Music: Reasons for Waiting (Reconsidered)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iybAyDFrhhI

 Schadenfreude has never had any appeal to me. I’m convinced that taking “shameful joy” in another person’s failure is both pointless and petty, but there is one failure for which I will be forever thankful.   Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame gave up learning to play the guitar when he became convinced that he’d never play as well as Eric Clapton and I applaud that set-back for two reasons:

  • We’ve already got an Eric Clapton.
  • Without Anderson’s skill with the flute we’d never have had “Reasons for Waiting”.

1972

Room-mate Roulette is just one of the challenges a college freshman encounters, but it may be the most crucial. The stress involved in learning to mesh with a complete stranger can have a major effect on both your academic career not to mention your entire life so I’d assumed that careful thought and preparation went into room assignments…so please forgive me for being disturbed when I learned that the selection process was only slightly more sophisticated than a dart game.

Unfortunately I had to go throw the dart board twice. The first assignment worked out well : I drew an upperclassman whose part-time job and interest in the outdoors essentially gave me a private room. Unfortunately he dropped out mid-year and I had to go through the room assignment game a second time and ended up with Scott, a fellow freshman with a heavier footprint requiring  more accommodation and coordination, especially in the following areas:

  • Getting up in the morning
  • Turning in at night
  • House-cleaning
  • Laundry
  • Setting the thermostat
  • Female visitors
  • Post-fart courtesy

…and so on. Music was one of the hardest points to negotiate –  Scott favored hard rock (Grand Funk Railroad/Quicksilver Messenger Service/ Led Zeppelin)  while I preferred progressive rock and acoustic groups (Moody Blues/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/America) Playback volume was sticky issue until we agreed on a head-phone truce which unintentionally kept us from mixing our music  and appreciating what the other guy listened to.

It took the simple act of Scott turning over in bed one February morning to change all that. The sun was just peeking over the Alaska Range to the south and was bathing the morning sky with orange, magenta and purple while a train crawled along the track on the other side of the parking lot, building up speed for the day-long run to Anchorage, the exhaust from its diesels adding to the wisps of ice-fog that had come up from the Chena River. As I was taking this all in I was mug-in-hand, leaning on our chest-high window sill with my toes tucked under the heat register when somehow in the process of waking up Scott pulled the headset cord out of his stereo and the first notes of possibly the most beautiful song in rock music poured out into our little basement dorm room.

The soft acoustic introduction of  Jethro Tull’s Reasons For Waiting  leads into a flute solo so beautiful that my eyes welled up — then Ian Anderson started to sing in his slightly wavering tenor:

What a sight for my eyes
To see you in sleep.
Could it stop the sun rise
Hearing you weep?

 Writing under the pseudonym Stendhal, 19th Century French Novelist Marie-Henri Beyle observed that viewers can be overwhelmed by the sight of an art masterpiece and sent into a state of distress much like a panic attack. What I felt at this particular moment was probably a low-grade Stendhal incident: the music, the view, the warmth from the hot chocolate, being in love – I couldn’t catch my breath

Oh –  I  didn’t mention that I had recently fallen in love? My Best Friend and I had spent the first semester playing at being in love – making those first tentative moves: holding hands, sneaking a kiss, whispering endearments hardly understood, but it wasn’t until the separation at Christmas Break that the relationship really found its depth.

We were in capital “L” Love.

You’re not seen, you’re not heard
But I stand by my word.
Came a thousand miles
Just to catch you while you’re smiling.

Notes from the flute become frenzied and erratic but then acoustic guitar steps back in for just a moment to restore the orderly flow of musical notes.

What a day for laughter
And walking at night.
Me following after, your hand holding tight.
And the memory stays clear with the song that you hear.
If I can but make
The words awake the feeling
.

Again the flute become frenzied but just at the point of discomfort, the song explodes into a cascade of violins with Anderson’s flute weaving a thread of notes in an around the strings as they underlie the final verse

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams.
So here’s hoping you’ve faith in impossible schemes,
That are born in the sigh of the wind blowing by
While the dimming light brings the end to a night of loving.

I’d spent most of the previous evening curled up on the couch with my Best Friend watching television, but by the middle of Night Gallery she’d fallen asleep tucked up against the left side of my chest.  As the closing credits ran I looked over at her snuggled up against me and suddenly Stukas started to fly interdiction against my central pump. I’d never really looked at anyone sleeping much less a beautiful blonde and I just marveled at the soft, open look to her features.

Fast forward to the next morning: that memory from the night before combined with scenic beauty, the music –  h*ll even the mug of hot chocolate –  all combined to create one of the most heart-flutteringly joyful moments of my life,  an instant of gestalt wherein the beauty of the moment outshined the factors creating it. I wanted to break the channel-selector off my life  and stay in that moment forever. In my short eighteen years of life I had never felt anything like that particular four minutes and seven seconds.

…and forty-seven years later just thinking about that moment still makes me smile.

Music: On The Way Home – America

 

It’s an old joke.

The world sees a sixty-five-year-old man but inside there’s a twenty-three-year-old yelling “What the HELL happened?”

It also happens to be very true.

Age ambushed me. For most of my adult life I looked and felt younger than my peers and on occasion younger folks. When people found out we had kids in middle school their response was “ What – you fooled around in high school and had to get married?”  I ate right, exercised – my only health issue was carelessness about  sleep.  I was going to be that senior citizen that would draw comments like: “How does he do it? – he’s stayed so young!”

I wish.

I was in my late 40s when my body started to cash all the checks my ego wrote in my youth. Then there were the tests, and among other things I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic and (very) painful autoimmune disease similar to rheumatoid arthritis1. All of a sudden it was like there was a pull-date stamped on my fourth-point-of-contact, a pull date that had expired.

I’m fighting it like I have I fought every other challenge in my life, but I don’t think this will be one that I come out on top of. That doesn’t mean I’m planning on checking out anytime soon, but if you saw what mornings were like for me you’d wonder why I keep going. Medication helps to an extent, but I rely on music to help me survive each day. I have a Sony Walkman loaded with 891 songs set on shuffle and each morning as I am trying to move I’ll plug in the earphones for inspiration.

First up at bat this morning was “On the Way Home”, a Neil Young tune that was first released on the Buffalo Springfield album Last Time Around. It also shows up on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live album, Four Way Street, but my favorite version, the one I listened to on my Walkman this morning was a cover by Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell ( AKA America) on their 2011 release Back Pages. In his review of the album, music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that Back Pages was “a visit with old friends that can still do something unexpected after all these years.” My initial reaction when I listen to Buckley and Bunnell’s version of “On The Way Home” is much the same, but then…

Maybe it’s just the box in life I currently occupy. Maybe it’s Mr. Young’s always-enigmatic lyrics. Maybe it’s the hot wings we had for dinner last night – but “On The Way Home” triggered some “non-mundane”2 ideas in my mind as I struggled to get up. Morning is not my friend but rather a painful contest between gravity and will — but morning is also when I have the most insight. The non-verbal right side of my brain is in charge and mental and emotional walls have yet to come all the way up – the walls, barriers and masks we hide ourselves behind as we travel through our waking life.

As I listened to “On The Way Home” the song’s allusions to a journey had me thinking of more than just a trip to church, to college or back home to Alaska. I was just on the cusp of a wonderous insight into how we’re all on our way home in our journey through life …and then the orderly left side of my brain fired up and that thought evaporated.

Now I won’t be back till later on

If I do come back at all

But you know me,

and I miss you now.

Somewhere in those lyrics  was a germ of a vision that kept the fear, anger and fatigue at bay this morning but I’ve been awake too long now and the vision is gone.

 

___________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. A condition that has nothing to do with ankylosaurs or any other large reptile.
  2. Sometimes words get so used that they lose their utility. Such is the case with “special” and “spiritual”. For now “non-mundane” is the placeholder used to describe feelings and conversations that I’d previously refer to as ‘spiritual” before that word got worn out.

1963: He’s A Cool, Cool Cowboy

I’ve kind of drifted into listening to recordings of old radio programs at night before going to sleep so it seemed natural to tap this post for this week’s Re-Run Saturday.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

One of my most prized possessions is the cabinet to an eighty-year old RCA Victor radio …and you did read that sentence correctly; it’s not the actual radio but the wooden box that used to hold a working device. It’s a beautiful example of Art Deco styling made of warm colored wood with dark Bakelite (cellulose-based plastic) trim and a large cloth speaker panel located in the center. Just below the speaker is a glass frequency gauge that would glow softly when the radio was on – and for the entire two years we lived in Anchorage it was on a lot.  I listened to that radio every night without fail.

I miss AM radio – not the jungle of evangelists, sports talk and conservative ranting we have now but that magic ethereal net of music and words that held us all together years ago.  It might seem that I…

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Music: “Hello It’s Me”

 

(Dig back far enough in the archives and you’ll find a similar post to this one. Music was a favorite topic when I first started blogging, but those first posts were pretty skimpy, so from time to time I will be re-visiting songs rather than re-running them.)

Consider the following:

  • KFQD
  • KRSK
  • KCSY
  • WSKW

What do they have in common? All of them were moderate-to-low powered AM radio stations playing a mix of current and “recent oldie” pop music when I listened to them in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In addition they all staffed their non-prime-time hours with brand-new talent still learning the trade so on-air gaffes were not uncommon…but of the four it was KRSK (Rexburg ID) that had the worst problem with gaps of silence between songs.

1973

The hiss, pop, and sometimes music on my old clock radio had been good company while I studied the afternoon away, but it was the clock that had my attention as I closed my art history book and sat up on my bed. It was 7:00 PM – time to get changed for a visiting artist lecture, but as I stood up there was an extended  moment of dead air on the radio,  then out of that silence came an unmistakable bass-backed-by-organ introduction followed up by the first crystal clear line of lyrics in Todd Rundgren’s mid-range tenor voice.

Hello, it’s me I’ve thought about us for a long, long time

Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong

There’s something here that doesn’t last too long

Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine

It was the first time I heard the song and I was captivated, standing in that exact spot until music was over. Unlike many songs where  I consider vocals to be little more than another instrument, lyrics had an almost physical impact on me  and I became very curious about the song. I subsequently found out that Rundgren had first recorded Hello It’s Me in 1972, but it didn’t start charting until the fall of 1973, a point in time that was also shaping up as one of the best and worst years of my life. During the previous spring I went  through what can described as a (take your pick) Road to Damascus/Alma the Younger conversion that put me on track for the best semester of my collegiate career, making the Dean’s list and achieving a number of important personal goals…to include the upcoming reunion in six weeks with My Best Friend when everything in my life would be perfect.

Seeing you Or seeing anything as much as I do you

I take for granted that you’re always there

I take for granted that you just don’t care

Sometimes I can’t help seeing all the way through

I was struck by how beautiful the melody was but  unsettled by the bittersweet tone of the lyrics in the same way that the beauty of a majestic anvil-topped thunderhead lit by a sunset could often hide a vicious storm… like the emotional thunderstorm that had swept through earlier that week.

The letter read: “I miss you so much, but I get afraid that all this waiting will come to nothing. It’s a big step to try and start over again when things are going so well here in Fairbanks. We’ve got a whole new group of Young Single Adults including a G.I. from Eielson who is really nice. He kind of reminds me of you.”

I was in the process of learning two  important facts about life:

1) Life changes. There are times when I’d love to settle in, break the cosmic channel selector and just keep Life the way is. I wouldn’t have complained one bit if my sophomore year of high school would have gone for eighteen months instead of nine. (That actually happens. It’s called “flunking”). At a later time, our little family of four house-sat for my parents in Sterling from 1987-89 and it was such a pleasant interlude that I wished we’d never left…but eventually you have to move on, sometimes to happier situations but just as often to sadder conditions.

2) Personal history and temporal landmarks don’t always mesh with the timetable the rest of society uses. An old friend and mentor called his own unique periods of time “boxes” and felt that the boxes could be dictated by age, events or experience – and that our boxes don’t always line up with other people’s boxes. For example the textbook teenage “box” for  a young man is assumed to run from 13 to 19  but all things considered, my teen-age years went from age fifteen to age twenty, and I didn’t know it but Hello It’s Me was marking the end of that  box for me, no matter how I kicked, clawed and dragged my figurative feet.

Rundgren hit a resonant chord, his melancholy resignation very similar to the way I had also been “seeing all the way through” for the entire semester starting in August when I boarded the 727 in Fairbanks and the thought flashed across my mind that she won’t be there at the other end. I’d briskly pushed that premonition aside, preferring life on a Cairo houseboat (living in de Nile), and continuing to brush off doubts brought on by letters with sentiments similar to the one quoted above.

At some level I knew that Rundgren’s haunting lyrics were preparing me for a big change in my life, and while I dreaded the prospect of a relation-ectomy without anesthesia, I  knew that if and when a break came I had to be able to walk away and leave my Best Friend with a clean slate.

It’s important to me
That you know you are free
‘Cause I never want to make you change for me

1979:

“ Hey everybody in the Tidewater area – this is Wally West  and that was Todd Rundgren and  Hello It’s Me from 1973 followed by England Dan & John Ford Coley singing another Rundgren tune Love is the Answer – and the time is (bing-bong) five minutes past the big hour of five o’clock!”

If the admin clerk had actually been on time with my orders I would have cleared post and been out of town before hearing that announcement  – and those songs, and even then the significance didn’t hit me until we were half-way across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. Todd Rundgren’s work had been the signpost directing me through that first transition from teenager to young adult, and now his creative voice (albeit second-hand) was guiding me through yet another transition from the student/cadet/young father phase to (GASP) adulthood.

I drove along the elevated causeway, the sunlight glinting on the wavetops at each side. Lori and Conrad were both asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. On one level the connection with the abrupt end to my first engagement made Rundgren’s “greatest hit” very  difficult to listen to, but at another level the song was very dear to me. When that early heartbreak happened I momentarily thought of flying back home and making a violent scene, but the simple lyrics had had a calming effect and I saved the price of airfare to Fairbanks as I walked away in my best grown-up fashion,  leaving my (former) Best Friend with a clean unencumbered slate to build a future on.

Think of me

You know that I’d be with you if I could

I’ll come around to see you once in a while

Or if I ever need a reason to smile

And spend the night if you think I should

…and as I glanced over at my Beautiful Saxon Princess and my infant son realized given the way things had worked out I’d ended up with more than just one “reason to smile” .

Music: Abandoned Luncheonette

 

Consider the following terms:

  • algorithm
  • dichotomy
  • paradigm
  • ubiquitous

I don’t think I heard any one of these words prior to 1987 – and I didn’t learn the correct definition of any of them until long after that date. You see, unless the context absolutely demands the use of a “ten-dollar term” I prefer using less-ornamental language, which is why I think we did well enough with the alternate phrases like:

  • steps in solving a problem
  • contrast between two things
  • a model or pattern

…but I make an exception to the rule when using ubiquitous instead of “found everywhere”  as in “the music of Darryl Hall and John Oates was ubiquitous in the Seventies and Eighties!” because it was the absolute truth at the time that their work and faces were found everywhere. They were on the covers of magazines at newsstands. I couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing “She’s Gone” or “Sara Smile” and every time I walked into my sister’s apartment the duo’s slightly androgynous first album cover would be staring at me from the front of her record collection.

Where I didn’t expect to see Darryl Hall and John Oates was the apartment of my friend Oly a.k.a. John Olsen who had been my good friend since serving our respective bicycle penances in New England a few years earlier. Upon returning  to school in the fall of 19761 we had taken adjacent apartments where each day we’d meet to conduct a post-game analysis of our adventures at the university. During these academic post-mortems we’d listen to our respective collections, which in my case consisted of a 100+ volumes of progressive rock…while Oly’s collection comprised of exactly two albums:

  • Lowdown by Boz Skaggs
  • Abandoned Luncheonette by Hall and Oates.

I’m not sure how we ended up listening to the actual Abandoned Luncheonette song because the LP’s breakout Top 40 singles2 were located on the opposite side of the vinyl. When we finally did get to the eponymous tune it didn’t make a great first impression – I tend to think of vocals as little more than additional instruments which can make  lyric-driven songs3  a dicey thing with me, but from the first note it was obvious that Abandoned Luncheonette had an important message for me personally.

The song opens with a simple mix of bass & percussion creating a staccato “typewriter-ish” sound subliminally setting up the song as a story first and a musical composition second. These rhythmic measures could easily be incidental music to a street scene from a 1970’s TV series – a nice touch in that the words are as direct and descriptive as a panel in a comic book.

They sat in an abandoned luncheonette Sipping imaginary cola

drawing faces in the tabletop dust

His voice was rusty from years as a sergeant in “this man’s army”

They were old and crusty

“ So this is how addicts are made” I thought as listened to a song that started out as bubble-gum for my ears slowly transform into a powerful narrative that drew me right in. In perfect timing an adaptable melody, brilliant in its simplicity, starts contributing to the story, as when a Benny Goodman clarinet flourish instantly pegs the setting to the 1940s – a touch of nostalgia typical in mid-Seventies entertainment.

She was twenty when the diner was a baby

He was the dishwasher, busy in the back, his hands covered with Gravy

Hair black and wavy Brilliantine slick, a pot – cleaning dandy

He was young and randy


Unfortunately it’s at this particular point that the song almost lost me the first time I heard it. The music  goes into a rippling electric piano effect much like the “doodle-oodle-doodle-oodle” flashback sound in Scooby Doo. At first it seemed very contrived but after listening through the whole song a couple of times (and soaking up the entire message) the effect seemed more appropriate. The addition of a formal string backing to the chorus also rinses out a lot of the “ Scooby-Doo” as the symphonic effect reinforces the chorus as a chronal bridge between different eras in a person’s life.

Day to day, to day today Then they were old, their lives wasted away

Month to month, year to year They all run together

Time measured by the peeling of paint on the luncheonette wall

Here’s another ten-dollar word: Serendipity – or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.  While Abandoned Luncheonette  was a song I stumbled onto by chance it contained an important  message tailor-made for me in late 1976. Between my own doubts4 and another’s dire predictions about “a marriage doomed to failure” my relationship with (take your pick)

  1. a) Alabama
  2. b) My Beautiful Saxon Princess
  3. c) Lori
  4. d) All of the above

…was almost over before it got started. As the last verse spooled-up the story with the couple in their later years I felt a warmth, a longing to have the outcome in the song to be my future as well – and I wanted Lori to be with me as well.

They sat together in the empty diner Filled with cracked china

Old news was blowing across the filthy floor And the sign on the door

sign on the door read “this way out”, that’s all it read

That’s all it said

 … and this last verse is where Lori and I are now. Our life is much like the empty diner in that we’re not in the future we envisioned in 1976. We lived from day to day – to yet another day that spun out to many, many more until we ended up here in 2018 (Today) and are of an age where our own existential door with the “This way Out” placard  is never far from my thoughts.

 Day to day,

 to day

Today

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Notes

  1. Oly had been a spectator – nay – participant to my courtship of “Alabama” – which was the name I used for Lori in the beginning. When we hit a rough spot in our relationship Oly was the guy in which I confided “I’m going to ask Alabama to homecoming – and if she says ‘No’ I’m dropping her like a hot rock”. He’s also was the friend to whom I said, “She said yes – now what do I do?”
  2. “She’s Gone” was released in early 1974 and reached #70 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then hit  #7 when it was re-released during the summer of 1976 in the wake of the success of “Sara Smile”.
  3. That is “lyric-driven songs” NOT sung by Gordon Lightfoot or Harry Chapin
  4. See 1976: Beads

Music: Valentine’s Day

 

Yesterday, in many ways, you’ve looked into my eyes

Seems so strange for all the many years together

Sitting by the window, couldn’t move you if I tried

I’ve been standing on the outside here forever

Blood Sweat and Tears 4 arrived late in the summer of 1971 – a going-away gift for my impending departure for the University of Alaska. At the time I was living at the ranch alone and working as many hours possible before joining my family on a vacation in the lower 48. Cooking my own meals and getting myself up and to work on time  also seemed to be a good transition to leaving home …but to be honest it was lonely and a little scary living by myself.

Candles lit an empty room when you and I last talked

And the bed made warm by lonely lovers

I have seen a thousand highways, walked a hundred roads

But for you I know there’ll be many others

I was also having second thoughts about leaving. There were some unresolved  relationship questions brewing the angst only an eighteen-year-old can know and I had finally shed my “transplanted Californian” identity for that of a Peninsula boy content to live his life between Turnagain Arm and Katchemak Bay. For as much as I wanted to get on with my life I was feeling hesitant.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

Blood Sweat and Tears’ fourth album was a move back to their landmark eponymous second album with more original tunes and fewer covers. It generated two Top 40 hits1 but my favorite song on the album didn’t show up until track two on the B side: Valentine’s Day by lead guitarist Steve Katz. Katz was to the band what Peanut M&M’s are to trail-mix:  When you’re several miles out and sick of sesame seeds that peanut M&M can make the heavens open and choirs sing. It was the same with Katz’s work: He didn’t sing very often, but when he did he was great.

Darkened halls and hotel walls will keep me in disguise

While your brown eyes look for what you have forsaken

Better times are far behind me, I can’t quite forgive

Cause for all that you have given, you have taken

At the time I knew little about Mr. Katz other than what I could glean from the record jackets or the rare BS&T articles that showed up in the national press. Adolescent logic being what it is I decided that anyone whose music so effectively punched my buttons had to register at least 9.7 on the Richter scale of cool so I did my best to emulate his look with tinted glasses, harness boots and my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair parted in the middle.

Saddened by a country tune, I cried myself to sleep

Looking for my footsteps softly leaving

I have seen a thousand highways, walked a hundred roads

But for you I give you freedom to believe in

In the soldier-part of my life one of my assignments involved imagery interpretation – gleaning information from aerial photographs. I was totally lost looking for tall, skinny upright objects like power poles or missiles until I figured out that you don’t look for the teeny-tiny top of the object – you look for the shadow cast to one side that points like an arrow to your target.  The lyrics in Valentine’s Day function in the same manner:  the oblique descriptions of surroundings, veiled references to past events and understated emotion all point unerringly towards a disintegrating relationship – without being patently obvious.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

Even lyric-less the break is possibly the most evocative part of the song. Chuck Winfield establishes a melody on the trumpet… but then Lew Soloff joins in with an additional solo on the piccolo trumpet that both parallels and departs from the basic sound.  To my heart they map the dichotomy between the actual path of life and the path life could have taken – the almosts and could-have-been, which were exactly what was on my mind in that late summer of 1971.

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

…and with that “wind blowing” reference we’re back to that archetype young David hitchhiker with sun on his face, the wind to his back and the whole world on his mind. 2

  • Aching to be with someone
  • Knowing the road to his future won’t let him
  • Foregoing immediate gratification for the good of another

Heavy thoughts for an eighteen-year-old but all very valid concerns. That’s why Valentine’s Day is a rarity among my favorites in that it is linked with more than one time in my life when I was in the same situation. That identical challenge of foregoing my personal interests for the sake of someone vulnerable came about both the following winter and again in the winter of 1976 –  both those times I derived comfort from this Steven Katz bit of brilliance.

…so when my Beautiful Saxon Princess sees me space out listening to Valentine’s Day and she asks l what year the song has taken me to,  I simply answer: “Which one?”

Oh, let the wind blow, strike me to my knees

I’m forever getting sad and lonely

Oh, let the sun glow, shine upon the trees

You’ll forever be my one and only

 __________________________________________________________________________

 

1)    “Go Down Gamblin’” and “Lisa Listen to Me”

2)    See Music: Fire and Rain

Music: Main Street

I had no idea I would miss her so badly

I’d left for FT Lewis with the assumption that I’d be channeling Mr. Spock for six weeks and remaining in complete control of my emotions.  As much as I loved Lori there was an element of reserve in my heart, an emotional bunker left-over from a devastating break-up years earlier but after the initial chaos of travel and check-in I noticed a slight hollow feeling akin to a hunger pang that wasn’t enough to slow me down… but was enough to get my attention during down-time.

The other shoe boot dropped the morning I moved my wedding ring to my dog-tag chain as a safety precaution for a physical fitness test. As I was moving, clipping snapping and such I paused for a moment, startled by the stark white of a band of skin usually covered from the sunlight – and at that moment a deep but amused voice rumbled from the next bunk:

“It’s still there isn’t it?”

It was Doug Zanders, a cadet from Nebraska and he was smiling as he also moved his wedding band to the chain around his neck.  He continued: “We can take the rings off, but they’re still there.”

As we polished boots that evening Doug and I picked the conversation back up. I talked about Lori and how we’d been married only a couple of months. He blessedly made no ribald comments but instead talked about his distress at Advanced Camp overlapping with the birth of his daughter. It was not the conversation you’d expect from two young warriors and those unlikely sentiments were still in mind as the lights went out and we listened to one last song on the radio before going to sleep:

“I remember standing on the corner at midnight

Trying to get my courage up

There was this long lovely dancer in a little club downtown

I loved to watch her do her stuff”

It was Main Street by Bob Seger and before that night I’d never realized how poignantly Seger captured the essence of something I’d assumed was no longer part of my life:  loneliness. There’d been so many times in younger years when I’d watch couples pair up for the last dance just to walk home alone. Marrying Lori was supposed to change all that and get rid of the loneliness, but it wasn’t until we were apart that I could see that as long as the inner bunker was intact I’d always be “walking home alone” at some level.

“Through the long lonely nights, she filled my sleep

Her body softly swaying to that smoky beat

Down on Main street”

 I laid on my bunk looking up at the rafters and tried to sleep to the lullaby of sniffs, snores, coughs and farts of twenty-three of my closest friends, but with Ted What’s-his-name in the bottom bunk working on his OCD boot-shine sleep was going to remain a stranger.

“And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street”

Seger’s raspy/bluesy vocals overflow with emotion it was Pete Carr’s haunting guitar work that really ripped my heart out. Some artists use a brush but Carr’s work with a guitar paints a vision of sadness and longing more accurate and detailed than an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition. It captured perfectly the gap I felt that night.

I missed Lori –  as in “capital-M” missed her.

Yes, I missed making love1, but I missed her solid reassuring presence just as much and maybe more so. Light-blue water-color eyes with the slight sad tilt that’d been so quick to sign emotional school loans – promising so much despite the possible cost. In the short time we’d been married I’d grown accustomed to the comfort of her arm around my shoulder and her cheek against my chest as we slept.

…and her smile when I first woke up.

The post-training discussions continued –  at the rate Doug and I polished boots over the next thirty-six evenings you’d think we owned stock in Kiwi, but spit-shined boots were secondary to words that were just as important as the daily training. We talked about our wives, wrote operations orders, talked about our younger years, planned artillery pre-plots, talked about our wives again – while  consuming our respective weights in Peanut M & M’s.

…and then before I realized it advanced camp was over, and we went back to our former lives.

My brain is such that a song automatically gets mental time-stamp and is forever connected with what was happening when I first heard the tune: Play ‘Windy” (by The Association) and I’m finishing 8th grade and kissing Kathy Knight at the graduation party. Play “One of These Nights” (by The Eagles) and I’m packing my bags for a reluctant transfer from Skowhegan to Penacook. Play “Main Street” (Bob Seger) and I’m back at FT Lewis gaining skills I’d need as a second lieutenant…and a husband.

 And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street

____________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1)…and I mean making love. Not banging, boinking, humping, hitting it, making the beast with two backs, getting a bit of crumpet or any of the countless other soulless euphemisms for physical intimacy that we are constantly flooded with in the new millennium.  At that time it was “making love” in every sense of the word.

 

Music: Fire And Rain

Fire and Rain is a song written by James Taylor1 that tells the story of both his reaction to a close friend’s suicide and his own struggles with fame and addiction. It’s a beautiful song in both form and message, so it should be no surprise it’s been covered quite often by performers like Andy Williams, John Denver, Roger Whittaker and Cher. What might be surprising is that one of the earliest versions was recorded by the jazz/rock fusion band Blood, Sweat and Tears.

In the summer of 1970 BS&T was at the height of fame, but their album Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 took a terrible beating by critics for what turned out to be political reasons.2 I didn’t give a rip – I bought the record as soon as I could, which happened to be the same weekend I’d finally got a decent stereo record player – paid for with money I’d earned risking life and limb on pre-OSHA roofing job 75 miles away in Seward. I was so stoked that it took me at most fifteen minutes to get the stereo set up in my attic loft .

Blood. Sweat and Tears 3 was going to be the first record played on it.

I had loved the previous album and the anticipation had me so fumble-fingered that it took me three attempts to get the disc on the spindle. When I finally got the record cued up I sat back with my eyes closed anticipating musical genius, but forty-five seconds into Hi-Dee-Ho I sat back up with a “What the hell?. I kept listening, mollified by the second track which was an excellent (as expected) Steve Katz tune called The Battle but after enduring Lucretia MacEvil and Lucretia’s Reprise I was seconds away from using the disc for skeet shooting.

In my agitation I almost missed the opening notes to Fire & Rain ( instead of a distinct stop/start, Lucretia’s Reprise slowly morphed into the following track) but as I heard David Clayton-Thomas’s uncharacterically soft opening vocals I became intrigued and started putting the shot-shells back in the box.

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.

Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.

I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,

I just can’t remember who to send it to.

Rather than his usual brash, bluesy sound Clayton-Thomas’ voice is calm and thoughtful through the first verse. The accompanying piano is also subdued, as you’d expect when dealing with the shock of losing someone close, especially a young person who took a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand.

You’ve just got to see me through another day.

My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.

At the beginning of the second verse the soft piano and languid guitar is replaced by a brass fanfare. It’s confusing; while the lyrics resemble a prayer, the combined effect of lyrics, vocal inflection and instruments do not come across as supplication.  I have often been taken to task over my non-traditional mode of prayer, so I can understand that rather insistent tone to the message, but there is also a humanistic hint of the individual steps in the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining and so on.

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.

Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

Here my thinking becomes less verbal and much more emotional and I find it difficult to separate myself from the vocalist. Coping with death is never easy and with so many recent deaths among my circle the question of mortality becomes overwhelming. The mental images of the sun and the wind conjure up a personal Jungian archetype that allows me to escape:

… the eighteen-year old David hitchhiking.

It’s a familiar and comfortable vision:

  • The welcome ache in my legs from walking
  • The wind in my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair.
  • The warm sunlight taking the edge off the cold wind
  • The excitement from the uncertainty – the hint of danger.
  • The freedom & endless possibilities – I could end up in Seattle! New York! Ninilchik!

In those pre-Walkman days long walks gave me plenty of opportunity to think and at that pivotal time in my life I would contemplate life just as much as I’d contemplate how I liked Debbie’s brown satin vest & miniskirt outfit. That’s why I still love this song now – not because of the outfit, but because it prompts contemplation.

As the song begins to fade the music changes:

Thought I’d see you one more time again.

There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now.

Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.

The brass section repeats the fanfare while the guitar work becomes more improvisational as maracas softly keep time to the music. The combined sounds invoke a bittersweet/wistful mood. Touches like this are what make me prefer this version of the song – the arrangement is flawless, and the music contributes as much to the narrative as the lyrics.

….and those maracas? If you really listen they sound like the tread of a young man’s boots as he walks along the highway.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. It was a double-barreled hit for Mr. Taylor, released in early 1970 as both a Top 40 single and as a track on his Sweet Baby James album…though I didn’t find any of this out until I was in college a year-and-a-half later

 

  1. Canadian David Clayton-Thomas was having difficulty obtaining a visa to stay in the country and continue recording/performing with the band. His application was “expedited” on the condition that the band would participate in a state-sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain.

Music: ” (Once Upon a Time) In Your Wildest Dreams”

 

There is a rare disease that afflicts anyone living near a theme park like Six Flags or Dollywood. It’s a painful ringing echo in your ears that comes from the endless repetition of radio advertisements for the park’s signature ride, usually a mammoth roller-coaster with a name like Avalanche, King Cobra or Hurtinator. In 1986 the signature ride for Utah’s Lagoon theme park was the Colossus rollercoaster and its radio spot was in heavy, heavy rotation on every AM and FM station along the Wasatch front. However, that commercial flood didn’t bother me much – in the spring of 1986 our life in general had become one big existential roller-coaster full of ups and downs in our income, health and quality of life.

The peaks included:

  • My career was really starting to take off. I was winning awards and making a regular income and as far as we could tell that trend would continue.
  • We moved into a larger/nicer home with the best studio space I’ve ever had.
  • I was able to fly home to Alaska for a visit to see my sister Robin graduate from college.

…while some of the valleys were:

  • Our car was broken into, resulting in a smashed window and stolen tape deck.
  • Lori suffered a miscarriage with serious complications.
  • I developed major back problems – severe pain,  spasms and lack of mobility.

At first, I assumed I’d just aggravated an old back injury1, but the pain grew daily until I woke up one Saturday morning unable to move. I dutifully put on the “captain face”, told jokes to the boys and made light of the situation but that schtick soon wore thin. A late-night phone call from  Mom2 just made the situation worse; she hinted at a grim, possibly fatal prognosis but refused to answer specific questions as she wasn’t “attending” (physically present).

The pain was unbearable, and I distinctly recall lying in bed expecting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Oddly enough that finality didn’t bother me as much as the physical pain; it may have been just the painkillers talking but I wasn’t worried about a Last Judgement – I was just sad at the thought of separation from Lori and not being around to raise my sons to adulthood.

As I started to drift off I felt more resigned than scared and was almost asleep when a song came on the radio that caught my attention. It was a simple synthesizer melody that slowly grew into a lush sound with symphonic backing to which an understated syncopated percussion joined in after a few measures. That soft cadence was in turn followed by a bass guitar – and at that point the combination of sounds was creating a slightly familiar but frustratingly unidentifiable sound…unidentifiable until the vocalist started singing and the last Lego snapped in place:

Once upon a time

Once when you were mine

I remember skies

Reflected in your eyes

It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, a progressive rock band that I’d been a devoted fan for decades…and when I say fan I mean dyed-in-the-wool DNA fan maintaining a complete set of their albums through two sets of vinyl and one set of cassette tapes.

(Note: We Moody blues fans are a snooty, opinionated lot comprised of three distinct camps divided by the group’s three incarnations:

1)    1964-1966: The original group featuring Denny Laine as lead vocalist, and doing mostly covers of American pop and R&B

2)    1967–1972: The “Core Seven” years when the band reigned as the premiere art progressive rock band producing one of the first concept albums “Days of Future Past”3

3)    1977-present: Now a Soft rock group recording synth-pop tunes like In Your Wildest Dreams – the tune that was currently playing)

As a staunch member of Group 2 I normally would have passed on a recent release like the song I was now hearing but for some reason I kept listening.

I wonder where you are

I wonder if you think about me

Once upon a time

In your wildest dreams

 It could have been nostalgia that kept me listening – at thirty-three you’ve lived just long enough to have something to look back at. Earlier in the summer we’d run into my former Best Friend and her family4 and since that time I’d been thinking more often about my time in Fairbanks (coincidentally the time of my peak interest in progressive rock) which brought me back to:

 Once the world was new

Our bodies felt the morning dew

That greets the brand-new day

We couldn’t tear ourselves away

I wonder if you care

I wonder if you still remember

Once upon a time

 It could have been the character of the group and their music in general. I always thought that the Moody Blues music was “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge/ truth that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

 And when the music plays

And when the words are touched with sorrow

When the music plays

And when the music plays

I hear the sound I had to follow

Once upon a time

In typical music industry fashion, the song faded out to an unheard conclusion, but it kept running through my mind for the rest of the evening. In my opinion it wasn’t even close to the quality of “The Story in Your Eyes”, “Question” or just about anything else they recorded during the Core-Seven years, but it did have a nice, reassuring feel, as if a good friend had stopped by to tell me that everything is going to be OK, mate!” That’s when I sat up in bed and realized that all the morbid thoughts I had earlier that day were gone, displaced by that new Moody Blues song and thoughts generated by it, proving again the “stealth scripture” aspect of music produced by Mr. Hayward and company.6

I wish I could say that after listening to “In Your Wildest Dreams” everything was OK and that I made a speedy recovery…but I can’t. I went through another 9 weeks of misery before the pain began to subside and while the condition5 causing the discomfort went into remission it returned with a vengeance fifteen years later and has continued unrelieved to this day.

However –  I did get to raise my sons (and a beautiful daughter) to adulthood and my beautiful Saxon Princess is still by my side. I’ve continued to create images with both paint, paper, wax and words.

…. and I am still listening to the Moody Blues.

 

 ______________________________________________________________________________________

 Notes:

1)    See 1985: Fighting Soldiers from The Sky

2)    A registered nurse

3)    For years we were told that the album was the product of collaborative magic between the Moody Blues and the London Festival Orchestra. The real story is a bit more pedestrian and starts with the group working off a hefty advance from DERAM Records…

4)    Including a spouse who bore an unnerving resemblance to the husband in the song’s official music video.

5)    Ankylosing Spondylitis: An autoimmune disease involving pain and inflammation along the vertebrae – a condition much like rheumatoid arthritis and connected in no way whatsoever to ankylosaur or any other type of large lizard.

6)    The fact that it was the Moody Blues singing the song was significant as well – I doubt I’d have listened as intently to any other musician(s) with the same intensity.

Music: Reassuring Voices

Consider the topic of tastes and most people think sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The Japanese add one more category called umami which literally translates as “delicious” but is often interpreted to mean savory. I’ve always thought of umami more as of a mellow happy almost-after taste, the kind of flavor that comes with a piece of provolone cheese on an onion bagel, preferably washed down with hot (dark) cocoa the way it was served in Milan, Italy.

There is a group of vocalists that for me sound the way umami tastes – mellow, happy and unobtrusive.  I call them the Reassuring Voices: Musicians/vocalists with a pure tenor that can be aural Xanax for me. I’m not sure why but the sound of their voices just seems …well, reassuring. When I listen to them I am wrapped with the feeling that even if my life currently feels like a train wreck in slow motion everything is going to work out/everything is going to be OK.

The musicians attached to these wonderful vocals are

 

James Taylor: Unlike others on this list, Taylor’s work has been influential to me over most of my adult life and not just one phase. In particular his work has been the background music for three very pivotal times in my life:

  • Mud Slide Slim – University of Alaska
  • In the Pocket – Fall of 1976 when I was courting my beautiful Saxon Princess, Lori
  • Never Die Young – 1987-89 when my young family and I were “house-sitters” at my parent’s home in Sterling, Alaska

 

 

Paul McCartney: Choosing both Rubber Soul and Ram as favorites can be expected but I get mixed response when I tell people I love the soundtrack to Give My Regards to Broad Street.  It was the background music for that time in my career when I realized I was going to survive as an illustrator and that our next address wouldn’t be “221B I-15 Underpass” It was like having a childhood friend say “Hey, you’re going to make it mate!”

 

 

Sting: If “reassuring voices” are like provolone on an onion bagel, Sting has some Dijon mustard added on the top – just a tad bit edgier. The Dream of the Blue Turtle, Nothing Like the Sun and to a lesser extent Soul Cages and Ten Summoner’s Tales were the soundtrack to the “Elvis Years” of 1985 to 1991 when my cover illustrations appeared in gaming & hobby shops all over the world and I was so busy I had to farm out work to friends. It was also when I first started considering my mortality; I still looked good, but I could no longer do sixty pushups in 2:00 or run two miles in 14:15.

Lance Nelson: You can stop scratching your head because no, you probably haven’t heard of him. Lance is a consummate musician and (as John Lennon said of Paul McCartney) “a truly inspired bass player”.  He’s also one of my best friends. He set his musical aspirations aside for a season to pursue a distinguished career as an assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska, but he’s resumed his music and I expect wonderful results.

I date my appreciation for his soothing tenor to a specific event in the late winter of 1972 while I was at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks). It was not a good time for me – one of the rare unhappy periods during my time at UA, mainly because of the following:

  • I was flunking Algebra II and World History.
  • I’d been propositioned by my history teacher – my “attentions” for a passing grade.
  • The other residents in my dorm floor thought I was a narc.

My Best Friend and I spent one evening listening to Lance and his girlfriend play through a selection of songs and when they got to Teach Your Children I just lost it. His high tenor melody against her alto harmony was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard and feeling of elemental peace draped over me like a quilt on a cold night.

All these voices are just as reassuring to me now. That issue of mortality that troubled me in the late 80s figures even more prominently now – and I must wonder if I have a pull-date stamped on my fourth-point-of-contact. On days that I can’t walk very well, or it seems like I am chained to a nebulizer, popping “In the Pocket” into my CD player brings a lot of comfort.

…and for the record, I wasn’t a narc, I just didn’t smoke weed.  I also did not take up on my history teacher’s proposition; I thanked him for the compliment, told him I was dead butch and took the F.