Page Two: Songs of Ourselves

As friends and legends pass, art and memory burst from the present and warn the future

Page Two

The Light and the Darkness

"My Ghosts Are Getting Overcrowded"

– Big Boy Medlin, in a letter to Bill Bentley

Living in a world not swarming with ghosts – not supernatural visitations, but marking, locations, and talk that trigger by exciting memory – is to live in a too-empty land. The world in which we really live is multidimensional, having almost no respect for time but possessing an endless variety of ways to make meaning. Not "we" as in "we, all the people," but "we" as in "you" and as in the "I" of each of us.

This issue contains a section on Jack Jackson, who died a few weeks back. We noted his death then but took some time preparing to honor him; we needed to get it right. Fortunately, Arts Editor Robert Faires took the helm for this section, which honors the man and his memory – but especially his work.

"April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain," cautions T.S. Eliot at the beginning of his poem "The Waste Land." Warning us, in a way, that hope disrupts the dull, that the mix of memory (what has happened) with desire (what one hopes happens) is inherently cruel. Having learned from memory, we pursue desire, but over time – as more is experienced and desires lessen – the promise of the new and the possibility of rebirth is both painful in and of itself and ugly, in that memory (the experiences remembered) will humiliate the act of again desiring.

It is a time when too many people are dying – nothing apocalyptic, but because of age and coincidence. This is not a dire prediction but an observation, as when one notes it is raining. Having survived all these decades, we find that too many we know are old, ill, or careless, the kiss of survival against all odds that has finally worn off many of our generation. Sure, some died, others got ill, many matured, a few were crippled, and about the same number were incarcerated – but there was a long, golden, basically stupid youth when something helped us survive ridiculous chances, inane choices, ill-considered actions, and an aggressive randomness toward living that should have been punished much earlier.

Rather than blessed youth and cunning boomers – "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola," as Jean-Luc Godard suggested – it turns out we are of the family of Dorian Gray by way of Achilles: So many of us were dipped in a pool of invincibility, excepting only our ankles. Having gone through significant multiples of any cats' lives, we are now down to our ankles and our ankles only.

People have died; we expect others will; our hearts are broken; any hope we held for our friends and future has gone mad – not that it has died or has been institutionalized, but the gap between what is and what isn't possible has grown ever sharper.

Looking back, we see the ghosts of those still alive but not in our lives, a haunting by time passed, friends gone, and, yes, those who have died: a few friends and maybe a few books, records, performances, paintings, plays, dances, events, and/or the like becoming so much more meaningful and profound.

Some are more important than others; some have passed, not likely to return. Others are still very much with us, in ever-evolving relationships affected by experience, knowledge, and time.

There are friends who are with us every day, even if we have not been with them in decades (because of death, distance, disengagement, or disillusionment). Great art, I suggest, is work that, almost every time you revisit it, is different – the work itself so rich and electric that one's life is the water that fills the sponge with meaning.

Every time I see Citizen Kane, I see a different movie: variations on a theme, at least, but also characters and situations that are shadowed and nuanced by experience. There is not a week that goes by that I don't miss Ed Lowry (not just think of him, but miss him, because my life is just that much emptier having known him but not knowing him now). Film Editor Marge Baumgarten probably does not spend a day when she doesn't feel the same.

There are records I listen to that foster nostalgia, remind me of past times, evoke forgotten instances, and recall old friends. There are records that remind me of who I was when I first listened to them and when I loved them most, often not the same time. There are still the times, riding in the car with the open road spreading out before you, when that perfect song comes on the radio, possibilities despite all learned knowledge again vanquishing memory and current reality, the best you of you sings at the top of your lungs. But as pleasurable as all those are, they are snapshots in a scrapbook.

Much more rare are the works that are ever anew, with a vitality that betrays their age and an impact that denies your familiarity. The album you can listen to again and again, thinking of the present, dreaming of the future, and not tied to the past.

Songs of Innocent Experience and Experienced Innocence

Arthur Lee, leader and songwriter of the band Love, died last week. Among the most important L.A. bands of its time, Love was never as well-known as the Doors or Buffalo Springfield because they didn't tour much. Forever Changes, their third album, was appreciated and celebrated when it was released. It didn't make anywhere near as big a cultural impact as such similar albums as Sgt. Pepper's, Beggars Banquet, and the Beach Boys' aborted Smile. Yet it remains one of the greatest and most-impressive albums of all time. The positive aspect of this relative neglect is that, every year since it was first released, people have discovered the work on their own or through the constant, consistent, and, if anything, ever-deeper critical respect it earns. Unlike the agreed-upon great albums, with which almost everyone is familiar due to media saturation, Love is waiting, covered and disguised, ready to surprise: truly a work of shock and awe.

Forever Changes is alive, music is afoot, the magic never died. Last year, Calexico had a KGSR hit with "Alone Again Or." Robert Plant recently covered a Love song (over the years, he's covered four), and among others who readily acknowledge Love's influence are Lenny Kravitz, Yo la Tengo, Mazzy Star, and Led Zeppelin.

The album has been in my life in so many different ways since I first heard it.

"I've been here once

I've been here twice

I don't know if the third's the fourth or if the –

The fifth's to fix

Sometimes I deal with numbers

And if you wanna count me

Count me out"

– "Red Telephone," Forever Changes

Boston, Mass., 1968–72

There were the years that paranoia was not just the norm but required, a time of communal division during which it was sometimes hard to tell who was who. Political and lifestyle disagreements birthed dangerous opposing camps, armed with an array of weapons, some much more dangerous than others. The taste in the air was bitter; the smell was of rot. No matter when we got up, it was dark – not just nightfall; sometimes it was stormy, but always it was cloudy. Others who were there may argue with these memories, but, as the citizens of Oz were all bespectacled with green glasses, we saw everything through the haze of an anger that knew no boundaries nor was cautioned by any reason.

Boston at the end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies was a city of few pleasures outside of the ideological exercises of deep anger. There were riots, marches, gatherings, and confrontations. Well-off, middle-class kids in favor of Marxist revolution screamed "pigs!!" at blue-collar, working-class cops.

Beaten down, we were never stopped, never turned around. It was a time haunted by itself and one cursed by possibility and diseased by our enthusiasms.

"Sitting on a hillside

Watching all the people die"

– "Red Telephone"

Austin, Texas, West Lake Drive, 2001-2002

I'm driving my son and his friend to school as they both lodge protests over whatever music I choose to play. Except for Love. The first two lines of "Red Telephone" crack them up. They love the places in the song where a number of possibilities are offered.

"I believe in magic

Why, because it is so quick

I don't need power when I'm hypnotized

Look in my eyes

What are you seeing (I see ...)

How do you feel?

(... you)

I feel real phony when my name is Phil

Or was that Bill?"

– "Red Telephone"


Now I'm driving a car made in this decade; I'm married and own a home. I actually make a living and wear other clothes besides jeans. I take vitamins and eat organic foods, and my hair isn't terribly long. We listen to CDs, half the furnishings of our home not being stacks of vinyl records.

Still, in my memory, again and again and again, I'm in the car, waiting for the light to change at the intersection of West Lake Drive and 360. We are listening to Love. The end of the song begins to play. I fear for them in a way that goes deeper than any understanding. Goes deeper than any conscious thought or reasonable action. I am frozen by the past and shocked by how what once was is again. When I lived in Boston in the Sixties, these lyrics were stuck in my head more than most. Now I hope they don't scare the boys. They don't seem to notice. Every week of that time, they become more meaningful and more real. Something very ugly has come back and is thriving among us and celebrated by all too many. Near four decades back, Love captured the moment with prophetic immediacy. Now, again, this country has brought itself to the place where the music is not of the past but bursts from the present and warns the future.

"Ahh ...

They're locking them up today

They're throwing away the key

I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me?

We're all normal and we want our freedom

Freedom ... freedom ... freedom ... freedom

Freedom ... freedom ... freedom ... freedom

[continue with Am/A progression as above, to fade]

[spoken:] Alla God's chilluns gotta have dere freedom"

– "Red Telephone"

Rest in peace, Jack Jackson; rest in peace, Arthur Lee; rest in peace, Kim McLagan. Rest in peace all; we will miss you so much, and we need your blessings as well. Need them as perhaps we never did before. end story

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Kim McGlagan, Arthur Lee, Jack Jackson, Love, Kim McLagan, Forever Changes, Big Boy Medlin, Bill Bentley, Robert Faires, T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, children of Marx and Coca-Cola, Jean-Luc Godard, Dorian Gray, Citizen Kane, Ed Lowry, Marge Baumgarten, Arthur Lee, Doors, Buffalo Springfield

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