For Auld Lang Syne

Spend any time at all on Turner Classic Movies, and you’ll hear Auld Lang Syne sung by a big group of folks. They’ll sing it on New Year’s Eve, Christmas, birthdays, or just when Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart has a nice day. It’s everywhere in movies made before about 1950. As someone who has spent many weeks of my life plopped in front of such monochromatic relics, Auld Lang Syne probably seeped into my subconscious somewhere in college.

Everybody can hum it, and most people, I think, can fake their way through the first verse and chorus, or so a handful of New Year’s Eve parties I’ve attended lead me to believe. Somewhere in the muddle of my last ten years, I found myself interested enough to look up and vaguely translate (they were written in…what, Scottish?) Robert Burns’ original verse/lyrics, and I fell in love.

The lyrics are beautiful. This should not have been surprising to me, since as a race we are unlikely to remember garbage poetry after some two hundred years have passed. The story of the man from Nantucket notwithstanding, perhaps. But I *was* surprised.

The surprising thing to me was that once you realize what it’s saying, it’s not some schlocky, happy-crappy song about how great life is. It’s kind of a sad song, and it’s beyond me how it ever became the pop anthem of post-Prohibition cinematic joviality. But here we are.  As a friend, Sean Thomason, said recently, if it’s not a little sad it just doesn’t feel true.

As I picked up my roots in my mid-20s and moved halfway across the country to a city where I knew no one, friendships that I had thought would last through anything began evaporating. Truth be told, many had been on somewhat shaky ground already. Schools and neighborhoods circumscribe lives in ways we cannot realize until after we have left them all behind. You stay in one spot physically, you’re likely to stay in one spot emotionally and relationally, as well. We don’t marry our high school sweethearts because we’ve seen the world and recognize they dwarf all other possible mates, we do it because of shared histories and familiarity.

When we walk different roads from one another, it makes sense only in retrospect that those roads would no longer intersect in such meaningful ways as they once did. But when they do once more cross, however briefly and in spite of the pain we inevitably feel when seeing ourselves as we once were in the eyes of those we once knew, here’s to the idea that we might set all of that aside, and raise a glass with one another for auld lang syne.

Here’s my version of the song.

You can download the song for free at http://music.scifiromance.net. Happy New Year, everybody.

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Road Stories: The Bombed-Out Whorehouse

Maybe the best sustained musical experience I’ve ever had was playing drums in the band Black Spiral from about 1995-1999.  I was in and just out of high school, and the band started as Chris Crowson, Ryan Dawe, and I were just starting to learn our instruments.  The first songs I was ever involved in writing, and the first lyrics I wrote all went into that band, and we ultimately felt like we were making compelling music that honestly brought something new to the table.

So of course it couldn’t last.  But it did give us the opportunity to shoot a music video in the ruins of a semi-famous brothel.  There is that.

A section of the ruins. Credit: Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s Chicken Ranch Central, http://www.jaymeblaschke.com/ChickenRanchImage15.html  


Crowson and I stayed in Texas after high school, but Dawe moved to Georgia for college, and that was the de facto end of the band, though we (still) never officially broke up.  We pooled our money the following summer to make our album Defeat (recorded in a single day) and, later, the music video for the last song on it, “Twilight.”  The multi-talented Don Swaynos and I began scouting locations for the shoot in the vast openness between Houston and Austin, Texas.  We knew of a place in Sealy, Texas, that looked like a bomb had been dropped on it.  About six buildings, real low, maybe two of them still had a roof on it.   Don and I had driven past this place a hundred times going between Houston and the University of Texas.  This time, we stopped in for a look.

Place was nuts.  We figured it had been a hotel, and we walked the buildings, which seemed to have once consisted of two or three tiny little rooms arranged around a single, shared toilet.  But who would build a hotel like this? It wasn’t just cramped, it was oppressive, even with no walls intact.  But the entire place was all crumbling, with lots of broken glass, and the biggest freaking corn spiders you ever want to see in your life.  Great for a death metal video.

There were a couple of mobile homes parked just on the other side of a cyclone fence, so we knocked on a door to ask about the place.  If the person living there knew what it had been or anything about it (no), or who owned it.  The answer was surprising — Omar, the owner/operator of two Mexican restaurants (named Omar’s, one in Sealy, one in Katy, Texas) — was thought to own the place.

So we drove to the Omar’s in Sealy, just hoping he’d be there.  He was.  This is my conversation with him, as best I can remember, and keep in mind, Omar has a super-heavy accent:

Me: Hi, we’re film school students from UT, and we were told you might own the old hotel or whatever it was out on I-10 outside of town.
Omar: Sure. The whorehouse.
Me: The…wha?
Omar: Yeah, yeah.
Me: The, did you say…”storehouse”?
Omar: No, whorehouse. With ladies. Girls.  The chicken ranch. (The eponymous “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” of Broadway, film, and ZZ Top song fame – vk.)
Me: The…I thought that was in La Grange.
Omar: Sure, but there was another. There in Sealy.
Me: And you own that?
Omar: Yeah, sure.
Me: Ok. We were wondering if it would be possible to shoot a music video. There. In the whorehouse.
Omar: Sure. What do you need?
Me: We would need a location release, saying it’s ok for us to shoot there.
Omar: Ok.

He then took an order pad off the hostess stand, and wrote out that it was ok for us to shoot there, and handed me the torn order ticket.  Um…Perfect?

Turns out, the place was called The Wagon Wheel, the little sister of the Chicken Ranch, which was in La Grange, until a huge scandal shut them both down and propelled a TV reporter named Marvin Zindler to a local stardom that would last until he died many, many years later.  I wound up in school with Marvin’s granddaughter, eventually.

We shot the video a few weeks later in some of the crumbling rooms and back behind the building, and it was a grueling-as-hell shoot in 110-degree heat, with no shade or cover.  There were one or two rooms that still had roofs on them, albeit sagging and threatening to collapse at any moment.  They since have.  But the big reason why we didn’t want to just kick it in one of those rooms was because they were utterly, utterly terrifying.

They smelled like trash and sex.  There was a big, torn up couch in one, with the words “KILL ME” scrawled above it in red paint or possibly animal blood.  And *so many* empty beer bottles and used condoms.  It had become a love nest, I guess, for local teenagers.

It’s interesting. In The Shining, the murder hotel just has murder in its soul, and that spirit infests Jack Torrance.  I have to wonder if sex is the same.  Nobody knew what this place was, apart from local history buffs, and Omar.  The people living next door to it didn’t know.  I wonder if sex was just in the building’s —  the land’s — aura, and it called to people.  It’s possible.

It’s also possible, though, that when you’re a teenager and horny, no place is too terrifying or too disgusting to distract from the magic of touching and being touched.  There is that.