nearly 3-4 hours on stage. He wrote and performed Springsteen On Broadway which told his life story through his songs. He wrote, composed, arranged and recorded the album Western Stars along with the accompanying film which included live performances of the album songs backed by a terrific band and orchestra and also contained spoken narrative passages. And now Letter To You album and film. I’ve read several critiques of the latest project and a lot of writers have said these projects were Springsteen’s effort at a summation or ending. I see these efforts as a way for Springsteen to try to understand to the best of his abilities his life, his journey, his friends and family, his music and his fans. In knowing, where he came from and where he’s been, he has a guide to where he is headed in his artistic vision. Springsteen has had one of the most productive and prolific parts of his career in the last twenty years, comparable only to degrees with those of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan in longevity, high quality and willingness to take chances. Signs indicate his sights are set on many more various projects, musical styles and records to be made. As he has described before, there is only so much time in every person’s life and there’s a train barreling down the tracks that focuses one’s attention.

The album was recorded at Springsteen’s home studio with the full band in just five days, well recorded in four and played back on day 5. This is unheard of in Springsteen’s career, some albums, specifically in his earlier career, taking as long as 18 to 24 months to record, arrange, mix and produce. After spending decades together, the band demonstrates a fine- tuned short hand that allowed them to quickly listen to Springsteen sing the lyrics and rough chord progressions for each individual song, discuss, arrange, play and record each track. The band is in fine form, possibly some of their best recordings of their careers. Especially the drumming from Max Weinberg who, as you can see in the movie, sat directly in front of Springsteen’s isolation booth making sure his eyes remained focused on Springsteen’s every move just as he does on stage, searching for the smallest cues in Springsteen’s movements and facial expressions. Garry Tallent’s smooth, subtle bass lines provide the foundation for the rest of the E Street Band sound. He’s not flashy or showy, that’s not his style, but it’s there all the time if you listen hard enough.

Steven Van Zandt provides excellent guitar solos on If I Was The Priest and Song For Orphans. Nils Lofgren provides excellent acoustic guitar accompaniment on Last Man Standing that propels the song forward while keeping it anchored at the same time. Charlie Giordano’s organ is subtle and finely textured as usual and stands out on I’ll See You In My Dreams. Roy Bittan’s piano as always makes an indelible presence in every song; there would be no E Street sound without Roy’s piano. Jake Clemons provides excellent, soaring sax solos on Last Man Standing and Ghosts. And Patti Scialfa, a fine artist and song writer in her own right, provides accompanying vocals on several tracks.

The album begins with One Minute You’re Here, a hypnotic simple acoustic guitar line repeating itself over and over, ethereal keyboards hover in the background as Springsteen sings, “Big black train comin’ down the track/Blow your whistle long and low, one minute you’re here/Next Minute you’re gone.” The guitar playing and vocal phrasing and tone remind me of The Hitter from his 2005 release Devils and Dust. He’s obviously thinking about that train of mortality barreling down the tracks toward him and anyone else in it’s path and I hear echoes of Junior Parker’s Mystery Train made famous by Elvis Presley, one of Springsteen’s musical heroes, with that long black train, 16 coaches long taking his baby and gone. The song sets the stage for what is to follow with it’s focus on those who have come and gone, their spirits that remain with us as we move through life, friendship, comradery, love, loss and hope. The album and songs were inspired by the passing of one bandmate, but he also carries the ghosts of others like E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Fedirici, his friend and guardian Terry McGovern, his father and grandparents and many others.

Clarence Clemons and Danny Fedirici from Letter To You movie

In Letter To You, the second tack on the album, Springsteen summarizes the song, the album and his whole career in two lines, “Got down on my knees grabbed my pen and bowed my head, tried to summon all that my heart finds true/And put it in my letter to you.” As he said in the Broadway show, his whole creative career has been a long, noisy prayer, his magic trick. The letter he writes is a letter for us the fans, his bandmates, other musicians, his family and friends and to himself, his way of organizing and clarifying his thoughts. It’s a letter decades in the writing. Part of the ever evolving conversation he’s been having with his fans since he first picked up a guitar and put pen to paper.

As Springsteen says in the movie’s introduction, “I’m in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by and with some of you. Now with some of you I suppose we’ve only recently started speaking. But either way, I’ve tried to make that conversation essential, fun and entertaining. I started playing the guitar because I was looking to speak to and correspond with you. I guess that worked out better than my wildest dreams. All I know is after all this time, I still feel that burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning, walks along side of me throughout the day, and is there when I go to sleep each night. Over the past 50 years, it’s never once ceased, owing to what I really don’t know. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know is that it’s one of the most consistent impulses in my life. As reliable as the rhythmic beating of my own heart, is my need to talk to you.”

Up Around The River Bend

Listening to the album is one thing but to see the documentary is a whole other animal that takes the music and meaning to an entirely higher level. Director Thom Zimny has worked with and collaborated with Springsteen for more than 20 years now and has directed and produced, among many other projects, Wings For Wheels, the movie that accompanied the 30th anniversary released of Born To Run, The Promise which was part of the box set released for Darkness On The Edge of Town and The River documentary that was part of the box set for that release. Before Springsteen recorded the music for Letter To You, he called Zimny and asked him to come down and film the band as they recorded with only one instruction: stay out of the way. The movie captures the band in all of their glory and demonstrates the work that went into the recording process from the musicians to producer Ron Aniello, the sound engineers, techs and Jon Landau, Springsteen’s long time manager, co producer and friend.

It’s beautifully constructed, shot in black and white and strikes to the heart of the album’s message whose essence is captured in a scene where after a long day’s work in the studio, the band gathers around to raise a toast and Springsteen says, “We’re taking this all the way boys, until we’re all in a box”. It’s only rock and roll, but it’s as important as life and death. The choice of black and film is genius in a few respects. On the previous documentaries, Zimny had access to black and white video footage shot by Barry Rebo in the studio while the band recorded Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town and The River. Here, Zimny chooses black and white possibly to put the album and band in a historical perspective, adding a softening touch to footage which clearly shows the years the band has put in together, close ups of their hands, eyes and faces for all the world to see.

The choice of black and white also plays into the weather at the time of the recording as snow falls outside of the recording studio, blanketing the area in beautiful white landscape similar to some of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. This provides for an earthy, realistic and gritty contrast to the black trees in the nearby woods and plowed, barren fields. Zimny uses drones to capture footage of the surrounding area’s rural setting giving a ghostly, ethereal feel to the movie and working hand in hand with the music and themes. Black and white is binary, it’s one thing or the other, but the scenery adds a gray texture to it and the drone hovers just as the ghosts Springsteen sings of, Clarence, Danny, Terry, his father, George, hover overhead, watching, listening and guiding with their spirits. The opening shot shows snow covered fields and trees near a winding, frozen creek that mirrors the lyrics of my favorite song from the album, I’lll See You In My Dreams: “I’ll see you in my dreams, When all our summers have come to an end/ I’ll see you in my dreams, we’ll meet and live and laugh again/ I’ll see you in my dreams, Up around the riverbend/For death is not the end”.

See the source image
39 1/2 Institute Street, Freehold, NJ

When one considers the role and place of a special tree in Springsteen’s autobiography and one-man Broadway show, the trees in Letter To You take on even more significance. In the book, Springsteen writes lovingly about a giant copper beech tree that stood in the front yard of his boyhood home under which he played as child, counting and feeling the trees roots, and climbing to the top to feel the breeze on his face. “The tree sprouts, it’s branches thicken, mature, bloom. It is scarred by lightning, shaken by thunder, sickness, human events and God’s hand. Drawn black, it grows itself back toward lights, rising higher toward heaven while thrusting itself deeper, more firmly, into the earth. It’s history and memory retained, it’s presence felt.”

After describing his entire life, the joys, heartaches, triumphs and longevity, he returns at the end of the book to the tree. “On a November evening during the writing of this book, I drove once again back to my hometown, back to my neighborhood. The streets were quiet. My corner church was silent and unchanged. Tonight there were no weddings, no funerals. I rolled slowly another 50 yards up my block to find my great towering copper beech tree gone, cut to the street. My heart went blank….then settled. I looked again. It was gone but still there. The very air and space above it was filled with the form, soul and lifting presence of my old friend, it’s leaves and branches now outlined and shot through by evening stars and sky. A square of musty earth, carved into the parking lot blacktop at pavement’s edge, was all that remained. It still held small snakes of root slightly submerged by dust and dirt, and there the arc of my tree, my life lay plainly visible. My great tree’s life by county dictum or blade could not be ended or erased. Its history, it’s magic, was too old and too strong. Like my father, my grandmother, my aunt Virginia, my two grandfathers, my father in law Joe, my Aunt Dora and Eda, Ray and Walter Chicon, Bart Haynes, Terry, Danny, Clarence and Tony, my own family gone from these houses now filled with strangers- we remain. We remain in the air, the empty space, in the dusty roots and deep earth, in the echo and stories, the songs of the time and place we have inhabited. My clan, my blood, my place, my people.”

In the movie, the images of the trees take on a life of their own, becoming silent characters in the movie like the snow itself. The trees stand in as the chorus from Greek Tragedy. They stand in place of the spirits of Springsteen’s family, friends, bandmates, love, music, inspiration and God’s divining hand providing shade, cover, warmth and the breath of life.

Ghosts: I Shoulder Your Les Paul and Finger The Fretboard

Guitar used by Springsteen during Letter To You Recording, photo from Ron Aniello

The images and ideas of ghosts are ever present in the music and movie, some more obvious than others, but all adding up to prove his point: we carry the spirits of those we’ve known with us every step of the way. In a narrative leading into Ghosts, Springsteen says, “Where do we go when we die? Maybe we go nowhere or maybe everywhere. Maybe our soul resides in the ether, in the starless part of the sky and resonates outward like a stone dropped into a still lake whose circles are the lives of the people we’ve touched over the course of our lives. No one knows where or how far their soul may sound we travel. Or, maybe it’s all just bones, dirt, clay and turtles all the way down. I don’t know. But I’ve grieved at the thought of never seeing some of those that I’ve loved and lost again. But those passed never completely disappear. We see them on familiar streets, in empty clubs and late nights of long ago. They move in shadows, glimpsed only from the corner of our eyes. We see them in our dreams.”

As even casual fans of Springsteen’s work know, he is incredibly deliberate, meaningful and serious when it comes to the work that goes out under his name, leaving nothing to chance, fate or a roll of the dice. He is a perfectionist who wants his vision communicated clearly and directly with his audience. If you see or hear it, it’s on purpose and there for a reason. Letter To You is an Easter Egg hunt of clues, symbols, metaphors and images that are absorbed slowly and throughout the music forming a strong sense of the truth of which he speaks.

Consider the following:

  1. One of the guitars he uses during the recording photo above was given to him prior to recording. It’s worn and aged, seemingly battle tested and scarred from thousands of hours of practice and live performances. It stands in for one he or one of his earlier bandmates could have used decades ago.
  2. A brief clip of the band exiting the stage after their rave performance at the No Nukes concert in 1979 with Clarence Clemons picking Springsteen up like a football and carrying him off camera.
  3. Danny Federici’s glockenspiel has a prominent place in the recording studio which Roy Bittan is asked to add a part on during the recording, bringing the instrument back to life with Fedirici’s spirit.
  4. A saxophone travel case with Clarence Clemons name in tape appears briefly
  5. A Backstreets Magazine appears briefly lying atop a studio coffee table. The back cover showing Springsteen and Clemons together during the Born To Run album cover shoot
  6. During the filming and recording of the album, Jake Clemons plays a saxophone solo on Power of Prayer while Springsteen stands behind the mixing board with his arms waving in the air like a conductor. This mirrors the memory of Springsteen conducting Clarence Clemons’s earth shattering solo on Jungleland during the recording of Born To Run. Clemons said that he and Springsteen worked on that solo one note, one inflection, one bar at a time, “No Big Man, play it like this.”
  7. A stock video image of a little boy climbing a tree in front of a house.
  8. Springsteen stands in his isolation booth during the recording of the album. A tapestry or print hangs behind him on the wall which shows his boyhood home of 39 1/2 Institute Street, Freehold, NJ. His history and his ghosts peer over his shoulder. Or possibly, that is a cinematic magic trick Zimny pulled from his deck of cards in post production?
  9. Footage taken from the recording of Darkness appears showing Springsteen and Van Zandt discussing the arrangement of a song and the the film cuts to them having almost the same conversation and same looks on their faces as they discuss the arrangement of a song on Letter To You 40 years later. Some things never change.
Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, Colt’s neck, NJ November 2019

Springsteen’s cousin Frank Bruno appears throughout the film, and there is a reason. When Springsteen got his first guitar, he was trying to learn at home on his own but he didn’t have the rudimentary facts down like how to tune a guitar and how to play basic chords. His cousin Frank came to their house one day and showed young Springsteen how to tune his guitar, how to hold his fingers on the fret board, to play basic chords and lent him a song book of basic American folk songs. As he stated in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, the first song Springsteen ever learned to play was Greensleeves which only had two chords. Then the first rock and roll song he learned to play was The Beatle’s cover of The Isley Brothers song, Twist and Shout, after he learned to add a third chord. Bruno is there in the film as a visceral, tangible connection between his past and present, between that distant moment in time decades ago and his storied career with the man who helped him take his first steps on a long and winding journey.

During a break in the recording, Springsteen is seen talking with Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren about guitars, the kind they used when he first got started and describes a Sears and Roebuck guitar which had a speaker built into the body of the guitar which sounded terrible. After the credits are done rolling, the last minutes of the film show Springsteen sitting in front of his studio along with his cousin Frank Bruno. They both hold guitars, Springsteen’s being a Sears and Roebuck with a speaker built into the stock. He then proceeds to play and sing Baby I , the song Springsteen and Theiss wrote together in the 1960s and which was the first song Springsteen ever recorded in a studio which was in Bricktown, NJ. As Springsteen hammers his way through the song, which sounds very similar to Them’s Gloria, Frank Bruno strums along on rhythm guitar. Just like in all of his other work, Springsteen starts at the beginning, goes on a long journey and then brings it all back home. The alpha and the omega.

I’ll See You In My Dreams

At first glance, the album may appear to be a grab bag of newly written songs and earlier outtakes. The album contains 12 songs including Janey Needs A Shooter, written in the early 1970s. Warren Zevon later borrowed at least the title and used it as the basis for his song Jeannie Needs A Shooter which has different lyrics and a story setting. Based on interviews, Springsteen has stated he recorded the song a few years ago to possibly release as a Record Store Day release but decided it was too good and needed to be used on a full project. Song For Orphans and If I Was The Priest were both written around the time he auditioned for John Hammond at Columbia Records. Both tracks were left off his first few albums and then they just sat dormant in the proverbial but legendary vault at Thrill Hill Studio collecting New Jersey dust. Springsteen says in the film as an introduction to Song For Orphans, “The songs from 1972 were and remain a mystery to me. They were just the way I wrote back then, a lot of words. As a matter of fact, Clive Davis, the man who signed me to Columbia Records with John Hammond called me briefly after we released Greetings and said someone had called him and told him if I wasn’t careful, I was going to use up the entire English language and he said that was Bob Dylan. And Bob was always my mentor and the brother I never had so I took the words quite seriously. But all I know is these songs hold a very warm place in my heart. The song Orphans is about someone overcoming their fears, their doubts, their time. It’s about fighting for a place of their own.”

If I Was The Priest and Orphans harken back to his original writing style which was abundant and colorful and character driven, full of metaphors, allegory and story lines. Some have likened his lyrics, singing and arrangements to Bob Dylan and there are some similarities, but I think the best comparison or influence is actually from The Band, especially in the current arrangement and sound with heavy guitar tethered to Giorando’s organ and Bittan’s piano lines. There is obviously a lot of cross over between Dylan and The Band since The Band worked with Dylan for several years both on the road and at Big Pink, but The Band had a very distinctive sound with Garth Hudson’s organ and early synthesizer keyboards, Levon Helm’s solid but funky drumming, Rick Danko’s bass and Robbie Robertson’s piercing guitar lines.

Springsteen has also stated in interviews that he originally wrote Rainmaker, which many listeners have incorrectly assumed is about Donald Trump, about George W Bush around the time of the Magic album. While the imagery of a snake oil salesman applies even more appropriately to the current occupant of the White House, the song was not written for this album. Regardless of when the songs were written and originally recorded, Letter To You is the first Springsteen album in a long time which contains a narrative arc from start to finish much like his albums Born To Run, Darkness and Nebraska. It begins with One Minute You’re Here speaking to the precariousness of life and our connections to each other, proceeds through the trials, tribulations and turmoil that we all experience in life to one degree or another and concludes with I’ll See You In My Dreams which is a summation of the overall, reaching hope of life beyond this mortal world, somewhere in the ether, possibly a half way point between heaven and earth. A hope that despite the years and miles travelled and the spirits lost, that we’ll see them again, if only in our dreams.

One of the most touching and poignant scenes in the film occurs as the band gathers around the mixing board and listens to the playback of Dreams. Landau its to Springsteen’s immediate left. As the lyrics and arrangement come floating through the speakers, Landau is visibly taken emotionally and sheds some tears. Perfectly captured on film for all to see and experience, Landau’s reaction acts as a summation of the emotions and thoughts he shares with many of us on the outside: what a long, strange, beautiful trip it’s been. Landau turns to Springsteen and says, “It has magnificence.”

Even the ghosts of Springsteen’s musical past have haunted him, and now a few of them find their way to a permanent home on his new album. He has said that he carries a library of recorded songs that didn’t make their way onto a project and periodically, he’ll check in with them listen and think of ways to find them a permanent home. I do not mean to pry into his private life or even remotely consider I know his private thoughts and don’t want to know, but there is one aspect that he has spoken of publicly which is his mother Adele, his life-long cheerleader and the woman who bought him his first real guitar as a Christmas present long ago.

In an interview in AARP OCT/Nov 2020, Springsteen is asked about his mother Adele who, he has acknowledged and spoken publicly, has suffered from Alzheimer’s for close to 10 years. “I’m very lucky that my mother remains in very, very good spirits. She can’t really speak, but when you see her, she still moves to rhythm or put music on, and she’s happy. She’s always got a smile. Always got a kiss or hug. She can’t name you now or anything, but she can recognize you and is excited when you come over. It’s been 10 years. And her progress was very slow, so I consider us quite lucky with the disease.” In his one man production, Springsteen On Broadway just as in his autobiography Born To Run, Springsteen speaks lovingly of his mother, always cheerful, hardworking, joyful, ready to dance and the life and spirit of their family. I was lucky enough to attend the show with my brother, and during the introduction to The Wish, Springsteen said, “My mother is 7 years into Alzheimer’s.” Our mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years prior to us attending the performance and we had watched her symptoms grow over time to include Alzheimer’s or some other sort of memory issue. His words made an instant, immediate connection with me, knocked me sideways and struck a raw nerve with me.

During the performance he sings:

“It ain’t no phone call on Sunday, flowers or a mother’s day card
It ain’t no house on a hill with a garden and a nice little yard
I got my hot rod down on Bond Street, I’m older but you’ll know me in a glance
We’ll find us a little rock ‘n roll bar and baby we’ll go out and dance”

In the third line, he pauses after saying ‘you’ll know me’ and repeats ‘you’ll know me in a glance”. It’s a heartbreaking acknowledgement directed at Adele, that she may not be able to say his name anymore, but despite the disease and it’s limitations on her memory and function, she still knows him and recognizes him and loves him. I watched my own mother struggle with these same issues before she passed and I can’t help but feeling that in some way, Springsteen is feeling like an orphan himself in a metaphorical sense as his father Douglas passed years ago and now his mother can no longer speak his name. I’ve been there and it’s devastating.

One fact of Springsteen’s life that has always stuck with me is that at the age of 18, his father decided they were leaving Freehold, NJ, the only town he’d ever known and was moving the family to California to make a new start. Springsteen was left in tough position, either leave his home and a budding musical career and his passion and dreams, or lose his family in a physical sense. Springsteen chose to stay and at a very young age he was alone, an orphan in a way. Maybe, he’s looking for a way home for himself and for the ghosts of his past while walking further on up the road to a future somewhere up around the river bend.

We’ll Rise Together and Fire The Spark

In A House of A Thousand Guitars, Springsteen sings, “All good souls from near and far, brothers and sisters wherever you are/ We’ll rise together til we fire the spark that’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” Whether intentional or not, a listener could be reminded of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark when he sings, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Springsteen has long held the belief in recording and especially on stage, that music is only truly communicated and understood and shared properly when the artist connects with the listeners and fans. That’s why he plays epic concerts that last nearly four hours, exhausting himself in the service of his craft, the music, his bandmates, his fans and all who came before. We rise and fall together. We all experience dark days, we lose loved ones, friends and family, we endure hardships, financial woes, psychological scars. But we also experience life’s pleasures, joys, tribulations, highlights, loves, passions, friendships and families together. His songs capture a snapshot of the crisis that has crippled our nation and taken so many from us in a short time, but it also reflects a universal truth: we get through these hard times together, as a family, as a community and as a nation together, with each other’s help, guidance and love. We get through the hard times and look forward to the next daybreak, somewhere over the horizon where we can stand together again at a concert singing our hearts out, where we can hug and kiss each other, a place where we can begin again.

Springsteen wrote a letter to us, the fans, the listeners, the critics, his family and friends and fellow musicians and we’re reading that letter along with all the others he’s written us for decades. What he has to say is vital, important, meaningful, hard rocking and beautiful. As always, he is ever present, a sentinel standing on the precipice, watching and listening, sending signals back to us, showing us the way forward to a better place.

Springsteen October 2020 at his Colt’s Neck, NJ home. Phote courtesy of Patti Scialfa

At the end of the film, a drone flies from the ground up into the air catching a beautiful, bucolic scene of black trees reaching high into the sky, towering over white, snow blanketed fields as fresh snow falls from the heavens. A road is cut through a stand of trees with fresh tire tracks dug into the rough road bed. Zimny presents an image of a road cut into the forest, a road cut by Springsteen through his own forest of vulnerability, tension, unknowns, precarious chances. A road he cut and paved on his own, with his two hands. A road that twists and turns with the hope of possibility. Springsteen continues a career filled with music, different genres, different styles, different band mates and he makes the road his own. He closes the movie with this last spoken passage which bears repeating, “Age. Age brings perspective. A defining clarity one gets at midnight on the tracks looking into the lights of an oncoming train. It dawns on you rather quickly. There’s only so much time left. Only so many star filled nights, snowfalls, brisk fall afternoons, rainy mid-summer days. So how you conduct yourself and do your work matters. How you treat your friends, your family, your lover. On good days, a blessing falls over you. It wraps its arms around you and you’re free and deeply in and of this world. That’s your reward: being here. That’s what gets you up the next morning: a new chance to receive that benediction….while you’re buttering your toast, getting dressed or driving home from work. You stumble into those moments when you can feel the hand of God gently rest upon your shoulder, and you realize how lucky you are. Lucky to be alive, lucky to be breathing in this world of beauty, horror and hope. Because this is what there is: a chance. A world where it’s lucky to love, lucky to be loved. So you go, until it fills you. Until the sweat, blood and hard tears make sense. You go until the light from the fading, distant stars fall at your feet. Go. And may god bless you.”

Any may god bless you Bruce Springsteen and all of your family and friends. Thank you kind sir. May we have another and another. Let’s dance.

I Remember Everything: The Music of 2020

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 7, 2020

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What can I say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said a million times over already. It’s been a bleak, dark, hard year between Covid and all that’s been taken from us including friends, family, socializing, human interactions and our sanity. Despite the restrictions and need for safety protocols, one thing has remained consistent this year which is the creation of art and music, just in time when we needed it the most. Without artists and all who help create it, we would have been without much needed respite from the darkness lingering on the edge of town. Art, music, literature, film, and television are the things that allow us to shake off the dust of the day and rise a little higher and see the world in a different way. Art and the artists who make it provide us with much needed laughter, tears, joy, ideas to consider, and other people’s shoes to walk in for a brief time.

Given all the time I’ve had on my hands this year, it’s allowed me to take daily walks along my dusty country roads while listening to music and getting away from the torrent of gloom and doom barreling at us daily. While walking alone physically, I’ve had some of the best musicians in the world as good companions along the way. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite new music from this year. For anyone reading this, nothing I can say will enlighten or say anything you can’t learn by just listening so I’ll leave it at that. Many of you have probably heard of most of these, but maybe not and hopefully you can find something new to listen for a while on your journey. And if you know something I need to listen to which doesn’t appear here, let me know.

I Remember Everything, John Prine

John passed away earlier this year, taking a little bit of me with him when he left. He was one of the best songwriters of the last 50 years. His writing and lyrics could make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same song, even sometimes in the same verse. He kept his eye on the daily lives of common people, the people he came from, and turned them into songs of Everyman. I Remember Everything was the last song he ever recorded and was released after he passed in April. The song became his first Billboard number one song and encapsulates everything great about his songs, his humor and pathos, his guitar and his voice.

Carsie Blanton, Fishin’ With You

Released very shortly after John passed, I ran across this excellent tribute from Carsie. She nailed it in the chords and arrangement and worked in plenty of Prine lyrics and song titles. Anytime things seem easy and simple, they are anything but. Carsie says what all of us non musicians wanted to say to John, and she did it in perfect fashion: thank you John Prine.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Reunions

One of the finest songwriters, guitarists and musicians working today continues a streak of incredible albums. The 400 unit is a great band which includes Amanda Shires, his wife and superb musician and songwriter in her own right, on fiddle and background vocals. “The river is my savior, because she used to be a cloud/ Now she’s happy just to lay there, when she used to be so proud”

Springsteen, Letter To You

The Boss Man recorded his 20th studio album along with the E Street Band in late 2019 in the hopes of launching a world wide tour in 2020. According to multiple interviews, Springsteen wrote most of the songs in a quick burst of inspiration after his one man show Springsteen On Broadway concluded in 2018. The album has twelve tracks, nine written recently and three coming from material he wrote in the early 70’s. The band gathered at his Colt’s Neck, NJ home studio and recorded all the songs in four days, resting and listening to play backs on the fifth day. It’s the first time the band recorded live together in the studio since the 80’s. In my opinion, the album ranks up in the top 5 of his career. In lieu of a tour, Springsteen decided to release a documentary film of the same name, directed and shot by longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, showing the band recording live in studio, working together on arrangements, commiserating and toasting each other at the end of every hard earned day. The album and film are exceptional and well worth your time. The film is currently only available on apple TV which often times offers a free 7 day trial. Below is a live performance of the song taken from Stand Up For Heroes fundraiser, sung with his wife and fellow musician Patti Scialfa at their horse barn.

The Mavericks En Espanol

All songs and lyrics sung in Spanish and I have no idea what Raul is saying but I know it’s beautiful and heartfelt. The Mavericks combine several genres including pop, country, salsa and western swing and make it their own with myriad beats like samba and ska. Lead singer Raul Malo has one of the finest voices in all of modern music, operatic like Roy Orbison and Elvis but all his own style and phrasing. A tip of the hat to the band for this gem.

The Chicks Gaslighter

The Chicks return with their fifth studio album and their first since 2006. Lead singer Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire channel the rage fueled by Maine’s recent divorce from her husband father of their children. If you think Taylor Swift can burn an ex, just listen to Gaslighter or Tights on My Boat. I remember clearly walking in the morning listening to the album when I got to the last track, it hit me hard having gone through a divorce myself in the last few years, and I had to sit down on a nearby bench to gather my thoughts. While my circumstances were different, the power of music and songwriters is, they sometimes can nail the essence and spirit of something that countless others have experienced but you feel like it was written just for you.

Taylor Swift Folklore

When she was younger, I listened to her hits but didn’t really pay attention thinking she was a passing fad but over the course of her career, she has proven herself time after time with each passing album. She is the real deal and is in it for the long haul as a musician, performer and song writer. I give her all the credit in the world for fighting for control of her catalogue and making hard decisions while fighting for her artistic freedom. She is one of the few current musicians I can see having a career filled with high quality material and the longevity like Springsteen and McCartney. It doesn’t matter the genre she writes and records in, she’s all in and at the top of her game.

Will Hoge Tiny Little Movies

Thanks to my friend Jeff Calaway for introducing me to this phenomenal singer and songwriter a few years ago with his album Never Give In which was followed by Anchors and My American Dream. His lyrics and arrangements remind me at times of James McMurtry and Springsteen in his storytelling abilities and the way his lyrics evoke cinematic images. If you’ve never listened to Will, do yourself a favor and check him out.

Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways

The ever changing chameleon, the self described poet laureate of rock and roll keeps the creative train rolling in a nearly 60 year career. He scored his first Billboard number one single with this 17 minute dirge regarding the assassination of JFK in Dallas, Texas. Anyone songwriter who can name check the Beatles, Wolf Man Jack, Etta James, The Kingston Trio, Jellyroll Morton, Macbeth and The Eagles and many others is the Shakespeare of rock and roll.

Chris Stapleton Starting Over

Stapleton keeps his string of high quality recordings going following up on Traveler and From Studio A Volumes I and II with Starting Over. Backed by his superb band including his wife Morgane on vocals and percussion, Stapleton lays his powerful voice into a wide range of genres including rock, country and blues. The title track is a perfect song, only slightly below Traveler in his catalogue in my opinion. Stapleton along with Isbell and Sturgill Simpson make up a trio of artists pushing country/rock forward.

Margo Price That’s How Rumors Get Started

Along with Brandi Carlisle, Amanda Shires and Kacey Musgraves, Margo, hailing from Aledo, Illinois, is part of an excellent collection of work being done in country/pop by strong female singers and song writers.

“I grew where I was planted
But I never felt at home
My head was filled with questions
And my feet, they long to roam
My arms reached out like branches
But my heart just couldn’t stay
I left the moment that I could, a prisoner of the highway”

Tom Petty Wild Flowers and All The Rest

When Tom Petty originally wrote and recorded his solo album Wildflowers in 1994, he intended it to be a double album with roughly twenty five songs but the label demanded he cut it down to one album which even then was a stretch at fifteen tracks. Right up until the time he passed, he and fellow Heartbreaker and long time partner Mike Campbell toyed with the idea of rereleasing it in his original formulation and touring behind the entire package of material. Since he passed, Campbell and Tom’s family have been sorting through his vault of material and they decided to release it as he envisioned along with home demo recordings, outtakes and live recordings. Simply put, it’s a beautiful tribute to a great artist and musician by those who loved and worked with him.

“So dream away my love, let your heart be free/And if ever someone tries to break your will, have a dream on me”

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and listening. I hope to see you up the road soon enough at a concert where we can stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. Rock on my brothers and sisters.

Driveways: A Film of Beauty

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 5, 2020

I am not a professional cultural critic but I do love movies, music and literature, and I experience a lot of it each year. I am rarely moved to dedicate a post to one particular piece, until now, having finished watching the movie Driveways for the third time this year. I could have easily done a Best of 2020 type column which is popular as each year winds down, but I want to dedicate this only to the one movie that thoroughly moved me this year and made me see the world and the people in it differently. It’s not a movie, it’s a piece of well crafted, heart felt art. It’s a thing of beauty to behold.

Given the year we’ve all lived through in 2020 with the dark and grim Corona virus raging as I type this, taking 250,000 Americans alone this year and 1,500,000 globally. Due to health restrictions around the virus, new movie releases have obviously slowed down but there have been several good ones including The Way Back, Greyhound, Palm Springs, The Banker, The Trial of The Chicago 7, and Thom Zimny’s incredible documentary Letter To You which focuses on Bruce Springsteen recording his latest album of the same name(another post coming soon on that).

Driveways is directed by Andrew Ahn, written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. It stars Lucas Jaye as 9 year old Cody, Hong Chau as his mother Kathy, and Brian Dennehy in his last screen role before passing earlier this year as neighbor Del, a retired Korean War Vet. Jerry Adler, who played Hesh in The Sopranos, plays Del’s friend Rodger who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s or an unnamed memory issue. While Driveways is timeless in it’s themes, it’s the perfect movie for our times as it focuses on loneliness: the loneliness each and every one of us feel and experience on a daily basis regardless of class, age, ethnicity, geography, religion or marital status. Everyone lives in their own house or apartment, in their own worlds, scared, anxious, lonely with minimal human interaction other than brief trips for essentials or the electronic blue glow of zoom and facetime calls with distant friends and family.

The story focuses on Kathy and her son Cody who make the drive from Michigan to an unnamed location but probably upper New York or Pennsylvania based on some comments throughout the movie. Kathy’s sister lived alone and passed away, and Kathy is left to take care of the business that remains after one passes. The car ride is pretty quiet as Kathy worries about all she has on her plate being a working, divorced single mother and Cody focuses on his electronic tablet that fills his hours. After arriving at the house, Kathy quickly finds out that her sister was a hoarder, leaving behind a house jam packed with furniture and a piano but mostly just junk and a dead decomposing cat. The sister Kathy hardly knew anymore surrounded herself with worldly possessions to make her feel safe amid her loneliness.

Del is the next door neighbor, a lonely widower whose only daughter is a judge who lives in Seattle, Washington. Del slowly develops a friendship with Cody and Kathy through small acts of mutual kindness such as Kathy driving Del to his weekly bingo game when a friend doesn’t show up, Del taking care of Cody after a small incident with neighborhood kids, and Del providing Kathy with electricity so she can properly clean the house out. Cody celebrates his 9th birthday at a local roller rink where he doesn’t know anyone but the only person he cares about coming is Del. Once Del realizes the party is a bust, he takes Kathy and Del to his weekly bingo game where they all make new friends, enjoy the game and for once feel connected to those around them in their common humanity.

The bonds of friendship play out in one scene after another, just as in real life. Del and Cody sharing a bowl of popcorn on the front porch, watching Wheel of Fortune in his living room, walking together as they take Del’s wife’s books to the library to donate, and sitting together reading at the library.

Loneliness comes in various forms: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Kathy’s sister lived alone surrounded by worldly possessions but living in fear. Kathy is divorced with no companion in sight. Del lives alone with no kids or grandkids and few friends he sees only once a week at the VFW. Del’s friend Rodger lives alone in his head with a grab bag of memories coming and going as his cognitive abilities allow. Adler has two magnificent scenes. One in which Rodger and Del slowly stroll the local grocery store aisles. Rodger says he needs to go to the bathroom but then becomes confused and drifts out the parking lot where he stands alone in confusion. Rodger is startled and off balance as Del approaches. Rodger is confused on where or when he is and what he’s doing there but laughs it off. In the second, while the group of friends play bingo, Rodger tells his friends he’s had an idea rattling around in his brain, a poem one of his teachers wanted them to memorize in school. The performance from Adler and the recitation cuts to the marrow of the movie and sentiment.

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join   

The innumerable caravan, which moves   

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   

His chamber in the silent halls of death,   

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,   

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

There are several moments in the movie that could have easily gone in a more feel good, false, Hollywoodesque manner, but the director, writers, and actors stuck to what makes the movie great: it’s realism and authenticity. Towards the end of the movie, Kathy and Cody discuss possibly not selling the house and moving there permanently. Cody rushes over to to tell Del the good news that they can be real neighbors and friends. Del then painfully reveals that his daughter wants him to sell the house and move closer to her and live in a retirement facility. Cody gets upset and runs up the street. Beautifully filmed, Del walks to the top of the hill to console Cody with hugs and a kiss on the top of the head. The two friends, at opposite ends of their time in life, walk back down the hill shoulder to shoulder. In lesser hands, Kathy would have asked Del to move in with them or to just stay so Del and Cody could spend the last years of his life among friends. But just as would happen in real life, Del moves from the home he lived in for decades, the life he built with his wife and family and friends, and leaves it all behind.

Last scene: For me, the movie can be boiled down to its essence in the last 5 minutes when Dennehy and Jaye give wonderful performances as two friends trying to find the right words to say goodbye. With echoes of John Ford’s The Searchers, the scene begins with the camera inside the house shooting out towards the front porch steps where Del and Cody sit apart, backs to the camera. Just like John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards, Cody and Del are on the outside looking in. They are outsiders in their ages, mentalities, spirits and place in life. It’s a heart wrenching moment between friends with the older one expressing life’s good times, regrets, and advice. Del says his daughter being a lesbian was hard for her in this town and knows Cody will have trouble because of his ethnicity, and Del gives him his last words of wisdom: screw ’em, you’re a good kid. On Cody’s part, he’s incredibly smart and fragile, he listens and then realizes Del is in pain and scoots over and gives Del a much needed hug. A touching moment of the power of the human heart.

The movie score is minimalist piano and violin, but a perfect match for the story and acting taking place. The acting is very subtle, nuanced and real. Lucas Jye is exceptional and Hong Chau is the embodiment of a strong, determined female who does not suffer fools gladly but is also a caring mother and devoted friend. Chau has one scene that moved me to tears when, after holding it all together for so long, a realtor comes to the house for a walk through and is repulsed by the smell and sight of the house conditions. Chau’s character apologizes and let’s out some emotion and tears but in a very controlled manner belying her steel will. This scene alone should be used in every acting class going forward. Brian Dennehy turns in one of his finest performances, a skilled craftsman right up until the very end of his life and career.

We live surrounded by material possessions and are constantly “connected” through technology, but never before have we felt this lonely, scared, and anxious. We all live alone to varying degrees, but through the kindness of strangers through the beating of the human heart, through compassion and caring, we make it through this life, these days, together, side by side.

The movie is moving. It’s real. It’s authentic. It’s sad. It’s all life can be in its darkest and brightest days. It’s soul reaffirming. It’s beautiful.

If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it if you can. it’s well worth the time and invaluable as a work of art. Driveways is available on Showtime and Prime.

The end credits roll along with a beautiful song I was unfamiliar with, Growing Up by Run River North

“There’s a fight to be won
For the love you find at home.
Work to be done
Before you rest your weary bones.

I’m finding peace don’t come
To everyone I know,
So I will love in this life
Until I finally have to go.

Said I will love in this life
Until I finally have to go.

Well I know I have lived
Just a wrinkle of my life,
And I hear so many times
It’ll be over if I blink twice.

Please forgive if I don’t walk
Off that plank stuck in your eye.
I’ve got my life to love
And I’m here to take what’s mine.

I’ve got my life to love
And I’m here to take what’s mine.

Growing up child
Is just a matter of time,
For giving all you’ve got,
So won’t you dance under the sun.

Growing old
Feels like you’re giving up your soul.
I’d rather give it freely
To the ones that I call home.”

Postcards From Quarantine

By Ryan Hilligoss, 11.22.20

  1. Quarantine Fog. I don’t think I am alone in this, but I have been meaning to write a few posts for a while but between politics and Covid and just being lazy, tired and/or old or any combination thereof, I’ve really been struggling being able to concentrate long enough to even contemplate writing something. Now that the sun goes down so early, I don’t want to do much of anything besides sit in my comfortable recliner, put my feet up and grab the remote or a book and veg out until I fall asleep. One day bleeds into the next in the same manner and even weekends don’t hold the luster they used to when your day to day routine stays pretty much the same. And yet here I am writing because of two things: my friend Dave, who helped set up my blog many moons ago and an ever faithful reader, made a deal with me that if I wrote something, he would do the same since we’re riding in the same existential canoe. And secondly, because of the columns of Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich. I have been reading a collection of her columns for some time now, Even The Terrible Things Seem Beautiful To Me Now, one column per day so I can stretch it out and enjoy the words that seem so effortless but I know they are anything but. When a professional makes it seem so easy, that’s when you know they are working hard behind the scene to improve their craft. In a column from March 21, 2003 entitled “How Not To Write” she gives 16 tips on how not to do it, and two stood out to me.

“Do not wait for inspiration. You don’t need inspiration to write, you need a deadline. If you write only when you’re inspired, you’ll have dust free floors, a gleaming toilet, mounds of clean underwear- and a blank computer screen.”

“Do not wait for “perfect” writing conditions. By the time you’ve perfected your environment, it will be happy hour. On the other hand, if you need a short vodoo dance before you write- making another cup of coffee, mating your socks, clipping your toenails- indulge in your warm up jig. getting ready to write is part of writing. But remember, as some famous author once said, that the secret of writing is staying in the chair.”

Isn’t that the truth when it comes to most thing in life; work, parenting, relationships, cleaning the house, reading, etc. It’s work: stay in the chair and get it done.

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2. Karass: As indicated above, so much of life is difficult. The day to day living is what wears you out. But it’s the friends and family you have in life as well as outsiders who inspire you whether writers, painters, and musicians to try, to look at the world differently, to write, to make that phone call, to get up off the couch and do something with your day. Just knowing someone cares and wants to hear what you have to say or just hello is enough.

From Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich writing on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and the idea of a Karass: “A karass, to me, meant a group of people to which you belonged not by a fluke of common blood or nationality but because you shared some spirit, some purpose, some sensibility toward life. You didn’t know who the members of your karass were until, unpredictably, you met them, but when you met them, you knew.”

For the members of my karass whether through blood or friend, thank you for being a part of mine and allowing me to be a part of yours.

3. Early Christmas. I’ve seen a lot of debate about decorating for Christmas early this year and what’s appropriate, what goes against norms a protocols and what is civilized. Who cares??? We are in the middle of a world wide pandemic, people are stuck inside their houses for the majority of the time, people are bored out of their minds and down hearted. If you want to put up your Christmas lights or tree and decorate early: just do it. It’s none of their business. What is it hurting for someone who needs their spirit lifted to bring them some joy? The spirit of Christmas should live all year round, not just for a few weeks around the holidays.

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4. David Sedaris, The Best of Me. Like most of his fans, I first heard of David Sedaris while listening to NPR’s This American Life and the smooth voice of host Ira Glass. It’s where I heard David do his impression of Billy Holiday singing the theme to Oscar Meyer bologna, describe wild family, his mother, father and siblings, and most famously, read his Santa Land Diary story which made him a literary sensation. I’ve seen David do live readings and I love the sound of his voice and watching him make notes with a pencil as he recites each story, making edits on the fly and knowing what works or not. The Best of Me is an anthology of his favorite pieces stretching over a thirty year career. If you have never read any of his material, this would be a good place to start.

5. Music. During the last eight months of the pandemic, I’ve turned to music to get me through the days whether on long walks on dusty roads, siting at my desk working or driving. Whether it’s Willie Nelson, Otis Redding, Leon Bridges, Kacey Musgraves, John Prine or any others, their artistry, words, music, arrangements and spirit lift me up for a brief time and give me strength to keep moving. New albums recently include Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over, The Maverick’s En Espanol and Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You. As Willie Nelson, one of America’s last hard core troubadours, says above, music is the one universal language we all understand regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or politics, it reminds us of our humanity. Below is a release of John Prine’s last recording before he passed earlier this year from complications due to Covid, I Remember Everything which went to number one on the country charts. Right up until the end, of the greatest song writers of the last 50 years was at the top of his game. His passing broke my heart and he took a small piece of me with him when he left, but I still listen and makes me see the world in a different way with each replay.

6. Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me. Despite his prolific career, I did not pick up a Hiaasen novel until a few years ago while browsing through the fiction section of my local library and though I would give his Razor Girl a try. Set in Florida with witty, funny dialogue and unforgettable characters, his novels are funny, insightful and works by a master craftsman. Often featuring strong, defiant female lead characters and a wide variety of Florida land grifters, developers, back water characters, imbicilic felons and low level miscreants, each novel tells disparate stories that are entangled and entwined together and come to a roaring cataclysmic ending. His latest is a timely, satiric take down of The President, code named The Mastadon by his dutiful secret service agents who escort him from one act of debauchery to another, whether he’s getting his daily 13 minute tan in specially designed tanning booth sized appropriately for a narwhal, drinking 23 cans of Dr.Pepper a day and eating 8 McDonalds’s egg McMuffins or boning his “nutritionist” while the first lady has an affair with her own special secret service agent. Frequent characters like the former Floridian governor Clint Tyree, known as the Captain, and his care taker, former Florida State Trooper Jim Tile come to life as The Captain wreaks havoc with 20 feet pythons being unleashed in the wrong places at the wrong times, causing the President problems along the way. If you’re looking for something fun and light hearted to read, check it out.

Squeeze Me:" Widow-Eating Pythons Invade Palm Beach | BookTrib

7. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You. Springsteen released his 20th studio album recently along with an accompanying documentary featuring footage of the recording of his album along with the E Street Band at his home studio in Colts neck, NJ. The film, directed by long time Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny, is fantastic and a great film for anyone to watch whether you like his music or not, just to see brothers in arms of decades work together live in the studio, collaborating and working their way through the arrangements and changes on the fly, master craftsmen at their finest. The album is the first one recorded live in studio with the band in decades and in my opinion is one of the finest of his career. I would rank it up in my top 5-7 of all his albums after having listened to it frequently for a month. Standout tracks for me include A Song For Orphans and If I Were The Priest, originally written and recorded as demos back in the early 70s but now finding a home with full band arrangements, and seamlessly fitting into the narrative arc of the album, despite the years in between when the songs were written. My favorite song by far is I’ll See You In My Dreams, the closing track of the album and one written for his missing E Street Band mates Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, members of his first band the Castilles including founding member George Theiss who passed away in 2018 and inspired the album, as well as the friends and family he has lost along the way. As usual, Springsteen writes from his own life experiences, but he sings for all of us who have lost loved ones along the way and remember and think of them often. Thank you Boss Man.

“The road is long and seeming without end
The days go on, I remember you my friend
And though you’re gone
And my heart’s been emptied it seems
I’ll see you in my dreams

I’ll see you in my dreams
When all the summers have come to an end
I’ll see you in my dreams
We’ll meet and live and love again
I’ll see you in my dreams
Yeah, up around the river bend
For death is not the end
And I’ll see you in my dreams”

8. America

What can I say? The last few years have been exhausting. I am down hearted and dispirited not knowing until now how many truly ugly souled, mean spirited, narrow minded and self interested people walk among us on a daily basis. It has made me question my faith in my fellow citizens and our ability to remain bound by common interests and our humanity. However, we are still here, for now, and I see touching displays of kindness and decency every day whether in the aisles of the local grocery store, on TV, and in newspapers. Our country and the well being of all of us is not a contact sport, there are no winners and losers, we rise and fall together. Despite the ugliness and hatred on daily display, America remains a beacon of hope for people all over the world who still travel to our shores and become citizens, looking for a better way of life for themselves and their loved ones. Let us once again be the light that shines down the path of justice and mercy and safety regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. Peace and love are the way, not hatred and bigotry and self serving agendas.

Thanks for reading.

8 Things To Like Right Now

October 29, 2020

By Ryan Hilligoss

With apologies to Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune

  1. Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. I look forward to her columns each day they appear and usually read them twice. Filled with stories of Chicago, freindship, family, loss, life and the beauty around us, if you don’t know her work already, buy yourself a copy of her great collection, Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful To Me Now. I read one column every day and have been savoring it for close to a year and dreading getting close to the end. Her work is beautiful and touching whether you live in Chicago, London or Delhi. The themes she touches on are universal.
Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now: On Hope, Loss, and  Wearing Sunscreen | Shop the Chicago Tribune Official Store

2. Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Letter To You and accompanying documentary of the same name available to watch on Apple TV which is currently offering a free 7 day subscription. The album touches on themes of loss, grief, friendship, music and rock and roll. From the opening track of One Minute You’re Here through the end with I’ll See You In My Dreams, Springsteen and the E Street band show their great talents, friendship and talent from ballads to scorchers like Burnin’ Train. The movie finds the band meeting to record the album music in Springsteen’s home studio and records together with very takes and little to no overdubs…raw and hard and raucous. Another gem of directing and cinematography by long time collaborator Thom Zimny. Filmed in beautiful black and white. Rock on!!!!

Letter To You,' and the Brilliance of Bruce Springsteen | The Mary Sue

3. The music of Chris Stapleton. One of the best songwriters working today across the pop music spectrum. From Traveler on through the rest of his catalogue, Chris continues to write and record beautiful music regardless of your tastes. His new album Starting Over will be released on November 13. 2020. Here is the video for the first single released early from the album. “Maybe you’ll be my four leaf clover.”

4. Tom Petty’s Wildflowers 25th anniversary box set Wildflowers and All The Rest. When Tom originally wrote the material for his solo album, he recorded 25 songs and wanted to release a very full double album but the powers that be told him he had to cut it down which he painfully did and released 15 tracks on the original album. Here are the full 25 tracks as originally recorded and sequenced along with 2 additional discs containing home demos and live recordings. Includes the sublime There Goes Angela(Dream Away). Long time collaborator Mike Campbell and Petty daughter Adria helped go through the material and pick the tracks…..a labor of love for all involved and finally making Tom’s dream come true.

5. Family and Friends. Without them, what are we left with? Not everyone has the luxury due to loss, time, and health and some choose to turn away, but for those of us who have them, we are truly blessed despite the headaches that come with the equation. In the time of the pandemic, we feel their distance even more than normal and look forward to the day when we can once again, congregate, break bread and laugh and smile together.

6. Social Media/Zoom. During these times we are blessed to have digital platforms to shorten the distance to our friends and loved ones. Despite the distance in time and and space, we can see each other and communicate and share pictures and stories and laughter the best we can under the circumstances. Each has their down sides and can be a cess pool of invective and hate, but you don’t have to participate. use the tools given to you for better purposes.

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7. Time. If nothing else, these last 6 months have given most of us, whether we want it or not, time. Time to ponder, time to reflect, time to get things done around the house, time to renew friendships or spend time with those we/they were too busy pre Covid. When you step off the hamster wheel long enough, you start to wonder why you kept running all that time.

Salvador Dali - Time Exploding or Time Passes | Dali paintings, Salvador  dali, Salvador dali paintings

8. Thankfulness. Millions of people who were gainfully employed six months ago sit on the sidelines of this “roaring economy”. People have been evicted and forced to seek alternate means of housing, meals, education, transportation and countless other small indignities. I remain gainfully employed, a roof over my head, food on the table, friends and family, shoes on my feet and all the books and other distractions I can ever get through in my lifetime. I am thankful what I have and help others when I can. As someone I know says, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive and if you can, we’ll meet in the dreams of this hard land. Take care of yourselves and help take care of those around you. Peace.

Helping the elderly | Free stock photos - Rgbstock - Free stock images |  melodi2 | March - 06 - 2010 (610)

Intimations of Heaven In The Time of Quarantine

Ryan Hilligoss, September 19, 2020

Sailing on ancient Egyptian waters

A glowing orange sun sets on a quiet evening in July

Filling the water’s surface with glowing embers

Of memories of a beautiful day

The faces of my beautiful rewards

I could die with heaven in my eyes

An open corn field ends in a gravel parking lot

Edging up against a pole barn and secret dance floor

Hiding underneath aged oaks and their acorns raining down

Lighting and heavy rains send dancers and band alike

In search of shelter and warmth

The dance floor still wet, the band strikes up

Two old friends take the dance floor, slowly at first but quickening

The singer: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

A baseball diamond, anywhere USA

Cars in the soft asphalt while hotdogs spin on the open roller grill

Bright white lines chalked down first and third

Indicating the Way home

Two generations of parents sit in their stiff backed lawn chairs

Waiting for the crack of the bat and smack of ball on leather

The man stands behind the expectant catcher

Seeing all but saying nothing, lost in thought, gazing at a setting sun

And clouds filled with orange and gold

A smack of the catcher’s glove awakens

Hey blue, ball or strike?

A three day odyssey, putting Lewis and Clark to shame in length

Shared experience and time

Three generations of Illinois boys in their white chariot

A Bird in French Lick spreads his wings and flies high to a distant ocean shore

A young man in Louisville, a Champ, loses a bike but gains a higher calling

And shows the world a better way of love, peace and understanding

A young man born on the outskirts of civilization

Working and sweating in the shadows of trees

The young Hoosier splits rails, constructing a rough fence around the family farm

Keeping safe the spare crops and few head of cattle

While he strikes the fallen elms

He dreams of a better way and of distant sunsets

I could die with heaven in my eyes

Letting You Go

By Ryan Hilligoss, July 5, 2020

Ocean City, NJ 2010


Musician Jason Isbell recently released a new album, Reunions. As usual, as I listened from start to finish, I was moved with emotion, deep thoughts and tears. The last track of the album, Letting You Go, caught me by surprise and left me with tears streaming down my cheeks. In a love letter to the young daughter he and wife, incredible artist in her own regard, Amanda Shires, raise together, Isbell’s lyrics and emotion nails what almost every parents struggles with: learning to let go of their children as they grow older and more independent and begin to live lives of their own.

“And now you’ve decided to be someone’s wife
And we’ll walk down the aisle and I’ll give you away
I wish I could walk with him
Back through your life to see
Every last minute of every last day
To hear your first words, and to feel your first heartbreak
To sing you to sleep when you’re scared of the dark
The best I can do
Is to let myself trust that you know
Who’ll be strong enough to carry your heart
Being your daddy comes natural
The roses just know how to grow
It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going
But the hard part is letting you go
The hard part is letting you go”

In what seem like a moment in time, my to kids have gone from just being born yesterday to being a fourteen year old girl, Aurora Eva Rose, and a sixteen year old young man named Graham Ronald. I can remember vividly what the weather was like on each of the days they were born, the nerves coursing through our veins as we waited for the doctor to come, the operating room sights and smells and what they looked like at the moment they were born. Two small baby yodas with fine hair on top, wrinkled faces and closed eyes. With no guidebook, just doing the best we could, we took them home, driving slowly with delicate packages bundled in the back seat and made the best home we could.

As hard as veteran parents made it sound, if it had only been that hard. You just don’t know until you experience it directly and stand in those shoes. Days, weeks and months passed, each bringing new stages of eating, sleeping, sickness, teething, walking and talking. As they got older and mobile, we were always looking for fun adventures and new experiences so we could watch the wonder in their new, clear and bright blue eyes.


The first four or five years with each, time seemed to slow down regardless of work and life’s other obligations and duties. Small moments stretched on forever whether in the bath tub, reading time every night before bed, walks in the neighborhood and swinging at the park. Small routines turned into treasures as they sat in my lap to get dressed every day, tying of shoes or at least fastening the velcro, carrying them from the house to the car seat and into the daycare and setting them down while they eyed the classroom to see what friends were there that day, pushing them in the grocery shopping cart as we eased down the aisles with our grocery list, and just watching as they learned to walk up and down stairs, open the sliding doors and peer out the windows at the great big world outside.

Daycare days passed into kindergarten and elementary school and that’s when time appeared to speed up and those slow moments went by quicker and quicker. It’s the little things you don’t notice at first that start to change. Like not getting a hug everyday when you dropped them off at school, being too embarrassed to be seen giving dad a hug with their friends watching. Like not holding their hands every moment as you walked them up the sidewalk to the school door, no longer being able to walk into the building and escorting them to their classroom. Like them getting dressed on their own and not sitting in my lap to put their clothes and shoes on. Like sitting next to them during reading time instead of them sitting on my knees. Things change little by little as they become more independent and self-sufficient.



One of the saddest days of my life was taking my daughter Rory to her last day of 5th grade at South Prairie Elementary. I always walked her from the car to the sidewalk and then she would walk the rest of the by herself through the front door and into the school. Next year would be 6th grade at Sycamore Middle School and I knew the routine would change to just a quick drop off at the entryway from the car. I had been taking her to daycare and school for close to ten years and knew this was the last time I’d walk at least part way with her before she started her daily routine. It might seem like a small thing to some but I knew it was the end of one era and the beginning of something new and exciting for her. 


After school days, evenings and weekends were filled with adventures and good experiences shared as a family. Movies, parks, bike rides, go karts, baseball, golf, trips to the library, swimming, and many more, stretching on from one day to the next. Moments I’ll carry with me forever even if they don’t necessarily remember them all and that’s OK.



The years have come and gone, quicker with each successive passing and circumstances have changed all of us. The deaths of beloved family members and pets and other life changing events teach one how quickly life passes and to make the most of the time we have here on earth. In short, my son and daughter have been two incredible companions on this part of the ride and I am forever grateful and blessed to have them in my life. I don’t need anyone else to tell me how hard I’ve tried to be a good father and a good partner in raising two beautiful, healthy, funny and kind human beings. The best things we can leave behind in life are family and friends who we have helped along the way and to leave the best parts of ourselves with them. It’s the only way to make the world a better place. I know once they graduate from high school and enter college or whatever they want to do, things will continue to change and I’ll have to let go even more which breaks my heart. But I know it’s part of them growing older and developing into their own lives and selves and look forward to seeing the type of people they grow into and all the great things they hope to accomplish. And they know I will always be right here and if they ever need me, they can just call my name.

Recently, due to health concerns, I’ve started walking for an hour a day. It’s on my daily treks, I can disconnect from the news and dark times surrounding us now, breathe some fresh air and clear my head. Beginning in April, as I step out onto my front porch, a family of robin’s was busy at work building a nest, little by little, blade of grass by blade of grass, right on top of the light fixture to the left of my door. With each passage in and our of the door, the robins scatter and nestle on a tree branch close by, checking me out closely. In late May, mama robin stayed in the nest no matter how many times I went in and out of the door 12 inches from her home. As the days passed, I heard sharp chirping and realized mama had some chicks nestled below her feathered breast. A few weeks later, I could see 4 outstretched necks beckoning mama to bring them lunch and dinner. And then just a few weeks later, the birds were all gone, sprung from their nest and swooping among the nearby trees. I stood on a chair to make sure it was empty and little pang of sadness went through me and I wished them well. Come back next year mama if you need a warm dry home. And then last week, on my way back up the driveway after a sweaty, extended walk, there on my front porch stood a small robin with molted feathers on its’ wings and head. I stopped to see what was wrong and the small bird looked up at the nest a few times, perhaps he had been distanced from mama or maybe she just wanted to take one more look at her former home before spreading it’s wings, taking flight and soaring for higher points above. With a small chirp and a jerk of its head, it sprang from it’s position, spread it still developing small wings and flew into a sunny blue sky.




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Turn On Your Heartlight

Mom and Sean dancing

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 6th, 2020

My mother Madonna Sue Barr Hilligoss would have turned 76 today. She’s been gone now for two and a half years. The day she passed was a hot August day. I was working, looking at my computer screen, sitting at my Uncle Ron’s roll top desk. My father called and said, “I couldn’t wake her up.”Five simple words including a contraction. A life boiled down into a contraction. I didn’t ask for clarification on what he meant. I didn’t need to ask, a part of me deep down knew what he meant: our mother was gone.

She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s six or seven years prior and had started to show sign’s of memory issues that went hand in hand with her physical deterioration. We had been watching her symptoms quickly worsen over the last few months and it’s hard to watch a parent or any loved one for that matter slowly battle a fight they can’t win. You try to help the best you can but in the end, you all wind up helpless. The last time I saw her alive, she sat in her wheelchair in our kitchen, the kitchen she stood in and made us ten thousand meals, taking medicine my father passed to her one pill at a time. She was confused and lost, upset and crying and asking, “Why are all the kids leaving? I must have been a terrible mom.” What do you say to that? Feelings of guilt, sorrow, confusion and heart break as you stand, unable to answer or explain to someone no longer able to understand.

Three hundred miles away, unable to know what the hell is going on, I called our family friend and asked her to go to the hospital and see what’s going on. Thirty minutes later, she  calls back and says, “You need to come home.” Donna had suffered a cerebral aneurysm in her sleep and never gained consciousness again, but her body and the doctors fought to keep her on life support; long enough for us all to gather and long enough to keep her organs ready for donation as she had instructed in her wishes. Despite the Parkinson’s effects on her body and mind, her spirit fought long enough to beat the bastards and help two others live to see another day through her generosity and compassion.

With my son and daughter sitting in the back seat, I drove like a maniac, cutting valuable time off a normal 5 hour trip. Arriving at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St.Louis, late in the afternoon, I walked into her room to see her eyes closed, tubes running in a 100 directions, and machines hissing and popping, keeping her alive just long enough. I held her hands, the same hands that had held me, raised me, nurtured me a million times. We said our goodbyes and whispered into her ear. What do you say after a lifetime of love and countless moments. “Thank you mama. I love you. I’ll miss you. Rest now.”

The nurses responsible for her transport and operation to remove her donated organs come to see us and explain how it will work.  There is a blanket, blue on one side and tie dyed on the other. On a normal day, she would have loved the blue but would have hated the tie dye. She loved bright colors and dressing to the nines but it had to be the right colors in the preferred style. If she was awake and looked down to see the gaudy mix of colors, she would have let out her sternest curse word, “Oh crud.” The blanket was placed on her and the nurses said it would be with her the whole time and we would get it back later as a reminder of her gift. They handed out index cards and pens and tell us before the operation, the medical staff including nurses and doctors will pause and read our cards so they know a little bit about the person lying before them.

The exact wordings of the questions are lost to me now, but they asked to list what the person loved and a memory to share. I stare at the card. How do you sum up a lifetime of memories and an eternity of endless small moments that define a life, moments shared between son and mother, family, friends, pets. The clock on the wall continues to tick. The nurses wait, looking down at their feet, telling us to take our time even though we know they need to move quickly. The seconds pass. Memories flash through my mind at a break neck pace. What  I settle on is this: she loved music, she loved to dance, she loved her kids and family and sister. One song from thousands: Neil Diamond’s Heartlight. She loved Neil Diamond. She and my dad took me to see him for my first concert and many more after that. I played that song at my wedding for our mother/son dance. A memory shared: she used to ride her bike with me sitting on the bike in a child’s seat. That’s all I can fit on the card in my awful, child like handwriting. The nurses collect our cards, we say final goodbyes and they wheel her swiftly down the hallway, headed for the operating room. We watch as she disappears around the corner. Her spirit hangs in the air.

Mom and Bill Thomas

My handwriting on that 3×5 index card cheated her. Here’s what I would have liked to have written:

The Blue Bike: Her bike was a shiny blue, metallic flake cruiser. The black cushioned seat was had a white, fluffy wool cover. She had a child seat put on the back so she could ride me around the neighborhood until I started kindergarten. I have a clear memory of riding on the back of the bike on a clear, cool sunny spring morning. Some white clouds hang in the sky. We are riding along Highway 100, she’s taking me to my preschool at Evangelical church. She’s wearing blue pants and a short sleeved button up cotton shirt, and a white scarf on her head. I’m small enough I can’t see around her if I look straight ahead so I watch the cars passing along side us and I look up at the beautiful blue sky with not a care in the world.

Compassion: She had the biggest heart and felt empathy for anyone with a sad story or circumstance in life. She was always the “sucker” for people with a story about hard circumstances which forced them to beg for money even though deep down she knew she was being conned. She always felt a need to lend a helping hand and to look after the underdogs. Always feeling the pain of humans and animals alike that crossed her path.

The perfect birthday cake: For every birthday celebration in my family, year after year, she would bu what she considered the perfect birthday cake: From Duke Bakery in Alton, Il. A round, 16 inch two layered white cake with white frosting and a series of yellow roses on top. She always cut the cake and ensured she got the slice with the roses on top.

Day trips: When we were small children, she loved to go to Eckert’s Orchard in Grafton every fall so we could ride the wagon pulled by a tractor that would take us deep into the orchard lanes where we would collect red and green apples by the bushel full, taking home 10-12 bags at a time that we would put down in the basement and eat for two to three weeks. It was one of those bags that we took on road trip, driving out west to visit our family in Phoenix, that turned into a tragedy after our father ate a whole bag by himself and left the remains on the side of Interstate 10. I remember clearly her keeping me home from school one  fall day my kindergarten year so we could play hooky and made a whole day of apple picking, just the two of us enjoying a moment together.

Her girls: she always wanted a girl but wound up with three boys, I was the youngest and think she thought until the day I was born that I was going to be the girl she always wanted. But alas, there  I was, one more boy born on a hot July morning  in Springfield. Having decided to call child bearing quits, she gave up on the dream of having one of her own. Instead, over the years of running a restaurant and hiring hundreds of locals, she developed a whole series of girls she loved and considered her own. Karen Brooks, Kathy Lawrence, Carrie and Melissa Boomershine, Karin Lefferson, Renea Fencel White, Sherry Season, Dawn Lewis, Theresa Elliott, Gina Graham and many more. She loved them like they were her own daughters and many of them remained in touch after they had  moved on to other things in life. Instead of one girl, she had them by the basket full.


Saturday mornings: Yard sales, Duke’s Bakery for glazed donuts and orange drink, grocery store trips to Schnuck’s and carrying 10 packs of bottled Pepsi from the car to the house. Pearl Street Market for fresh meat at the butcher’s counter. Never ending hours spent waiting for to finish shopping at TJ Maxs, Marshall’s, Famous Barr, and Venture.

The Kreem Machine: She loved ice cream cones from Rick’s Kreem Machine on Elm Street and Henry in Alton.

House Hunting: There was a period of time when I was a kid she took me with her to look at houses all over Godfrey and Alton, the older the better. Historical and haunted. She loved it, I was spooked. The Alton House Tour every fall.

Cars: late 1970s Ford Mustang, yellow body, lack convertible top. Early 80’s Mustang, fox body, silver metallic body and red vinyl top. First a metallic gold Chrysler New Yorker and then a metallic baby blue New Yorker complete with the first mobile phone I ever saw or used. Black handset inside of a black leather bag, looking like something George Patton used to call in artillery strikes in North Africa.

Dogs: Max the Magnificent…..my first dog, a black dachshund, short hair, long body, floppy ears. he got so heavy as he got older, his weenie dragged in the snow leaving a trail from the front door to the yard, Coco a large gray poodle, and Gretchen our Airedale.  Alfie was her favorite. We went shopping at Target every Sunday before we went to the restaurant. The 5A dog shelter was next to the parking lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. We parked on the side and as we walked to the car, a small black poodle stood next to the fence looking in our direction and wagging her tail. Mom was a sucker for sad sweet faces and we came home with a new dog that day. She named her Alfie after the Dionne Warwick song. Alfie proceeded to drop a deuce on our dad’s pillow, letting him know where he stood on the food chain.

Auctions and antiquing on weekends

Trips to Springfield: Many weekends on Saturdays we would drive to Springfield to see her parents. We’d go to Jewel Osco where she would buy Sunbeam Bread by the sackful, her favorite bread which wasn’t available in St.Louis area, which we would take home and put in the deep freezer so she could eat it for months. Bottling gallon jugs of water from the spigot on the back of granddad’s house because Springfield water was much superior to Godfrey water in her mind. Del’s popcorn shop on 6th street where she’d buy flat pans of vanilla caramel by the pound, usually 8-10 pounds at a time. Maid Rite hamburgers, the original Maid Rite. Vics and Gabatoni’s pizza.

TV and movies: Friday nights she had to be home at 7:oo to watch Dallas, Falcon’s Crest, Benson and Different Strokes. Golden Girls, countless viewings of reruns like Alice, I Love Lucy and the The Andy Griffith Show, Murder She Wrote. Somewhere In Time, Awakenings, Big, Casper, The Natural, Somewhere In Africa.

Oak Ridge Cemetery: Our grandmother Ivy Barr died in the spring of 1983, one year after her seeing her beloved Cardinals win the world series. On later trips to see our grandfather, we’d go to the cemetery every time so she could check on her mommy’s grave, cleaning off the stone, straightening the flowers and arrangements. Bowing her head and talking to grandma’s spirit. Our grandfather William Hubert “Hubie” Barr passed in the spring of 1994, knocking her for a loop I don’t think she ever fully recovered from in some ways. An orphan.

Last year I posted the picture below on Facebook. Inspired by the photo, Sharon Hardin-Eaton, wrote a poem about this brief snapshot of a moment that I’d like to include here.

Mom with boys black and white


He didn’t know, when he snapped the picture,

What the camera had actually captured.

It happened so quickly, lasted so briefly

Only the camera understood what it caught.

In fact, not until years later, after her funeral,

Going through pictures with the boys,

Had he even looked at the snapshot again.

The day he’d snapped it was ordinary,

Just a day-in-the-life, like most other days.

Only when he pulled it from the stack

Of old photos, noticed how sunlight

Filled that whole space where they stood,

Donna and her boys, saw the way sunlight

Spun their hair to gold, made their faces shine,

Saw how light answered light, in their eyes,

Only then did he realize he’d captured

That subtle, brief moment disguised as ordinary,

That moment of realization that everything,

Every longing you’ve ever had is answered

In what you do have, and they each knew it.

My mind and memory are working faster than my fingers can type and I could be here all night as my brain dictates all the moments, big and small. This is for me and a way of holding onto the memories but it’s for others to maybe know a little bit about my mother since she’s no linger here to speak for herself. But her spirit is still here with all of us. I guess in a way, this is my answer, two years too late to what she said that morning two years ago. You were not a terrible mom. What you said was a manifestation of where your mind was at that time, beyond your control. You did your very best to love your kids and husband and sister and mom and dad and your friends. You raised us the best you could, the best you knew how while still being your own person, running a household, helping run a business, being a sister and daughter and all the other roles you played in life. We remember you and think of you everyday and love you. You rest for now. You’ll need your energy when I see you further on up the road and you give me another bike ride on a sunny beautiful spring day. Any maybe this time we’ll have music and Neil will be singing:

Turn on your heartlight
Let it shine wherever you go
Let it make a happy glow
For all the world to see
Turn on your heartlight
In the middle of a young boy’s dream
Don’t wake me up too soon
Gonna take a ride across the moon
You and me
Love you mama.


9 Things To Like Right Now

By Ryan Hilligoss January 5, 2020

In honor of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich who is a treasure to read on a  weekly basis and recently wrote this: “Almost everyday for the past year I’ve woken up with the same started thought: I’m alive. Sometimes I lie there ad say it aloud, though not on purpose. The words just pop out, as uninvited as a snore. I’m alive. I open my eyes and look at the room. It’s here. I’m here. Again. Huh. Interesting.”

Also inspired by my friend Dave who claims I can’t write anything less than 10,000 words and grows weary of my long windedness 🙂

  1. Plenty of good books to read on a cold winter day.

2. John Hodgman’s Medallion Status. Just finished this gem of a book, a second set of essays and pieces of heartfelt comedy and insight into life. He gives us a peek behind the curtain of celebrity and it’s trappings and explains why not being a celebrity is ok.

3. A new album and tour from The Boss Man and The E Street Band. Springsteen and the band have been recording in Colts Neck, NJ the last few months and an announcement seems imminent on new tour dates. Thank god, this news can’t come at a better time.

4. Family and friends….you can’t kill them and you can’t live without them

5. The walls between Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp came tumbling down recently as they joined each other on Pink Houses and Glory Days at Sting’s Rainforest Benefit. This made me pee a little and made a dream of mine real. Back in 2009, At the Obama concert, Bruce told Mellencamp band guitarist extraordinaire Andy York that Pink Houses was a great song and still stands up after all these years. I guess he’s been itching to play it since then. Maybe we’ll get a repeat of Bruce plays Indy this year.

6. My son and daughter and ex wife. Graham Ronald and Aurora Eva Rose bring me joy everyday and they are the best things I’ll ever accomplish in my life. Also thankful for my ex wife Kimberly. After a few years of a rocky experience, we’ve both come to the realization that it’s all about the kids well being and not our battles won or lost. Co-parenting, being single and trying to keep a life together can be exhausting often, but if you work together, it lightens the load a little.

7. Good advice from friends and heroes

8. Old pictures. With everything being digital and on line now, there’s something missing in the tangible act of holding and looking at physical pictures in your hands. Flipping through the family photo album can never be replaced by looking at a screen. Plus every once in a while you find a gift hiding in a folder or drawer.

9. Art and culture. Whether through books, movies, television, theater or whatever medium floats your boat, experiencing arts are the only way to shake the dust off of daily existence. Find some time everyday to either experience it or even better, do some yourself whether writing, painting, singing or playing spoons. Just do it.

10. Ok I know I said nine but for an added holiday bonus: practical Christmas gifts. Coffee: the power of my soul. Thanks Michelle!!

Thanks for reading. Take care of yourselves and help take care of each other when you can. Peace and love.

PS…look Dave…579 words…it’s amazing!!!!

Western Stars: Walk On Into The Light


Flawless execution in both musical performance and as a theatrical, cinematic piece.

The barn is essential to the music and the stories. It’s skeletal remains reflect the skeletal remains of most of the album’s characters who are nearing the end, having run from and away from everything that was ever good for them and the people that loved them. The barn’s wooden boards mirror what’s left of these characters: weathered and worn, fragile, slightly askew, but somehow still remaining and doing the best they can to hang on in a semblance of the work they used to perform

The barn is the perfect encapsulation of the vehicle used to deliver a story straight from the mythos of the West and western movies with their horses, cowboys, lonely men and wide open spaces filled simultaneously with blazing light, darkness and the shadows in between where the characters often find themselves living on the margins.


Bruce puts a huge collection of musicians and sounds in a very small space that reminded me so much of Elvis Presley’s stage show with a rhythm section, vocal support, a 30 piece orchestra, orchestra director and musical stage director. The sound embodies the pot pourri of musical tastes he’s been working at for 50 years. The country, pop sophistication of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, a nod to the horn arrangements of Allen Touisaant who worked with country artists in the 70’s including Cambell, paying tribute to the Nashville songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle on Somewhere North of Nashville, the pure pop of southern California Beach Boys and Phil Spector orchestrations, Smokey Robinsonesque vocals on Sundown and There Goes My Miracle, a few hints of the Cosmic County stylings of Graham Parson, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris and everything in between. It’s a sonic orgasm.

Beautifully shot inside and outside, lush in sound and scenery, incredible arrangements and flawless in musicianship by all on stage. The sweeping scenery filled with cactus and desert scrub, loping horses and lonely characters walking in silence pairs perfectly with the music Springsteen and friends play. 

This movie earns 5 gold plated Takamine acoustic guitars hung on the wall.

“And so we keep walking through the darkness towards the sunrise because that’s where the light is. Happy trails pilgrim”