The Ballad of Joe Strummer and the Dirty Old Man

I think one of the strangest things I have had to get used to as I get older is the music I hear when I walk into a grocery or drug store.  It’s my music, now.  I mean, it’s often the music I loved listening to when I was growing up.  In grocery stores.  While I am shopping.  And it’s a little weird.

When I was a kid, the music in stores was detestable.  I’d be riding side-rail on Mom’s shopping cart, while overhead was some instrumental misinterpretation of some song that was popular before I was born.  Even as a wee-lad, I knew this was an abomination.  “That is NOT the way “Yellow Submarine” is supposed to sound” I would cry out in righteous, four-year-old indignation.  There were better versions of these songs to be heard.  This just wasn’t cool.

The music became commonly referred to as “elevator music” or “Muzak”, which was a short reference to the Muzak Holdings Corporations, a common supplier of these misguided reworkings.  It was used in shopping centers, elevators, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, airports, business offices…and even some radio stations.  I can still remember serving as a front office aid my junior year of high school (what a scam that was ) while the office ladies were listening to KBAY play horrendous muzak versions of then current hits like “Billie Jean” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (a song that was practically muzak to begin with).  Not cool.

Then, somewhere around the early 90’s, winds of change started blowing.  My wife and I started noticing that whenever we’d walk into our local Walgreens, Peter Cetera would be singing to us from overhead.  Sometimes it was with Chicago, sometimes solo, sometimes in a duet with someone like Cher or Amy Grant, but it never failed that while we were in Walgreens we would at some point be serenaded by the dulcet tones of Peter Cetera.  It was odd to realize that the music we were hearing was no longer uncool, instrumental reworkings of popular songs.  Rather, we were hearing the actual, original, popular recordings by, well, largely uncool artists.  So, even though the instrumentals were gone, it still kind of felt like “muzak”.

But change continued coming.  Not all at once, as with the Peter Cetera paradigm, but gradually.  And somewhat disturbingly.  It was one thing to hear a poor, instrumental version of “Every Breath You Take” on KBAY back in 1985.  But to hear the real version?  What is that?!  When did The Police become muzak?!

And it kept getting weirder.  I’d hear “More Than A Feeling”, “Come on Eileen”, “In Your Eyes”, “Jump” (the Pointer Sisters AND Van Halen versions)… songs I grew up listening to and loving, now being represented as “elevator” music.  The day I walked into Albertson’s and heard “Because The Night” from Springsteen’s Live 1975-1985 collection, I almost couldn’t take it anymore.  When did I get this old?  And when did “my music” become uncool?

Recently, something profound happened to change my perspective.  It’s something I like to refer to as “The Ballad of Joe Strummer and the Dirty Old Man.”

I was standing in line for the pharmacy at my local Walgreens (not the same one that Peter Cetera use to sing at, thought it might as well have been).  This is not something I enjoy, and I had entered a state of mental numbness before walking into the store as a means of preparation for the task.  But suddenly, my numb, mental silence was broken wide open by the sound of something both new and familiar coming from above.  It was certainly familiar, having been burned into my mental psyche since I was 13.  But in this place, on that underamplified overhead speaker, it sounded altogether new and exciting.

It was The Clash.  And it was “London Calling”.

I may have been annoyed to be standing in line at the world’s most impersonal and least helpful pharmacy, but hearing Joe Strummer’s passionate cries about social conflict of all kinds suddenly caused me to straighten up and pump my fist (in my mind, anyway) as I connected to something more profound than prescription pick-up.  It never even occurred to me to wonder when The Clash stopped being cool, because THE CLASH WILL NEVER STOP BEING COOL.  EVER.  ANYWHERE.  NOT EVEN AT WALGREENS.

And so, as I continued moving my closer to the register, I realized that the music being played on this night was a mix of late 70’s and early 80’s New Wave and punk.  I heard Talking Heads.  I heard the Polecats’ “Make A Circuit”.  I heard Strawberry Switchblade (!).  And it was glorious.  And it was cool.  And it still is.  It actually makes me kind of look forward to trips to Walgreens.

Once I had my prescription in hand, I remembered I needed to pick up a card for someone’s birthday.  I was happy to take my time finding the right sentiment, bathing in the aural delights washing over me.  As I made my way to the front check-out counter to purchase the card, I noticed the elderly man working the register.  We’ll call him Dennis, because that is his name.

Dennis is at least 70, maybe even closer to 80.  I had never interacted with him previously, but he always had a smile and appeared very sweet.  He was tall and thin, with blue eyes and thick, white hair that certainly used to be blonde.  There was something pleasing and magnetic about this senior that made me glad to be in his presence.

As I waited my turn in line, I became more aware of the other employees in the store.  There were a couple of younger staff, probably in their twenties.  They must have been okay with the music because, as I mentioned earlier, The Clash is always cool.  Most of the people working seemed to be just slightly older than me, in their late 40’s and early 50’s.  It was entirely possible that some of these people grew up, like me but slightly older, listening to this music.

And of course, there was also Dennis.  This Clash must have driven him crazy.

When I was next in line, I watched Dennis help the five-year old son of the mother in front of me carefully count his coins to make sure he didn’t pay too much for the candy bar he was buying with his own money.  It was an incredibly endearing moment, set to the tune of Blondie’s “Rapture”.  The mother gave Dennis a warm smile, and the little boy politely said “Thank you!” as they walked away.  Dennis gave his warm smile and said “Have a good night!”  As I stepped up to pay for my birthday card, Dennis was suddenly interrupted by an older woman, probably in her mid to late sixties, who was standing on the other side of his counter.  She was a customer, but clearly knew him.  She wanted to show him some pictures she had taken of the fruit trees in her backyard.  This felt clearly like a follow-up to a previous conversation.

“Dennis, look at the lemons on this tree”, the woman said.  “Have you ever seen lemons look like that?”  Obviously, this was some odd-looking fruit.  Dennis smiled warmly and agreed with her.  Those were some odd-looking lemons.  She smiled and said “goodbye”, and began pushing her cart away as Dennis flashed his warm smile one more time and waved her adieu.

By this time, I was absolutely thrilled to begin my interaction with Dennis.  It’s my turn, now!

As he finished waiving to fruit lady. he slowly turned towards me, bending his tall, angular frame just slightly enough to bring us face to face.  His warm, senior smile transformed into the mischievous grin of an adolescent boy.  His eyes gave off a sly glint as he quietly said to me…

“I love it when she shows me her lemons!”

Whoa!  What?  This was not the warm, sweet, elderly gentleman I had been observing.  This was a dirty old man!  And he chose ME to reveal this side of himself to.

In the moment I had no choice but to give off a surprised laugh.  I handed him my card and five dollars, received my change, and told him “You be careful, Dennis!”.  He laughed and waved me goodnight.

Clearly, I had not seen all sides of Dennis.  Which got me thinking; maybe he didn’t hate The Clash?  Maybe I just needed to dig deeper into the life of Dennis the Walgreens clerk.

Think about it:

The Clash’s debut album came out in 1977.  If we assume that Dennis is 75, that would have made him 40 at that point.  In 1962, when The Beatles formed and Dylan released his first album, Dennis would have been 25.  Five years earlier, at the height of the Beat Generation, Dennis would have been twenty.  It is entirely possible that he was a young beat poet, reading Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, later digging on Dylan and then getting swept up by the Beatles and the whole British invasion.  Music was this Dennis’ life!  Well, music and poetry.  He would immerse himself in hippy culture, working in west-coast orchards to make enough scratch to get by (and buy drugs).  He picked apples, oranges, and yes…lemons.  Dennis was fully present during the summer of love, and hitch-hiked across the country to attend Woodstock.  A few years later, the fog of his drug induced stupor would begin to clear, and Dennis would try to figure out what the hell happened to his life and the lives of everyone around him.   It was a confusing time, and Dennis needed a voice.  He found new purpose and drive in the music of an emerging punk scene in the mid 70’s.   His favorite of these bands?  The Clash.  In particular, Joe Strummer spoke to Dennis like few ever had before.  And while the days of drugs and free love were behind him, he would always have the music.  And the lemons.  Oh, the lemons.

Or something like that.

Or it could just be that Dennis is a dirty old man who tolerates the hippy music of a bunch of forty and fifty year old kids because it makes him feel young.  And cool.  Because The Clash will never stop being cool.  Ever.  Anywhere.  Not even at Walgreens.  And not even if you are 75 years old.

So, I have come to the conclusion that hearing “my music” at the grocery store IS cool.  Muzak was a whole different animal that died mercifully with Peter Cetera.  And I’m not at all embarrassed to sing Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good” while I am cruising the aisles at Safeway. In fact, I’m proud.  It’s a great song.

And when I get to the produce section, I always check for odd-shaped lemons and think of Dennis.  And Joe Strummer.  And I like to imagine the surf horns in the opening of Strawberry Switchblade’s “Since Yesterday”, even if that’s not the song playing.

It just feels right.

And cool, like The Clash.  And Dennis.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on March 17, 2012.

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