Posts by Jim Baldwin

Oh, Johnny Crewcut

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.

To Leonard Cohen

Years ago, when I was new to California, a freshman in college during the fall of The Summer of Love, I woke the first morning in my dorm. It was 6:30 AM. A voice was spilling words into my ear that seemed part of my dream, and yet they were not. I remember the beauty of the voice, the language, and my disorientation from both.

The singer was Judy Collins. The song was Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen. See the link below to a Rolling Stone article and a performance of the song.

Through the years, I held on to the lyric and the lovely guitar and voice. Then late one evening in the late 90s, I sat in the dark, listening to a recording of myself and my bandmates in Passenger, my band from the early 80s. It was a live performance, and Jeannine’s voice floated over Ashley’s keyboard and my acoustic guitar. On the choruses, unlike Judy Collins’s version, we sang three-part harmony. It was good. Michael, our drummer who sat out for that song, is heard to say, “Beautiful,” as the applause rises behind.

That night, I was struck by the way that song had continued to weave its way into my life through the years. Not by accident, for certain, but perhaps unappreciated. So I began to write a poem in which I incorporated some of the lyrics from Cohen’s song into three verses, three stories from my life. The first was my college dorm. The second, that performance, transposed into a bar we used to play in Point Reyes Station. And the third, that night, in my home in San Rafael, with my daughter asleep upstairs, and the 18-year-old recording playing in the background. So it’s a “found poem” in a way, obviously owing a great debt to the original. But I wanted to capture the way the words of the song blended with my world.

Here’s the poem, which I offer as a tribute to those people who shared the song with me over the years, to Judy Collins, for her beautiful rendition, and most of all to Leonard Cohen, who wrote those words and placed them in such a beautiful melody: one his own voice couldn’t quite convey, but which he clearly heard.

Thank you, Leonard. Thank you, all. Below is the poem. Italics indicate my additions. The rest, Cohen’s lyrics.

Leonard Cohen on the Clock Radio, 1967 and Thereafter

1.

Waking by the river late summer of love,

her voice, cascading in tea and oranges,

in golden light that comes all the way from China,

waking in adobe, the heat like honey,

dawn-red roof tiles, hissing lawns,

Martin still living and Jesus was a sailor,

you want to travel blind when dreams come nearer,

waking with her among the garbage and the flowers,

trusting in the seaweed morning, her mind.

2.

And in the denim Western, there are children mourning

and cowboys leaning out for love, nursing a Coors,

and she, certain only drowning men can see her.

Black velvet trios walk blues like chimes,

like shadows upon the water,

and she shows you where to look,

outside of all this, where a lonely wooden tower

is run by roses, where the sun pours down,

where you travel with her, blind.

3.

Rocking white wicker this night forever,

half crazy, half sleeping,

where the night air pools beneath the trees.

Silence hisses, applause rises on tape,

and you hear the boats go by, slowly up the hill,

and a voice you don’t recall, calls

through memory all the way down

to one cricket in the darkness.

You know you want to be there,

perfect, perfect it seemed, body and mind. 

Here’s the link I promised.

My Journey

I admit up front that this is the sort of rant that writers make, and some may find it a little arcane. Like the word “arcane.” But here goes: Have you noticed how everyone is on a journey these days?

I began noticing it while sitting with my wife through episodes of The Bachelor. Everyone on that show talks about “my journey” as if filming a six-week reality show is some epic, an Odyssey, replete with headwind, salt spray and maybe a Cyclops or two.

I began rolling my eyes (both of them) months ago.maloan_10

Then things got worse.

Every contestant on every show, every person interviewed on GMA or on the nightly news, it seems, is on “a journey.” Then this morning I looked at the side panel of my Corn Chex box and saw the headline, “General Mills is on a Journey.” Arrrgh!

I wonder what we used to say in these instances. “What is your story?” “Tell us about your experience?” No matter now.

These things happen, I know. As a writer, as a former teacher, I’m particularly sensitive to language trends (or as we would say today, “what’s trending in language.” More on that another time, another time.)

I recall the shifts in usage certain words went through during my years in the classroom. “Tight” did frequent 180’s in meaning in the 70s and 80s, lurching from “unfair” to “cool” —maybe “dope” in today’s vernacular— then back again. Saying, “Wow, that’s tight!” was a crap-shoot. I would try to keep up, so as not to embarrass myself.  Better still just to stay away from using teen slang.

I am amazed sometimes that contemporary slang dips back centuries for expressions that were common long ago. I remember talking to a student in the early ‘80s about a new piece of writing I’d done over the weekend. Monica looked askance and said, “You must be some kind of full poetry guy.” I think “full” was an early alternative for “total” and “totally” which have ruled the roost pretty much ever since. I haven’t heard “full” used that way in many years.

My curiosity then was that “ful” (with one L) was a common adverb in the Middle English of Chaucer’s work, meaning “very.” Here’s an example from The Miller’s Prologue:

3150    This dronke Millere spak ful soone ageyn
(This drunken Miller spoke very quickly in reply)

400px-canterbury_tales_-_the_miller_-_f-_34v_detail_-_robin_with_the_bagpype_-_early_1400s_chaucer

How a usage from the late 14th century wound up in the mouth of a high school freshman in 1982, I don’t know. But there you are. Of course, when I excitedly told Monica about all this, she rolled her eyes. Like me, watching The Bachelor.

So I guess we all have our peeves, pet and otherwise. I’m just more inclined than some to take notes and make public my complaint. That’s my journey, I guess.

The 60s Music Challenge

Over on Facebook, I was invited by a friend to post a series of songs from the decade, the 60s Musical Challenge, along with whatever personal and musical history I chose for each post. A YouTube video, if available, would be nice. This process led me to some fun discoveries: some songs I’d forgotten, a promising co-writing project with another friend, and some essays I was glad to share. Here’s one.

Day 3

For Day 3 of my 60s Music Challenge I’m picking Roy Orbison. Everyone would expect the 1965 smash, “Pretty Woman,” here. And I love that song. I love “Crying,” “Blue Bayou” and “Mean Woman Blues,” too. But for me, in my history, it’s “In Dreams.”

I have such a memory of this song. I was an 8th grader, at home in the study of the house I grew up in—a drafty school-owned Victorian in Western Massachusetts. I was practicing for my typing class on a manual Royal typewriter set up on my father’s big desk. And this song came on the radio. No more typing. There are only a few songs I can remember hearing for the very first time. This is one. The song starts almost conversationally, and as I would later discover, has an introduction that isn’t repeated within the song structure.

As a musician, as a songwriter, I’m fascinated by that aspect of the song: its asymmetry. Nothing close to verse/verse/chorus/bridge here. The narrative builds through unique, evolving chords and melodies, each one taking Orbison higher in his range and deeper into his emotion.

Really, though, it’s the narrative that first drew me in. I didn’t know anything much about chords or song structure. I was years from playing in anything close to a “band.” But I could hear the story. By the time we get to, “But just before the dawn,” I, like pretty much everyone around then, was hooked. “I can’t help it, I can’t help it, if I cry/I remember that you said goodbye.” And the killer finish, not only narratively recalling something everyone has known: the loss of something magical in a dream, but loosing Orbison into his signature and incredible falsetto: “Only in dreams. . .” And then, suddenly, it’s over. The listener is wrung out.

There were other singers then known for their falsettos: Lou Christie, Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson. I love Smokey. But the drama that Roy Orbison created in so many songs as a singer and a writer is amazing.

Video of Roy

Incidentally, this video is from 1987, just 14 months before his death. This event, called “Black and White” (and which was shot in B&W), was filmed in Los Angeles and released the following year. Here, according to Wikipedia, are the musicians. Wow.

“On piano was Glen D. Hardin, who had played piano for Buddy Holly as well as Elvis Presley. Lead guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt and bassist Jerry Scheff were also from Presley’s group. Male background vocals and some guitars were provided by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Steven Soles. Female background vocalists were k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt.”

For Jonny Lost in Canada

I remember Jonny—the first childhood friend I lost. Not to moving or diverging adult thinking, political philosophy, or any of that. I mean death.

When I was just finishing college, I learned that Jonny had drowned in a white-water canoeing accident. I heard that his body had not been recovered, but that there was no chance that he could have survived, given the circumstances. I was stunned, not only by the information and the sense of loss that accompanied it, but also by the fact that I had recently received a letter from him, eagerly reporting this plan to attend a camp in Ontario, and closing with a sentence that reverberated in my ear: “Don’t write after June. I won’t be here.”

Younger Jonny seemed a delicate, ethereal, young man. Gangly, though wiry and strong. He had a stammer, and began his sentences with “Ya-a-a-a-ah know . . .” as a space holder in conversation, because he learned that unless he asserted himself somehow, he might never get a word in. And being boys, we naturally dubbed him “Yah-no” in place of Jon. He accepted the name without objection. What else could he do?

He and I played all the pick-up sports together: tackle football, baseball, basketball. We played army in the nearby woods, and went camping there, too. Sometimes the two of us went paddling on the lake near our homes, and once at least on the Connecticut River. I remember once I leaned too far over the gunwale of the canoe we were maneuvering through late spring ice on Shadow Lake. I felt myself start to go overboard toward the freezing water. But Jonny grabbed the back of my coat and held me in. That was the extent of my canoeing accident.

Recently there was a reunion of “Fac Brats” like me who spent a significant portion of their childhood at a school in Western Massachusetts where our parents were teachers. I didn’t attend, but was happy to get posts with photos on Facebook. One included two shots of Jonny: one around 18, the time of his death, and another from when I knew him best—about 10 years old. They were posted by his sister, Kathy, with a simple memorial attached. The older one is above. Here’s the later.

As a result, she and I got in touch after probably more than 50 years. From her I learned that Jonny’s body had been found about a month later. A local Native American fishing guide had told authorities that if the river was going to give up the body, it would be in a certain spot. And there it was. There he was. His watch was still working.

I wrote a poem, an elegy, for Jonny back then. I have reworked it many times through the years. I’ve known that to be an indication that his death was significant and getting the tribute right was important. Just before writing this, I revised it again. I know I’m looking for some emotional closure that a poem may never bring. I imagine a transformation for him that I hope could somehow be real.

Around the time I was first writing the poem, James Taylor famously wrote, “I walked out this morning, and I wrote down this song/I just can’t remember who to send it to.” Now at last, I’ve had someone to share my poem with—Kathy. I’m hoping it matters to her and to her brother Peter. Her mother, too, if she’s still living. I know they, too, are still seeking closure for this unthinkable loss. So bear witness to Jonny’s life and death, and to our grief, still somehow fresh after all this time.

The Fey

For Jonny, lost in Canada

Together, we never rode loud water.

As children, we dipped oars in lakes’ piney silence,

or stroked the river’s moonlight glide.

We called you “YAH-no” then

with the affectionate cruelty of boys, playing

on your name, and on that stammering sound you made.

Often you were silent, two fingers sucked

between your lips, your words jammed in your throat,

your thoughts tangled somewhere inside.

Years later, when you moved, we lost touch.

But I still have your letter, sent that March:

“My brother and I—canoeing camp—northern Ontario. . .”

I pictured white water, filling day and night with sound:

a kind of silence where you wouldn’t have to speak.

Closing, you said, “Don’t write after June. I won’t be here.”

That was all—the last of you: Your craft capsized,

your body lost; your voice—that welcome, fluted stumbling

swept away in rapid clamor.

Now sometimes, the river calls, and when I go,

I always hope to find you: rising like a sea-god, Jonny,

and roaring like the Colorado.