While feasts for the dead are common around the world we in North America are relative newcomers. I recall, for instance, a time in the early 60s when my parents forbade us from partaking in candy-getting. By the early 70s me and my two sisters freely joined our contemporaries and many fructose-fuelled forays followed.
What exactly they were saving us from remained unclear. Was it the prospect of spontaneous devil worship while in nighttime proximity to all those witches and goblins? It could have been white slavery. I recall heated exchanges about this. My Mother told my sisters that a white slaver could – in broad daylight – inject a potion behind their knees and whisk them away. Then came her silent pursed lipped admonition: “What kind of latitude,” I imagined her scolding, “might they exercise late at night?”
Or it could have been our own dire and thoroughly unredeemable poverty. While the folks put on a brave face we lived in the Projects for many years and stretching a dollar was a daily chore. Maybe giving away candy was just too expensive?
Today the institution of Halloween feels more like a case of societal delerium tremens than a celebration. En masse, we briefly withdraw from our addiction to complacency by costuming pitiful identities in frightfully risky garb and gorging ourselves with super-charged confections. Then the obedient servant dies, momentarily, to feast on his or her own flesh. You got it. One night each year we become Zombie Cannibals lurching forward like a pouty 14-year old having found nothing but tofu and almond milk in the refrigerator.
So, for us Westerners, Halloween may be less of a feast and more of a palate cleansing, a cultural detox where outward expressions of indulgence sooth inner expressions of insouciance. There is surely nothing hallowed about it. Neither do we reflect on those who have passed this veil of tears, nor do we visit cemeteries to lay wreaths. Instead we trod through the anonymizing darkness, gazing into skies lit with fireworks. We venture together into the gore of impossible human aloneness and engage familiar phenomenologies of shock and awe.
And so I struggle to pay attention. This year among the many things that drew me to death plain and simple was a lyrical invitation by a local radio station. The announcers solicited sinister songs from listeners. What a grand idea. Here lay an opportunity to produce a counterpoint to the tenor of terror by engaging a first person take on the past of a present tense. This is the choice I made.
The Ballad of Dwight Fry is a deranged little ditty that first appeared in 1971 with the release of Love it to Death. Unlike tracks such as Eighteen and Is it My Body, The Ballad of Dwight Fry overturns late-adolescent concerns with independence and sex by situating a long-suffering parent in an institutional circle of hell.
All-in-all, it takes Dwight about six-and-a-half minutes to creep from madness to murder. His journey begins with a child’s lament “Mommy, where’s Daddy, he’s been gone for so long,” ascends to a chilling and ineffectual plea for release, and concludes with sonic bi-polarity: inexplicably, searing anthemic guitar licks fade into a cover of Sun Arise, a tune by Rolf Harris of Tie Me Kangaroo Down fame?
Like Halloween, The Ballad of Dwight Fry, foreshadows disturbingly adult ends. It is an oddly positioned artifact whose gallows guitar and straitjacketed songlines tie into asylum seeking narratives of the time. As Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man all show, madness and its keepers are equal opportunity employers.
The Ballad of Dwight Fry is the perfect Halloween song for another reason. There really was a Dwight Freye. This song is a tribute to a thespian who appeared in spooky classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Vampire Bat; a fella who was known among his Hollywood peers as The “Man with the 1,000 Watt Stare;” an actor who survived the death of silent films; and, the person who, in 1943, fatally infarcted while riding transit in Los Angeles.
My parents, for good reason, were wont to regularly warn me off drug use. Having lived through a catastrophic depression and a second world war they believed that clearheadedness trumped cosmic insights when it came to bare knuckles and survival. I paid attention, somewhat.
My 13-year old brain paid much more attention to songs like the Ballad of Dwight Fry. In the wee hours when American DJs would play this song – likely hoping to toss a detour sign on some poor soul’s hallucinogenic off-ramp – I was drawn closer to a world of mental illness and its manifest destinies. Its limitlessness drew me in and its purgatorial possibilities scared the crap out of me. More important than suggesting an uncertain future lay ahead, the Ballad of Dwight Fry showed me that the Monster, having gotten out from under the bed, now crawled beneath my skin.