O nameless joy of the morning
Friday, September 23, 2022
O nameless joy of the morning
Thursday, September 15, 2022
After completing what's known as the White Album in October 1968 (official title: The Beatles), the Beatles decided to have themselves filmed in the recording studio to be made into a TV special. At first they were going to do White Album songs, but then decided it would be more interesting to show them creating new songs, rehearsing them, and then performing them in a live show...somewhere. The day after New Years in 1969, they began.
About a half century later, the Beatles' still-existing company called Apple, still had the original 16 mm footage of all the hours filmed that month, plus audio tapes that ran even when the cameras didn't. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, jumped at the chance to try to construct a new something or other out of that footage. When he started watching it (he would say repeatedly to interviewers), he was astonished: the Beatles didn't look like a dour group who hated each other. They were often affectionate, and often having fun. The sessions had tensions but also a lot of joy. Sometimes in subtle ways, they showed the earned closeness of a band of self-selected brothers, who had made magic together for nearly a decade, and still could. Some four years later Jackson delivered Get Back, an eight hour selection for Disney to run in three segments, and eventually, for Apple to issue as three DVDs.
Apart from doing it at all, Peter Jackson earns high praise for doing two basic things. First, he used today's technology to "restore" the visuals and the sound. I'm guessing that in fact the visuals look even better than the original 16 mm film, although 16 can look pretty damn good. The sound of the music probably needed less work, but the real contribution was to clean up the sound so that the conversations etc. can be heard.
Second, Jackson structured the film chronologically, which in itself changes the impressions often created by the Let It Be movie, which was directed by the guy who filmed all those hours, Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Let It Be has the barest sense of chronology. It's basically a collection of scenes. It also looks terrible. Even when it first came out, blown up to 35 mm, it was grainy and dark. Surviving versions are often further edited and panned-and-scanned. The one I have on VHS looks like a series of extreme close-ups shot during a blackout. My fading memory of seeing it a couple of times in theatres, however, supports the idea that close-ups or one and two shots predominated. Jackson's film has a larger sense of space. We get the full studio and the full band.
Apart from leaving out external events (including alleged drug use), Jackson leaves out parts of some conversations, skipping sentences and even moving the order of statements within the same conversation. I know this because Beatles scholars on YouTube play the original audio tapes, which became available long before Jackson's Get Back was released. So while this is a huge improvement in understanding what actually happened in these January 1969 sessions, Jackson's film isn't quite as complete or straightforward as it might seem.
But the Beatles were miserable at Twickingham. They were in a huge, cold room in the London winter, showing up in the morning at a time they would normally still be asleep, and unaccustomed to making music in a studio that early. The sound in the room was awful. They had to deal with every moment being filmed, as well as still photographers roaming around them constantly. Director Lindsay-Hogg was badgering them about where they would do the live show. They couldn't agree.
The mood lightened immediately when they got there, where a a homey space was created that they all liked. Though the film shows a disconcerting amount of jamming and fooling around, they got down to working out songs. This is the stuff that I really like, and I suppose anyone who has been in a musical group, especially one working with original songs, will recognize the process, even if this is on a whole other level. I love artistic process movies. I love Sting's Bring On The Night. So even what may seem tedious to others tends to delight me.
They ask him to sit in on the song they're working on ("I've Got A Feeling"), and immediately everything starts to fall into place. Billy Preston provides the musical spark to several songs that completes them, and gets the juices going. One of the early highlights of the series is watching Paul McCartney working out the basics of "Get Back" from scratch. Then we see the lyrics gradually change from an anti-racist protest song (anyone remember Enoch Powell?) to the words we know. Billy Preston's keyboards finally completes it. He remained part of the group through the rest of the sessions. His work on "Get Back" has been praised, but he's equally essential to "Don't Let Me Down."
Throughout we hear each of the Beatles bringing in songs (several times, something they had written the night before), and everyone gets interested. Most of these songs, and others they are working on, will appear (we know now) either on their next album, the incomparable Abbey Road, or, more hauntingly, on their post-Beatles solo albums. The explorations of George Harrison's song "Something" are especially fascinating. The musical accompaniment for once comes easily, and that great tune is there. But Harrison has almost no lyrics to what will eventually be known as one of the greatest love songs of all time. It sounds so heartfelt, but for months, George didn't know what "something in the way she moves" attracts me like.
I was surprised then by how briefly Jackson treats the final day, in which the Beatles alone in the studio record the acoustic "Two of Us" and the two McCartney piano numbers, now classics: "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be." The movie Let It Be presented full versions of both songs, but without context, it reinforced that movie's narrative of a dominating McCartney, and the others literally (in this scene) sitting at a lower level, playing supporting parts. In context, it was just the most efficient way to do the final recordings of these two songs, at the end of an exhausting month. However, it would have been nice to hear more of them. ( For my money, the best cut of "Let It Be" on film is in the Beatles Anthology.)
Even so, Ringo has a nice scene doing a comic take to the delight of Heather McCartney, and also when he brings in the basic idea for "Octopus' Garden"-- George (the other non-Lennon-McCartney songwriter) immediately starts working with him to extend it, soon charming everyone and interesting the other Beatles in developing it.
Yet, just weeks after the rooftop concert, the Beatles began recording again, this time with their producer of all previous records, George Martin, and did so at their EMI studios on Abbey Road, for their last, transcendent album. And in the end...
Monday, September 12, 2022
Out of their loneliness for each other
Monday, September 05, 2022
Just as the winged energy of delight
Friday, September 02, 2022
One of John's children, Frank Kowinsky was my grandfather. He married Catherine Ellis, whose father John Ellis had arrived in America and western Pennsylvania at about the same time as John Kowinsky. John Ellis (originally Ilas) came from somewhere in the Austrian-Hungarian empire of eastern Europe which include part of Poland and Slovakia, while his wife had a lineage originating in Ukraine.
Both my paternal great-grandfathers were in the coal fields for the tumultuous Westmoreland County coal strike of 1910-1911—also known as the Slovak Strike because more than two-thirds of the miners were Slovak. It involved 65 mines and 15,000 coal miners. As would happen again, mine owners used private police and thugs as well as the state and local police and courts to break the strike, which they did, with defeat for the miners. Sixteen miners or members of their family were killed. Families were thrown out of their lodgings and had no money for food.
There was a larger, more successful national United Mineworkers coal strike in 1919 that involved 100,000 Pennsylvania miners, but industry owners tried to cut the agreed-upon wages in 1922, resulting in another strike. By this time, my grandparents Frank and Catherine were married, and my father Walter had been born. Again, families were left homeless. Two of my great-grandparents and their family were living in a tent until winter cold forced them to improvise shelter in an abandoned pool room with several other families. This strike eventually won back the wage levels of 1919.
Attempts to break strikes and prevent organizing were relentless. In high school I was shown an empty valley where a coal patch town had once existed, with searchlights ringing it so owners could spot when workers moved between houses to attend union organizing meetings.
The Depression of the 1930s hit this area very hard, but in Washington the Roosevelt administration was convinced that to end the Depression required a countervailing force to huge companies in a time of immense disparities in incomes. Labor union rights were strengthened by law, and over the next decades, national unions became that force. Better wages, hours and working conditions helped fuel shared prosperity.
By the time I was in high school in the early 1960s, unions comprised an institutional force alongside government and private industry. Unions became a progressive force and through their political arms, a big factor in elections. Though in practice many individual unions discriminated, the major union organizations supported diversity, and were among the chief sponsors of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.
The moral authority of unions was weakened by instances of corruption, and then by union support for the Vietnam War, which alienated the young and some minorities. Then in the mid to late 1970s, steel mills began to close, and industries moved employment away from the U.S. With membership dwindling, the Reagan administration in the 1980s dealt unions a series of death blows. Today the percentage of union members in the workforce is tiny.
Also today, in another era of massive income disparities, there are the same patterns of unionizing and company resistance at Amazon, Starbucks and other new corporate giants. Meanwhile, unions have grown in the public sector of the economy. In both cases, the actual and prospective union members tend to be more female and non-White.
Now the descendants of those European immigrants that suffered for the first labor unions, and the proud union members of the era of union strength, are left without an advocate, an organization looking out for their interests, a place to go to discuss issues, to listen and to be heard. Even just a union hall bar to let off steam, talk about their families and look each other in the face. They have no collective power to counter the massive power of corporations and the rich, which includes the power to secretly manipulate the information they receive.
Instead they have the Internet, where they get their information courtesy of trolls and bots and algorithms that feed them vast quantities of the same tenor of elaborately presented shameless lying--so much of it that it seems it must be true. There is no countervailing voice to the corporate interests that fund efforts to blame others for the results of corporate decisions, such as immigrants, minorities, or scientists and self-serving, pointy-headed intellectuals. Instead of collective and constructive action, they are encouraged to wallow in anger and misplaced rancor, racism and closets of military weaponry, and the thrill of "owning the libs," as fleeting and addictive as a cocaine high. Their participation is limited to seeing who can attract attention by being the shrillest and most provocative, unless until some of them brought their smartphones to an Insurrection on Capitol Hill.
It only gets said on Labor Day if at all, but the American system is broken in large measure because of the gaping hole left in social and economic institutions by the demise of unions. It's no coincidence that the democracy that President Joe Biden extolled and declared threatened, flourished in his lifetime when unions were strong, and a vital part of that democracy.
Tuesday, August 30, 2022
The live music highlights were from the Newport Folk Festival. Paul Simon hosted a set, playing emcee at times (as in a timely revision of "American Tune" sung by Rhiannon Giddens) but singing as well, with a solo version of "Sounds of Silence." His voice is considerably weakened but he still can create new phrasings on his old songs.
But the big hit of the Festival was the surprise appearance of Joni Mitchell, participating in a set of her songs with Brandi Carlile, originally announced as a Carlile spot. Carlile and other younger musicians as well as Joni's contemporaries have been playing privately in what became known as "Joni's Jams" at her home, during Mitchell's recovery from serious illness.
The tunes are all featured on YouTube, some shot by fans and others with the official Newport sponsorship. The highlight was her remarkable solo vocal on "Both Sides Now". I don't know anyone who has seen or heard this performance who hasn't done so in tears. Such depth, such courage, such artistry, is a moment of a lifetime. The love for her on that stage and in that crowd is palpable.The Weight," which featured Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr. This turns out to be a production of an outfit called Playing for Change that edits together bits from a range of international singers and players performing in their own countries--in this case, all of them mind-blowingly excellent. Most aren't stars, at least in the U.S., but I'm already listening to Larkin Poe, a duo I didn't know about.
This led me to a succession of earlier Play for Change videos--for example, versions of "All Along the Watchtower" (which includes Lakota Singers), "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay", "Gimme Shelter" (which suggests what a version by its original backup singer Mary Clayton might have sounded like, plus I've finally understood the lyrics.) There are others. Several of the earlier videos begin with street musicians literally playing for change, but of course, the meaning is double. Additionally there's "Teach Your Children" performed by an international Playing for Change live band onstage.
These are pure nourishment. They have lasted and we've lasted to hear them again in these new ways. It's all earned.
So get some today--while they last. These YouTube videos are free, and the ads are all at the beginning. There's so little left on the Internet that's even tolerable, it seems prudent to get all of what remains.
Monday, August 29, 2022
Willows never forget how it feels
Monday, August 22, 2022
When they say Don’t I know you?
Thursday, August 18, 2022
Within our little lives, there are mysteries. Why things happen can have an obvious causality, or at least a logic. Or the causality can elude us. Our usual ways of thinking don't quite work.
I'm a big fan of coincidences (and coincidentally, someone in college nicknamed me Big Coincidence, playing off the syllables in my name.) I've always maintained that as the kind of writer I was professionally, serendipity--useful coincidence--was my most valuable research tool. So I think about these things, and notice them.
I have a few recent examples to ponder. One of them involves George Orwell. For a forgotten reason--probably because it was mentioned in something I was reading--I had a sudden hankering to read a particular essay by George Orwell, and I knew I had a book of Orwell essays. But when I looked in the Orwell section on one of my bookshelves, it wasn't there. I kept looking everywhere I could think of it might be but could not find it. And as I browsed I would wander back to the shelf where other Orwell books resided. One title I did have was Coming Up for Air. I realized that I'd never read it and knew nothing about it.
This is an authentic coincidence, seemingly made more strange because the novel is so obscure. It is a personal coincidence--that is, a coincidence only to me. It's difficult to judge the extent of the coincidence: that is, just how unlikely it is, with the strong implication that the less likely, the more meaningful. I suppose math experts in probability (like one I know) would say that out of the many, many events of our lives, a coincidence is bound to show up at some point. We just don't notice the many non-coincidences, and so we are astonished at the one rare instance of coincidence. Still...to what extent is a coincidence truly random? And what does that do to the odds?
Maybe at least some coincidences are something like an intuition. And intuitions are (I would argue) seldom random.
Another such coincidence happened to me since. I had finished reading a contemporary novel that I found admirable, until the end jolted me with a troubling and seemingly artificial but terrible fate to an endearing character. I felt betrayed, and especially given my age and the times, this is not something I want to encounter in my reading anymore.
That I picked out a video from everything on YouTube that mentioned the obscure story I'd read the night before is certainly a coincidence. But coincidence, like serendipity, is about attention. In this case, I felt a shiver as I anticipated (based on what he was talking about) that Meyer was going to mention this story just before he did. This was a coincidence because I knew it was.
Serendipity, at least as a research technique, is also like that: it's about attention. Perhaps it is remarkable that a book pertinent to research on my latest project was sitting there on a sale table in front of the Harvard Bookstore--a book (in the case I'm thinking of, a kind of anthology) I didn't know existed, with authors I did not know. But had I not been paying attention to books that could be relevant to my research, it might have escaped my notice entirely. It was the convergence of my interest and attention, and the presence of the book (and then later, how useful it became--I contacted several of its authors), that made it serendipitous. It may also be akin to Jung's theory of synchronicity, summarized in a song by Sting as: "if you act as you think/the missing link/synchronicity."
But that doesn't explain everything about coincidence or related phenomena. And my Orwell story isn't over.
Eventually I concluded that my book of Orwell essays had been among the books I sold in Pittsburgh before I trekked to California (although a moment's further thought would have told me I'd used it since.) But since I had became so obsessed with the idea of reading Orwell essays, I went on Amazon to buy a collection. I paused over a definitive and expensive collection, but after more research I honed in on what seemed to be a more than adequate selection in a fairly affordable volume. I chose it for my shopping cart and was about to complete the purchase when I just stopped, for no particular reason except that I didn't want to complete it at that moment.
So what do we call this? An intuition of some kind in one part of my brain telling my fingers not to press the purchase button? Or a simple coincidence? I'd certainly made that particular error before--of buying a new copy of a book I couldn't find, and then finding the copy I already had. Had that subconsciously influenced my hesitation to not risk doing it again, at least not yet? Or should we just call it luck?
The final odd event seems to be in a class by itself. One evening at dinner my partner Margaret told me about a strange dream she'd had. All she remembered was an image: of brightly colored bowls of different sizes, nested in one another. She remembered this image because she had no associations for these bowls--they weren't from her childhood or had she ever had them herself.
So Margaret had a dream, not of her childhood, but of mine. I wonder what to call that?
Monday, August 15, 2022
There is nothing for you to say. You must
Tuesday, August 02, 2022
|BK at Cummington 1970. Photo by James Baker Hall|
"What you remember saves you. To remember/Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never/Has fallen silent..." W.S. Merwin
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio…” Neil Young:“Ohio” May 1970
In June 1970, weeks after the protest occupation, I left Galesburg, Illinois and Knox College. They had been one center of my life since 1964. Except for a brief visit in the 1980s, I never returned.
While in Galesburg I was staying with Carol Hartman, who was finishing her third year as a student. She and three friends were planning to spend the summer in Boston. Since I had been accepted for the eight week summer session at the Cummington Community of the Arts in western Massachusetts, I decided to join them.
|Jane Langer and Carol at Knox|
Our attraction led to a romance that flowered in that spring of 1970 when we were both free of other such active relationships. The summer together—before and after Cummington-- was to be the next step.
Carol passed away in August 2020. Partly in deference to those who were an active part of her life in recent years, and partly because I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with this, I haven’t shared memories before. There were decades when our contacts lapsed. She got back in touch with me by 2000, and I have a Christmas card from 2001. At some point a couple of my emails went unanswered. After that I had news of her mostly through the Knox alumni magazine. In a recent year I emailed her birthday greetings out of the blue—it might even have been in January 2020.
To do more than describe the Carol I knew in the 1970s would be presumptuous. So I can’t even attempt a full portrait or tribute. But with the discretion appropriate to circumstances—including the purpose of these posts—I can allude to what I know from that time.
We stopped in Chicago first. While Carol visited her parents, I stayed with Knox alum Howard Partner at his apartment in the city. It was in a then-funky neighborhood at Dickens and Fremont. My first night there I listened to the second Poco album, unable to sleep. (So I recorded in a notebook, which otherwise has the usual and frustrating lack of details about that time, but is filled instead with notes on writing projects, memories and bits of verse. Though I did record impressions of a free concert in Lincoln Park, and a noisy voyage on the L to meet Carol at the Carson Pirie Scott department store, where I was still getting hostile stares for my long hair.)
Schultz’s book begins with a description of his infant son, his innocent absorption in his surroundings, his joy in discovery, learning and experience. It wasn’t just that his son was often joyful: “Ethan is joy,” he writes. But typically this does not last. “Where does the joy go?” Reading this now, I realize that a version of this question—what happens to this kind of innocence, why is it destroyed, and how can some of it be recovered—was the active subtext of my twenties.
Meanwhile Carol was having some conflicts with her parents, particularly concerning her reluctance to return to Knox for another year. But they also were skeptical about me, though we never met. They (meaning her mother mostly) referred to me as “the Polish poet.” Carol said (fondly) that her parents had strange nicknames for her, including "Miss Pasadena" and "Zookie."
|Carol and her mother|
My actual memories of Cummington are like snapshots, loosely related. I also haven’t found manuscripts or notebooks that I can attribute specifically to my time there, which turned out to be only about four weeks. But I do have a few relevant documents. And I have many letters (remember them?) that Carol wrote to me as well as letters I wrote to her, beginning in 1968 and including while we were separated that summer. Some of the contents provide details and a few prods—or even corrections—to memories of Cummington.
Some of the characters, a few events and relationships, and even some words spoken, I recall from that summer. But the novel is actually set in the summer of 1969, when this arts community was formed (called “Farmington” in the novel.) Some, perhaps many people were there for both summers. The novel seems highly fictionalized, and is somewhat cleverly confusing in that he gives the names of a couple of actual people to characters not based on them but (it seemed to me) on someone else I recognized. Some of the novel’s events may have in some sense happened in 1969. That summer did feature (according to a subsequent newsletter), for example, the presentation of “3 Pieces for Broken Piano.”
Of course I first paged through this novel to see if there was a character based on me. When I was pretty sure there wasn’t, I lost interest for awhile. Though reading it recently I recognize an imaginative story of those times, it’s useful in this context mostly for ambiance, description of the places, which seem accurate to my recollections. The ambiance included frequent seemingly important discussions and rapid interpersonal events and impressions, most of which I've forgotten, but even if I remembered them, Baker Hall's novel would convince me to ignore most of them.
James Baker Hall was indeed known for his photographs as well as his writing, principally poetry, and was much honored as a poet and teacher in his native Kentucky, where he was the state's Poet Laureate.
The Cummington area was best known for another sprawling fallow farm, the former residence of the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. Though I don’t think I knew it at the time, we also weren’t very far from the farm where Herman Melville lived when he was writing Moby Dick, and occasionally dining and telling tall tales at the neighboring farm of the Nathaniel Hawthornes.
Partly because of all this, and the presence of teachers and students from prestigious New England universities, I was perhaps dimly if not consciously aware that I was swimming in different waters, closer to traditional centers of power, past and future. It wasn’t western Pennsylvania or the Midwest anymore.
|cover of brochure with photo from 1969|
So on Sunday, June 20 I arrived for the session that was to end August 15. Part way up a hill was the center of the Cummington spread: a large building with kitchen and dining hall, a large barn that served as a dormitory and another barn-like structure with art studios and darkroom. One of Cummington’s selling points was that it could accommodate several families, and they were housed mostly in cabins further up the hill. There were also buildings down the hill that I don’t think I ever visited, but as it turned out, that’s where the cool people wound up. There were some 45 people there at Cummington in 1970, somewhat straining its capacity.
As a solo, a newbie and a freebie, I was housed in the big barn. Baker Hall described it well: I was to live in “more of a stall than a room, with four walls and a door but no ceiling.” There was no privacy based on sound. I had a bed and a table for a desk. The nearest bathroom and source of hot water was in the main building next to the barn. My first letter back to Carol mentioned the cold (later it would be the heat), the weak light (I requested and got a decent reading lamp), and the incessant sound of an oboe player relentlessly practicing his scales. As I was soon to discover, close to half of the “community” were classical musicians and music students, many from Yale. It was as if a busload of them got lost on their way to Tanglewood.
|One of the C. structures (not THE barn)|
Apart from high expectations, my hopes were doomed (as I think I knew then) by another imperative: the overriding political issues of the moment. We were less than two months past Cambodia and Kent State. The Vietnam War was still expanding. It was supposed to be the summer we’d hear the drumming. But all I was hearing was the oboe, and the vast silence of the country.
|Harvard spring 1970|
Plus my own diffidence in an unfamiliar situation with people I didn’t quite get. The only time Cummington is mentioned in a surviving notebook is to quote some unnamed person after I’d evidently held forth on something or other. “Gee, I didn’t know you could talk like that,” this person said. “I didn’t know you talked at all.”
The Black Panthers were known in the media for their aggressive rhetoric in favor of violent revolution, which owed some of its intellectual basis to Marxism. But as their newspaper chronicled, they pioneered social services directed to the Black community. The best known of these was the free breakfast program, in which the Panthers organization fed more children in the Oakland area particularly, than did the state of California. The federal public school free breakfast program didn’t exist then, and may well have been inspired by the success of their efforts. But all levels of government in those years felt free to harass, arrest and at least in the case of Fred Hampton, murder people because they were Black Panthers.
This was within the more general context of the times. The Vietnam War period of the 1960s and 1970s was an intense dance of the apocalyptic and utopian. As poet W.S. Merwin described it: “Wild aspiration and vertiginous despair existed not alternately but at once, and at times we may have clung to visionary hopes not so much because they were really credible as because we felt it would be not only mean-spirited but fatal to abandon them. We knew a kind of willful desperation.” And I would add, a kind of willed innocence.
|W.S. Merwin. Photo by James Baker Hall|
Cummington was not untouched by countercultural concerns, and some of it founding members probably wanted to integrate them into its communal experience. But I didn’t sense much awareness around me there of the political ideas and ferment going on then. The place seemed to be divided among oblivious academics, spaced-out hippie artists and frightened music students. I felt isolated.
Later in the summer I came to some empathetic understanding of at least the frightened music students. On a trip to town or somewhere with a few Cummington people, I found myself at a coffee shop table across from a quiet young woman I hadn’t really talked with before. She was a music student at Yale. Our somewhat stilted conversation seemed to be loosening up until I said something about the war. She became quiet as I babbled on, until her eyes filled with tears. “I just want to study music,” she finally said. So I saw that her life, too, was being deformed by the war.
By then my isolation had already been dramatized. Since I was getting a largely free ride at Cummington based on my work, I felt obligated to share it, so I gave a poetry reading after a couple of weeks. However, some discussion the previous day infuriated me so much that I stayed up all night writing a long discursive and often angry poem which ended with the words, “Cummington, you are up against yourselves.” It was the last thing I read, and I sat down to a complete and lasting silence. Oddly, I hadn’t expected that.
However, I was to have one more public performance with a different outcome, before I left halfway through the scheduled eight weeks.
I had other moments of alienation, as when many were talking about (and participating in) an “environmental art” project, which essentially was digging a big ditch. To me it was the opposite of “environmental” in the sense of ecological, since it was basically an act of needless (and to me, worse than pointless) destruction of the environment—and as such, a demonstration of human ego that was a principal cause of our depleted planet. I don’t think anyone else got my point.
On the other hand there was one event I recall that gave me a Black Mountain College community vibe. Someone organized a performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” which is comprised of a short musical passage to be played 840 times. A complete performance could take from 18 to 36 hours.
|New York premiere of Vexations: John Cage|
(standing) with one of the pianists, John Cale
(later of the Velvet Underground.) Seated is
the only audience member to witness the
entire 18 hour performance.
The same basic format was followed at Cummington, which may well have been the second performance anywhere of this piece (most of the documented performances seem actually to have been in the last decade or so.)
The grand piano was moved in front of the fireplace in the main building, with candles around it. Seats were provided, and audience members came and went over the hours. There were enough pianists to perform it in relays, though probably they had more than one shift. I went to listen three times—at the beginning, at some point late at night, and for the finish. I stayed long enough each time to feel the hypnotic effect, which fatigue and a few tokes tended to enhance.
I was not entirely solitary or even misanthropic at Cummington. I participated in community discussions and some events, did my turns in the kitchen, played volleyball and spent sociable hours usually inflected with wine and dope. On one of the first days I was part of a group that piled into a car to see the Beatles movie Let It Be at a Northampton theatre, much to the consternation of Chris Horton, an artist and the person in charge of the community, who wanted everyone to focus on Cummington. But people came and went all summer anyway. (As for the movie, it played as the dour prequel to the recent breakup of the Beatles, but on the evidence of the recent Get Back cuts of the same 1969 footage, seems more like a reflection of the original director’s offended ego.)
I also observed (as apparently did James Baker Hall) some of the sexual and interpersonal dynamics of an idealistic group of high achievers isolated together. I’d already heard of a summer in which four young male philosophers and their wives lived together in one house to “do” philosophy together, and all four marriages collapsed before fall. At least one marriage openly lapsed at Cummington: a blond wife, the most glamorously attractive woman there, took up with the most strikingly attractive young man. There were also racial dynamics too complex to get into (though Baker Hall gives it a try, with limited success in my view.)
|Heather McHugh in 1981|
In memory, that was about the last I saw of her, though letters to Carol indicate we were casually friendly throughout. Carol even met her a couple of times. Heather did quickly disappear from the barn, however, becoming associated with the residents of a cabin elsewhere—visual artists or ceramicists and filmmakers, I think. Anyway, they were what I thought of as the Cool Kids of the community. She moved down there.
And Heather McHugh indeed became famous, at least in poetry and academic circles, with prize-winning poetry collections, much-praised translations and literary essays, as well as teaching. She’s a literary eminence now.
I had other casually friendly relationships with people whose names I unfortunately no longer remember, including the slightly older man, also a writer, with whom I got roaring drunk one night. When he tried to drive us in his big old Buick up the rutted hill to his family cabin, it slid into a ditch and we were suddenly pitched at an angle looking up at the stars, laughing hysterically.
|Rhea Ormond at C. 1970. BK photo|
After awhile I met a guitarist, Alan Jaffe, who lived on the ground floor of the barn. The “stalls” that Baker Hall described pertained mostly to the second floor, which was on the level of a hayloft. At least some of the first floor stalls had ceilings and full-length walls, so they were fully enclosed rooms. Alan lived in one of these. I’m not sure how we met. Perhaps I heard him playing jazz on his electric guitar, or maybe Rhea introduced us. In any case, we wound up collaborating on a set of my songs, working them out in relaxed sessions in his large room over a couple of weeks.
Alan Jaffe was a Yale music student then, and has since become a notable jazz guitarist in New York. I think he especially enjoyed playing the rock riffs and country licks he probably didn’t usually get to do otherwise. He had both taste and touch as a guitarist, so these hours were easily among the best I experienced at Cummington.
Meanwhile, Carol and I were exchanging frequent letters and occasional phone calls. Soon she arrived for a few days visit. I found an unused room at the bottom of the barn—not really fit for ordinary habitation, but private, so we slept there. At first Carol was wary, perhaps intimidated by the people at Cummington, and didn’t want to participate in much. But she warmed up to several, like Rhea, one at a time.
Her visit definitely changed how people viewed me. They could now tell themselves my moodiness was a natural response to being separated from such a beautiful girlfriend. Women whose interest in me had gone nowhere now understood, and at least pretended to approve of, my faithfulness. When Carol left—hitching a ride with several community members driving to Boston, including Heather—I knew that I wasn’t going to spend the whole summer apart from her.
Though I was in some ways settling into Cummington life, taking afternoon baths in the main building, heating up water in the empty kitchen late at night for my instant espresso, I decided to go back to Cambridge early. About halfway through the summer there was a kind of open house event, with community members giving recitals, showing their artwork and so on. Alan and I were going to perform my songs. That seemed like the best time to leave. I worked out the plan with Carol, who somehow got the use of a vehicle large enough to bring her friends (including a driver) and haul me and my stuff back with them.
My memory is that Alan and I were set to perform late in the afternoon, pretty much at the end of the schedule. Most of the strangers who I’d seen wandering around all day were already gone, so our audience was a good chunk of the Cummington community, plus Carol and her friends.
I’ve managed to unearth the lyrics to the songs we did, and I have a tape. Songwriting for me was (and sometimes still is) a process of working with sounds, including the sounds of words, how they fit the rhythm, with rhymes at the end of the lines. Interpreting them might come later, if at all.
We did a mid-tempo rocker called “It’s Right,” with a kind of John Fogerty Creedence Clearwater vocal line, though with a bit of structure copped from “Get Back.”
This was becoming the “personal is political” era, though these interpretations come after the fact of composition. "It's Right" starts with verses about personal relationships ("When I'm away love, your eyes are in my mind"), then moves to a wider source of meaning: “When love is winning/crying in the streets/ Everyone you meet is your tomorrow.” “To cast the numbers/against the darkened sky/all we know is why and we can be there.” Then it moves to action, if only marching in the street: “When light is moving/across the face of time/the moment’s changing rhyme becomes/the sound of happy feet and I know it’s right…” A bit of self-mockery there with "happy feet"--a little Lennonesque.
We probably did my 50s-style rock and roll tribute to the Chuck Berry era, called “Berrybush,” which I must have written while I was a Knox student. We had a jazzy, neo-Dylan/Lennon rant, which never got a title better than “Dostoevsky and the Purple Voice,” but I doubt if we did this one live, as I couldn’t possibly remember all the words. We must have done “His Blue Image,” a slower song with Alan’s choice licks as background to chilling imagery about President Nixon (“the king of ice/with his melted smile and his dagger dice”) and the war. I notice now that I managed to shoehorn images from Blake (“the horses of instruction”) and James Joyce (“the cabman’s battered face”) in the same verse. The blue image is Nixon on so-called black and white TV.
Of these, I’d written “Leaves That Are Green in the Winter” as a novelty number for my hometown group, the Crosscurrents. “No Down Payment,” came more recently, at Iowa. It’s got a line that resonates with my memories of those months ostensibly at the Writers Workshop, in my narrow Iowa City room. Several times the singer lists his possessions, which include: “and a bottle of red wine/a book of empty pages/and an awful lot of time,” before the chorus: “But fair is fair/and trade is trade/no complaining about the deal when the bargain’s made/my terms were loneliness for the freedom of a dove/and I’ve made no down payment on your love.” We probably performed this one.
All of these songs were more or less heartfelt; none more than “We’re All Together Again,” which used the jaunty old ditty (“We’re all together again/we’re here, we’re here) that you can find sung by Berle Ives on the site devoted to Scout camp songs. My version was slower, with the brilliant, mournful country-inflected backing Alan devised. With the traditional chorus, it added verses that suggested an inventory of gently disappointed lives at a school reunion.
My cache of letters from friends contains many stories about the sad outcomes of clashes with the “real world” of jobs, the meaningless work, crazed or sterile work environments, the awful bosses, the mindless humiliation and boredom, and the accompanying crazed world-- the sense of imprisonment in a lunatic asylum.
These accounts began with summer jobs while we were still in college, but the stories—on and off such pages—became weightier after schooldays were over. This song reflects these sentiments.
Though the lyrics were completed some time before, letters from Carol this summer also included such stories, as she and her friends dealt with the job market. Carol applied for an opening as a telephone operator, but was told she was too intelligent. Her friend Julienne planned to apply the next day, but now knew to play dumb. Carol knew she could have almost any entry level job she wanted, but she kept backing off, as they all seemed so bleak.
Later in the summer, the Little Kid visited, and said she had to suppress her true answer to yet another erroneously arrogant boss asking why he should hire her: “Because I’m smarter than you.”
My song included a verse loosely based on two people I had known, including a Knox student in the past: “Marcia dropped from college, and went into the city/Wrote ads for a bookstore, dressing very pretty/but the air in the city made Marcia blink and cry/She rented an apartment and stayed there till she died. But we’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here. We’re all together again, we’re here.”
What I felt dying were dreams, hopes, integrity, innocence, changing who we were, and could be. This is not the last word on the eventual careers and achievements over a lifetime of people I knew, but these experiences and sentiments were prominent at that early stage, and at that historical time.
As for Cummington audience reaction, apparently such sentiments were easier to swallow combined with a melody, a tasty guitar and bouncy lines familiar from youth, however ironically used. The song went over well, as did the entire performance. When it was over, a number of community members with big smiles congratulated me, and also stayed to say goodbye. I even got a big embrace from the beautiful blond having the affair who hadn’t said three words to me all summer.
Then I grabbed my gear from the barn, and with Carol and her friends, left Cummington in the rear view mirror. In three or four hours we were in Cambridge, where over the next years, life would change, more than once.