Howling On the River
Strapping Falls Under the Influence of
John Cougar Mellencamp

From this day forth I promise to steer clear of all music performed by anyone who is getting paid or who is trying to get laid. I will only attend shows that are spontaneous and uncorrupted. I will never enter a club ever again. I almost died two months ago and I'm not going to waste my precious time watching delusional musicians stumble along in their fantasy world of fame and fortune.

This is why:

As part of my recovery program [S.D. suffered a heart attack two months ago-ed.] my doctor suggested I try something relaxing. “Fer crying out loud!” I cried, “You told me NOT to drink!”

“Hold still,” said the doctor as he shoved a thermometer into my rectum, “When was the last time you breathed fresh air? Get outside.” He made a gagging noise and added, “And give yourself a good scrubbing.”

“Do you have any helpful suggestions, Doctor?”

“For the former, I'll give you the number of a fellow I know who leads canoe trips. For the latter, I suggest soap and water.”

The doctor wrote down a number; I went home and made a phone call. Three days later I was floating down the Colorado River . I'm not here to talk about, nature, bald eagles, moon rises, and the geologic grandeur of sandstone. Nor am I here to talk about the pleasure of floating like Huck and Jim down a lazy river for three days. I'm here to talk about one night when I saw seven drunk men do things with an acoustic guitar that I never would have imagined possible.

It happened the evening after our first day. We had paddled something like twenty miles down the chocolaty water, bobbing, splashing, smearing ourselves with sunscreen. Simultaneously invigorated and exhausted, Jeff, our leader shouted, “Campsite!”

We dragged our canoes onto a sandy island in the middle of the river (or rather the young guys dragged and I watched) and set up camp. A simple meal and a sunset later everyone in the camp was drunk with the exception of myself. (I don't drink.) The moon shone like a street lamp. Beers and a jug of wine passed from hand to hand; from nowhere a guitar appeared.

They began with a strangely hearfelt version of “Rocky Mountain High”; everyone trying to hit the falsetto note at the end of the song: “ Rocky Mountain hi-yiiiiiiiii Colorado .” Painful. The guitar changed hands and they went into “Proud Mary,” combining the Creedence version with Ike and Tina's re-make. Again, it was horrible. “Proud Mary” led directly to a Creedence Clearwater Revival contest. One guitarist would play every CCR tune he knew and, as soon as he was done, a hand would tear away the guitar and start on three or four more. By the time all seven of them had exhausted their repretoire, I counted twenty-eight songs. Again, except for the sheer numbers of their tunes, the music was unremarkable; off key, sloppy, and poorly remembered.

This was just a warm up. By now the boyss were banging on logs with sticks. Banging on bottles with sticks. Someone fished out a harmonica and they banged IT with a stick. They started playing, “Waterfalls” by TLC. One of the guys knew every single word, including the rap verse. The others did a choreographed dance. It was bizarre, like that feeling of elation you get when you realize you're so drunk it doesn't matter that a cigarette butt is floating in your beer. You're gonna drink it and every other cigarette butt beer you can find and it won't cost you a thing.

When they finished, someone grabbed the guitar and started playing “Stairway to Heaven” to which his buddies responded by calling him a worthless piece of shit. I sighed, satisfied that they had finally seen the line of tastelessness and refused to cross it. But the guy with the guitar was persistent. A flute appeared. I swear, a flute came out and after a discussion about the key of the song, the flautist proceeded to play the instrumental portion and the group spontaneously went into the lyrics to “Waterfalls” while the guitarist and flautist played the music to “Stairway”. They finished in a wild howling log thumping kerboizing. Then they did it again, but faster.

They broke to start a campfire. Soon we were bathed in flickering light and slapping wildly at mosquitoes. Somebody suggested a song called, “Whiskey.” A bottle of cheap bourbon was procured and they song began. The lyrics? Pure poetry: “I like whiskey a lot. I like whiskey a lot. I like whiskey, it makes me feel so frisky. I like whiskey a lot.” For the duration of each verse somebody had to drink a long slug from the bottle. Seven verses after it began, a fifth was gone. They lyrics changed to “I like wine, a lot.” Goodbye vino.

A pause. A jug was filled with water and the group drank it, filled it and drank it again.

Yawns filled the air. The cigarettes ran out. We stared at the dying embers. Then someone sang, “Here's a little ditty about Jack and Diane. Here's a little ditty about Jack and Diane.” What followed was a mantra. Over and over again they sang that line from John Cougar Mellencamp's largely forgotten pap fried junker. Sometimes they would whispered, sometimes they shouted, sometimes chance led them to four-part harmonies. At one point they were completely silent and I thought the group had nodded off. But the song resumed, building in intensity until I heard the voices echoing off the canyon walls and the sky was lightening in the east. Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, they sang the chorus, “Oh yeah life goes on/ Long after the thrill of....”

I joined in. I don't know…It's just…Tears ran down my face. A John Cougar Mellencamp song performed by seven fools on an island on the Colorado River as the sun rose on September 2, 2001 made me cry. I hate crying. I HATE JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP.

Look at me. I'm bitter again.

--Strapping Danforth, September 2001