How a Jacket Changed My Life (transcript)

Published May 4th, 2019

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This foundation is in the holy mountains, Jah loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things have been spoken of thee, oh city of God. I’ll make mention to Rahab and Babylon to them that know I: we behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; it shall be said that this man was born there. And the highest himself shall establish the earth. Jah! Rastafari. If you can tell me what that comes from, you win a prize. Besides the Bible, I mean. It shouldn’t be too hard, hippies. Behold again, for it is I, Michael Phillips, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. Selah.

Okay, you don’t have to guess. That was from a Bob Marley and the Wailers concert in Santa Barbara. Bob walks out onto the stage and says, “Yeah! True.” Then he goes into, “This foundation is in the holy mountains,” and the first time I heard it I was like, okay, foundation in the holy mountains, I get that. Then, “Jah loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” Uh, I know Jah and Zion, but what about the dwellings of Jacob? Then, “Glorious things have been spoken of thee, oh city of God.” There we go, anyone can understand that. Or overstand it. But that was just a rest before, “I’ll make mention to Rahab and Babylon to them that know I.” Where is Rahab, and how to do you make mention to places? “we behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia.” More places, but Ethiopia, I know where that is, and who was born there, so I think I know what’s coming. “it shall be said that this man was born there.” Yes, ‘this man’ must be Haile Selassie, yeah? “And the highest himself shall establish the earth.” Eh, ‘establish’ the earth? Wasn’t the earth already established? I mean, we were beholding cities a minute ago, then the man was born to establish it all? When it’s already there?

See, it’s impossible to understand the bible because the bible makes no fucking sense. None of it. The language is very wonderful in many places, but if you’re looking for a story, you’re looking in the wrong book. Well, that’s not true, really, there are 50 stories in there, but none of them make sense, none of them has any point to make other than fear, suffering, retribution, and punishment are coming your way. It’s a downer, that book. The message is: kiss GOD’s ass real good or GOD will crush you like a bug. With the bonus message being, even if you kiss His ass, He will probably crush you like a bug anyway. Don’t question His judgment.

Okay, I didn’t mean to go to that kind of place right off the bat here. That was not my intention. And today, of all days, when I have a nice story for you. What’s wrong with me? Where are my manners? Never mind that I may not have been completely sober when the thought occurred to me that it might be a good idea to make a story out of what I’m about to tell you, but if I made complete sobriety a measure of whether an idea was worthwhile or legitimate, I’m afraid this ship would have capsized a long time ago. I am sober as I record this, but so be it. You can’t win ’em all.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I was not a cool kid. Okay, maybe that’s not a huge surprise. Who is cool when they’re a kid? Did the kids I thought were cool believe they were cool? I know the big sports celebrities in the schools I went to probably believed they were cool, they probably believed they were the ultimate in cool, but they weren’t cool to me. If you’re normal, or nearly normal, it’s probably only on rare occasions that you think, “Damn, I’m pretty cool right now,” and that feeling probably won’t last through to the next morning.

When I was 12 or 13 my best friend Danny’s older sister Debbie had a boyfriend named Bob. Now that doesn’t seem like a name that would catapult anyone to coolness, Bob, but I thought he was a cool guy. It was the early 70s, and where I grew up there weren’t exactly many hippies, if you feel me. It was a small town, and when a gaggle of hippies did show up and rent a house about half a block from where I lived, my stepfather made a point of telling me to stay clear of those vagabonds and miscreants. He said, “If they ever try to give you something or sell you something, tell us right away or tell the principal at school,” which, uncool though I may have been, I would not have done.

Now that I think of it, it was really weird that those hippies showed up there at that time, because the town wasn’t exactly a hotbed for rentals, most people in my neighborhood were homeowners, and really, if I was a hippie or up to hippie-like activities, I don’t think I would have picked Mahtomedi, Minnesota as the perfect place to establish a pad. But there they were. For a while, anyway. Aliens walked among us. Aside from the hippies in the house up the street, there were probably three or four boys in town with something approaching long hair, so if you had those kinds of proclivities, as I did, you were outside of the mainstream by default.

But Danny’s sister’s boyfriend Bob – jeez, Danny, Debbie, Bob, the only thing missing from the scene is a kid named Beaver. Anyway, Bob was one of the sore thumbs sticking out around town, and since he was a few years older than me, I looked up to him, I thought he was cool. He had a big stereo and blacklights and one of those wiggly filament bulbs mounted in a beer can in his room, and he seemed to know what all the jokes on the Cheech and Chong records meant. Not to mention he had a girlfriend, Danny’s sister, so he was light years ahead of where I was, courtesy of his three or four-year head start on me.

I didn’t go around trying to curry his favor, I wouldn’t have known how to do that. I tried not to bother him, but I often found myself just kind of hovering around his margins, and I think he recognized that I wasn’t a normal kid, so sometimes he’d kindly invite me into his world, try to show me a rope here and there. After a while, he started calling me “freak.” You hear that now and you think it’s an insult, but in the 60s – which is what the early 70s were in Mahtomedi – “freak” meant you knew what was happening. You were in on things, you knew the secret handshake. I didn’t, really, know anything, but whenever I’d see Bob somewhere and he’d say, “Hey freak!” it made me feel cool.

So Bob may have thought I was cool, or he may have been humoring me, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t a lot of other people who thought I was cool. One of the reasons, I thought anyway, was that I didn’t have money for cool clothes. I had the standard-issue bellbottom Levis and t-shirts, but for most of my life I’d worn the corny shit that came from the Sears store. The stuff I’d get on the one day a year we’d shop for clothes there, about a week before the school year started. The thing about Sears in the late 60s and early 70s was they had a “hip” clothing area for the youth. What some designer for Sears thought was hip anyway. Things like awful Toughskins jackets with fake peace sign patches printed on them, or pants with one yellow leg and one brown leg. Pants which I owned and wore, by the way.

So, you understand, I never had cool clothes, especially jackets, which are kind of a major part of a Minnesota wardrobe for half the year. I remember having one of those green jackets with the fur around the hood, they’re probably cool now and cost a thousand dollars, but when I was wearing it, it was utilitarian and very not cool. What passed for cool as far as jackets were concerned were ski jackets. A lot of kids in the twin cities skied, but I wasn’t one of them. Not because I didn’t want to, but skis and ski boots and the aforementioned jackets, all that shit cost money I didn’t have. So to me, only rich people skied, which may be why ski jackets seemed cooler than the fur trappers jacket I was wearing.

When I was 14 years old the occasion came to get a new jacket, to replace the fur-trapper jacket that I’d probably grown out of, so I thought that would be a good opportunity to increase my coolness. I’d try to wrangle a ski jacket out of my mom, gaining instant coolness in the process. We went to the store, I don’t know if it was still Sears, but it may well have been, and I was looking at all the thin, flashy ski jackets, when some woman, some, someone sent from hell to make my life difficult, said, “These are new, they’re great for skiing,” and she pointed to a rack of dull blue, comically puffy down-filled jackets.

The puffy jacket is a thing now, an accepted staple of jacketness, even a desirable thing in some circles, with fashion designers making their versions and everyone just puffing around looking fabulous. But take an objective look at one of them. One of the really puffy ones. Now try to imagine seeing some little goober walking down the street in one of those a few decades before they were cool, when you’d never seen anyone wearing such a thing. What would you think? You’d think, “Jesus! What’s that?!” Which is exactly what kids said when I showed up at school wearing it.

I don’t know why I left the store with the puffy blue jacket. I knew it was bizarre and unusual and I wasn’t really convinced that it was at all possible that it was cool in any way. It was that damn saleswoman’s fault. She planted the idea in my head that cool people were buying the puffy down jacket and wearing it on their ski trips, which I’m pretty sure was a lie, since you could barely move your arms when you were wearing one of those things. But I think I expected to go to school and see dozens of people puffing down the halls in them, and giving me a knowing nod as we passed, members of an elite group of people on the cutting edge of society and fashion and winter sports.

The reality was no one else had a puffy blue down jacket in my school, and no one thought it was particularly cool. “That must be really warm,” they’d say if they didn’t want to just come out and insult me to my face, something many others had no problem doing. But I’d say, “Yeah, they wear them for skiing I guess.” It was bad news, I tell ya, that jacket. Maybe it was meant to be a lesson about the futility of trying to be cool. Of trying, period, maybe, I don’t know. But it had the opposite effect of making me cool, that much I do know with certainty and recall most vividly.

Soon after I got the dull blue puffy down-filled jacket, shit went sideways in my family’s life, and we had to move out of the house we’d lived in all my life. We left Mahtomedi for the wilds of St. Paul and bounced around a bit, staying with relatives, and the time eventually came when I’d have to start going to a new school. That was a frightening proposition for a lot of reasons, not only because I was saddled with an uncool jacket. But then, I mean, who knew, right? Maybe in the big city, people embraced the puffy jacket. Maybe walking into a much larger school, in a much larger place with a much larger jacket than anyone else would instantly cement my coolness. Sure. Maybe.

But I didn’t get a chance to find out. My dad, who I saw occasionally on weekends, came by to pick me up one Saturday, and when I climbed into his pickup truck wearing the puffy blue jacket he said, “What the hell is that?” I just said, you know, “My jacket.” He started driving and occasionally looked over at me and just shook his head. After about 10 minutes of silence, we stopped in front of some store I’d never seen and he said, “Come on,” and we got out of the truck.

When I walked in I was about knocked over by the…aroma of the place. It was a leather goods store, hundreds of square feet of cowhide made into just about anything a person could need. I followed my dad over to a wall of jackets. He pulled out a black Schott Perfecto, the classic biker’s jacket, “This is what we had when I was teenager,” he said, “but this ain’t what you want,” and he hung it back on the rack. It was kind of what I wanted, but he was right, you can’t put those jackets on kids, at least you couldn’t in those days, so I just followed him down the wall. “Here you go,” he said, pulling down a brown leather bomber jacket like the pilots wore in World War II. I was standing there holding it and looking at it like an idiot, because I didn’t really know how to evaluate such a jacket, and he said, “Well don’t just look at it, try it on.”

So I fumbled to get it separated from the hanger and pulled the jacket on. It was heavy and stiff, and the second I shrugged it into place, I felt invincible. I can’t explain it. I can’t even adequately describe the feeling now, 45 years later (I say 55 in the podcast, but I ain’t that old!), but the jacket was magic, every time I put it on. My dad said, “Looks good. You like it?” “Yeah,” I said, master of understatement that I was and continue to be. We took it to the counter and I saw the price, $149, which was a small fortune in 1974, but the old man couldn’t have been happier to lay down the cash.

I wore the leather jacket out of the store, carrying the puffy blue monster. When we got into the truck my dad grabbed the puffy jacket and jammed it behind the bench seat. “You don’t have to wear that anymore,” he said. And I didn’t. I don’t think I ever even saw it again. As we drove away from the magic jacket store my dad said, “We used to drag ours behind the bike, take ’em down a dirt road, to break ’em in. If someone come into the beer joint with a new jacket, the guys would take it off him, pour beer on it, stomp on it…” All of that sounded positively terrifying, people tearing your outerwear off and molesting it like that, but no one was going to get a chance to do any such thing to my jacket, because I didn’t plan on ever removing it.

The next day the old man brought me home and when my mother saw me she wasn’t pleased. “What’s that?! You look like a hood!” I said, “It’s my new jacket,” and she continued to express her displeasure with it, and probably my dad, for a while, but I didn’t care. Nothing she could say, nothing anyone could say, could reduce my love for that jacket. And when I showed up at school – even though the jacket was still stiff and new – I was cool. I could feel it. I wasn’t acting cool, or different, the jacket was just undeniable. All on its own. It would have been cool just propped up in a corner without me inside of it.

It quite literally changed the way people looked at me, how they perceived me. I was used to dealing with people’s perceptions, being a dude with long hair when that wasn’t the norm in my neck of the woods. That put a lot of people’s perceptions onto you that may or may not be true. I didn’t smoke herb or take any drugs when I was a kid, but I could never convince certain people of that fact. “Sure you don’t,” they’d say and smile. I looked like I did, so I must. The jacket had a similar effect. It kind of made me look like a man among children, someone not to be trifled with, someone who’d seen some shit, and some people started to perceive me that way.

Which worked to my advantage a few times and got the shit kicked out of me a few times, but it all evened out in the end. Besides, I didn’t need the jacket to make me look any kind of way, it was all about how it made me feel. Like I said, it’s hard to explain in a way that really captures the feeling, except to say invincible. I really felt, when I put that jacket on, like I couldn’t be hurt as long as I was wearing it. Like it was protecting me. It was a rugged jacket, no doubt about that, and I put it to the test plenty of times, but really, that was an unreasonable way to feel about a piece of clothing, no matter how mighty it is.

I wore that jacket everywhere I went for the better part of 10 years, and I swear, right up until the last time I put it on, I still got the same feeling. Every time. And that feeling was probably what gave me the swagger of the cool when I wore it. Unconsciously, you know. If you feel invincible, it has to make you appear invincible in some ways. And my life really was different pre-jacket and post-jacket. That’s how I experienced it, and that’s my romantic remembering of it, even if my rational self says, “Well no shit your life was different, you moved from the country to the city.” Which is true and which probably had everything to do with everything, but I will always believe in the magic of that jacket.

It did its job silently and uncomplaining and without fail. Scrape me up against a brick wall – I don’t care. Punch me in the arm – hey man, I didn’t even feel that. Punch me in the nose – okay, I felt that. But after a few years of wearing it every day, the jacket became “distressed,” as they say now, and it molded itself to my body, as good leather will. But all of that distress, every scratch and wrinkle, was my distress. Something I’d gone through. Or some distress the jacket prevented from happening to me, because I was safe inside of it. I wore it three out of four seasons, I wore it in the summer when I could, I wore it out, had to have it relined, but it still retained its powers.

I’ve worn half a dozen other leather jackets in my days, I have one in the closet right now, but none of them ever made me feel like anything when I put them on. I feel like I’m wearing a jacket, that’s it. When I started playing in Sonny Vincent’s band it was clear I was going to have to up my fashion game. He was from New York, and they didn’t fuck around when it came to how you looked. The bomber jacket wasn’t the right fit for that scene. So I went to some exclusive place and paid several hundreds of dollars that I didn’t have for a leather jacket cut by fashion people. From a distance, it looked like a regular motorcycle jacket, but when you got closer you’d say, “Oh, wow, that’s different. Where’d you get that?”

It was a really cool jacket. No one else had one like it because, A: it was too expensive for a rational person to buy, and B: they probably couldn’t have found it even if they wanted to buy it. I say no one else had one, but that’s not completely true. My girlfriend at the time bought the same jacket. Exactly the same jacket. We’re standing there and I’m like, I don’t know, are you sure you want it? It’s pretty expensive. But she bought it, and whenever we’d go anywhere I’d have to wait until she was ready to leave before I put on a jacket. If she chose the fancy rock and roll jacket, I’d put on the bomber. “Okay, let’s go.” “Oh, wear your nice jacket, we’ll match!” “Eh, yeah, but no time to change, let’s go.” It was like that.

But the point is, the fancy expensive jacket never made me feel invincible or cool. No other garment of any kind ever did. Only the magic brown bomber. And I think some of the powers of the jacket eventually wore off on me. Some of the swagger or invincibility. I think the jacket made me more brave than I might have been without it, odd as that may be to say or admit. It taught me how to protect myself and over time it let me know that maybe I was a little bit cool before I met the jacket. Maybe it was in there somewhere. But then again it could just be that eventually I just grew to deserve such a jacket. I absorbed some of its coolness through osmosis.

Cool, though, is a funny thing. It’s one of those things that you probably aren’t if you think you are. Like smart or pretty. People who think they’re cool rarely are, and there are far fewer smart people in the world than there are those who think they’re smart. I think you get cooler as you get older though, definitely, because the more time passes the less you give a fuck about certain things, and when you can’t be rattled or bothered by the trivial shit, you’re most of the way to cool. So there’s that.

But whether the jacket ever actually did anything for me or not, it gave me something to hold on to during a period of chaos and upheaval and uncertainty, when my life suddenly changed direction and I didn’t know what would be waiting for me there on the other side of that change. So I guess it did protect me through all of that and gave me something I could use to steer my way toward and through whatever was coming. As I’m standing here saying that, it sounds stupid, suggesting that a jacket did that. But I think it did. When I turned my life upside down on purpose and left Minnesota for California with very little money and absolutely no prospects — well, my friend Scott sent me a picture recently of the two of us loading up his van to leave, and there I am, wearing the jacket.

I traded my expensive fashion boy leather jacket to Scott for a Cry Baby wah pedal when we lived in Venice, since I was growing dreadlocks and looking for a reggae band, and you don’t necessarily need a cool rock and roll jacket when you’re in a reggae band. And when Carol and I were moving from San Pedro to Alhambra, I sold the magic brown bomber jacket at a yard sale for $25. I didn’t really wear it anymore, this is southern California after all, and when everything’s said and done, a jacket’s just a jacket, isn’t it. I wonder sometimes though whether whoever ended up wearing it felt the same way that I did whenever I put it on. It seems impossible, but it would be a good story, wouldn’t it, a magic jacket. Someone ought to write that.

Okay, now what? What’s on your agenda for the rest of the day or night? I’m going to go sit down and put my feet up – oh, do you use Pandora, the music app thingie? By the time you hear this, THIS IS NOT A TEST should be available on Pandora. It wasn’t easy to get in there, so I hope some of you will find it useful. It was a bitch to get into Spotify too, but I see a lot of downloads over there, so it’s good to be there. It’s good to be anywhere, hombre, and above ground and breathing, yeah? Yeah. They say that experience teaches wisdom, but there’s a natural mystic blowing through the air…