Page Two: As Tears Go By
The sound will live forever; the memories never die
"It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play"
– "As Tears Go By"
Well, not really the children, I'm watching the swirl of leaves, the bundled beings scurrying about this area, some chasing children, some being children chased, on a way too cold and overcast afternoon. The sweep and sway of the leaves more imagined than real; this is Austin, Texas, not Bartonsville, Vermont. More than watching what is in front of me, I'm traveling through the memories of places past.
Which has me thinking a lot about the safety of snow and the consequences of blizzards. The often much needed hermetically sealing off – as though the finest quarantine teams had been called in to commit the saving grace of sealing one off from one's own life. Terrible snow storms, of course, were threatening, but really much more they offered comfort. Sometimes all that was needed was the extra beat of a couple of days, never really to catch up, as it was always planned that time would be used, but at least to chill out. Trapped inside one's home for a few days provided perspective.
I was going to go on a Constitution-based rant this issue, but though I have written it, as when you lose the edge of a roll of shipping tape, I couldn't find where it began. Instead, old moments out of my past keep springing up. The ghosts of a life being lived, no part really past. Not unwelcome but usually unexpected.
Sometime in 1972 my friend Phoebe Laub came to visit where I was living in Boston. We ventured over to Cambridge during a light snow to visit Dick Waterman in what I remember as a large attic-like studio.
Waterman was already a legend. One of the first to book black Southern blues acts in the Northeast in the early Sixties, he had promoted Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White. So devoted to the blues he had also then famously journeyed deep into the Delta to rediscover Son House (who, boy oh boy, could really thump a bass note). Imagine that it was not a very safe time in the South for a young white kid from the Northeast to be asking after a black man. Imagine how hard tracking him down must have been. But Waterman did.
And his Avalon Productions, one of the first companies to exclusively manage black blues artists, handled Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins, Arthur Crudup, Junior Wells, and J.B. Hutto.
Later in the Sixties, he discovered Bonnie Raitt and helped launch her career.
We were there for advice. Phoebe, who would take the stage name Snow, was a couple of years away from her first national hit. She played a few songs for Waterman. He was encouraging, but all he wanted to talk about was Bonnie Raitt, with whom he had evidently recently broken up. She was as real a presence in Waterman's flat as any of us.
In a time long before digital he had taped the single "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison over and over. The tape played continuously in the background. There was a skip in the single. Recording it over and over, Waterman had had to go over every time and push it off the skip. The timing always slightly different. The piece became almost conceptual. Phoebe, Dick, and I talking, "Brown Eyed Girl" playing over and over, the snow gently falling outside the window. He did talk about Paul Pena, whose first album had just come out, at one stretch quite a bit. Showing us the album, playing cuts. But always he drifted back to "Brown Eyed Girl" playing over and over again. His brown-eyed girl, Bonnie Raitt, now romantically lost to him. The scene was awash in loss and emptiness.
Another night a few years later, Boston in the rearview mirror, racing ahead of an impending snow storm, I drove my just purchased VW Bug west along I-90 across Massachusetts to head to 91 North up to Vermont. The car was not new. I had bought it from a co-worker of my mom's in New Jersey. He seemed very fastidious, and the car seemed like a good buy.
Outracing a storm is not exactly exciting. Usually that is because you are screwed; the storm is going to overtake you and bury you, and the only issue is as to how far you might get first. One hoped to make the house of friends, only they lived quite a bit away, so this seemed unlikely. There were always motels or sleeping in your car for a bit while they cleaned the highway, which they are very good about doing in the Northeast during a blizzard.
Driving down the highway the snow quickly started getting thicker. This is always the most dangerous time, at the very beginning of the storm, when the highways are their slickest. As I strained to see ahead through the windshield into the swirling snow-flecked dark, suddenly I saw a car turned over on its side up ahead.
It was in the middle of the highway. I pulled over to the shoulder. Parked and raced over to the car.
The door on the driver's side was taped shut. I was trying to pull the tape off from the outside as the couple inside were trying to pull the tape off from their side. Suddenly heading down the highway, powerful headlights cut through the snow from far behind. I got to the side of the road but then ran forward trying to wave the driver down. He saw me. Slowed down.
Getting out of his cab, we soon had the couple freed from the car. We pushed their car upright and over to the shoulder. But it was going nowhere that night. Without discussion they came with me. Now more than ever the storm was upon us.
The next morning I would realize that all four of the VW Bug's tires were bald. At that moment I didn't even know what a bald tire was. But the going was rough and getting worse. We pulled off the highway, found a motel, shared a motel room.
There is nothing fun about other people having sex in the bed right across from you in a shared bedroom. Sure, maybe in some lunatic Penthouse "Letters" imagined-way there might be something remotely erotic about having a couple going at it next to you. Under the best of circumstances I can't imagine it. In fact, under the best of circumstances it would not occur.
Here two folks I didn't know weren't just having sex but endlessly talking about it. He was a deejay from a small town rock station. She was a clearly underage, overly smitten fan. All night they gushed their praise of the almighty. For saving their lives, for bringing them together. For helping them survive so they could have ongoing, breathy, endlessly talky sex. God meant them to be together. God had blessed their love. Because he had saved them.
Pillows over my head. I tried to sleep.
So is there a theme here – something about love thwarted and desire fulfilled connected to snowy nights in Massachusetts? Right now there are other memories of love found (a hand unexpectedly caresses a friend in a small swimming pool behind a house up the hill from the banks of the Hudson River just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge) and lost (the wrong words spoken, and then emphasized driving a friend from my home). There are plenty of great yarns not connected to romance: Michael and I driving in the middle of nowhere near Terlingua. Tearing up the Eastern seaboard from Florida to Vermont with Fred one long night, running through a number of storms while arguing about the Eagles. Roland and I holding back the crowds at the special late show at SXSW in 1987. But even more stories about romances. My romances, my stories? Maybe fewer about the romances of others. I'm not sure how these two come together.
At the time I was certain and I'm still pretty sure, as much as they asserted otherwise, God hadn't gone out of his way so the deejay and the nymphet could be together. More of an accident and dumb planning than divine intervention, I think. But what do I know!
And from the ridiculous to the sublime, some years after visiting Waterman, Phoebe Snow and I drove across the George Washington Bridge with her sitting next to me in the car the whole way singing a chilling a cappella version of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
"I'll take your part
Oohh when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Just like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down"
Good God, love, I still miss you so but your voice will ring in my head forever. Thank you.