Posts by Jim Baldwin
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Virtual Reality and how our lives will be forever changed when we can be immersed in virtual scenes, whether these be business meetings, movies with friends, games, or trips to far off places.
Having seen the Internet move from text-based content to photograph-heavy content, and knowing that video content is already moving in (a website project I was working on lately in the end involved little work for me because the owner wanted videos (of himself) to carry his message), it isn’t hard for me to believe Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he claims that VR will be the next step beyond video. He revels in the thought of “be[ing] able to stream what you are doing live and have people to able to interact in that space. . . . Humans are fundamentally social.”
There is something missing here. I don’t want to push against the tide, but moving to a virtual reality is not a complete human experience. One of the scenes Zuckerberg imagines is sitting around a virtual campfire with friends from around the world. The social aspect of that, the human social aspect of that may be valid. Meeting somewhere in real time, and interacting with those someones, both verbally and visually—so that gestural, “metalinguistic” communication is intact as well—that’s all good.
The missing piece is what’s not human in that scene. A constructed version of nature and wilderness is neither one. I’m seeing an article this morning (yes, on Facebook) about a bison calf that Yellowstone Park visitors “rescued” because “it looked cold” and they thought it had been abandoned. The result? The calf had to be euthanized because it quickly developed the habit of begging for food from humans and gravitating toward human contact. That’s cute in a 65-pound calf. Not so much in a one-ton plus adult bison.
The point is that we often don’t understand what we see in nature. And if and when we try to construct what we do understand as nature in Virtual Reality— well, I’m not optimistic. Even the vegetation could be an issue. Many folks are so deprived of experience in nature they don’t know how to describe it. I had a student a few years ago who was writing a scene with trees. In the interest of aiming him toward clearer, more precise description, I asked, “What kind of trees are they?” He answered, “You know, normal trees.” I fear that our virtual reality would be populated with “normal trees” and “normal creatures.” I shudder to think.
Of course, what I know about VR would rattle inside a hollow aspirin tablet, and maybe engineers are already uploading all sorts of data I can’t imagine to create a more real virtually real. But a larger issue remains. Nature is not a human construction. The better you know that, the more strange and wonderful nature becomes. Sometimes it seems utterly alien. So be it.
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth famously wrote, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” but despite all his long walks in the Lake District, Wordsworth was wrong, I think. I don’t think that “nature” cares much about me, frankly. Nor should it. I am a part of nature, yes. But nature isn’t here to provide me with feedback about myself, or to stand as a metaphor for my life process. I need to be curious, and attentive. Respectful, and learn to keep my distance sometimes, as those Yellowstone tourists maybe learned the hard way.
Since it hasn’t worked in the real world, I don’t have much hope that that attitude can work in virtual reality.
The Noise of the Village
The Chippewa song, Noise of the Village, reads, simply, “Whenever I pause, the noise of the village.” The context, understood by the intended audience, is the point of view of someone walking on foot on trails on a hillside above the settlement of his people. That context, missing for us, was immediately accessible to whoever heard or sang that song, centuries ago. The song/poem is a sort of haiku, American-style, which influenced many poets of the late 60s.
It’s common for us to feel marginalized by songs, poems— literature in general— of other cultures. It’s good for us of the dominant culture, I think, to feel we missed a handout somewhere. We are accustomed to having our literature pre-digested for us. We expect it to be easy.
In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more commonly Columbus Day, then, I acknowledge the People who came before us here, and who gave the world here its first words. Even the Spanish city and street names here in my neighborhood are a secondary layer of language history. I accept the fact that there is much I will never get, never understand, no matter what. Heck, it’s true of Shakespeare, too. Celebrate.
That said, I also felt on that particular evening that I shared the experience the song describes, in a very contemporary, personal and authentic way. I was walking my dog in the late heat of the October day on the open space behind my “village.” The view going up the hill is grand. I can see the maze of gently curving suburban streets below me, the fire station just now springing to life with sirens and swirling red lights. Beyond that, Highway 101 going north/south as always, a river of traffic that never rests. And beyond that more streets of a business park, the canals of Bel Marin Keys, and finally, serene in the still and heat, the Bay—San Pablo Bay, the forehead of San Francisco Bay. As I turn to survey all that, and as my dog notices and decides she can explore the surrounding grassland, I hear the sound of the village.
I also imagine from my sentimental perspective that the village sounds the song commemorates were richer, more aesthetic. They were human sounds of a purer nature: children laughing, women grinding by hand a pestle of wild wheat with a stone mortar. A pair of dogs barking. A baby crying. Human, except for the dogs. My village is the traffic.
I was going to say that my village was silenced by the traffic, and that is true, I suppose. But these days we do our living, our work and play, inside thicker walls, walls which conceal our joy and our boredom, our pleasure and our pain. No, the noise from the freeway is legitimately ours, is us, is our village. If, in a few centuries, someone were to study today’s American culture, the car would certainly be a star player.
And this evening, as I pause on the hill overlooking the village, for better or worse, it speaks for us.
The Sound of Silence
Like many my age, and especially my generation—my g-g-generation— I have hearing loss. My ears literally, “whisper the sound of silence.” And to add insult to injury, as I was first writing this, longhand, my pen started to run dry. The words got fainter and fainter as I pressed on. Not funny, universe.
What’s on my mind is the quality of sound when I’m in Vermont, as I was last month. People talk about a passing car being an event. Some, being so unaccustomed to the silence, are actually frightened by the absence of noise. But my fear is not being able to hear the silence.
What passes for silence for me now is a constant buzzing hum, especially in my left ear, thanks to a friend’s very loud band one singular night about ten years ago. Leaving, I thought the sprinklers were on outside the club. Nope. Just my ears.
The old adage of the frog in the cook pot comes to mind. As my hearing gradually gets more compromised, I am only occasionally aware. Because the rate is slow (like the increase in temperature around the frog) I am not aware of what I am losing. And I have nothing with which to compare my hearing at any one moment. I just notice the cicadas that are not cicadas singing away in both ears. Once in a while, like now when I notice the wind is blowing but I hear no sound of moving leaves, I realize that there is something I’m missing. Or like when I’m out for a walk with my wife and she asks me, “Do you hear that?” Always a hard question to answer. I have to scan what passes as silence and seen if there’s anything noticeable about the background hum. Depending on the frequency, of course, there may be. But usually not. Sometimes this amazes her. “You can’t hear that?” (Whatever it is.) Nope. Sorry.
Yes, I am a musician, and yes, I played too loud for too long, probably listened too loud as well, and this is those chickens coming home to roost. But I continue to play, although at much lower volume. I think.
I remember the day I first noticed “floaters” in my vision. Maybe I had always had them. Maybe one day they just appeared, the way an ache in certain joints just seems to be there one day, for no particular reason that you can fathom. All of this, I know, is aging. Being part of a generation that once mocked “anyone over thirty” as hopelessly old and out of touch, there is an ironic payback here. I don’t believe I openly mocked anyone, but I, like most people I imagine, never could grasp what getting old would feel like.
In my head, of course, I’m still a young man. I read recently that once we reach a certain age, a certain stage of development, we don’t really change that much in personality, in the way we feel, think, or react. I know brain science has trumpeted the plasticity of the brain in recent years, dooming the old dog and his new tricks to the scrap heap. All good. I will do some brain training online after this, I promise. But meanwhile, I sit here in California, midafternoon, in brilliant sunshine, hearing the sounds of the peepers in the twilight of New England in my ears. At least that’s how I choose to think of it right now.