Joni Mitchell is very much on the public mind at this moment, with her career-defining album Blue celebrating its 50th birthday and giving the music/art critics yet another chance to toil at the cliff face of permanently defining just what it means in the most putrid and pseudo-perceptive phrasing possible. Right now, however, I’m thinking about her entirely un-cherished 1991 effort, Night Ride Home, and one track from that record in particular.
“Nothing Can Be Done”, with lyrics by Joni but music by her husband of the time, bassist/producer Larry Klein, features the 46-year-old Mitchell spiraling into depression over her partner’s faithlessness, the increasingly powerful and malicious pull of nostalgia, and her defiant but doomed determination to maintain a connection with her own youthful desires. It’s the only song worth considering in a frankly awful album that ranges from bland (the title track) to Boomer-entitled (“The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)”) and outright cringeworthy (“The Only Joy In Town”, which features a chorus screeching “Botticelli Black Boy!” over Prophet-style synth strings about some African flower salesman Mitchell wishes she could have sex with).
Even this single decent song is undersold on the record by Joni’s who-gives-a-shit vocal performance and a drum track that probably isn’t synthesized but gives an unerring impression of being so. Happily, it was resurrected and properly done by Los Lobos and the Latina singer “La Marisoul” at a concert celebrating Mitchell’s 75th birthday. La Marisoul could making a living covering Joni tunes if she wanted to; Judy Collins showed it could be very profitable to bring a technically better voice to the music, and I imagine there is a whole generation of listeners ready to hear the tunes again, particularly from an, ahem, “PoC”.
Anyway, this version of “Nothing Can Be Done” is on repeat lately for me, in large part due to the confluence of two personally upsetting events. The first was a remarkably humbling experience I just had on Snowshoe Mountain last week; the second, a subtly terrifying series of interactions I’ve had with a couple of older men who are busy rushing headlong towards their own destruction.
This is the third year that I’ve taken my son to Snowshoe, and this was our fifth visit to the mountain. When he was ten years old, I would burn out eighty bucks a day in SRAM Code RSC brake pads not running him over. (Brief note: always ride behind your kids until they’re as good as you are. Time and again I find myself helping out children who have crashed or been frightened into immobility while trying to follow their parents down trails. Invariably I then encounter the parents down the trail, or at the end of the trail, standing around looking confused. This is how you wind up with a dead kid.) Last year John was faster and I used just two sets of pads over the course of eight days rolling.
We arrived at Snowshoe last Wednesday to find that the trails had gone rough from overuse and continual rain. Almost immediately, the boy cut a Schwalbe Rocket Ron tire through to the core on a sharp rock; with no replacement rubber in the right size available, we put in a tube, which he promptly burst on the next run. At that point we gave up and did the 4.5 hour round trip to Shenandoah Bicycle. They had us running with a new 26×2.3 Bontrager in minutes.
With that in place, John proceeded to nimbly drop me on a murderer’s row of fast trails: Ninja Bob, 10 Gallon, Powerline, and part of Big Ash. I’m still stronger than he is, and my Guerilla Gravity Megatrail is hugely faster than his Trailcraft Maxwell thanks to the 27.5″ Industry Nine wheels and very deft suspension tuning from MRP in Colorado, but as soon as the trail degenerates to rock I’m absolutely helpless. Every bone in my upper body hurts from the stress of hitting the terrain at 25+ miles per hour; my hands cramp up, my elbows burn, my shoulders feel loose in their sockets. At the end of Powerline, there are two long drop-jumps where you launch fifteen or so horizontal feet into a rock garden that is three or four feet lower than your jumping-off point. John touches down into the mess without so much as an audible scuff, losing no speed and clearing the jumps that follow like they are ski-bunny bumps. I’m landing on this stuff like a 747 with the nose gear up, coming almost to a halt. I won’t post the relevant video because I’m bleating on impact like I’m being beaten with a rubber hose.
Therefore, witness the new phenomenon of 49-year-old parenting: my son waiting for me every so often where the trails join or split. “Dad, are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes, God damn it, I’m fine, stop waiting for me!”
“But… you could have been hurt. It took you a while…” This is why Robert Duvall knocked his kid down in The Great Santini, dontcha know. On the smoother trails, I could reel him back in with my more educated cornering technique and/or my ability to simply pull my bike up and over the jumps instead of launching across them. But time and time again he’d be out of Snowshoe’s final forest trail and into the sunshine of the lift line before I was even in sight of the last bridge.
He wasn’t perfect, of course; his third time through 10 Gallon he went head over heels on a tricky root and put a rock into his chest at about eight miles per hour. “I’m fine!” he yelled, even before his body hit the ground; he’s somehow internalized the idea that I’m both physically and emotionally fragile, requiring immediate reassurance as to his condition. He’s not wrong.
Later this year we will start doing the “letter” trails that offer double-black-diamond combinations of drops and technical features. I know that he will conquer them, maybe not in 2021 but by the end of 2022. I also know that I never will, that my mountain biking future likely consists of me being more easily hurt, more often, and likely in my oft-broken hands and wrists. There’s no way to spend my way out of it; I have the most expensive and pliable front end on my bikes that money can buy, from the MRP Ribbon shock to the ninety-dollar RevGrip Pros. The only thing that can save me is caution.
Younger than I am, Joni asked:
Must I surrender with grace / the things I loved when I was younger… What do I do here with this hunger?
I’d like to think that I’m past the traditional middle-aged male fear of being, ah, dried up. To rage against the dying of that light too much is to court ridicule. It doesn’t hurt that the generations behind mine aren’t exactly inflaming my envy, what with their bizarre intersectionality of Bumble, politics, obesity, body art, casual hygiene, and asexuality. I know a few (much) younger women, largely through cycling and/or mutual friends. I don’t have any desire to join them in their lives, which seem remarkably depressing and appear to contain a lot of “music” by a fellow named “Juice WRLD” who recently died and is therefore the Hendrix of his generation, minus the ability to carry a tune. When you can’t dig current pop music any more, it’s probably time to start wearing more tweed and going to bed earlier.
I just want to, you know, not come to a complete halt. Or go crazy, which was not previously a fear of mine but has now been comprehensively stoked by two male colleagues, one in his fifties and another a decade older than that. I’ve had some bizarre interactions with both of them lately. The first one is in need of some advice, and says he wants to take it, but what he really wants is to lecture me about everything that’s wrong with everyone else. He has problems, and some of them are his own fault, but he is obsessed with his own anger towards his co-workers. The blind fury with which he declaims for ten or twenty minutes on end has me rattled. I’ve heard that own voice in my head sometimes over the years, but I always manage to reason with it. When did my friend lose that ability? When will it happen to me? Is it preventable?
The second fellow is a writer. He’s become obsessed with a bunch of weird potty-mouth stuff. Less Henry Miller and more fourth-grade snickering. I can’t publish the stuff he’s writing. It will cost both of us our jobs. I’ve explained this to him. But instead of just going to back to normal, he is trying to argue his case with me, trying to trip me up and expose my position as being logically inconsistent. He may be right. I may be logically inconsistent. But that’s like saying you’re being logically inconsistent in the face of a grizzly bear; the bear can still end the argument any time he likes with a single swipe of the paw. And that’s what would happen to both of us, if I published this drivel. We would be swiped into the unemployment line.
Vox Day likes to talk about the Very Smart Boys who think they can always somehow trip you up into being proven wrong, or at least hypocritical. They’re like the atheists in Hitchhiker’s Guide:
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.”
Reality has a way of putting these people in the grave, in prison, or in Section 8 housing. You can’t treat the whole world like a debate club. My friend is very smart. When I see him exhibiting this near-insane behavior, I also get a bit worried. Is that the direction in which I’m bound to go? Another older friend of mine once performed a citizen’s arrest on some cops who were illegally parked, to prove a point — but the point that he ended up proving was that you can be sent to jail by cops any time they like, without much of a reason, and you’ll suffer more for being right than you would ever suffer for being wrong because it adds the sin of disrespect to the crime of… whatever they can think up.
This idea of “being right” all the way to an early grave or poverty is frightening. It could seize me at any moment. I doubt my friends knew that it was about to seize them, before it did. I’m going to be as careful as I can, for as long as I can. But in the end, there’s probably no defense against it. Joni sings:
Oh I am not old
But I am not young
Oh and nothing can be done