The Creative Cafe
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The Creative Cafe

Goodbye to Hollywood and All That

Not so angry (Image courtesy of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

In the summer of 1976, I painted my former high school’s football stadium in brilliant red, white, and blue. Nothing says Happy Birthday America like a freshly-painted high school playground. I was paid $2.25 an hour and God knows how many hours I spent in the June and July Alabama sun doing anybody’s but God’s work.

That fall when I returned to the University of Montevallo, where I was majoring in Social Work and learning that my job choices might pay only a bit better than painting stadiums, I spent most of my free time campaigning for Jimmy Carter. My roommate, Keith, and I were the campus coordinators for the Georgian’s presidential run, and I remember even then arguing with Gerald Ford supporters about gun control:

“Gun control leads to confiscation,” I remember one guy, Frank Flanagan, arguing.

“What do you use all your guns for?” Keith and I asked.

“For target practice,” Frank countered.

And so on and so on.

Yet, it was a remarkable fall for other reasons.

First, our small liberal arts university somehow finagled an entertainment budget to bring both Harry Chapin and Billy Joel, separately, for on-campus concerts. I remember loving Chapin so much that I issued the dare to Keith, a Beatles fanatic, to prove to me that John and Paul were better songwriters than Harry. Keith said that Democrat or not,I was full of crap. But once I heard live songs like “Mr. Tanner” and, of course, “Taxi,” I thought I knew everything about great songwriting.

Still, even I thought “Cats in the Cradle” was a bit over the sentimental top.

Billy Joel, though, was something else. Turnstiles had been released that summer, and Joel was on the verge of finishing and then releasing The Stranger. I wish he had stopped recording altogether after that, but who am I to judge? All I truly knew was on that night, on my quaint, rural campus, I could have been shouting, clapping, and singing along anywhere — anywhere bigger than where I was.

I was 20 years old, and “The Ballad of the Angry Young Man” seemed to sum up me and most of my friends as well as anything could.

Full disclosure: I cry at concerts when I hear a song that I just can’t process fully, meaning, my senses and emotions go into shutdown, overload, full-on paralysis. Catharsis.

That was what happened to me on this October night when Joel sang “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”

Now I have no idea why this song was the one that got to me. It wasn’t just the lyrcis or the manner in which Joel sang them that did it completely, though I can hear him now:

“Movin’ on is a chance you take every time you try to stay together…Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

Of course, that might have been enough given that this was college, the greatest four years of my life and the greatest period of transitory relationships in my life, too.

The song’s full arrangement, though — guitars, keyboards, that drumbeat — I don’t know. Songs speak to us all the time.

But what do they say?

I’m sure I’ve seen better shows since then, but why argue about them. This one was “killer” stuff.

#

The other reason this fall made such a mark was that I think it was the first year of my life that I actually thought I was an attractive man. I wish I could say that I handled my attractiveness with taste and proper decorum, and in reality, I guess I did as well as most twenty-year old guys.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” but I was not, am not gay. I say this first because the gang I hung with back then used to make frequent trips to Birmingham to go dancing, and our favorite bar in the fall of 1976 was the Gizmo, a tiny gay bar on Birmingham’s south side, 22nd Street. The building has long since been destroyed, which matters to virtually no one, I suppose, and hardly to me. It’s just another site where I spent more minutes than I can count over a certain number of years, and now it’s gone. I can’t even remember the last time I danced there with all my friends. It’s just gone.

I can remember this time, though:

The time my friend Cheryl told me that my friend Jada wasn’t just flirting when she said she wanted me to take her out. It was New year’s Eve, and as stunned as I was, I acted.

A couple of weekends later, Cheryl even drove the two of us miles off campus so that we could spend the night together, and then she returned to fetch us the next morning. We all ate lunch at El Palacio. Such a good friend. Such a civilized affair.

A month after taking up with Jada, I had a chance to move to DC and work for my congressman, Walter Flowers. I said goodbye to Jada, but not exactly for that reason. It was more for the fact that I liked, or thought I liked, someone better than I did Jada. Like most men, I didn’t tell her what I felt or didn’t feel. I just left. She graduated that spring, and I saw her only one more time after. We talked only a bit. I wish I could say I apologized, and I wish I could say she wasn’t angry and didn’t have reason to be.

I never loved her, but I could have treated her like the friend she had been before.

#

One other night at the Gizmo, Cheryl and I had grown tired of the beat within and headed outside. We walked down to Eighth Avenue and then on the way back up the hill to the club, we leaned against the stone wall that lined that side of the street. I remember how our shadows stretched out before us. I don’t know what we talked about, but I know that Cheryl and I had no secrets from each other.

I also know that deep within us, we loved each other.

We tried to see what we could be, but our timing was never right. I remember how upset I got when she took up briefly with another roommate of mine. She did it openly; why shouldn’t she? I had never shown her anything like commitment or even full-on desire. When she left him that night, she looked me in the eye and asked,

“Are you all right, Barr?” She always called me by my last name.

“Yes,” I lied.

I felt uncomfortable, upset. Betrayed.

It didn’t occur to me then, and it hasn’t occurred to me until now, forty years later, that while I was wallowing in my own self-pity for stepping aside so that my roommate could love Cheryl, she had done an even more selfless thing the year before, stepping aside for Jada and me.

Cheryl and I had other chances, and as I say, we tried. After we both graduated, we stayed in touch for a while, and then we found other lovers, better friends.

And so as these things go, we said our goodbyes, though in that drifting way of couples moving on, we never truly did.

I think about all these people I’ve written of more often than they will ever know, which might mean something to them if they did know. But I am not twenty any more, and fortunately, I don’t have the sense of myself that I did back then.

For a while, we were truly everything to each other, one another. Still, like I said, these were the college years, and most of us, in one form — good or bad — eventually said goodbye to all that.

I tell you, though, that picture of Cheryl and me standing against the stone wall outside a dense club where would-be lovers found themselves almost every night, stays with me. It always will.

“Say a word out of line and you find that the friends you had are gone forever.

For-e-ev-er.”

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