“Jefferson Airplane”? Not exactly a contemporary reference, I know. But the confluence of several streams of consciousness has me writing this. And, as my wife will tell you, I spend a lot of time in the past.
Many years ago, in high school, I discovered Donovan. If you don’t know who that is, I forgive you. Donovan Leitch was, in a manner of speaking, the British Dylan (although I have many British friends who will probably eviscerate me for that. They know that Dylan is the British someone-else.) But you may remember a pair of hits from oldies stations or movie soundtracks. Sunshine Superman or Mellow Yellow? What about an earlier folky tune, Catch the Wind? Season of the Witch? Anyone? Bueller?
In any case, I listened to Donovan an extravagant amount.
At that same time, I was attending a Massachusetts boarding school, where my roommate was from California. That was amazing in itself. But more important, he became the source of a lot of great music. Some of it from England after a vacation trip to London. More from the San Francisco Bay area, where he lived when not sharing a third-floor dorm room with me.
It was fall of 1965 when we began rooming together, and June 1967 when we graduated, which you have to admit was a pretty amazing time for music. Among all the memorable artists of that time, Jefferson Airplane ranked high. It may be hard to imagine now, but they were once the “it” band. No Top-40 hits after Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, but amazing countercultural popularity. They were on the cover of Life magazine. They were on Ed Sullivan, and more significantly, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! They were at Woodstock—one of the main acts! All while singing about a revolution in a real way, not as an intellectual abstraction.
In the first months of my familiarity with The Airplane (as I learned to call them, while feigning prep-school boredom), I happened to notice that toward the end of Donovan’s song, Fat Angel, instead of singing the refrain, “Fly trans-love airways, gets you there on time,” he substituted, “Jefferson Airplane” for trans-love airways. As I write this now, more than fifty years later, it seems pretty obvious that Donovan meant the reference every time. Only once, he made it overt.
Small potatoes? Not to me! Suddenly an amazing inter-dimensional culture warp occurred. This British singer was somehow aware of, was a fan of this then-still-obscure San Francisco band! It was all coming together!
Maybe for me, this was the beginning of a sense of the coming counterculture with which I would soon be much better acquainted. I went to college in the SF Bay Area. For my freshman orientation there, I went to Winterland Ballroom, a former skating arena, now a concert hall in San Francisco. The Airplane was headlining. Still technically the Summer of Love, fame hadn’t completely overtaken the scene. There was no “backstage” where the stage was located. So the band exited through the audience to get to their dressing room. As the band passed by, in my rural-Western-Massachusetts, star-struck stupor, I asked Grace Slick a question. A stupid, embarrassing question, true. But she answered me, if only to direct me to another band member who had written the song I asked about. But Grace Slick had spoken to me!
Truth be told, I felt a kinship with Grace. She, too, was a preppie (although I didn’t learn all about that until later) who went to a prestigious girls’ school in Palo Alto. She went to Finch with one of Nixon’s daughters and was on her way to becoming a model—beautiful, yes, but acerbic and whip smart. The kind of girl I might have dated back in school in Massachusetts. One who would have endured me for a date or two, then disposed of me. I would have deserved it.
That is achingly apparent in my early attempts to understand the music she wrote and performed with The Airplane. When I first heard the climactic chorus of White Rabbit, for example, instead of the iconic line, “Feed your head!” I heard, “Keep your head.” (Yes, I was a good son—a well-behaved young man from Western Massachusetts. Well, I learned.)
Right about now, I’m itching to play a track from After Bathing at Baxter’s, the band’s third album, for my wife. She will roll her eyes, shake her head. She is sometimes exhausted by my preoccupation with the past. It’s amazing I don’t walk into things, according to her. And by my asking her to listen to music I find interesting—true for me, for her, not so much. But she loves me anyway, thank goodness. She will decline the offer.
So listen: reJoyce is a piece Grace wrote and performs on piano as well as with her voice. She’s accompanied by bass, a little subtle drumming, and some overdubbed woodwinds. But it is a largely acoustic piece: part Ravel, part jazz, part snake charmer. I would bet that almost no one outside of a small circle of former Airplane fanatics (Richard, are you there?) would remember it. But it is a masterpiece of weird, convoluted, evocative lyrics (as the title suggests, there are many references to James Joyce’s Ulysses), rhythmically and sonically sophisticated piano, and of course, Grace’s voice.
Sometimes I think that her approach to music was from the perspective of a lead guitarist—and I’m not the first to think that, I know. She sometimes finds responses to calls that have never been made. As a consequence, her style was magical, unique, and sometimes a little weird. And The Airplane, live, were often deafening. (Once, I saw Grace onstage with big Koss headphones—a monitor or earplugs? Both?) And that volume removed the piano from their stage sound early on. Some subtlety went by the boards.
It’s A Wild Tyme
But listening again now (and yes, my own headphones are on) to reJoyce, I almost weep. This happens to me. I’m never sure why. But I know it has a lot to do with memory, with the perspective of fifty years on that time of my life. Maybe a little bit with the excesses and failures of a time that seemed to presage such positive change. On one song from that same album, Grace sings, “It’s a wild time. I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet.” That statement seems so true and yet so far away. Then the last line of reJoyce: “All you want to do is live, all you want to do is give/But somehow it all falls apart.” Kind of an epitaph.
I guess it did fall apart. But if I put the headphones on, though the time has passed, I can fly Jefferson Airplane again.
I spent years teaching English in high school. (And yes, my desk was usually messy.) For more than a dozen of those, I was a department chair. I helped create school policy for work with tutors. As a school representative, and as someone who cared both about helping my students and about integrity, I wanted students to get help with their writing, not to have someone do their work for them. And in these days of college admissions scandals, I see that my concerns were minor compared to some of the shenanigans going on now.
But now the shoe is on the other foot. Recently, I have taken on clients—or the children of clients—who are in the process of applying to school. In some cases, it’s college for undergraduate work. In others, admissions essays for graduate work. Now students and their parents are hoping I can assist in lifting a personal essay above the morass of familiar mediocrity and help it and the student who wrote it stand out.
When I take on a client, I make very sure that I am not being hired as a ghostwriter. I will not write Faulkner essays. I will not write college application essays. I will edit the latter. I steer clear of the former altogether.
With my background, I can also advise about topic choices. You don’t have to have discovered a cure for cancer to have a good essay. As someone once wrote, the mosquito in your tent on a backpacking trip can be a winner. The prize you didn’t win can make a bigger impression than a roll call of your triumphs.
What I do, mostly, is cut out the dreck. I keep the student’s words. Just not all of them.
And still, I have a voice in my head asking, “Is that ethical? Have you let the student speak for himself, from her own experience and in her own words?” Always, I want to be able to say, “Yes. Yes, I have.”
We’re about to begin another college admissions season, and I imagine my inner dialogue will be a frequent event. I will hold the line. And I love seeing or hearing the appreciation from a parent when something a little too long and a little muddy has become something better.
I know that many of you are not Game of Thrones fans. While I am writing about the show, it is not from a fan’s perspective (though I am one). So, know that you won’t be left in the dark by what follows.
I’m finding myself profoundly affected by the events of the recent broadcast third episode of this eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. And by one moment in particular, early in the program.
The Dothraki are a nomadic tribal people. They are fierce warriors and superb horsemen. And “men” is correct in that statement, though the women are fierce in other ways. Throughout the eight seasons, we have seen them be brutal with each other, brutal with captives. They are not generally nice neighbors. And we have seen them cut through the premier army of the day like a hot knife through butter. These are folks you want as allies, not as foes.
The Fatal Dothraki Charge
In the most recent episode, the Dothraki lead the charge—literally—against the army of the Dead. In the night, we see the Dothraki massed for attack: thousands of them, their curved scimitar-like weapons all aflame by sorcery. With characteristically savage war cries, they surge off into the dark, riding out to meet a foe as they have so many times before. From the vantage point of a nearby cliff, we see the solid wave of lighted blades, moving steadily across the dark plain.
Then the director, Miguel Sapochnik, does something we understand well. Rather than keeping us in this long shot of thousands, the camera focuses on one single Dothraki horseman, a leader of the charge. We see him galloping forward, his face in a familiar war mask— a grimace of determination. Then, at the last instant, as he finally meets his foe, his expression goes from that determined ferocity to surprise and dismay as the wave of the Dead sweeps above and over him, his mount, and dozens of his tribesman around him.
Again, we see the fray from the cliff and see the vanguard of light dented, pushed back. Then from the rear, we see the points of light that are the lighted swords bobbing in the distance. We hear the war cries. We see the lights diminish in number. And then, barely a minute after the first encounter, the lights of Dothraki swords go out altogether. Silence. After a few seconds, a single horse, terrified, runs toward us, followed by a handful of Dothraki horsemen, on foot, running for the rear.
The significance of the speed and totality of this defeat is not lost on the remaining troops. They know what the Dothraki can do. And now, in a moment, the Dothraki are gone.
How All This Matters
The face of that one rider comes back to me now, as it has late at night and throughout my day. I think about his encountering Death as a shocking and immediate presence. Recently, my first childhood friend, two years my junior, died after a long illness. More recently, my next-door neighbor, just eight years my senior, suffered a major stroke and died within twenty-four hours. Death is no longer the abstraction it once was.
Today as I compose this, I feel the warm sun on my shoulders, the breeze in my hair. I look up at the oak tree. Its new leaves are just emerging, a lovely pale green. I grew it from an acorn taken thirty years ago from my backyard in Massachusetts. Now a thirty-foot tree, it is nevertheless still an infant. With luck, its lifespan will triple my own. Needless to say, I will not be around to see it mature.
All these reminders of mortality gathering—I remember my own father, confiding in me one dark night on Cape Cod, nearly forty years ago. “Since turning seventy, I have been very aware of my mortality.” Then it was something I heard but could not feel as I feel it today, a week since turning seventy myself.
What Kind of Astonishment?
I suppose this is a gift. We hear that we should treat death as an advisor. That we should live each day as if it were our last. I would prefer, however, the message of a poem my wife recently used in her yoga class, one that suggested we treat each day as our first. As Linda Pastan’s poem, “Imaginary Conversation” says, “each day. . . all raw astonishment. Eve rubbing/ her eyes awake on that first morning, /the sun coming up/like an ingénue in the east.”
I would like my astonishment to be more like that: given to each day I live, rather than that of the Dothraki warrior. I will try. I will feel the sun and the wind. I will enjoy the new leaves floating on the branches that reach out toward me, offering me their astonishment at being born.
A recent blog from ReverbNation titled, “Why Honesty is Important in Songwriting” got me thinking about this. And my title isn’t really honest (to tell the truth) because I believe, as did the writer of the article, that honesty is very important. For me, the question is more about how, as a songwriter, you can achieve honesty. One way is physical.
A few years ago, I was co-leading a retreat with my Crafting Songs partner, Chris Alexander. Our group was made up of high school students. Their developmental challenges went beyond songwriting, for sure. It is tough being an adolescent. But something that struck Chris and me was the cleverness of the lyrics and the way the writers concealed themselves behind that cleverness.
Some people think that irony is the bane of the Millennial generation. I don’t know about that. Composing songs made of an avalanche of words, images, ironic commentary is a trap for many at any age. But I did notice that being “safe” behind the clever irony was very much a thing in this group. Something that went along with that: a tight-lipped presentation. These young singers were keeping their mouths shut, literally, as if to leave one’s throat exposed for too long left one vulnerable.
We’ve probably all read that years ago the act of covering one’s mouth during a yawn or a sneeze was not so much about hygiene. It was about keeping the devil from jumping down your throat. That instinct, in a different frame, seemed to be at work with these kids. Don’t let anybody in. Don’t leave yourself open to hold a note longer than a quarter of a measure.
When I challenged them to do just that, they listened. The first evening thereafter when we shared the work of the day, suddenly there were whole notes. Tied whole notes. Those kids were writing choruses that sang rather than muttered. They felt the difference themselves. They applauded each other. They rewarded each other’s newfound vulnerability. The work that week got better and better.
Seeing that result changed my own songwriting. I approached my choruses differently. I realized, as had the kids, that holding out notes invites others—not to critically “jump down your throat,” as the saying goes— but to join with you. Songs become more communal when there is opportunity, invitation for others to join. And isn’t building community what songs and what singing are all about?
I have a song called “Johnny Crewcut” about young men I grew up with and went to school with in Gill, MA, and who weren’t as lucky as I was, as I am.
The character is a composite of two or three individuals, but the reason for the title is the real central figure, John Zywna, who was a couple or three grades older than me. In high school, he became a star athlete—a football hero. Then he went to Vietnam. And a friend from back there told me he had been killed.
I wrote the song as a poem first after a drive down Main Road, Gill on my way to the airport one summer. I took the same route the school bus took every morning. That took me by the Zwyna’s house and cow barn, then the Tyler’s on the other side of the road. Both families figure in the title character of the story when it became a song one summer after another drive through my old hometown.
Last week, I went to an open mic in Brattleboro, VT. I had just gotten into town and called The Marina to ask if they still had an open mic and if so when it was. The woman said, “We do!” I asked, “When is it?” And she said, “Tonight!” “What do I have to do to get on the list?”
She gave me the 9:20 slot. Late, but I had dinner plans. I arrived about 8:30, as the host and the house band were roaring through their set. They were an interesting four-piece: two guitars, bass, and trumpet? The odd thing was it actually worked. The trumpet and one guitarist trading licks was amazing. And not just for Brattleboro on a Thursday night.
Before it was my turn to go on, I brought my guitar into the hallway outside the restrooms to warm up. A guy went by me into the men’s room, looking over his shoulder as he did. I moved out to catch the guy before me finish out his set. The bathroom guy plus another couple were heading out. The BG said, “That sounded great. I wish we could stay.” I said, “So stay.” They left. But ten minutes later, they came back.
I plugged in, did an opening song written in the 1850s (I called it a ‘50s tune) that went over well. Then I introduced “Johnny Crewcut.” I said pretty much what I did above. I said “Gill,” because no one has ever heard of it outside of about a fifty-mile radius. I ended the way I usually do, the way I did above, by saying the song is for those boys who weren’t as lucky as me. Then I sang the song. There’s a link to a recording at the bottom of the page.
It begins with me in a rental car, an emigrant, come home to gloat and reminisce. I notice a few old landmarks. The second verse introduces Johnny in the past: “He grew up poor in a family of ten/Working all summer on that bottom land.” Many kids in my class worked summers picking tobacco or baling hay, or both. They bragged about how many levels—tiers—they could throw a hay bale. I always like the sound of that.
The third verse—half as long— is Johnny’s death in Saigon, imagined because no one has ever told me what happened. After an instrumental break, time breaks as well, and we’re back in the car, in the present. I had gone off Main Road, down by the Connecticut River where some of the most fertile soil in the Valley can be found. The road abandons the river a few miles from the center of town, and turns and climbs into a forest of White Pines higher on the old riverbank. The song ends honoring Johnny by remembering him, or more precisely, not forgetting him, which takes intention and will. Saying his name out loud. At the end, just his name, repeated: “Oh-oh, Johnny Crewcut.”
Again, it was well received. The crowd was small, but mainly musicians, so their approval meant something. I sang three more. Then the house band, sans trumpet, came back to close out the night.
Several people upfront told me afterwards that they lived in Greenfield, where I was born. They knew Gill. (Pause) But they didn’t know Johnny Crewcut. I said, “Well his ‘can-I-buy-a-vowel’ last name was ‘Zwyvna.'” They looked at each other. “Isn’t that Tracy’s name?” “Yes, but without the ‘v.'” “Oh,” I said, “I might have added that after someone in the audience once told me I’d left out a consonant.” But apparently, I hadn’t.
“Tracy” was Tracy Zwyna, their neighbor across the street, whose dog had recently gotten out and run over into their house. She could be “Johnny Crewcut’s” granddaughter, grand-niece, or whatever. But in that area, in that town, almost assuredly the same family.
That was strange and wonderful small-world stuff, for sure. That was the first time I had performed the song within a few minutes’ drive of the setting in my childhood. That was powerful in itself for me.
But it felt like something else to me. If there is magic in names, and if speaking a name is summoning a spirit, then I think I had an answer that night. “Oh, Johnny. Where are you now?”
Here. Right here.
Here’s the link I promised.