I liked Superman when I was a kid, but not as much as I liked Spiderman. I liked how tortured Spiderman was, how geeky, how bewildered by his own nascent powers. But Spiderman disappeared from TV around 1976, and all I could find was the George Reeve version of Superman. Perhaps Congress was offended by seeing the colors of the American Flag on an arachnid during our bicentennial. Somehow Superman seems more American, more clearly patriotic. He is quintessentially American in a way Spiderman is not. Spiderman was twisted and confused, cursing his strange spidery gifts even while using his talents to help The People, practically Bolshevik. Spiderman was maligned by the media, whereas Superman, in his Clark Kent guise, it could be argued, WAS the media. And Superman was beloved; he leaped tall buildings in a single bound, after all. The people never turned against him. “Look,” they said. “Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
One thing that intrigued me about Superman in 1976 was the story of George Reeves.
“He killed himself,” my father told me.
“Why?” I said, horrified. At the age of nine, this was the first suicide I’d ever heard of.
“Well, I think it was because he tried to play other roles, but no one could see him as anything other than Superman,” my dad explained. “The same thing happened to the kid who played Dennis the Menace.”
This morning, Tom came back from walking Cody to find me glued to the TV, watching a DVD of the last episode of the second season of The West Wing, the one where President Bartlett curses out God in Latin in the National Cathedral after his secretary, Delores Landingham gets killed in a car crash.
“Do you watch any current episodes of this show?” Tom asked me later when we were eating breakfast and reading our newspapers.
“No,” I said. “I don’t like it ever since Aaron Sorkin left. Now it’s just ER with politics instead of patients. Now it’s about big dramatic plots and crises in the lives of the ever tormented characters. I’m not interested in that. I liked it when it was funny and smart and had natty dialogue and was more about how the story was told and less about what the story actually was. Also, I have a theory that TV shows should only last three seasons anyway. After that they jump the shark and become unbelievable.”
Tom nodded. “Congress should pass a law like the twenty second amendment to the Constitution barring any TV show from lasting past three seasons. “
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe that would’ve saved George Reeves and Dennis the Menace.” I was grouchy. Tom was reading the Boston Globe and I the New York Times. Kerry is doing better, but the race is too close to call and the Bush machine is probably going into diabolical overdrive. Last night I prayed hard for good things (other than reelection) to happen for my political enemies, but my heart is still a screwed up muscle of partisan fury. Checking to see if Tom had better news, I noticed my hero, Bob Dylan’s photo on the backside of Tom’s Globe and I shrieked. He has a new book; an autobiography! The Times had an article on the front page of the Arts section:
“The Old Him is the hellhound who taunts Bob Dylan. From time to time this 1960’s deity surfaces driving nostalgists to rhapsodies (the Old Him is back!) but making Mr. Dylan angry enough to want to bite himself… ‘It was like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat,’ he writes about his most celebrated songs. ‘I couldn’t understand where they came from.’” (Janet Maslin, New York Times, 10/5/04)
I love Bob Dylan, and reading this reminds me that my heroes are not Superman or anything having to do with TV shows. Bob Dylan has made forty albums and been on a never-ending tour since the mid eighties—-twenty-five years AFTER he started touring in the first place. The article in the Times ends with this “epitaph” from his book: “Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it’s like they didn’t fade away at all.”
I have this theory that it is a gigantic blessing that my band, the Nields, never made it big. It’s a blessing that we never had a hit. To have a hit is to be defined by that hit. To not have a hit means you are continually trying to write a better song than the last one. To have a hit is to continually try to write something that is as good as the hit was; or else to write something totally different, to reinvent yourself (as Dylan did/does so well). But what if you just want to keep being yourself?
Also, having a hit or not having a hit can’t protect you from the suicidal thought: “This is the end.” George Reeves thought it was the end; Dennis the Menace did too. Aaron Sorkin might or might not have had that thought, but certainly I’ve had that thought about The West Wing. And I’ve thought, “This is the end/My career is over/ The band is over,” so many times I can’t even count. I remember thinking this in 1995 when we finished making Gotta Get Over Greta and had to drive from three in the afternoon from the studio in North Brookfield, MA to Black Hills, NC to perform at 10am the next morning at a festival. Katryna had a polyp on her vocal chords, and I thought she might never sing again. The entire time we were onstage, I thought, “This is the last Nields show ever. Katryna will lose her voice and we will never play again.”
I had that thought “We will never play again” in 1998 when our record company folded and took our CD back catalogue with them.
I had that thought in 1999 at Oberlin College when we’d decided to make a huge change in our touring and have Katryna and me do more duo gigs and fewer band shows.
I had that thought in 2000 when Katryna was pregnant with Amelia.
I had that thought in 2001 when the Nields did the last show with David Nields in New Haven on the Green.
My Buddhist friends tell me that everything changes and the quickest way to create a climate of misery is to try to hang on to what is past, to fight the change. At each stage, I’ve been able to do this, to say, “OK, well if this is the end, I’m going to enjoy myself for this last show.”
My Christian friends say the one unforgivable sin is suicide, because suicide is the complete absence of faith, the most willful declaration of self-assertion and attempts to control circumstances. Suicide is saying to the world, “I’m not able to live with this condition any longer. If it can’t be the way I want it, I quit.”
It’s never really the end.
In our own version of the never-ending tour, Katryna and I were in the middle of an ongoing conversation in the Van just last week.
“Remember that folkie we opened for in the mid nineties, the one who said, ‘If I win the lottery, I’m never playing THIS club again?’”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember. Hey stop at the next rest stop. I need coffee.”
“Fine,” said Katryna who was driving. “Well, if we won the lottery what would you do?”
I thought about it. I probably would buy some more clothes, but not a lot because too many clothes confuse me and I always end up wearing the same thing day after day anyway. “I’d hire someone to drive so I could read and write in the back seat like I used to when we traveled as a full band. Also, fly first class.” I said. “And I’d lower our ticket prices so more people could come to the shows. And I’d buy Patty season tickets to the WNBA. What would you do?”
“Hire a tour bus with a jungle gym in the back; open a college fund for both my kids and pay the band members to tour with us sometimes,” said Katryna. “And sleep in hotels where they give us soft terrycloth bathrobes.”
Winning the lottery notwithstanding, we’ll be on the road again next March, back in the van, doing our shows, staying in Comfort Inns and lugging our guitar and suitcases full of CDs around Chicago O’Hare airport, reading O Magazine with Hoi Polloi in standard class. I don’t know why we don’t have to be Superman in order to by happy, but we don’t. Like Spiderman, like Dylan, we’ll look backwards and forwards and shrug and enjoy the music that we’re making right this moment.