Twelve Foot Hawaiian Wave
There are plenty of artists in my mother’s collection to whom I’m indifferent. I certainly didn’t like all her friends. I flick, flick, flick past Leadbelly and Bessie Smith and Joan Sutherland and Bennie Goodman and gloomy Wagner. I’m flat on Bel Canto, 45’s that need swirly plastic inserts, anything in mono even if it might be good, Liza Minnelli bugging out, off-label flute and recorder music played by her personal friends, half-hour adagio crucifixions by Brahms, Helen Reddy roaring, repetitive minor third Philip Glass A-E-I-O-U Guantanamo tortures. But my mom had friends – and a lot of them – that I grew to know and love, artists I took for granted at the time, thinking they were a foretaste of the sprawling musical feast of my life, when, in fact, they were the feast.
Mine was a childhood in a kind of musical brothel, in the company of sad romantics, drunks and easy women. My mother brought home anybody that moved her with a song. They’d show up in the living room on weekend evenings or in the car suddenly as we half-slept in the backseat: loud and wild, over-the-top, self-absorbed and self-pitying, vain and weak, always needing your full attention. Sometimes you’d wake up from an afternoon nap, and they’d be right there in the house, in the next room, singing along with my mother like old friends.
Sometimes the girls would find you on their own when my mom wasn’t around. They’d pull you aside and teach you a song or two. They’d smell of booze. They’d share their cigarettes if you asked a second time. They’d let a little tit flash or let their leg touch your leg, telling you about their shitty boyfriends and their personal crap, dressing it all up in pretty words, showing you a new chord on the guitar, leaning in, laughing at you, teasing, telling you how handsome you’d be when you grew up and all their “if only’s” and “maybe somedays.” So you’d always want girls who could lean into your orbit like that and whirl you around like they did, women who could spin rose and lavender moons about you and then draw them back away again, eyes laughing. You felt their coy, centrifugal force, but you could feel the opposite, too: that they needed you back. They needed you because you felt their gravity all the way into your bones, and it made their whole thing work, while it worked.
Aaah! My mother’s friends! Janis. Joni. Aretha. Bette. Nina. Shirley. Dionne. Roberta. Joan from the West Indies. Judy of the blue eyes. Carly of the heart-breaking smile. My childhood women of wine and song. My ladies of the barrelhouse, beautiful and sad.
And the men she brought home were a whole other thing. One tall country dude came over in his cowboy fringes and his big vulgar hat and right in the middle of the living room announced that the only two things in life that make it worth livin’ are guitars tuned good and firm feelin’ women. And my mom laughed out loud! It was like having another woman hidden in your mother! The guys were always scary talented but casual about it like they never practiced. They could cast a spell, make you laugh, make you cry, but still ignore you the whole time. Five steps ahead of you. No matter what else fucked up was going on in their lives, and something was always fucked up, they could flat out sing and play. Cocker. Cash. Jennings. Nelson. Brel. Presley. Waits. Stevens. Croce. Sinatra.
And Bob Dylan.
My mother heard Lay, Lady, Lay at a friend’s house and, completely smitten, bought two Greatest Hits albums for her boys, one for each of them. She might have held the sublimated hope that her handsome young sons would know someday how to love women with words the way he did, that they would be able to show women the colors in their minds, to let them have their cake and eat it too, to lead them down the winding stairwell of some A-C#-G-B bass line and unbutton them onto brass beds, their lovely bodies surrendering to language, to a skein of words unspooling, to diamond-hard, blue-eyed desire, to the promise of escalating seductions – to worlds beginning.
In the absence of any real-world romantic models, Bob Dylan became the gold standard for the poet lover with his easy flow of words: his wild, Semitic hair; his wary, sharp glare cast out at the world from behind his harmonica rampart. He was our Byron. That my mother gave this elusive vagabond such a clear nod of approval raised the stakes on what it would mean to become a man in full.
You would have to be a poet, too.
I start pulling records. Some of the ladies. Some of the men.
In another bin I spot and pluck out the music to Born Free sung by an uncelebrated English children’s choir. This forgotten LP can tear your heart in two, can wow and flutter you, winding its warped vinyl magic carpet circles around the changer. On its record cover, atop illustrations of rowed up cartoon lions, it reads “Adam Nathan,” written in my mother’s hand. Probably my very first record.
Yes, kind old lions that wouldn’t eat people, you’re coming downstairs, too.
And behind Born Free another record catches my eye.
Yes, this one.
Oh, absolutely this one.
Hey, everybody’s talkin’ about the good old days, right?
Everybody, the good old days, the good old days…
Well, let’s talk about the good old days.
Come to think of it as, as bad as we think they are
these will become the good old days for our children…
Why don’t we try to remember that kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow. Hmmm…
Try to remember, and if you remember then…
No matter where I am in the world, I can find my way home on the A-side of Gladys Knight’s 1975 album I Feel a Song. In the seconds it takes the mechanical arm of a record changer to clatter and clack beneath a chock-a-block record platter, lock into a 33 1/3 orbit, and drop abruptly into its echoing vinyl canyon, I can bring you my mother.
She will come in from the kitchen, her reflection on the harbor windows, the dinner cleared, the dishes done. She’ll dance a little walk into the living room, safe and at peace in her body and her home, maybe holding a glass of wine. She will pick up the album cover from the glass coffee table, lean over to nudge the stereo volume higher, and she’ll sing out the lyrics on the record sleeve, the ones that she underlined in some earlier summer and starred in red and wrote “so so beautiful” in the margin. She will kiss the top of your head as you read your book without looking up, pausing just long enough to let you feel her taking your presence in. You’ll never truly know how happy she is that her son is visiting and home again.
Well, you will, but later.
I don’t know if you have ever closed your eyes during the finale of a fireworks show and just felt life explode in your chest, but that’s what can be done with an old-fashioned turntable and the five exquisite tracks on the A-Side of I Feel a Song. You give me that album with Gladys Knight at the height of her artistic powers and I will give you my mother in the prime of her life. I will give you her romantic heart, her femininity, her laugh, her love of song, her open-hearted love of people and the curling twelve foot Hawaiian wave of spiritual energy that moved through her, that moves through her children and grandchildren, that moves through her friends, that moves out through this sentence and into any open heart that will receive her even now that she is Gone.
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