The Well-Tempered Songbook: #45 Pink Moon, Nick Drake
There were probably ten of us, split up between two cars. We were on spring break, headed from the Upper West Side to Sarasota, Florida. The late model station wagon I was in had bags roped to the roof and about six of us inside. This was long before seat belts so we just kind of crammed our way into the back. The driver was very tense about the borrowed car and the directions and how we’d stay in touch with the other vehicle, but all the passengers were the exact opposite, having a great time, laughing, teasing her over and over until she laughed, calling her mom. We were all New Yorkers and nobody really drove much or spent much time outside the city, so driving was kind of an adventure. The laughter started with our first wrong turn somewhere around 116th street heading North on Broadway. The backseat jokers were in high gear by the time we crossed the George Washington Bridge.
Say You, Say Me was a hit that spring and we ended up making fun of the line “I had an awesome dream” and everything was an “awesome this” and an “awesome that” in Lionel Richie’s voice. That would be an awesome turn and an awesome lane change. I started an impression of Bob Dylan’s section of We Are the World that I repeated until Maryland and the driver started to scream that I had to stop it or she’d pull over and, like, spank me, Adam. There was a painful long quiet for a second, and then somebody said that would be an “awesome spanking” and we were all back at it again. The station wagon was full of cigarette smoke and a few discreet beers and high cheer. I’m not even sure how I ended up on a spring break trip. I never had any money and it wasn’t really my thing this whole frat house spring break trip, but there I was staring up through the station wagon’s rear window at the nighttime sky having the time of my life.
We broke down somewhere in Virginia. There was a horrible clanking in the rear right wheel. We waved to the second car that we had to pull over, then made our way to a service station in the middle of nowhere. There was like one street lamp and 8000 gnats in a traction beam and a service station from To Kill a Mockingbird. Mom was tired and getting very tense so we tried to get a little more serious out of respect, but it was not easy to maintain humor sobriety. Then the nicest local you could ever meet came out of the station to help us. I’m not even sure he worked there or just hung out all day waiting for people to have problems so he could say hello. He said something in an accent so strong we had no idea what he was getting at. He pointed to the wheel and scratched his head and said mumble-mumble-mumble and then mumble-mumble-worbrang-mumble.
Since I hadn’t done anything to help the entire trip – and I was the one who’d been so good with the Bob Dylan accent for 600 miles – I was tasked with communicating with him. I asked him to repeat himself and then, again, a third time. After that I just pretended to understand. There’s a natural limit on English-to-English translation requests somewhere greater than two but less than three. Behind the local fellow’s back, the others did impressions of me trying to understand him scrunching their foreheads and scratching their temples. I had to look at the ground to hold it together, fighting through a grin to stay on the edge of control.
It turned out the problem was a ‘wheel bearing.’ Pronounced worbrang in Back Woods Virginian. Somehow we fixed the car or decided to drive on it or I can’t remember what we did. It was a million years ago. And there was a black guy in our group who could do a sidesplitting impression of Leave It to Beaver White People communicating. His white people spoke very, very clearly and e-nun-ci-a-ted everything and he took over with that impression until Sarasota. Somehow we got back on the road and everybody did worbrang in their best mumble-mumble and competitive impressions of white people. We were male and female, gay and straight, black, white and Asian. We were the world! We were the children! Friendship carried us all on a citrus river down to Florida and we lit each other’s cigarettes in the back and opened up the station wagon rear window and smelled the Georgia air and felt fine.
I’ve never been a hang out in big groups kind of guy. There’s too much else to do, and mostly I’m a one-on-one person or make my closest friends working on something together, but that ride to Florida and the week down there was an exception. We spent a lot of time at the beach and around the pool just hanging out. We all kept pestering mom why she made reservations on the non-Spring Break side of Florida in the middle of a retirement community, but she just dropped her sunglasses over her eyes and continued tanning.
And there was a moment the first or second night we were there, when the happy feeling was still in full bloom and there was still a lot of vacation week ahead. I was getting out of the pool at the hotel and a bunch of us were walking back up to the rooms. I had a turquoise towel wrapped around me and a tan, and I saw myself in a mirror and realized all the sudden that turquoise was my favorite color. It hadn’t been until that trip. I’d always thought blue was my favorite color, but it’s not. It’s turquoise. There’s a great Kafka quote about only knowing who you are when you are truly happy.
In the ad they are driving with the car top down and passing over a river. It’s shot in a kind of blue and white Joni Mitchell album cover monochrome. There’s a June fluff in the air and the girl in the passenger seat reaches out to touch it as it blows over the car like snow flurries. There are shots of tree branches swimming high over the road, and it is as if you are in the back of that car and you’re a kid looking up at the canopy above you. There is a light castanet sizzle of crickets and car passing sounds. Because they are pulled out of the background mix for just a moment, you appreciate the sound as foreground and give a proper meditative respect. And there’s this great song they are listening to in the car driving the whole thing, one of those songs that communicates ‘total wow’ seconds in, a song you must find the name for, that will haunt you if you don’t.
Pink, pink, pink, pink…
Then the four young people in the advertisement pull in to this roadside party and there’s a mood shift. Cars are crammed in everywhere on the gravel and there’s no real place to park. There are colored lights strung up on poles and some drunk guy is yahooing and jumping over a picnic table holding a beer in his outstretched arm. The energy is the opposite of where they were in the car coming over. There’s a brief exchange of looks and the group decides, without a word, to leave and just keep driving. “Drivers Wanted,” the ad reads, and it turns out to be for Volkswagen, but really it’s for Nick Drake, or maybe simple friendship.
It was first time I’d ever heard the husky melancholy of Nick Drake’s voice, the shy, sweet beauty of his music, a guitar and vocal style as rare as white fluff in the air. His simple tune on guitar, the easy, lower register vocals, the single note descending piano riff – it sounds like something one of the people in the Cabrio might have played for the others on his own guitar later that evening, possibly by a river turn-off, some private songwriter’s tune, personal and tender and effortlessly real, the lyrics still being worked out. And here his friends didn’t even know he could sing!
Everything I’d ever want to say about warm nights and car rides and new friends on that trip to Sarasota, I could say through that voice, lying in the back of the car, a long road still ahead, the laughter subsided, watching the stars swirl overhead as the driver, somewhere far, far up front, makes her turn, scolding her passengers with a small, sly smile.
The Well-Tempered Songbook is a countdown, in memoir, of the songs that have had the greatest impact on my life.