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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Books and music.

Touchstones, virtual mile markers on the highway of our lives, glimpses into the lives we’ve lived or maybe the lives we were supposed to live but somehow missed an early turn in the bumpy, crooked path.

Sometimes, of course, we’re a little slow on the uptake and miss (or misinterpret) one of those mile posts.

But by a twisted slip of the space-time continuum, it often comes around again, and we see it for what it was in the first place.

I’ve just had one of those moments.

A buddy from Wisconsin, land of my matriculation, sent me something that’s been wandering around the Internet for a few years, a video-audio clip put together by a grad student named Ye Li featuring a 1989 song by Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Now, I don’t know what you were doing in 1989, but I was a busy boy. The year before, on a break from working as a writer and columnist for The Aspen Times, I’d gone on a wild, participatory exercise known at The International Peace Walk.

Ambling with 250 other Americans and 250 citizens of the Soviet Union along the highways and byways of what was then known as the Republic of Ukraine, we were putting our shoe leather where our hearts were. We wanted to nudge the world toward a more peaceful, sustainable road to the future.

In 1989, when the song was released, I was busy trying to figure out if I wanted to move over to the Soviet Union to help journalists I had met there as they tried to create a Western-style free press to replace the state-controlled model that was crumbling along with the Soviet empire.

I never did relocate, but I remember the song from that time. I recall thinking it was a cool tune, but it did not rock my socks off. It was catchy, it encapsulated some of the highlights of Billy Joel’s then-40 years on the planet, and it held moments of sheer, joyous outrage at the idiocy of our times. But that was it.

This time around, however, it did knock my socks off. I guess it was the accompanying images that Ye Li attached to the lyrics, quick flashes of the events, personalities and trends named in the song, which has a pulsing, insistent beat that will not let you sit still.

As the video rips through the decades, I experience moments of clarity and nostalgia wrapped into a tight knot somewhere between my heart and my throat.

When the panorama reaches 1963 and Joel shouts, “JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?” with the pounding rhythm of the song as a backdrop, a chill traveled up and down my spine like the track of a silkworm wearing cleats.

That chill returned when, toward the end of the clip, Joel shouted again. But this time the words were “I can’t take it anymore.” And I feel it deep down in a place where the only light shining is the one peeking out from what I guess is my soul.

At the same time as that cataclysmic video clip arrived in my inbox, I happened to be reading a fine book by an author named Pam Houston under the title “Contents May Have Shifted.”

Houston, in this half-autobiography, half-imaginative novel, is barreling down the highway of her own life and tossing out onto the pages her own fleeting glimpses of the roadside attractions.

In short takes, typically two to four pages, she describes events in the life of a woman named “Pam” who is a lot like the author. She can be hilarious and full of pathos in the same sentence, sometimes within the space of a few words.

In a few vignettes, which involve a good friend of mine named Matt, she describes dogsled rides in the high country between Gunnison and Aspen. One scene involves the near death of a hypoglycemic sled dog named Roja, from a lack of sugar combined with all the hard work.

That old chill returns to my spine.

On a similar dogsled ride with Matt a year ago, I witnessed much the same scene. As Roja collapsed in the traces, Matt administered mouth-to-snout resuscitation and brought her back from the brink of death.

It shook me then, and it shakes me now.

What does it all mean? Damned if I know. But now and then along the ride, it’s good to just stop, take a deep breath and conduct a spot check on your itinerary.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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