My first experience with anything outside the relatively safe musical kingdoms of Dean or Disney happened, oddly enough, at the movies. We were at the drive-in theater. My folks had us boys in the back of the old Dodge station wagon (faux wood side panels firmly in place). We were dressed in our light cotton pajamas, my parents most likely praying for us to fall asleep sooner rather than later. After the cartoons, and during the short intermission that served to advertise the cuisine waiting over at the tiny projection house and concession stand, something magical and dangerous came through the ether. The shiny silver RCA speaker box that dangled from the driver’s window began, in its own tinny fashion, to transmit sounds that were positively alien and sinister. There was danger in the air, and I knew it immediately. Finally someone had the good sense to record a song that a nine-year-old deputy sheriff could relate to.
Coming in through the humidity and scent of buttered popcorn on this warm summer night was the story of a man in danger of being burned to death. Caught in a trap worthy of Fu Manchu, our hero could not escape this fiery ring. (Fu actually appeared on screen a few moments later in a short serial The Brides of Fu Manchu, immediately preceding the John Wayne feature presentation). The principal character in this song had actually fallen into a ring of fire, and in some sick sinister sense of humor, he was serenaded by a chorus of Mexican horns. I had some vague awareness that bad things can happen to a fella if he strays too far from his home range, and particularly if he wanders south of the border. Good sense would tell you that you don’t go alone; you bring your best buddy to watch your back. I hadn’t learned about tequila yet, but I had enough smarts to know you don’t eat worms.
This song mattered. It wasn’t safe. There was risk and danger, and, unknown to me at age nine, desire. Now I knew at that age that some desires involved danger. You don’t play kickball by the interstate, for instance. But in that nine-year-old moment the desire part of the story didn’t really register. The love thing sailed right over my head like a backyard home run. I was fixated on the fire, the fear of incineration firmly in the forefront of my frontal lobes. This was bad. I knew all about touching hot stoves, and I couldn’t imagine anything hotter than that. Certainly there wasn’t anything that hot that you would actually desire. Suddenly, just like that, the song was over. I was left hanging. There was no clear happy ending. As far as I knew the protagonist had not escaped. I pictured the flames slowly inching ever closer to this man. Perhaps at the last minute someone would throw a rope and pull our hero to safety. In the two and a half minutes the song lasted, I somehow completely missed the crazy little thing called love. In 1967 nine-year-old boys still thought girls had cooties and “hooking up” meant meeting your buddy at the rendezvous point for the next commando raid. The song stayed with me, like an ominous prophecy I couldn’t comprehend.
Before I could figure it out, there was old Fu, menacing the massive drive-in silver screen. Fu apparently wasn’t fond of women, as he had one of his brides dropped into a pit of snakes. I don’t remember much of that film, other than the scream the she let out as she plummeted downward into the pit of vipers. Who knew relationships were this risky?
Next up was John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, taking great pains, on the dusty plains, to deliver some good old western justice on an evil rancher. My inner sheriff rejoiced. But when it was all over, the memory of the man in the fiery snare remained with me. Who was he?
I was the only one of my brothers who managed to stay awake through the whole cinematic event. Whatever moments of quiet privacy my parents had prayed for in the dark of the drive-in were stolen by the knowledge that my eyes were glued forward in their direction, just past them, across the summer night sky, staring wide-eyed at the wonders on the big screen.
Just two years later I bought my first rock and roll album, Green River, by Creedence. My favorite CCR album and song, Green River is one of Rock and Roll’s indelible and indecipherable classics. When it comes to haunting anthems, faced with a Ring of Fire, or drowning in the Green River, I’m not sure I could choose.