One of the best lines in Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” is “People are crazy and times are strange.” The words can be a way of declaring the world around us has gone wrong and harder times are ahead. They can also suggest a reason for one’s sloughing off what’s expected and moving on. As Dylan wrote in a very famous song in the mid-sixties, “I just can’t fit.” Moving on is a viable option.
In Wonder Boys, the film that Dylan wrote “Things Have Changed” for, there’s a lot of sloughing off by principal character, Grady Tripp. A talented writer and appealing in enough ways to attract three beautiful young women to marry him over time, Grady has what it takes to charm the birds out of the trees. But what would he do with the birds? He’s content to slough off troubles, caused by him or not, then move on. To his advantage, he seems quite affable when doing so.
As Wonder Boys opens, Grady, in a voice-over, describes his current plight. It sounds like an extended time of misery awaits him, but he’ll muddle through it:
“I was distracted. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my wife had left me that morning. Maybe not. Wives had left me before.”
Open Up The Gate For You … By the film’s end, Grady stops muddling. He’s made some choices and has acted as honorably as possible, given the circumstances. There’s a fourth wife and a baby who depend on him, at least for love and attention. He’s moved away from his reliance on marijuana. Life without the haze looks good after all. Grady Tripp, at age 50, is finally going to fit in as an adult.
Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson did great work in selecting music for the film. Besides “Things Have Changed,” there were three other Dylan songs on the soundtrack. The songs by Dylan and others, especially those by John Lennon, Van Morrison and Neil Young, fit perfectly with various moments of the film. With Neil Young singing “Old Man” in the background as Grady limps across a Howard Johnson’s parking lot, the image hits home. Grady, played by longtime Hollywood golden boy, Michael Douglas, is old. He’s older than it says on his driver’s license – and he can feel it. It’s a way to age, but no way to live.
When first watching Wonder Boys a decade or so ago, it was easy to think of golden boys and girls from my early adult years. What happened with them? Did they live up to their promise or land in jail? Some landed six feet under too soon. A friend who once glowed with youthful promise described a rough two-three years. “Boy, I raised hell. I got fired. I got divorced. I just bummed around. It was fun, though.” Of course, his conservative politics hadn’t changed. Oh well. He was likely to sleep through election days anyway. Another old friend, who spent a goodly portion of his early 20s in a Grady-like haze and often on the verge of losing his job, was jolted into major league responsibility. He married a woman who had a background vastly different than what she claimed before walking down the aisle. There was the possibility of him losing contact with their child. He straightened up and flew right. The guy became so upright that it was a bit unsettling.
Another old friend, always supportive of the Left, showed up in the early to mid ’80s. It was great to see him after all the years. We talked politics. Things had changed. He embraced conservative views, even going as far to support the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America, jingoistic as they were. He explained,”I have kids now; I understand what Reagan’s doing and support him.” Oh. So he had kids. One day his kids could end up in the revival of the American roadshow that failed our country so in Vietnam. His kids may not make it back from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, wherever. Who knew what a William Casey would conjure up and how long would we be at it? If the guy really cared about those kids, he needed to ask more questions.
Roads Stretch Out … In youthful days, politics are often fashion. As in high school and college, people may gravitate toward the political beliefs of their friends for a short time, just as they’ll buy the same music as their friends. When working a chain store’s record department in the early ’70s, I was often amused at the cross section of local youth who purchased Machine Head. There were a lot of friends to impress. It’s reminiscent of Animal House when the boys are on the way to an elite girls college, hoping to score with the dates they’ve yet to meet. “Just mention modern art, civil rights or folk music and you’re in like Flynn,” Boon, the “road trip” veteran tells his pals.
Of all the frat boys, Boon seemed the most knowing of the world existing outside Delta House. If only he’d applied himself in school, he would’ve made Dean Wermer proud. Boon was played by Peter Riegert, who gave an impressive performance of the Red-baiting Congressman Richard Nixon in the ’84 PBS film, Concealed Enemies. In the film, as it was in real-life Washington, D.C., Nixon wins the day over Alger Hiss. That put Nixon in good shape in 1950 as he pursued one of the California seats in the U.S. Senate and even better as Dwight David Eisenhower’s running mate on the Republican ticket two years later. Riegert’s portrayal of the relentless politician was convincing. It was Classic Nixon, already the Campaigner, a role Neil Young realized Richard Nixon had filled all his political life. It was a role, for all intents and purposes, that lasted until he took his last breath in 1994.
Some Are Bound To Live With Less … Young’s song, “Campaigner,” included on his ’77 Decade collection, provides a sympathetic view of Nixon. The two years after Nixon left the White House in disgrace were tough ones. He and wife Pat both dealt with life-threatening illnesses. Neil Young, a traveler on the human highway, felt sorry for Nixon, noting in “Campaigner” a place “Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
When including the years of exile for Nixon – lasting from his resignation as President until his death – his political career lasted roughly the same amount of years as Neil Young has already put in as a singer-songwriter. That’s a lot of writing and singing. And Young has addressed political matters in many of his songs. Nixon made his first appearance in a Neil Young song, “Ohio.” His view of Nixon then, in the wake of the Kent State murders, was hardly sympathetic. Neither was it in “War Song,” a song written and recorded two years later with Graham Nash in support of George McGovern’s ’72 presidential run.
Even though he maintains his Canadian citizenship and cannot vote in U.S. elections, Young has maintained a great interest in American politics while offering not-so-predictable political opinions. Young inveighed against racial discrimination in the South on a pair of his early ’70s songs, “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Both songs captured the brutality of life in the region where Jim Crow too often got his way. But Young still expressed a desire to “make friends in Alabama.” Given the horrible truths witnessed so close by, Young’s judgments seemed fair and his call for friendship admirable. But in his book, Waging Heavy Peace, Young admits his view of “Alabama” has changed. He writes that “I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” Yet another change of heart from Neil Young, one not called for, but indicative of what we experience with many of our longtime friends.
A way of keeping up with old friends these days is via Facebook, every bit as annoying, maybe more so, as it is helpful. We call it social media but on many days, it’s social disease. Between pronouncements from some friends that they’re eating nachos or sitting in traffic (Where else do Atlantans sit?), there are thoughtful comments. Some, like writer Tony Paris, place a lot of photos from Atlanta’s music scene of 30 and more years ago. Then we have those who are quite political, making pronouncements as if they’re running for office. You wonder how that nice, quiet person’s politics evolved. One also questions a person’s sensibility.
After the unspeakably awful killings in Newtown, sadistic conservatives, using the social network as a soapbox, went on the attack. They hurled invectives at the so-called foes of liberty who seek orderly control on the sale of weapons and ammo. Especially surprising were comments by a friend who experienced a personal tragedy in the late ’90s. A drunk driver ended his girlfriend’s life. The pain felt for our co-worker was palpable throughout the building. Something like this shouldn’t happen to such good people, it was said over and over. Nearly everyone wanted to speak with him about his loss and talk intensely about it. Not me. It seemed like piling on. Instead, it seemed wise to approach him and talk about what we usually did: baseball. After covering the latest on the Atlanta Braves, I headed back to my desk, but before walking away, he said, “Hey thanks, I appreciate you coming over and not talking about, well, you know.” His soft and humble response mirrored the thoughtful nature he had displayed many times before. Sure, this friend was politically to my right, but the kindness of his heart was never questioned.
What Your Good Book Said … My friend’s attack on even the mildest form of gun control was no surprise — he undoubtedly sides with the recent opinion of the Second Amendment as expressed by the Supreme Court. The disturbing element was the lack of sympathy he and his Facebook chums conveyed for the victims of the Newtown shootings. And only three days later. The commenters threw in attacks on liberals, Democrats and Progressives who “want to build a socialistic utopia without God.” What must they think about liberals who still attend Christian churches, Evangelical and otherwise? And did they rip out the 5th chapter from the Gospel of Matthew? They must be more comfortable with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Their promised land is where all the righteous are well-armed with God on their side. Strange times indeed.
This takes us back to the days that used to be. When even in the midst of tragedy, voices were sober and responsible people didn’t provide forums to bozos who complained of a “lamestream media” or argued for more of what was killing us. Watching the ’69 TV documentary, Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1968, one is reminded, of how, even in that violent period, Americans grasped and shared the sorrows of others. A telling and touching segment covers the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June ’68 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Cameras are at the Eugene McCarthy headquarters across town at the Hilton as campaign workers lament their man’s defeat in the California Democratic Primary. Then the news comes on their TVs. RFK has been shot. The young campaign workers – the kids who had gone “Clean for Gene” – take in the news and break into tears. They’re seriously weakened by the news. The scene hits home as much as any dramatic piece could. McCarthy and his campaign were not enamored with Kennedy. McCarthy had broken considerable ground less than three months earlier garnering the anti-war vote only to see RFK enter the race once he decided the time was right. Serious bitterness existed between the two campaigns. It all disappeared, however, as the McCarthy people recognized the tragedy and the chaos overwhelming their country. Their tears were for RFK, the fading hopes for peace – and their country. If TV news had then been as wide-open and boisterous as it is now, there would’ve been interviews with NRA types claiming RFK would still be alive if he had only been armed when walking through the hotel’s kitchen.
The times have kept changing and not the way envisioned. People get more information but they’re less informed. And they insist on talking – or shouting – like crazies. Times that aren’t so strange would be most welcomed.