465. Time the Avenger

The next day’s show was in Hiroshima, which I had been pronouncing wrong my whole life. In my history class in tenth grade the teacher called it Hero-SHE-muh. Rocky spent a while trying to get us all to say Heh-ROE-shima. I think, as Americans, we felt like having bombed the crap out of the place the least we could do was try to respect the name. At least, that’s how I felt about it, and I tried to get it right.

Rocky, who until then had seemed to go about his business with a kind of earnest cheer, got pretty stoic when talking about The Bomb. But there’s really no way to not bring it up when you talk about a place like that.

Quick, name me a song from the 1980s that was about nuclear war or the fact that we all thought we might die in a Russian missile attack. 99 Luftballoons, Nena. Two Tribes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Land of Confusion, Genesis. Two Minutes to Midnight, Iron Maiden. Every Day Is Like Sunday, Morrissey. Enola Gay, UltravoxOrchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Red Skies at Night, The Fixx. Just Another Day, Oingo Boingo. Russians, Sting. When the World is Running Down, The Police. Ronnie Talk 2 Russia, Prince. The Final Countdown, Europe. The “Unforgettable Fire” that U2 wrote about was supposedly the Hiroshima bomb itself. And this is just what I came up with off the top of my head.

It gets to the point where you think, wait, what else did people write pop songs about in the eighties? Oh right, the top two subjects continue to be love/relationships/sex and music/dancing. But the idea that nuclear disaster was right around the corner was pervasive enough that my elementary school still had bomb drills. They said it would supposedly take 12 minutes for the radiation from New York City getting bombed to reach our town, so we had to get everyone into the basement in 12 minutes. The first time we did that drill I was five and I was terrified. By the time I was seven or eight it had become an annoying disruption of the class routine, and when we got to junior high they didn’t bother to do anything. The building had a sign that said “Fallout Shelter” on the door, but there were huge windows in every classroom and we never practiced what to do. I guess we tweens were expected to fry.

Was I creeped out in Hiroshima? Yes. Rocky apologized that we could not go see the ruins of the one building that had been left more or less still standing near ground zero. It had been made into a peace memorial, but it was undergoing some renovations to stabilize it so the best we could do was drive past the site on the other side of the river, where we could kind of make out the scaffolding and such. It was just as well that we couldn’t see it, I felt, because anywhere you went, you had the feeling that people could have been vaporized right where you were standing.

We didn’t have time to see an actual museum and that was fine with me. I spent plenty of time chewing over the thoughts and implications of the atomic bomb and the United States. When I was a kid I’d had a few macabre daydreams I used to obsess over, trying to imagine what I’d do if I knew I had only twelve minutes to live.

I’m pretty sure the twelve minutes thing was bogus, by the way. I have no idea how they calculated that time, but I don’t think it actually had a basis in reality. I had always thought that, but reading some of the plaques and signs–which were in English, by the way–on various buildings we did see while in Hiroshima, convinced me I was right.

Not that I’m trying to be a downer, but the thoughts were pretty unescapable. If I had twelve minutes to live, would I try to call home? Would I call Jonathan? Or Bart? Or Carynne? Or would I write a letter to everyone and hope that whoever found my corpse would deliver it?

Jeez. I’m starting to get myself down just remembering it. Let’s just say it was a fairly stark reminder that life is short even if there’s no bomb at the end of it and it forced me to confront some of the nagging questions in the back of my head, like what was I going to do next? With my life or my career? I felt like both Moondog Three and my relationship with Ziggy had run aground. In both cases although I may have been at the helm of the ship when it happened, a lot of other factors akin to weather (i.e. outside my control) had contributed to the shipwreck.

A wrecked ship can be made seaworthy again, sometimes, but is it worth the effort? BNC seemed to be saying they were letting it sink, but they wouldn’t let me sail again, either.

I could get on Remo’s ship, like I was now, but I’d never be the captain of that ship. I’d always be the second in command. Not that that was bad. But doesn’t every lieutenant want his own ship? And what’s the point of the ship anyway, is it the sailing or is it the destination? That’s a fancy way of saying, I think, is it the music or is it the success?

Maybe that’s a false division, though, because if I were to win the lottery and never have to make another dime from music that doesn’t mean I’d just sit around in my living room playing to my heart’s content. Sharing it with people was part of what music was. Is. Yes, I needed to make a living. I think I had proved I could do that with guitar in hand if I wanted to establish myself as a session player. But here’s what I couldn’t explain to Jonathan, and which I didn’t even really want to admit to myself while I was in Los Angeles: playing other people’s music was going to drive me insane if it was all I did.

And I realized that was true whether it was filling in parts on a metal album or playing the part of Stunt Remo like I was. It was fun. I was enjoying it. But it wasn’t going to sustain me for years on end.

I could almost hear it in Digger’s voice though: spoiled brat. You’re playing guitar in front of thousands of people a night for good money. You could have real problems, like radiation sickness.

Digger would not be on the list of people I called if I had only twelve minutes to live. He had worked hard to earn my disdain. He’d earned it.

Anyway. Everyone felt a little somber and uncomfortable in Hiroshima, I think, and that made it a good time to show off our somber guitar duet. We played it for the whole band during the soundcheck, with Cray taking Remo’s guitar and microphone, and in the completely empty auditorium it sounded heartbreaking.

Remo stood off the the side, watching and listening, his arms folded. When we were done, he walked up to Cray and said, “You know. I was thinking we needed something in this set that we could dedicate to the city. This could really work. You ready to do it tonight?”

“Of course we are,” Cray said, sounding eerily like me. “Just say when.”

“And thank you for not trying to recreate the Eric Clapton solo parts,” Remo added.

A light went on in my head. “That’s Clapton on the White Album?”

“No, it isn’t,” Cray said immediately.

Remo nodded, though. “Yep. You know he and George are pals.”

“Wow. That explains so much.” Of course it was Clapton. The second he said it I had known it was true. I’d always assumed it was George Harrison, possibly trying to sound like Eric Clapton. “But, yeah, this isn’t a rendition so much as a deconstruction of the song.”

Cray looked annoyed. “Now you’ve got me worrying Clapton played it on his last tour here.”

Remo shrugged. “Does it matter? I love it, the audience will love it.”

“Yeah. Okay.” He still seemed deflated, but by then I was used to Cray always seeing the lead lining in any cloud.

It went beautifully in the show. I didn’t sing. I left that all to him. The vocal harmonies that people identify with the song I hinted at in places where I played in unison, then in harmony, with the vocal line. But more than half the song had no lyrics the way we did it.

I say again: it went beautifully. But something about the performance, and the city, and the thoughts I’d been having, left me emotionally raw.

When I get like that, my usual strategy is to hole up alone until the feeling passes. But Cray wanted to bask in the success after the show and I knew if I disappeared he’d think I was avoiding him. Plus I wanted to prove to Remo that if there was a moody son of a bitch around it wasn’t me. So when everyone was hanging around the hotel bar, I drank too much and ended up literally face down on the bar, making that little prayer–you know the one–the one that starts out please don’t let me puke, and eventually the bargaining gets to please don’t let me puke right here right now while you desperately hope you can make it somewhere appropriate first.

Maybe prayer does work. Remo came to play guardian angel, and the next thing I knew he had helped me to my room. And how’s this for a miracle? Then I didn’t puke.

I did something worse.

When he got me sitting in bed with a bottle of water on the side table and my shoes off and my hair in a pony tail just in case, I asked, “Did you fuck my mother?”

And he said, “Once.”

Don’t ask me why–at that moment–that was the worst possible answer. I don’t know why it turned my entire emotional landscape upside down, but it did. I had no unpickled brain cells with which to process the news, of course, so my heart had a complete flip out.

Not that Remo could tell, I thought, since by then I was sitting up with my knees bent and my face buried in my arms.

There were so many things about it that I did not want to know. Whose idea was it? How did it happen? Why only once? Did Digger know about it at the time or did that come later? Why did he and Digger stay friends? Was I alive when it happened?

I didn’t want to know any of that. Which is to say, I did want to know, but I was sure the answers, no matter what they were, would make me feel even worse. Why the fuck did I ask him that?

The can of worms kept right on squirming. Did he mentor me as a favor for her? Did he stay close to Digger so he could stay close to her?

I raised my head. “Why did you tell me that?”

“You asked. I thought that meant you were ready to hear it.”

“For fuck’s sake, Remo.” I put my head back down.

“You want me to apologize?”

“No. You’re sure, absolutely sure, you’re not my real father, though?”

“Unless you were born two months late. Scared me to death when Claire started showing signs, though.”

“Remo!” I did not want to know that.

“If you don’t want to know, quit asking,” he said.

“For fuck’s sake,” I said again, because I couldn’t come up with anything else.

He stood to go. “Maybe we should talk about this when we’re both sober.”

“You think?”

“I’m gonna get Flip to come babysit you. I don’t want you choking on your own vomit or something.”

I couldn’t really argue with that. He left. A little while later the door opened and closed. I hadn’t moved. I peeked over my forearm expecting to see Flip.

It was Cray.

He was carrying two bottles that looked more like soda than alcohol, but in this country it wasn’t always easy to tell.

He handed me one. “Rocky swears this is the stuff.”

I assumed that meant either a nausea or hangover cure. “Gimme.”

He sat down in the chair next to the bed that Remo had vacated, popped open both bottles, we clinked them, and I took an experimental sip.

What do you know, it did settle my stomach somewhat. Now where was the drink to settle my blown mind?

(this is a fairly recent video and wow this band is tight, they sound amazing -d.)

(If you’ve never heard the all acoustic demo of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison, it’s worth a listen. Very different from the version on The White Album. -ctan)


  • Rush wrote a song about the Manhattan Project too… *looks it up* Oh, right, it was actually called The Manhattan Project, and it too was written in the 80s.

  • Stacey says:

    Enola Gay was OMD, wasn’t it? I listened to that song about a billion times in the summer of 1988.
    It’s interesting how much the specter of nuclear war colored things in that time – I was watching the movie War Games with my 11 year old daughter recently and trying to explain to her what was actually going on, why it had been such a big deal. It made me realize how, for us growing up in those years, it was just inborn knowledge or fear.

    • daron says:

      Yes, OMD, what the hell did I write above? Ultravox. I’ll fix it. Though now that I think about it, there’s an Ultravox song, too, isn’t there? There were so so many songs.

      • LenaLena says:

        The Ultravox song you’re thinking of is ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes’ which had a chilling video on constant rotation on MTV as I recall.

        • daron says:

          I didn’t remember the video at all… I used to watch a lot of MTV at certain points so I must have blocked it out of my memory? Or I used to change the channel? I don’t know. I just watched it again and it rings no bells. Strange. Here it is:

  • cayra says:

    Ah hell. There’s your lead lining.

  • Joe says:

    OK, ctan, that’s now the second song that doesn’t exist that I want to hear being played…

  • Joe says:

    I grew up in the 80’s, just a few years older than D would be. The imminent nuclear destruction thought was woven through every facet of life. I can’t imagine living in the 50’s; the 80’s were quite enough for me, thanks.

    I remember when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan — I thought it was the end (I don’t know why I thought that; melodramatic, hormonal teenage queen angst years, I guess). I can still see in my mind’s eye the “breaking news” crawling across the bottom of the TV screen announcing the invasion.

    • Joe says:

      I’m an avid board gamer, and about a decade ago a game came out called “Twilight Struggle” (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12333) which depicts the entirety of the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989. It’s a two-player game, with one person playing the Soviets and the other playing the United States. It so well captured the feelings of tension from the latter half of that era that I lived through, ratcheting up with each move and counter-move; it’s an amazing game. And it gives me the creeps, too.

    • ctan says:

      I also remember the intense cynicism about it, like so many of the power players in the Cold War didn’t actually believe any of the idealism they were supposedly defending, and how in the name of that war the US repeatedly betrayed its own principles of democracy. Iran-Contra, etc…

      And then Gorbachev happened, and the Berlin Wall came down, and the whole thing sort of evaporated… like the group-fantasy that it was.

      • Joe says:

        You really need like buttons, or thumbs or +1’s or something.

        I think I played Diplomacy once, many, many, too many years ago.

  • Averin says:

    In L.A., in the Sixties, they’d tell us how we were 3rd on the list with the Russians because of all the defense plants. By the time of this story, they were mostly gone, except for the lingering residue of toxic waste. My kids practice lockdowns in case of local violence. Someone robs a bank/a convenience store =-lockdown at the school. I guess that message is “crime isn’t cool?”

    • daron says:

      I feel sometimes like school shootings are the demons that were conjured up in my generation’s heads, but they escaped us and are possessing the next generation(s). In the eighties of course we had sick fantasies about shooting up our schools–but we never did it, we just listened to Pink Floyd’s THE WALL a hundred more times and counted the days until we could get the hell out. Since Columbine, though, all the way up to Newtown, I just… I don’t know what to say. Glad I’m not in school anymore and don’t have kids in school.

      And how weird is this? Today there was a lockdown at Columbine High School. I just went to look up the date and it’s all over the news. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-usa-columbine-20140123,0,738139.story

      • Joe says:

        I think today’s kids have it worse than we did. The threat of violence in schools…I don’t know how I’d ever learn anything.

  • Joe says:

    My last post (for now), I promise.

    A few years ago we had to put my grandfather into a nursing home (he lived to 106; the first 101 years were the best). I went to visit him regularly, 3-4 times a week, usually at dinner when I would help feed him. I got to know many of the other residents, some of whom were in the nursing care section because of physical issues, not mental issues, so they were still very lucid.

    One guy, whose name I can’t remember now, but it will come to me, told me a story one night. He was a Japanese POW somewhere around Hiroshima, though not too close to the city, obviously.

    He told me that he and his fellow prisoners heard air-raid sirens a few times hours prior to seeing a huge explosion on the horizon and they thought that the Allies had bombed a munitions depot or something, because the explosion was so bright and big. They knew nothing of what happened until they were released several weeks later. The train took them through the Hiroshima area and he said nothing was left standing, no trees, no structures, everything was just flattened. At that point they still had no idea what had happened, I think; it wasn’t until they were transferred to the Allies that they were told what had happened.

    I remember him telling me the story. He was quiet as he spoke; it wasn’t a memory that excited him in the re-telling or made him sad. He wasn’t quiet in a deadened-emotion kind of way, but rather more like a factual recounting. I can’t remember why he told me the story, though, if we had been talking about the war or what.

    Anyhow, it made quite the impression on me.

    • ctan says:

      Daron won’t get to go there on this trip, but I’ve been to Nagasaki and to the history museum there. The image that stays with me is of a huge display that is all clocks and watches that stopped at the moment of the blast. It’s chillingly concrete — at that moment, life simply ended for a huge number of people. The sheer destructive force and the will it took to unleash that on a civilian population… my mind boggles.

  • T. L. Thurston says:

    Ultravox was Hiroshima Mon Amour

    • daron says:

      Wow, I don’t even know that one. Dancing With Tears in My Eyes was the one I was trying to think of. But there are so many songs. And plenty of bands did more than one.

  • marktreble says:

    Twelve seconds is about right, but not for the radiation.

    The Hiroshima blast was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. The overpresure (5 psi) from the blast destroyed almost everything out to a radius of about two miles. The three psi overpressure, which severely damaged almost everything, went out to about four miles.

    In 1961 the USSR detonated the Tsar Bomb, the equivalent of 50,000,000 tons of TNT, or about three thousand times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The blast wave traveled outward at more than two miles per second at the beginning. I believe that the three psi overpressure line was more than sixty miles away; the five psi line would have been perhaps 40 miles away. Wherever that town was in New Jersey, it would have been between twelve and twenty-five seconds later that the school would have disintegrated. No need for radiation.

    So much nicer to be blown to bits than fried, don’t you think?

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