Old Hippies with Small Bladders — Michael Schulz
My birthday and my wife’s birthday are six days apart. So, every year my parents make the three and a half hour trip to our house to celebrate and spend time with their grandchildren, while we spend a long night at a nice restaurant savoring the reduction of our youth.
Baby, I remember all the things we did…1
When my wife turned forty, we decided to turn this annual night out into a weekend away. She wanted to go to a show, a concert or play, something within driving distance, something low key, just the two of us. After all, it would be to celebrate my birthday too.
As luck would have it, Lucinda Williams was doing a show in Kent, Ohio on a Saturday night, the weekend of her birthday. So, we booked a hotel room, bought tickets to the show, and made the two and half hour drive to prove that we could actually plan and enjoy a weekend alone together.
…Pedal to the metal and my luck to the test…
Williams was on tour promoting her twelfth album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. Will Hermes of Rolling Stone claims the album’s “… jazzy rawness represents a high point of emotional craft in a career defined by it.”2 It makes sense to think of Williams’ music as raw, like it should come with the warnings on menus: Consuming raw voice and emotionally crafted lyrics may increase your risk of music-borne illness.
But not everyone takes the risk, or as Hermes explains, “Yeah, it’s literary; yeah, it’s the polar opposite of cosmetic-surgery pop. As such, it’s not for everyone.” He describes the “guitar interplay” as the “gravy” of the album. Notes layered and poured over red meat.
…Tangerines and persimmons / And sugarcane…
We had never seen Williams live and didn’t wonder, until we were well along the Ohio turnpike, what the crowd would be like at one of her shows. We like her. We have friends who like her. NPR likes her. Rolling Stone likes her. But who buys tickets to her show in Kent, Ohio?
The first hint of the crowd was at dinner, a Mediterranean restaurant just a block down from The Kent Stage. We were eating paella and scallops, when a group of gray-haired women in jean jackets and leather boots were led to a table in the corner and started sipping white wine.
…Grapes and honeydew melon / Enough fit for a queen…
At another table, there was a couple in their late fifties, a man, well-cologned, jeans with loafers; a woman, her face painted on, black skirt, knee-high boots with two inch heels. We were young.
We watched parents at a long table by the bathroom negotiate with their three kids, all under eight. “Do you want French fries or rice? You need to sit down and eat. Three more bites, or no dessert.”
We were old. We ordered another round of drinks. Then coffee and dessert. We tried not to talk about our kids, to remember the essence of our youth.
…Traced your scent through the gloom…
After dinner, we picked up our tickets at Will Call and the crowd took shape. A lot of couples, pairs of women sifting through sizes of “Drunken Angel” t-shirts. We stopped at a table and bought the new album, noted the bathrooms on the left, and looked for the bar. Tall cans of beer and little bottles of wine, we bought one of each and went to find our seats.
The theater was old, red-cushioned seats sloping down to the stage, a balcony hanging over the back rows. An aging venue that never had to re-invent itself, it was a fitting place to see the daughter of a poet sing about ghosts from her past. We settled into our seats at the end of a row, absorbed the people filing in, the age and energy of the room.
…Lavender, lotus blossoms too…
The couple on our right started chatting, asked how we knew Williams, where we were from, pleasantly surprised that people a decade younger shared the same musical taste. We were young. They inhaled our youth, a momentary buzz of memories — young kids, juggling schedules, time away. The parental pity sobered us up. We were old. I walked out to the lobby to get another round.
The line for the bar merged with a long line extending from the men’s room. Two women passed by, saying it was nice to see the men wait too. They watched me think about the wait, then get back in line for the bar.
“We’re just a bunch of old hippies with small bladders.” one said, as they laughed and walked away.
I smiled, and knew I could hold it a bit longer. Bladder control. Young again.
…Keep the bright and unforgiving / light from shining through…
The opening act was Williams’ band. They played original, instrumental tracks from their own album, upbeat numbers that mixed in samples from bands like Nirvana. We recognized the samples. We were young.
When Williams took the stage, the crowd focused. She weaved in songs from the new album with old staples like “Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles,” and “Essence.” Her voice wafted through the crowd, a mouth-watering aroma.
After playing a new song, “Can’t Close the Door on Love”, everyone sat quiet, a bite melting on our tongues. Williams took our silence as critique and said she never knew how new songs would work live. We sat full, unable to speak.
…I was spent, I was soon smelling you for hours…
The show ended with “Righteously” and “Joy,” lifting the crowd to its feet, cheering for an encore. People bounded down the aisles to dance in front of the stage. Everyone stood and clapped, until Williams came back out. She stepped to the mic, and the back half of the crowd sat down. More people crowded the stage, spilled into the aisles.
A short man with glasses stood in front of us. His adult daughter and wife stood too, blocking our view of the stage. It was an awkward domino effect, people wanting to sit, but standing to see. We sat down behind them. We were old.
The first song of the encore was William’s version of the Woody Guthrie song, “I Ain’t Got No Home.” She introduced it by telling the story about how Guthrie’s landlord had been “Old Man Trump.” And with the mention of that name, the room puckered. Everything went sour.
…Lemon trees don’t make a sound…
We tilted side to side looking around the family in front of us, when the guy behind us–tall, muscled, leather vest–started yelling at them to sit down. “Sit the Fuck down!”
Excessive, since the majority of the crowd was still trying to decide whether to sit or stand. The dad in front of us turned around and was instantly pissed. He didn’t sit.
We tried to listen to Williams introduce the song, but the guy behind us kept yelling, “Sit Down!”
People couldn’t hear Williams. So, of course they started yelling, “Shut the Fuck up!”
We were young. Ready to fight. The muscles and vest kept yelling, “Just Fucking Sit Down!”
We listened to the song. The dad finally sat down. He kept looking over his shoulder. His wife and daughter whispered, touched his arm. We were old. Surrounded by children. Ready to protect them from themselves.
…Til branches bend and fruit falls to the ground…
The encore ended with William’s cover of “Rockin in the Free World.” Everyone stood up. Bitter. Energized.
The dad wouldn’t let it go. As the lights came on, his wife and daughter started up the aisle; he lingered, letting them go first. Then, he lunged right past me for the muscles and leather vest, who was still sitting down. He grabbed the guy by the neck, and squeezed. His wife and daughter pulled him off. They yelled and yanked him out of the row, out of the theater, before any punches were thrown.
We left in the opposite direction, through the side doors to the theater that were being opened. The muscles and vest went that way too, a woman in a long sweater–stretch pants with tall boots–hooked on his arm. He lit a cigarette to calm down, talked about what he should have done to that guy.
…I been cryin’ for you boy but truth is my savior…
We inhaled his smoke, the fumes. How did we end up here? Both of us admitted later to thinking about kicking the men in the knees if we had to defend ourselves. We knew, that if the fight came to us, it would have been the best way to bring them down. We were young, and old men have bad knees.
Outside, next to the tour bus, the people and anger dispersed. Then the stage doors flew open, and the band’s drummer and guitar player walked out and blended into the crowd. The guitar player lit up a cigarette, and noticing who it was, I said, “Great show.”
He nodded, then took off, running around the corner, and down the street. The drummer sprinted after him, like they were trying to catch someone, some thing. Were they after the fighting dad? Did they know what happened? Where were they going? Where was Williams? Why were they running? They disappeared. My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. They had strong knees.
…Come to my world and witness / The way things have changed…
We walked arm in arm down the block; knees weakened, bladders full, the air, cold enough to see our breath. We tried to make sense of the night, the aftertaste.
We wondered if we should follow the guys from the band, stop somewhere for a drink; something we might have done. Instead, we went back to the hotel and bought dark chocolate M&M’s from the snack bar to go with the bag of microwave popcorn in our room. We ate in bed. We watched TV. When the bags were empty, we licked our lips.
The salt and sugar mixed on our tongues. We forgot our age. We peeled off clothes. We cocooned ourselves in sheets and fell asleep, before we had a chance to pee.
…When we slept together… /…Baby, sweet baby.
1 Lucida Williams. “Fruits of My Labor.” World Without Tears. Universal Music Group, Nashville, 8 April 2003.
2 Hermes, Will. “Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20.” Rolling Stone, 3 Feb. 2016
Michael Schulz is originally from Sparta, MI and has had work appear in Sycamore Review, DIAGRAM, and Barrow Street. He currently teaches at Bowling Green State University and lives in Bowling Green, OH with his wife and two children.