Southern Laments

Young And Wild . . .  She was uninvited but quickly took center stage. Bolting into the restaurant, the young woman grabbed a phone and began screaming about something terrible; something minutes before inconceivable. Then she took a seat near friends of the guy she had just run over in her sporty little car. The reunion party had taken a strange turn.

It was a Sunday afternoon in September ’85. The weather proved cooperative for a festive gathering. At The Bistro, a friendly pub in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, the long-awaited reunion of everyone who ever worked at the Peaches Records and Tapes on Atlanta’s Peachtree Road was on. The joint was rockin’ over the excitement of seeing old friends. But the convivial spirits subsided sharply a few minutes before the young woman came running into the pub. Less than 100 feet way, lying  in the middle of Pharr Road was Joe Gegan, although the mangled human being, nearly gone from this world, was hardly Joe Gegan. That wasn’t Joe, the knowledgeable young man with the dry wit and voice strong enough to sing for Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. No, that really wasn’t Joe Gegan, the first Classical Music Manager at Peaches Atlanta, upon its opening in March ’75.  Instead, what was left of Joe would hang on a few days, with doctors offering no hope. When his body gave out, Joe Gegan’s long afternoon, which turned out so tragically, was over. Finally, Joe could rest.

For family members and friends of Joe Gegan, however, rest wouldn’t come easy. A son, a brother and a friend was lost. Even as Joe’s friends continued to hang out at The Bistro that Sunday afternoon, drinking beer, sharing old stories and greeting friends from years back, the mood was dark. And for a good part of that afternoon, the young woman who so carelessly ran Joe down was seated nearby, collecting herself and explaining to the cops what she could recall about the worst moment in her life.

Weeks came and went, with what happened to Joe the focal point of conversation among friends who had worked at Peaches. Some of us attended the funeral, held at the Cathedral of Christ the King, located roughly halfway between the old Peaches store and the street where Joe Gegan took those last fateful steps. Some of the conversation after the service dwelt on the young woman speeding up Pharr Road, reportedly applying mascara when it was too late for her to stop. Having killed our friend, even accidentally, she seemed the Material Girl, with her hot car, fetching looks and snappy apparel. There was a lot of distance between Joan Baez and Madonna, and in that time a number of Joe’s friends, now adults with real jobs and families to support, wearied of what the distance represented.

 Joe’s body was violated, battered and crushed: His life was snuffed out due to what seemed reckless disregard. What a waste it all was and how that waste compelled such anger. Even with images of Christ prominent about the church, thoughts of forgiveness were difficult to approach. The contempt was deep.

Some of Joe’s friends took a different tack. They set aside bitterness and worked to comfort the Gegan family, especially Joe’s mother. Many of the friends Joe made at Peaches would call or go see Mrs. Gegan to talk of what happened, but mostly to just talk about Joe. It’s amazing how many good things a relative can learn from talking to friends of the departed loved one. Aspects of a life may be revealed for the first time. Those dealing most with the loss receive some unexpected comfort.

His Mother’s Eyes . . .  Robin Lucas was deeply affected by what happened to Joe Gegan that afternoon in September ’85, although it took her years to fully understand how much. More than a decade after Joe’s death, she kept in mind that bad things happen without warning whenever crossing the street with her son. She would grab his hand and hold on tight. Robin said she thought of Joe while  in a crosswalk or looking for the safest path through a busy parking lot. As we grow older and put childish things aside, looking out for the children we claim responsibility for is the thing that matters most. When you’re with the kid, thoughts of protecting the child are paramount; it’s a hands-on job. The thoughts occur just as naturally even when parent and child are thousands of miles apart.

Bob Dylan in BarcelonaIn his song, “Lord Protect My Child,” Bob Dylan considers the thoughts, fears and hopes mothers and fathers dwell upon. It’s a prayer in song. Dylan’s words reflect on the joy a child’s life brings and how vital that child’s life is to the parent. The child’s happiness and the wisdom he’s gained is comforting, but the parent’s foremost concern is the child’s well being, in a world that’s dangerous and too often void of a moral compass.

He’s young and on fire
Full of hope and desire
In a world that’s been raped and defiled
If I fall along the way
And can’t see another day
Lord, protect my child
There’ll be a time I hear tell
When all will be well
When God and man will be reconciled
But until men lose their chains
And righteousness reigns
Lord, protect my child

Dylan recorded “Lord Protect My Child”  during the ’83 Infidels sessions, but it was left off the album, only to surface as part of The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) in 1991. Despite the song’s recognition of a troubled and sinful world, the bluesy, mid-tempo track  imparts a bright sentiment: The parent appears confident his prayers will be answered.

Few Things You Find Are Worthwhile . . .  In the song, Dylan’s world-weariness is evident. He doesn’t ask for “material things to touch,” just safety for his child. Similar prayers are lifted around the world long after a child has left home and gained independence. Joe Gegan’s mother no doubt did the same. But heartbroken over Joe’s death, all she could do now was pray for strength all the while connecting with Joe’s old friends and wondering about the young woman who ran over her son.

The young woman was a prime subject of speculation among Joe’s friends. Surely some legal punishment would be handed down. There was talk of a lawsuit. Rumors abounded. What one friend confirmed another friend said was unlikely. As the months passed, anger toward the young woman gave way to pity. For the rest of her life, even if there were no legal charges, she would be haunted by what happened on that sunny afternoon in September ’85. If she brought new life into the world, she would certainly dwell on the dangers her child would face, even when safety is taken for granted.

You Can Look At It And Weep . . .  In the film, Shenandoah,  James Stewart played Charlie Anderson, a Virginia farmer during the 1860s who took care of his family, minded his own business, and since he didn’t own slaves or even condone slavery, believed the Civil War wasn’t his concern. Despite Charlie’s determination not to send his sons off to defend his home state, the Andersons still experienced the horrors war brings.

Anderson’s youngest child, just 16 years-old, thought to be a Confederate soldier because of a discarded Rebel hat he’s wearing, is taken prisoner by Union troops. Charlie Anderson realizes now that the war does concern him. He has his daughter and four of his sons gather their horses and join him roaming the countryside to look for the boy. At first determined, Anderson eventually gives up hope of finding his boy and tells his family it was time to head for home.

While approaching a  small Confederate encampment, the Andersons rouse a sleepy young Rebel at his post. The Confederate soldier hears the sound of horses galloping nearby. Instinctively, he aims and fires, unaware of who or what he’s shooting at. His shot kills Jacob Anderson. Charlie climbs off his horse, goes to his son, and touches his chest, hoping to feel a heartbeat. He then moves toward the Confederate sniper. Charlie slaps the young Rebel down and begins fiercely choking him. Then something takes hold of Anderson. He stops choking the soldier and asks how old he is. The boy’s 16.

The weight of the world is upon Charlie Anderson. Distraught over the change in the world and the violence pervading it, Charlie lets the soldier who killed his son go free with a short message, one that will ring in his ears for a long lifetime.

I’m not going to kill you. I want you to live. I want you to live to be an old man and I want you to have many, many, many children and I want you to feel about your children then the way I feel about mine now. And someday when a man comes along and kills one of them, I want you to remember. . .  What I want you to remember. . .

Charlie Anderson  is spent. In a few brief moments, he’s felt love, loss, the desire for vengence, and the need to feel empathy, if not forgiveness, just so he won’t fall to pieces.

Youth Now Unfolds . . .  Friends of Joe Gegan felt drained in the aftermath of his death. Whirls of emotions. A lot of talking about the tragedy went on for months. Rumors continued to circulate. But within a year, conversations turned to other subjects. Most of us, in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, were taking on more responsibilities. Some of us already had children to provide for. Others had children on the way. There’d be new perspectives on life, representing quite a change in habits and thoughts. Perspectives on the woman who was responsible for the death of our friend also changed. We wouldn’t bother to keep up with her, but knowing what she’d have to live with, some offered hope she’d learn from her real-life nightmare and do right in this world. Maybe she, as perhaps the Rebel soldier of Shenandoah did, learned the value of life, its cost and the opportunities for redemption it offers.


Dylan photo: From Stoned59's flickr photostream via Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Shendoah movie poster source unknown - used as "fair use."

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.