Switchblade Poetry


By Joe Kurmaskie — It was the middle of the night by the time we pulled our bicycles out of the bushes. I guess some people locked up their rides in 1979, but not my crew. We tossed them under palmetto bushes and tied a bandana or jammed a beer can atop of the palm frond to mark the spot. This produced mixed results if there was partying involved. 

Falling Down inPublic book coverLike everyone else, we'd waited too long after Bruce – sweating, spent, completely emptied of all his gargantuan gifts and rebel soul – called it quits. Like any religious experience, no one wanted it over. All of us standing there in the darkness with our rock-n-roll brothers and sisters, converts and apostles refusing to believe the service was done. We pounded the backs of the seats and stomped the cement floor, willing it to go on, and finally, just standing together in hallow silence, desperate, a little pathetic, not able to let go yet. We had to make sure that this four-hour musical baptism we'd come through together was truly in the books. We had to see the body one more time… and it wouldn't had hurt if someone had stepped up to the mic and told us what all this stirred around shit inside our heads and guts meant, but as with most things in life, we were unceremoniously shown the door: a mass of humanity moving in unison out of the civic center, doing that subdued, post-concert, ear ringing, zombie shuffle down the breezeway. 

And the whole time I kept thinking. “Four hours, for less than $10, plus those stoners in the El Camino gave us free beer. I may have just peaked.”

I had not, but at 15, if you are doing it right, you think you've peaked three or four times a week.

In the bigger scheme though, it was a significant highlight at any age. The Boss is the most luscious, bittersweet way to lose one's live music virginity. It ruined me, really for live music at least through high school. Ironic that one of my favorite old man glory days memories will more than likely be about the guy who popularized Glory Days memories. 

After checking under countless bushes, five of us pedaled out of the lot. As we went, mostly in silence, one would peel off, then another, until it was only me coasting the empty streets of my hometown.

Live oak trees, heavy with Spanish moss, formed something of a tunnel along both sides of the avenues. The streetlights gave the moss a luminous quality. I rode with no hands, no helmet and a new concert t-shirt. I've never felt as safe.

Circa 1980: Spring of 9th grade. Our Drama/English teacher, Mr. Wicker educating us about soliloquies. The assignment – memorize and recite a passage. The nice thing? It wasn't dealer's choice – we got to pick the material but had to clear it with Wicker. Lots of Shakespeare and Poe on the roster. When it came to me, I'd gotten something different cleared for take-off. Did I mention that Wicker had us perform these on the auditorium stage in front of both English classes… for a grade?

I could tell you I selected Springsteen's Jungleland because I'd seen him perform it live the previous summer, and that it spoke to me, a privileged white kid in Florida as if I were a tough gangsta rat living on the hard streets of Jersey. Or that I found The Boss to be a poet superior to anyone I'd read in school. Or that I already had all the lyrics memorized from playing it so often while building puzzles and drinking grape Nehi soda in my bedroom. All of this would be true. But really, it was because for Christmas that year I had asked and received a switchblade comb. I loved flicking it open and closed and combing my platinum blond feathered hair until even my younger brother told me to knock that shit off.

My performance was technically accurate and chocked full of pretension if not passion. I enjoyed myself immensely. I tried for all the inflections and volume changes that Bruce did in concert. I flourished my switchblade comb from the back pocket of my jeans at the right moment in the soliloquy;

“Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades

Hustling for the record machine”

I even sat down at the edge of the stage for the lines,

“In the tunnels uptown the Rat's own dream guns him down

As shots echo down them hallways in the night

No one watches when the ambulance pulls away

Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light”

I got to my feet and closed that shit out proper.

When it was done, Mr. Wicker, in what could have been a scene out of the film, Waiting For Guffman, put his pen to his mouth and asked me why I chose that song to deliver over say Poe or Shakespeare? Of course, I got all defensive and aggressively pseudo-intellectual, like some pint-sized Joe Rogan… when all he was doing was trying to get me to think deeper or express my angst. I realized years later that Mr. Wicker was all of 27 at the time. But on stage, without the lyrics to hide behind, I ended my turn by saying, “Cause it's the Boss, Man. Also, fuck the raven.”

Flashforward. I'm the student director/stage manager for the school production of The Wizard of Oz, directed by Mr. Wicker. We are driving around in his girlfriend's VW Bug; she was also the counselor at our school, and I did not until that day realize they had more than a professional relationship going. I saw Wicker in a different light all of a sudden, So we are driving to pick up costumes in the middle of a school day which is disconcerting right there. Driving with a teacher during the school day.

Mr. Wicker tells me to stop messing with the radio. He has a tape he wants to listen to. Ah, now it's gonna be his bullshit tunes.

Springsteen's Jungleland fills the little car. I sit in silence for a few minutes and when it's done all I can think to say is, “You Son of a Bitch.”

He smiles and offers me a can of Mello Yellow. I turn it down so I can comb my hair in the passenger seat with my switchblade and contemplate the ever-changing nature of things.

Joe Kurmaskie is a journalist, syndicated columnist, and contributor to numerous magazines including Outside, Bicycling Magazine, Men's Journal and Parenting. He's a bike advocate, activist, found of Cadence Press, and a Random House author of seven books including Metal Cowboy, Mud, Sweat and Gears and A Guide To Falling Down In Public.

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