Night bird, white bird

My first great love? I was 19 and she was 18, and we met at college in upstate western New York. There’s one perfect word for it: I was smitten. She had long dark hair, pale white skin which freckled in the summer, a wonderful smile, and a sweet New England accent that buckled my knees and was the result of what seemed to me an idyllic childhood in a small Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border – where she lived with her parents and 11 siblings – 10 brothers, one sister. They all played hockey on their own pond. Summer nights, they hung out at some place called the DQ. They all had those accents. One of the brothers was a smart, eccentric friend I’d met the year before – he introduced this Yonkers boy to the music of Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Todd Rundgren, as well as the essays of C.S. Lewis.

The girl and I were certainly in love, but it was a fledging, first-time love — and it succumbed to the strains of youthful angst and inexperience. We were together about six months. When we split up, I was devastated. I’d lost my first and only true love.

I ended up taking a semester off from school, heading back to Yonkers, in order to lick my wounds, contemplate what had happened, and figure out what was next. I missed her terribly. We tried a couple of times to try to get back together, but it didn’t happen.

Going home to Yonkers was a bad mistake. I worked five nights a week, midnight to 8, as a security guard at an IBM office building in White Plains. Go ahead. Laugh. I did, indeed, look pretty funny in my guard uniform and my shiny badge. And of course I was in no position to protect any IBM computer guys from whatever it was they needed to be protected from.

But I WAS in a position to read a book per night for the entire six months of my service to the Gleason Security Agency, which was certainly the best part of working the midnight shift with no one around and a security’s guard’s key to the stockpiles of food in the executive dining room.

The other two nights of the week, though, I was lonely and miserable. And now I’m getting to the point:

My life was saved by a bird – Alison Steele, the Night Bird, late-night DJ on free-form WNEW-FM.

She always began her radio shows with a poem – usually something reflecting those times – hippie stuff like “The Prophet” or something by Rod McKuen.

And then there was the carefully chosen music, a certain genre that fit the “Night Bird” theme so perfectly, our generation’s version of “The Milkman’s Matinee,” songs of lonely late night: “Riders on the Storm,” “Moondance,” “Free Bird,” “Piano Man,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell all come to mind – and have stayed there in my memory.

Romantically and remarkably, my Girl from the North Country came back to me — and I to her — decades later, after fulfilling lives and marriages that had  turned topsy-turvy and sad.

Part Two was much better than Part One…this truly felt like a miracle…but miracles require three proofs, and maybe we had one or even two, but after about three years of bliss mixed with sorrow — and, again, conflicting expectations — our great love fled among the stars once more.

And so it’s the wee, wee hours, and the milkman’s making his lonely rounds, and I feel like hearing the soothing  sound of Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who’s telling me: “Come fly with me…

 

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Shivering trees…and the traitor cold

There comes a certain time each winter when I think of New England, and an old love who lives there, and this melancholy and beautiful song — written by Joni Mitchell and sung here by Tom Rush — starts drifting through my thoughts:

 

“Nevertheless, don’t give up…”

Pete Seeger's still singin' and strummin' at 90 years old!

A snowy afternoon found me digging through a box of keepsakes. There were old newspaper columns, drawings and cards my children gave me when they were young, newspapers from 9/11 and when Joe DiMaggio died, rejection letters from publishers and agents, a forgotten letter from the great poet Robert Lax, my mentor and dear friend  — and a forgotten and very moving letter I received from the late, lamented Pete Seeger nearly 20 years ago.

I’d met Pete years before. About six months earlier he had driven down from Beacon, N.Y., to western New Jersey and performed a benefit show (along with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, and local performers  — Amy Torchia and Jenny Avila, fiddler Bill Huber and the Jugtown Mountain String Band) for a charity I was running.  He very much liked the charity, which was called the Delaware Valley Holiday Fund, telling me it fit perfectly with his notion that small groups, not big organizations, would solve the problems of the world.

So now we were planning a return performance — this time it would be held outdoors, in the summertime, with a host of other performers, and Pete had asked me to come up with some candidates, and so (as I recall it, albeit vaguely) I’d sent him a CD of some of the performers. And Pete, in his note, was apologizing because he had not had time to listen to the CD — he asked to me to just go ahead and come up with some possible dates for the festival.

Here’s part of what Pete wrote:

“…Toshi and I have too much mail to handle these days…I don’t have time to listen to all the tapes sent me, nor read all the books sent me, nor answer properly all the mail sent to me….

“I guess it’s one more way in which science and technology have unbalanced the world — the economy, the ecology, the population, the personal relationships — and our personal lives.

“Half the world is too busy and the other half is unemployed. Nevertheless, don’t give up — There are miraculous things going on. Right?

Pete”

 

 

 

 

 

Hallelujah, indeed…

I don’t quite get why  people think Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is celebratory — or that it has anything to do with religion. It’s a song about heartbreak. It’s a song about the pain of love. Yes, there’s beauty — in the song, and even in the pain and heartbreak that often accompany love — but mostly this song is just powerfully sad and deeply moving.

Just now I was thinking about someone who’s dear to me, and this song echoed in my thoughts along with a madrigal of memories, and (just in case anyone’s taking notes!) I found myself thinking I’d like to request that this lovely version by John Cale be played at my funeral someday…along with Take 4 of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the live version of “Moon River” performed by Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something to get hung about….

We’ve all heard the stories, I think, as the years have passed since his awful death. John Lennon was a misogynist. John Lennon’s obsession with Yoko — and his huge ego — broke up the Beatles. John Lennon lived much of his post-Beatles life in a druggy haze and became a pathetic figure who wouldn’t make a move without consulting an astrologer and the I Ching.  John Lennon lost his edge — nothing he did post-Beatles compares to “In My Life” and “Strawberry Fields” and “A Day in the Life” and even “I Am the Walrus.”

To this I say: Whatever.

John Lennon was a genius — and his human frailties were at the heart of his genius. And I think he was, when the ledger sheet’s assets and debits are balanced, a good-hearted and peaceful man, and a true advocate for that simple but elusive goal: just giving peace a chance.

And when John Lennon died 35 years ago, I cried and cried and cried. It was just so ironic, so sad, so fucking sad…

Just think…John Lennon would be 75 years old. He was, incredibly, just 40 when he was gunned down.

And, by the way, it’s just not true his post-Beatles work didn’t compare.

Yes, here’s what I consider his most beautiful song: Take four of “Strawberry Fields Forever:”

But tell me this song isn’t great…

Chanting the mantra: Peace on Earth.

Rest in peace, John Lennon.