Nothing screams ROCK & ROLL like redeeming your mother’s H&S Green Stamps at the Two Guys in Dundalk for Deep Purple’s Machine Head !
But first …
In January of 1977, when a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy became president of the United States, I was a 19-year-old English major at Loyola College on Charles Street. Eight months later I’d meet the Hopkins kids putting out a tabloid called City Squeeze and earn my first professional bylines.
With Watergate behind us (Ford pardoned Nixon, Carter pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers) and a notebook taking me to neighborhoods well beyond Highlandtown, I was determined to earn a seat at the banquet of literature, which always has room for one more. All seemed possible.
Obsessed with rock and roll from the night the Beatles were on Sullivan – (Little Richard, Nils Lofgren, Zappa and The Who) – I was working the previous summer on a container ship that regularly docked in New Orleans. At a record store there, I happened upon a free music paper out of Houston.
It was called The Lamb, an echo of the album that the crowd I ran with listened to constantly at the time – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – the last great Genesis album released nearly 50-years ago.
So taken was I with the theatrical fantasia of the music and the story that I gave the lyrics to Loyola English professor Thomas Scheye, my mentor, sure that he would see the genius of lyricist and singer Peter Gabriel, raised on a Surrey dairy farm.
A few days later, we crossed paths on campus and he handed the lyrics back to me, chuckling, “What is this? Some kind of acid trip?” I was not yet well-read enough to say that the author was not Aleister Crowley.
In my parents’ basement, putting off a term paper for Scheye on The Rape of the Lock, I sat down to write Jimmy a note of congratulations. And make a request.
Did I want President Carter to legalize marijuana? Willie Nelson was already the nation’s chief reefer lobbyist, getting high on the roof of the White House with Jimmy’s son Chip. Come to dinner at my parents’ house for crabs and spaghetti? I once extended that invitation to Zappa, but Frank declined.
My bright idea was to ask the President of the United States to buy a subscription to The Lamb for the White House library. By the time I received a non-committal thank you on White House stationary, The Lamb had folded.
And then, things began moving fast. Punk put a cap in the ass of prog (“We were trying to save rock and roll,” explained Joey Ramone) and voters kicked Jimmy to the curb. The guy who trounced him decided that the Shining City on the Hill ran just fine on fossil fuel and removed solar panels Carter installed on the roof where Chip and Willie smoked one of Nelson’s “Austin Torpedos.”
I married the young woman who’d once traded green stamps to listen to “Smoke on the Water ” anytime she wanted. Now a professor of writing, her name is Deborah Rudacille and to this day can recite The Lamb Lies Down in full.
“I sing it to myself sometimes, every word,” she said. “It amazes me.” More amazing is that directly upon our wedding at the Loyola College chapel we had three kids in five years. Shit got real.
It would be decades before I listened to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway again but my interest in Jimmy Carter never waned. I followed the good works that led to his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and paid attention as reassessments cast his single term in office in brighter light.
On a cross country road trip in 2011, I stopped at a Baptist church in Plains, Georgia where Jimmy taught Sunday School for 40 years. Maybe I’d get to shake his hand and thank him for being a decent human being.
Nope. I was in for a turnabout as strange as they come. President Carter, said the man at the door, was on a fishing trip with friends off the coast of Peru, but I was more than welcome to stay for the lesson. Too embarrassed to turn away, I walked into a classroom at Maranatha Baptist and there, sitting in the back, was a man dressed down to the mole on his cheek as Abraham Lincoln.
It was February, a few days after Presidents Day, and Dennis Boggs was in the Peach State to give a few lectures and remind schoolchildren that no matter what their parents may have told them the American Civil War was about slavery. He’d also hoped to meet Jimmy.
At Mom’s Kitchen, a nearby soul food diner on Highway 27, Boggs and I talked about the peculiar burden of celebrity impersonators, from Marilyn to Elvis to Cher. I asked when he knew he’d truly embodied Lincoln, not just the look (the mole was fake) but the man’s character.
Reminding me that we were in the Deep South, he talked of being heckled in parades by fathers and their children and called a terrorist. “You know when they hate you,” he said.
All of which – Jimmy Carter, Peter Gabriel, Deborah and our 40-year-old son Jake – brought us to Madison Square Garden a week or so ago to take in Gabriel’s first North American tour in a decade.
Because The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway takes place in Manhattan, many among the 18,000 or so in the crowd hoped he might sing a song or two from the album, something he’s rarely done since leaving Genesis after the album’s release. That he didn’t was no surprise.
It’s what he did just before the show’s final encore – Biko – that rocked the garden. Talking (sometimes preaching) between songs about everything from Artificial Intelligence to the way time, far from being on our side, has us “in its claws,” Gabriel ended with a number sung everyday by everyday folks around the world.
“It takes enormous courage to stand up for what you believe in…particularly when you put your life at risk,” he said. “There are hundreds of people all over the world who are doing exactly that. One of the great champions of human rights [is] one of your ex-presidents.”
By the time he mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize and the fight “to eliminate obscure diseases that [big] pharma wouldn’t touch,” it was clear of whom he spoke.
“He’s coming up on his 99th birthday and he’s at home with his family. I would ask …if you could sing happy birthday Jimmy to President Jimmy Carter.”
And we did.
Rafael Alvarez never got high with Willie Nelson but he did smoke a joint at No Fish Today on Eutaw Street with blues harmonica legend James Cotton. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org