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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Mouse Ears Redux (An Election Year Conversation Poem)


Miss America Pageant contestant Yolanda Betbeze: photo by Dick De Marsico, New York World Telegram and Sun, 1950 (Library of Congress)

"I'd be burned out too. Disneyland
Is awesome but it's tiring." I guess I'd hoped
Despite myself the Cal student slouching
Down Shattuck gassing on cell with his
Girlfriend (?) would be addressing the world
Going on, which they'll have to live in
After Tuesday. But maybe they're Young
Republicans; I never have a clue
Any more. I was down with the New
Frontier. Senior year wore my hair
Like Kennedy's. Had never imitated
Ike's hairdo, skinheads weren't in, then.
Crusade in Europe however made
My Top 5 Books Read in the Forties
List, tied for fifth with Blood, Sweat and Tears.
One through four: Navy Blue and Gold, Seventeenth
Summer, The Kid from Left Field, The Seven
Wonders of the World.
Too, I dug Ghost Riders
In the Sky,
which to my priest-trained ears rang
With vivid personal Apocalypse
Associations. At that time the Four
Horsemen of Notre Dame were still famous

File:Four Horsemen Notre Dame.jpg

The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame: Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher: photographer unknown, c. 1924; image by Jweiss, 11 December 2010

In my Chicago Irish neighborhood and
In my mind; I could tell you their names today
And would, were there not a world going on.
Indeed I had an envied grade school chum,
Ed Collins, whose dad had been one of
The Seven Mules; that, to me, was buzzworthy.
Have you ever seen that film, The Rapture? She goes
Out in the wilderness to receive the light.
But it doesn't come. Just cops. Later arrive
The Apocalypse horses, however, and
Bust down the jailhouse walls. You'll recall
Joshua's chart-topping ditty at
Jericho -- down tumble the bricks. We've fit
This battle before, to what end? But then, it's
All good, you feel me?
End times can resemble
Starts (We've only just begun, as Karen C.,
Starving to death amid the fat of the land,
Once warbled in that bank commercial)

File:Karen Carpenter.jpg

Karen Carpenter: photographer unknown, early 1970s: image by TheCuriousGnome, 27 January 2010

To fools like us. It's like in The Master
And Margarita, in the Russian TV
Movie version, where Pontius Pilate
And Jesus walk off into the stars: He walks
With me, He talks with me, He calls me his own
As the long day closes. Now it's deep night, rain,
I'm scribbling this with a borrowed pen, huddling
Beneath an arcade for shelter
In a public place, as occasional grey
Incurious strangers -- lost souls like me? --
Drift past. One nation, indivisible
Or was it invisible? mere hours before
The polls open. Annette Funicello
I liked in seventh grade, but mouse ears
I never wore, O Friend! My top three
Songs of the pre-Korean War epoch
Were Rum and Coca-Cola, Perfidia,
Hernando's Hideaway;
Mention goes to that one about standing
On a corner by a pawnshop in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, watching all the girls
Go by. So, Where were the girls? They were going
By that corner. I remember that song
Swamping my pre-adolescent psyche
Through an entire Cub Scout den meeting
At Billy Beaver's house. Billy had a weight
Problem; was good at tying knots, but on
Our frontiering expedition to the wild
Scrub margins of the West Side -- this before
The suburbs extended all the way west
To Iowa--managed to fall off a branch-bridge
Over the world's puniest creek. Wet buns
For Billy's campfire hot dogs, that sad day.

Young Romance, July 1954 (cover): image by Chordboard, 4 July 2008

And where were the girls then, were they camping
Happily by their own fireside along
The Allegheny, the Monongahela
Or the Ohio, laughing at us? Before
Men are evil, one fears, boys are silly.
Is That All There Is? Peggy Lee sounded
Justifiably disappointed. Fever
Kindled in me such heats that, after hearing
It in the back of a convertible en
Route to a softball game in La Grange, or some
Such western outpost, my suppressed and
Unacknowledged passion for unsuspecting
Fourteen-year-old Jan D. so distracted
Me that, playing first base, I lost a popup
In the lights, dropped it, and still wince almost
As painfully at the memory as when
The event happened. But where was I?
Somewhere around 1954? From the subsequent
Early-adolescent period, Ebb
Tide, Stranger in Paradise, Volare
Probably topped my private charts. This was
Mid-America, remember; little
Freedom to choose, definitely no
Alan Freed to guide one. But to get back to your
Question, burning like a plutonium
Ingot in the pants of an action hero,
Where were the girls? Dipping Volare
In my cut-price Proustian teacup, I get
Faint echoes of that then popular tune

Wrigley Field, Chicago: photo by Carol M. Highsmith, n.d. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress)

Being played by the Chicago Cubs'
Ballpark organist. I had an ushering job
As well as a crush on a girl from Wheaton
I'd met there at Wrigley, dusting off her box
Seat before a game. She spilled popcorn
On the lap of her madras bermudas;
Trained by the book to be heroic
In my blue-and-gold uniform, I stepped
Into the breach and offered to help her
Clean things up down there. Immense surprise!
She declined, and not even all that
Gratefully. Girls see things another way,
There was no choice but to then conclude.
I rued my foolish move all the way home
On the Chicago & Northwestern. What did
I know of girls' tragic magic, then?
Or of my own motives, for that matter? Then
There came a quickening of the tempo:
Sh'Boom, Shake, Rattle & Roll. Something like
Apprehension began to dawn: Earth Angel,
Heard on a transistor in the basketball
Team bus, signalled an upheaval of sorts. Next
Occurred The Awakening: Cathy's
Clown -- where were the girls
I imagined
Clustering around Don and Phil? Gone,
If one was to believe the song. And then in time,
Peggy Sue -- I loved that stutter of Buddy's,


Buddy Holly on The Ed Sullivan Show, New York, 26 January 1958: photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis; image by Carl Savich, 13 September 2011

Signature, as I thought, of an existential
Urgency I understood; few songs could have
Gladdened me more than it did when, wind blowing
In our hair through the windows of my Olds,
I drove the girls to beaches by the Great
Lakes of my first real adventures
In biology with the opposite sex.
And in the dark western woods beyond
The city lights, there was that parking spot
Called Tail Light, because cops, stopping in on
Their rounds to peep into steamed-up car
Windows o'winter nights, never interfered
As long as you kept your tail-lights on. Red
Evidence of a rich interior life
Wasted on impressionable children
Of the benighted prairie, as seen from
The eyes of voyeurs with badges. O Friend!
Did you ever hear Zappa's song Catholic
The phenomena Frank attested
Were less local-regional than ethnic-
Cultural, one suspects, as prevalent
In Chicago as in New York or Rome.
Catholic girls were like Disneyland,
Awesome. Had I had strength to brave that
Daunting conflagration -- think, if you will, O
Friend, of the lava storms of Mt. St. Helens;
Or better still, of Vesuvius, youthful me
Stranded in Pompeii, my toga wrapped
Ineffectually about my feeble
Loins to protect me from the fires
To come -- I'd be burned out too, by now.
But though that boiling crater's long since
Banked its flames and cooled for good, still it's true:
There's a world going on, and I'm stuck in it;
The girls are old too; now we're all in it --
Whatever it is, this weird world -- together.

First Mickey Mouse character balloon to appear in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday 29 November 1934, Broadway and 110th Street, New York: image via William J. Crawford, 2009

Mouse Ears Redux (An Election Year Conversation Poem), revised from Lines Not Written Wearing Mouse Ears, 3 November 2008, in TC: The New World, 2009


TC said...

The poem was writ 3 November 2008, on the eve of the US Presidential Elections.

The reiterated line "There's a world going on..." comes from the lyric to "A Man Needs To Be Told", by Charlatans (UK).

The song underwrites the poem.

It was a song the band's UK audiences knew by heart.

Charlatans (UK): A Man Needs To Be Told (Live @ Manchester Deaf Institute).

A Man Needs To Be Told (excerpt) @ Lincoln Engine She.

An excerpt, intercut with shots from a film about the war that provoked the song:

Redacted: A Man Needs to be Told.

And seen from another (cartoon) angle:

A Man Needs To Be Told (original studio version, with funny little man video).

The wars never stop, there's still a world going on, a man forever needs to be told.

Full song lyrics:

A man needs to be told there is a war going on
There is a world going on
There is a world going on
A man needs to be told to look in to the light
He will get lost in the day
He will get lost in the night
A man needs to be told

A young boy once told me
I will be an old man and I am only 15
It wasn't part of the plan
It wasn't part of the dream
Ever wonder how much the man who wrote White Christmas made?
How evolution began?
The revolution was fake
A man needs to be told

A man needs to be told there is a war going on
There is a war going on
There is a war going on
A man needs to be told there is a truth in his eye
There is a rest in the dawn
There is a point to his life
A man needs to be told!

Nin Andrews said...

This is one powerful poem! I feel as if I am writing it with you, or in it, every step, even if it goes back a few years before my birth. I can hear the Berkeley guy talking on his cell, the students there, which are not quite the L wingers everyone seems to suggest in the news, and the weird feeling it gives one when walking past --with the world going on. I always have this feeling that we live in Disney World here in the US and want to keep living our Disney lives, and sob and cry--it's not American if I don't have more pie than everyone else -- which we assume will go on forever, our strange Disney lives, even as the wars and world keeps going on, and . . . Well, I love it, everything--baseball, rock n' roll, Catholic girls, years passing, the natural glide of the mind, and so much more.

TC said...

Bingo. I love it too, Nin. We did always assume there would be more of the pie, no matter how big the bite we took. And now, no more pie, no more strange Disney lives. And the dream was a lie. But there are those who would insist on going on living it.

Cultural memories are indeed strange, but... what else have we got?

A house of cards canopy over an occupy encampment the size of Utah, tent flaps blowing around in the winter night wind.

TC said...

Funny afterthought to that, last week I happened to be slouching out of the UC campus Occupy thing e'en as the badges were wading in... and exiting beside me I noticed a young couple, pretty young American blond girl, skinny diminutive male companion wearing camouflaged combat pants. She was carrying a puppy in a blanket, in her arms. He was saying, with a thick Irish accent, "No, I do not want to get shot at again."

I engaged them in conversation. And asked if he had been shot at...lately?

"I have," he said.

"With what, tear gas?"

"No, rubber bullets. But it weren't nothin', compared to what I've seen."

And where and when, I enquired.

"In Iraq, don't ya know?" said this young malnourished underclass son of Eire.

"For the Queen, then, you took bullets."

"Oh aye, mate. But you can be sure that won't happen again."

That was a young man who will no longer need to be told -- fifteen going on fifty-five.

They trailed away, arm in arm, puppy in arms, vulnerable, exposed, unarmed, in such a heavily armed world.

Going on...

(Thinking of the Charlatans doing A Man Needs To Be Told acoustic at the Manchester Deaf Institute, with an ecstatic chorus of the deaf pitching in.)

TC said...

...and by the by, forgot to mention that the "after" to this "before" piece is a post-election "conversation poem":

The New World

Oh my, that new world already feels centuries old now, does it not?

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Ah, Karen

my teenage angel.

There's a poem necessary to be written there

ACravan said...

I love the rhythm of this and the pictures. Most remarkably, it stirred a lot of memories of feelings of the years you write about (i.e., that period in my life, not yours) that I thought were actually lost, either because they'd fallen through actual holes or been suppressed. I love "Kathy's Clown." Buddy looks like a giant next to Ed Sullivan. Curtis

ACravan said...

I meant also to say that I look forward to checking out the links today. I "sneezed funny" yesterday and wrenched my back and am capable of doing little else. I'm fascinated that you wrote it on the eve of the last election. It seems to me that so many of the "stirred up" feelings then (obviously positive ones for many people) seem so stirred down now. Curtis

TC said...


Ouch. Feel better soon.

Buddy was a giant. Ed Sullivan was a dwarf.


The Carpenters' song We've Only Just Begun came into our personal history, on a tiny little screen, as the backing of a Wells Fargo Bank tv commercial, in our early days of undreaming the American dream out in West Marin.

Karen went on that Stillman lean-meat diet because in high school she had been a fatty and couldn't cope with the self image, pretty much standard-issue sociological amerikanoid elektrik-chair cruelty type stuff, so run of the mill, and yet...

You'd only just begun, but then you'd dropped forty pounds, a size 2 fit you like Omar Khayyam's tent, they took away your drum kit, they took away your will and your power to make your decisions for yourself, your brother was on ludes and there it was, the amerikan dream, you'd only just begun and bang, anorexic, dead.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

And yet, for all that, the angel remains,Tom & has the power still to move. There's no denying the power of a mood

She's a Miltonic angel who's shed the body first



Great poem, wow,,, thought it was written last night ("Cal student slouching/ Down Shattuck gassing") and on clear down to the end where it's eve of election Nov 2008-- Buddy Holly towering over Ed Sullivan (who is behind him to the left, what a weird perspective) and "Tail Light" w/ police voyeurs peering into steamed up windows (how did one manage to keep brake lights on through all that?) and the Four Horseman and Billy Beaver's house and the girl in the madras shorts who wouldn't let you "clean things up down there" and the Charlatans at the Manchester Deaf Institute singing "A Man Needs to be Told" -- such a great redaction of Memories, for which we give thanks. . .


light coming into cloud above blackness
of ridge, motion of shadowed green leaf
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

complete composed, physical
awareness of physical

feature, moves into becomes,
now in of and some of

orange line of sky in cloud above ridge,
pelican flapping to the left from point

Hazen said...

I’ve raced through the very decades that you evoke so beautifully, Tom, many of the same tunes in the air. My geographic coordinates were different, but with a certain blonde down in Texas I danced my ass off to Wake Up Little Susie when it was high on the charts. (In San Francisco, later, there used to be a club in the Fillmore called Dance Your Ass Off. A popular place it was.) The automobile shaped adolescent romance and the two were the stuff of many a pop tune. Driving freed up things, so we thought. Only later did some of us understand that the whole thing was a trap—another kind of soft machine, one that Burroughs would recognize.

ACravan said...

A small, but relevant and interesting point. I researched this and the height difference between Ed Sullivan (5 ft. 7.5 in.) and Buddy Holly (5 ft. 11.5 in.) was exactly 4 in. Yet it seems greater. Curtis

Annie said...

earning the badge

some girls were
camping by the Kern
in the dark scented grove
Business & Professional Women
planted years before

in Hart Memorial Park
not far from the boat lake,
miniature train and summer season

(faster, buddy, faster!
and how
that whip-thin carny
would oblige)

night blacker
than velvet turned torn
shroud chasing
shivers up the spine
with each scream
from the caged male

Ed Baker said...

can't get my mind's eye/my memory
off image of Anita in that powder-blue
Fuzzy Sweater doing
The Fish

at fill slow-to-stop time
She Wore Blue Velvet

friday nights was the dance at the Armory

Saturday night a triple feature at
The Queenstown Drive-In in my '55 Buick Special !

Our favorites? The Fat Man (Fats Domino)

& LaVerne Baker, Roy Hamilton, Johnny Ace, Bo Diddley

The Platters (from D.C. my cousin, Robbie Rakusin, managed them when they first got started), The Clovers, Shirley & Lee, Chuck Willis, Chuck Berry

I mean, if Little Richard was white there'd have been no Elvis !

and that Fuzzy Sweater and those straight skirts and Bermuda Shorts/Peddle Pushers...

(Anita's now a great grand-mother! She still calls me on my birthday
"you still going to school?"

"you still cute?"

"I think I am?"

this was/is a phun post !!!!

TC said...

Steven, Curtis, Ed, Annie, everybody, thanks for the memories and measurements of the moments.

So true, this --

"The automobile shaped adolescent romance and the two were the stuff of many a pop tune. Driving freed up things, so we thought. Only later did some of us understand that the whole thing was a trap—another kind of soft machine, one that Burroughs would recognize."

-- Hazen

About Karen, I don't know if I'd quite want to make a Miltonic Angel out of her, Conrad.

Milton's angels were heavyweights.

They may have pissed and moaned a bit, but at least they knew where they were, how they'd got there, and why.

A bit of video enquiry may help here.

I know no one uses these song-clip exit-links -- almost nobody has bothered with the link to A Man Needs to Be Told at the Manchester Deaf Institute, and that's a performance that's not limited to nostalgia interest, it speaks to the NOW.

Still, aiming to please the absent spirits:

The Carpenters: We've Only Just Begun" (1970, lip-synced, of course), with Karen channeling all her love into those sticks, before the suits said: "lose the sticks, Karen, and get out in front where you belong, baby!".

Karen says "I have no idea what six stone is".

A six-stone Karen sings "Please Mr Postman".

Sorry about those last two, cruel to the dead woman to remember her so. But, the culture. What is/was it about America that would make a wonderfully talented, perfectly healthy young woman want to look like an inmate of Dachau?

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

This is indeed a Golden Oldie, courtesy of His Master's Voice.

TC said...

Ah Vassilis, my good man, you've just given me license. (Always a dangerous gift! Always grateful!)

Two more "keys" to this poem (for anybody who was born too late, or living on Jupiter):

Buddy Holly, "rock and roll specialist", lip syncs Peggy Sue (with a bit of attitude), 29 December 1957.

Everly Brothers, Cathy's Clown, 1960 -- and I do believe they're actually singing it "live", here.

. said...

Returned to read this again today Tom. Superb poem, and good to see Tim Burgess doing his thing again. I saw the Charlatans a couple of times in the early nineties - very much an underrated band from the 'madchester' period.

TC said...


Great to have a word from not only a fellow admirer but a true local-knowledger of Tim Burgess and Charlatans (UK) -- whatever broken rhythms this poem has, are probably owed to Tim Burgess (though perhaps also at least in disorderly-part to be blamed on a poorly-channeled Samuel Taylor Coleridge stuffed with b.p. meds).

When you think of it two dozen years of going on working together as a unit is a pretty remarkable record for a band that has never had the easiest of times.

You maybe know that the drummer Jon Brookes had a very bad seizure on stage in Philadelphia on 15 September 2010, was ambulanced to a major university hospital neurological unit and diagnosed with a fairly massive malignant brain tumour, which had begun sending waves of electrical impulses across the back of his brain... and those had finally proven extremely deleterious to his attempts to keep up the beat that night in Philadelphia.

He was flown back to the UK, had the tumour surgically removed.

And somewhat miraculously, by last summer he was actually back at his kit on what was reported a very successful tour gig in Valencia.

All this curiously relevant to the song in a spooky retroactive sort of way because in writing his memories of the traumatic US experience, Brookes uses imagery that put me in mind of the "look into the light" recommendation given in A Man Needs To Know.

The terror implied in his line "when I first saw those strange lights in the corner of my eyes..." reminds that looking into the light can at times be our best-blest illumination but at other times the most painful thing in the world.

(Have experienced a few jolly white-light headaches that I would have as soon thown back... into the great general lake of light.)

Here's a bit of John Brooke's account, writen not long after the scary events described above:

"Juxtaposition is not a word which is easily squeezed into life’s patchwork of possibilities, but as I sit in the middle of the mother of all seesaws I have the darkest blackest hole tempting me into its featureless perpetual void, where no sounds come and no souls stir. A place of my minds creation, which lives off its own power source. An energy farm of fear, a place that is bursting with confused thoughts and random outpourings of negative misleading ideas. A tricky place to navigate at the best of times but to be cast into its depths weakened and disabled and confused is not a choice I am willing undertake. I believe evolution has granted me mental freewill and I edge towards the light and my own truth!!!

"When I first saw those strange lights in the corner of my eyes at the start of the set in Philadelphia little was I to know that the brain tumour several centimetres across was starting to emit its electrical impulses across the bottom half of the right hand side of my brain… and after asking for sound levels to be lowered on stage I continued to play the set, but was already hopelessly out of time and disorientated and on a different song from the set list and rest of the band, the count down to disorder had begun. Strange feelings of floating quickly replaced by violent head movements engulfed me. Then I was approached by strangely familiar faces asking me what was wrong but, I couldn’t speak, my mouth wired tight by lockjaw and panic spreading across my frozen body, the first seizure had begun and was in full affect."

. said...

Tom, two dozen years is remarkable indeed. I think when they were first breaking over here it was unfortunate it was amongst so many other lesser bands who were heavily influenced by the Manchester thing. Two bands stood out at the time really capturing what wave was happening - The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. It was a time you could feel like ever increasing circles spreading out from the north west. The Charlatans were unfairly grouped in with the other bands and even their name went against them for awhile. There was a popular view here that they were slightly looking down from middle class sofas onto the working class indulgence of the manchester scene. They weren't entirely trusted. The beautiful thing about that time is that everyone knew what was going on, everyone seemed informed - it was about indulgence, obvious it couldn't last, and feeling temporarily lost amongst so many loved up others felt great.So anyone seen (even if wrongly) as holding a sense of superiority over this were frowned upon. Though the Charlatans fought and beat this in the best way - longevity and good tunes often with something to say.

I knew what had happened to Jon Brookes in Philly, but wasn't aware of the detail. His account is thoroughly engaging to read, Tom. Thanks for that.

TC said...


Great breakdown of The Knowledge. Takes me right back to where I wasn't, but wanted to be.

(Is it just me, or does Tim Burgess have the widest mouth ever gifted upon a singer?)

. said...

I think you might just be right there, Tom :)

I always thought 1 or 2 Jaggeresque genes got in there somehow aswell.