Dancing on fire

It’s hard to feel shitty when the Steve Miller Band is playing Jet Airliner in the middle of your head. Or smart, either — at least in my case.

Jeebus, all these decades I’ve been thinking the chorus was

  Big old jet had a light on
Don’t carry me too far away
Oh oh oh big old jet had a light on
‘Cuz it’s here that I’ve got to stay.

Turns out “had a light on” is “airliner”. Well, duh. Of course. That’s the freaking title. But phonetically, Steve is singing “biggo jed adda line oh”. I say this with confidence because I just replayed it about ten times to make sure. That’s the audible, as they say in football.

Who knows what the hell Steve’s saying, anyway? Well, some of us do, and to explain, we have the Internet. For example, The Joker begins,

  Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me maurice
Cause I speak of the pompitous of love

Or is that pomitus? Hell, The Pompatus of Love is a whole movie devoted to the question. The Straight Dope sez that “pompatus” (that’s how it sounds) actually goes way back:

  Speculation about “pompatus” was a recurring motif in the script for The Pompatus of Love. While the movie was in postproduction Cryer heard about “The Letter.” During a TV interview he said that the song had been written and sung by a member of the Medallions named Vernon Green. Green, still very much alive, was dozing in front of the tube when the mention of his name caught his attention. He immediately contacted Cryer.

  Green had never heard “The Joker.” Cryer says that when he played it for Green “he laughed his ass off.” Green’s story:

  “You have to remember, I was a very lonely guy at the time. I was only 14 years old, I had just run away from home, and I walked with crutches,” Green told Cryer. He scraped by singing songs on the streets of Watts.

  One song was “The Letter,” Green’s attempt to conjure up his dream woman. The mystery words, J.K. ascertained after talking with Green, were “puppetutes” and “pizmotality.” (Green wasn’t much for writing things down, so the spellings are approximate.)

  “Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved,” Green told Cryer. And puppetutes? “A term I coined to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [thus puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children.” Not real PC, but look, it was 1954.

Anyway, I’ve had a bad cold the last few days, and right now I’m sitting on the couch with a fever, trying to think and write while a vacuum cleaner roars in the next room. But now I’ve also got these Etymotic ER6i earphones jacked deep into my head, muting the noise and substituting ol’ Steve, singing about getting on “that 707″ — a plane nobody outside of Iran still flies. And it’s getting me high, just from the driving energy of the song.

Beats thinking about death, which comes easy when you’re 61 with a fever, a gut, and a history of exercise that consists mostly of getting dressed. But music helps. Music is the best evidence of immortality that we have.

Music is life. And vice versa. Listening to three-decade old Steve Miller on good earphones is life transfusion.

So is listening to an even older song: The Doors’ When the Music’s Over, from Strange Days, a brilliant, beautiful piece of work. To me Strange Days ranks among a handful of perfect albums, first song to last.

Which is When the Music’s Over, of course.

  When the music is your special friend,
dance on fire as it intends.
Music is your only friend,
until the end.

Strange Days came out in late ’67. I bought it in the summer of ’68 after Ken Rathyen, a guy on my ice cream route (he was a lifeguard at PV Beach in Pompton Plains, NJ) told me to get it. “Every song is a gem,” he said. He was right. (Kenny, if you’re out there, Yo!)

That fall I shared an apartment in an old house on Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, near Tate Street. Next door was a big Victorian, already boarded up. On Halloween night, a bunch of turned off all the lights and listened to Strange Days. After When the Music’s Over was over, we were deep in a creepy Halloween mood, and decided it would be fun to break into the “haunted house” next door. So we got a flashlight out, sneaked over, and found a way in.

There was no furniture, just empty rooms, with a coating of dust on everything… except for the footprints on the stairs. They were barefoot and small for an adult. We followed them up to the second floor, where they stopped. No other footprints went down.

Feeling creeped out, we pressed on, exploring this big old house. Still, other than the footprints, there was nothing.

Then we found the door to the attic. It was narrow, and opened to a narrow staircase. At the top was a camped room where there were a few items of furniture and some boxes. In one box was a diary by a girl who had lived there. She reported daily on what she saw out the window at the front of the attic, looking down on Spring Garden Street. She also gave weekly summaries of her favorite TV show, Whirlybirds, which last ran in 1960.

One name that appeared often in the diary was Jan Speas, who lived next door. I wondered if this was the same Jan Speas who taught creative writing at Guilford College, where I was a Senior at the time. (Jan, whose maiden name was Jan Cox and wrote as Jan Cox Speas, was best known as a writer of historical romances. More here.)

So we took the diary with us, and I brought it to Jan. Yes, Jan said, she remembered the girl well. They were good friends, and the diary was touching because the girl had later died.

Three years later Jan died too, of an unexpected heart attack. She was 46.

In August, 2004, ‘s Piedmont Bloggers Conference was held in the same exact spot as the condemned houses: the one I lived in, the haunted Victorian next door, and Jan Speas’ house on the other side of that one. I wrote about it here, and told the same creepy story here (but it doesn’t come up now, which is why I’m repeating myself).

But I’m still here. Dancing on fire. And getting back to real work, now that the vacuum cleaner is off.

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14 comments

  1. Alex Williams’s avatar

    I know someone who had the lyrics a bit different to that Steve Miller song:

    His version….
    Big old Chad had a rhino

    Doesn’t seem too far off to me. :-)

  2. Michael Turro’s avatar

    PV Beach in Pompton Plains? You worked an ice cream route in Pompton Plains? I grew up there (though in the summer of 68 I was still a year away from being anywhere) and spent a lot of time on the beach @ PV in the 70′s – small world.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Alex, I shall now be hearing that lyric instead.

    Michael, my most lucrative and instructive summers were spent as an ice cream man with Pied Piper, out of Hawthorne. My route in the summer of ’68 was Pequannock (including Pompton Plains) and Lincoln Park. And the best parts of both were the beaches, especially PV Beach. I’d pull in, stand at the back of the truck, and sell to a line of bathers that would be a hundred feet long or more. I’d also pay local kids with ice cream to go buy me a #5 sub from the Carnival Spot/Crispy Crust Pizza Place a few blocks away. The Carnival Spot was the best source of subs I’ve ever known. I’m sure it’s long gone by now.

  4. Karoli’s avatar

    Love the title, and thanks for the reminder about music taking some of the stress away.

    I’ve been gorging on Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel (as performed by some of my old favorites…Judy Collins, Joan Baez…). None of it popular (other than possibly Suzanne); all of it brilliant.

  5. Jerome’s avatar

    Thanks, Doc, great post, pulling out a bunch of related threads. Here’s another…

    Thanks to KPIG, was made aware that “Big Old Jet Airliner” was written by Paul Pena, who has also passed on. Google turns up plenty about a very interesting character and life…

    http://www.google.com/search?q=paul+pena

    Also a favorite of mine is his “Gonna Move” which has been covered by Susan Tedeschi.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Wow, the threads to connect here…

    Jerome, I had no idea that Jet Airliner wasn’t written by Steve Miller. Now I’m digging into Paul Pena and … holy shit. Sorry I missed this guy when he was around. Also crazy to see he died of complications from pancreatitis, which laid me out in June. It was during that hospitalization that I got re-turned on to Leonard Cohen.

    See, it all hangs together.

  7. David Taht’s avatar

    I hadn’t listened to that record in a long time… queued it up, was just amazed at how good love me two times sounded… I have no idea how you got through the next intro without flashing on smoke and adolescence….

    GOOD record for today.

  8. David Taht’s avatar

    And just queued up Miller’s Book of Dreams after that… beats the heck out of again listening to Jamie Johnson’s record in progress Rainstorm trying to figure out how to best improve the mix….

    (the above is a blatant plug to share some new music in progress of formation in the hope it can be improved further)

    Loved the mix on strange days in many places – how the piano just leaps out of “My eyes have seen you” for example.

  9. David Taht’s avatar

    I’m now on 1968 and 67 flashback. currently queued:

    Couple other Doors tunes – “riders on the storm”, “Peace frog”, and “ship of fools” and all of
    Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
    Pink Floyd: A saucerful of secrets
    Creedence: their first record, with “I put a spell on you” on it
    Hendrix Electric Ladyland, and to come down from that
    Taj Mahal’s Giant Step, De Old Folks at Home.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yep on all grounds. Will catch up on the listening later. Meanwhile, what blows me away about the Doors is what good musicians they were, as well as songwriters and performers. (And the arrangements on the first two albums, one recorded on four tracks, the other on eight.) Too bad Morrison was so freaking self-destructive. But, hate to say it, that was clearly part of his art. What would he have become, had he lived? Or, had Lennon, or Hendrix, or Joplin, or Steve Goodman or…

  11. Michael Turro’s avatar

    Doc: You might be glad to know that Carnival Spot is still alive and kicking and still making great pizza.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    OMG! Carnival Spot is still there?!?! Yes! Look at this! That changes everything. My faith in Jersey is sustained.

    Do they still have #5 and #7 subs? #5 was “Italian,” as I recall. #7 was roast beef. I got that one often, with just onions, oregano, oil and vinegar.

    Once, when I was starving for Home Food in college in North Carolina, I almost organized a caravan of Yankees to dive up to Pompton Plains to pick up an order of goods from Carnival Spot. No kidding.

  13. Michael Turro’s avatar

    You would be surprised how little that part of Pequannock has changed – at least since my earliest memories of it in the 70′s. Carnival Spot has expanded to two store fronts – one is the old pizza place with the same menu – the other side is a trattoria – and there is still Jones Hardware a few doors down. The fact that they’re still in business in the era of Home Depot is perhaps an even more amazing story than the Carnival Spot longevity.

  14. mike taht’s avatar

    Heh, if you are ever in south jersey again, Joe’s Pizza still makes pretty darn good pizza and the joes special sub is out of this world…

    I miss those peppers and a good football game.

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