I'm sitting here alone, late in the night of the day the great Bo Diddley died. I don't expect it's going that way for you. You're not ending your day or working through the long, slow hours before the next one rises thinking about the life and times and lyrics of Ellas Otha Bates, Ellas McDaniel, Bo Diddley, the inventor of "The Bo Diddley Beat." But I am.
I saw him just once, at Morganfield's in Portland, ten or fifteen years ago, that venue since closed and reopened as a different sort of club catering to a different and younger clientele with whom I have much less in common than I feel I did with that old black man who sat on a chair because his back hurt too much to stand, but who sang "I'm A Man" and "Who Do You Love" and "You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover" and we all sang along with him, and not a few middle-aged Maine men went at last out into the night thinking for sure, "I look like a farmer, but I'm a lover", their wives perhaps concurring, perhaps not.
June the second, 2008: the day Bo Diddley died. These events always make me spool up my mental track of Tom T. Hall's "The Year Clayton Delaney Died", another song you don't much think of and may not know or have ever heard, but if you live long enough and have a soul and a heart and learn by repeated reduction the great and terrible lessons of lonely life, you'll know how Mr. Hall could admit "I went out in the woods and I cried" when some old drunken, "Lovesick Blues" picker passed away.
I think Bo is probably truly dead, not just hiding out in Vegas working on a second or third comeback special. In understanding this simple reality (and in some other ways, too, but not in all ways, certainly) I stand separate from the legions of middle-aged women who keep, even these thirty-one years later, wishing and hoping and a few probably actually believing that Elvis Lives. I have three plants of a Hosta cultivar called 'Elvis Lives', which is interesting but not a significant piece of information relative to tonight's discussion. But I was not hired to teach anybody significant facts, was I? I can make more hostas by cutting apart my growing plants with a knife, but you can't raise the dead back up when they're in defeat.
16 August, 1977: the day Elvis died. If he died. Driving from our rough temporary quarters on our new land on the Rabbit Path (thick with mosquitoes and black flies and endless possibilities and marvelous dreams, some of which we would realize and many of which died stillborn) to the town office at the crossroads in Puddledock, I heard one Elvis Presley song after another, and just before I pulled onto the lawn (we parked on the grass in those days), the DJ said he was dead. He had been found, as Bruce Springsteen says so brutally and truthfully and lovingly in a song almost nobody knows but I find astonishing, "slumped up against the drain, with a whole lotta trouble runnin' through his veins."
Well, I had my own troubles back then, most of them a surprise to me and with no amelioration or escape or blessed forgetfulness in a big bottle of help prescribed by my own personal M.D. All I had was beer. I was, that warm August night, in my fifth month of my first term as First Selectman and Assessor of Alna, Maine. The week after my election the previous March I had been given two file boxes containing the revaluation of real property conducted by a Portland firm. It was my job to defend or correct that work, and it took every evening and many weekend days and a deal of time off work and too many phone calls and visits from the scores of annoyed and outraged and frequently ill-behaved taxpayers to do the job.
So we put in the hundreds of hours and we took such heat as was directed at us and we built the tax commitment and awarded a snow plowing contract and sold the alewives out of the Sheepscot River and gave food and fuel to the poor and heard the wisdom of the road commissioner on subjects about which he knew very much and very little, and we did all the things traditionally and in that year exceptionally demanded and required and expected of municipal officers. And one of us got out at the end of that year and another stayed a year longer, and I lasted a dozen terms.
But here I am again beginning another summer in office. The lupines bloom by the ways, the days begin to heat, and the nights hold no frost. I shall be treasurer until the third weekend in March of 2009. The job already costs me more time than I wished. But I have taken over a third of a room, thrown into several corners the papers and files and office paraphernalia and detritus and crap and remnants I found there, leveled an old steel desk with a rock my grandson gave me, bought a CD player and begun spending the people's money.
We all find this amusing, I think. I have completed four treasurer's warrants, sent a hundred or more checks out into the world. It is true that I failed to sign some half-dozen of them, but after navigating the absurd rituals of the QuickBooks program I am forced to use instead of a checkbook and a pen, having given over more of my mind than should be required to assuring that the right number of checks in the right numerical order was pressed into the right magazine in the right printer (in another room), upside down and backwards, before I hit the "Print Checks" button at the end of the ordeal, I think it a small matter that the traditional and reasonable and comprehensible act of signing the damned things may from time to time be overlooked.
If my performance now or at any time falls short of expectations I shall not fight a termination order. Find yourselves some other treasurer and I'll go back to my wheelbarrow.
The contrast is startling. In 1977 the clerk and tax collector worked from their homes. The town office, a Nineteenth Century frame schoolhouse, had no telephone, no water, no indoor toilets. We owned two filing cabinets and a single large work table. My office machinery consisted of a massive cast-iron hand-cranked adding machine supplied by the town and my own Royal portable typewriter and five dollar battery calculator. The town office was heated by an old hot-air furnace that stood unhidden at the back of the room, dumping its product directly from the plenum into our space, without ductwork. We turned it on when we entered the building and turned it off when we left, consuming perhaps fifty gallons of oil a year.
Today we are awash in office supplies, we have stacks of telephones and computers and printers and calculators abandoned, as well as the new models currently in use. We have a full-time clerk/collector. The town office and the firehouse are heated all winter, both warmer than my own home. There is carpet on the floor, curtains at the windows and a hot-topped parking lot.
But the jobs are the same. When Nancy Weeks from the Bureau of Taxation came by to scrutinize a year of real estate transfers last Wednesday, nineteen years since she had last done so for my administration, she handed me property cards and photographs I had manufactured in my twenties and thirties and we discussed houses and woodlots just as we did when we both were younger and the town ran without computers or regular heat. It was not, of course, my responsibility to contribute to the work she was doing, but when you're giving an evening to municipal matters neither the time nor the task is a thing to think about.
At length First Selectman Willard went home. But by then Road Commissioner Trask had settled in, to no useful purpose. He was six or seven when I was slogging through that first wild year, when The King lay sick and dying, when his father fixed our roads and counseled me on what I should do and should have done and ought never do. Now he nears forty and has never known a time when I did not figure in some way in the affairs of our town. He will someday hear that I have gone the way of Bo Diddley. I hope I may pass from among you all with more dignity than Mr. Presley managed. I do not consider marshmallow fluff a food and I cannot afford good drugs, so I have a fighting chance.
Work will keep me straight. My back hurts, too, and sometimes I sit when formerly I would have stood. The money in municipal duty hasn't gotten any better than formerly, but I early learned how to make it seem more than it is: take your salary near the end of the year when your work is done, when the town report is almost written, when winter is collapsing and the heavy, hot work of the previous summer has found a richer, more romantic groove in memory.
Bob Dylan still advises after all these years, and we do well to listen: "Life is sad, life is a bust; all you can do is do what you must." Some of it's good and some bad and most of it's fun, even if only later, when you tell it to the young people who believe you can't do that any more without a computer or an air compressor, but you remember how often and how well you did it with just a pencil and paper or a hammer and your good right hand. Because, annoying and frustrating and unsettling and confusing and unremunerated and unrequited as life and love and taxing and spending and fixing potholes and fighting fires and playing that big square guitar can surely be, Mr. Springsteen adapted Bo Diddley well and truthfully when he wrote, that significant summer of 1977: "Mister, I ain't a boy, no I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land."
If not, of course, literally. At least it feels that way on a soft summer night when you shove the CD in the box and let the needle drop and if the road commissioner wants to come sit and watch you write checks, he's welcome, but he'd better bring some cold beer and he'll damn sure have to listen to your music.