Friday, June 29, 2012

Grapes of Wrath

I was playing a batch of new songs for Steve Hanamura one evening and after he'd heard a few he remarked: "Man, you're still stompin' those same old grapes of wrath". He was referring, of course, to my habit of writing songs about my latest 'love gone wrong' situation. I filed the comment away and later wrote this song around it. I still perform this with the Backorders - it's a real crowd-pleaser and a rousing singalong song. The recording itself is fairly stark, with my usual acoustic rhythm, electric lead and vocals, but when performed by a full band with keyboards, bass and drums and four singers it can be epic.

One night in the fall of '81 Dianne and I were driving around in a car that belonged to her ex-boyfriend who was apparently some kind of heavy-duty drug dealer. We were completely wasted, having spent the evening with friends doing god-knows-what and were looking for a motel to hide out in until the morning. We had journeyed from Berkeley to Hayward, crossed the San Mateo bridge and headed north. We got off the freeway in Millbrae and were driving up El Camino Real when we were pulled over. Millbrae is one of the many little cities that occupy the peninsula south of San Francisco, part of the urban sprawl that connects San Francisco to San Jose. Like its sister cities Burlingame, San Bruno, et al, it is nothing special - just a dot on the map. A few thousand people, a small downtown and not much else. The Millbrae cop who pulled us over was soon joined by a San Bruno squad car (must have been a slow night). They ordered us out of the car, which was full of  beer cans and champagne bottles - some opened, some empty and some still sealed. We also were carrying - surprise - a significant amount of cocaine and marijuana. They informed us that we'd been pulled over for - surprise again - driving erratically. Busted.

When the cops found out who the car belonged to, they seemed to forget all about me. Apparently Dianne and her ex were well-known to local law enforcement and she was quickly arrested and carted off. I was literally left standing on the sidewalk and admonished to "get lost" (they eventually called me a cab). To this day I don't understand why I was not arrested at the scene.

I took the cab down the peninsula to Redwood City - for some unknown reason I had left my car there (it took a while to find it) - then made my way back to San Bruno and woke up a friend who lived there. She let me use her phone and after several panicked calls I managed to locate Dianne and arrange bail for her. It took the rest of the night. I remember standing in a parking lot in Millbrae - it must have been the police station - with Dianne, her brother, her ex and couple of other scraggly-looking individuals - it was early in the morning and we'd just extricated her from jail. Things would never be the same for us after that. Her ex, who'd put up the money for bail, was a real jerk and kept speculating as to why I had not been arrested, implying that I was somehow responsible for the debacle.

When I finally showed up at home later that morning I found Arlene angry but somehow resigned. She didn't know where I'd been or what had happened - and as far as I know she never found out - but she knew I was up to no good. I remember her yelling at me to "get it together". Oh, if only. Much later I would discover that Arlene had some rather profound secrets of her own.

Several weeks later there was a hearing of some sort which we both attended. Dianne was charged with D.U.I. and several counts of possession. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I had also been charged with one count of possession. All of the charges were dismissed when Dianne agreed to a diversion program and I was given a stern lecture by the judge. My legal fees for the entire episode were $125.00, which Dianne paid. This led to an unfortunate misunderstanding when I was slow to repay her.

The poster for the movie based on the book that shares a title - and nothing else - with my song.

This series of events provided me with the 3rd verse of "Grapes of Wrath". When I sing "We stood before the judge / It didn't cost me much" I am either lying or betraying how little the relationship actually mattered to me. I'm guessing the latter. I'd originally started to write another song about the mysterious disappearance of  "Sara White" but since I wrote the lyrics over several days the songs meanders from subject to subject. In the first verse I imagine her getting married - "walking that bridal path". The second verse concerns an afternoon I spent watching James Cagney movies.

I've always considered this song one of my better efforts. I manage to poke gentle fun at my proclivity for emotional entanglements without going into too much detail. It's a good example of me turning a Steve Hanamura quip into a pretty decent song. Steve's intelligence, combined with his cynical outlook and dry sense of humor made him a master of the one-liners. Although he tended to be florid and overwrought when trying to write complete songs, there were many times when he came to the rescue on one of my compositions, providing the perfect one or two definitive lines. Or, as in this case, a title.

G                                   C
I still get all choked up - I still get all broke up
G                             D                           G
When I think of you walking that bridal path
G                                        C
My good friend said to me: "Looks like you'll always be
G                     D                           G
Stompin' those same old grapes of wrath

G                        C                 G
I'm still stompin', still stompin', still stompin'
The same old grapes of wrath

I turn on my T.V. and some gangster  looks at me and says:
"You shot my brother you dirty rat"
And then he starts to sing but don't hear a thing
I'm too busy stompin' those grapes of wrath

repeat chorus

We stood before the judge - it didn't cost me much
Now that it's over I bet you're glad
And all that was long ago, somewhere back down the road
And here I am stompin' those grapes of wrath

repeat chorus several times

Many people have heard this - because of the "judge" reference - as a song about my inevitable-but-still-a-few-years-away divorce.  Again, I make no excuses for my behavior. I did what I did. I drowned my conscience - and often my consciousness - with numbing amounts of alcohol and drugs and simply carried on, rarely giving a thought to the future or how my actions were impacting other lives.

The book - yeah, I read it.

  When I started writing this song I pulled the book out and skimmed through it, probably hoping for lyrical inspiration. It was assigned reading in school - I read it, wrote about it and forgot it. Maybe someday I'll read it again and pay more attention. 

("Grapes of Wrath" is available as a digital download as part of the FSGBOC album)

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