In spring 1998 my wife Kristina Chew was baptized, confirmed, and received into the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by a St. Louis child rapist named Gary Wolken. The conversion adventure was wholly K’s doing (looking forward to that testimony in print!) though as the lone congenital Catholic extant in this house, I remain bedeviled by the sordid legacy of a now long-incarcerated pedo-cleric. I do feel guilty of unwittingly if revealingly placing Kristina—and a then-infant Charlie, who Wolken once insisted on holding in his skanky mitts—in harm’s way, thanks to my self-short-selling, ‘here comes everybody’ Catholic localism and fatalist, rank and file mentality, which combined to sentence K. to a lame, seventh-grade-level season of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) catechesis, served up by an unctuous, sex-criminal parish priest whose heart was clearly not in the gig (would that he even had a ‘soul…’).
Gary Wolken had only recently arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes following a stint in a treatment facility for sex offenders, a lifelong status confirmed during his previous assignment at a parish in Chesterfield, a sprawling exurb in far West St. Louis County best known as a haven for professional hockey players and retired Cardinals (of the diamond not the cloth). Wolken had in fact launched his career in sexual assault at age fifteen; his first victim—like his last and God knows how many more in between—was a five year old boy.
St. Louis may well chart the most insularly Catholic terrain in all God’s creation. Though during seven years in residence I never was asked, “where’d you go to high school” (it was probably obvious to all that wherever it was, it was no place St. Louisans woulda heard of), the Gateway City’s reputation for muted tribalism was as well deserved as it was inscrutable to this Irish Jerseyan. At night the streets of the city run empty, all precincts. It finally took a slightly tipsy N. Jersey Irish-American nun, who’d attended grad school at Saint Louie U., to edify me during a conversation on a street corner in a different city, where we’d crossed paths at a history conference not long into our heartland stint. “The Germans,” Sister Mary knowingly leaned in to confide to me “do their entertaining in the home.”
Including, presumably St. Louis’s German-American priests, whose ranks are legion and who all seem to know one another and each other’s business besides. By the time Kristina walked into her first RCIA session in autumn 1997, virtually everyone in the St. Louis Archdiocese—priests that is not laity who generally stayed grounded in one territorial parish for life—surely knew that Father Gary Wolken meant sex trouble of a most deviant variety.
Wolken was drawn to the priesthood for the golden opportunities it afforded him to ‘befriend’ families with young boys, including the family who was honored to have him ‘babysit’ for their five year old son, the same boy Wolken sodomized throughout all the months Kristina and a handful of others gathered weekly with him at Lourdes in preparation for their new life as Catholics.
K deserved and should have enjoyed an authentic formation experience, given my ready access to some trustworthy and gifted Jesuits with whom I worked at the time. But this is where my own non-existent family/communal history interfered; in that void reverberated the punishing ‘who do you think you are’ mantra rooted in my volatile, often violent, and self-lacerating (and other-lacerated) Catholic upbringing (and those of plenty who came before me). Who did I think I was? Not a theologian, that’s for sure, but on the one occasion I attended an RCIA session with K., no sooner did I mention working at Saint Louis University to Wolken then he quickly averted his eyes, stricken-looking, as though somehow I was on to him, when in fact he had pre-empted my customary “Don’t worry I’m no theologian!” disclaimer.
Five years later, and with the three of us gratefully repatriated to North Central Jersey, when Gary Wolken’s long overdue arrest and conviction was noted amid the tsunami of post-Boston Globe clergy sex abuse accountings, I caustically wisecracked to K: if, at the sacramental moment Wolken mediated her baptism, he was loaded to the gunnels with good old Irish whiskey; or sporting under his cassock a thousand pound vestment of high-grade explosives; or raced to church after raping a five year old, Dr. Chew remained stamped as Catholic for all eternity, since Wolken’s priestly faculties stood intact at the time. By then Kristina had already come to view such way, way too clever-by-half-ness as a feature of somebody else’s religion and strictly their problem, though like me she reveled in her vocation teaching (Greek and Latin no less!) at the most compelling small Jesuit college in North America.
Had it not been for the fallout from the Globe’s expose, Gary Wolken might well be serving today at his tenth, or twelfth, or fifteenth St. Louis parish; where the little boys are. Wolken’s Archbishop, Justin Rigali, laconically oozed an unmatched brand of obsequiousness toward his longtime patron Pope John Paul II. Rigali’s only apparent desire in life was to please the holy father and spare him any unpleasantness, as I had the misfortune to witness firsthand in spring 2001 when the Archbishop summoned the entire Saint Louis University theology faculty for a “Rome has spoken” smack-down prompted by qualms more than a few of us shared over the Pope’s demand that all Catholic theologians apply to Rigali for a license (or ‘mandatum’) stamping us kosher in the eyes of the bosses. The Globe inadvertently spared us further agita on that front; by early 2002 even Justin Rigali was obliged to look like he was doing something about clerical sex abuse, especially having long deduced his only hope of donning the (non-athletic variety) Cardinal’s red cap was via promotion to a sexier locale.
Enter Timothy Dolan; yes, that Timothy Dolan, a native St. Louisan who had returned from a prestigious post in Rome in 2001 as a newly minted auxiliary bishop. Dolan moved into a home at Our Lady of Sorrows parish in South St. Louis, which he shared with Father Michael Campbell, a very close friend from seminary days and Dolan’s personal confessor. The domestic arrangement was rounded out with the arrival of another priest, that peripatetic young go-getter, Gary Wolken, decamped from Our Lady of Lourdes to yet another unsuspecting parish community.
In the immediate aftermath of the Boston revelations in winter 2002, Justin Rigali delegated Tim Dolan to manage the local response to a rapidly conflagrating sex abuse crisis. And lo, a sliver of light would finally flicker, at least for a moment, when Dolan opted to hand Gary Wolken over to the civil authorities, reportedly after being contacted in March 2002 by the young victim’s distraught parents.
From there the story grows more complicated, in ways characteristic of Dolan’s ambiguous M.O. and persona, as an enormously ambitious figure but one who, unlike his erstwhile capo Justin Rigali, blends authentic pastoral gifts with exquisitely tuned political instincts. Dolan also demonstrated great loyalty and compassion for his troubled ordained friends, as evidenced in an appearance he made at Our Lady of Sorrows—again in March 2002—to inform the stunned congregation that Michael Campbell had been removed as pastor after confessing to a single count of sexual assault dating back thirteen years (Campbell was widely described in other accounts as a ‘sexual predator’).
Virtually simultaneously, Dolan’s two housemates saw their priestly careers disintegrate; by the end of that year Gary Wolken would proffer a guilty plea resulting in a fifteen-year prison sentence. Yet at the time of Michael Campbell’s suspension, Dolan asserted that he continued to place his trust in Campbell as his confessor. When Wolken later made his first bid for parole after three years in jail, Dolan pleaded for his early release, even in the face of gut-wrenching testimony from his victim, who recounted a childhood filled with mockery, abuse, and torments from those aware of what Wolken had done to him.
The most salient open issue for Cardinal Dolan concerns why–given his knowledge of Gary Wolken’s history and his own leadership role in handling sex abuse cases—this serial and dangerous pedophile was permitted to remain in active ministry for fully five years—with most of the final year spent under Dolan’s watchful eye– given his first stint in treatment and subsequent reassignment to Our Lady of Lourdes, then to Our Lady of Sorrows, leaving an as yet un-fully documented trail of human wreckage and misery in his wake. In the context of Dolan’s resume and meteoric ascent up the hierarchy (in June 2002 he was named Archbishop of Milwaukee), his interlude at Our Lady of Sorrows represents an anomalous career chapter, in which he was essentially assigned to supervise two priestly bad actors whose downfalls coincidentally occurred at a time when the U.S. bishops were desperately scrambling to preserve a semblance of moral credibility.
Dolan’s record on sex abuse during his tenure in Milwaukee was similarly ambiguous, but by 2012, only a decade removed from a highly awkward domestic situation in a run-down South St. Louis neighborhood, Dolan had ascended to that most rarefied stature of papabili, American style.
Justin Rigali, meanwhile, finally made Cardinal and proceeded to achieve the near-impossible feat of handling Philadelphia’s cataclysmic sex abuse crisis well-nigh as disgracefully as had his predecessor, who conveniently died in time to avoid indictment and a likely final taxi to the state penitentiary. When Philadelphia’s DA released a scathing if non-actionable grand jury report on sex abuse in 2005, Rigali essentially banned Philly Catholics from reading it, as even a cursory glance will show why. Rigali then dissembled endlessly while offering empty promises to remove all sex offenders from active ministry.
Which brings us to today’s Star-Ledger headline, which in turn prompted this post. John Myers is reported to come from Peoria, Illinois, but that’s a cruel provocation against the fine people of that city, home of the great Richard Pryor. John Myers’ Peoria must be located in some parallel galaxy, a place where a whole religious culture retreated, then learned to forget what it once knew as true and to fear everything as yet unknown.
Narrative integrity is the goal for the likes of me and it is very, very difficult to achieve given my manifold defects. I’m pretty sure I don’t especially care who is the Archbishop of Newark, but I also fear the loss of ‘plausible connections’ with folks who did or do care; it’s all in the communitarian spirit of the faith tradition. I’ve found myself instead reacting petulantly to happenings within a tradition I know at least a bit about, but can’t seem to link anymore to its vital animating spirit, what some indeed would call the Holy Spirit but I like to call the underground river.
The hours and days of our lives are consumed in what we’ve dubbed autismland: that experience of showing up for life each challenging day has provided the best, really only opportunity of a lifetime to bear witness together as part of a family, with a flesh and blood loved one at its heart. I have absolutely no idea how that experience might be related to the communitarian tradition that lent my initial vocation, connected albeit loosely to this Catholic thing of ours.
The late, great Michael Harrington liked to call himself “a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for twenty years.” If evidence was ever needed to confirm that history means change over time, just consider that Harrington’s “moderate” Catholics are undeniably today’s progressives and prophetics. All one might hope for is a chance to fellow travel with these folks along that underground river, cognitive difference—or any and all manner of differences in how God makes us–no bar to the journey.
The earth’s circumference at the equator measures 24,901.55 miles, which means that Charlie and I completed our first cycling lap of the world (Jersey variation) sometime between today and the last time we turned up on this site, back in August. Strictly educated guestimate, but 25,000 miles—more or less–is a plausible tally beginning in June 2003, with more than half that mileage accrued over the past four years. 2009: that’s when we became daily communicants on wheels.
“Bike ride, Yes!” was Charlie’s initial call to action, later replaced with a geographic signifier indicating which of our customary routes awaited us. Whether 19 degrees Fahrenheit (fine day for short-cuts) or 109 (at least feeling it), we’ve hit the streets and trails on all but ten or so of the days since the feast of St. Patrick, 2011, formerly our official annual opener but in recent years just another round in the season that never ends.
Today we journeyed from Bayonne City Park as near as permitted to New York Harbor at Jersey City. Liberty State Park is devastated, will be recovered in time. We rode the Harbor in full on October 28, a day in advance of the hurricane’s So. Jersey landfall. It’s fair to say that Charlie and I are the last to have experienced the beauty of that venue, as the darkening winds plowed us backwards. We were the only souls in sight.
I doubt that ‘wind’ signifies a familiar if unseen natural entity to Charlie: watching him on that Sunday I sensed him encountering each gust as a discrete force to which he responded, not as one but a relentless series of obstacles. And did he work gamely to overcome! (Chances are, by the way, that Charlie associates ‘wind’ with “Mary,” since that’s how Jimi Hendrix heard its cry and played same in a song beloved to us both).
Charlie Fisher is the heart of a warrior; a-bike I’ll follow him wherever he leads, a fellow traveler/acolyte/Dad sharing witness to this Neuro Age that announced its arrival early in our family; ours like so many others. This affinity of wiring is surely one source of our preternatural bond, though for all I know Charlie and I simply enjoy a regular loving relationship, so unlike anything I knew with my own militantly “neurotypical” father.
We were sadly stone cold if often mutually volatile aliens unto one another. In my view the religion that held a gun to my father’s head every day of his life brooked no difference such as he fearfully, too readily discerned in me, but that’s mere spec from one who turned historian way early–as I wrote in a now-ancient essay–in hopes of linking the riots in our house with the riots in the late 60s streets; to find some plausible outside connections even if only imagined. Decades later, the daily cycled witness hints—don’t know just how and can’t often bring it back home– at odds for reconciliation with the dead on the plus side of hopeless.
Charlie’s spiritual order is strictly non-doctrinal but richly ritually devotional, and as for our ‘musics’! 25,000 miles of call and response later I may struggle to ‘generalize’ this blessed mode of communication beyond the bikes…but so long as we’ve got the Navigators and our harmonies, we know daily renewal. And we know too that K. is always with us in abundant spirit on the journey (and she sets us up in advance with the bikes and the lights and all the items the ADHD king has misplaced, while Charlie handles the caps and straps and helmets ‘perfecto.’)
Lately we’ve been sharing some vintage Shane McGowan, just slightly modified to suit:
And a rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go
A rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go
A rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go
For a pair Charlie’s brown eyes
A pair Charlie’s brown eyes
With you, Charles Vincent Fisher, brown-eyed handsome young man…with you always
Among the handful of books my parents kept in our house while I was growing up, the only tome whose cover I cracked with any fervor was Russia Will Be Converted, John Haffert’s extravagantly lurid account of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. I have that battered volume right here before me, its cover embossed with a human figure hanging from a cross fashioned of hammer and sickle. Mr. Haffert inscribed this copy to my father, and dated it March 10, 1954, at or near the peak of anti-communist, anti-Soviet mystical fervor in the U.S.
Though his putative subject was a pretty darn spectacular story in its own right—a visitation from the heavens by the Blessed Virgin Mary to a trio of shepherd children in a remote hillside village—Haffert gave top billing not to Mary herself but to one of three secret revelations the Blessed Mother entrusted at Fatima to Jacinta Marto, age seven, her eight year old brother Francisco, and their cousin Lucia Santos, age ten.
Fatima secret #2 packed a wallop felt eventually round the globe. With World War One raging and Bolshevism imminently ascendant, The Mother of God promised these kids that if Russia was consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, world peace would ensue and the country would in time be converted to Christianity, sparing humankind the spiritual and political cataclysm whose bloody trajectory was scarcely imaginable at the time of Mary’s visitation.
In fact, Lucia (Jacinta and Francisco had died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19) did not reveal the contents of this secret until 1941; Russia remained militantly unconverted—such ‘past-posting,’ to borrow some old-time horseplayer lingo, took the prophetic wind out of that sail! to say nothing of the 20 million Russian dead in the war against fascism–but Fatima and the Catholic century it shaped was always about miracles not evidence, beginning with October 1917’s Dance of the Sun, a phenomenon of widely varying description, witnessed by 70,000 who assembled at Fatima in response to Mary’s reported promise of a miracle to accompany her final appearance to the three children.
The Fatima apparitions were proclaimed “worthy of belief” by the church in 1930: by the time Pope Pius XII officially consecrated Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart in 1952, devotion to the miracles at Fatima powerfully wedded Catholic popular piety with the church’s all-out war against “the Mystical Body of Satan.” Our Lady of Fatima became in turn the de facto patroness of America’s Cold War crusade.
I was even younger than the Portuguese shepherd children when the coffee table revelation of my father’s copy of Russia Will Be Converted initiated a fateful devotion to literature meant for grown-ups. This was smack up against the backdrop of October 1962’s Cuba-bound Soviet missiles, and the frisson of Sr. Mary Isabella serenely informing her first grade charges—dozens of uniformed, impossibly well-kempt looking kids (and then there was me, Gracie’s heroic efforts notwithstanding), desks aligned to industrial precision—that while we would likely all perish in a matter of days, that news paled in importance against the only real concern: were we prepared to face God in his judgment?
As I knew already, courtesy of an early childhood’s Sunday upon Sunday of homilies, Russians venerated not the Blessed Virgin Mary but inter-continental ballistic missiles, blasphemously paraded through Moscow past sites once occupied by houses of worship, most notably the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Blown up by Stalin in the thirties, its cratered remains were later refashioned by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev into a swimming pool.
But it was Khrushchev who providentially “blinked” at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exchanging the doomsday scenario for hostile co-existence. Khrushchev’s action led indirectly to the gradual demystification of Our Lady of Fatima’s prophecies. Russia might not be converted, but Satan’s grip was slowly loosening. 58,000 American and more than two million dead Vietnamese, and one Second Vatican Council later (on the political and spiritual fronts, respectively) , Fatima and its secrets were largely relegated by many if not most American Catholics to a devotional relic of the pre-modern “immigrant church.”
Then in May 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot and very nearly killed, and the world was reminded that the third secret of Fatima had never been revealed. The Pope’s joyful tribute to his patroness, Our Lady of Fatima, and her loving, merciful role in his recovery offered a powerful hint as to its contents. Ronald Reagan then joined forces with the Holy See for the final crusade; the president’s virtually simultaneous near-death experience neatly woven into a boldly revived sacred narrative.
And so it came to pass that Russia was converted: disclosure of the highly cryptic contents of Fatima #3 in 2000 was anti-climactic in the extreme. Moscow’s cathedral was lavishly rebuilt as a kind of dual monument to faith and commerce. The Russian Orthodox Church, whose historic conflicts with Rome were wholly occluded by U.S. prelates and theologians of the Cold War era, now embraced albeit warily a spirit of unity with the Vatican.
All that remained was for somebody in Russia to ask the Virgin Mary to re-consecrate the nation to her care.
There are so many poignant and ironic features of this video representation of the February 12, 2012 performance of Pussy Riot Punk Prayer, consummated on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior: too many for this cultural and religious historian. Yet confounding efforts at systematic interpretation was precisely what made punk rock so much fun back in the late 70s and 80s; and perhaps more meaningful than ever now.
Take those gaily, multi-colored attention-grabbing balaclavas: Pussy Riot members doff their masks under pain of excommunication, in the same way the Ramones shared mutually assumed surname, identical leather jackets and ripped jeans, in defiance of rock star individualism (each member’s staunch conviction they were in fact the band’s bona fide front man only heightened their punky cred). Add the delicious coincidence that balaclavas became synonymous with Pussy Riot at the very moment newly fashion-conscious Chinese ladies adopted the same accessory item to avoid the darkening effects on skin by sun exposure. Mash the pieces together; now you’re talking punk rock…
This clash of images also breezily recalls Fatima Christianity’s long-forgotten, darkest fear: that conjoined billions of ascetical Soviet and Chinese communists might overrun the West with a maniacal fervor no promise of miracles could match. When Mao Zedong appeared sporting people’s revolutionary garb on a Time magazine cover circa 1966, I asked my mom why this funny-looking geezer merited the celebrity treatment. ‘You won’t be laughing when he comes knockin’ on that door with a machine gun,’ Gracie snapped back. She had a piece of the punk rock spirit too, just born too soon. In later years Gracie would occasionally ask: ‘this boy I see in the magazines, Legs McNeil, didn’t you know him in Cheshire?’
Roderick Edwin later “Legs” McNeil ( but always “Swamp Rat” to the kids who grew up around Avon Blvd), was co-founder and “resident punk” of the legendary Punk Magazine (the graphic novels industry owes Punk an enormous debt for inspiration), and co-author of the magnificent oral history Please Kill Me—perfect format, as second-level reflection was the antithesis of punk. Eddie once offered the richest illustration of punk’s communal punk spirit, in explaining that he and Joey Ramone bonded for life with the discovery they had enjoyed an identical dream: as contestants on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ both were asked by Monty Hall: ‘Would you trade your life for what’s behind Door #3?’
I wholly endorse Eddie’s matter of fact claim that he coined punk rock… punk rock. It’s been heartening to witness his mobilization for the Free Pussy Riot cause; it would be nice to see him again. In autumn 1966 we both turned up for altar boy training at St. Bridget’s Church in Cheshire, Connecticut. Even as a ten-year-old Eddie enjoyed a rare gift for refracting the detritus of popular culture—already by then the one true religion for American suburban kids—into these memorably inspired impromptu performance artistries. Punk re-assembled the culture’s most mass-produce-able components into fleeting, can’t take ‘em away from us moments of perfect joy.
Eddie McNeil was as un-alienated and confident of his instincts as any kid I ever met; maybe that’s why he was thrown out of altar boys or maybe he simply walked away with a better idea. He switched to public school that same year, we moved to North Jersey and by the time I paid Legs a visit at the legendary ‘punk dump’ somewhere around Lafayette Street in the late 70s, he was a downtown celebrity milking the absurdity like a banshee (Legs is Irish-American; naturally).
Eddie urged me to shave off my dopey-hippie lookin’ beard: Dunn.
So now all these decades later here’s Pussy Riot on their altar, half way around the world, right above the cathedral car wash, proceeds of that and plenty more rackets split by the ex-KGB agent partners who restored the cozy relationship between Russian church and state. How punk is that!
But at its best punk rock could disarm with its sudden lightning flashes of the deeply enduring. Pussy Riot not only beseeched Mary to “put Putin away” but to “become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist.” The brazenness of these petitions was matched by Pussy Riot’s certainty that Mary is ‘with us in protest.’ Unlike Lucia Santos, who was yanked permanently from circulation shortly after the 1917 Fatima apparitions and whose voice was never heard, Pussy Riot did not claim to have seen the Virgin Mary but instead speaks directly to her, modeling a relationship of mutual trust and support.
Pussy Riot’s punk theology comes down to this: they don’t beg Our Lady to redeem or legitimize them, nor do they mock or debunk the legacy of Fatima, such as they’ve understood it; it’s simply another piece of the collective cultural and spiritual inheritance they’re pleased to draw upon.
And as for the music, I have no idea if these Russian dames can play or sing a lick: musicianship never counted for a damn to punk rockers. Lyrics attitude visuals and holy sneakers—these plus three chords=truth–produced an art form spiritually adept as any, at its best. And so last evening, when Charlie was struggling during our bike ride and we needed our best, we saw the sadness through, together, before sharing a stanza of outer borough Zen wisdom:
It’s not hard not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.
It’s not hard not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.
And from that point til home I could HEAR Charlie’s bright smile.
What unseen good is of sufficient value to trade for your life? Or…Never Mind the Bollocks, God Bless Pussy Riot!
The Pussy Riot trial and aftermath should flummox Cold/Culture warriors in perpetuity: should but won’t I mean c’mon we weren’t born yesterday! Very early in the Cold War the soon- to-be sainted U.S. Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen dubbed the Soviet Union ‘The Mystical Body of Satan.” Now the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia condemns Pussy Riot for, what else, “doing the work of Satan.” But wait, isn’t he the same asset reportedly code-named ‘Mikhailov’ by KGB pals back in the bad old days of “godless communism?” And everybody knows Vlad Putin’s story: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
So Russia remains in the clutches of ruthless, authoritarian, human rights denying despots, but none dare call them godless! Two years in a Russian prison surely beats a lifetime in Siberia, or worse, but a “reasonable” sentence for punk-rocker/moms (two of three the latter) in a re-emergent Christian nation? Can this be the outcome Fulton Sheen envisioned in the early 50s, as he led millions of Americans in fevered prayers for the conversion of Russia?
On his top-rated TV show “Life is Worth Living,’ Sheen spun bizarrely embroidered yarns of a communist plot to assassinate Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli—the future Pope Pius X11—in Munich way back in 1923, when Pacelli was the papal nuncio to Germany and the tide of Marxian not National socialism was the Vatican’s greatest dread.
Sheen’s extravagantly theatrical, nationally televised performance of this Cold War fable climaxed with the Bishop whipping a miraculous medal from the chain around his neck, the very same medal that caught the bullet intended for Pacelli’s heart! Unfired bullet, from a non-existent gun, that is, as Sheen himself might later have acknowledged in a more chastened era: even the priest-promoter running Pius XII’s campaign for canonization now readily concedes the Munich assassination-attempt story is ‘imaginary.’ But was Russia converted? Conversion for what?
I have good story instincts but no chops for logic: none. There should be a prize awarded to first author who can make orderly political-historic sense of the Pussy Riot case WITHOUT resorting to Cold War/culture war, pious bromides emanating from Left, Right, or the car wash beneath Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, above which Pussy Riot beseeched the Virgin Mary–in heavily salted vernacular–to free their people from the vise-grip of tyranny. File it under ‘theology, liberation.’
And because we like our history with all wrinkles intact, consider too that “Uncle Fulty” Sheen found himself exiled to a bishopric in Rochester, NY in the late 60s (SEE: his bitter enmity with the far-less beloved “American Pope,” Francis Cardinal Spellman). Though a terrible time for Sheen personally, this late chapter saw him re-born as an ardent champion of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms, an advocate of civil rights for African-Americans, and an opponent of the U.S. war in Vietnam, all of which ensure that in sainthood Sheen too will bedevil culture warriors.
History! You can run but you can’t hide.
The Ramones made great rock and roll that kicked out the jams that jammed kids up in cultural and tribal ghettoes: that’s what the music was created for! So today we picture the Ramones–living and (mostly) deceased including Johnny, who was raised to think like Sheen the Cold Warrior and did but played guitar like a Queens Blvd. banshee, to Joey, who wasn’t, and didn’t–firing this punk rocket to Russia, surely emblazoned Free Pussy Riot!
It’s been thirty years plus a couple weeks since the last time I saw Bruce Springsteen; at the Fast Lane it was, a joint in Asbury Park on whose narrow stage the Stray Cats—already deep into a rousing set of Retro-Billy–briefly added the local boy as fourth piece for blistering rave-ups of Twenty Flight Rock, Be bop a lula, and Long Tall Sally. Then just as abruptly Bruce and his Telecaster were gone, out into a night which—if one can believe the electronic archival resources—began earlier for him in a sideman role with the venerable shore rocker Sonny Kett, during his set at the Monmouth County Fair in Springsteen’s home town of Freehold.
Down the Shore, 82 was a great summer for seeing Bruce but not for being Bruce, as New Yorker editor David Remnick reveals in this gripping essay. Springsteen’s spirits were even darker than the tone of Nebraska, the bleak solo masterwork he’d recorded in the bedroom of his Monmouth County home in January of that year. While his friend and biographer Dave Marsh’s claim that Bruce grew ‘suicidal’ during this period is sure to dominate the conversation over Remnick’s piece, the more enduring truth is that sometime during that year of 1982 Springsteen finally, directly confronted the implications of a story he’d been telling on stages in various forms for years; a story—set in the mid-60s at his family’s darkened Freehold kitchen–that Remnick himself heard Bruce share during a show at Manhattan’s Palladium in November, 1976.
The story (which Remnick warrants as “entirely accurate”) always ended with Bruce and his father “screaming at each other. My mother, she’d always end up running in from the front room crying, and trying to pull him off me, try to keep us from fighting with each other. . . . I’d always end up running out the back door and pulling away from him. Pulling away from him, running down the driveway screaming at him, telling him, telling him, telling him, how it was my life and I was going to do what I wanted to do…”
Springsteen makes it abundantly clear to Remnick that he remains driven by these nearly half-century old memories from that Freehold two-family house. Such memories never fade entirely: in fact recent studies of childhood violence have suggested that survivors—or veterans in my term of choice—of such traumas generally do not experience the full effects until decades later. But Bruce makes it just as clear that while those wounds “stay with you,” “you turn them into a language and a purpose:” a vocation, in the most literal sense. He then told Remnick something that nobody has ever said better:
“With all artists, because of the undertow of history and self-loathing, there is a tremendous push toward self-obliteration that occurs onstage. It’s both things: there’s a tremendous finding of the self while also an abandonment of the self at the same time. You are free of yourself for those hours; all the voices in your head are gone. Just gone. There’s no room for them. There’s one voice, the voice you’re speaking in.”
That summer of 82 when Bruce was fighting those voices in his head, I was teaching my first stand-alone history course for a Rutgers summer session. I had a student named Jeff Rosen now a dear friend of three decades with whom I’d walk the streets of the Hub City after class and hit the local joints , and one night Jeff told me I’d tried too hard during that night’s class to speak in somebody else’s voice in the interest of losing as few kids as possible from my various wending storylines. He urged I return to the one voice I spoke best.
Bruce Springsteen also has something to say about history: “That’s what we’re about right now, the communication between the living and the gone.” That’s my vocation too. “If I repair a little of myself, I repair a little of you. That’s the job.” That’s my job.
I once knew (fleeting moment) Bruce Springsteen and you’ll have no trouble believing me: I’m no Bruce Springsteen. But David Remnick summons forth all these ancent moments of hope and joy, 38 years after I first saw and heard Bruce in a two-thirds empty, broken down ex-vaudeville house in New Brunswick. After the show I slunk backstage and asked Springsteen if the Kerouac spirit was real or just my imagination running away with me. ‘Yeah,’ Bruce answered in that Asbury drawl; ‘yeah, I know that man.” And so Bruce has ever remained in and with us.
There’s a lot more to this story than I thought, as Terry Malloy tells Charlie the Gent in that fateful taxi. Naturally the ersatz rock and roll intelligentsia is currently going after Bruce and Remnick hammer and tongs; we’ll hold off that for now.
My beloved grandma Nonie took me to Asbury Park for the first time via bus in summer 1965; Springsteen musta been around somewhere. Charlie was born a quarter century after Bruce’s first record came out. He’s got that Bruce thing in him that thing—let’s face it, Jimmy–I never had. You can’t manufacture it any more than you can currently prevent 100,000 Swedes from reveling in their taste of the Shore courtesy this remarkable human being and his mates. It’s time we asked Dr. Chew to add Crazy Janey and her mission man to Charlie the Gent’s queue; from there we move forward yet again; both with and against the current.