The Soundtrack of One Life out of 108 Billion

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Soundtrack of One Life out of 108 Billion: Entry 1, "Let It Be" by the Beatles (Moments, Memory and Music)

There is something dangerous about tapping into memory and writing about the past.  It's like trying to make use of good spring water.  Anything you do to improve the flow, no matter how careful you are, changes both the spring and stream forever.  Basically, you can only tap a deep memory once and receive pure writing from it.  After that, it's muddied by the mind's desire for theme and structure.

It is what it is.  One of my first memories is walking up a spiral staircase to my brother's bedroom.  I remember the carpet was gray, tight weaved, like industrial carpet, and there was dust along the edges that my mother's fierce vacuuming never reached.  Up above, a room opened up with yellow light, and glorious music spilled down the stairway, swirling around me.

Let It Be.  I was only four.  I've checked the accuracy of the memory with my brother, and the spiral staircase was three or four steps at the very most, and didn't twist at all.  But, I know the moment happened despite the mythic elements of memory and time.  That is probably the moment I became both a hippie and a Christian, which I have remained at heart, at some level or another, throughout my life.  It's so simple, but it says it all:

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be

A compassion for the less fortunate, a desire for a universal brotherhood, and a faith in a higher power has always been my center.  Outwardly, I have not lived a large life; but inwardly, I have. When I was younger, that bothered me.  I thought I had things that needed to be said, things that should be heard.  I dreamed of stardom so I could have a large podium from which to speak.  As I've aged, I've realized that is true of everyone.  Each person has much the world should hear, but with 108 billion souls calling earth home at some point, there simply hasn't been enough air time.  We tend to want that--to have impact, to think our life has given others meaning.  Sometimes that is true, sometimes not.  But, what I think now is that we are ultimately here for one reason only--to soften, to open, to let more sorrow in, and by doing so, more light also.

"Let It Be," my first musical memory, is probably my purest, despite the distortions of my young mythic mind. That only makes sense.  We come into this world open and learn to become guarded with time until we learn to let go and open again--if  we learn that at all.

Some do.
Some don't.
Let it be.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Soundtrack of One Life out of 108 Billion: Entry 2: On Top of the World with Men Without Mouths (Carpenters, CBS Radio Mystery Theater)

There are a couple of deep, spring memories from Cache Valley.  The first: I stand on the bridge over Spring Creek.  The water is high, almost ready to creep over the road. It's swift, but glassy.  Black stemmed willows arch over.  They reflect, bend, break, bleed into blue sky in the creek below.

"On Top of the World" by the Carpenters plays in my head. I sing along.   I am seven, maybe eight.

A pipe runs under the road, carrying Spring Creek from one side to the other.  With the water so high, it is invisible.  A large whirlpool twists and turns, bending light, torturing the reflected world, occasionally sucking down a passing twig into the unseen.  I stand there and watch and sing.

I move on.  The creek is so high the fields are under water.  A vast shallow lake stretches east towards the Logan Mountains, great trees turned upside down in the reflection.

Everything is submerged except the lane, the house of the elderly couple we lease the ranch from, the milk barn, and the great concrete bull barn where our apartment is.

The next: I play with my race car set in the hay loft above the bulls.  It is an enormous space with two bunkhouses.  I keep my stuffed animals on a bed in one. Mice have moved into my mother tiger.

Out in the hay loft is my play area among a few scattered bales of hay: a Matchbox City carrying case, electronic car park, an electric crane, and race car set between mesas of hay.

There must be a radio too, for I've turned on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.  Why I listen to it up here, I don't know.  We usually gather in the the living room around the new quadraphonic stereo.

I wish I hadn't.  I have never pictured men without mouths before. My mind won't let it go no matter how many times I sing the Budweiser jingle--and here's to you, the king of beers is coming through--to make it go away.

I creep down the tight spiral staircase to the saddle room, very dark below.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Soundtrack of One Life out of 108 Billion: Entry 3: "Monkberry Moon Delight" by Paul McCartney (Nonsense Poetry, Writing and the Creative Process)

It's nineteen-seventy-something.  I'm in second grade, and I've ditched Lynn, my girlfriend, somewhere over by the POD, an octagonal lunchroom separate from the school.  We're playing kissing tag, and it's not that I'm so stupid that I don't know that the purpose of kissing tag is to get caught, it's that her cousin, Lucinda, is more into pinching, and she's very good at it.  So, I've split the scene.

It's warm and snow melting off the comparatively hot pavement creates steam that rises in thin clouds about waste high, and they are golden glorious in the noontime sun.  I've got spring fever and am feeling freaking high. I bellow out Paul McCartney's "Monkberry Moon Delight."  I don't have a clue what it's about, but I love the feel of the words on the end of my tongue:

So I sat in the attic, a piano up my nose,
And the wind played a dreadful cantata.
Sore was I from a crack of an enemy's hose
And the horrible sound of tomato.

Soup and puree,
Don't get left behind.
Soup and puree,
Don't get left behind.

I never did figure out the exact meaning of the song.  As I grew older, it seemed to me it might have been inspired by B-grade monster movies, but it also seemed a finger to expectations--artistic, social, political and otherwise, Paul McCartney saying I'll be who I please and do what I please.  It felt very revolutionary to me, and I loved its pure celebration of the sound of language.

Whenever, I'd get upset in high school or early years of college, I'd just fling words down on the page and play with them, make slightly irreverent, irrelevant nonsense out of them, like this:

 More Talk

... Instead I gnarl on a bark stick,
pour on the cats
and say,
"Gee this is very good,
this is very meaty for a stick of wood."

The termites tingle as they slide down my throat.
What would I do for a feast on fat goat?
I'd slit my mother's own throat!

I definitely had nothing against my mom.  I just had something against propriety.  I still do.  I just fight the impulse more.  I'm not so sure that's good.  I think real reverence comes about when you're at least a little open to irreverence.  Paul McCartney could write "Let It Be" and be sincere because he could also write "Monkberry Moon Delight."  If he sat around always trying to write lofty songs, they'd have the impact of Hallmark Cards or the music of Air Supply.

So, to quote Paul--sort of--if you want to write well, leave your cats to Billy Budapest and let your piano be boldly outspoken.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Soundtrack of One Life out of 108 Billion, Entry 4: What Does the Fall of Saigon Have to Do with "That's the Way I Like It" by KC and the Sunshine Band and Central Utah?

Photo by Steve Brown: U.S.S. Midway, San Diego 2012

April 30th, 1975.  Dense gray topical skies.  Palm fronds whip every which way as helicopters touch down outside the American Embassy.  Petroleum burns black along the skyline. Panicked people run down the street, bright, silk floral print shirts, trailing them.  A mother caries a baby in her one arm, drags another child (half running, half falling) behind.  There is pushing, shoving at a white iron gate, terror in the eyes, dread for those too late.  A mother turned a way, sobs and collapses to the ground.  Men claw their way up a wall. Over all the noise is the steady rhythm of the blades.

Lan, age 9, is part of the symphony that is the Fall of Saigon.  What specific clamor wakes her up in the middle of the night while sleeping next to her little sister in the belly of an aircraft carrier on her way to a distant land, I do not know.

Reports came in from the outskirts that the North Vietnamese were moving in.  10:48  Kissinger was notified of the desire to activate "the Frequent Wind" evacuation plan.  Approved minutes later.  The radio was to play Irvin Berlin's "White Christmas," the signal for American personnel to move immediately to the evacuation points.  Technology is always at the hands of humans.  Helicopters moved in.  American service men would be the first.  South Vietnamese elite (those who would be retaliated against) had a chance if they had the money, the political ties, the luck at being at the right place at the right time.  It happened so incredibly fast.

What is her story?  What are the images that flash behind her soft eyelids kicked about during REM like silk sheets on hot humid night while she cuddles close to her little sister?

None of this I know about while playing on the merry-go-round behind the swimming pool or floating a pop can down an irrigation ditch while walking home from school.  None of this can I even imagine when my stepfather asks me if I want to drive out to the trailer park by the mushroom plant (an indoor farm) to meet the new families from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

I don't believe I saw her that day.  I could have.  There were so many.  Four cultures briefly coming together.  There was sweet tea that I'd never tasted, chicken fights (boys carrying each other on their shoulders) in the gravel lane, and delicious dishes of meat and rice that men brought out from their single-wide trailers to show hospitality.  There was lot of pointing, a lot of laughing (the only common language), a lot of saying "that number 1," meaning good, and a lot of saying "that number 10," meaning bad, and I suppose a lot of pretending too as worlds collided in a small trailer court next to an indoor mushroom farm beside a freeway in a big, western valley filled with yellow wild rye, sage brush, and black rubble-rocked extinct volcanoes.

When I do see her a few weeks before the end of third grade, I'm drawn to her beauty the way only a child can be: intently, unpretentiously, without fear or guile.  The two third-grade classes have combined, and we are watching a film about these two science guys who journey through the body. It's set up like a news cast, and they are following the spread of influenza through the blood stream. The class has seen it a couple of times, but it's our favorite.  We're on the floor, and I'm throwing pieces of paper at Lynn because I like her. The secretary walks in with three Asian kids and our teacher stops the movie.  The two boys I already know from the evening my dad took me down to the trailer court.  But I don't look at them long.  Lan is all I see. Her long black hair and dark, warm, almond shaped eyes have me.  And she dresses cool too. Tight, white bell-bottom slacks, a white t-shirt, and a silk flower-print disco shirt, untucked and unbuttoned.

This is before my body chemistry changes in seventh grade and shyness kicks in.  It's not long until we are chasing each other during recess, not long before she's at the top of the slide, swinging her hips, that silk shirt open, blowing in the breeze as she sings, "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it," her long black hair swaying side to side.

All at once I get disco.

But I know nothing, absolutely nothing of what she has seen or the world she has come from.  All I know is that smile has no boundaries.

I was a child growing up in a big, western valley, almost cut off from the realities of the twentieth century, but not quite.  A human catastrophe on the other side of the world gave me a great third and fourth grade that I otherwise wouldn't have experienced, a bit of positive fallout from a war destroyed the lives of millions.

 See related post:  That's the Way, Uh-huh Uh-huh, I Like It: Second-Hand Memories of the USS Midway’s Rescue of 3,000 Vietnamese Political Refugees

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