Friday, September 23, 2022

The Laughing Thrush

 

O nameless joy of the morning

 tumbling upward note by note out of the night
 and the hush of the dark valley
 and out of whatever has not been there

 song unquestioning and unbounded
 yet this is the place and the one time
 in the whole of before and after
 with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edges of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening

 --W.S. Merwin

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Beatles: Let It Back


 
The long video chronicle of a month in the life of the Beatles called Get Back has been streaming on Disney Plus since late last year, but the full eight hours was made available on Blu Ray and DVD only in July.  That's the way I watched it, and watched it again, and watched... So it was a major part of my musical experience this summer, especially as it sent me to reviewing other Beatles material I've got. (I've missed recent pricey books and boxed sets, but my decades-long identity as a Beatles fan has reaped gifts of books and music over the years from at least three girlfriends, my sisters, etc.  I've had a lot of birthdays and Christmases. These DVDs were gifts from Margaret.)  I found the series engrossing, mystifying and often enough, exhilarating. 

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.

Until now, all that officially resulted from these sessions were the feature film Let It Be and the album of that title, both released in 1970.  By the time they came out, the Beatles as a band effectively no longer existed.  The movie in particular became known as the story of them breaking up.  

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. 

But even as a chronology of that month and of these sessions, Jackson's film isn't complete.  Important events outside the studio aren't mentioned, both in terms of background (the Beatles finances were a mess, and Apple was going broke) and specific events.  For example, early in the month, George Harrison suddenly gets up and leaves, quitting the group.  It's a big dramatic moment, and Jackson's film does a great job of showing the other Beatles' responses.  Then a few days later, Harrison comes back, inexplicably cheerful.  Jackson's film doesn't even try to suggest why Harrison left, except to show a painful conversation with McCartney that the Let It Be film also shows part of.  (Some Beatles scholars however suggests George and John Lennon had an off-camera tiff earlier that day, which precipitated George leaving.)  But what Jackson's film doesn't mention is that the day before George quit, his wife Patti left him.  And then she returned at about the time he rejoined the group.  He seemed to remain in a very good mood from then on, very committed to the 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.

Get Back tells a story that seems to be basically accurate.  The initial idea was to make use of the otherwise empty building of the British film company, Twickenham Studio, because Apple had leased it for the month in preparation for the making of The Magic Christian feature film, that was scheduled to begin shooting there in February.  That movie starred Peter Sellars and Ringo Starr, so that was another reasons the Beatles had to finish this musical adventure in January--Ringo would be unavailable.

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.

Harrison's departure seemed to change the game.  The other three Beatles met with him and all agreed they weren't going back to Twickingham, they weren't doing a TV show but the footage could be used for a feature film (they owed their studio one anyway) and they weren't going out of the country for a live show (which is what their director wanted.)   George helped organize the equipment needed to record in the Apple headquarters basement.

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.

But several songs are getting bogged down, with several of the Beatles realizing they need another player, someone to do keyboards live.  Then one day, Billy Preston just shows up to say hello--he has known them since they were all teenagers playing dubious clubs in Hamburg.  (In fact, George Harrison had been talking him up to the others, and invited him to "drop in.")

 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.  

Of the songs that eventually do make it on the
Let It Be album, one of the most troublesome is "Two of Us."  It was the song Paul and George argued about at Twickingham.  For weeks the group is never satisfied with it, no matter how many times they do it--and they do it a lot.  Paul and John sing it to each other in posh London accents, Scottish accents, Bob Dylan accents, and eventually sing it without moving their lips, like two crazed ventriloquists.  But it is Paul getting tired of playing the electric bass and picking up an acoustic guitar that gets the song going, as a kind of skiffle or folk song, with Ringo's tasty drumming and George playing bass notes on his electric guitar.

Yoko Ono has been a constant presence sitting silently beside John (in Let It Be she seems ominous; in Get Back, pretty neutral. Both she and George Harrison's second wife Olivia are listed as producers for the Get Back series.)  By the third and fourth week of the sessions, the studio opens up.  Paul's girlfriend Linda Eastman (who was shown as present once at Twickingham) brings her six year old daughter Heather to the Apple studio, and Heather's interactions with John, George and Ringo as well as Paul, and her imitation of a Yoko vocal, are highlights. (Paul and Linda would marry a week before John and Yoko. Paul soon adopted Heather as his daughter.)   Patti Harrison and Ringo's wife Maureen also visit the studio, and most of them listen to a day's recordings in the control room together.  These are some of the most affecting scenes.

But the Beatles can still never agree on a live show, and until the last moment, aren't sure if they will do their now famous rooftop concert.  Jackson intercuts the entire concert (just five songs, some repeated).  He included more street reaction than did Let It Be, so Jackson has the narrative of the police officers arriving, being diverted and finally ascending to the roof, all in split screens.  The Beatles road manager finally tries to turn off George's amp, but he curtly turns it back on and they finish the song. 

 Each time I've seen these scenes I've gotten a different impression. Sometimes the street interviews were mindless distractions.  Other times they were overpowered by the energy of the music.  Once I marveled at the reaction of people on adjacent rooftops and the street.  There's no telling how well they could hear (a segment in the Beatles Anthology suggests the sound wasn't really very loud on the street), but they show little emotion.  I couldn't help thinking of the contrast with the years of screams and fainting.  On the other hand, the people complaining about their music and the police showing up could have been straight out of A Hard Day's Night.  That much didn't change.

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.)  

What about the Beatles themselves?  Paul McCartney is neither the authoritarian monster and central villain that the Let It Be movie casts him to be (though his beard and black suit don't help), but neither is he the genial and articulate statesman of interviews.  Emotionally he seems all over the place--capable of far-seeing insights and long monologues of near nonsense. He comes off as a paradox at times.  For example, who was the most actively opposed to doing the rooftop concert? And who looked like he was having the best time doing it?  McCartney, both. 

John Lennon is always the class clown, but he's also very quiet and subdued for long stretches, though when they play in the Apple basement he's right there, energetic and engaged.  There are moments when both McCartney and especially Lennon are pretty open about their fears and insecurities, past and present.  Paul is uncomfortable in his role and worried about the band's direction.  On the music itself, he worries that his classic ballads drag too much.  John is contrite for showing up late and not being at his best. (This may be the result of his reputed occasional heroin use, or he's just sick.  It's the flu season and both Paul and Ringo also complain of being ill at different times.) John is realistic about the limits of his own guitar work, though I was surprised to see that he did the guitar solos on "Get Back," and some of the jams show he had more lead guitar skills than I would have guessed.

George Harrison appears all black or all white, sour or sunny, and in Martin Scorsese's biographical film about him, that's how Ringo describes him: either saint or sinner, nothing in between.  It wouldn't be until Abbey Road and his own All Things Must Pass album (the most successful of all the immediate post-Beatles releases), that the quality of his songwriting was fully revealed, along with his unique, haunting and supple voice.  Just before the Get Back sessions, he had spent six months producing other artists, and his production of All Things Must Pass (despite what Spector did to it) is musically remarkable.  In that sense, he never really had a "solo" career.  He was the instigator of the Traveling Wilburys in the early 90s, which he formed (Olivia  Harrison said in the Scorsese film) because he missed being in a group.  He missed the Beatles. 

Ringo Starr was the backbone of the Beatles sound, and the glue that held the Beatles together. Though he's not heard saying much in this series, it's partly because he does his job so well.  A lot of Beatles songs sound simple until you get into their structure.  For instance, George comes in with a song, "I, Me, Mine," best known now for its eloquent lyrics, that he was inspired to write by seeing a grand waltz performed on a TV movie.  Most of the song is in waltz time (John and Yoko actually waltz to it), though it breaks into a four-four rocker, and back again.  Other songs are replete with even more subtle complications, and Ringo has to engineer these time-jumps seamlessly. 

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.

Transcending all other impressions of this series is this magic opportunity to spend this much time with these four extraordinary people, all of them still in their twenties, as this extraordinary group.  Though this experiment was artificial in that it wasn't how the Beatles made their records anymore, it did bring them together every day over an extended period for the last time.  In the decade to come, as they went their separate ways (though different combinations of them collaborated), they all had periods of depression or despondency, and they all at times had serious drug and/or alcohol problems; two marriages ended, and they all endured tragedies.  John Lennon was weeks past his 40th birthday when he was shot dead.  These hours in the studio, during which they often revisited their past music as well as shaping new songs, seem like a time out of time.

With the benefit of hindsight, we do see suggestions of what would soon break up the band.  We also see the Beatles' luck start to change.  In the beginning they happened to find the right manager, the right producer, and then the right film director to help them blossom.  But this film makes a joke of their association with "Magic Alex," the supposed electronics genius they hired who is exposed as a total and expensive charlatan.  Not so funny is reference to John Lennon meeting Allen Klein, and his glowing account of Klein's knowledge and business acumen.  Eventually, Lennon convinced George and Ringo to make Klein (then managing the Rolling Stones) the group's manager.  Paul saw through Klein, and the resulting conflict was the proximate cause for the Beatles to break up.  Klein did get them more money, but his nefarious schemes eventually turned John and especially George against him.  They all dumped him, and he became an active nemesis for awhile, until more money changed hands.  

Also at about this time, John and George brought legendary producer Phil Spector into their efforts, and Spector's production of the long delayed Let It Be album did not go over well.  Eventually, McCartney backed a re-release that stripped it of Spector's effects, for the album Let It Be Naked

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

Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron


Out of their loneliness for each other
 two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
 lifted from the dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
 We live by faith in such presences.

 It is a test for us, that thin
 but real, undulating figure that promises,
 “If you keep faith I will exist
 at the edge, where your vision joins
 the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
 feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

 --William Stafford

Monday, September 05, 2022

Just As The Winged Energy of Delight


Just as the winged energy of delight
carried you over many chasms early on,
now raise the daringly imagined arch
 holding up the astounding bridges.

Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing
living through and defeat of danger;
miracles become miracles in the clear
 achievement that is earned.

 To work with things is not hubris
when building the association beyond words; 
denser and denser the pattern becomes—
being carried along is not enough. 

Take your well-disciplined strengths
 and stretch them between two
 opposing poles. Because inside human beings
 is where God learns. 

 --Rainer Maria Rilke 
 translated by Robert Bly

Friday, September 02, 2022

Labor Day

 

The Kowinski family that I am part of seems to have begun in America with my great-grandparents.  John Kolachinski (who went by various names in the U.S., soon settling on John Kowinsky)  came to work in western Pennsylvania coal mines, probably from the impoverished and oppressed region of Silesia in southern Poland, in about 1890.  He was likely in Scottdale, PA during one of the worst mining accidents of the era, killing at least 100 Polish, Italian and other immigrant miners.

 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

Both Sides Now

 My musical experiences this summer centered--not surprisingly--on music from my generation, although with some element of new presentation.

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.

On my computer, YouTube posts "suggestions" of other videos on the right, and one caught my eye: a  50th anniversary recording of the Band's signature song, "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

Climbing along the River


Willows never forget how it feels
 to be young. 

 Do you remember where you came from?
 Gravel remembers.

Even the upper end of the river
 believes in the ocean. 

 Exactly at midnight 
yesterday sighs away. 

 What I believe is,
 all animals have one soul. 

 Over the land they love
 they crisscross forever.

--William Stafford

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Art of Disappearing

 

When they say Don’t I know you?
 say no.

When they invite you to the party
 Remember what parties are like 
before answering.

 Someone telling you in a loud voice
 they once wrote a poem.
 Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate. 
Then reply. 

 If they say We should get together
 say why?

 It’s not that you don’t love them anymore. 
 You’re trying to remember something
 too important to forget.
 Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
 Tell them you have a new project.
 It will never be finished. 

 When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
 nod briefly and become a cabbage. 
 When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
 appears at the door,
 don’t start singing him all your new songs.
 You will never catch up. 

 Walk around feeling like a leaf. 
 Know you could tumble any second.
 Then decide what to do with your time.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Coincidentally Yours


 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.

Shortly thereafter, perhaps that same day, I was browsing the latest additions to the Arts and Letters Daily, an online selection of current articles with links, just to see what was new that might interest me.  Near the top was an article on Orwell.  The Daily, like a lot of Internet sites now, is not as useful as it once was, since many of the publications it links to keep their articles behind a pay wall or otherwise restrict them.  But I found I could read this one, and it dealt largely with Orwell's early and neglected novel, Coming Up For Air.

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.  

So I sought out a story to clear my emotions--the kind much less likely to offer such a gut punch.  I got down my volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, and happened on one I don't remember reading before, called "The Adventure of the Yellow Face."  Watson starts off noting that most of his stories are about Holmes' triumphs of deduction, but he's also been wrong.  In this case his theory is completely wrong.  In the end it is revealed that a wife was trying to conceal something from her husband that turned out to be a child from a former marriage--a marriage to a black man that resulted in a black child (who was seen standing at a window wearing a yellow mask--hence the title.)  Much to the wife's astonishment, her husband immediately accepts the child.  It is a very short and singular Holmes story that I've never seen dramatized (and I've seen pretty much all) or heard referred to, or knew anything about.

The next evening I was looking at a YouTube video interview of Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of several Star Trek projects, the proximate reason for checking out the video, though I also liked hearing him talk, as he is an intelligent talker.  He also has written several Sherlock Holmes novels (I knew of only his first, and didn't consciously remember it), and this interview seemed to be on the occasion of his latest.  He was commenting on instances of casual stereotyping of Jews and non-white races in the Conan Doyle Holmes stories, typical of his times.  But there was an exception he said, a little story called "The Yellow Face."

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.

Within the next few days my eyes strayed from my computer to the bookshelves on my right--and there it was.  Not only was it my book of Orwell essays, it was an earlier edition (that I bought used) of precisely the selection I was going to buy. 

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.

But as soon as she said it, a memory was awakened in me.  Even though I'd recently written about the home of my childhood and its contents in the 1950s, including our Fiestaware and 1950s aluminum tumblers, I had completely forgotten the bowls of various sizes, each a single bright primary color (brighter in memory than these contemporary photos), that my mother used in our kitchen in the 1950s, with at least some of them in use for decades more. As soon as Margaret said the words, I suddenly saw them. I remembered them right down to which size bowl was which color.  That night, I looked them up on the Internet, and sure enough, there were photos of these early Pyrex bowls, sets of which are now collectors items.

So Margaret had a dream, not of her childhood, but of mine.  I wonder what to call that? 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Learning a Dead Language


There is nothing for you to say. You must
 Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
 It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
 Of yourself master it. You must therefore 
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
 And, though you many not yet understand, to remember.
 
 What you remember is saved. To understand
 The least thing fully you would have to perceive
 The whole grammar in all its accidence
 And all its system, in the perfect singleness
 Of intention it has because it is dead.
 You can learn only a part at a time. 

 What you are given to remember
 Has been saved before you from death's dullness by
 Remembering. The unique intention
 Of a language whose speech has died is order,
 Incomplete only where someone has forgotten.
 You will find that that order helps you to remember.

 What you come to remember becomes yourself.
 Learning will be to cultivate the awareness
 Of that governing order, now pure of the passions
It composed; till, seeking it in itself, 
You may find at last the passion that composed it, 
Hear it both in its speech and in yourself.
 
 What you remember saves you. To remember
 Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never
 Has fallen silent. So your learning is,
 From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself
 Is memorable, what passion may be heard 
When there is nothing for you to say.

--W.S. Merwin

From his first post-college days, W.S. Merwin made his living mostly by translating.  He published many translations of poetry written in many languages, from ancient Chinese poets to Dante to Pablo Neruda.   So this poem can be read in one way as applying literally to learning dead languages, such as Latin. Perhaps it can be applied to reading any poem. But it seems to me that at least some of it applies to memories themselves.

 Anything in the past existed in a context, a kind of language, that has slipped away with that past. It was a context of things, places, people and happenings, and also of feeling.  But we mostly and in a sense necessarily translate our memories of the past into the language of the present.  Yet part of those memories may carry with them something of their context, if we don't try to decide what they mean too quickly.  I think certain powerful lines in this poem apply to all memories, and to memory itself.  But the poem hints at even more powerful ways of apprehending memories, within their contexts and perhaps the wider contexts of our entire lives.  

The photo: The arrow points to the apartment where my parents lived when I was born in 1946, and where the three of us lived for a few more years, at the top of what was then an apartment building in Greensburg, PA on College Avenue, so called because high on a hill opposite this building--and visible from that window--was Seton Hill College.  The building I suspect had been a residence, for this area was once populated by the rich. Up on that hill was a ridiculously large mansion, which came to house the college, and remains part of it.  While still a residence, it contained the first library that a young Andrew Carnegie ever saw.  The building that housed my first home no longer exists.  The writing on the photo is my mother's. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

History of My Reading: Cummington Summer 1970

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
 By then of course it was more than that.  Carol and I had been friends since her first year at Knox, when I was a senior. A mutual attraction was evident from the start.  But I was more of an older confidant then.  Carol and her close friends—among them Jane Langer, Judy Bowker, Jan Byrne, and Steve Phillips—more or less adopted me.  For awhile, Judy was “the Little Kid” and I was “the Big Kid.”  I won’t say it was foremost in my mind, but I did remember how important my relationships with older students were in my first and second years.

  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.) 

At Howard’s I picked a book off his shelf I’d meant to read: Joy: Expanding Human Awareness by William C. Schultz.  Turns out, he said later, that it was my book that he’d borrowed.  So I got it back, and I have it still. Most of it was derived from the Human Potentials Movement, encounter groups and so on.  But one thing jumped out at me then (or so I noted): the relationship between the body (and its ills or health) and the mind or emotions. Pretty standard now, it was largely disregarded in the conventional medicine of 1970.

 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
 After exploring other options, Carol and I simply used half-fare cards (mine borrowed) to fly to Boston, with what we could carry.  Carol’s older brother Raymond was attending M.I.T. (or Harvard, or both.)  She and her friends were to stay at his Fairwood Circle apartment in Cambridge, before a summer sublet was available that probably Raymond arranged.  After a few days there on the floor, I was off to western Massachusetts and the Cummington Community of the Arts. 

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. 

I also have a supplement to memory that’s unique in my experience: a published novel written about the Cummington Community and partially about that summer.  Music From a Broken Piano by James Baker Hall was published in 1982 by the Fiction Collective—the outfit founded by the previously mentioned novelist Ronald Sukenick, among others.  I remember James Baker Hall being there in Cummington that summer of 1970—though I was introduced to him as a photographer, not a writer.

  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 Community of the Arts was located on some 150 acres of woods and fields, between Northampton and Pittsfield in western Massachusetts.   It was centered on what had been a working farm, though not in cultivation for decades, perhaps generations. Beginning in the 1922 when it was called The Music Box (which apparently was a summer theatre), Cummington had hosted a succession of arts schools and summer workshops.  A number of famous people had participated at one time or another, including poets Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish, artists Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, and photographer Diane Arbus.

 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
This Cummington spread had been reconstituted as a self-organizing Community of the Arts just the year before—that is, the summer of 1969 that Baker Hall had novelized.  Evidently one of the poetry readings I attended at Yale when I was in Stony Creek the previous winter had included a few Cummington attendees showing a film and making a pitch for the community.  I wrote to the address they gave and applied for this summer.  I was invited to attend, pretty much cost-free.  The invitation followed me to Buffalo.

 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)
Though I was impressed by the country silence and the skyful of stars, the first group meal didn’t suggest that this was going to be a community experience for me (or so I wrote to Carol.)  What I was hoping for I suppose was something like the Black Mountain College experience of the 1930s through the 1950s, that Robert Creeley was part of and talked about—cutting-edge artists and students in various arts (and in Black Mountain’s case, sciences) in an environment of experimentation and cross-fertilization. 

 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
 Not that there was much drumming elsewhere.  We arrived in Cambridge in time to witness and participate in an antiwar march through Harvard Square, but it clearly was nothing like what we heard had happened there that spring.  It turned out to be the last such demonstration I ever saw there.  For one thing, the students had taken their drums and gone home. That had happened everywhere.  And though political ferment was not over, it had turned sullen on the war, and fractured into separate and sometimes hostile movements.  Women’s lib, for instance, and Black Power. But I was still experiencing those emotions from the spring, including the anger I had suppressed so as not to endanger others during the Knox occupation.  That didn’t make me a happy camper.

 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.” 

Though I probably read fiction and poetry as well as journalism and so on, the most characteristic reading I did at Cummington—and the only thing I specifically recall—was the Black Panther Party newspaper.  I was constructing a play out of fragments, quotes from its articles as well as other elements, a series of voices.  I never finished it, but the reading helped me see things from another perspective, as I began to more deeply understand what was and is called institutional and structural racism.  Some of this amplified the personal point of view I first found in James Baldwin’s essays, as far back as high school.  This time I did get caught in the rhetoric (revolutionary and otherwise) of the Panthers political engagement and analysis, though not the imagery of violence. Mostly I learned a little more of what it was like to be Black in America.

 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
 It may be hard to remember and difficult to explain in today’s context, just how different this period was, and how it nevertheless still echoes. “We know that age to be utterly beyond our reach now, irretrievably past, a period whose distance we already feel as though it had stretched into centuries,” Merwin continues (in the preface to his 1992 collection The Second Four Books of Poems), “and yet it appears to us to be not only recent but present, still with us not as a memory but as a part of our unfinished days, a ground or backdrop before which we live.  It could be said that we are haunted by it, which would suggest that that time was not done with in us, that what we saw and felt then is still part of our incompleteness and our choices.”

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.
Though the eccentric and influential composer in late nineteenth/ early twentieth century Paris is now known for several haunting piano works, this Satie piece was not published or performed in his lifetime.  In fact it was not commercially published in the U.S. until 1969.  John Cage (who incidentally had participated in Black Mountain College) discovered the manuscript, and later organized the first concert, in New York City in 1963, in which a dozen pianists played the repeated motif continuously for just over 18 hours.  

 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
One of the first people I met at Cummington was a young poet named Heather McHugh, 22 at the time, who was assigned a room (or stall) near mine on the barn’s second floor.  She visited my room, read some of my poems and declared that I might become as famous as she would be.  Then she reclined on my bed.  I was frozen at my desk for a little too long, so by the time I could move she had already left. 

 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
I made one friend, an artist and photographer named Rhea Ormond.  She lived in the smaller barnlike building some yards from the big barn, with an enormous studio and a darkroom.  Rhea was enthusiastic, open-hearted, astute and generous.  She got me to collaborate on an oil painting with her, and she also showed me how to develop photos.  I believe she had been at Cummington the summer before, and returned at least one more year.  We exchanged infrequent letters for several years, and met at least once more. Rhea eventually settled in rural North Carolina and specializes in murals and large canvases, while also teaching at a community college.  She’s a valued artist and respected member of her community.

 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. 

Alan Jaffe
Alan and I had worked out seven or eight songs, though I doubt we did them all that afternoon.  Alan played electric guitar, I played acoustic guitar, with a mike or pickup, and I sang.  We’d prepared two hard rockers, both which qualified as a possibly new genre of apocalyptic rock: “SST” (surreal imagery of ecological devastation) and “Baby, Are You Looking for Me Now?” which formed the same sort of lurid imagery into a relationship song.  I’m sure we did this one live, as it is the better song, very propulsive, with lines like “Snarls of bible ministers’ broken lives/death cry of the power mower wives…”

 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.

 We’d worked out two straight-ahead country songs, of the type common on the radio in those days, with simple structures that turned on the reversal of a phrase or image, like “Act Naturally” (which the Beatles copped from Buck Owens.)

  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.