The Chain of Memory

The mind is an interesting thing. The other day BTO’s “Blue Collar” popped up on my Spotify Discover playlist. This is a song that I love, and I hadn’t heard it in years. The song reminded me of a similar song that my stepfather, Larry Steely, turned me onto and which came out around the same time, in the early ’70s. He had the album. The album name was eponymous, and I remembered the cover was blue, and I remembered the artist was a brother to another known musician. I  remembered the song itself was jazzy, in the mode that “Blue Collar” is jazzy.
But I could not remember the damn album name, the artist’s name, or the freaking song, for the life of me!
At first, I thought it was Edgar Winter’s brother Johnny Winter. So, I looked up Johnny Winter songs and albums, and no joy – not even close. So I thought – who else? Well, Greg Allman – “Allman” – hmm, could be the one. So I looked up to see if it was Duane Allman. So, again, I looked up Duane Allman records and albums. No Joy.
It was bugging me! Who could it be? I tried Googling “albums with blue covers” and saw a whole bunch: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” of course, and many others. No Joy.
So, I thought, after about a half-hour of futzing around, well, maybe it’s lost forever. Larry passed away twelve years ago, so I couldn’t ask him. It looked like I hit a dead end.
Larry once told me a trick he learned from a guru when he was in India: if you need to get an answer to a question, ask yourself the question before you go to sleep, and in the morning, you’ll get the answer. This – or something like this, anyway – is something that I have done over the years. Get the “unconscious mind” or the Universe, or whatever, working for you. Sometimes, there is something you can’t just get to that’s right under the surface, and just by asking yourself the question, somehow, the mind’s magic kicks in, and later, up pops the answer.
Today, I thought “Mark Allman.” Hmm. Now, I know there was no Allman brother named Mark, but I went to Youtube and searched anyway… And lo and behold, YouTube’s search-fu came up with it. But it wasn’t “Mark Allman.” In fact, it was not a famous brother to anyone. It wasn’t even a person’s name; it was a band name: Mark-Almond. Mark-Almond!
Mark-Almond was a jazz-rock band made up of Jon Mark and Johnny Almond. The album had a grey cover, not blue. My memory added color when there was none. The song? “The City”. Such a great song, which I hadn’t heard in decades.
The chain of memory is fantastic. Here’s one song, BTO’s “Blue Collar,” which kicked off the process of digging out from somewhere in my soul “The City” by Mark-Almond.
It’s a wonderful thing.

And a Bang on the Ear

It is a cliche to say that music touches the soul, but what can I do? It does. Most of the time, though, we know why it does. I am a huge fan of Beethoven. To me, Beethoven is proof of the divine: no mere chance could have Beethoven composing The Ninth Symphony even though he was deaf. To create something so uplifting and so majestic out of nothing is an act of God. To my atheist friends, I can say that even if you can’t believe in big “G” God, you have to at least recognize that Beethoven was god, or at least had the qualities that we attribute to God – the creation of beauty and wonder from nothing. When I hear Beethoven’s music, I know why I am moved: I am listening to God.

Sometimes, though, we are moved by music and we don’t know why. We know we love the music, we know it is special to us, we know we are moved by it, but the reason eludes us.

There is a band called “The Waterboys,” which really is the vehicle of a remarkable musician named Mike Scott. He is a couple of years older than I am. In 1988, he wrote and recorded a song called “And a Bang on the Ear.” It is in the style of an Irish ballad, and it is a remarkable piece of music.

I remember the first time I heard it. It was in the mid aughts and I had just parked at a grocery store when it started to play on the radio. I thought “what the hell is this?” It just grabbed me, and I was compelled to listen through to the end. And then I had to continue to listen to the station until the announcer told me what I had just listened to. I had never heard of the Waterboys. I was surprised that it was released in 1988, almost twenty years before. How could I have missed this? I bought the CD the next day. Over the years, the my love for the song grew with each listening, and it always affected me deeply.

In the song, Scott sings about women he loved, and what happened with each. He ends each woman’s story with: “I send her my love, and a bang on the ear.” There is some question as to what Scott meant by “a bang on the ear:” does it mean a kiss on the ear? Or a cuff upside the head? The song works both ways to me, but I prefer to think of it as an affectionate cuff upside the head, like “get out of here, you!” In this context, I interpreted the last line as “I love you, but… what the hell?” I think the “What the hell” was directed at himself as much as the girl in question.

Because of that line, “a bang on the ear,” the lyrics seemed facetious to me, just a recounting of women he had known, and not that serious a song even though it is a beautiful song. It seemed like a kind of joke: here’s another lady I had trouble with – I give her a kiss and a bang upside the head. The song is even reminiscent of the Julio Iglesias/Willie Nelson song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” one of the corniest songs ever written, or “88 Lines about 44 Women,” by The Nails. How can this particular song affect me so deeply? I didn’t know until recently.

Let’s break down the lyrics. The first stanza is about a girl he knew in school:

Lindsay was my first love
she was in my class
I would have loved to take her out
but I was too shy to ask
The fullness of my feeling
was never made clear
but I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This was not just unrequited love – it was clueless love. He felt for this girl, but never could muster up the nerve to ask her out. How many times as this happened in our lives? It almost happened with the girl who eventually became my wife. I saw Jenny months before I was introduced, and if it wasn’t for a friend introducing us, we never would have gotten together.

The second stanza was a girl he was with when he was in a band:

Nora was my girl
when I first was in a group
I can still see her to this day
stirring chicken soup
Now she’s living in Australia
working as an auctioneer
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This girl got away, no reason given. I always wondered about the line “stirring chicken soup.” Why that image?

The third stanza is about a short-term, passionate relationship – passionate more on his part than hers:

Deborah broke my heart
and I the willing fool
I fell for her one summer
on the road to Liverpool
I thought it was forever
but it was over within the year
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fourth stanza is about a tumultuous relationship where they both tried, and ultimately failed:

The home I made with Bella
became a house of pain
We weathered it together
bound by a ball and chain
It started up in Fife
It ended up in tears
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fifth stanza is about a brief and emotionally violent affaire:

Krista was a rover
from Canada she hailed
We crossed swords in San Francisco
We both lived to tell the tale
I don’t know now where she is
Oh, but if I had her here!
I’d give her my love
and a bang on the ear

And finally, true love:

So my woman of the hearth fire
harbour of my soul
I watch you lightly sleeping
I sense the dream that does unfold
You to me are treasure
You to me are dear
I’ll give you my love
and a bang on the ear

I loved these lyrics. They reached into my soul. I would find myself weepy listening to it, and I didn’t know why. Why would a song about a series of love affaires wreck me like this? Oh, but it did. Every single time.

I took a long day trip out of town recently. These days you no longer need CD’s: all my music is on my phone. So, I spun up some tunes as I drove through the forest. The trip was strictly a pure out-and-back to get some business done in Tacoma, but Tacoma is a good five hours from home, so I had a lot of time in the car to listen to music. When I left in the morning, I realized that this was the first time I drove across the mountains since the night before my wife passed away, so I was in a melancholy mood for much of the drive. I listened to a number of songs and then I played this one. I guess I was in the right frame of mind, because this time when I listened to it, it finally hit me why the song touched me so deeply: It is not a song about lost loves. It is a song about life.

Lindsay wasn’t just the girl we were too shy to ask out. It was all the times I didn’t even ask. All the lost opportunities I had that I just never pursued, that if I had just asked, who knows what would have happened? Opportunity knocks, but sometimes you are too scared or clueless to answer. Oh, that happened to me many times.

Nora wasn’t just the perfect girl I let slip away. I realized the reference to chicken soup was that this woman would have been his life’s companion, who would have provided for him as he would have provided for her. She was more than an infatuation; this was true. Lost opportunity! Neglect! She is all the promising jobs and opportunities I started, but didn’t finish. The people I knew and loved who I should have spent more time with. People I should have appreciated more, and who are living a life maybe less fulfilling because of my neglect. People who are now gone from my life – gone to Australia, or gone from the Earth.

Deborah, who broke his heart, was all my infatuations with people and situations that just weren’t “in to me.” She was all the stupid things that I fell for, I, the willing fool. This was the religion I thought would save the world, which only broke my heart. This was the failed partnership that was built on fantasy and ended in betrayal. This was my love affaires with corporations who had no heart. The promising job that ended up almost ruining my career and my life. How many times have we put our heart and soul into something ultimately heartless? The times we thought something was there, but it turned out to be nothing at all?

Bella was every struggle I ever had trying to make things work that were never going to work. The struggle of fighting a chronic illness that always wins, in the end. The pain of seeing friends and family die after giving it all they had. Good friendships that fell apart due to the strain of our circumstances. The heart was there, the struggle real, but the cause was lost. The pain of that is unendurable, and yet we somehow find a way to endure.

And Krista is all the deep but too-brief friendships I have had. Friends who were so close, we could cross swords in our passion for the cause, live to tell the tale, and still be friends in the end. The battle is won, the project succeeds, and we share the glory of victory. And then, the fight over, we drift apart: Layoffs happen, jobs end, new opportunities knock, or new towns beckon.  Our little band dissolves, and we move on. I have way too many good friends I will never see again.

And I was blessed to have my “woman of the hearth fire.” My late wife, who was and is everything to me. And my son, whom I love beyond anything. And my true friends, new and old, who are true as gold.

The above revelations hit me all at once like a freight train hits a snowbank. All of these regrets and lost opportunities and lost people and blessings just streamed through me. My life passed before me, with the full significance of each and every event laid before me, raw and unfiltered. On the I-5 somewhere between Portland and Tacoma, I drove on, weeping in full-throttle, tears streaming as these realities poured through me. It was as close to a nervous breakdown as I have ever had, and yet it wasn’t a breakdown – it was a breakthrough.

One of the phrases used in certain business circles is “in a former life,” meaning a former job. “I was the Los Angeles rep for XYZ company in a former life.” Our lives are made up of lives. We go to grade school, and that’s one life. Then middle school, high school, college, summer jobs, each its own life. If you change schools, the new school is a new life. Each job or career is a life. Our church, our circle of friends, each place we live. Each change of circumstance is a sort of death and rebirth: the former situation is gone, and a new one starts. Sometimes the people we knew in the former life can stay with us, but most fade away, despite resolutions to stay in touch. Add to that the lives we could have had but didn’t. We missed the Olympic team, or our application to Harvard was rejected. Our life is the collection of all these lives.

 

I felt grateful for all of them. This song somehow reached into me and pulled all this out, and I felt devastated that they were gone forever, but grateful I had these experiences and knew these people. We don’t always notice the end of these lives. We just move on as if nothing has happened, or, if we know things are changing, we are in denial that everything will change. What was brought so forcefully to me is that I had to acknowledge that these lives and opportunities were over, never to return. The good side of that was that I could look at them and think “we did good,” or “I was an idiot,” or “I really miss that person.” I didn’t put them behind me, they became me, but settled, not unsettled. It was worth the weeping to see this clearly.

There was no way Mike Scott had any of this in mind when he wrote “And a Bang on the Ear.” But art, good art, rings true, and the artist puts their art out to the world, and the world runs with it. There’s a scene in the movie “Five Easy Pieces” where the character played by Jack Nicholson plays a classical piano piece by Chopin. When he finished playing, the woman he played it for said “I felt moved.” Nicholson laughs, and says it was the easiest thing he could think of, and that he had no inner feeling while he played it. She says “well, I must have supplied it.” We supply the art to art sometimes. We will see things the artist may not have had in mind. So it is with this song. Scott was writing about women, but in such a way that I was able to expand it to life without even sensing it for years. Remarkable. I’m glad he wrote it.

We See Dead People

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.

The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.

The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.

The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.

I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.

These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.

As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.

A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.

We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”

When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.

If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.

Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:

There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.

We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of  history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.

I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.

Newly Discovered Favorite Things

I ran into two things today that I had never heard of before, both of which I am happy I know about now. The first is a song by John Stewart called “Mother Country,” which was a song forwarded to me by a friend in response to an earlier post. I had never heard of John Stewart, and here was this beautiful and masterful performance that just carried me along for over six minutes. I looked up John Stewart and found out he was a member of the Kingston Trio, and had been performing since I was a baby. How could this be? And then I found out he recorded a song called “Gold” in the ’70s, which I remembered, and which I did not like. And ten years ago, he performed “Mother Country,” and thankfully it was recorded, and now it’s one of my favorite things.

The second thing I ran into was a movie. I had opened up Quora and on a list of questions was this one: “What movie can you watch all the time and never get tired of watching?” I opened it up, expecting the usual answers like “Die Hard,” “Forest Gump,” “True Romance,” “When Harry Met Sally,” etc. Well, one movie came up a couple of times that I had never heard of, an Indian Bollywood movie from 1971 called “Anand.” Here’s a movie that’s been out for forty-five years, and is such a favorite in India that there are people who would love to see it over and over, and yet, it was completely unknown to me. It is the story of a doctor who was dejected in his work, who was tired of death, and tired of poverty leading to death. Then one day, a friend of a friend comes to town who is terminally ill, named Anand. Anand has cancer, and has only three to four months to live. And yet, he is cheerful. He tells the doctor “yes, I am going to die, and you are going to die. Right now, your body is breaking down, getting older and weaker, and you have only forty years to live. What does it matter as long as we are alive now?” It is a remarkable movie. I can see why people want to see it over and over.

Two favorite things in one day.

I am an optimist by nature. I look at the world, and I have to believe that we are getting better and better. I know we’re getting better and better. I believe that you can find whatever you look for. But if you look at existence you have to look at the full spectrum of existence, not just slices. Oh, there are atrocities on this planet. Oh, you can’t think of a way to kill someone that hasn’t been perfected by someone somewhere and been done over and over. And you can’t conceive of the worst things that can happen and have happened. There is always something awful that we can be shocked by, disgusted by, and fearful of. And we can do what we can to eradicate these things. But if we are to wallow in the awfulness of Man and the evils of disease and disasters, we must also contemplate the opposite: Beethoven. Shakespeare. Charlie Parker. The Beatles. And we must celebrate the good in humanity, as well. Doctors without Borders. Electrical linemen who brave blizzards to turn the power back on. The billions of small and not-so-small miracles that happen every day. I believe there is more good than evil in this world. As Fred Rogers said to do when disaster strikes: “Look for the helpers.” There are always more helpers than there are evil doers. Always.

And when I contemplate the good that is in the world, I am constantly reminded that there are incredible things I have never seen, and wonderful people I have never met. There are songs that have been written that I have not heard that will be a favorite of mine some day. There are places I have never been to that will be magical places when I finally find them. There are amazing books that I have never read. And especially, good friends I have never met.

And that is true for all of us. Keep an eye out for great things, and great people, because they are out there, and they will be your favorite things some day. It makes me happy to know that.