A few years ago, I read an interview with Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart. I wish I could find the exact quote. But the gist of it was this: “When someone sits in with us, we like to see if we can get him or her lost, just to see how they handle it.”
Sound crazy? Maybe cruel? I get that. But I propose that “getting lost” is not the negative experience that we sometimes think.
Where’s the Map?
For many, getting lost is literal: Where was that freeway onramp? I know her office is around here somewhere. Which exit is for the airport? But we also speak of a figurative kind of displacement, like when we lose our place in a book, or we were about to say something, and then. . .
I agree: most of those examples are negative.
Lost or Transported?
But we also talk about getting lost in a book in a good way. Forgetting time and place and being transported to some mythical or at least fictional landscape—maybe an emotional landscape. And we sometimes get blissfully lost in our own emotions when we are falling in love. The very expression suggests surrender to powers we do not control. That’s a kind of “lost,” right?
In my own musical life, I once played in a quartet with an enthusiastic (okay, lunatic!) drummer who didn’t keep track of measures very well. Lots of beats, tempo accurate enough, but without the requisite counting units: “1, 2, 3, 4!”
I admit that my own sense of time had not yet internalized 4/4 or 6/8 (or whatever) as it later would. The same was true of my bandmates. So when we improvised, we blazed furiously into the sonic atmosphere, feeling the pulses, but often with very different ideas of where measures began or ended. We often surprised ourselves or each other—arriving at musical places we’d near been before. It was wild.
But here’s the thing. Our audiences didn’t mind. In fact, they thought we were simply more sophisticated than they were able to perceive. Well, probably not ALL of them. Maybe some of them, even our friends, were just too polite to tell us. So yes, we were technically “lost.” But as we created an avalanche of passionate improvisation without borders, we liked it, too.
Lost in the Woods
My favorite musical “lost” story, though, comes from Leon Russell. The Master of Space and Time himself. He had written a song that would appear on his album, “Carney,” titled, “Out in the Woods.” Leon and his producer had elected to feature a large chorus singing, “I’m lost in the woods.” In Swahili.
They contacted someone who could assemble singers able to do that, but there was a hitch. In that language, apparently, it was impossible to express the idea of being lost in the woods. If you were in the woods, you were never lost.
Or maybe the choral director was just yanking Leon, making something seem more difficult so whatever the chorus sang could be more sonorous. Or maybe he wanted a bigger paycheck. I don’t know. But the idea that being lost was impossible was very cool, I thought.
Into the Unknown
And it does put forward an idea about being lost that I think Mickey Hart also believed. That is, that “lost” is not so much an external reality as a state of mind. And if feeling safe and comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances—if being curious about where the next turn leads without assuming automatically that the trail leads over a cliff—is a reality: how wonderful! That kind of surrender is very powerful!
And I think about that feeling in writing. What a great experience to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys and just GO. Letting the road unfold before you.
E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I try to instill that kind of confidence, or courage in my clients and my students. In myself, too. Writing that way, with the ever-present risk of getting lost, requires faith, and yes, courage. But the rewards can be so great.
When I assign “NSAWs”— a form of free writing—my intention is for writers to lose themselves in words—in phrases that pop up, sounds that chime sweetly together, rhythms that expand like ripples in a still pond. All of that requires surrender. Getting lost in language, without the inner critic/”nag-igator” telling you what to do, where to go, and “Oh! You missed that turn!”
So let me invite you: Let’s get lost.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.”