Iron Maiden released their album Live After Death in October of 1985 and I was thunderstruck. I distinctly recall walking into Eli's Records and Tapes—it was housed in a building that is now an auto parts store next to a Mexican restaurant way out on the far south end of Brooks in Missoula—and one entire wall was essentially a display of the album. A gigantic poster of the cover, racks and racks of records and cassettes. I immediately bought it and some blank Maxells to record it onto.
I'd only graduated high school a few months before. I was living in Missoula at the time with my sister. This was my ill-fated one-semester career at the University of Montana as a "music major" where I cut every class and played intramural soccer with a bunch of hippies all day. I tried going to class a few times, but the smug superiority of the instructors vs. my own anti-authority stance just didn't mesh. I didn't want to carry a tuba in the marching band (something they tried to get me to do), I wanted to rock. I left and never considered going back.
The friends I played in a band with were still in high school and we practiced out in Frenchtown. There were a couple standalone classrooms behind the elementary that school administration generously allowed us to rehearse in. There was a small space in the back of the room we could shove our gear into when we were finished. It was glorious, like a rock clubhouse. We didn't smoke or drink or do anything but hang out and write songs for hours every night.
I was driving an old yellow 70s-era Jeep Wagoneer that had ... issues. Every now and then it would sputter to a stop and I'd have to pull off the side of the road and let it sit a while before I could drive again. So I'd take Mullan Road out to Frenchtown, the same route I drive daily now, and could usually get about as far as the top of the hill across from the cemetery before I'd have to stop and let it rest. I didn't care, because I was blasting this Live After Death recording, memorizing every note, every beat. If this record was played at my funeral it would be appropriate because I still love it so very much. Hell, I remember my first work trip to Los Angeles decades later, driving under a sign giving directions to Long Beach, where the live shows were recorded, and belting out at the top of my voice (as Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson does throughout the record), “Scream for me, Long Beach! SCREAM FOR ME, LONG BEACH!”
“I like old things, though. I do. I'm given to nostalgia. I knew that as a kid. It was the strangest thing. I'm nostalgic about what we had for breakfast. Yeah. It's not necessarily an impressive trait but it's true.” — Dr. Martin Shaw
Yesterday I ventured onto YouTube for this video, a short interview with writer/scholar/storyteller Dr. Martin Shaw. I’m referencing it for a workshop I’m leading next month. I've watched it a number of times over the last couple years and I love it. At the tail end he drops this quote:
"Your art is the dignified display of the heartbreak that is the debt of living."
I have sat with that line so many times. I've shared it with other people. I've used it in workshops. If that doesn't sum up what I try and get at with my writing, what I encourage others to get to, then nothing else does.
YouTube likes to suggest other videos I might like and they're usually wrong. In this case, it was a woman opera singer/teacher allegedly listening to Iron Maiden's "Hallowed Be Thy Name" for the first time. So I clicked it to see what the story was. Immediately I was annoyed at the version of the song they chose. Then I was annoyed with how she kept pausing it to comment. It led me away to listen to the song on my own.
That tumbled me into a multi-hour rabbit hole of playing (and weeping over) songs that I have loved for various reasons in my life. It almost felt like an emotional breakdown; I'm sure many people can relate to this experience over the past year or so. Songs connected to people from my past, songs related to my life today. When I closed my laptop I was amazed at how much time had just dissipated and I accomplished nothing but puffy eyes and a hitch in my chest that I'm still coughing through.
I landed on "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the live version. It's an adaptation of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem from a couple hundred years ago and I have to say I much prefer Maiden's version; bassist Steve Harris, the band's primary songwriter, did a wonderful job in adapting a long and tedious poem for consumption by fans, like me, who loved the band for their storytelling.
The mariner of the title—a "grey-beard loon" if the original poem is to be believed—has just survived a harrowing sea voyage and must tell the tale. In this case it is to a male guest at some fancy wedding. The tale unfolds from here, this journey to sea, and how the mariner's killing of an albatross leads to a becalmed sea, dying sailors, and a visitation from a ghost ship piloted by no less than Lady Death Herself. The mariner is the lone survivor. There is a metaphor there, hammering us over the head, for how we treat the world today, isn’t there?
"Your art is the dignified display of the heartbreak that is the debt of living."
I share the same addiction to nostalgia that Shaw references. The other morning my first thought, and I don’t know why it chose to rise up after all these years, was a memory from the rehearsals in that old school building. There was a piano in there, shoved off to the side. My late friend Bubba, our drummer, who I've written about HERE before, sat down, banged a chord on the keys, and wailed, in blistering falsetto and warbling vibrato, "Songs that made the hit parade!" ala the opening to "All in the Family" and we all collapsed in hysteria on the floor. Nearly 40 years later, I found myself laughing to myself all over again from my nest on the couch of this strange house I've spent the last three weeks living in.
It has been challenging. Two Fridays in a row I taught poetry workshops via zoom to young men, boys really, aged 10-17, incarcerated at Pine Hills Correctional Facility in Miles City, Montana. The first session had to have included more than a dozen students, but the setup—they were in the midst of a COVID outbreak so they were isolated in small groups across three separate rooms—made it difficult to be sure. The second session was only three students. The others had all been denied the class for various reasons related to behavior, and that troubled me. What kind of behavior? And why was I being used as a means to punish them, if only by denying access to me? It still bothers me. I began and ended the workshop with the Shaw quote. Their art, their heartbreak, must be shared with the world. Their voices must be heard.
Less than a week later I found myself outside on a glorious spring day talking about writing and being an Indian to a 9th grade class of students here in Crested Butte. All white (two of the three boys in my final Pine Hills class were Native), and a group of the boys were all giddy over an upcoming trip to Chicago for a hockey tournament. The contrast was unnerving, and I knew, afterward, that if I went back to my empty house and my table stacked with books and a looming pile of work crashing into a deadline I'd probably lose it. So I sought peace in the mountains. I sat beside a tumbling waterfall and studied my feet and hoped to encounter a moose once I made it back down to the river bottom.
One of these Crested Butte students challenged me a couple times, or seemed to. First he wanted to know my thoughts on the Israel/Palestine situation. Later he asked how I felt about the fact that, from the earliest days, Indians were willing to trade with whites. The challenge I heard might have only existed in my own head, but I bristled internally ... toward what, a 15yo kid? Where does that hair trigger inside me come from? I held it together and smiled, but I did say that if I could re-write history, I'd probably hope that every white person that stepped onto this continent right from the get-go would have been killed. I went on from there though more reasonably. Still, it is a part of me I must come to terms with, my reaction to comments. Unwittingly the boy hinted at an argument people like to make all too often. “But Indians benefitted too!” Yeah? Look at a map. See how well that worked out for us.
In another online event a couple weeks ago, this one with adults, I asked a writer who is a #defundthepolice activist (among many other things) how I answer questions that make me want to punch the questioner in the face. He shrugged, and essentially said, “Maybe you should just punch them in the face.”
I can relate to the sentiment but that’s not who I want to be. The internal struggle doesn’t make things any easier. How do I learn to get along with others when it seems I can hardly get along with myself? How do any of us, as we emerge into this post-COVID world, which feels in so many ways like an ushering into a gathering inferno? Things aren’t going to be the same. They can’t be.
The mariner's bound to tell of his story
To tell this tale wherever he goes
To teach God's word by his own example
That we must love all things that God made
And the wedding guest's a sad and wiser man
And the tale goes on and on and on and on and on
Maybe this is the answer, these closing lines to the “Ancient Mariner” poem. We tell our stories; we embrace myth, as Shaw urges us to do. We face the hurt and the danger of living in a world ambivalent toward our survival. We love all things, for better or worse.
Maybe it’s even simpler. Maybe we take Bruce Dickinson’s introduction to “Rime” on the record—“And the moral of this story is this is what not to do if a bird shits on you!”—and make a metaphor out of it too. It wouldn’t be a bad way to live one’s life. Isn’t that basically what “turn the other cheek” means anyway?
Or maybe we make, and seek out, art that is this dignified display of the heartbreak that is the debt of living. Maybe the shared sorrow holds the key to our future. I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of the above.