Tag Archives: coming of age

I was THIS close to being a famous songwriter

22 Aug

royalWhile late-summer cleaning at the Smith Estates, I uncovered a treasure trove of unpublished song lyrics. After you experience a small sampling of this lyrical magic, which I created as a teenager, you’ll wonder why I’m not churning out the hits in Nashville or L.A. If you’re not prepared to be in awe, go find a kitten video.

(No title)

You dragged me away from my job in Buxton, Utah
And we drove through the desert all day
We drove past numerous canyon boxes
In your beat-up Chevrolet

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

You’re headin’ for the butte in the middle of the plain
Which rises to a thunderous roar
To the old graveyard in the middle of the butte
Where the great eagle flies no more

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

This song has many more verses and would have come in at roughly ten minutes as a finished product. It would have been longer had I written the letter G at end of certain words. Instead of a graveyard, the couple arrives in an Indian village where they see a medicine man, children playing, and lots of eagles, though I had just written the great eagle flies no more. Though the song is chock full of geographic and meteorological improbabilities, I most love “numerous canyon boxes.” This may refer to the short-lived Canyon & Sons cardboard box factory that folded in 1983.

And now something completely different:

(No title)

She’s in love with every movie star
All the teenage idols, too.
She follows every big rock singer
And knows everything they do
She sings their songs
And plays their games
And dreams every chance she gets.

Dart

From Comedy Central’s Reno 911

I wish I had finished that one. I’m dying to know what happened to the subject of the song. What games did she play with her idols? I picture
70s rock singers playing a lot of Lawn Darts, so I hope she didn’t get a Lawn Dart through her skull.

With wonderful lyrics like these and others, I had to share my gift. When I was 15 or 16, I got out my 45s and wrote down the record company addresses that were on the labels. Then I typed copies of my best work and mailed them to each company. Since I had no contact names, I sent the packets to the main addresses. I assumed the people in the mailroom would know what to do. This is how I imagine it went down at MCA Records headquarters in Los Angeles:

MCA underling: Hey chief, we just received an unsolicited envelope crammed with awesome lyrics by a fabulous songwriter named Ronnie Smith. He didn’t include a letter of introduction, but that would have been overkill.

MCA CEO: Smith huh? Never heard of him.

Underling: Oh, but you will when you see these beauties. (Thumbs through several pages of lyrics typed on a Royal portable typewriter.) Here’s one with a line about numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: Canyon boxes, huh?

Underling: Numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: By God, that’s brilliant.

Underling: (Holds up a page for the CEO to see.) Look, he doesn’t waste time writing the letter G. And here’s a song called Jimmy Solar. You know, I think Elton would love to put this one to music.

CEO: (Rubs his chin doubtfully) EJ’s committed to Bernie Taupin.

Underling: Taupin’s a two-bit hack compared to this Smith kid.

CEO: Hmm. What if Smith’s too good?

Underling: Whaddya mean, too good?

CEO: Unless he’s a lyric-writing machine who doesn’t care about his craft, he can’t write for all our artists. Sure, Alice Cooper would love the canyon box song. And Lynyrd Skynyrd will want first dibs on any song that mentions Lawn Darts. But what about Olivia Newton-John and the others? No one will buy their records if the lyrics pale in comparison. We could have a mutiny on our hands. And believe me, you don’t want an upset Olivia Newton-John.

Underling: (Shivers in fear) Yeah, I never thought about that. (Pulls out a cigarette lighter and sets the lyrics on fire.) I’ll file these with away with the ones from those kids who call themselves U2.

MCA Records no longer exists. Coincidence?  20150821_203701

In 1975 I took a different approach to instant stardom by entering a national songwriting contest. The grand prize was $3,000 and all the songwriter groupies one could handle. The contest was intended for professionals: singer-songwriters who had access to professional instruments, studios and talent. I had access to my mom, a cheap cassette recorder, and my older brother, who had to do what Mom said. While the professionals were putting their blood, sweat and tears into songs recorded on reel-to-reel tape, I spent fifteen minutes producing mine. Mom played an upright piano while Jeff sang The Unmarried Song. This nuanced number, which no longer exists because no one involved wants it to, was a marriage opposition piece. I don’t know why this subject was on my 16-year-old mind. I don’t remember the lyrics, except my brother often reminds they included, “The answer’s negatory.” Think about that: I entered a song in a nationwide contest that incorporated the word “negatory.”

The reaction from the judges was negatory. Perhaps The Unmarried Song had an unintended benefit, however. The following year, the same contest organizers held a lyric-only competition, which was a relief to anyone with ears. Instead, of sending my “best” song, however, I wrote one just for the competition. It was a country song, which I only listened to because Dad wouldn’t play anything else in his truck. It had to be the weirdest, creepiest song a teenage boy could write. It makes me cringe to share a verse, but here we go:

Little girls were made for lovin’ (again, where’s the G?)
This I’ve always said
Like seeing that you’re clothed
Or seeing that you’re fed.
Bedtime kisses, making wishes
And hoping they’ll come true
The little hugs that make me happy
Are coming straight from you.

I won’t even attempt an explanation.

I should have entered the canyon boxes song. And yet… That creepo creation made the initial cut in the competition. The judges, or perhaps some malfunctioning robot, considered my lyrics better than thousands of other songs. Imagine what the others were like. I won no money, but I received a certificate I framed and hung next to my bed for years until the printing faded.

I quit writing lyrics just as I was on the edge of superstardom. Something shinier must have caught my interest. Here’s the last song I wrote, which I typed in a business class when I was a senior in high school. Although I had never taken anything stronger than St. Joseph Children’s Aspirin, this makes me wonder what was in those pills.

(No title)

She sits in the courtyard
Sucking an apricot
Watching the train go by
They form a large circle
Singing a ballad
They don’t even know why
The tangerine glistens
Its nectar is sweet
And picked in the season of sun
The mellow morning answers
The daybreak song
The birds have gathered in one

Sometimes they feel
They’re not wanted
But only a moment or two
They woke up this evening
In a grandeur of darkness
And had a feeling of mystic blue.

I’ll spare you the second half. The key to a surefire hit is starting with an apricot and quickly switching to a tangerine. Keep the listener guessing what fruit you’ll name next. If you’re really feeling it, mention passion fruit or even a mango. Or find another career.

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Special added complimentary bonus below.      If you’re really adventurous, a double special added complimentary bonus here.

JimmySolar

Thirty-seven years later

9 Jul

It didn’t hit you when you lost an old relative or a pet. It hit you when you lost someone your age. A good friend. Sixteen years old. Back when you still believed in Forever. When you finally understood that life was finite. Death transmuted from an amorphous concept into something so real it eviscerated your heart. When you realized Death could swoop in and boot you in the ass so hard you would never walk right again. When you realized Death took. It played no favorites and did not snatch only the elderly and twelve-year-old terriers. Death took the Young. Took Promise. Took the Future. Took without prejudice. Period, no comma. You woke up the next morning and learned he died, and you could not grasp the idea of it. Not at first. It took time to sink in, the fierceness of the loss, the unfairness of it. And you would never see him again. And when you came to realize it, you wept hard. You thought you were too old for that, so you hid away where no one could see you. And everyone left you alone because they didn’t know what to say. What could they say except I told you so? You wished you could go back in time just a handful of hours and how you could have changed all of it. How if you had been with him as usual, none of it would have happened. Because you had Luck, and it would have saved you both. Back then, you naively believed you possessed the power to avert Death, but you were a fool just like him.

You still feel guilty, because you weren’t there, and it was he who died, and you didn’t learn from it. Not right away. You made the same mistakes he made. Many times over. You got to Live. To Love. Because you had nothing but simple, cold luck. And you can’t let it go thirty-seven years later.

 

A major award: How I won a poodle with turquoise rump fluff

20 Sep

leglamp12I know how the father in A Christmas Story felt when he won the Leg Lamp. I, too, have won awards. My glory days are behind me, but I used to be pretty lucky at drawings. When I was a kid, the hardware store in my hometown had prize drawings at Christmas. (The store also sold toys; I got my first new bike there.) One Christmas, I won a ping pong set, which would have been a much bigger deal if my family had a ping pong table or any space to put one. We tried to use the dining room table, which did not go over well. Still, the paddles had many other inventive, if not abusive, uses. Ask Julie, my sister.

I was on a roll in those days. Around the same time I won the ping pong set, I also won a major award during a family trip.

My family took summer vacations in which all six of us would spend a week together on an excursion to the Rockies or some other great American destination. We considered a trip successful if it did not result in threats of infanticide. We traveled in a pickup with a camper on top. Six people in a camper little bigger than a tomato can. Oh, the fun we had. I still have bruises from fights my brother and I engaged in while riding in the loft above the truck cab. My parents warned us before we left home that they would turn around and go home at the first sign of fighting. And if we thought they were kidding, just try them. Yes, we would see who was laughing then. And we better wipe that smirk off our face, Mister, if we didn’t want it wiped for us.

Sometimes we made it fifty miles into a trip before my brother Jeff and I started whaling on each other. Julie encouraged it because she knew we otherwise would turn our attention to her. My younger brother Robert got to ride up front with Mom and Dad. We still hate him for it. The parents never made good on their threat to turn back, but Dad, who never drank, slowed the truck to a crawl in front of a few liquor stores. He also parked in front of a gun store once and wept quietly, but we don’t bring that up at family reunions.

Dreamer

A artist’s rendering of a Dreamer with “happy” campers.

We had a Dreamer camper that we bought in Des Moines. It replaced another Dreamer camper we had that was even smaller. In true seventies style, the interior of the new one was all turquoise Formica and blond plywood. The year we got the new camper, we took it to Bowling Green, Kentucky for a Dreamer convention, which is just as exciting as it sounds—a bunch of people with Dreamer campers either coveting or turning up their noses at other Dreamer campers.

We stayed at the campground connected to Beech Bend, which was an amusement park of questionable repute. (I’m sure it’s much better now.) Besides talking about all things Dreamer, campers (the human kind) were entertained by so-so comedians and bad country music acts which made the one-hour trip north from Nashville. I was more of a Jackson 5 aficionado in those days, so the music was not to my tastes. The best part was at night when we went to the amusement park where I became a bit of a Skee Ball pro. That’s also where I saw my first drunk vomiter, and it was impressive.  A couple of guys walked along the midway and one of them hurled without breaking stride, like it was something he did every night. Perhaps it was.

Beech Bend, a classy place if ever there was one, also had a drag strip.  Every day, the convention organizers made announcements and put on little shows there. They also held drawings for special prizes like game tickets at the amusement park, a meal at Sizzlers and such. I wanted those amusement park tickets to feed my growing Skee Ball addiction. One day, out of hundreds of Dreamerites, my name was called. As I made my way down the aisle, I sensed the envy of everyone in the crowd. What had I won? Perhaps a free hamburger at McDonalds, a new GI Joe or a nifty set of Hot Wheels cars? If I wasn’t so lucky to get something for myself, it could be something my parents could use, such as a set of barbecue tongs and mitts. I descended amid the noisy applause of my fellow campers, and I could sense the heat of Jeff’s eyes drilling hate holes in my back. I always won things, he said, while he never did. He hadn’t gotten over my winning the ping pong set.

When I made it down to the bottom of the grandstands, the announcer presented my prize: a huge stuffed animal—a white and turquoise poodle. Dow chemists had yet to perfect fake fur that was soft to the touch. This faux canine had all the cuddliness of forty grit sandpaper. And it was ugly. Ugly and girly. No twelve-year-old boy, not even a Jackson 5 fan, should be seen in public with a fru fru stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff. What if a photographer from the Bowling Green newspaper had been there to document the handoff?  Missouri boy accepts gift meant for a girl, the caption would say. I wanted to say “no thanks” and return to my seat. But this was, after all, something I had won. One did not turn down something that had been won fair and square, even a stuffed poodle. I accepted my prize and climbed the steps to my seat as the crowd again applauded. This time, however, their applause was meek, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable.

My parents looked embarrassed. Jeff smirked. I was too ashamed to be seen holding the white and turquoise monstrosity any longer, so I handed the dog to seven-year-old Julie. Oh, the delight in her eyes. Her older brother had finally given her a large, beautiful stuffed animal (made of questionable material that may or may not have been toxic to human touch). He really did care, she thought. This was proof of a benevolent God.

No. As soon as we returned to the camper, I took back the dog. “I just gave it to you to hold for awhile,” I said. Julie cried. Jeff smirked more. My parents had bigger issues to deal with than who should possess an ugly stuffed poodle. I didn’t care. I had won the thing, and I was going to keep it.

Yellowpoodle

It was MUCH worse than this.

And I did, for awhile, in the room I shared with my two brothers. Eventually, though, I came to my senses and gave it to Julie permanently. Perhaps my conscience overpowered my immaturity. Or maybe I realized how stupid the dog looked in my bedroom next to football items. If a stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff sounds like something you’d like, I’m sure it’s still out there somewhere. Its material certainly was not biodegradable. I don’t think it would burn either. If it did, the fumes would kill you.

Signature

P.S. Buy some books, will ya? I got a kid in college.

 

From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

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A profane family history

15 Mar

I was nine or ten the first time I heard my granddad pepper his speech with cuss words. I could still point out within a five square foot area where I stood in his barnyard when he let loose one of those forbidden four-letter words in my presence.  I had crossed some invisible line of male-dom where Granddad decided my tender ears could hear those words without catching fire. I don’t recall being overly happy to hear that good man use those words, but I got over it soon enough.

Soon after that, I crossed the swear-word line with my dad, too. He was his father’s son when it came to cussing, following certain unwritten rules: Never overdo it, never swear in a house, and absolutely never swear in mixed company, particularly around the saintly woman I called Grandma.

By the time Dad started cussing in front of my brothers and me, I was already a semi-rehabilitated swearer. It seems quaint now, but I had a habit of inserting “damn” in every other sentence when I was six. My parents warned me to stop before I got in big trouble, but they never took serious action. I didn’t get the cure until after I cussed in front of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kraft. In addition to missing recess, she ordered me to drag my desk outside in the hallway and park by the classroom door for a while. She wanted me to spend that time to consider cleaning up that potty mouth of mine. That was Mrs. Kraft’s worst punishment for scofflaws like me, boys who were on a direct path to reform school because “damn” had become our favorite adjective.

Spending a bit of time in the hallway wasn’t such a terrible ordeal, except my dear father was also the superintendent of our tiny school. He rarely had reason to walk down two flights of stairs from his office to the first grade classroom in the basement. But I had only been serving my hallway sentence for a few minutes when he came by.CCI03022011_00002

“I hope you’ve got a good reason for sitting out here,” he said.

I considered saying I had been given the honor of Hall Monitor, but we didn’t have such a thing in our school. Even if we had, my dad knew that responsibility wouldn’t be trusted to me.

“Cussing,” I said, without bothering with specifics.

Dad said nothing, but he shook  his head and walked away. I had embarrassed him. Damn, I thought. I’ll never cuss again.

For the most part, I didn’t swear much after that until I reached twelve or thirteen. That’s a monk-like period of abstinence for a boy who grew up around people who tossed around profanities with the same deftness Peyton Manning throws passes.

Even then, I never cussed around my father. Still don’t. When my brother Jeff and I were teenagers, Dad took us aside one day to sternly reprimand us for using a word that  offended our mother. He warned we had better stop using this particularly foul word immediately or there would be serious consequences.

“What word are you talking about?” we asked Dad.

“I’m not going to say it, but you know exactly the word I mean,” he said.

“No, we don’t.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Just quit using it.”

If the word was so offensive that even Dad wouldn’t repeat it, it must have been a doozy. Because we didn’t cuss around Mom, the word had us stumped. It had to be so terrible that even Jeff and I didn’t know it was a curse word. Jeff and I pondered this question for many years until we finally decided the word that offended our mother was… mother. As in, “That bolt sure is one tough mother to get off.”  We must have used “mother” that way several times a day.

My dad says he turns forty-eight today. This is amazing considering that makes him younger than me. But he suffers from AOBD (Adult Onset Birthday Dyslexia), which causes him to invert the digits in his age, so I’ll give him a break. Anyway I hope he has a damn fine day and one mother of a birthday party.

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Budda is ready for his closeup

13 Aug

The Night Budda Got Deep in It, a novel, is now available for your enjoyment. 

Fifteen-year-old Budda Jessico would first have to be noticed to be unpopular. Instead, he leads an unremarkable and anonymous life in suburban St. Louis where he lives with his over-protective father and his bullying older brother.
At the urging of Blood Mama, a voice only Budda hears, he catches a bus to Kentucky to rescue his former foster sister, Addie. As soon as Budda reaches Louisville, he goes to a McDonald’s for the first time in his life where he meets the resolute Baresha, a fellow runaway on her own adventure. Then Budda’s mission to find his sister goes awry. He hitches a ride to Valkyrie, Addie’s hometown, in hopes of saving her from some danger Blood Mama won’t reveal. Instead, Budda encounters her blood kin, led by the ominous Odyn Starkwether and his violent brother Dickie.
A drug shipment controlled by the Starkwethers has disappeared and so has Addie. The brothers have a mess to clean up, and Budda is soon in the middle of it. At first, Budda goes along willingly, if it will help him find Addie. Before long, though, Budda realizes it’s sometimes better to stay put.
Available at Smashwords in all digital formats.

ARC at Smashwords

28 Jun

A not-yet-final version of The Night Budda Got Deep in It is now available for download at Smashwords.

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Cover Design

13 Jun

Cover Design

The new cover for The Night Budda Got Deep in It, out late this summer.