Thursday, July 27, 2023

So I will heal

Thirty years on, Big Dipper's "Faith Healer" never fails to excite and intrigue me

When I'm feeling brave I like to revisit a song that meant a lot to me when I was in my late teens or early twenties. Half afraid of the cringe factor, I'm eager to see if the song still resonates for me, or whether it's hopelessly dated, a soundtrack for a life I'm no longer living.

Big Dipper (above) formed in the mid-1980s in Boston, Massachusetts when guitarist and vocalist Gary Waleik, a former member of Volcano Suns, got together with guitarist and vocalist Bill Goffrier, late of Wichita, Kansas' the Embarrassment, to bullshit and jam on Sunday evenings on their front porch in the Allston neighborhood. Waleik soon invited bassist Steve Michener, another ex-Volcano Sun, and drummer Jeff Oliphant to hang out. Their first release was Boo-Boo, a six-song EP on Homestead Records in 1987. At the time I was a DJ at WMUC, the radio station at the University of Maryland, and though I hadn't paid a whole lot of attention to Volcano Suns, I was caught up in the hype when Boo-Boo arrived. 

My copy of the EP (which I bought years later) includes a tongue-in-cheek press release, which in presenting the Big Dipper origin story fully captures the band's sense of humor. After those "hootenanny" porch parties became too big for the porch, the neighbors started to complain, that old story:

Also included with the EP was a one-sheet with recording and contact information, "thanks you's," and the like, and this photo of the band in car, above which runs the copy, "Welcome to our first record. We hope that you enjoy these 6 big songs. 6 distinct thrill sensations. 6 poetic/scientific romps through the psyche. See ya soon."


The irony is thick, and funny as hell. In retrospect, it's that phrase "poetic/scientific romps through the psyche" that to me best describes Big Dipper's smart, nervy, idiosyncratic sound, particularly on "Faith Healer," the lead track from Boo-Boo, a song that sent me when I first heard it and still sends me over thirty years later. 

The tune begins with cheery D, C, and G chords bouncing atop a lively rhythm. This'll be fun, you think, turning up the song—and then the song falls apart and reconstructs in an instant. Things get strange and disconcerting very quickly, as new, unsettling chord changes and nervous, syncopated guitar lines start throwing elbows, churning up the surface of the song. It's as if a strange energy has entered and everyone's suddenly on alert. When the singer arrives, crying out his lines near the top of his range, the impression is that he's just trying to keep his head above water without going under.

The story's urgent. It's also mysterious. There's no establishing shot, as it were, but it's clear that he's at some sort of fair or carnival. He's entered a tent, entreating a faith healer therein for help, or for saving, that he desperately needs:

Shoving me so I will heal
While I am so weak I kneel
Begging she admire me
But she says "her work's not free," and he's only got ten bucks, so he heads to the next tent where a palm reader is plying her trade. "This will be a ten well spent," he says to himself, and then implores the fortune teller to
Grab my hand and with an effort
to read between the lines like you do
The chorus returns and we're back to those bright opening chords, but things sound complicated now, and the lyrics spell out the dilemma: "Dealing with the faith healer and trusting in the palm reader." Economics versus hope, business up against faith, and the tension's unresolved by song's end. 

In the more obscure second verse, the singer tries to connect with the palm reader ("Now is the time, we must get down when the healer's not around"), ecstatic in the wordlessness between them, yet he cools on her so quickly that it startles. "You're wonderful," he says to her, "but nothing new. The faith healer can do this, too." This?—what, fuck him? Rip him off? Or bullshit him? The faith healer sees through it all, anyway, and arrives "with a warrant" to close down the palm reader. After all, he sneers, "She's been around," and he "sees through you."

The arrangement is tightly-wound and agitated, the playing headlong, and the singer, searching, maneuvers among all of these discoveries and disappointments. He departs the tents no wiser, but probably more cynical. Maybe that's the same thing.


I didn't need a laying-on of hands or a session with a local palmistry enthusiast in my early-twenties, though I was searching for something. At times breathlessly depressed, walking in a fog, I resolved to see a counselor on campus; he was a soft-spoken, well-meaning graduate student in the Psychology Department fulfilling his field hours toward his degree, I guess, His overall, Leftist explanation for my depression was the vacuousness of then-President Reagan's "Morning In Amercia" campaign. That I could buy, but it didn't explain everything. My blues were bottomless, manifesting mostly as an intense self-consciousness, a suffocating, second by second preoccupation with myself that walled me off from everyone, a lousy, ill-fitting coat I couldn't shake off. (My metaphors here indicate just how difficult, still, it is to define what I was trapped in.) Some moments I felt helpless, staring at an endless, darkening abyss of myself that I couldn't imagine living with. 
I tried going back to the Catholic Church, and prayer, one sweltering summer night walking in a feverish trance two and a half miles to Holy Cross Hospital, where I was born, to sit in the cool chapel and beg for deliverance from myself. I lost myself in books, poetry, and art (and beer), a splintering relationship with my girlfriend J., but mostly music, where I found my confusion articulated and then blasted away, if temporarily, by the noise. Difficult ecstasies: the Windbreakers' "Nation of Two," the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," the Primitons' "Don't Go Away," Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," among many other songs from that era, soundtracked my gray days and, in different ways, shot flashes of redemptive light through them. I strove to live by a stoic, three-chord philosophy. Fortunately for me these depressive episodes eventually revolved, though they were destined to return.

And "Faith Healer" cut deep. At twenty-one, I missed (or, melodramatically, willfully ignored) the humor in this surreal narrative. What I heard was the very real desperation of someone searching for answers to questions so enormous that they threatened to erase him. I was searching one tent after another, weak on my knees. If the song spoke to my anxieties, however obliquely, the music helped me to shake off those anxieties, however temporarily. During one particular passage—the eighth through twelfth bars in each verse—the song feels as if it compacts so tightly that it might blow up, or anyway threaten to. The same occurs in the Buzzcocks' sublime "What Do I Get?" during the post-chorus lines:
I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you, things seem to turn out right
I wish they'd only happen to me instead
My blues weren't quite so frustrated or ego-driven s that, but I responded (I respond) so intensely to that passage it felt as if rock and roll, in thrilling chord changes, and ferocious playing and singing, had the capacity to translate for me my wordless interior, in the process cleansing, or draining, me of darkness. Helping me to press re-set, if for a moment. 

I couldn't avoid "Faith Healer" in 1987. If I were to hear the song for the first time now I imagine that I'd still love it, but I wouldn't need it. The manic energy you carry around as a twenty-something comes in contact with music and the music's zapped, its chromosomes forever altered in a way only you can hear. I wear different energy now and, though music is as vital and as nourishing to me now as it was when I was in my twenties, I don't feel very often as if I'm listening along a cliff edge anymore, thank goodness. For many years in DeKalb a palm reader operated out of a dingy storefront up the road from me, next to a video game joint. They've since closed shop, and I'd never felt the need to seek their services, yet the black silhouette of an upraised hand on the front door beckoned me, curiously. I wonder if my twenty-year old self would've felt wandered in, what he'd have found. 

I still grasp for answers in the dark. If the weeks-long anxiety attack I endured during the summer of 2020 is any indication, I'll be dropped to my knees on occasion still, unnerved when I least expect, or want, it. Now I know that the remarkable "Faith Healer" will be there for me if I need it.

Image of "Palm Reading Palmistry Gypsy fortune Teller Vintage Gothic Halloween Poster" via RedBubble


Dave Rhoden said...

Nice piece. I can't say I put as much thought into listening to this song as you did, but I do remember it coming along at an important time in my life. I had just moved to Boston (not to stay, it turned out) and I thought music was just going to be like this from then on. Up to that point it was just oldies, classic rock, and The Beatles.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for reading, Dave! Yeah, an indelible tune and time.