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Dale Stephanos
Musical Memories
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Jeff Tweedy of Wilco
I don’t have a sense of smell. Never have. Sometimes this is good (I changed a lot of diapers when my children were small) and other times it leaves me feeling as though I’m missing a critical part of life. For me, that magical link between the olfactory and memory doesn’t exist. Remember the smell of cookies baking when you got home from grade school? I don’t. How about the smell of your newborn child’s skin? Not me. How about that first whiff of Spring in the air on a blustery March day? Nope. I’m told that smell and memory are lashed together like King Kong and the Empire State Building, or Ahab and Moby. You smell my drift.

For me, instead of smells being the exit ramp to Memory Lane, it’s music. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John brings me right back to a nasty bout of insomnia I had for a time when I was around ten years old. ”You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor puts me back on Nantucket with my mother during the summers when I was younger. I heard the song “DOA” by Bloodrock recently, and the hair on my arm stood up because that song was the soundtrack to a nightmare I had when I was very young. And yeah, there’s “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead that brings me right back to stage diving at the Channel in Boston and getting knocked out.

Every few years I reach the end of the musical cul de sac I’m strolling through and it’s difficult to make my way out. I usually try to just keep going straight and hack my way through the brush, forcing myself to listen to music I haven’t heard before. Or, more likely, I’ll try to appreciate a band that all the critics have proclaimed brilliant, but to me, seems anemic.

In 2002, Wilco was that band.

I bought Wilco’s album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” after reading all the glowing reviews and after a couple of listens I chalked it up to another case of record reviewers having themselves a little joke at our expense. Jeff Tweedy sounded like he had just woken up, the songs were disjointed, and it seemed like there had been a fistfight between the songwriter and the producer and the listening audience somehow got pulled into it and got it’s ass kicked.

In the summer of 2002 I decided to attend the Illustration Academy, which was run by Mark English (and featured, among others, Sterling Hundley) and his son John.  The drive from my house near Boston would take about 9 hours, so it’s natural that I only remembered to bring one CD. Of course, it was the CD I just described above, so I took it as a chance to make a music appreciation breakthrough on my way to a creative breakthrough. I listened to that damned disc for 9 hours straight, and by the time I got to Richmond, VA, it was starting to grow on me. Of course, when I got there, all ready for 3 uninterrupted weeks of self-improvement, the calls for jobs started flooding in. Good jobs, too. Not just the usual spots that you can toss off over night. So, after a week and a half, I finally gave up and headed for home.

By now, the Wilco disc had settled in nicely, I knew the words, was used to the idiosyncratic structure of the songs, and I thought the album was brilliant. Happily driving north on 95 on a bright sunny June day, I looked up the road and saw a car silently rolling over. “Huh, that’s funny, that car’s just turning over and over” I thought. As I approached, it seemed a little unreal. There were no crashing sounds, no dramatic camera angles, just a one shot 200 yard away view of a non descript car rolling over the median and then coming to a rest on the other side of the road.

By the time I pulled up, several trucks had stopped as well. The car’s roof was almost flattened, all the windows smashed and the woman who had been driving was staggering around mumbling something about needed to get her CD’s. The highway was strewn with debris from the car - cups, candy wrappers clothing,  CD’s, a sippie cup.

Hold on there, I thought. That’s what my kids drink from.

I asked the woman, who was now sitting on the road holding her bleeding forehead, “Are you alone”? She didn’t seem to speak English, but she pointed a shaking finger at the back of the car “CD!” the yelled, very anxiously. “CD”.

Shit. Seat? As in “child seat”?

I looked at the rear end of the car and it’s smashed in roof, and perused my fellow bystanders. They were all southern trucker types. Not one of them under 6’4”, 250 lbs. I felt like a sapling in a redwood forest. No way were they going to fit through that narrow assed slit that used to be a rear window. We were all on the same page though, and without discussion, decided that I was going in. One of the big guys had some sort of metal tool and cleared the remaining safety glass shards from the edges of the opening I’d go through with one sweep of his arm. I squeezed through and breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that all that was back there was the usual detritus that’s left of your possessions after you roll your car.

 I heard someone say “Fire” quietly ( I couldn’t smell smoke) beyond the cramped, wrinkled confines of the car, and started to maneuver my way around to get the hell out of there when I sensed movement. The passenger’s side front seat had been pushed back into the back seat. But there was a strange plastic thing between the two. It was vaguely familiar. “Hey”, I thought, “That looks like the bottom of our booster seat at home”.  I lifted up the front seat and there were these big brown eyes looking blankly up at me. I thought it was a doll at first. Then the eyes blinked. “Uh, there’s a kid back here” I said calmly. I tried to lift him up and out of the space, but he was buckled in pretty tight. “He’s strapped too tightly, I can’t get him loose” I called, and almost immediately a huge, tattooed, fleshy arm holding what looked like an even bigger knife came swinging in through the space, flailing blindly. “Hey, you’re gonna kill me!” I yelled. I took the knife and carefully cut the straps holding the little guy into his seat, then gently eased him out, praying he’d emerge from his little space all in one piece. After handing the boy out to the many waiting big strong arms, I squeezed my way back through the opening, vaguely aware that there was a smoke taste in my mouth and my eyes were stinging.

I stood on the road watching the men bring the boy over to his dazed, bleeding mother and looked at the thick black smoke billowing from under the crinkled hood of what used to be a car. I felt as though I had been watching these events unfold, as opposed to participating in them. As the first responders arrived, I kicked my way through the shattered glass and debris, back to my still running car with it’s driver side door ajar and the song “I am trying to break your heart” playing through the speakers on the other side of the highway, got in, and drove away into the bright June morning.

A quarter hour or so later, I noticed the steering wheel shaking, and thought, “Oh great, the damned car’s coming apart”. But then I realized the car was fine. It was me that was a little shaky. I called my wife and said to her, “I know it’s a cliché and all, but I just pulled a kid from a burning car”. She had kind of a “Oh, that’s nice” sort of reaction, which is just about right. It wasn’t a big dramatic thing, it was more a case of following events to their logical conclusion without a whole lot of debate.

So, when I hear Jeff Tweedy’s voice now, I think of burning cars, frightened children, and perfect June days.


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Stephanos is teaching at TutorMill, an online mentoring site for students of illustration!