Music: Wichita Lineman (Revisited)

 

 

There’s always “the one”, the friend that was either too hip or too nerdy, too edgy or too zealous to fit in with the rest of your friends and or family. You know the one:

  • Their name elicits snickers when mentioned.
  • They are allowed in the house only if an exit strategy is already in place with your folks.
  • Any positive traits seem to be known only to you.

If songs were people Wichita Lineman would be “that” friend.

Maybe it’s because it was too popular too many years ago and when it was popular our parents liked the song just as much as we did. We also have to consider the lobster-in-the-pot syndrome as well –  Americans tend to drag down a star just as quickly as a lobster escaping a pot of boiling water gets pulled back by his companions – and that song made a whole bundle of money.  Unfortunately what it boils down to for Wichita Lineman is that over the years the song has become the poster child for the comically un-hip; ironically touted as aural kitsch, which can be evidenced by its use as Uber-nerd Matthew’s rock anthem on NBC’s wickedly funny ‘90s sitcom NewsRadio.

It most definitely was not viewed so dismissively when it was released in late1968 as yet another hit song penned by Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman stayed on the top 100 for 15 weeks and as of Glen Campbell’s1 passing in 2017 it had sold over 350,000 downloads. Back in the day it was covered by a staggering number of A-list recording artists from a wide range of genres, and was praised by British music journalist Stuart Maconie as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.

…but that’s not why I love it.

For most of my youth I lived in areas where the wind blew.

All. The. Time.

With marginal tree cover there wasn’t much to keep the wind from coming off the Siskiyou Mountains and roaring past our home in Little Shasta Valley2. Likewise with Sterling Alaska: our ranch was situated right in the middle of the scrubs, snags and saplings trying to recover some of the 300,000+ acres leveled by the Skilak Lake Fire of 1947.

In both locales the wind blew past the homes, outbuildings, and through the winding lengths of power lines, phone line antennae, and guy wires that surrounded all those buildings, creating a haunting melody that changed as the wind altered its direction and speed. Despite the lack of a Walkman or even a transistor radio we never lacked for a haunting musical soundtrack to outdoor activities be it work or play.

By the use of high-pitched violins and strategically-placed changes in key, the instrumental background to Wichita Lineman comes closer to the sound and feeling of wind in the wire than any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics specifically refer to power company maintenance workers the message applies to anyone who has spent time around power or telephone lines running through a desolate windswept area; people who know that those lines aren’t just making noise – they’re voices talking – or better yet – singing to you.

It brings to mind Henry Farney’s masterpiece from 1904 Song of the Talking Wire.

Song of the Talking Wire

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself standing in this gentleman’s moccasins. This image and Wichita Lineman come  the closest to capturing the essence of solitude on a windy winter night  – especially as I would walk in between hitched rides and listen to the wind and the wire sing. It gave me a sense of connection with something larger than myself – something cosmic.

….which makes this closing clip all that much more cool…in more ways than one.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-46490149/listen-to-the-wind-whistle-on-mars

It’s a very faint, very subtle sound and even with augmentation it’s hard to pick out, but what you are listening to is  a recording of the wind as recorded by the British seismometer package carried on Nasa’s InSight lander as it  detected the vibrations from Martian air rushing over the probe’s solar panels.

At least that’s what the BBC say it is.

To me it’s the sound of the wind in the wire as I’m walking from the highway to the ranch along Scout Lake Loop road.


 

Notes:

  1. It was only when Glen Campbell passed away in August of 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s that the snarky comments began to slow down. It was then that Mr. Campbell, and by extension his work, started receiving the objective appraisal he so richly deserved. Consider for a moment the following list of achievements:
  • Twenty-nine Top 10 hit songs
  • Twelve gold albums
  • Four platinum albums
  • One double album
  • Multiple Grammy awards
  • A hit CBS TV series in the late ‘60s

Most noteworthy was his status as a charter member of the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees weren’t the only pop musicians that “didn’t play their own instruments”. Top 40 headliners from the Beach Boys on down would rely on the Wrecking Crew to provide instrumental back-up to their vocals when cutting a record.

2. located in the actively-volcanic high desert of northern-almost Oregon California.

Music: White Car

 

Despite my fondness for the genre I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the British progressive rock group Yes. I immediately took to their first single ”Your Move” but the AM radio version I first heard at the University in the fall of 1971 did not accurately reflect the band’s basic sound. The raucous addendum “I’ve Seen All Good People” tacked on to the tail end of the album track was missing from the radio version, so I was immediately taken with vocal harmonies and a pleasant, maybe even pretty, acoustic accompaniment topped off with a majestic but not overpowering organ in the last couple of measures.

Hmmm. Kind of like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, I thought.

Then Marty and Jeff  down the hall played The Yes Album in its entirety and I became a fan of the band on their own merits and not because I though they sounded like someone else…but since I really, really liked the harmony and uncomplicated nature of “Your Song”  I mentally filed it in a place separate from Fragile, Closer to the Edge and other subsequent Yes Albums.

Time passed, and music evolved:

  • The Moody Blues broke up then reunited into a shadow of themselves.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer alternately mugged our ears/broke our hearts  with Love Beach.
  • Along with more than 200 million other Americans I survived the Great Disco Epidemic by the narrowest of margins.

With all these changes I found my tastes in music evolving to modern jazz artists like Tom Scott and Tim Weisberg while my progressive rock albums gathered dust on the shelf. I also found that my life was changing as I went from student to missionary to student to soldier  – until one night when I was sitting in our quarters at FT Richardson with KRKN1 playing on the radio  while I was spit-shining boots.

…so while I’m fumbling with matches, a can of Kiwi shoe polish, and an old diaper, an album began to play on the radio. I missed the introduction  – and as KRKN was an album-oriented rock station there was no deejay patter in between tracks  –  it  took almost all of that first track to figure out that maybe, just maybe I was listening to a new Yes album.

Then the track ended, there were several seconds of between-track silence and then the second track started to play, and I was transfixed.

  • Kettle drums lead with synthesizers-posing as strings, creating a melody that toggles between classical music and a motion picture soundtrack.
  • A mandolin plays a syncopated accompaniment in the background.
  • A very martial-sounding roll on the snare drum and a kettle-drum repeat winds up the segment.
  • The whole thing starts over again and repeats three more times.

…and then the vocals start but I will warn you: if you listen too closely they screw everything up. The first few times I listened to “White Car” I really keyed into its quasi-soundtrack feeling and let the vocals work as pure instinctive sound – another instrument in the band. The combined effect of  indistinct voice and music painted a magic mental picture of walking along the docks of a port in some alternate reality steampunk city and taking in the sights:

  • Ships featuring both sails and steam-powered paddle-wheels
  • Nautilus-like submarines with bulbous glowing eye-ports
  • Rigid-frame airships; zeppelins winching cargo up and down from the surface
  • Singer Gary Neuman2 driving around in a Stingray convertible

SKKRRIITCCHHHH!

Nothing can drag the tone-arm across the Great Record Album of Life like this non-sequitur.

I see a man in a white car
Move like a ghost on the skyline
Take all your dreams
And you throw them away
Man in a white car.

 ….namely Mr. Neuman’s white Stingray, which is the official subject of this composition.

 However this short (1:21) song worked such powerful magic for me that I trained myself back into listening with “vocals as instruments” ears  and I’ve kept “White Car” in every format and playlist I’ve had since that night in 1980. It provides a wonderful eighty-one second side-trip to a nicer world and has done wonders for the anxiety that so readily besets me.

My only complaint since then is minor and has to do with the song’s placement in the playing order of the album Drama. It brings to mind a spin-the-bottle game I was drafted into when I was much younger. I say drafted, but I went quite willingly when I found that the game already included a beautiful brunette I was very interested in.

…but when I sat down in the circle I discovered that the young lady in question was flanked by…by…I’m sorry – there’s just no tactful way to describe the two young ladies sitting to each side of my  raven-tressed Faye Dunaway wannabe. Their appearance in contrast to her beauty  was as jarring as having “Man in a White Car” situated between the equally jarring and discordant  “Machine Messiah” and “Does It Really Happen?

.. but that contrast might just be what makes “White Car” so beautiful. Sometimes a sharp contrast goes a long way in bringing out both physical and musical beauty.


Notes:

  1. KRKN (104.3 FM,) was an AOR (album-oriented rock) FM station in Anchorage Alaska from 1980 to 1986 when it changed to an oldies format. Through a process that totally mystifies me the KRKN call letters are now assigned to a country music station in Iowa.
  2. Yes, that Gary Neuman of “Cars” – the 1980 New Wave techno hit that will now be running through your mind and driving you crazy for the rest of the week.

Music “Friends”

 

  • Candle In The Wind
  • Tiny Dancer
  • Philadelphia Flyer

Ask anyone to name their favorite Elton John single and these three tunes will probably place high on the list. One of the least likely choices would be  “Friends” – and by that I don’t mean the TV sitcom Friends but a song from the soundtrack from an “okay” 1971 British teen romance film by the same name that interested me more for the cover art than for the music or any message in the film.

..a 1970 song that  didn’t really show up on my radar until the winter of 1988

When my family and I returned to the Kenai Peninsula my  good friend (Eu)Gene Faa was working as a deejay for KCSY, a soft-rock AM radio station based in Soldotna. He had rich baritone on-air presence with a voice devoid of the reedy quality his voice had when I first met him in the winter of 1971 when we were assigned to the same study-hall table. He was cousin of one of my better friends, so I’d been vaguely aware of his existence, but it wasn’t until I noticed him drawing  historically accurate sketches of German panzers instead of doing his  homework that I realized that there just might be  common ground between the two of us.

He wasn’t  physically striking and was unfortunately overshadowed by two most definitely-striking  step-siblings.  Red-headed, slight of build and equipped with a slight lisp he seemed to fit more into the slightly-annoying sidekick role than the buddy category, but a buddy he most definitely became as we would intermittently bump into each other over the next couple of decades as I would come and go from the Peninsula and the Lower 48. Each time we came back in contact we’d share our good news and bad news – marriage, military service, divorce, discharge, new careers and so on.

In those pre-Internet days I’d listen to the radio while I worked in the studio, and while KCSY was a bit too middle-of-the-road for me Gene would make a special effort to come up with a more diverse playlist if he knew I was listening. I’d try to liven things up by calling up with a disguised voice and requesting some Led Zeppelin or Def Leppard, songs that the programming format would never allow. Gene would give me a mercy-laugh for my all-too-transparent attempts at foreign accents, but during one such call he replied, “ I can’t play “Stairway to Heaven” for you Dave, but I’ve got some early Elton John that’s a decent  substitute.”

…then he played Friends” and I liked it right away. Simple melody with a string accompaniment that joins in about half-way through the song – always a good thing for me. Uncluttered lyrics with a message about friendship that avoids getting overly emotional. I made a comment about it the next time I ran into him at the mall, and from then on he made a point of playing it just before his show as over each noon, and when he did I knew he was waving to me – a “shout out” in contemporary terms.

Gene left the station and the Peninsula around Christmas of 1988 and other than a letter or two in the mid-Nineties  I never heard from him again – other than to find out that he’d passed away from complications from diabetes.

In his book “Thank God for The Atomic Bomb” the legendary academic and literary curmudgeon Paul Fussell made the observation that other than the very famous no one is remembered more than about seventy-five years past their death and Eugene seems to have beat that mark by about fifty years. As I’ve been writing on this piece I have failed to find any kind of record of Gene – even his relatives have little to say about him.

I don’t like that.

Eugene Faa did not exactly set the world on fire. Most of his life he struggled with the diabetes than finally took him  –  also a factor in his divorce and the primary reason he was discharged from the Alaska National Guard.  Gene didn’t command any armies, he didn’t make a fortune on Wall Street and he never held an elected office – but he was a good friend to me, and that’s why I’m writing this today. I’m hoping that publishing this post will get his name saved to enough computers and cloud storage facilities to make sure he’s remembered long past Professor Fussell’s seventy-five-year mark.

Gene was my friend.

Eugene Faa

 

Music: Songs for Beginners

 

After the astounding success of Déjà Vu the four members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young each embarked on solo albums, occasionally crossing  back and forth between projects when their particular talents were needed. Songs for Beginners was Graham Nash’s own individual venture and while I really liked the album I was a little surprised at the bittersweet overtones in most of the compositions. It wasn’t until years later I learned the melancholia stemmed his recent break-up with noted folk singer Joni Mitchell.

…and when it came out in the summer of 1971 that bittersweet album briefly became a very appropriate soundtrack to an event in my life.

1971

Katy Christiansen was a Professional Girl – not “professional” as in working in an office or (ahem)street corner, but a Professional Girl as defined by columnist Cynthia Heimel: the girl that all the other girls hate because she is perfect, she knows it and relies on it to get through life.

She was also a member of an extended family group that would descend on our congregation every summer. The Christianson’s were one of the more stalwart families in church, and would host various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends as they rotated through the summers to work at their set net fishing site on the east shore of Cook Inlet. They all hailed from the Intermountain West and the kids were especially a most impressive bunch, every one a varsity athlete, cheerleader, or honor roll student. It was only later that we found that in the manner of all teenagers away from home for the first time they were embellishing credentials to impress the locals.

That wasn’t the case with Katy – she was as genuinely outstanding as everyone else said they were. A natural blonde with finely chiseled Scandinavian features, she was graceful to the point of seeming to glide regally through a room rather than walk. I was interested but doubtful; I wasn’t a bad kid, but not a totally good kid either, but with Katy there was no “wiggle room”. Proper belief and behavior were dominant aspects of her personality and she was troubled by any variation from the standard however slight.

She first appeared the summer after my sophomore year but attempts to meet her were foiled by the cloud of cousins that surrounded her wherever she went. It was August before I figured out how to weasel my way through her familial entourage;  the effort left me exhausted and all I could manage as a greeting was something like “Hellorgle borgle argle” before bolting for the back door of the meetinghouse at a dead-run.

It’s amazing what two years can do for a young man’s confidence and when she came back to work the summer after graduation I felt  little stress in striking up a conversation. However, as we talked about our respective plans in life I began to wonder why she’d come back North; while I was slated to simply start school at the University of Alaska in the fall she had a schedule of seminars, photo shoots and conferences that seemed to leave little time for school much less work on a fish site. I also learned quickly to avoid any topic in conversation that came even close to variance with church guidelines for youth.

We seemed to get along well enough that it seemed safe to ask her out on a date. There was no ulterior motive on my part; my romantic life was already complicated, and I was just looking for a time-out and an opportunity to relax – albeit with a beautiful blonde – but just a relaxing evening nonetheless. When I picked her up she seemed a little edgy , but during the drive to the theater  I finally got her to laugh a bit and it seemed like the evening had been saved.

When we got to the Mall Cinema the film had already started, and the theater  packed, so I took her by the hand and led her to what ended up being the last two empty seats in the house. As we sat down I looked over at Katy and was shocked to see a slightly stricken, ill look on her face. She took her free hand and using just two fingers she removed my hand – the one clasping hers and moved it to the armrest between us. There was a theatrical element to her movement – she used just her thumb and forefinger which made the movement look like she was handling a dead fish.

The evening went downhill from there. We left after the first film in a double feature and as I drove Katy back to the fish site the inside of the car felt more like Alaska in January than Alaska in June. On the long drive home later on I replayed the evening over and over but remained totally baffled – it wasn’t until long afterwards that I learned that I hadn’t been a date for Katy – I’d been a project, something to be fixed.1 At some point I had been judged as being defective and she’d lowered herself to spend time with me in hope that some of her “goodness” would rub off.

That stung infinitely more than the dead-fish hand-removal – that somehow embroidered jeans, shaggy locks, a bit of facial hair had made me into a liability, someone to be diverted (but not necessarily saved) from the path to perdition. It was a body blow. I could handle open hostility or contempt, but this?

In the end I sought my usual last resort – I sprawled in the bunk of my loft bedroom and cued up a record on my stereo, which happened to be the aforementioned Songs for Beginners. As I laid there thinking the events of the evening pushed two particular songs to the front in my thinking:

I Used To Be A King

“I used to be a king

But it’s all right I’m O.K. and I want to know how you are
For what it’s worth I must say I loved you as you are

And in my bed where are you
Someone is going to take my heart
But no one is going to break my heart again”

Wounded Bird

I’ve watched you go through changes
That no man should face alone
Take to heel or tame the horse
The choice is still your own
But arm yourself against the pain
A wounded bird can give
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live
And in the end remember
It’s with you you have to live

 I also walked away with two convictions seared in my heart:

  1. No matter what they looked like, how they acted or what they did I would never look at anyone as stereotype or anything as a complete person.
  2. I would never bother with another “Professional Girl”. When we were dating My Beautiful Saxon Princess would fret over her slight tummy a la Ursula Andress in the seminal Bond flick DR.No. Little did she know that slight (in her mind) imperfection was the “deal-maker” for me

 

  1. A few summers (and a haircut) later I heard a first-time-around  Christianson cousin loudly enquiring at a church dinner about the “mangy hippy” Katy had gone out on a date with a few years earlier.

Music: To Our Children’s Children’s Children

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_c1_kaI1Zf8ZXffqfNq6ibQqhW78fEqn

(I love progressive rock. The music of the Alan Parsons Project, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the Moody Blues all strike a resonant chord in my heart and listening to their music brings peace and directs my thinking to grand and cosmic topics. Unfortunately some of those wonderful songs are “time-stamped” with less than grand events and listening them brings on memories of what was going on in my life  when I first heard them, cosmic or not)

It was the latter part of November 1970 and well into that part of the Alaskan year when our days seemed more like life on the Moon than life on Earth. Only five degrees latitude separated us from Eternal Night and with only six hours of true sunlight each day SAD (Seasonal Adjustive Disorder) was a very real battle for people like my dad or my older sister –  but not for me.

Why was I so blessed?

  • Maybe it was because I’d spent the last eight years growing up in photonic-starved environment.
  • Maybe it was because I spent most of my waking hours as a student indoors focused on reading books.
  • Maybe it was the distraction music and television provided.

Whatever the case, darkness was no curse for me. It also helped that I had mentally tacked the two hours of morning and evening twilight onto our officially allotted daylight; twilight that would paint everything with a magenta/orange glow as magical as anything found in fantasy or science-fiction. For that matter daily living in a sub-Arctic winter wasn’t that much different from what I saw on 2001: A Space Odyssey: We bundled up in parkas and warm clothing marginally less complicated than space suits and went about our business in harsh conditions under the stars. Alaskans would make great astronauts.

Perhaps that’s why a Moody Blues theme album based on space travel hit appealed so strongly to me. Released in late 1969,  To Our Children’s Children’s Children was written and produced as a reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing – with  generous portions of childhood memories and psychedelia as additional ingredients. I’d purchased the record at the suggestion of my friend Bachelorette #21  and soon found that playing it on my stereo wasn’t just a matter of listening – it involved interpreting and deconstructing the music and sometimes just basking in the glory of resonating synthesizers and haunting vocals.

Blasting, billowing, bursting forth

With the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes

Man, with his flaming pyre

Has conquered the wayward breezes

Whispered class-room discussions about the album led to a Friday date with B2 and as I started out that evening the album was still resonating in my head. I was definitely working on an outer space vibe  –  snowflakes caught in the headlights’ glare could easily be mistaken for stars and planets zipping past as the Enterprise traveled at warp-speed.

…but while totally stoked about both the album and the evening’s activities I was a little jittery – not because of the young lady in question but rather the location of her home just off the end of North Kenai road. I’d be putting 150 hard-to-explain miles on the odometer that night, so  it wasn’t the date but rather getting my cover story right that was launching intestinal Stukas. I took a deep breath and drove on, confident that I had planned for every contingency.

Our destination was a cinematic nerd-fest currently showing at the KAMBE theater, a double-feature including the Italian action flick Danger: Diabolik and a nondescript science fiction film entitled Project X. We were able to watch the entire first film, but Time was wearing Adidas that night and we had to leave half-way through Project X2. The snowfall had picked up a bit while we’d been watching the shows but the extra travel time brought on by the worsening weather allowed us to pick up our on-going medium-to-deep discussion about To Our Children’s Children’s Children,  and when we kissed on her doorstep I all but floated over the deepening snow out to the Maverick, elated on several levels but mostly relieved that the night was going to work out.

Oh you’d like it

Gliding around get your feet off the ground

Oh you’d like it

Do as you please with so much ease

CHA-THUNK!

The Hand of Fate abruptly pulled the cosmic tone-arm across the 33 1/3 record of my life as I ran the car into a snowbank while  backing out of the driveway. Twenty minutes of feverish digging and shoving got the Maverick out of the ditch and back on the road but in the process I lost the left brake lens cover and wasted another ten minutes searching for it before giving up and driving off.  As I turned onto North Kenai road I glanced at my wristwatch I could see that I had only forty-five minutes to curfew, but if I drove just a little faster I could get home on time. As I loosened my death-grip on the steering wheel and shook some of the tension out of my shoulders I mentally skipped to the next song.

Gazing past the planets

Looking for total view

I’ve been lying here for hours

You gotta make the journey

Out and in

Out and in

BA-WOO-WOO-WOO

All I could see in the rear-view mirrors were flashing red lights, so I immediately pulled over and started digging through parka and trousers for my wallet. An Alaska State Trooper materialized  at the side of the car and as I rolled the window down I wondered if Smoky the Bear trooper hats were designed to scare the hell out of people or if terror was just a fringe benefit.

“Going a little fast for conditions weren’t you son? Let me see your license please”

He looked at my license, bit his lower lip then said: ”Are you June Deitrick’s boy?”

“Yes sir”  I replied, silently adding “ …and if you’re friends with my folks I am so screwed”

He sighed: “You’re in trouble enough without a ticket. Get home as safe and soon as you can”.

A gypsy of a strange and distant time

Travelling in panic all direction blind

Aching for the warmth of a burning sun

Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from

Although I managed to get home without getting stopped by a second trooper unexpectedly cruising the highway close to home my internal dive-bombers had renewed their attack by the time I pulled into the driveway. Expecting the worst I was surprised when Mom didn’t go ballistic over the broken curfew. I explained in my half-truthful manner that I was late because I took a friend home, a friend “who I didn’t want to identify”.  Mom assumed the person in question was a football buddy too “— faced” to navigate but for some reason she only grounded me for the next week.

I never thought I’d get to be a million

I never thought I’d get to be the thing

That all his other children see

…Look at me.

By the time I climbed up to my loft and collapsed on my bunk the internal Stukas had all landed and I was able to relax. I cued up the album and let the music wash the stress away – as I’ve written before alcohol had little effect on me and I moved in the wrong social circles to get involved with weed so music was my drug by default, especially brand-new progressive rock albums.

Watching and waiting

For a friend to play with

Why have I been alone so long

Mole he is burrowing his way to the sunlight

He knows there’s some there so strong

…then with a start I remembered the missing brake light cover.

August 1971

Our legendary midnight summer sun had just edged under the horizon but there was still plenty of light in the sky as I dropped B2 off after our end-of-the-summer-headed-for-college date. As I backed the Maverick out of her driveway two thoughts came to mind:

  • Her home and surroundings looked totally different when not buried in three feet of snow.
  • The Maverick’s red plastic brake-light lens cover was sitting smartly on the side of the road as if it had been just dropped there…

__________________________________________________________________________

  1. See 1971: “…then Dave turned 16 and discovered girls”
  2. See Project X Amazon Review

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.