Page Two: The Path Back to Believing
It only takes a moment for the ordinary to transform
I ain't much of a lover it's true
I'm here then I'm gone
And I'm forever blue
But I'm sure wanting you
– "No Place to Fall," Townes Van Zandt
It doesn't happen much anymore, though it used to all the time – the ongoing steady, expected beat of life ripped to a rising high accompanied by a searing cartoon-like explosion of flame, smoke, dust, and sparks. A moment of meaning – created by listening to a song, watching a dance or movie, looking at a painting, reading a novel or poem or comic book – mushroom clouded inside your head. The ordinary transformed, swiftly moving from black and white into color, until all you saw was awash in flame.
Once that was the way and the beat. Now, so many years and so much life gone by, there is a flatness usually unmarred by the unexpected. Music, once both prayer and the answer to prayer, shrunk into an over-the-counter drugstore salve. Lyrics rich in meaning, evoking memories, now just words.
There were years when the mundane was rare and meaning was often. Living in Florida, I bought John Cale's Paris 1919 at a record store in Coconut Grove.
You were lost, once before, on a day much like this
When you'd made up your mind not to come
And I couldn't persuade you
Or wait till tomorrow, or pass the time
– "Andalucia," John Cale
Living on the other side of the state in Charlotte Harbor next to the Peace River, most mornings I'd pick a bag of grapefruits from one tree, a bag of oranges from another. Then, while listening to the album over and over, I'd squeeze enough to make a half gallon of each. Forever uniting the taste of the air and the heavy scent of citrus with the album's music.
There are no shortcuts through my memory, no brief stories. Just came back from a week with Sandy and family at a resort hotel in the Caribbean. There watching the oldest of the grandchildren, a boy of 6, my thoughts almost had to drift to my youth. Living so little in the real world and so much in one of stories, it was not just difficult and confusing, but seemed so profoundly foreign.
Years later, in 1972, after receiving a B.A., I moved with my professor Eric Davis, his wife Gay, and son John from the small college in Vermont back to Cambridge. We ended up living together in a small house on Franklin Street just down the block from the Orson Welles Cinema.
At first I think they figured I might be there a week, at the outside two. Instead, like barnacles or Bartleby, I just stayed. And stayed, ignoring their at first subtle attempts to dislodge me.
Already significantly distracted most of the time, early on Eric told me that he always had the feeling that there was a tape running in my head, constantly questioning, "Is this a movie; is this a movie?"
Still, they trusted me to babysit John, maybe because I cheerfully changed diapers. When they went to the hospital for the birth of their second child, I was there at home taking care of John.
Not all that much later, I was left to care for Theo, the new baby. As soon as she finished her bottle, she started to spit up all over me. Fretting, I walked the floor not knowing what to do.
So I called my mother. Quite tickled, she laughingly assured me there was nothing to worry about. Then she laughed again.
Watching the three kids playing, ages 2, 4, and 6, their mom pregnant with a fourth child due this summer, I remembered that day, walking the floor, uncertain and unmoored. Yet overwhelmed, I was certain that by then I knew who I was and where I was going. I didn't. Just a child, I really knew nothing at all.
Decades passed, moments resonated with that past. While a student at Brown in Rhode Island, John Davis visited Austin. After graduating, he formed Folk Implosion with Lou Barlow. After that, during one long SXSW night, the remarkable Deb Pastor reminisced about when road managing the Lemonheads, Evan Dando initiated a careening van ride through Boston, insisting on visiting his high school, where the band first played, to visit a beloved teacher, Eric Davis.
Over the years for me the culture has lost not just potency but meaning. This not because it offers less but because after so many years engaged, I am without appetite.
"Once you've given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos" is Henry Miller's opening sentence of Tropic of Capricorn. Having all but given up already, after the election there was little left. If I had not mostly given up already, I would have after the election.
The tastes gone from even the most reliable pleasures. Listening to "Pancho and Lefty" recently, I realized how flat and lifeless it sounded, saddened that I would never hear it again with the deep resonance it offered for so long. And even then, it was never quite as extraordinary as the first time I heard it performed, by Townes Van Zandt at Castle Creek.
A week later, Sandy and I were visiting a film shooting in Louisiana, where extras sat at a bar far from Austin, though designed to look like a mid-Eighties Austin club.
The scene was of a too-wasted musician who, while performing, had forgotten both words and music. Lost he sat there.
Then a friend lumbered up behind him, leaned into the mic to sing a verse loud and true. He left the stage as soon as he led the performer back to the song.
The past enacted in the present evoked a déjà vu. The song and performance achieving an emotional immediacy that transcended the film. My eyes filled with tears, more from the power of what was happening than because of a past recalled. Beyond detail and feeling, I remembered not just the past but how to believe. Until I again believed. Magic was alive, poetry afoot, music again the kindle for igniting desire.
Days later by the ocean, I watched as the children played. Watched as the child I once was, as a stranger, a parent, and a member of the family. Once I was lost but now was found, been blind but now could see.