Friday, March 4, 2011

Kenny and Me

I have my first sports post that I’m working on and thought would be posted today, but one of my reasons for having a blog about anything and everything is so that I can write about what I feel like writing about. The discipline I’m trying to get a handle on is “writing, just writing” and not (yet, anyway) “writing under the constraints of a particular topic”. Today, so sayeth the mysterious whims of my feelings, “sports” is not the topic. Kenny Rogers is.

Kenny was my first rock star idol, my first man-crush, and my first musical and lyrical inspiration. My mom had about a dozen cassette tapes that lived in our red station wagon: Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, Bobby Goldsboro, Engelbert Humperdink, John Denver, and Kenny Rogers. There was one tape each for the others, but Kenny had 4 or 5.

Kids always think what their parents think or do is cool, or at least the root of all other cultural evolution. So even though I knew other people didn’t listen to Kenny as much as my mom did, I figured the whole world knew his music well, seeing as almost half of my mom’s cassette tapes were of his music.

So it wasn’t unusual for me to reference Kenny Rogers’ songs to friends and teachers, fully expecting them to “get the reference.” One of these references took place during 5th grade Catholic public school of religion. We met Monday nights, and my class was notoriously the smallest in the school. On a good night, there were 4 of us, none of whom wanted to be there. This made for some painful, painful conversations. Our teacher was awkward but obviously earnest, but even the not-so-cool of us (uh, that might have been just me, now that I think about it) knew that she wasn’t “cool,” so none of us felt real inclined to help out when she would ask the class a question and pause for seconds, then minutes, waiting for someone to show the faintest sign of even faux-interest.

Sometimes I would talk, though. And one time, I don’t remember the question, but the answer I gave was, “It’s like the Kenny Rogers song. It goes ‘If you can lie a little bit / you can lie a little bit more / once you get away with it / it becomes a little easier than it did before.’” Looking straight at me, she cocked her head slightly, like when a dog thinks it hears a noise. Then she nodded, also slightly. Then she said, “When you share I am always struck by how deeply you think about things.” Aside from the then-excruciating awkwardness of the moment, I remember thinking, “It’s partly me, but partly Kenny.”

My friends also got infusions of pure Kenny-ness throughout my grade school years. I remember shooting pool in our living room, asking David, “Hey, have you heard the new Kenny Rogers album?” “New” meant “My mom just got it”. But his answer of “No” was all I needed. “No” meant “No, but I would like to, of course, because, gosh, it’s Kenny Rogers!” I popped it in the cassette player, introducing it with, “It’s got ‘Islands in the Stream,” but that’s not the only good song.”

Strangely, even though my mom is the one who introduced me to Kenny Rogers, I often felt like I needed to convince her of his greatness. Once in a bookstore, I stumbled upon a book of Billboard hits. Afterwards, on the way home, I told my mom, “Kenny Rogers has a lot of hits. And they’re on the top 40, which is like the list of popular songs. ‘Islands in the Stream’ went all the way to number 1. ‘This Woman,” which isn’t even my favorite song, made it to number 23. And he has a singing part on ‘We Are the World.’” My mom said something like, “Well, he’s pretty popular.” Even though I am still not sure what I was looking for, that seemed a little unsatisfying. I’m not sure why.

I remember walking out of the movie “Six Pack” that my mom had taken us to see in the theaters. In the parking lot, I said to my mom, “Did you cry?” She said, “No.” I was floored. “How could you not?” I thought. And after seeing the made-for-TV-movie adaptation of “Coward of the County,” I remember giving my mom the briefing the next day: “The part in the song where he says, ‘You could have heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door’. Well, you totally could have. They really captured that in the movie.” If part of a mom’s job is to keep her kid from thinking that he’s as cuckoo as he probably is, then my mom did great, even if she didn’t always seem to want to talk about the awesomeness of Kenny Rogers as much as I did.

Kenny was a profound lyricist. The stories he told were so succinct yet so vivid. I could picture “Lucille” in the bar being confronted by her husband. I hurt for the poor old (creepy!) man who fell in love with the stripper in “Scarlet Fever.” “The Gambler”? Need I say more than just the title?

And his insight into life and love was spot on. As a 12-year-old, even I knew that, indeed, it IS “your mind that tricks you into leaving every time” and it IS “your heart that talks you into staying where you are.” See, “love WILL turn you around.” Every time.

Even the lyrics I misheard were profound and evocative. When I heard “take my hand, let’s walk through the store” instead of “take my hand, let’s walk through love’s door,” I pictured Kenny and some girl half-skipping, half-floating through a store, hand-in-hand, not caring if the setting was not typically considered a romantic one because, dog gone it, they were in love. Elsewhere, Kenny proclaimed: “I know this may sound funny / But mommy don’t mean nothin’ to me / I won’t make my music for mommy / No I’m gonna make my music for me.” I realize now that he’s saying “money” and not “mommy,” but at the time, this song was challenging. Back and forth I went in my head: “Why diss your mommy like that?” “Well, it’s not that he doesn’t like his mommy, it’s just that he wants to make it clear that his musical motives come from within.” It was an odd way of saying that, to be sure, but very provocative.

If Kenny’s words inspired my soul, his music inspired my voice. Public or private, it made no difference to me. If Kenny was playing, I was singing. During one of our family’s winter treks to Colorado to visit to family, I was buried in the back of the station wagon as I liked to be. The back, backwards facing seat was folded down, and I was just laid flat, sideways, behind the luggage, inside my sleeping bag, legos and professional wrestling magazines within reach, and Kenny Rogers Christmas music coming through the back speakers. Was there a happier moment in my childhood? Hard to say. It was night, but not late, late night, so whether or not my brother and sister were asleep in the middle seat was hard to say. But when the chorus of “Kentucky Homemade Christmas” kicked in, it didn’t matter. I had to sing, and sing I did. The mile markers said “Kansas” but my heart and voice were in Kentucky with Kenny. When the song ended, it dawned on me that perhaps I was singing pretty loud. Like REALLY loud. I decided to test it by trying to recreate the precise volume with which I was singing, but instead of singing, calling “Mom” to my mom, who was driving. If she could hear me, well, then I was singing pretty loud. I wasn’t sure what I would do with this information, but I wanted to know. “Mom,” I called. “Yes,” she replied. “Crap,” I thought. “Uh, are were almost there?” I didn’t actually care, because I liked the car time, but “Oh, nothing” would have seemed a bit conspicuous. “No,” she replied. “OK.”

Then there was the time I tried to record my own singing ONTO and INTO Kenny’s track on one of his albums, with the goal of creating a “Kenny and Robbie” duet. My ambition outweighed my music recording expertise as I carefully paused the cassette right before “Buried Treasure.” I then placed the cassette in the seldom-used “RECORD” deck of the dual-deck player. Then I pressed “RECORD”. What I hoped would happen is that the song would play so that I could hear it and sing to it, but that the system would simultaneously record MY vocals into the track. There were a LOT of things wrong with this plan, but the only fear I had was that my mom would later listen to the tape and hear too much of my vocals and not enough of Kenny’s. “If that happens,” I thought, “I’ll just have to ‘fess up and accept my punishment, whatever it may be.” I pressed RECORD and, as though pre-ordained to provide Webster with an example beside the entry for “anti-climactic,” nothing happened. No music played. Nothing recorded (apparently you need a microphone for that). My disappointment that nothing good and beautiful happened was offset with my relief that nothing bad happened, and I kept this secret little recording effort to myself.

For as traumatic as it was for me when I discovered that Kenny didn’t actually write nearly all of his songs, my memory of uncovering this information is a bit fuzzy. I may have blocked it out. I THINK it was from a simple and innocent question I asked to my mom: “Mom, what are the names in parenthesis after each song that’s listed on the Kenny Rogers record?” “Those are the names of the people who write the songs.”

Those words shook my world, for this possibility had never even entered my consciousness. It would have been like telling a caveman that the world was round. I was crushed. I felt stupid and deceived. I cried. This profound, insightful man with a voice so full of feeling and depth… He doesn’t write his songs! What in the world is the big deal about him then?!

I searched the liner notes of his albums, hoping that the genuineness of at least a couple of my favorites could be salvaged. One by one, they crumbled to dust before my eyes. “The Gambler.” “Coward of the County.” “We’ve Got Tonight.” Not a single significant-to-me song was saved. Kenny wrote or co-wrote only a couple of songs per album, and they all happened to be the ones I had previously categorized as “not his best stuff.” Of course, it WAS his best stuff. That was the problem.

Without revealing how wounded I was, I tried to glean from my mom some additional insight into this fraud. Apparently, a lot of singers didn’t write their own songs. This was normal behavior, accepted by most. The world was round—I was the only one who didn’t know it.

As I moved from grade school, to junior high, to high school, I moved beyond Kenny Rogers. I could listen to Kenny fine without reliving my painful experience all over again, but I didn’t go out of my way to listen to him. I was a top 40 radio guy for the mid-80’s until I started making money mowing lawns and reffing soccer, and had enough money to buy cassettes of my own by bands and artists that wrote their own songs, like Rick Springfield, Journey, and—of course—Bruce Springsteen.

Into late high school, I got real excited about Bruce releasing “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” at the same time, and I loved them both. (As an aside: a lot of critics would single out “Human Touch” as Bruce’s single WORST album; it just happened to be the first one of his that I knew inside and out.) From there, I worked my way backwards through the Springsteen discography, discovering that, in fact, it WAS possible for one person to create hundreds of different images and worlds and characters, conveying emotions both extreme and nuanced, joyous and tortured, complete with a gravely, weathered voice and layered instrumentation.

Kenny became an afterthought, and the whole singer/NON-songwriter thing became something I rarely gave much thought to. Until the second semester of my sophomore year of college. I was taking an English class. That’s as specific as I can remember what the class even was. Nor do I remember the teacher’s name. She was probably an old hippy, and was still passionate about the things that hippies stood for, and she let that passion show up in the way she led discussions. Aside from caring—deeply, even—about writing, we didn’t seem to have much in common. Then one day, as class was winding down, she was trying to make some important point about writing as quickly as she could. I don’t remember the point—I was only kind of listening—until she said, “…it’s like when you find out that someone doesn’t write their own songs, and you feel this sense of betrayal…”

Whoa. I had tried to share whatever it was I felt about Kenny Rogers with others, and my story had always been greeted by looks of “I want to understand because I kind of like you.” But here someone got it. She said it, without me asking about it. It’s a little sad that I never got my legs under me enough in high school or even college to be confident in something as simple as “what I got out of a song,” but this did affirm something very important to me.

I had spent many a night in high school and college driving around, listening to songs on the radio. Those songs were recorded hundreds of miles away in places I had never been with equipment I didn’t even know existed. But they were written with something in mind: a feeling, a point, a dream… And—to me, at that time—the fact that they were sung with that “something” in mind was important. The penning and the expression were two sides of the same coin, or two moving points on the same symbol for “infinity,” or complimentary charges of a set of jumper cables clamped onto my soul. Connecting with both the words and the expression of those words—even when I was by myself, in a car, at night—connected me to something real if unexplainable. Someone else, another human with feelings and longings, could see something true—be it beautiful or terrifying—and write and sing about it as if to say directly to me, “I see something that you see or feel, and this is how I express it...”

The expression of this common truth may be better than I could have expressed it myself, or at least different in a wonderful way.

It may give details to something I had only sensed in fleeting moments, like a rainbow I could only see in my peripheral vision and that faded every time I turned to look straight on. Was it even there? Yes, it was.

I met a guy once in college who told me, “The first time I listened to ‘Bobbie Jean’ [Springsteen song on ‘Born in the U.S.A.] I cried.” “So did I,” I told him. But I honestly cannot tell you why I needed to know that the singer of the song also wrote the song in order for me to have that reaction. For me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in a mystical way. My English teacher’s passing illustration of something I don’t even remember… well, it was meaningful to me. There was something OK about the way I ingested music and words, creation and expression. Maybe desiring an inseparable connection between the creation and expression was a legitimate way to be wired. Not better or worse than other ways, but equally OK.

I had an epilogue of sorts lined up for this post, but I ended up going in a direction I hadn’t planned. And this is already more of an essay than a post. Endings have never been my strong suit. Can I ask you to pretend this post has a long fade out, like a song you’re listening to in the car, at night, on a lonely road?



  1. I'm not going to bore you with all of the details but this was both an extremely profound post for me and moving in ways that is hard to explain. I will tell you this, my Mom taught me how to dance to the Islands in the Stream album and I owned The Gambler on vinyl until my ex-wife destroyed my albums.

  2. This is an official notification that Rob gets my autographed Kenny Rogers "The Gambler" album, complete with frame. I don't remember all the exact situations you posted, but I share your thoughts.