Christmas In Three Acts

Ryan Hilligoss, February 8, 2023

In the last several years, the holidays have been a struggle for me. I am not alone. My brother Sean passed away at the age of forty four in 2015 from diabetic ketoacidosis after having lived with juvenile diabetes since the age of three. My mother Donna Barr Hilligoss passed in 2017 after struggling with Parkinson’s and other complications. During that time, I also went through a divorce and the ensuing reduction in time with my two kids. As the rolled around the first few years, I put on a good face and kept it as cheery as possible for the kids sake and in my own self defense. This included going big on outdoor Christmas lights and decorations, fully decorated tree, trips to light shows in the Chicago area and other fun activities. Each passing year has gotten progressively harder. And then this year: I ran out of Christmas spirit. No tree, minimal decorations inside and outside the house, and no light shows. With each year, the Christmas glow dimmed a little more the further I got from the spirits of those I love and echoes of what used to be.

And then, as if from a Hallmark movie script, I was graced with three Christmas miracles.

Hilligoss Family Christmas 2016

The Ghost of Christmas Past

For several years, two of my close work friends and I have enjoyed a nice steak dinner out together around the holidays at Wildfire Grill. Having a big dinner out is not a frequent event and since Covid, I don’t see coworkers in person at all. This year we met about a week prior to Christmas on a cold Chicago evening. We were seated, having a good time catching up and having a few drinks. Behind us sat three nice older black ladies who seemed to be enjoying our “spirited” conversation. With my back turned to them, I could hear them getting up to leave the restaurant. And then I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders as one of them leaned close to my ear and sang a few bars of Silent Night. Once she was done singing, she rubbed my back a little and jokingly asked, “You like that don’t you?” Yes, Yes I did. Thank you kindly nice lady. It was as if my mom’s spirit was visiting me, telling me everything is OK and she’s here watching over all of us.

Faith Restored

The last few years have left all of us battered and bruised to varying degrees due to Covid, political events and an overwhelming sense of loss. I’ve never been more pessimistic about the country, many of our fellow citizens and humanity in general. I’ve seen levels of ugliness, mean spiritedness and outright hate I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime. Countless times, I’ve seen people seem to take joy in getting a rise out of others and going out of their way to insult others for the sake of feeling better about themselves. Like many others, I’ve withdrawn into a narrow pattern of habits, people I am willing to be around and spend time with, and routines. I’ve stopped watching the news at all on any platforms, only keeping up to date with the Chicago Tribune newspaper I still receive at home. (Yes, you read that right. I still get a physical newspaper delivered to me at home. I know I know, but you’ll have to rip the newspaper from my cold, dead, newsprint stained hands.) It’s changed the way I look at, regard and interact with people in public and privately.

During this same time, I’ve not been in a good financial position for many reasons. To dig myself out of a self made whole, I’ve worked youth sport games as an official, mostly baseball but some softball, volleyball and basketball. I love baseball. I played it as a kid, coached my son, and watch it all the time as an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. So I enjoy being out there and watching the kids compete, everything from 8U travel to in house and club ball to varsity high school and everything in between. I would do it even if I didn’t need the money but I wouldn’t do it nearly as much. I spend many grueling days handling anywhere from 4-6 games in a day, often in good weather but sometimes in the cold, heat and rain. A day handling anything over4 games is a stretch for me physically and mentally. But I work hard, have gotten good at it and am paid for my time. Because at this point that’s what it is, I am trading my time for more income.

This season, I started handling basketball games at a local private school, 6th grade boys and girls, $40 at a time paid in check. I fell into a habit of putting the checks along with my loose cash in a plain white envelope I keep with my monthly bills. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I went to find the envelope only to find it missing. Frantically I searched everywhere around the house, among all my papers, even going through the trash can and recycling bin thinking I had misplaced it or mistakenly thrown it away. It was nowhere to be found and I had a sickening feeling in my stomach after realizing I had inadvertently put in it with a batch of bills that needed to be mailed out for payment. I ran out to the mailbox in my house slippers with the hope it was still in there or that my post lady had seen it and left it behind since there was no address or stamp on the outside. I grabbed the cold lid, opened it only to see an empty, dark space. In desperation I called the local post office and was told they would keep an eye out but what might happen is when it got to the main sorting office, eventually someone would look inside to see what was in there and maybe see the name and mailing address of the check issuer and mail the envelope back. Being the cynic I am, I thought, “Bullshit. With $120 in cash and another $120 in checks inside, maybe I’ll get the checks back eventually but I’ll never see that cash.” I had just traded 6 ours of my life for $240 dollars by officiating only to casually throw it away.

Two weeks later, I walk into the gymnasium to handle another game. The nice lady who writes me a check each game and hands it to me before the games starts walks up with a check in her hand as I sit on the sideline getting my court shoes on and whistle hung around my neck. I smile and say thank you as usual and she says, “Thanks for coming and doing the game.” She paused, reached into her purse and tells me something funny happened today. She received a blank envelope today along with the rest of the school’s mail. There in her hand is my envelope. I open it and there sits $120 in cash and $120 in checks just like it was weeks prior. I give her a hug and tell her she has no idea how happy she has made me. After all this time of only seeing the dark side of people, my faith in humanity was restored a few degrees.

Silent Night

One common and unexpected consequence of Covid has been the impact on teenagers. between virtual learning, being cutoff from friends and their normal social circle and seeing bad news come crashing down on a minute by minute, hourly, never ending basis through social media. Dark thoughts and times have crept into their minds. The phenomena impacted my son Graham who had always been a good student and well balanced, grounded human being. As the months passed, it’s effects had a visual impact through weight loss and other indicators. At a certain point in time, he decided he wanted to just stay at his mom’s house instead of splitting the time half and half as we had done for a long time. It was hard for me because I had gone to seeing him everyday and being buddies to only seeing him half the time after our divorce and then not all for a while.

Within the last year or so, our relationship has slowly gotten back on track. He’s a freshman at our local community college, takes his studies seriously and has a solid plan for his studies and career path. He has a beautiful, smart and caring girlfriend who has helped him along the way, finding a path to a sunnier place. Most days, the three of us work out at the same gym around the same time. They do they’re thing and I do mine but our paths intermingle throughout.

It’s a few weeks after Christmas. I’ve just gotten done working out and ordered Jimmy John’s sandwiches for all of us. While they continue to work out, I decide to go get the sandwiches, bring them theirs and then head home. I exit the gym door into a cold, dark northern Illinois evening. There is some snow and ice on the ground and salt pellets everywhere scrunching under my feet as I trudge my way a short distance away. The nearby church has a carillon that plays music on the hour, every hour. As I round the corner to return to the gym with dinner, I stop cold in my tracks. It’s 6:00 and the music has started on the church bells. It’s a familiar melody, but I can’t quite place it. It seems out of place for the date. Then it dawns on me as if I’m having an out of mind experience: it’s Silent Night being played mid January. Despite the chill in the air, I am filled with an unexpected warmth from within. My son is 200 yards away in a warm, safe gym, smiling, talking with his lady friend and doing what brings him a little peace each day.

I let out a breath which I see dissipate like a ghost in the the glow of nearby streetlights. I gather myself, and start walking again into the night, feet firmly on the ground, holding onto the thought that Christmas isn’t any one day of the year. It’s a gift which comes to us that fills us with kindness, grace and love whenever, wherever we stumble across life’s beautiful moments. All is calm, all is bright. Cheers my friends.

From The Heartland To The Boardwalk: Mellencamp and Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss, January 21, 2022

(Ryan will also be hosting on E Street Radio Sirius/XM Channel 20 a special on Springsteen and Mellencamp. Airing times as follows: Friday 1/21 8:00am EST

Saturday 1/22 6:00pm EST, Sunday 1/23 3:00pm EST, Tuesday 1/25 4:00pm EST, Wednesday 1/26 12:00pm EST)

After more than 50 years in their recording careers, the two long time contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp are finally joining forces. Mellencamps’s 25th studio album Strictly A One-Eyed Jack will be released January 21. The album features collaborations with his new big brother Bruce Springsteen on three of the album’s twelve tracks.  For a guy who proclaims he has done things his own way all his life and paid an awfully high price, Mellencamp has the career, stories, and scars to prove it. While the careers of Mellencamp and Springsteen have run parallel over the last 50 years, they occasionally crossed paths but never made a connection until recently. They are now quickly making up for lost time including regular phone calls, visiting each other’s homes and more importantly, collaborating on stage and in studio.

“Bruce is my big brother now”

In September of 2021, Mellencamp called into Sirius/XM E Street Radio weekly call in show E Street Nation and talked with hosts Jim Rotolo and Dave Marsh about working with Springsteen, his long career and being lost somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

Jim Rotolo: So how did Bruce get involved?

John: “I don’t recall how it really happened. I would consider Bruce now to be one of my better friends in the music business. Bruce and I talk quite a bit. He and I relate to each other because we’ve had similar experiences of growing up in a small town, starting out as being band leaders. We played together a few years ago. They asked me to play at Sting’s Rainforest thing and I said no. I didn’t want to go to NY and I said no. And then Bruce called me up and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come and sing with me?’ And I thought well if Bruce is calling then I should go do it. For guys like me, Bruce put down a big footprint, and he said, here now fill it. You know I’m just a couple years younger than him, but he inspired us to work a little bit harder than we normally would. Because we all know that musicians are lazy bums.

“I told Bruce this. Back in the 80s I was playing down in Lagunas Beach and Bruce came on stage and played with me way back then. (Editor’s note: According to On May 26, 1988, Mellencamp performed at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in Irvine, Ca which is near Laguna Beach. Springsteen joined Mellencamp on Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone.) I’ve played with a lot of people and I always thought the one thing I had going for me was on stage, that I had a certain charisma on stage and that is how we got over, because I wasn’t afraid to make a fool of myself. So Bruce came on stage, and he was the only guy, I can remember this, he’s the only guy I sang with, and I’ve played with a lot of people, that I could feel his presence next to mine. I always felt like whoever I was singing with that I was overshadowing them because of my presence. But when Springsteen came on stage it was like, Jesus Christ, this guy has got some energy. But we didn’t talk or connect.

“So 30 years later when we played at the rainforest thing, Bruce and I connected. We just started talking and next thing you know we are talking all the time. And now he’s like my big brother now. I talk to him about everything and anything. It’s very fortunate that people our age can make a connection with someone else who has similar background and we have more to talk about than just meeting a fan or someone you grew up with. You know, when you grow up with somebody you have a long time to talk to them. I think both Bruce and I both feel like we don’t have that long a time to talk. Let’s try to get to know each other the best we can as quickly as possible. I think Bruce said it in his play, we only have so many empty pages left. And you want to fill those pages with people that you love and people that you care about. You don’t have time to play any fucking games, no games.”

Small Town/My Hometown

John Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, a small town south of Indianapolis, very similar in size, community and background to Freehold, NJ. Mellencamp was born with spina bifida. Doctors told his parents Richard and Marilyn that he might not live very long, but a new operation procedure was tested and proved to save his life. He seems to have lived his whole life with a chip on his shoulder, feeling a need to prove to the world that his living had meaning and consequence. In both of their hometowns, Mellencamp and Springsteen and their families were looked down upon by those around them for being down the social/economic ladder. Both had serious issues and growing pains with their fathers. Douglas Springsteen famously had a barber come in and cut young Bruce’s hair while he was laid up in bed after a motorcycle accident. After one particularly nasty argument, Richard Mellencamp cut Mellencamp’s long and unruly hair. The next day Mellencamp walked around the neighborhood with a handwritten placard around his neck that said, “I am the product of my father.”

Springsteen and Mellencamp both fought hard during their early years to get out of the hometowns they thought were holding them back only to return later and be welcomed as local heroes. For years, Mellencamp has lived in Bloomington, In, 50 miles from Seymour and has his recording studio Belmont Mall close by. Springsteen lives a short car ride away from Freehold. In a recent interview, Mellencamp said, “The reason I stayed in Indiana was because all of my friends were here,” Mellencamp says. “When I was younger, people said, ‘You’ve got to move to New York. You’ve got to be seen.’ Even at 22, I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m not going to go to some club. This isn’t about being seen with a certain bunch of people. It’s about learning to write songs and how to make a decent record.”

Springsteen and Mellencamp started playing music at a young age, working their way into and through a series of bands, some of them integrated which didn’t always go down well with the locals. Mellencamp’s first band Crepe Soul was him as lead vocalist and front man backed by six black instrumentlaists. They played dance halls and bars, playing cover songs to earn money to spend on records and listening to the same artists and songs ranging from Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, James Brown, Motown, Stax and Elvis among many others. Mellencamp and Springsteen both struggled in school due in part to Mellencamp’s diagnosed dyslexia and Springsteen just not feeling like he fit into school’s basic structure. Both attended community college, Vincennes and Oceanside respectively, for a short time before deciding to pursue their musical dreams and passion.

Some Manager’s Mister

In 1975-1976,Mellencamp walked the streets of New York City and had tried every recording company and management company he could find in a phone book. In 1976, Mellencamp’s first management contract was signed quickly in an office with Tony Defries’ MainMan management company without reading it himself or having anyone else look it over. MainMan handled management for David Bowie and Lou Reed, both of whom were huge influences on Mellencamp.  “I would have signed the bottom of a shoe at the time.” Bruce famously signed his first contract on the hood of a car without reading it or seeking legal advice. Both gave their managers control over their publishing. In spring of 1977, Springsteen emerged from his legal battle with Mike Appel. While, in November 1977, Mellencamp signed a deal with Englishman Billy Gaff, president of Riva Records and manager of Rod Stewart. John signed a deal for $35,000 for the publishing rights to his songs. Gaff was then Mellencamp’s manager, agent, record company president and publisher.

According to Paul Rees’ recently released biography Mellencamp, John said, “Back when I signed my record deal, the jobs were already taken. Springsteen had already been on the covers of Time and Newsweek, both in the same week. There was already Dylan, and Tom Petty, Neil Young, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel. The singer-songwriter slots were pretty well taken up. Then there were a lot of guys trying to do the same thing I was, right around the same time. Really good songwriters like Steve Forbert, John Prine. Nobody wrote better songs than John Prine. I was still learning to write songs. Having my name changed to Johnny Cougar was just another hurdle. Pretty much I was going to have to create my own world.”

While Springsteen had already released three albums by then, Mellencamp’s first record was released October 1, 1976 entitled Chestnut Street Incident. It can’t be a coincidence that John picked the title from the main street in his hometown of Seymour without it also being a nod to Greetings From Asbury Park and Incident on 57th Street. In 1977, Mellencamp recorded Kid Inside which wouldn’t be released until 1983 and included these lyrics, “It’s hard to justify my position/When everything I’m sayin’ can be said better by Mr. Springsteen.”

While Springsteen was type cast as one of the “New Dylans” and John Hammond wanted his first record to be one that showcased his singer-songwriter abilities, Springsteen demanded to use a band and record a rock and roll album. For Mellencamp, the studio wanted to use Jimmy Iovine as the producer for American Fool. Iovine was hot off working with Springsteen, Tom Petty and Patti Smith, but John dug in his heels and said no until the studio relented, letting him pick his own producer. That would be only the first of many battles Mellencamp would fight with his various record labels during his career.

Having grown up in Illinois, next door to Mellencamp’s home state of Indiana, Mellencamp’s music is to us in the Midwest what Springsteen’s music is to the east coast: an integral part of our lives sung in a voice and style we can relate to and understand. Mellencamp sometimes bristles at being described as being from the “heartland” because as he says, Indiana is politically a solid red state. But his sound and style are organically from where he comes and the sounds he heard growing up by often using accordion, mandolin, dobro, and fiddle, but the core of both of their sounds is the same, rhythm section, piano, and keyboards.

Mellencamp and Springsteen, Rainforest Benefit, NYC December 2019

Pink Houses In The USA

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president and both Springsteen and Mellencamp witnessed and reported in on the economic and political fallout. Pink Houses and Born In The USA, arguably one of their signature songs, both written and recorded around the same time, and completely misunderstood by a lot of listeners who took them as jingoistic, flag waving anthems when actually they were both studies of the darker sides of America.

On Born In The USA, Springsteen’s rage against the treatment of Vietnam Vets comes through in the lyrics: “Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says, ‘Son if it was up to me’/Went down to see my VA man/He said, ‘Son, don’t you understand’. Just like Woody Guthrie who said, “You can only write what you see,” to explain how he came up with This Land is Your Land, one day Mellencamp was driving through Indiana when he spied an old house alongside the interstate, painted pink with a black man standing on the front porch. He went home and wrote Pink Houses in a flurry. The lyrics undercut the hooks and anthemic recording of the song with: “There’s a black man with a black cat/Living in a black neighborhood/ You know he thinks he’s got it so good.” In the second verse, autobiographical, he writes, “There’s a young man in a T shirt, listening to a rockn’ and rolln’ station/He’s got his greasy hair, greasy smile/Cause they told me when I was younger/Said boy you’re gonna be president/But just like everything else those old crazy dreams/Kinda came and went.” In just a few lines, Mellencamp lays out the lives of common Americans “paying for the thrills with bills and pills that kill” and shows the American Dream has passed by the majority of the people working hard, trying their best to make a good, meaningful life.

In 2009, Mellencamp was asked to perform at Springsteen’s Kennedy Center Honor along with Sting, Eddie Vedder, Melissa Ethridge and Ben Harper. Along with his lead guitarist Andy York and the house band, Mellencamp appeared first and performed Born In The USA. The arrangement and performance were brilliant in encapsulating both versions that Springsteen has performed, starting with an acoustic version of the first verse and then breaking into a house burning rock version for the rest of the song, ending again with an acapella outro. The rage, depression, humiliation, honesty and devastation of the character was on full display.

In Mellencamp, he says of the two songs, “A record had to sound a certain way to get on the radio at that time. It had to have hook lines. To get the general public to listen to a song, you had to cover it up, pretty much wrap it in a turd. Of course Pink Houses was really not rah rah America, but if you weren’t listening too closely, one might think it was.

It was the same thing as Springsteen did with Born In The USA. I played Born  In The USA the night Bruce got the Kennedy Center Honor in 2009. I did it on acoustic guitar. It’s a beautiful fucking song. Get down to what Bruce is saying and it’s fucking fantastic. It’s art. It’s literature. I mean it’s up there with fucking Steinbeck.”

Tunnel of Love/Big Daddy

Born In The USA, Springsteen’s biggest selling album of his career released in 1984 followed by a massive tour which propelled him into the music stratosphere. Mellencamp released Scarecrow, second biggest selling album of his career in 1985 and Lonesome Jubilee in 1987, followed by the biggest tours of his career. Both of their albums and tours launched them into superstardom only to both peak and run into a brick wall emotionally, mentally, physically, etc after running themselves ragged. Both followed up their careers with introspective albums and change of direction with Tunnel of Love for Springsteen in 1987 and Big Daddy for Mellencamp in 1989. Springsteen explored adult themes of marriage and building an adult identity. Mellencamp, who became a father before he graduated from high school, was on his second marriage and becoming father to more children, struggled with the same topics and wounds as Springsteen with songs like Void In My Heart, Big Daddy of Them All and Mansions In Heaven.

In Pop Singer, Mellencamp vented some anger while burning some bridges and public image with these lyrics, “Never wanted to be no pop singer/ never wanted to write no pop songs/Never had no weird hair to get my songs over/ Never wanted to hang out after the show/Never wanted to have a manager over for dinner/Never wanted to hang out after the show”. In 1995, Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad which contained his kiss-off song to fans and critics who didn’t appreciate his best efforts at making music without the E Street Band, My Best Was Never Good Enough which contained these lyrics: “Stupid is as stupid does and all the rest of that shit/Come on pretty baby, call my bluff/but for you my best was never good enough.”

In 1994 at the age of 42, Mellencamp suffered a major heart attack due to genetics, high cholesterol, constant coffee intake and years of smoking. When told by doctors to stop with some of his addictions, he replied, “A heart attack isn’t a good enough reason to quit.” Experiencing a life changing event made Mellencamp take account of his life and career which set him on a path that would ultimately lead him years later to where he wanted to be from day one: making music and records he wanted to make without worrying about studio executives’ directives or pleasing anyone else.


On first glance, the relationship between the two artists seems distant, but there have been numerous times when the two have rubbed shoulders in various ways.

  • A Very Special Christmas album. Mellencamp with his cover of I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Clause and Springsteen’s cover of Merry Christmas Baby
  • RR HOF members, Springsteen 1999, Mellencamp 2008
  • Both have incredible recorded covers of Bob Dylan with Springsteen’s Chimes of Freedom featured on the EP off the same name released in 1988 and Mellencamp’s version of Farewell Angelina released on Rough Harvest in 1999.
  • Both won the John Steinbeck award, Springsteen in inaugural 1996 event and Mellencamp in 2012. The award is given to artists who capture “Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes”.
  • Both won Woody Guthrie award, John in 2018 and Bruce in 2021.
  • Both performed at Pete Seeger 90th Birthday celebration held at MSG, NYC
  • We Are One Inaugural 2009, Bruce played The Rising and with Pete Seeger on This Land Is Your Land. Mellencamp performed Pink Houses along with his guitarist Any York. After the event, Mellencamp left town quickly. According to sources, Springsteen saw York backstage and said, “That was great. Tell John Pink Houses still stands up after all these years.”
  • 2015 Musicares salute to Bob Dylan. Mellencamp performed Highway 61 while Springsteen performed Knocking On Heaven’s Door along with Tom Morello
  • 1988, both played on Folkways: A Vision Shared- A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Mellencamp with Do Re Mi and Springsteen with I Ain’t Got No Home and Vigilante Man
  • Crystal Talefrino, sang backup and percussion with John starting on Scarecrow Tour through the recording of Big Daddy in 1989. She worked with Bruce on Human Touch/Lucky Town Tour.
  • John Hammond saw Bruce as a singer songwriter like Dylan and John was seen as the next Neil Diamond which was laughable. A kid from the farm fields of Indiana was being compared to a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who was an established Brill Building writer. None of the comparisons were fair to any of the artists involved and typifies the uphill battles both artists fought with their labels and managers to be the artists they envisioned for themselves.
  • TCM work. In 2019, Springsteen teamed with Ben Mankiewicz to talk about and introduce two of his favorite movies, The Searchers and A Face In The Crowd. Earlier this year, Mellencamp teamed with TCM to reflect on the role of American small towns in cinema. In September, he served as a guest programmer and picked the following movies: Tortilla Flat, The Misfits, On The Waterfront, The Fugitive Kind, East of Eden and Cool Hand Luke. Paul Newman’s character epitomizes the way John has lived his entire life: a rebel who does things his own way and has paid an awful high price.
  • Both look for other artistic outlets while also continuing to make music. Mellencamp has been painting for decades now, spending countless hours in his art studio. Springsteen has collaborated with Thom Zimny to make some incredible documentaries for Darkness, The River and Born To Run as well as Western Stars and written a stunning autobiography.
  • As band leaders and front men, both learned from masters. Mellencamp learned his stage craft from watching Ray Davies lead the Kinks while touring with them in his early career. Springsteen has said he watched Sam Moore work at a club in Fort Dix, NJ to learn how to work a crowd with call and response and charisma, how to build up the tension in the crowd and then bring it back down and built it up again over and over.
  • Both had similar recoding styles in their early stages of their careers with often having fragments of melodies and lyrics, running them by the band members and then making up the parts and finishing touches along the way with contributions from each of the band members.
  • Both avoided drugs and alcohol as a way to stay in control of themselves, those around them and the pursuit of their art.
  • Both were earlier in their careers demanding perfectionists in the studio, of themselves and of the band members

Wasted Days/Simply A One-Eyed Jack

During the interview with E Street Radio, Dave Marsh asked Mellencamp about the upcoming album and its structure.

“They’re all original songs. The record was started before the pandemic. We were about halfway done with it. So that year gave me an opportunity to walk away from the project and not think about it and come back and say, this is what we need to do. At this point in time, I try to find one line of honesty to get me started in the song and no matter how bleak or how happy the song is or turns out…I let the song write itself. I don’t try to control the songs anymore. When I was a kid, I tried to control it. I can’t say that, I want to say this. I don’t do that anymore and I haven’t done it for years. The songs are just sent to me. I sometimes have a hard time writing them down and recording them on my cassette player quick enough. I don’t sit down and say, Oh I want to write about this, that doesn’t happen anymore. The songs are just sent to me. I’m just a conduit. I have to listen to the songs and think, what is this song about. Because there’s no pretense. That’s just the way it worked out for me.

When asked what it was like to collaborate with Springsteen and Zimny, Mellencamp said, “This is going to sound awful but, I was always in charge. But with Bruce, I have respect for Bruce. There’s a couple guys I had admiration for that was Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. That is pretty much it, the rest I pretty much didn’t give a shit about. I didn’t care a lot about bands that were popular. I never wanted to be part of anything. I never wanted to be part of the punk movement. I just wanted to be me. I took me a while to find my feet. What was different about working with Bruce was I was working on my backfoot. I’m not a good collaborator. It was always ‘this is my band; we do things my way’, and Bruce is the same way. But with Bruce I was on my backfoot and if he had a suggestion I listened. Generally, people would make a suggestion and I would go, ‘OK I’ll take that into consideration but with Bruce it was like ‘oh that might work’. It’s different when you’re working with someone you respect as opposed to someone who maybe works for the record company who suggests, maybe work with this one person on a duet for maybe air play reasons or some stupid shit like that.”

When asked about working with Thom Zimny for the video for Wasted Days, “Again, I was working on my backfoot. To be perfectly honest, if I never make another video in life, I don’t care. Nobody wants to see a fucking old man dancing around anyway. It was Bruce’s idea to make the video. He said ‘I have this great guy’ and he showed me some of the work Thom had done and I said ‘yeah, I don’t care’. And I just went along with whatever these guys wanted to do. Because ultimately and finally fellas, at my age, there’s no reward for being right. I thought when I was a kid I had to be right all the time. I don’t have to be right. Because in a few years, people aren’t going to care if I was right or wrong, they are just going to say ‘Well, Mellencamp didn’t live forever but it sure seemed like it.”

Further On Down The Road

Rotolo: So you were recently in New Jersey?

“I didn’t know where I was at. I’m not sure Bruce really neither but, we found our way to a restaurant. It was pretty funny. I had to sit back and just smile at Bruce because people came up to him and said things that I kind of just went…wow. Poor guy. We walked about 4 blocks. In NJ, everybody knows Bruce and it was funny. As a matter of fact, I was talking to Bruce about doing something together and he said, ‘Well is it going to be like you coming to NJ?’ and I said, no quite honestly it will be quite the opposite. You’ll be lucky to see a car.”

I am hesitant to even raise the issue here but I feel like it would is a disservice for anyone to compare the two artists and John has been stuck with label “poor man’s Springsteen” by some over the years. The comparison is unfair between the two because neither was competing with the other. Just like contemporaries Bob Seger and Tom Petty, they might have all been watching each other from the corner of their eyes, but it was to just get a lay of the land, not out of a competitive drive. Mellencamp and Springsteen have created art that speaks to them based on very similar influences and tastes. Both of them have characters that speak in plain language they speak in their very day lives and that’s why we can relate to the songs and characters.

In an interview from 1.20.18, Howard Stern asked John to speak to that concept:

Howard: “Who was the big competition? The Eagles, Springsteen?”

Mellencamp: “It was always incorrect. We’re two different artists. Because he’s a better songwriter than me. You know, I give. I think Bruce Springsteen could have been the greatest pop song writer of our generation if he had wanted to be. But he didn’t want to be. Everyone talks about his lyrical content…his melodies sometimes are jaw dropping. It’s like how can a guy make such beautiful melodies out of three chords, and he would do it.”

Recent interview with Anthony Decurtis, ““Listen, I’ll just flat-out say it: I love Bruce,” Mellencamp says. “I love him like a brother. I feel very fortunate to have found a colleague and a good friend in him. This should have happened years ago.” In addition to performing on Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, The Boss ventured even further into Mellencamp’s world when he stayed at his house in Bloomington. “Bruce and I have done two paintings together,” John declares with evident pleasure. “We have a painting that we worked on for two days straight. He painted one side and I painted the other. Bruce had never painted at all and he was really good, really into it. I was surprised at how hard he tried. He was like, ‘How do you do this, John? How do I make this work?’ We’re trying to figure out how to sell it and give the money to charity. But I was proud of him. He went after it.”

Anthony Decurtis,

50 years Burning Down That Road

Both artists are now working into their 6th decade. John has made 24 albums, with his 25th slated to come out in early 2022. Springsteen has made 20 studio albums. Since 2000, Mellencamp has released 8 albums and Springsteen 9 along with box sets and other works. Both have done some of the best work of their careers since in the last twenty years. Mellencamp’s 2008 release Life, Death, Love and Freedom and 2010 No Better Than This stand out to this listener and fan. Springsteen’s Magic, Wrecking Ball and Letter To You rank as some of the best work of his career. Both have made drastic changes to some of their classics. During the Seeger Sessions tour, Springsteen worked up different arrangements and instrumentation for classics such as Blinded By The Light and Atlantic City. In Mellencamp’s case, he has restructured his shows, often played in theaters to include a three-part play: an acoustic set with the band, an acoustic set with just him and his guitar, and a full electric band set. He has restructured some of his classics including Small Town and even Jack and Diane. I’ve attended at least one show wherein he didn’t play Jack and Diane at all and fans were left scratching their heads and pissed off.

Both artists have long stood for their principles on and off stage. While Bruce withstood the ire of NY police by performing 41 Shots, Mellencamp began taking a knee at the end of Easy Target in 2019 during the Colin Kaepernick controversy. Both took heat from conservative fans during GW presidency by writing, recording and performing songs like Magic, Last To Die in and Living In The Future and Mellencamp’s Rodeo Clown and To Washington which is a repurposed song from Woody Guthrie. Both have stood for their principles for decades in recordings, on stage and in their personal lives with how they chose to spend their time volunteering for various causes. Bruce for Vietnam Vets, food banks and John for small American farmers, BLM and racism with Cuttin’ Heads which features Chuck D.

Springsteen and Mellencamp have worked hard pursuing their musical vision for well over 50 years. They both believe that hard work, a strong work ethic and honing their craft is a lifelong job, like the families and communities they come from. They honor their parents, friends and family by getting up each day and going to work, shackled and drawn. Mellencamp says it best in this quote from Mellencamp, “If you see some guy who’s happy all the time, there’s something fucking wrong with him. He’s on drugs or drunk. Happiness is a very small commodity and the idea that we live to be happy is just fucked up. It’s wrong. We live to work. And we should toil like galley salves and try to find happiness in our work. That’s what life is about. People who think, “Oh I can’t wait to get down to the pub, have a drink and I’ll be happy.’ No! That’s not happiness. It’s being drunk. Happiness is a fulfillment that’s internal. It fulfills the mind, the body and the soul. And it doesn’t come at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a fucking needle.”

Mellencamp and Springsteen are hard core troubadours, observing the world around them, catching snippets of conversation of passersby, watching the news, turning their observations in to character studies, anthems and ballads that speak to the universal truths of the human condition. They see those around them striving for a place to fit into, a community, a family, love and kindness. They are both adult artists who realize that train is coming down the tracks, bearing down on them and there are only so many years and days left. As Springsteen has said, “That light coming down the tracks helps focus the mind.” They both have been making some of the best music of their careers in the last twenty years, improving their craft as they move along while grappling with aging and everything that comes with it like to loss of friends and family. They are honest about themselves, their strengths, and weaknesses. They give us a blueprint on how to age with grace, humility, and honesty. They show us how to walk tall.

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.

Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Greatest Books Ever Art Print Series 428 Mixed  Media by Design Turnpike

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.

David Sedaris Bringing The Best of Me to Watchung Booksellers | Baristanet

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.

How to Run Large Zoom Meetings: 5 Best Practices for Businesses, Churches,  Etc. - Bitcoin Market Journal

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… 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.