Friday Night Clam Bake – #9: How the Twisted Lyrics I Heard in My Urchin Years Might Have Contributed to the Twisted Man I Am Today

Exhibit A: Richard Harris – “MacArthur Park”

Mom was working at St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time. As everyone in the medical profession knows, hospital shifts involve some jacked-up hours, and I vaguely recall that Mom had to report at 6am. (This may be a lie; all I know is that it was dark when we left the house, barely awake and unimpressed that we had to get up in the first place.) We had a Volkswagen Beetle at the time, as did 97% of the planet. I would lumber towards that essentially-useless “storage area” behind the backseat, where I was still small enough to hunker down in defiance, expressing my societal outrage via personal-confinement.

Through some combination of our house being somewhat near the hospital, the length of the song, and the apparently rigid playlist of the radio station Mom then relished, Richard’s cryptic words were the only things I heard from the ignition of the car to my quick abandonment at the daycare/preschool/minimum-security correctional facility next to the hospital. Someone left the cake out in the rain at the same time that I was being left out to dry in the American educational system. No wonder I have food issues to this day.



Exhibit B: Don McLean – “American Pie”

Somewhere in the archives, there is the tale of my father having an obsession with both driving recklessly on motorcycles and tormenting me by insisting that I join him in these ventures. (Having no voting rights in the matter, I also had no choice.) Short version of this tragic and woeful saga: The climax occurred at one of those dirt-bike parks that were all the rage, with Daddy ignoring my anguished protests of violation and malfeasance as he attempted to run up a hill with a gradient of roughly 87 degrees.

We nearly died. And during this extremely spiritual moment, at least at those points when I wasn’t screaming, I could hear this song braying out of a nearby yokel’s pickup truck. (No idea if pink carnations were in said truck, as I didn’t quite have the time to do a proper review of the inventory, busy as I was with envisioning what type of choreography would be performed at my funeral. Because there WILL BE choreography, write that down.) You know your day is not going to go well when a complete stranger says things like “mister, maybe you oughta let the boy hop down before you try that” and your padre flips off said stranger.



Exhibit C: America – “A Horse with No Name”

In 1972, Evel Knievel Daddy uprooted the family and moved us from the relatively sophisticated metropolis of Tulsa and out to the sordid backwaters of nearby Broken Arrow. (The rest of us just assumed that one of us was being punished for some vague transgression; that’s just how the family dynamic worked until The Big Divorce came along and completely reworked the script, changed the cast, and forever altered the fabric of family reunions.) This meant that I was plucked out of one school system, after having only served time in the first grade and clearly not getting my sea legs, and thrown into another. Complicating matters, this change involved going from a questionably-performing but somewhat stable school system into one that was on the verge of exploding into the fastest growing system in the state.

The school board had no idea what to do. Neither did I, lost in a wave of anonymity where names became numbers and educating became processing. (If you think a child doesn’t notice these things, you may not be giving that child enough credit, especially if he has already written a treatise entitled “Reflections on the Absurdities of My Single-Digit Years”, complete with annotations and pie charts.) On the flip side, an inventive child can get away with an amazing number of indiscretions when administrators are overwhelmed with just making sure there is enough government-subsidized food in the lunchroom.


Exhibit D: Elton John – “Levon”

My respect for EJ (and Bernie Taupin) is no secret on this blog. They have collaborated on a number of songs that are actually closer to my heart, but this one allows the listener to interpret things in a variety of ways, especially the one line that helped nudge me towards realizing it is okay to question what you’ve been told. And no, it’s not about Levon Helm. It’s about life. And that musical arrangement? Well, enough said…



Exhibit E: Far Corporation – “Stairway to Heaven”

Yep, I’m breaking protocol by not including the original version but rather a years-later remake. (Blame EJ and Bernie. They told me to branch out. I listened.) The Led Zeppelin version of this song was huge, obviously, and still is, despite the fact that nobody really knew what it was about, other than a slight indictment of the commercialization of religion. (Foreshadowing? Discuss amongst yourselves.) In this left-field take, a mix of homage and questionable decisions, we experience a then-modern revamping of something we had heard before presented in a different way.

And really, isn’t that what life should be? You take what you know and you make it your own, even if nobody else really gets it. As Levon or Elton or Jesus would say, “take a balloon and go sailing…”



Previously published, minor changes made. This particular Clam Bake is from the days when I used to incorporate music videos into the stories in this series. I got away from that (far way, in some cases), and then I eventually got away from doing Clam Bakes at all. (But I do re-share the dusty nuggets from time to time.) I’m thinking about reviving this project (along with other series that are on life-support, such as “Sunday in the Park with Brian” and “Writer to Writer” and “Sound-Bite Cinema”.) But I’m not sure if my heart is still in it.

And it makes me wonder…. (wonder)….

Elton John, flamboyantly: “Honey, the things that worked in the earlier days of your career are still golden. Bang on that drum as much as you can. Why do you think I’ve released 36 versions of a Greatest Hits album?”

Brian, sighingly: “But I don’t have a career. Well, not in writing. And lately my mind has been drifting and I don’t know where I’m going with my life goals, and I keep making poor choices about what to do with my time.”

Elton, confessionally: “Oh, I completely understand such a dilemma. I get lost in the dust in the wind as well. Remember that time I married a woman? As if that was real. Anyway, what you have to realize is that life is fluid and what seemed important at one time no longer might be. It’s fine if you never bake a clam again. But if you do, that’s fine, too. What matters is that you keep baking. Stop worrying what others might think and procrastinating because you don’t trust in yourself and justifying the worrying and procrastinating out of fear. Jump off the damn cliff and only do what you what to do, right here, right now.”

Brian, appreciatively: “Wow, Shiny Dancer. You just hit my reset button. Thank you so much. Could I possibly get your autograph so I can frame it and put it on the Inspiration Wall behind the desk where I scribble my stories every night, even if I’m not baking clams?”

Elton, clarifyingly: “No, dear. I don’t do the writing. Bernie does that.”

P.S. For those keeping score since I released the “song reference” post five days ago, I just added seven more ticks to our running tally since then. Pretty soon we’ll have 99 luftballons…

31 replies »

  1. I’m sure I couldn’t say anything about your daddy that hasn’t already been said (probably under oath during legal proceedings) so I’ll just say that somebody did a damn fine job of raising you despite. Or, as EJ (and Bernie) say: “Change is gonna do me good.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • One good thing I’ll say about my daddy is that he taught me what one shouldn’t do, simply because the things he would do did not sit well with me and I learned early on that what one does has repercussions with everyone around them. Some of those echoes never stop. And for the record, books and music and a handful of friends and escapes into my imagination got me through it…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Keep baking baby. That is if you want to. No pressure, but you obviously enjoy all these musical metaphors. I have to admit that metaphors are not my strong suit and it took many many years to figure out some of these. Consider putting them in context for those of us who aren’t as deep.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I’ll keep baking. And I hope that I do manage to put things in context every now and then, but I’m firmly aware that my messy mind will never be fully understood or properly documented as a warning to future generations… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah the music. Something that I personally (privately too, I get enough strange looks from folks I know without saying I live my life with theme music blaring in my head) use as a handy tool to dig me out of the deep dark trenches where I dwell sometimes. This entire post was fraught with tasty, baked just right ‘clams’, and winkles of memory from my own youth (except Stairway to Heaven) I’ve never heard of your particular band choice (singers or whomever they might be); and Led Zepplin’s version was over-played so much in my version of reality that I now hate that song with a loathing reserved for Republicans and pin-heads with straw hair who use too much “fake tan”. But as you point out, we don’t all have to sing from the same hymnal. Variety is good and is the spice of life apparently. Your father’s sadism in hauling you up a nearly vertical incline on a dirt bike (the man was more than a bit off plumb, wasn’t he? No offense, I just recognize the symptoms) reminded me of the torture I endured from certain unnamed male relatives of mine, who after they got their driver’s licenses (the DMV is full of irony and insane people apparently); would drive whatever vehicle they could beg or borrow up dirt cliffs or unstable piles of snow in the winter; with me in the passenger seat, clutching the suicide bar with so much force I left fingerprints in the plastic. If I screamed or flinched at all, this was a cause for much hilarity and jokes about “women” and how we can’t appreciate death-defying at its finest. I’m struck with wonder that none of the men mentioned (your dad and my gaggle of male twerps) ever did roll the truck or whatever they were driving. Would have served them right, as long as they didn’t take us with them!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I almost always have a soundtrack playing in my head, no matter what I’m doing. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Music was one of my escape mechanisms during my tumultuous childhood, and it has continued to flavor most things I’ve done since then. To be fair, my choice of theme music does not always match the situation, but that’s also the result of my childhood. I took what I could get and I made the best of it.

      To this day, I still don’t understand anyone (male or female) who is so callous and self-centered that they cannot grasp how the choices they make can have life-long impacts on the innocents around them, especially children who have no control in the situation. How does one get to that point of such blatant disregard? I just can’t process it…


  4. Questions I have about these songs still haunt me: 1) Why the hell would you leave a cake out in the rain instead of eating it, especially since it took you so long to bake it? 2) Why is it surprising that the levee was dry? Levees are supposed to be dry–otherwise they’re not doing their job. 3) Why would you not give your horse a name? Personally, I would name my horse Mr. Fitzwilliam. 4) Why would it take Jesus all day to blow up balloons? He can turn water into wine with the snap of a finger–surely he could inflate balloons more quickly than that. 5) No question–I really love this song.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My completely pointless responses to your queries:

      1. Why would anyone leave a cake outside, rain OR shine? There appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of proper product placement in this situation.

      2. I think the nexus of the issue here is that songwriter Don McLean was simply trying to find a word that rhymed with “Chevy”, and the logic fell apart from that point forward.

      3. I name everything, even things that don’t belong to me, so I’m at a loss as well.

      4. It’s obvious that Jesus has some focus issues. It happens to the best of us.

      5. Agreed, no questions needed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am very much a person who relates music to memories or as metaphors. I have been known to suddenly burst into a song and dance routine, as if my life was a musical… a VERY low budget musical.

    Levon is one of my favorites! I say you listen to Sir Elton and keep baking!
    The finished product doesn’t matter, it’s the *doing* that matters.🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    • As Melanie mentioned above, I’m one of those people who always has a soundtrack playing in my head, regardless of the situation. I spent so many of my formative years escaping into music that it’s just part of my persona to this very day. And the musical of my life would be very low-budget as well, so perhaps we could combine our tiny finances and share the production costs? I’ll have my people get with your people.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The line that resonated for me was ‘lost in a wave of anonymity where names became numbers and educating became processing.’ Damn, that nails it. To go from a small school where everybody knows your name to a school that (de)grades you by the marks you scraped in English examinations, the System ignoring the bonds of close friendships from your previous school. Looking only at their numbers, not our names, briskly filling up each class to the absolute maximum permitted by the Education Department: Depositing the whole unrelated unknowing mixed-up class into the tender mercies of a grim all-but-flamed-out Snape lookalike. (No names, because I wouldn’t want to be sued by you, would I Mr French?) The only thing I learnt in my first three months there was not to flinch when the madman thumped on his splintering drool-flecked desk or the cracked blackboard. The way to survive Monday through Friday was to become just another silent small unquestioning part of the spotty grey uniformed anonymous quivering mass.
    One doesn’t learn through fear. Ah, schooldays, misery covered memories…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hear everything that you’re saying. Perhaps things are better now (I have my doubts), but the cold machinery in place during my 12 years on the conveyor belt of education was very daunting, and one could easily be overwhelmed and overlooked. The saving grace was that we had a small contingent of teachers who damned the damn machinery and did their best to grow a child and not just check boxes on generic forms. I sought them out and worshipped them greatly…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great teachers are a rarity, sadly. Every day I suffered a (Mr) French lesson but there was one only great art lesson per week (Thank God for Fridays and the warm encouraging class act of Mr Cameron.) The bad/bland/bored torturer/tutor ratio to the rarely gifted teacher was never in my favour. 10 to one at best. At least I’ve not been scarred by that French farce- or to give him his more apt name, French arse.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. “I was being left out to dry in the American educational system.” LOL. That’s hilarious. How much we suffer from our schooling? Many of us believe in unchanging dogmas and one correct answer for each problem of the world. Those are what our schooling teaches us to believe. Some will continue believe what they learned in school even though reality proves them wrong time and time again.

    If I had not watched a video of motorcycles climbing vertical walls, I wouldn’t have believed your story of 87C, but I completely believe you.

    Is that really Elton John? His younger self looks so different from his current image. LOL. I think both are wonderful–just being different. He was once married to a woman? I guess all the women were chasing after him and he had to choose one to fend off all the rest. Is that because he didn’t know his own orientation? Wow, the world is such an interesting place, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree that the “schooling” many of us receive (in both public and private systems) does not adequately prepare youngsters for what life holds for them once they receive a diploma. This is not to slight all of the wonderful teachers out there, but is more of reflection on the strict practices that those teachers must follow, often mandated by state legislators who don’t have a clue about what it takes to properly teach a child. Here in Texas, the overwhelming emphasis is on standardized testing, which is ridiculous. Some of the smartest people in the world just don’t do well on tests, especially tests that do not reflect their own culture and upbringing. Each child is different.

      I mildly exaggerated the incline of the motorcycle hill, but not by much. That thing was steep!

      I think Elton succumbed to societal pressure when he married Renate, as he had known his orientation for quite some time. Of course, I wasn’t invited to the wedding, so I don’t know his real reasons, but I can certainly understand his decision to do so. It wasn’t all that long ago when gay people like me had to hide themselves as best they could, and that’s still the case in certain parts of America and many parts of the world. Sad…


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